Santa Claus (Le père Noël)


Even Santa Claus has to do laundry once in awhile.

(2014) Family (Under the Milky Way) Tahar Rahim, Victor Cabal, Annelise Hesme, Michael Abiteboul, Philippe Rebbot, Amélie Glenn, Jean-François Cayrey, Djibril Gueye, Naoufel Aliju, Satya Dusaugey, Charlie Dupont, Lou Ballon, Charles Albiol, Steve Tran, Mathieu Lourdel, Yamina Meghraoul, Jérôme Benilouz, Laurence Pollet-Villard, Pierre Core, Dominique Baconnet. Directed by Alexandre Coffre

 

Our heroes don’t always hold up to close scrutiny. Look closely enough and you’ll find faults as egregious as, well, our own. It never occurs to us that those we admire the most are just as fallible, just as flawed as us. And let us not forget, to the average six-year-old there is no bigger hero than Santa Claus.

Young Antoine (Cabal) is just that age and still a believer in Father Christmas. He reads his list of Christmas wishes, certain that Santa can hear them. When his mother (Hesme) urges him to get to bed on Christmas Eve or Santa won’t arrive, he follows her instructions – but going to bed as every child and most parents know is very different than going to sleep.

Antoine hears a clatter out on the balcony of his family’s Paris high-rise apartment building and arises to see just what is the matter. On the balcony he sees such a sight as he never believed he would see; Santa Claus in full red suit and beard. But this Santa (Rahim) isn’t there to deliver presents; he’s there to rob the occupants of the apartment. He manages to convince the wide-eyed tyke that Santa’s sleigh is broken and requires gold to run again – so with no time to return to the North Pole to retrieve some, he needs to take what he can find so that the presents can be delivered around the world by sunrise.

The thief’s glib lie backfires on him when Antoine decides he’s going to stick to Santa like glue. Antoine believes he’ll be rewarded by night’s end with a ride in Santa’s sleigh. Unfortunately, “Santa” is being chased by some real bad men who he owes a lot of money to (hence the need for gold) as well as the cops who have been getting reports of a thieving Santa all night long. As the crazy Christmas Eve moves into Christmas morning, man and boy form a special bond. They may be able to provide the things the other needs – if they both don’t end up in jail.

In case you wondered if lowbrow family films were exclusively the province of American filmmakers, here is the proof they exist in France as well. This French-Belgian co-production has all the family film clichés that it feels like you’ve seen it all before unless you’re Antoine’s age. When they say the plot almost writes itself, well, here’s a case where it probably do – the baseball team’s worth of writers notwithstanding.

Rahim is certainly charming and while any Americans who are familiar with the actor likely know his work in A Prophet, in a much different role he shows he has the star power to carry a film on his own. Unfortunately, Cabal is given a role that has been written as if all six year olds are absolute morons. I know that six-year-olds are trusting sorts but there are things here that Antoine takes on faith that even a four year old might say “Hey now, that just doesn’t make any sense!!!”

Seeing Paris at night during the Christmas season is a joy in and of itself, and the music by Klaus Badelt is truly complimentary to what’s going on in the film. Unfortunately these things aren’t enough to rescue a film that is ultimately one giant cliché written by a committee of folks who think that being a kid with little experience means being foolish and accepting of the laziest plot devices. Your kid deserves a better movie than this, particularly if he/she has the gumption to read subtitles o top of everything else.

REASONS TO GO: The music is nice and the night scenes of Paris during the holidays are magical.
REASONS TO STAY: Cabal is massively annoying and the character dumbed down.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and child peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are nine writers credited to the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Santa Clause
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Dark Fortune

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The Priests


There's never any telling what lurks at the end of an alleyway.

There’s never any telling what lurks at the end of an alleyway.

(2015) Horror (CJ Entertainment) Dong-won Kang, Byeong-ok Kim, Eui-sung Kim, Ho-jae Lee, So-dam Park, Soo-Hyang Jo. Directed by Jae-hyun Jang

NYAFF

There are those who will tell you that the things that go bump in the night are real. There are also those who will tell you that there are things that will possess a human body, things that can only be driven out with the help of an exorcist.

Exorcism does exist, although it is no longer the exclusive province of the Catholic Church, movies on the subject notwithstanding. However, we most associate the rituals of exorcism with Catholicism, and it has to be said much of that goes back to a certain 1973 movie that turned out to have some roots in fact. This one, apparently, only has roots in that movie.

