Archive for December, 2013

Santa's Slay (2005)

Director: Brett Ratner

Starring: Bill Goldberg, Douglas Smith, Emilie de Ravin, Robert Culp, Saul Rubinek, Dave Thomas

The important thing to keep in mind when viewing a movie like “Santa’s Slay” is that it doesn’t pretend to take itself seriously, so neither should we. How else could they get away with casting ex-professional wrestler Bill Goldberg as Santa? Like any good “bad” movie, “Santa’s Slay” revels in the power of its own lunacy. Never is this more clear than in the film’s opening scene: It’s Christmas Eve dinner for a particularly argumentative family, whose squabbles are interrupted by the one and only Santa Claus coming down the chimney. However, his drop-kicking of the family dog into the ceiling fan is a sign that ol’ St. Nick hasn’t come to deliver presents, rather to deliver a solid ass-kicking! But what is most remarkable about this opening scene of carnage is the cast of characters present: Fran Drescher, Chris Kattan, Rebecca Gayheart, and the uncredited James Caan among them.

Following that insanely hilarious pre-credits sequence, the early moments of the movie seem very much like another great comedy/horror, “Gremlins.” You have the mean old woman who offends everyone equally, an old man who is a wannabe inventor, a cute female lead who is romantically involved with the male lead for no apparent reason other than he’s the only guy her age you ever see her interacting with, and even a main character who has their own unique reasons for disliking Christmas. In Hell Township, Nicholas Yuleson (Douglas Smith) lives with his crackpot inventor grandfather (Robert Culp) and works for a local Jewish Deli owner (Saul Rubinek) with his girlfriend Mary (Emilie de Ravin).

All signs point to another insignificant Christmas until Santa shows up and starts with the killing, eventually racking up a body count that would put Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger both to shame. Santa, contrary to every story we’ve been told as children, was apparently not always the jolly old guy who shows up every December bearing gifts. He was once a murderous fiend, the product of an immaculate conception by way of Satan. December 25th used to be known as a “Day of Slaying” until 1005 AD when Santa was challenged by and lost to an angel in a curling match (of all things)! No points for guessing that Grandpa is the angel in question. Santa’s punishment for losing… the duty to deliver gifts to children on Christmas every year… has expired after 1000 years, making him free to get back to the killing.

Much of the film consists of Santa offing everything in his path, including an entire police force and all the employees of a local strip club. Keeping to the cheesy nature of the proceedings, Bill Goldberg is allowed to ham up every scene he’s in with amazingly effective one-liners. About the only complaint I have about “Santa’s Slay” is the false advertisement on the back of the DVD box: It lists the film’s running time at 95 minutes, when it is in fact a mere 78 minutes long. Whether it’s TV’s “Roswell” or “Lost,” or any of the movies I’ve seen her in, Emilie de Ravin manages to be cute as a button no matter what type of character she plays. When I first saw “Santa’s Slay” back in 2005, I really hadn’t familiarized myself with the late Robert Culp. I have since enjoyed him in reruns of “I, Spy” on TV and “Greatest American Hero” on DVD. Really, it amazes me that a movie of this kind was able to gather together the cast it presents, and I contend that it is because of their presence and the fact that the movie never takes itself seriously that makes it the fun ride that it is. Like other great horror/comedies such as “Gremlins” or the “Evil Dead” trilogy, it manages to thrive simply because it’s so damn silly!

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Bad Santa (2003)

Director: Terry Zwigoff

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac, Lauren Graham, John Ritter, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Lauren Tom

2003 was the year of the gift that kept on giving. I went to the theater more times that year than any other before or since, somewhere in the vicinity of 30 times. Naturally, the summer accounted for a good portion of that, but December was also a major contributor. My favorite 2003 film is unquestionably “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” but aside from the final chapter of one of the all-time great trilogies there was a Christmas-themed comedy called “Bad Santa.” I was on the fence about seeing it theatrically, but word of mouth convinced me. One of my absolute favorite Christmas movies, I laugh myself silly every time I see it.

Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is a foul-mouthed con man who drinks himself into unconsciousness, has sex with every woman he meets, and can crack any safe he comes across. He uses that last skill in the long-running scheme he has been pulling off in multiple cities, which would be very rewarding if he didn’t blow all the money on booze and women. Together with his partner in crime, Marcus (Tony Cox), the two pair up as a mall Santa and elf every December as a cover for their true intentions. In Phoenix, Arizona, Willie meets two people who will change his outlook on life: the pudgy, innocent Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), and barmaid Sue (Lauren Graham).

