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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Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer


When the Reindeer Games become more like the Hunger Games.

(2018) Animated Feature (Screen Media)  Starring the voices of Josh Hutcherson, Samantha Bee, Morena Baccarin, Martin Short, John Cleese, Christopher Jacot, Rob Tinkler, George Buza, Jeff Dunham, Jean Yoon, Julie Lemieux, Carlos Bustamante, Scott Farley, Steph Lynn Robinson, Darren Frost, Angela Fusco, Quancetia Hamilton, Carly Heffernan. Directed by Jennifer Westcott

 

Every year at this time we get a glut of Christmas-themed animated movies and TV shows, all looking to take their place among the perennials that get watched over and over again year after year. Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer has the ingredients to join that rarefied company but it won’t be an easy hike to get there.

In a world (and what critic hasn’t dreamed of starting a review off with those three words) where Santa (Buza) is real and everyone knows it, he is struggling to keep up with increasing demand as the world’s population explodes. His original team of reindeer are shrinking with one going to an ashram to find himself, another defecting to Russia for a romance, and most recently Vixen (Hamilton) leaving for the Florida Keys to open up a juice bar – three days before Christmas.

This leads to a frantic try-out competition for the coveted position on Santa’s team but his right-hand elf Lemondrop (Short) is no fan of reindeer and he has a point; reindeer have become arrogant, egotistical and overbearing and the elves loathe them. Santa keeps them on as a kind of nod to tradition.

There are reindeer trainers all over the world and as word gets out about the tryouts, Walter (Tinkler) – the owner of a slowly failing petting zoo – is counting on DJ (Jacot) to be his meal ticket. He has already sold off the animals in the petting zoo including pony (“MINIATURE HORSE!”) Elliot (Hutcherson) and Elliot’s omnivorous friend Hazel the goat (Bee). Elliot has long had the goal of being part of Santa’s team but it’s a reindeer-only club. Nonetheless he and supportive Hazel stow away on a rocket sleigh (all the trainers have them although Walter’s is in line with his status falling apart) and swaggers his way into the tryout with the help of fake antlers.

The rest of the plot is fairly formulaic; the buyer of the farm animals turns out to be a producer of exotic jerky meat, there is a conspiracy in Santa’s village to force the reindeer out and convert to rocket sleighs, and saving the lives of his farm friends as well as saving Christmas itself will eventually rest on the broad miniature shoulders of Elliot.

The animation here is mostly nondescript, although some of the Santa’s village and arena scenes are pretty imaginative and for once the characters have expressive faces rather than robotic ones. While he only appears in two scenes as Santa’s haughty reindeer Donner, John Cleese is always a pleasure. Something tells me that if filmmaker Jennifer Westcott had let Short, Cleese and Dunham improvise a bit, it might have benefited her film a lot.

Some critics have latched onto a subplot involving magic cookies which make the reindeer fly (as well as any other animal that eats them) and some unscrupulous reindeer taking more of them than they’re allowed, some even suggesting it promotes performance enhancing drug use. Sorry colleagues; sometimes a magic cookie is just a magic cookie.

For that reason the film feels more than a little bit formulaic which hurts its chances of ascending the heights as does the overbearing soundtrack which sounds like what you might have heard in a cartoon circa 1975. However, there’s still a chance for plucky Elliot to become a seasonal favorite. Many of the movies and TV shows that we consider to be classics really aren’t all that good; they resonate with us because we saw them over and over again as children. And I will say given the avalanche of product that comes out each year, this is head and shoulders above the rest which is mostly mindless soulless dreck. I don’t know that I’d want to revisit this year after year but there are children seeing it this year for whom this will become a treasured childhood memory. One certainly can’t argue with that.

