The Night Before


Kickin' it, old school.

Kickin’ it, old school.

(2015) Holiday Comedy (Columbia) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Shannon, Heléne Yorke, Ilana Glazer, Aaron Hill, Tracy Morgan, Darrie Lawrence, Nathan Fielder, James Franco, Miley Cyrus, Kamal Angelo Bolden, Baron Davis, Jason Jones, Jason Mantzoukas, Randall Park, Mindy Kaling, Lorraine Toussaint, Theodora Woolley. Directed by Jonathan Levine

The Holly and the Quill

Christmas traditions, established when we are young, can sometimes last a lifetime but some of those traditions, particularly of the sort that most wouldn’t consider Christmas-y have a tendency to die out as we mature. When we reach a time in our lives in which we’re making a turning point into adulthood, traditions of all sorts change.

That seems to be happening for a trio of friends who have gone out every Christmas Eve ever since the funeral of Ethan’s (Gordon-Levitt) parents in 2001 when they died in a tragic car accident. His good friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) took Ethan out partying that night to get his mind off his grief, and it became a tradition of sorts; going to see the tree at Rockefeller Center, hanging out in their favorite karaoke bar (and doing a killer rendition of ”Christmas in Hollis”) and searching for the legendary Nutcracka Ball, the Holy Grail of Christmas parties in New York.

Being that this is a Seth Rogen movie, there are also copious amounts of drugs, supplied in this case by Isaac’s wife Betsy (Bell), a good Catholic girl who is days away from giving birth and wants to reward her husband for having been “her rock” throughout the pregnancy by allowing him to have a good time with his buddies, no questions asked.

All three of the boys are on the cusp of becoming men as they hit their thirties; Isaac about to be a dad, Chris – now a pro football player – having the best season of his career although it is suspiciously late in said career….well, that leaves Ethan who is still struggling with adulthood. His failure to commit has cost him his longtime girlfriend Diana (Caplan) whom he runs into at the karaoke bar, partying with her friend Sarah (Kaling). While serving canapés dressed as an elf at a hoity toity Manhattan party, he runs across tickets to the Ball – and knowing that this is their last hurrah, the three intend to send their traditions out with a big bang.

There are celebrity cameos galore, including Rogen’s bromance buddy James Franco, playing himself (and Sarah’s date) sending dick pics to Sarah which Isaac gets to see since the two accidentally switched phones; Michael Shannon plays Mr. Green, a mysterious drug dealer who might be a whole lot more than he seems; former Daily Show regular Jason Jones also shows up as a semi-inebriated Santa who appears at a particularly low point in the evening for Ethan.

The movie is surprisingly heartwarming, and while allusion to Christmas tales like A Christmas Carol and Die Hard abound, this is definitely a Rogen movie (his regular writing partner Evan Goldberg is one of the four writers on the project) although to be fair, Isaac is more of a supporting character to Ethan who is the focus here.

The chemistry between the three leads is solid and you can believe their friendship is strong. Levine wisely uses the comedy to serve the story rather than the other way around which most comedies these days seem to do; there are some genuinely funny moments as the night becomes more and more surreal (it’s also nice to hear Tracy Morgan narrating and make a late onscreen appearance). Of course, being a Seth Rogen movie (as we’ve mentioned) the drug humor tends to go a little bit over-the-top and those who think Cheech and Chong are vulgar are likely to find this one so as well.

The good news is that the performances here are solid and the likeability of Gordon-Levitt gives the movie a whole lot of cred since the characters on the surface aren’t terribly likable. Hanging out with the immature can make for a trying cinematic experience but fortunately the fact that all three of the actors here are so genuinely likable and charismatic saves the movie from being a drudge and actually elevates it into maybe not Christmas classic status, but certainly a movie that might generate some holiday traditions of its own.

REASONS TO GO: Really, really funny. Some nice performances by Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and Shannon.
REASONS TO STAY: Overdoes the drug humor.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of drug humor, lots of profanity, some graphic nudity and a good deal of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and director Levine all worked together in the film 50/50.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knocked Up
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Krampus


Krampus asks Krista Stadler if she knows a good manicurist.

Krampus asks Krista Stadler if she knows a good manicurist.

(2015) Horror Comedy (Universal/Legendary) Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Maverick Flack, Luke Hawker, Gideon Emery (voice), Lolo Owen, Queenie Samuel, Leith Towers, Mark Atkin, Gareth Ruck, Trevor Bau, Felicity Hamill, Kelly Lily Marie, Ivy George, Sophie Gannon. Directed by Michael Dougherty

The Holly and the Quill

Christmas is a time for family which can be a double-edge sword. Most of us love nearly all of our families, but there’s always that one uncle or cousin or aunt that drive us straight to the liquor cabinet. Sometimes, we’re the ones that drive our families there.