This is one of those comedies that seems tailor-made for its star. Billy Bob Thornton creates a realistic character that you can love or hate, laugh at what comes out of his mouth or be appalled by it. Willie drinks so much before going on the job at the mall that he winds up urinating in his red and white pants by the end of the day. Once, just before passing out, he eats all the chocolates out of Thurman’s advent calendar, only to regret it in the morning. He steals cars, money, and probably the virginity of a few willing young ladies as well. Thornton hooks his audience with Willie’s opening monologue, telling us how crappy his life is and how much contempt he has for his father. It is that relationship that has shaped who he is, and because of how badly he was treated by his old man, he sees an opportunity to exorcise personal demons by helping Thurman stand up for himself. Most of the laughs come from Thornton acting like a jackass, swearing, and falling down drunk, but the heart of the movie is Willie’s friendship with Thurman.

You have your classic Christmas movies like “Miracle on 34th Street,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Carol,” and “A Christmas Story,” a movie which has its own 24-hour marathon every December 25th. You can keep ’em. I tend to lean more towards action, horror, and/or irreverent comedy than feel-good family films. Filled with laugh-out-loud moments, an uncredited supporting role for Cloris Leachman, all the Christmas songs you can think of, not to mention “Once Upon a Dream” from “Sleeping Beauty” and sharing in common selections from “Carmen” with “The Bad News Bears” (a movie which was remade in 2005 with Thornton as the star), “Bad Santa” is much more my speed.

The Hobbit - The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Director: Peter Jackson

Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom

Popular is the perception that the second chapter of a trilogy suffers from Middle Child Syndrome. The first film provides introductions, the third bringing closure, while Movie #2 is left with the task of raising the stakes and placing the heroes in a bleak, seemingly inescapable situation. For this reason, more pressure is placed on the second film to deliver than either of the other two. When it fails, the results are cataclysmic and it threatens to render the third film unwatchable. When it succeeds, as the second entry in the “Hobbit” trilogy does, the rewards are as large as the enormous pile of gold that Smaug the Dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) sleeps on.

Continuing in their quest to retake the Lonely Mountain from Smaug, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the company of Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) encounter Goblins, woodland Elves and Men from Laketown. While among the Elves, a bond is formed between Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), the female warrior Elf, and Kili the Dwarf, despite the inability of their two races to get along. This creates a love triangle, with Legolas also vying for Tauriel’s affection. Upon reaching the Lonely Mountain, it falls to Bilbo to find a way to sneak in and grab the Arkenstone, the most precious of all jewels in the former Dwarf kingdom, without stirring the dragon out of his slumber. Unfortunately, that second part proves impossible and, once Smaug is awake, a whole new can of worms has been opened. During this time, Bilbo and the Dwarves are without the services of Gandalf (Ian McKellen). The Grey Wizard has gone off on his own to investigate a dark shroud that has begun covering Middle Earth, and it has something to do with a being known as the Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Having come away slightly disappointed in “An Unexpected Journey,” I came in expecting more from “The Desolation of Smaug.” One of the earlier film’s biggest flaws was the pacing. There was, I think, too much time wasted on moving from place to place without anything truly significant or memorable happening. “The Desolation of Smaug” may not be perfect, but a slow-moving plot is not a problem it shares with its predecessor. Much more action, and much more danger is involved this time. Highlights include an escape courtesy of a collection of empty wine barrels, as well as Bilbo and the Dwarves’ encounter with a family of giant spiders. The animation responsible for making Smaug a fully realized character is every bit as impressive as that which created Gollum. Already a fan of Evangeline Lilly because of the TV series “Lost,” I really enjoyed her as Tauriel, a character that was not a part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original text.

When “The Hobbit” was changed from a two-part on-screen adventure to a trilogy, I was initially concerned. My fears seemed realized when “An Unexpected Journey” did not quite live up to my expectations. My doubts have been silenced by “The Desolation of Smaug,” a magnificent return to form that I’ve come to rely on from Peter Jackson and the rest of the team that brought us the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy a decade ago. As middle chapters go, “The Desolation of Smaug” is no “Empire Strikes Back,” but it does have the same effect: It leaves the good guys at their lowest point, seemingly out of options that won’t result in mass casualties. The ending is different from that of the first “Hobbit” film or any of the “Lord of the Rings” films. There is no swelling orchestra easing us into a gradual conclusion. It is more abrupt, like a door being slammed shut. We will have to wait 12 more months for that door to open again, but “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” could not have asked for a better set-up.