REASONS TO GO: This has the makings of a Christmas perennial. The voice work is splendid and any chance to hear John Cleese at work is worth it.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack is annoying. There are a few too many clichés in the script.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude and mildly suggestive humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to a very small limited release as well as a VOD release, the film has a one day special screening on December 1 at about 100 additional theaters across the U.S.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Family in Transition

The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales (Le grand méchant Renard et autres contes…)


On a moonlit night you could see such a sight that you won’t believe your eyes…

(2017) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Kamel Abdessadok, Jules Bienvenu, Guillaume Bouchede, Guillaume Darnault, Jean-Loup Horwitz, Augustin Jahn-Sani, Christophe Lemoine, Elise Noiraud, Boris Rehlinger, Céline Ronté, Magali Rosenzweig, Violette Samama, Antoine Schoumsky, Damien Witecka. Directed by Benjamin Renner and Patrick Imbert

The thing about animation is that it is truly universal. Once dominated by one country – and essentially one studio – these days, great animation is coming from all around the globe. While Disney continues to be the 1,000 pound gorilla when it comes to animated features, there have nonetheless been some terrific films coming from elsewhere.

This new French animated feature from Benjamin Renner, the guy who gave us Ernest and Celestine, is definitely on the terrific side – for the most part. Three tales are presented here, all involving animals who don’t act like you might expect them to. The first involves a stork tasked with delivering babies, but the stork is a lazy sort and fakes an injury to get a passing duck, rabbit and a pig. The three try their best but they aren’t really cut out for that kind of work. The second involves a fox who is trying to steal some eggs to eat from a rather violent hen. The fox takes too long to eat them and they hatch. Rather than eat the chicks, he becomes their caregiver – which isn’t easy to do with an angry hen and a murderous wolf on the loose. Finally the third tale involves the rabbit, the duck and the pig who believe they’ve accidentally killed Santa Claus and determine to make sure that the presents are delivered. As in the first tale, that doesn’t go well either. Personally, I liked the second tale the most of the three but all three of them are good. They use a stage show framing device which is reasonably clever.

The animation is kind of a throwback, hand-drawn and 2D rather than computer generated 3D. It looks vivid and minimalist and is gorgeous and fun. The humor has a Chuck Jones/Tex  Avery influence that is delightful; adults may appreciate it a little more than the kids do, although I think kids will love it too. What is also worth looking out for is the warm, sweet charm that infuses the whole movie; it’s perfect rainy day viewing and if you’re not already a kid, it may bring you back to your own childhood.

There are a few things on the negative side to consider as well; The subtitles, which are in white, are hard to read whenever the background is white or a lighter color which is a problem. There’s been no word as of yet whether GKIDS will release a dubbed version as they did with Ernest & Celestine; I’m betting that they will. The film is clearly meant for younger viewers and some of them may be less proficient at reading and may not do well with subtitles. If a dubbed version had been available, I likely would have given this at least a full point higher rating, maybe even two.

Also unlike E&C the story feels a bit dumbed down in places. I got the sense of being talked down to by the filmmakers, a sense I never got in the previous film’s case. That was a bit disconcerting. However, those cases were fairly rare; most of the time I just let the craziness wash over me like a comfortable afternoon in my PJs watching Looney Tunes on the television with a big bowl of Cocoa Puffs in front of me. Now, that is what true happiness is.

Please note that this film is still on the Festival circuit and although it does have a distribution deal with GKIDS, no release date is currently scheduled. You’ll just have to keep an eye out for it at your local film festival or animation festival. Also while I did discuss an English dubbed version, no such version currently exists to my knowledge and GKIDS hasn’t confirmed that there will ever be one. Just so you know. P.S. I’d also like to give a shout-out to GKIDS who have put together an impressive roster of animated features from around the globe that will appeal to adults as well as kids. If you see their logo on anything, you know it’s going to be extremely high quality.

REASONS TO GO: There is a Looney Tunes quality particularly in the first vignette. There is a quality of sweetness throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: The subtitles can be hard to read. The story is on the dumb side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The middle tale was made up by Renner when he was a child; he eventually turned it into a graphic novel from which the film is adapted.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zootopia
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Guilty

Run All Night


Liam Neeson's having a bad night.

Liam Neeson’s having a bad night.

(2015) Action (Warner Brothers) Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Vincent D’Onofrio, Nick Nolte, Genesis Rodriguez, Boyd Holbrook, Bruce McGill, Common, Lois Smith, Beau Knapp, Patricia Kalember, Daniel Stewart Sherman, James Martinez, Radivoje Bukvic, Tony Naumovski, Lisa Branch, Holt McCallany, Aubrey Joseph, Jessica Ecklund. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

No matter how low you sink, there is always family. Sure, occasionally there are those who sink so low that their family loses sight, maybe even give up on them but that doesn’t mean they don’t stop loving them – nor does it mean they wouldn’t do anything to help.