Fr. Kim (B.O. Kim) is the go-to guy for exorcisms in South Korea, mainly by virtue that he was the deacon for the go-to guy for exorcisms, who is now too old and too feeble to perform them himself. He is in the midst of performing one now, a grueling affair that has gone on for six months. The victim is Young-shin (Park), a 14-year-old parishioner of his. He is a curmudgeonly man who has gone through Deacons at a terrifying rate – twelve of them thus far. Of course, some of the things they’ve seen during the rituals would be enough to send any sane man flying for the exit.

His latest Deacon is Choi (Wang), who has been coasting his way through the seminary. Not taking his theology terribly seriously, he has made it through life on the back of his delightful grin and his not inconsiderable charm. Now, however, he has been given a new assignment and he reluctantly takes it on, but in fact he’s kind of intrigued. After all, he’s seen the movie too. He just doesn’t really believe in it. It’s just a movie, right?

Meanwhile, back in Seoul, things are going badly for the girl. She’s been compelled to commit suicide by the demon inside her but survives somehow in a coma. The demon is looking for a good man (what woman isn’t?) to take over; apparently men are much better possessions. Kim knows that the spirit of the demon must be moved into the body of a pig which should then be drowned in a river in order to make sure the evil entity doesn’t return to the girl. And the family has sued to turn off the life support so that their daughter can finally be at rest – they believe Fr. Kim has been molesting her, which prompted the suicide attempt. And everything is pointing to this night to be the best possible time to get rid of the possession – and the good father with his reluctant assistant – who has demons of his own to conquer – will move heaven and earth to save this innocent little girl.

Certainly the film takes most of its cues from the classic William Friedkin film The Exorcist (but also from other demonically-inclined films like The Omen) but there are some differences here. It introduces modern horror stories, like intimations of abuse by a priest, and political infighting within the church hierarchy, but curiously stays away from modern horror idioms. This is definitely a man’s movie – the only female character with any substance in the film is the victim herself.

This isn’t as effects-laden or as gory as other exorcism movies, particularly those of recent vintage. Jang relies on atmosphere and an overall feeling of dread that something spectacularly bad is about to happen. He’s so good at building up the tension that the climax, when it comes, is a bit of a disappointment – but only a bit. I don’t think it is possible for any climactic scene to live up to the build-up that this one got.

Park as the possessed girl outdoes even Linda Blair here; she has her moments where the innocent little girl is present but for the most part she is chilling, manipulative, much smarter than either of the priests and in short, a worthy opponent. She scares the living daylights out of you every time she’s on the screen.

Kang is one of Korea’s rising stars and also one of its best looking. He sometimes has to play a bit of the fool and his foolishness is a bit jarring compared to the rest of the film but again, cultural differences. Movies from other places don’t necessarily have to live up to American expectations, no? In any case, he has some moments, particularly near the end of the movie. He does have a good amount of potential in any case.

The special effects are pretty minimal so American teen horror audiences will probably think this lame, but true horror fans are going to recognize the craft here and perhaps flock to it should it get any sort of distribution. Keep an eye out for it on various web horror outlets (like Shudder) and your local film festivals, particularly those that celebrate the realm of the fantastic. This is a solid, entertaining and downright spooky film that ranks among some of the best of the genre.

REASONS TO GO: Some real nice touches of authenticity. Park delivers a show-stopping performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the effects are a little weak by American standards.
FAMILY VALUES: Scenes of terror and disturbing images, as well as some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kang is considered to be one of Korea’s biggest heartthrobs.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Exorcist
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Heaven is For Real


A little father and son talk.

A little father and son talk.

(2014) Faith (TriStar) Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Marge Martindale, Thomas Haden Church, Lane Styles, Jacob Vargas, Thanya Romero, Danso Gordon, Rob Moran, Nancy Sorel, Darcy Fehr, Vivian Winther, Pete Hudson, Ursula Clark, Mike Mohrhardt, Bryan Clark, Randy Apostle, Julia Arkos, Candace Smith, Cruise Brown, Amber Lynn Partridge. Directed by Randall Wallace

Disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of organized religion or of faith-based movies. I have an aversion to being preached to. Not that I have an issue with people having faith or even religion – there are a lot of good things that organized religions do, but there are also some questionable things and I’m talking about all faiths here, not just one in particular. When someone tells me that there is only one way to get to heaven, I smell flim-flammery.