This is 40 (2012)

Director: Judd Apatow

Starring: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, John Lithgow, Megan Fox, Albert Brooks

If this is what turning 40 is like, I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. I love crass humor. Jokes involving certain parts of the human anatomy also have their appeal. Kids using the dreaded four-letter words with no more restraint than their parents is still something of a novelty in comedies. I could see myself singing along to “Take on Me” by A-ha in in the car with my family looking on in disbelief. What I couldn’t deal with is the constant bickering, like what goes on in “This Is 40.” These people act like they hate each other, and while I get that a lot of families end up like that… it’s just not something I have ever experienced or could ever get used to. There’s a lot to this movie that is actually more sad than funny.

Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd), whom we first met in 2007’s “Knocked Up,” are both turning 40 and feeling none too good about it. Debbie is in complete denial about exactly what year her birthday falls in, certain that one day she’s going to blink only to find that she’s suddenly 90. Pete has plunged the family into serious financial problems, both by lending money to his father (Albert Brooks) and in managing a record label that is going nowhere. Debbie’s business, a boutique, isn’t helping out either. Actually, it is mysteriously losing money, as in someone who works there is likely stealing it. Early suspicions point to Desi (Megan Fox), who wears expensive-looking outfits and drives a fancy car. At home, the couple find something objectionable in almost everything that comes out of each others’ mouths. Trying to keep their daughters from killing each other (figuratively speaking) is as great a challenge.

I like both Mann and Rudd. However, just as the Incredible Hulk has proven to be more effective with the Avengers than he ever was in his standalone movies, a little bit of Debbie and Pete also goes a long way. They were great as secondary characters in “Knocked Up,” where their strained marriage served as a guide for Allison (Debbie’s sister) and boyfriend Ben in how not to behave in a relationship. Here, their mean-spirited and selfish behavior is like a blunt instrument. Before long, the effect is one of numbness.

No matter what you think of her acting skills, you cannot deny that the camera loves Megan Fox. While this isn’t emphasized to the extent that it was in the first two live-action “Transformers” films, it is no less evident. She isn’t given as much to do here as in those movies (which is saying something), aside from playing up her sexual appeal, but she does that quite well.

The main problem with “This Is 40” is that its plot takes forever to get going. For the better part of its 134-minute running time (a bit longish for a comedy, don’t you think?), the film seems to meander from scene to scene the same way that people meander through life. Maybe that was supposed to be the point, but it didn’t really click with me. Still, it has its good points as well. Despite their characters’ off-putting nature, Rudd and Mann do have excellent on-screen chemistry. Not all the jokes work, but the ones that do work well. The older daughter’s obsession with the TV series “Lost” is amusing, especially for those of us who used to watch the show (for those that did not, it spoils the ending to the series finale). I also liked the dynamic between Debbie and her father, returning to her life after years of no contact. I wish we could have had more scenes with John Lithgow in them, but that would have meant making the film longer than it already is. I loved “Knocked Up,” and I go back and re-watch it whenever I can, but I probably won’t be revisiting “This Is 40” anytime soon. Should I ever become so bitter and terrified about my age, please, somebody please put me out of my misery.

Harry and the Hendersons (1987)

Director: William Dear

Starring: John Lithgow, Melinda Dillon, Don Ameche, David Suchet, Margaret Langrick, Joshua Ruddy, Lainie Kazan, Kevin Peter Hall

Mythical and legendary characters have, at one time or another, piqued our curiosity to the point that many of us insist beyond logic and reason that they must exist. Kids believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Sure, some children are told straight away by their parents that these things are not real, and they come to accept it. But others let their imaginations persist. This is not a bad thing. Imagination is important, but it can leave us with a skewed perception of reality, turning belief into obsession. Adults have their own obsessions in proving the impossible, such as the existence of the Loch Ness Monster… or Bigfoot.

One day, while returning home from a hunting trip, the Henderson family makes a discovery that will change their lives forever. The patriarch of the family, George (John Lithgow), accidentally hits an animal with the family station wagon. With his wife, son and daughter remaining in the car, George gets out to see exactly what it is. To his surprise, the animal has very human-like hands and feet, and is otherwise enormous. George posits that this must be the legendary Bigfoot, and gets it into his head that the thing to do is to strap its carcass onto the roof of the car, bring it into town, and get rich. What Harry and his family haven’t counted on is that this creature is not yet deceased. George has been trained from youth to be a hunter. He even runs a guns & ammunition store with his father. But all it will take to change this man is locking eyes with the seven-foot-tall sasquatch, which he and his family will come to affectionately refer to as Harry (Kevin Peter Hall).