For Tom (Scott) and Sarah Engel (Collette), there are plenty of cabinets for that bus ride. The two are having a bit of a tough go; Tom is a workaholic dad who has been drifting away from his wife, who is a bit tightly wound to put it charitably. Neither one seem to notice that their son Max (Anthony) is having a hard time with believing in the Big Fat Man. Only Omi Engel (Stadler), Tom’s mother who speaks mostly German, seems to have bonded with the young boy. Teen daughter Beth (S.L. Owen) is more focused on her boyfriend Derek (Towers).

Making the mix even more volatile is the arrival of Sarah’s sister Linda (Tolman) and her Tea Party/NRA husband Howard (Koechner) and his bullying brood of Stevie (L. Owen) and Jordan (Samuel) as well as overeating Howard Jr. (Flack) and worst of all, abrasive Aunt Dorothy (Ferrell) whom Sarah would most fervently wish back to Oz.

After a dinner in which the tension around the table boils over, Max has had enough. He tears up his letter to Santa, which brings a strange and extreme weather front to town, snowing everyone in. However, that’s not the worst of it; the family is being stalked by Krampus (Hawker, voiced by Emery), a German folk tale who is a little more real than you might think. He’s after the naughty and the nice, and he has a bunch of minions, ranging from a serpentine Jack-in-the-Box monster to maniacal gingerbread men to a vicious angel and homicidal toys, to do his dirty work. A lump of coal simply won’t do when you’re Krampus.

This is a fun mix of terror and laughter which since the studio didn’t do press screenings and most of the press it has received is mostly negative actually surprised me. Of course, Dougherty directed the much underrated Trick ‘r Treat and that should have alerted me to the fact that this was a lot more than a cookie cutter holiday horror flick. Krampus is certainly far from that.

Part of what makes this better is that Scott and Collette make very relatable characters; in particular Scott is likable as all get out. You get the sense that he’s trying to be a great father and a good husband, but the responsibilities are just weighing him down. Similarly, Collette’s Sarah is going all out to make it a memorable Christmas, but is met with either indifference or intense criticism and she’s at her breaking point. Few actresses in Hollywood can play high-strung without getting shrill, but Collette manages that, skirting Bette Davis territory without entering it.

Most of the other characters are holiday comedy tropes; the drunken aunt with the foul mouth who essentially doesn’t give a fart about the kids, the horndog boyfriend, the naive daughter who doesn’t get that the boyfriend only wants to get into her panties, the overbearing oafish uncle, the henpecked aunt, the nightmarish cousins who could every one of them use a good kick in the most painful of places. Koechner, Ferrell and Tolman all do credible job but have little to hang their craft on.

Dougherty does a real good job balancing the humor and the gore – in fact, the gore is kept to a minimum, relying more on the creatures (mostly CGI) for the scares. Krampus himself is a woodcut come to life, looking terrifying and had I seen something of that as a child, my bladder control would have been shot for life. However, not all of the creatures fare as well, some being resolutely non-scary and others are too obviously CGI. The snake-like Jack-in-the-Box was the one that was the least successful, but the gingerbread men are absolutely non-threatening.

It must be said that the ending was a little bit convoluted and while I give Dougherty props for at least going a bit out of the box for it, I did find it unsatisfying and disappointing compare to the rest of the film, taking the rating down a notch in the process. Still in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this as entertainment and while this is no Bad Santa, it is definitely solid filmmaking that re-confirms Dougherty as a talented filmmaker who has bigger and better things in store for the moviegoing public. Certainly he’s the most promising horror film auteur you’ve never heard of, which is something of a shame because I find his movies as entertaining as anything else that is coming out in the genre over the past five years or so. Hopefully that will change after this one.

REASONS TO GO: Funny and/or scary when it needs to be. Scott and Collette are solid.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending’s a disappointment. Some of the creatures miss the mark.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images, horror violence, foul language and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The bell ornaments that Krampus hands out say Gruss vom Krampus which translated means “Greetings from Krampus.”
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Holly and the Quill continues!

A Merry Friggin’ Christmas


Not the road trip you want to take on Christmas Eve.

Not the road trip you want to take on Christmas Eve.

(2014) Holiday Comedy (Phase 4) Joel McHale, Robin Williams, Lauren Graham, Clark Duke, Candice Bergen, Oliver Platt, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tim Heidecker, Pierce Gagnon, Bebe Wood, Ryan Lee, Amara Miller, Mark Proksch, Jeffrey Tambor (voice), Amir Arison, Steele Gagnon, J.J. Jones, Gene Jones, Matt Jones, Barak Hardley, William Sanderson, Karan Kendrick. Directed by Tristram Shapeero

The Holly and the Quill

Christmas is a time for family, no matter who that family is. Sometimes we’re about as happy to spend time as family as we are to be serving a stretch of hard time in San Quentin. Not all families do all that well together.

Boyd Mitchler (McHale) is a successful hedge fund manager in Chicago. He has a loving wife Luann (Graham) and a couple of pretty great kids, daughter Vera (Wood) who is riding into teen hormone-land on a white horse and son Douglas (P. Gagnon) who at seven still believes in Santa Claus despite beginning to suspect he’s fake. Boyd wants him to believe as long as possible as his own father, Mitch (Williams) tore all his fantasies down when Boyd was just five.