However, faith and religion are different things entirely. While religion tends to codify our faith, faith can exist without religion (but not vice versa). Religion helps those with faith understand just what it is they have faith in. However, when that faith is confronted with something that we can’t really explain, that faith is shaken to the core, severely tested. It all comes down to belief.

Todd Burpo (Kinnear) is a Wesleyan pastor in the small farming community of Imperial, Nebraska. Besides that, he repairs garage door openers, coaches wrestling and the local high school and is a volunteer fireman. If that wasn’t enough to fill up his day, he dotes on his four-year-old son Colton (Corum), his older sister Cassie (Styles) and his wife Sonja (Reilly) who also directs the music group at the church. If there ever was a Norman Rockwell life, Pastor Burpo was living it.

During a softball game, the pastor slides hard into third base and suffers a severe spiral fracture in his right leg, forcing him to the sidelines on all his endeavors for a few weeks. No sooner has he come back to work when he collapses on the altar during his sermon, felled by kidney stones. The medical bills begin to pile up and there isn’t enough money.

Things go from bad to worse. After a family trip to Denver, both Cassie and Colton come down with the flu. Cassie recovers but Colton doesn’t. He starts to get worse. His parents rush him to the hospital (which is a bit of a hike from Imperial) and once there, it is determined that Colton’s appendix had burst. He is rushed into surgery, but the outlook isn’t hopeful.

However, the little boy manages to pull through. Cue big sigh of relief from everyone involved. But then little Colton starts telling his Dad about his experience; how he found himself floating above the operating table and watching the doctors work on him. How he could see his mother calling friends on the phone and asking them to pray for him. How he saw his Dad in the chapel, yelling at God and venting. Todd is at first bemused by this; these types of experiences are not unheard of after all.

But then he tells his father that he actually visited heaven, and goes on to describe it. While he was there, he heard choirs of angels singing to him, giggling when young Colton asked if they could sing “We Will Rock You” by Queen (a Burpo family sing-along favorite). He also sees Jesus, riding on a horse that is all the colors of the rainbow. He sits in Jesus’ lap, and describes him as having blue/green eyes.

Todd passes this off as his son’s vivid imagination coupled with being surrounded with religious imagery all his life. Then Colton starts giving some details about people he meets in Heaven including a sister whom his mother had miscarried; neither Todd nor Sonja had told him anything about that incident. Todd’s faith is shaken to the core. How can he continue to be the effective pastor he has always been when he isn’t sure that his son has really had this experience he is so sure he’s had?

Wallace, who wrote Braveheart and directed such fine movies as The Man in the Iron Mask and Secretariat  makes some smart choices here. He allows viewers to make their own decisions as to whether Colton’s experience was legitimate and if he’d actually been to Heaven. His father believes it, that is for certain. Clearly, it’s not something that can be proven but it must be taken on faith.

That can be difficult. Church and Martindale play friends of the Burpos as well as members of the board of the church who have a difficult time in accepting Colton’s story (and both do bang-up jobs for the record), and worry about the effect that the growing media circus will have on their small town and their church. I found myself wondering why devout Christians would be anything but thrilled at “proof” that heaven is for real. I guess it’s as hard to see your beliefs proven to be true as it is to see them proven to be false.

Kinnear is the glue that holds the film together. He is rock solid, charismatic and crazy likable. We are reminded once again that he is one of those actors who should be an A-lister but for whatever reason has never gotten the role that pushes him over the top. Given the box office success of this film, we may finally get to see that happen.

As for the actor that played young Colton, I have to be honest although it doesn’t make me happy to do so – he is stiff and unnatural. I try to give leeway to young actors because it’s not fair to hold them to standards that you would hold an adult to. However, in this case because he’s so integral to the story and to the film, I would be amiss in not at least mentioning that you need to expect that his line readings can sometimes remind you that he is a kid reading words rather than a character saying them. There is a huge difference and it did for me at least take me out of the movie at times.

The movie and the book that it came from has sparked a certain amount of controversy. Some Christian publications have condemned the book for not having a Biblical version of Heaven – some film critics have panned the film for its depiction of billowing clouds, WASP-ish Jesus (although the painting of him that Colton identified as the Jesus he saw in heaven that was painted by a Serbian girl who had a similar experience looked distinctly Semitic to my eyes) and  angelic chorales was too over-the-top. I never realized that Heaven was such a controversial subject.