Obviously, with a movie like this, the makeup effects artist had better be at the top of their game. Fortunately, for the producers of “Harry and the Hendersons,” they had Rick Baker. The results are quite impressive even today, more than a quarter-century later. Credit should also be given to actor Kevin Peter Hall, who displays a wide variety of facial expressions to show that, although working with a different sized brain and somewhat different instincts, Harry has very human feelings. He laughs when something is funny (“Bedtime for Bonzo,” starring Ronald Reagan, really tickles his funny bone), screams out when he is physically hurt, and cries when he is sad.

If Bigfoot ever did turn out to be real, I wouldn’t be surprised to see people react with the same surprise, alarm, or sense of wonder that certain characters in this movie do. It also would not be a shock to find people with other thoughts besides scientific discovery racing through their minds. One such person within the film, Jacques LaFleur (David Suchet), has been tracking Bigfoot for many years, all the while scoffing at those who would presume to tell him he is crazy. He will not be satisfied until Harry becomes the latest of his trophies. Should he fail in his task, LaFleur could always become a criminal detective (Suchet’s most recognizable role being that of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot).

For me, the real reason to watch “Harry and the Hendersons” is actor John Lithgow. I’ve seen this guy in just about any kind of role: alien, serial killer, space explorer, absentee father, preacher, megalomaniac, judge, U.S. President, and Alzheimer’s patient. Most recently, in binge-watching the TV series “Dexter” on Netflix, I have enjoyed his terrifying performance as Arthur Mitchell a.k.a. the Trinity Killer, in the fourth season of that show. Recalling “Harry and the Hendersons” as a movie I loved as a kid, and one which I conveniently happen to own on DVD, seeing Lithgow in such a heartwarming role as a family man and friend to Bigfoot is the perfect antidote to any of his villainous roles. “Harry and the Hendersons” may not make you believe in the unbelievable, but it will at least make you smile.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Director: David Lean

Starring: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, José Ferrer, Anthony Quale, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy

The man, the myth, the legend. I’m speaking of course of the late Peter O’Toole, who departed this life on December 14th, 2013 at the age of 81. I would not presume to speak of O’Toole as though I knew him, nor having ever met the actor, but there are certain actors whose careers we follow with great interest to the point of gaining a sense of familiarity. O’Toole was a rather brilliant screen talent, one that only graces our presence once in a great while. Among his many works, eight of his roles earned him Academy Award nominations. Sadly, he was denied each time, making him the most nominated actor never to win the Oscar. O’Toole’s reputation as a drinker probably hurt him in several of his opportunities, as did bad luck. “Lawrence of Arabia” was the first of those eight nominations, but when your competition is Gregory Peck for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” you can hardly be blamed for coming up short. O’Toole’s portrayal of T.E. Lawrence, like the movie, is quite grand in scale. O’Toole was always good at playing larger-than-life characters, and this was the one that made him a star.

Upon T.E. Lawrence’s rather undignified death by motorcycle accident in 1935, the ensuing memorial service for him serves to demonstrate how much the attendees truly did not know the man. Rather, most of them merely had an image in their minds of the man they believed Lawrence to be. American reporter Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) seems to have some idea, referring to the deceased as a “shameless exhibitionist.” This serves as a great introduction, because you don’t know how much of what these people have to say about Lawrence will actually turn out to be true. He may have been a great revolutionary… or he could have been just another average human being who thought too much of himself. The rest of the nearly four-hour epic is as much our journey to learn who T.E. Lawrence was as it is a series of life-altering events for Lawrence and others in his company.

Perhaps the one character who changes the most is Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif). When we first meet him, he kills a man of another Arab tribe for drinking out of his well. For this action, Lawrence labels Ali a barbarian. As the movie progresses, it is Ali who represents the audience. We watch the deeds and misdeeds of T.E. Lawrence through Ali’s eyes, and this “savage” is altered so much in witnessing the bloodlust of his friend that he contemplates leaving one “greedy, barbarous and cruel” life for another, that of a politician. One example of Lawrence’s changing morals, and maybe the defining moment of the movie, comes when the two tribes he has brought together are about to wage war on one another. Someone from Ali’s tribe has killed a member of the other tribe. Seeing as he has no allegiance to either side, Lawrence volunteers to carry out the man’s execution. When the man raises his head, Lawrence realizes it is the same person he just risked his own life to save a few scenes earlier. Lawrence shoots the man dead, and then later admits to his British superiors that he “enjoyed it.”