You can’t sink much lower than Jimmy Conlon (Neeson). Once one of the most feared assassins in the Irish Mob, he was known by his nickname of The Gravedigger. He worked for his childhood friend Shawn Maguire (Harris) until Shawn decided to go legitimate and divest himself of his illegal activities. Shawn keeps Jimmy around these days more out of a sense of loyalty.

Jimmy’s activities have cost him everything. His wife, from whom he was estranged at the time of her death and his son Michael (Kinnaman) who is trying to build himself a good, straight and narrow life with a pregnant wife (Rodriguez), a little girl and working two jobs; one as a boxing coach for underprivileged kids, the other as a limo driver to keep the bills paid.

Jimmy isn’t really getting his bills paid, although his buddy Shawn bails him out once in awhile. Jimmy has crawled into a bottle and looks to stay there; even Detective Harding (D’Onofrio) who’s been chasing him for decades has given up on Jimmy, although he still wheedles him for the names of those he’s murdered so that some closure might be brought.

Shawn’s son Danny (Holbrook) is the heir apparent to Shawn’s legitimate business concerns but Shawn is a drug addict and a hothead who wants to follow in his father’s criminal footsteps. He makes a deal with Albanian drug dealers to import some heroin into the U.S. and wants to bring his dad aboard to legitimize the deal but Shawn is having none of it.

This is a problem for Danny because the Albanians gave him money to make the deal with his dad. Now the deal has collapsed and the money has essentially gone up Danny’s nose. The Albanians, who have a certain amount of taste for the good life, take a limo to Danny’s house to collect. The only thing they end up collecting is a bunch of bullets from Danny’s gun.

Danny witnesses this and flees home. Shawn finds out about the debacle and asks Jimmy to talk to Michael and make sure he keeps what he saw to himself. He also orders his son Danny to stay put. Danny being Danny heads over to Michael’s house instead and is set to shoot dead his childhood friend. Instead Jimmy kills Danny before he can kill his son.

Shawn doesn’t take the news well. He assures Jimmy that he is going to go after Michael with everything he has and once Michael is dead, only then will he allow Jimmy to die. Jimmy tells Shawn that this is a very bad idea but Shawn won’t listen and so Jimmy’s gotta do what he’s gotta do to help his son, who hasn’t talked to him in years, stay alive through the course of a very long and cold December New York City night.

This is pretty typical for Neeson’s recent action movies; lone wolf killer sort on the downward swing, protecting family, killing anyone and everyone who threatens said family even if they’re wearing a badge. Neeson has this kind of character down pat and even though he could play it in his sleep gives it a professional effort.

Collet-Serra has collaborated with Neeson on some of his better films, Unknown and Non-Stop, of his action era. This is a slickly produced and photographed action piece, with Collet-Serra using the lurid neon and dimly lit bars and pubs of New York as an expressive backdrop. Although Shawn is rich, his home is the residence of essentially a blue collar guy, the background from whence Shawn sprang. Jimmy’s apartment is the home of a drunk, the last place on earth anyone would want to live but Jimmy looks at home there. Details like that can elevate a mediocre film into a good one.

The story won’t set the world on fire; we’ve seen this sort of thing before but Collet-Serra does it as well as it can be done, at least thus far. There are some peripheral characters, chief among which is Andrew Price, a methodical and fastidious hit man played by rapper Common and done surprisingly well – he’s impressive in this brief role and shows the chops it takes to become a big time leading man which hopefully we’ll soon see him become.

I have to admit, I’m an Ed Harris fan. He’s one of those actors who seems to never phone in a performance, always giving a terrific performance no matter what the role or how good the movie it’s in. He elevates every movie he appears in and he’s no different here. Shawn clearly loves Jimmy as a brother but is heartbroken over the death of his boy, driven to unspeakable rage that will mean the obliteration of his friend and his family. There’s a Shakespearean component to the role in many ways.

Run All Night is like many March movies in that it isn’t going to win any awards and is not likely to break box office records. It’s not going to wow many critics nor is it going to inspire legions of devoted fans. What it will do is provide consistent, solid entertainment for those who love action movies and Liam Neeson’s version of them in particular. Chances are you’ll get exactly what you expect you’ll get when you buy your ticket and you really can’t ask any more from a movie than that.

