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

The Wall (2017)


Everything is more intense when you’re under fire.

(2017) War Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, Laith Nakli. Directed by Doug Liman

 

In the desert, there is not much beyond scorching sun, deep blue sky and wind-whipped sand. It is dusty, hot and dry. Humans can survive there but far from comfortably. It is a terrible place to have a war.

And yet we’ve spent the last 16 years and counting in the desert at war. In this movie, it is 2007 and the war in Iran is “winding down” as the opening credits inform us. Remembering that this is the era of the infamous “Mission Accomplished” faux pas of George W. Bush, the movie begins on a wry, humorous note. We see that there are two Marines – Shane Matthews (Cena), a sniper and “Eyes” Isaac (Taylor-Johnson), his spotter – observing a pipeline construction site. Their banter is the kind between brothers or bar buddies; occasionally vulgar, snarky for certain but affectionate nonetheless.

All the men working on the pipeline are dead. The spotter thinks they are all head shots; the sniper is not so sure. If the former is right, then there is a highly skilled sniper in the neighborhood. If the latter is correct, then it was likely an insurgent patrol that surprised the construction workers and is likely long gone. The two men have been sitting in the hot son in full camouflage for 22 hours. Matthews has about had enough. There has been no movement. Nobody is there.

He heads down to the construction site to make sure and to request that the two be picked up and returned to base. There is a crack-thump and down goes the Marine. His buddy runs out to help him and crack-thump he’s hit as well. Isaac is forced to take shelter behind a crumbling wall, one which is barely standing on its own and threatens to come down on top of him if the wind gets too high.

He is forced to take the bullet out of his own leg in a squirm-inducing moment and then needs to look to the survival of himself and his buddy who appears to be unconscious or dead. The outlook is grim; the radio antenna has been damaged so all he can pick up are people who are close by; his canteen has also been shot and the water drained out. The dehydration combined with his serious wound is likely to kill him before base camp comes looking for them.

At first things take a turn for the better; Isaac gets in contact with a patrol team who must be close by but when they keep asking for his exact position, he begins to get suspicious, suspicions which are confirmed when the man on the radio tells him that he is the sniper who has shot him. The two strike up a conversation; it turns out that the sniper is the legendary Juba, who has 75 confirmed American kills to his credit. He seems eager to get to know Isaac who wants nothing more than to figure out where Juba is so that he can shoot him.

It becomes a game of cat and mouse with Juba threatening to shoot off the face of Matthews if Isaac doesn’t answer the questions that Juba poses, the most important being “Why are you still here?” That’s a question Americans have been asking as well.

Liman has constructed a taut three-person movie that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seats from minute one. It’s a short but sweet movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome and although there is a bit of a lull in the middle, mostly keeps the tension at a high level throughout. The movie is shot so well you can almost feel the sand getting in your eyes.

There is an authentic feel to the film from a military standpoint. I’m not ex-military myself but the characters act as I would think well-trained Marines would; they are imperfect and have their moments when they let their guard down but nonetheless they (particularly Taylor-Johnson) act with a sense that the training has kicked in as the situation is assessed, immediate needs seen to and a plan to get out of a bad situation put together. We see all of this from the comfort of our theater seats (or our living room sofa as the case may be) and likely feel quite grateful that it is not us cringing beneath that poorly constructed wall.

Cena spends most of the movie lying face down in the dirt but this is maybe his best performance of his fairly brief acting career. The WWE superstar has always impressed me with his screen presence but over time he has developed some real acting skills. I’m not sure he’s at the level of a Dwayne Johnson yet but as wrestlers turned thespians go, he certainly has the tools to construct a pretty satisfying career and maybe more down the line.

Taylor-Johnson has been in my opinion on the fringe of breaking it big with some fairly good performances in fairly good movies, but nothing has really brought him to the A-list quite yet. Much of the film rests on his shoulders as he is interacting with a voice on his radio more than with a live actor as Cena is mostly unconscious in the film. That takes a lot of chops and fortunately Taylor-Johnson has them. We shall see if this finally puts him over the top and gets him that role that will elevate him into the next level.

This is a movie in which sound plays an unusually important part and Liman’s sound team comes through in spades. From the sound of the wind whipping the sand around, the crack-thump of the gunshots and the metallic bangs of the construction site, the sounds make the movie. We really don’t have a lot to look at other than endless vistas of sand and the half-finished construction site. We need the additional stimulation and we get it.

Amazon Studios helped to produce this, likely with a goal of getting their Prime users to watch this at home, but this is one of those rare movies that I think despite having an intimate setting should be seen in a theater where the outstanding sound work and impressive visuals will work best. This hasn’t gotten a ton of buzz amongst indie film fans but it deserves some. This is a very strong movie that is worth seeking out and at least here in Orlando is playing in enough theaters that there’s no excuse not to find it.

REASONS TO GO: The expected route is not taken. Taylor-Johnson and Cena; who knew? There is a lot of authenticity to this film.
REASONS TO STAY: The middle third is a little bit slow. Juba as a disembodied voice lacks menace.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of salty language and a fair amount of war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicholas Irving, the Army Rangers sniper who served as technical adviser for the film, was nicknamed “The Reaper” during his tour of duty.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Phone Booth
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Last Shaman