In 1962, we were still decades away from CGI animation. Thus, when you are watching the great battle scenes of “Lawrence of Arabia,” you are looking at large groups of extras. Not something cooked up by a computer, but real actors and stuntmen. This along with the set/costume designs and the unforgettable music score only adds to the appreciation one has for the work that went into the project. The contrast between the Arabian desert and the stuffy military base is another strongpoint. We find, the same as Lawrence does, that the movie is the most fun when we are traversing through the scorching hot, barren wastelands than when we visit the ordinary British officers. We also are reminded of how difficult it can be to establish a democracy in countries which have no experience with it, as in the Arab Council scene in Damascus.

The death of Peter O’Toole does mean the end of a fantastic and extraordinary career. It does not mean that we cannot continue to revisit or discover the best of his films, and there is at least one film still left to look forward to, 2014’s “Katherine of Alexandria.” I am reminded of a scene early on in “Lawrence of Arabia,” in which T.E. Lawrence extinguishes a match with his fingers. A fellow British officer tries the same thing, and reacts in pain. Lawrence responds, “Of course, it hurts. The trick is not minding that it hurts.” If only it were that easy with the extinguishing of a human flame.

Carnal Knowledge (1971)

Director: Mike Nichols

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Candice Bergen, Ann-Margret

Everybody loves somebody… sometimes. The rest of the time, many of us manage to do everything possible to ensure that we’ll be entertaining a party of one. It isn’t something we set out to do. The idea of a relationship simply turns out to be something quite different from the reality of intimate pairings. Maybe one desires to get married, while the other just wants to have fun. You could take it back even further. When we are young, men in particular talk to each other about the opposite sex like objects of conquest: “I wouldn’t kick her out of bed!”  Comments like that are harmless enough on their own, but they do reveal an awful lot about the choices that person will likely make in approaching the world of dating. These choices, like any that we make, carry with them great consequences which threaten to shape the remainder of our lives. Selfish attitudes do not bode well for anyone looking for true happiness. The casual approach that places sex above all other priorities is immature and stupid, but that’s life.

Sandy (Art Garfunkel) and Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) are college roomates in the 1940’s. Each man has a different approach when it comes to women. Sandy is passive and shy, the sort of fellow with whom most women enjoy lengthy conversations but have only ever wanted to be friends. He would love to get married, if the right woman happened to show up and take notice of him. Jonathan is more aggressive and used to getting what he wants. The thought of being tied down by marriage terrifies him. Still, he seeks out attention in the form of Susan (Candice Bergen). The complication is that she’s also seeing someone else: Sandy! As intriguing as this love triangle is, the plot becomes more fun to watch once that chapter is abruptly ended. The timeline of “Carnal Knowledge” makes up a span of about 25 years, and in that time Sandy and Jonathan each move from one relationship to the next, never finding the satisfaction that they falsely believed could come so easily. Every other facet of their lives could be in perfect working order, but there would always be something about their women that would add up to a deal-breaker. It is this realization that hits one of the friends harder than the other. This is the real tragedy of “Carnal Knowledge,” that the unfulfilled pursuit of happiness can break the human spirit.

By 1971, the motion picture industry had only just begun producing films of a more sexually explicit nature. At the time, there were parts of the country which were significantly less receptive to the cultural changes that were taking place. In Georgia, the manager of a theater that was screening the movie was arrested and convicted of “distributing obscene material.” That conviction was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. By today’s standards, “Carnal Knowledge” is extremely tame. One wonders what some of the people who took offense to this movie would think of the raunchy sex comedies of today.

Director Mike Nichols has, in more recent years, made a similarly-themed film called “Closer.” Oddly enough, despite my affection for actress Natalie Portman, I still have yet to see that movie. Likewise, I had not seen nor had I even heard of “Carnal Knowledge” until fortuitously stumbling upon it on late night television. The depressing content is worth it for the terrific acting on display. I’m fairly certain I’d never seen Art Garfunkel in anything before, and he’s quite good. He’s outmatched by his co-stars, however. Candice Bergen reminds me why I watched the TV series “Murphy Brown” as a child in the way she is able to take command of a scene. Bergen even holds her own in her scenes with Jack Nicholson, who is easily the best reason to watch any movie he is in, including this one. Nicholson’s best scenes are with Ann-Margret, including one particular shouting match the two get into in their characters’ bedroom. Although the movie is one of depressing subject matter, as is always the case with people who have allowed their lives to be defined by failures of the heart, “Carnal Knowledge” is worth seeking out, particularly for Jack Nicholson fans interested in seeing one of his early efforts that might have skipped your radar. I wouldn’t kick it out of bed!