REASONS TO GO: Nobody does the hangdog action hero better than Neeson. Harris always lends credibility to any production he’s in.
REASONS TO STAY: Plays to Irish stereotypes. Somewhat predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Tons o’ violence, plenty of un-charming foul language, some drug use and lots of Irish temperament.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two young men in the film, the sons of Shawn and Jimmy respectively are named Danny and Michael, which are also the names of Liam Neeson’s sons in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Walk Among the Tombstones
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Cinderella

Santa Popo


Santa PopoFor Nicholas

In a small town in Florida lived a little dog named Penelope. She was a delightful little thing, barely ten pounds and small enough to hold in the crook of your arm with no trouble. She lived with a family in which there were no small children but she was very loved and cared for. She was an affectionate sort, given to cuddling whenever possible, kissing her owners often and giving them hours of delight with her antics.

Not far away lived a little boy named Nicholas and he was two years old, a wonderful age to be indeed. His mommy and daddy were friends with the owners of Penelope and they saw each other often. Nicholas’ mommy even worked with Penelope’s mommy. The two families went to the park with Nicholas from time to time, or to the movies or sometimes they’d just spend an evening playing board games.

Nicholas was one of those little boys who had a smile that couldn’t be resisted. Once you saw it, your whole body would turn warm and fuzzy and that smile would penetrate straight into your heart until you were smiling yourself. Then, you’d pass that smile to others that you encountered, each smile going from heart to heart until this little Florida town was one of the happiest places on Earth.

Everyone loved Penelope but particularly Nicholas who called her by her nickname which was Popo (Penelope was a little too hard for young Nicholas to get his mouth around just yet). His smile would get even brighter and bigger whenever he went to visit Popo or she came to visit him. They would chase each other around everywhere and Nicholas would laugh and laugh and laugh. Penelope, who also had a wonderful doggie smile, would laugh too in her own doggie way. No matter how bad a day the adults were having, the sight of Nicholas and Popo together never failed to make them feel better.

That year, Christmas was a little colder than usual – for Florida, that is which is to say not very cold at all compared to everywhere else. Penelope’s mommy had been sick for some time, which made things hard on Penelope’s daddy who to begin with had health problems of his own and also on Nicholas’ mommy who was new to her job and was now having to learn her way around without her friend to guide her as much. Penelope, sensing how sick her mommy was, spent a lot of time curled up in her lap as her mommy watched television or played on her tablet. Penelope’s presence made her mommy feel better which was a good thing, but it did mean that Penelope didn’t get to spend as much time with her friend Nicholas.

It would break his mommy’s heart when he would ask for his friend Popo and his mommy would have to say she couldn’t come over. “Popo’s house,” Nicholas would say but because Penelope’s mommy was sick they couldn’t go over. Nicholas didn’t cry because he was a brave big boy, but he would still feel sad.

Nicholas’ parents invited Penelope and her family over for Christmas, knowing that because Penelopes’s mommy and daddy really couldn’t make much of a Christmas for themselves. Nicholas was looking forward to seeing his friend again and was more excited about that than for opening presents, although he loved the shiny tinsel on the tree and the beautiful twinkling lights. He would stand and look at the tree with shining eyes, a big contented grin on his face.

It was Christmas Eve and time for Nicholas to go to bed but he was so excited! He wanted to stay up all night but his mommy wouldn’t let him. “Time to sleep,” she announced and that was that. Nicholas finally went to bed in his crib and sat in the dark of his bedroom lit by a night light (he wasn’t scared of the dark but he liked the night light) and thought about having his friend Popo come to visit him.

At last his mommy and daddy finished doing what parents do on Christmas Eve and they went to bed themselves, listening to their son’s bedroom and hearing only the sound of his breathing before drifting off to sleep themselves. All was quiet.

Nicholas was thinking so hard about his friend that he could see her sitting in his room, her brown eyes wide and friendly, her tongue lolling out of her smiling mouth, her fluffy tail like a plume wagging back and forth so fast it might fly off on its own at any moment. Nicholas was a little puzzled by the silver glow that surrounded her  and at the red Santa hat with white fur trim that she wore. To him she looked like the sweetest little elf that ever was. “Popo!” he sighed softly, seeing his friend and feeling safe and happy.