And of course, atheists and non-believers have been smug and snarky in their contempt for the film. It’s this kind of treatment that adds fuel for the Fox News assertion that there is a war on Christianity, albeit that on Fox News there’s always a war on something. People have the right to believe as they choose; just because you believe in one thing doesn’t make you automatically better than people who believe in another. Belief is not about being superior to everyone else; it’s about how you choose to live your life and what you choose to embrace as fact even if you cannot prove it as such.

Living in the Bible Belt gives me a certain perspective. Certainly most of the audience that is seeing this movie is Christian or leans that way. During many points in the film, there was audible sniffling and I’ll admit to getting misty-eyed myself. I suspect few atheists will go to see this and I can’t see a lot of non-Christians making the effort either. This is certainly aimed at one segment of the movie-going audience but it serves them well, yet for those who are less religious at least it treats the subject with respect and as I said earlier, allows us to reach our own conclusions.

I have my own conclusions and my own beliefs as to what happens after we die. The fact of the matter is, as Kinnear’s character says during the film quoting his grandfather, is that by the time we know for sure what does happen to us it’s too late to tell anybody about it. Maybe Colton actually did visit heaven; maybe it’s something that his mind did to help him cope with a crisis he couldn’t understand. We will never know for certain either way. Whichever explanation you choose to believe you have to take on faith. And that my friends is the crux of that human ability to accept things we cannot prove.

REASONS TO GO: Kinnear is solid. Raises some real questions about faith.

REASONS TO STAY: Gets preachy in places. Corum not the most natural of actors.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some medical situations involving a child as well as some thematic elements which small children may not understand or be disturbed about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed mostly around Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Five People You Meet in Heaven

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Love Me

Oz the Great and Powerful


James Franco tries to hitch a ride with his China Girl. Ooh baby, just you shut your mouth...

James Franco tries to hitch a ride with his China Girl. Ooh baby, just you shut your mouth…

(2013) Fantasy (Disney) James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox, Stephen R. Hart Abigail Spencer, Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi, Tim Holmes, Toni Wynne, Rob Crites, William Dick, Gene Jones, Channing Pierce. Directed by Sam Raimi

Belief is a powerful thing. It can change the course of history, make the impossible possible. It can turn fear into strength. It can make leaders of the most unlikely of men.

Oscar – but his friends call him Oz (Franco) – is a somewhat adept carnie magician in sepia-toned Kansas in 1905. He yearns for greatness but is stuck in this Podunk circus that seems destined to kill all his hopes and dreams. His assistant Frank (Braff) is barely competent and the ladies he gets to sample his charms are shall we say less than discreet. The one girl he does want (Williams) has been asked to marry John Gale, a steadfast Kansas farmer. And to make things worse the Circus strongman (Holmes) has discovered that one of Oscar’s conquests is his own wife (Wynne) and so he wants to use Oz’s head as a squeeze box.

Oz gets away in a hot air balloon with only his top hat and satchel as possessions but unfortunately he gets sucked into a tornado and ends up in the brightly colored land of Oz. There he meets Theodora (Kunis), a beautiful young witch who develops quite the crush on Oz. Oz unleashes his usual bag of tricks on her, particular when he discovers the prophecy that someone with the same name as the land would descend from the sky, save the land from a wicked witch and become king of Oz. The two head back to the Emerald City where Oz meets Evanora (Weisz), who is Theodora’s sister and regent of Oz since their father was poisoned.

There is a wicked witch for Oz to kill however and he goes off to do just that with his trusted flying monkey valet Finley (voiced by Braff) at his side. Along the way they run into a porcelain village that has been decimated by the wicked witch’s flying baboons. The only survivor is a little china girl (King) whose legs have been shattered. Oz, with a trusty bottle of glue, puts her right as rain and the grateful girl accompanies the two on their quest.

When they meet Glinda (Williams) again who introduces them to the Quadlings, the Tinkers and the Munchkins, Oz realizes that the task at hand is much more complicated and dangerous than he first thought and that he has little more than pluck on his side. His entire life he has been searching for greatness but now it appears that he must die in order to achieve it.

A lot of people are going to make the mistake of comparing this to The Wizard of Oz, among them professional critics who should know better. If you go into this movie thinking that this is going to be just as magical and just as timeless, you’re going to walk out disappointed. Raimi wisely chooses to pay homage to the classic rather than aping it. Sure there are some similarities – the sepia-toned Kansas, the colorful Oz, the singing and dancing Munchkins, a cowardly lion (blink and you’ll miss him) and an Art Deco Emerald City.

