Klaus


This is not your daddy’s Santa Claus.

(2019) Animated Feature (Netflix) Starring the voices of Jason Schwartzmann, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Norm McDonald, Joan Cusack, Will Sasso, Sergio Pablos, Mila Brener, Neda Margrethe Labba, Sydney Brower, Teddy Blum, Emma Shannon, Kendall Joy Hall, Julian Zane, Amanda Philipson, Finn Carr, Tucker Meek, Hailey Hermida, Jaeden Bettencourt. Directed by Sergio Pablos and Carlos Martinez López

 

We’ve all seen origin stories of the big guy in Red before. No, I’m not talking about Shazam! I’m talking about the real big guy. Santa. Claus, even.

This delightful animated feature has the distinction of being the first animated feature to be distributed by streaming giant Netflix (after a brief theatrical run) and it will have the added bonus of making animated feature aficionados wish that Netflix would have made it more widely available in theaters, because the animation is that gorgeous, with a hand-painted look that hasn’t been seen since the halcyon days of Disney, which is where director Sergio Pablos cut his teeth, by the by.

The film is about Jesper (Schwartzmann), the indolent scion of a politically connected and wealthy family. Jesper, the son of a Central European country’s postmaster general, is coasting his way through life, shirking work whenever possible and looking forward to using his family’s political connections to maintain his lifestyle of personal butlers, espressos on demand and silk sheets. However, his father has different ideas. He exiles his son to Smeerensburg (which is based on a Finnish town that no longer exists), a town above the Arctic circle where no letters have been mailed in years.

It turns out there’s a reason for that. The town is run by two families that have been feuding for centuries, the Krum family whose matriarch (Cusack) absolutely hates the patriarch (Sasso) of the Ellingboe family. The two family heads have recruited the children into a vicious cycle of hate and pranks which gives the film a kind of Looney Tunes feel and also a kind of warped satisfaction as the lazy Jesper is often the butt of the children’s tricks.

Through a convoluted set of circumstances, Jesper meets Klaus (Simmons), a lonely and isolated woodsman who has deliberately isolated himself for reasons that are made clear later. He has a gift for wood carving and eventually delivers a toy to a young child whose melancholy drawing touched his heart. Jesper, recognizing a scam when he sees one, induces the kids to write letters to Klaus to get him to send them toys; he just needs six thousand of them to be released from his exile. He utilizes Alva (Jones), a teacher who came to a town where none of the kids attend school, to teach the kids to write letters. She has resorted to converting the school to a fish market in order to make ends meet and save up enough to get out of that crazy town. But as the kindness of Klaus begins to affect the children, Mrs. Krum and Mr. Ellingboe begin to plot to end this change which threatens the status quo.

The movie starts out a bit slowly and the early Looney Tunes section might pale in comparison with classic cartoons, but it picks up steam as it goes along and never fails to charm. Kids will be entranced with the lovely images and adults will find the movie heart-tugging – the ending in fact is likely to generate more than a few tears from sensitive viewers. I, myself, loved it.

As Christmas films go, this one is certainly superior to the glut of direct-to-home video projects that make up the bulk of what’s available at this time of year. Klaus is the kind of movie you and your kids will want to see again and again, year after year. That’s the kind of Christmas gift that keeps on giving.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is magical. The film is charming throughout, with the ending being absolutely wonderful.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a bit of a slog during the first third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude humor as well as mild animated action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first hand-drawn animated film to make use of CGI lighting techniques to give it almost a 3D feel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Santa Claus is Coming to Town
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Boy, The Dog and The Clown

Arctic


The deadly desolation of the Arctic circle beckons a plane crash survivor.

(2018) Adventure (Bleecker Street) Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smáradóttir. Directed by Joe Penna

 

There is something magnificent and terrifying about the polar wastes. It is awesome in its desolation and yet beautiful, the endless vista of snow, ice and rock outcrops. Little survives here but polar bears and fish.

Also, the occasional plane crash survivor. Overgård is the sole survivor of a light plane crash above the Arctic Circle. His plane is done for; one wing twisted and the nose blackened after an engine fire. He goes about the business of survival methodically, tending to the grave of the co-pilot who didn’t make it, scraping snow down to the base rock to spell out “SOS” and fishing through ice holes. From time to time he comes across polar bear tracks which cause him to scan the horizon nervously. He also tries to get his radio to work without any success so he essentially waits for someone to come and rescue him.

Eventually someone does but that ends up in catastrophe, the helicopter losing power and buffeted by polar winds and crashing to the snow. As in his situation, one of the pilots doesn’t make it. The other (Smáradóttir) is seriously injured, falling in and out of consciousness. Overgård tends to his new charge, trying to get her to eat the raw fish he is able to catch. He scavenges what supplies he can from the downed helicopter and comes to a decision; the girl won’t survive if he can’t get her to safety. He decides that he will leave the shelter of the plane where he might have been able to hold out for weeks and constructing a makeshift sled, determines to transfer her to a seasonal camp on the detailed map that he found in the copter.

That’s a far more dangerous thing to do than it sounds; the way is through a mountain range where the weather is even worse than on the plain. The footing can be treacherous and there are crevasses hidden from view that he can fall into. He is more exposed to the weather as well as to roving polar bears who are as likely to make a meal of him and his defenseless charge. Can he get her to safety or will they be just two more frozen bodies awaiting discovery in the Arctic?