Penelope spoke. “Tonight is Christmas Eve and on this special night we dogs are allowed to speak but only to very special people.” Nicholas looked at her as if seeing a dog talk was the most natural thing in the world – why, it happened every day of course! But of course dogs don’t talk and had Nicholas’ daddy been there he would have fainted dead away but Nicholas wasn’t surprised in the least. Penelope continued, “You carry the name of Santa Claus as your own. That’s a very wonderful name to have.” Nicholas nodded and giggled. He loved his name and he especially loved hearing his mommy say it.

“It’s not common knowledge, but we dogs help Santa with his important work. There are so many children in the world, he can’t watch them all the time. He uses us dogs to keep an eye on you, to find out who’s naughty and who’s nice. Once in awhile, we find someone who has so much happiness in them that they can’t help spread it around to the world. You’re just like that Nicholas.” Nicholas clapped his hands and let out a loud giggle. In their bedroom his parents snored in their sleep, oblivious.

Penelope leaped into his crib and curled up with her friend. “You’re a very special little boy Nicholas. You have it in you to bring great joy and happiness to the whole world. It is my job and the job of every doggie in the world to take care of children like you. You have the same gift as Santa – and the world needs as many people like you in it as it can get.” Nicholas cooed, stroking Popo’s soft fur and as content as a little boy can be when hugging a beloved dog. Nicholas asked Popo “Stay?” She smiled and said “Just for tonight. I must also take care of my own family in the morning but I’ll keep you warm and safe tonight.” Nicholas hugged her tight. “Popo talk!”

Popo snuggled against him. “You can always hear me in your heart. I will speak to you there.” He began to feel sleepy and he curled up with Popo. She gave him a special Popo kiss on the forehead and whispered “Sleep well, Nicholas. You have so much ahead of you.” Nicholas fell asleep with his arms wrapped around his friend. She curled up with him and let the night flow over her.

In the morning Nicholas woke up and he was alone. “Popo!” he called out. His mother, already awake, came into his bedroom. “Merry Christmas!” she exclamed, picking her son up and giving him a huge Christmas morning hug (the best kind). Nicholas’ disappointment that his friend wasn’t there was forgotten as he hugged his mommy back with all the strength his two-year-old arms could muster. “Yes, Popo is coming to visit you today,” she smiled as she carried Nicholas into the kitchen to give him a little breakfast before they opened presents.

Later that afternoon, Penelope and her mommy and daddy came to visit and Nicholas was overjoyed to see his friend, laughing at the silly sweater her mommy and daddy had put on her. “Popo talk!” said Nicholas. Penelope gave him a sly wink and barked in the friendly way she did. Nicholas’ mom laughed. “Silly,” she said to her son, “Dogs can’t talk!” Penelope’s mommy and daddy exchanged a knowing glance. Only a select few get to hear dogs talk on Christmas eve but only the sweetest and most loving sorts can hear them the whole year round and most of them were children. As Nicholas hugged his friend Popo, he could plainly hear her say “Merry Christmas Nicholas!” He gave his friend a kiss which got an “awww” from both sets of parents and would send fresh sets of joy to be spread throughout the neighborhood, passed on by those who had felt it firsthand.

So don’t be surprised those of you parents with dogs to see your children talking to them. Just because you can’t hear it doesn’t mean they aren’t answering.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas


Neil. Patrick. Harris. Is. God.

Neil. Patrick. Harris. Is. God.

(1988) Comedy (New Line) John Cho, Kal Penn, Paula Garces, Danneel Harris, Tom Lennon, Danny Trejo, Elias Koteas, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Neil Patrick Harris, Amir Blumenfeld, David Krumholtz, Patton Oswalt, RZA, Richard Riehle, Jake Johnson, Melissa Ordway. Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson

 The Holly and the Quill

Christmas is a time for family. For bonding with those friends who have been beside you the entire year. To have kindness and concern for others, to have peace and compassion on your mind.

This movie is about none of those things. Our heroes, following the events of Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay have drifted apart. Kumar Patel (Penn) has left medical school after failing the drug test and lives in the same ratty apartment he once shared with Harold Lee (Cho), who has become a big-time Wall Street investor (and has protestors ringing his office). He is married to Maria (Garces) whom he is trying to get pregnant in order to impress his father-in-law (Trejo) who doesn’t impress easily.