The 1939 version of the film was always a woman’s movie – Dorothy versus the Wicked Witch. The men in the movie were really little more than comic relief and that was okay. In some ways that’s true here as well – while Oz is at the center of the action and is the erstwhile hero, this movie is all about the witches with a little help from a China Girl.

Franco as Oz is kind of an odd choice. Sure, Franco projects that con man cockiness with an aw shucks grin that has just the right touch of nasty to it. He is just smarmy enough to be in character but enough to get on my nerves from time to time. This is supposed to be a prequel to Wizard and for me, I had trouble connecting the dots from Franco’s Oscar to the grouchy old fraud that Frank Morgan played.

The witches are all three excellent actresses at or near the top of their game. Weisz makes a memorable Evanora, one whose depths are darker than you might imagine. A character like this gives Weisz a chance to really cut loose and she does, although never going over-the-top which a lesser actress might just do.

Kunis is turning into a star in her own right. I’m not sure this is the role to advance her career any but at least it doesn’t do her any harm. She has the widest range to cover and she does it pretty well although not notably. She neither distinguishes herself nor disgraces herself other than to remind us how gorgeous her face is in her early scenes with Franco.

Williams is often overlooked when discussions about Hollywood’s best actresses ensue but believe me, she is right up there among the very best. She has the least meaty role of the three sisters but  shines nevertheless. In many ways she had the most difficult task but she wound up shining, commendable considering who she was acting with in the movie.

There is a whole lot of eye candy here, most of it of the CGI variety. Most of it is pretty nifty but there are a few scenes in which the CGI green screen effect is a bit clunky, surprisingly so. The surprise is because they got the 3D down so well which is fairly rare. It actually enhances the movie. I know, notify the paramedics because there are gonna be coronaries over it – but facts are facts.

This is no Wizard of Oz, it’s true. This isn’t timeless, there’s no “Over the Rainbow” and the movie doesn’t have that same magic that the 1939 classic had. Nevertheless that doesn’t mean it can’t be solidly entertaining in its own right and in all truthfulness I’m a sucker for Oz and getting a chance to go back there again is an irresistible lure. It brings back the kid in me and at my advanced age that’s a welcome and impressive feat of prestidigitation of its own.

REASONS TO GO: Great performances throughout. Really good chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence.

REASONS TO STAY: Keeps you a little too off-balance in places. Too Hollywood an ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some images of flying baboons and witchery that may be too scary for the tiniest of tots. There is some mild cursing but unlikely that your children haven’t heard it before.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Baum Brothers circus that Oscar performs in, as well as the name of his assistant Frank were both tributes to L. Frank Baum, creator of Oz.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100; critics were all over the board with this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alice in Wonderland

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: 56 Up

Rise of the Guardians


Rise of the Guardians

Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream…

(2012) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Alec Baldwin, Chris Pine, Isla Fisher, Hugh Jackman, Jude Law, Dakota Goyo, Khamani Griffin, Kamil McFadden, Dominique Grund, Georgie Grieve, Emily Nordwind, Jacob Bertrand, Olivia Mattingly, April Lawrence. Directed by Peter Ramsey

 

Certain figures hold a kind of reverence in all of our childhoods; the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and of course Santa Claus. They are symbols of various aspects of our youth and remind us that who we are now is informed by who we were then. These figures are venerated because of their association with children. They are protectors of their innocence. They are guardians.

Jack Frost (Pine) is a mischievous sort, the sort who brings snow and ice to cold climates and provides children everywhere with snow days. When you’re hit in the face with a stray snowball that nobody can remember throwing, he’s likely to be the culprit. Nobody can see him, after all because nobody really believes in him. This depresses him somewhat.

But he has been chosen to be the newest Guardian by the enigmatic Man in the Moon (who never speaks). The current Guardians – Santa Claus (Baldwin), a buff Russian accented behemoth who answers to North and carries swords as well as candy canes, The Easter Bunny (Jackman) who speaks with an Australian lilt, tosses boomerangs and exploding eggs in battle and travels by magical portals through the underground; the Sandman, a pint-sized sleepy sort who visualizes his thoughts through sand and uses sandy whips to create creams, and the Tooth Fairy (Fisher) who commands an army of little hummingbird-like fairies that collect teeth in which childhood memories are stored – are aware that one of their own, the Boogie Man who also is known as Pitch (Law) who has spent centuries preparing for his own moment – to use the Sandman’s ability to create good dreams and perverting it to cause nightmares and fear. And as the kids of the world lose faith in their Guardians, the Guardians begin to disappear and lose their powers.