First time feature director and YouTube veteran Penna crafts a pretty strong debut. The movie was filmed in Iceland and the natural surroundings are put to good use. While the desolation is well-represented, the peril of the Arctic really doesn’t come to the fore until the second half of the movie while Overgård is on the move. There are long stretches of time in between where there is little in the way of action but that doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t carry its own fascination.

What this movie really has going for it is Mikkelsen. He has long been an actor who has always garnered my attention and he rarely delivers anything less than a solid performance. He does much better than that here, showing alternately quiet resolve and overwhelming despair. His character’s name is a bit of a giveaway; Overgård guards over his patient. There are also other unexpected Easter eggs in the film; I’ll leave it to you to find them.

This is not as compelling a film as it might have been. While I think it is a good idea that Penna doesn’t reveal too much about the characters or the circumstances focusing entirely on the survival aspect, there are times it feels like we’re watching parts of movies we’ve already seen. Some of the mechanics of survival become a little bit overdone; while I understand that the fishing lines are necessary, we don’t need to see him checking them as much as we do. A little cinematic shorthand might have been nice.

In some ways it might have been better had this movie come out later in the year. Mikkelsen’s performance might have had an outside shot at Oscar consideration then; in February he has virtually no chance barring an aggressive marketing campaign by Bleecker Street. However, seeing as many of us are in Oscar mode with the ceremony coming up the weekend this is being released in Orlando, it might get some folks who love great performances to check this out. However, some readers in Northern climes may not be too eager to see a movie given the recent Polar Vortex that reminds them of the weather outside their door.

REASONS TO SEE: Mikkelsen doesn’t need dialogue to deliver a scintillating performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: There are stretches where the film feels like it’s caught up in itself.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as a couple of bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The picture on Overgård’s ID badge is the same one that was used for Mikkelsen to show a younger Hannibal Lecter in the TV show Hannibal.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Grey
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
We Are the Heat

Christmas Blood (Juleblod)


What’s a Killer Santa movie without a half-dressed blonde elf?

(2017) Horror (Artsploitation) Stig Henrik Hoff, Marte Sæteren, Kylie Stephenson, Sondre Krogtoft Larsen, Julia Schacht, Truls Svendsen, Yasmine Johansen, Karoline Stemre, Nina Winther, Haddy Jallow, Helene Eldsvåg, Andreas Nonaas, Bente Julie Kill, Anita Ihler, Ingvild Flikkerud, Sindre Olav Fredriksen, Jon-André Hakvåg, Jorgen Langhelle, Frank Kjosås, Elizabeth Mainy, Julianne Aga. Directed by Reinert Kill

 

Horror film aficionados will tell you at this time of year, you’d really better watch out. Santa Claus is coming to town after all and we’re not talking about a cuddly fat guy bringing presents and eating cookies – we’re talking about a man with an axe to grind, quite literally.

For 13 years, Norway was beset by a crazed serial killer who murdered people on his “naughty list” – those publicly accused of crimes but never convicted. He has a list of 324 names, most of which he’s attended to until he is caught by an obsessed detective named Thomas Rasch (Hoff) who lucks into finding the culprit and puts several slugs into him.

Miraculously, the killer survives (don’t they always?) and he is placed in an asylum for several years until at last he escapes – just in time for another dose of yuletide terror. In the meantime, one of the potential victims on the list has committed suicide, apparently racked with guilt over her crime (although the killer is blissfully unaware of her demise). Her daughter Julia (Sæteren) who desperately trying to cope, invites a group of her college friends to the remote Arctic circle village where her mom had a house to spend the holidays. The girls, including Aussie Annika (Stephenson) who loves to party, tough gal Ritika (Jallow), sweet deaf child Elizabeth (Stemre) and Katja (Johansen) who has brought her can’t-keep-it-in-his-pants boyfriend Christian (Nonaas) along – and apparently he and Ritika have a history. Terje Hansen (Larsen) drags a now-alcoholic Rasch out of retirement to go after the killer, whose pattern indicates he will finish off his list in a tiny town above the Arctic Circle – where a group of scantily clad friends are alternately partying and bickering.

The killer Santa subgenre is nothing new, nor is the virtually un-killable killer; this movie recycles a bunch of tropes from both. Veteran horror director Kill (who may have the best name for horror directors this side of Rob Zombie) has an eye for atmosphere; the remote town is virtually deserted and the streets empty and full of snow and mist. There is also a decent soundtrack (a bit overloaded with bland electronic Europop) particularly when the killer is around when drums beat, lights dim and the ground shakes. That’s a guy who knows how to make an entrance!

I found myself yelling at the screen. When a police detective goes into a murder scene at night, don’t you think the first thing they’d do is turn on the lights. I suppose Norwegian detectives prefer operating in the dark. I’m all for atmosphere but I am also all for common sense as well. A little less darkness and a little more respect for the viewer’s intelligence would be welcome.

The plot is pretty stale – anyone who has seen a killer Santa movie is likely to find things on the predictable side – but that’s offset by some genuinely beautiful scenery, both in Norway and yes, the girls aren’t too hard on the eyes either. Still, with elements of Halloween and Silent Night Deadly Night to deal with, most hardcore horror fan may find this a little overly familiar without adding a whole lot new to either genre.

REASONS TO GO: The girls are very attractive.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a very predictable movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and gore as well as profanity, drug use, sexual situations, rape and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Reinert Kill was at one time a member of the Norwegian Air Force.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silent Night Deadly Night
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Santa Claus