Kumar has been dumped by Vanessa (Harris) who is pregnant with his rugrat. He’s also scored an impressive stash from a mall Santa (Oswalt) which he intends to spend Christmas smoking himself into sweet spliff oblivion. But he receives a package that is meant for Harold and decides to deliver it in person to his former best bud.

Harold though has problems of his own. His home has been invaded by his future family (who arrived by the busload) and his dad-in-law wants this Christmas to be perfect. To that end he’s brought a 12-foot Douglas Fir that he has spent the last eight years raising, making sure that the dimensions were just right, that the branches opened up just so. Once decorated, it is indeed a magnificent tree.

As he and his family go to celebrate Mass, Kumar comes by with the package which turns out to be a gigantic joint. As Harold no longer partakes, he tosses the massive thing out the door. Kumar, irritated, decides to light it up for himself but somehow, almost by magic, the joint floats back into the house and lights the tree on fire.

Harold is mortified. He has only a few hours to replace the tree and potentially save his marriage. Kumar, feeling a little guilty, decides to help out along with his friend Adrian (Blumenfeld) and Harold’s friend Todd (Lennon) and Todd’s toddler. In the course of the night, they will deal with Ukrainian mobsters, ghetto tree lot entrepreneurs, a coked-out infant, emergency surgery on the real Santa after they accidentally shoot him, and appearing in the chorus line of a Broadway musical starring Neil Patrick Harris which is a bit disconcerting to our intrepid heroes since he was killed in the last movie. Listen, he’s N.P. Freakin’ H, motherf****r so don’t be hatin’.

It’s been said in other places by finer writers than I that Harold and Kumar are essentially the Cheech and Chong for the 21st century. That’s cool by me; not being a stoner I don’t really get the humor as much but then there’s room for all sorts of movies and who am I to deny the Stoner Nation their due. I’ve seen the first and now this, the third, movie in the franchise and in all honesty, the first is a much better movie than this (to the surprise of no one). That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have it’s worthwhile moments however.

This is no Christmas movie for the entire family to gather around the flat screen for. There is a lot of sexual humor, some of it quite crude as well as plenty of nudity and drug use. While some will laugh out loud at some of the pretty consistently lowbrow humor (it wouldn’t hurt to fire one up before you fire up the Blu-Ray), I don’t think even those toasted out of their skulls are going to find this a laugh fest from start to finish.

I will say that Cho and Penn have an easy-going chemistry and I think it was a bit of a mistake to have them on the outs for most of the movie. Part of the charm of the first movie was the relationship between the two and that’s largely missing here until the end. However, one cannot discount the contributions of Neil Patrick Harris. Even though he’s essentially in one scene, it’s the best scene and illustrates why the man’s an icon, a credit to the human race and just a gosh-darned all around nice guy. While he’s no Dr. Horrible here, he constitutes one of the main reasons to see the film – or any film for that matter. Even if he’s not in it.

The 3D is pretty nifty although I suppose at this point it will largely depend on if your 3D set is nifty as well – I’ve found a pretty staggering range of quality in 3D televisions. The jokes are more or less uneven although I found some sequences (as one where they start hallucinating that they are Claymation figures) to be pretty worthwhile. This isn’t a family holiday movie by any stretch of the imagination – but I think it’s not necessarily a bad thing if there are a few out there that aren’t.

WHY RENT THIS: Three words: Neil. Patrick. Harris. Also, Cho and Penn still have good chemistry. Some nifty 3D effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The humor is a bit tired and not all of it works.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots and lots of sexual content with occasional nudity and regular crudity, plenty of drug use, a boatload of foul language and a bit of violence. Just a bit.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Adrian calls Harold “Sulu” at one point. John Cho plays Sulu in the Star Trek reboot.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Actor Tom Lennon rants about his fellow actors and the films in six separate interview segments and there’s also a bit on the brief Claymation sequence in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $35.4M on a $19M production budget; the numbers were disappointing enough that a fourth Harold & Kumar movie isn’t on the radar.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cheech and Chong’s Nice Dreams

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Holly & the Quill concludes!

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