The lynchpin is Jack Frost, but he may not be up to the task. How can someone nobody believes in become a hero?

I kind of like the concept here, although I do admit that it likely posed all sorts of problems not only for the filmmaker but for William Joyce, the author of the children’s books that this movie was (loosely) based on. Creating characters that not only contain the traits that kids know and love about these legends but also are believable as a superhero team is a bit of a tricky prospect.

It doesn’t always work. Think of Super Friends with better animation, a reference which probably flies over the head of most kids whom this is aimed at and that’s just as well. The target audience has barely lived long enough to be in kindergarten.

There is plenty of color here and some truly magical moments, most of which have to do with visiting the homes of these characters. Santa’s workshop, for example, is staffed by Yeti toymakers (who look like the lovechildren of Bigfoot and Wilford Brimley) and elves who might remind some of the Minions of Despicable Me. The Easter Bunny’s warren has Pacific Island-looking stone heads, trees that dispense little eggs with legs that walk through a Willy Wonka-looking contraption that paints them. The Tooth Fairy’s castle is a cross between a Disney princess abode, a dentist’s office and Hogwarts’ Castle.

I’m not sure why Baldwin picked a Russian/Slavic accent for Santa – if he wanted to be a bit more accurate he might have gone Germanic with it but I suppose it might be a bit too easy to characterize Santa as a Nazi had he done that. In fact, most of the vocal work is pretty adequate and I do like some of the characterizations (like the flirtatious Tooth Fairy who has a thing for Jack’s teeth). The Easter Bunny is a bit impatient and trades barbs with Jack who is on the Bunny’s poo list for causing a blizzard a few Easters back.

Da Queen liked this a lot better than I did. She commented afterwards on the messages of working as a team, putting the greater good ahead of your own personal needs and the need for sacrifice – and it’s rare I admit that you see that sort of pointing towards selflessness in modern animated features which more often stress being true to yourself than being true to the world.

Still, I had trouble with the rather predictable story and it’s overuse of Jack’s angst as a plot point. There were also several superhero poses that were a bit incongruous – you know, the crouch with arms outstretched, staffs and swords pointed in aggressive poses. I suppose that the message that problems need to be solved with violence is also kind of ingrained in this – no attempt is ever made to negotiate with Pitch and his own issues, which get revealed late in the film, seem to be made light of because, by nature, Pitch is Bad which means that some people are naturally Bad and should be dealt with violently which I kind of had issues with. Call me a bleeding heart liberal if you will.

Even so this is solid entertainment that small kids will adore and their parents won’t feel is a burden for them to watch with their progeny. Be advised that although Santa is being marketed as a central character (which he is), this isn’t strictly speaking a Christmas movie so if you’re expecting one, you might leave disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: Kind of fun to see all those characters together. Visually inventive.

REASONS TO STAY: Story is much too predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes and some of the action sequences might be a little scary for the wee ones, especially if they’re impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the last DreamWorks Animation film to be distributed by Paramount. The company has signed a new contract with 20th Century Fox that begins in 2013.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100. The reviews are pretty decent.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Incredibles

EASTER LOVERS: .Part of the film takes place during the spring holiday, and we get a nice look at the Easter Bunny’s castle.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Jolene

The Rite


The Rite

Even dilapidated boarding houses are mainly CGI these days.

(2011) Supernatural Horror (New Line) Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue, Alice Braga, Ciaran Hinds, Rutger Hauer, Toby Jones, Marta Gastini, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Arianna Veronesi, Andrea Calligari, Chris Marquette, Torrey DeVito, Ben Cheetham, Marija Karan. Directed by Mikael Hafstrom

Ever since The Exorcist Hollywood has periodically unleashed movies in which Roman Catholic priests do battle with demonic possessors, generally of innocent young girls. Some of these movies have been essentially visceral knock-offs meant to test the limits of our squeamishness. Not all of them are like that though.

Michael Kovak (O’Donoghue) is a young man with some heavy baggage in his past. His mother died when he was young and his father (Hauer), the undertaker in a small Midwestern town, is as cold to him as the snow that blankets the town each winter. As he has grown from childhood, he’s become increasingly convinced that there is no God, much to the dismay of his dad. He is also quite convinced that the mortuary business is not for him, to the greater dismay of his dad.

Michael enters the seminary, mainly for the free education but also to test his atheism. While he questions his faith, the Father Superior (Jones) senses something inside Michael, something good and decent and suggests that he attend the Vatican’s exorcism school. Michael is skeptical; he is planning (as he has all along) to opt out of his vows until the Father Superior tells him that the cost of his education will then be placed into a student loan of over $100K which Michael will owe. Reluctantly, Michael flies to Rome.

At the Vatican, Michael continues to question, drawing the attention of Father Xavier (Hinds) who advises Michael to spend some time with a veteran exorcist. Michael is then paired with Father Lucas Trevant (Hopkins), an acerbic and quirky priest who lives with a whole lot of cats he despises in a dilapidated old rooming house in Rome.

He’s working on the exorcism of a pregnant teenage girl (Gastini) but the results seem to be less spectacular than in the movies. “What’d you expect,” barks Father Lucas, “Spinning heads? Pea soup? ” That should give you all you need to know about the movie you’re watching.

As the exorcism progresses over a period of weeks, things get a little more strange and chilling. A lovely journalist (Braga) trying to get to the bottom of the Vatican’s involvement with exorcisms befriends Michael and he’s quite inclined to help her get her story. To be honest, Michael believes that this girl – and indeed, most “possessed” by demons – need psychiatric help more than exorcists. But the farther things go along and as unexplainable events occur, it is not Michael’s faith that will be tested but lack thereof.

That really is the difference between this movie and other demonic possession movies with maybe the exception of The Last Exorcism and even in that Cotton Marcus does have religious belief – he’s just not a believer in exorcisms. Here, Michael flat-out doubts the existence of God and the Devil which makes it more interested when confronted with evidence of the latter.

Hafstrom, who helmed the excellent 1408 (one of the better Stephen King adaptations) makes this almost clinical in places but takes the basic conceit of exorcism movies and turns it on its ear. I don’t know how much this was taken from the book this is based on (which I understand only provides a framework for the movie) but it is a bold move nonetheless.

The usually reliable Hopkins is a little over-the-top here. This isn’t a very subtle performance at all, and there are a few Hannibal Lecter mannerisms that are a bit startling. Most of the rest of the performances in the movie are more understated and nuanced; Hopkins stands out and not in a good way. In all honesty however I have to admit I’m not sure if he could have played it any other way.

This was advertised (and continues to be on DVD) as a horror film and in a lot of ways it isn’t, although there are some genuine creep-outs and some good startle scares too. However, most of the time it tends to be more of an examination of faith and the testing of it in a world which has moved more into a Missouri frame of mind – as in show me. We have become more used to a “just the facts” mindset and that’s not always a bad thing.

Faith implies a willingness to set aside fact and proof to take it on faith that something is so. Even science asks us to take some things on faith – for example, that faster than light travel isn’t possible. And, of course, it isn’t – until someone finds a way to make it happen. Science is a world limited to what we know and can prove. Faith is a world that tells us that there are things that not only we don’t understand, that we can’t understand. Art is a bridge between the two, allowing us to imagine things that are possible but also might not be and making them real. M.C. Escher to me comes closer to touching God than anybody.

But faith vs. science ranting aside, the movie may not necessarily be what you’re looking for when you want a good scare. It is a little smarter and a bit more practical but addresses some issues that most horror movies aren’t willing to tackle. It’s a well-made movie and for those interested in bigger questions than “how did they make that girl’s head do that,” it might be a good fit on a stormy night.

WHY RENT THIS: More of a psychological thriller than horror still packs some nice scares.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Hopkins chews the scenery and a little bit of him goes a long way here. Otherwise much more clinical than terrifying.

FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of shocking and disturbing images, not to mention the adult thematic matter, some of it sexual. There’s also a bit of supernatural violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The translation of the Hungarian phrase Hauer utters several times in the film regarding his wife is “My love, my flower, my bliss.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the actual Vatican school of exorcism which includes interviews with the authors of the book that inspired the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $96.1M on a $36M production budget; the movie made decent money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Melancholia

The Polar Express


THe Polar Express

All aboard the Polar Express!

(Columbia) Tom Hanks, Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Michael Jeter, Eddie Deezen, Charles Fleischer, Steven Tyler, Phil Fondacaro, Daryl Sabara. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

There comes a time in all our lives, it is said, that we must put aside childish things. That is the first step in becoming an adult. There are those who say that it is the first step in losing something irreplacable and vital, something that makes us better people.

Hero Boy (Hanks, voiced by Sabara) is at that time. He has begun to question his childhood faith in the existence of Santa Claus as fact after overwhelming fact begins to dispute that such a person ever existed. It is bedtime on Christmas Eve and he is listening intently for the bells of Santa’s sleigh, certain that he will never hear them.

Suddenly the room begins to rumble and shake then is filled with a great light. Startled, Hero Boy runs outside in his bathrobe to see a mighty train waiting there for him. A conductor (Hanks) cries “Alllllll aboooooooard” and after some hesitation, Hero Boy takes him up on it. This is, after all, the Polar Express, headed straight to the North Pole where one of the lucky children on board will be the recipient of the first present of Christmas, given to them by Santa himself.

On board is a Know It All (Deezen) and a quiet young Girl (Gaye), as well as a Lonely Boy (Scolari) who comes on board last and sits by himself in the last car. While a group of Dancing Waiters serve up piping hot chocolate to the kids in the passenger car, the Girl sets a cup aside for the Lonely Boy. As she and the Conductor take the steaming beverage back to the Lonely Boy, the Hero Boy notices that the Girl has left her unpunched ticket on her seat. As he steps outside to cross to the back car to give her the ticket, it flies out of his hand, apparently lost. The stern conductor orders the Girl to come with him.

The Hero Boy finds the ticket, which wasn’t lost after all, and runs to the back car to take it to her, fearful that she will be thrown off the train, but neither the conductor nor the Girl are there. The Lonely Boy tells him that they are on the top of the train headed toward the front. The Hero Boy decides to follow them and climbs to the top of the train. There, he meets the Hobo (Hanks) who questions the Hero Boy on his stance vis-à-vis the existence of Santa but nonetheless helps him reach the Engine car where he finds, to his surprise, the Girl driving the train while the engineers, Smoker and Steamer (both played by the late Michael Jeter, for whom this was his last movie before his death) changing a light bulb on the front of the train.

They brake just in time to avoid running into a gigantic herd of caribou, which brings the Conductor forward to scold them. The caribou are at length moved out of the way so the Express can continue on its way to the North Pole, but the train runs into some iced over tracks, barely able to navigate back onto the tracks while the ice cracks beneath them.

Eventually they reach the North Pole and the three friends manage to get lost in the vast city of Santa’s workshop, but they nevertheless make it to the town square just in time for the festivities to begin. But is there a Santa? What will it take for the Hero Boy to believe?

This was the first movie to be filmed entirely in motion capture technology (Zemeckis’ own Beowulf and Disney’s A Christmas Carol were also filmed in this way) and looks dazzling. While it is essentially an animated feature, the use of live actors to perform give the human and elf characters more life than a simple CGI feature can generate. It looks realistic, despite the fantasy setting.

Hanks gives a marvelous performance in multiple roles, including that of Santa and the Hero Boy’s father. Each character sounds, looks and acts differently as Hanks gives each its own unique look and facial expressions. It is compelling work.

The heart of the movie, however, is the story about the role of belief in our lives. Author Chris Van Allsburg has written a classic Christmas tale, perhaps the best since The Night Before Christmas or even since Dickens, and the story makes excellent cinema. I was completely entranced by the movie, even down to the songs (Josh Groban’s Believe is one of the best new Christmas songs of the last decade) which is unusual for me.

This is in every sense of the word a Christmas classic, one which I have no trouble watching every year at Christmas time. If you haven’t seen it yet, you definitely should. If you have, I hope you see it again – I discover something new about it every time I see it. That’s my definition of a classic.

WHY RENT THIS: This is the best Christmas movie to come along in 50 years. Believe is one of the better Christmas songs to come along the pike in ages. Hanks gives some terrific performances in multiple roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some find the story a bit treacly. The technology may soon become outdated as Avatar sets the bar higher but it was still ahead of its time when released.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The address called out by the Conductor near the end of the film of “11344 Edbrooke” is the address of director Zemeckis’ childhood home.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are some games and a clip of Josh Groban performing at the Greek Theater in the kid-centric DVD edition. The best feature is the one on author Chris Van Allsburg, who penned the children’s story this is based on. There is also a 3D edition (that comes with glasses) and a Blu-Ray edition that has more extra features than the DVD.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill concludes