Boyd and Mitch don’t get along, so much so that they haven’t been in the same room for seven years. When Boyd’s brother Nelson (Duke) calls and tells him that he’s a dad and wants Boyd to be godfather to his son at the christening, Boyd is honored – but when he discovers that the christening is on the 24th of December, he’s horrified – for that will entail spending Christmas with his family. Luann however prevails on her reluctant husband to go to Wisconsin and be with his family.

His mom Donna (Bergen) is overjoyed to see him, his father not so much. He’s a mean curmudgeon who owns a port-a-potty business and quite frankly isn’t a nice person to be around, particularly when he’s drinking, Even when he’s not, he can be an S.O.B. – while the rest of the family is served chicken for Christmas Eve dinner, Boyd gets squirrel filled with buckshot. Like I said, an S.O.B.

When Boyd discovers that through mis-communication with his wife his son’s presents, from Santa, have been left behind in Chicago, he means to drive back home, pick them up and return before dawn. Car troubles force Boyd to rely on his dad to bail him out and the two must make the long drive to and from. On the way they’ll have to deal with a persistent state trooper, an unexpected stowaway and a drunken Santa (Platt). Either the two will re-connect or kill each other. Neither one is a safe bet.

Williams completed this movie before his untimely passing and it was the first of the three that were in the can to be released. It didn’t get any critical love as you can see by the scores below, but it wasn’t as bad as all that. Williams always dominates the screen whenever he’s in a movie and this is no different. For sure this isn’t one of his better performances but it’s good enough to carry the movie over a pretty impressive cast.

What bugs me about the movie is that it tries way too hard to make the family eccentric. Along for the ride is Heidecker as Boyd’s redneck brother-in-law who has a son (Lee) training to be a competitive eater while his wife (McLendon-Covey) – Boyd’s sister – goes through therapy . Nelson has PTSD despite having been discharged from the military without going into combat. And of course, there’s the dysfunctional Mitch himself.

The writer really tries to force the eccentricities until the family doesn’t feel real. I suppose there’s some irony in rooting for a hedge fund manager who are not renowned as being the nicest people ever, but that’s beside the point. The humor also feels forced at times, a kind of desperation to make the audience laugh that fools nobody that it’s anything other than what it is.

However, I did find some humor here, particularly with Williams, and there were enough of those to make this worth watching. It is a little bit on the dark side, tonally speaking and the Christmas-y happy ending doesn’t quite fit in quite well with the rest of the movie, but you can’t go wrong with Robin Williams – ok, you can but not often and not here – and everything else in the film doesn’t quite measure up to him, it is at least a bit better than you might expect if you read the reviews.

REASONS TO GO: Robin Williams as always does stellar work. There are moments when the comedy works.
REASONS TO STAY: Tries too hard to make the family eccentric. Doesn’t really offer any sort of insight into family dynamics.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of foul language and crude humor throughout the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first Christmas film Robin Williams was credited for (he was in Noel but in an uncredited role).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Santa
FINAL RATING: 6/19
NEXT: Fracture

Deck the Halls


A Christmas guilty pleasure.

A Christmas guilty pleasure.

(2006) Holiday Comedy (20th Century Fox) Danny DeVito, Matthew Broderick, Kristin Davis, Kristin Chenoweth, Alia Shawkat, Dylan Blue, Kelly Aldridge, Sabrina Aldridge, Jorge Garcia, Fred Armisen, Gillian Vigman, Ryan Devlin, Sean O’Bryan, SuChin Pak, Jackie Burroughs, Garry Chalk, Nicola Peltz, Zak Santiago, Jill Morrison, Brenda M. Crichlow, Eliza Norbury. Directed by John Whitesell

The Holly and the Quill

There comes a time in all our lives when we laugh at something we know we shouldn’t laugh at. We know it’s wrong, we know we shouldn’t do it but we still do it anyway. When it happens in a movie, we call it a “guilty pleasure.”

Dr. Steve Finch (Broderick) is a mild-mannered optometrist in one of those picture postcard perfect Massachusetts towns that looks like it sprung fully formed from a Currier and Ives print. He’s also the Christmas guy around town, the one who decorates his home tastefully but noticeably, the guy who’s in charge of the Christmas pageant, the one who buys his family matching ugly Christmas sweaters. His children Madison (Shawkat) and Carter (Blue) are somewhat disinterested in their father’s regimented, traditional Christmas that allows no deviation from the norm. Although his wife Kelly (Davis) wishes that her husband was less rigid, she tolerates the situation because being obsessed with Christmas is way better than being obsessed with Internet porn, right?

Then across the street moves in used car salesman Buddy Hall (DeVito) with his…ummmm, statuesque wife Tia (Chenoweth)  and his buxom blonde twin daughters Ashley (K. Aldridge) and Emily (S. Aldridge). Buddy is going through an epic midlife crisis. He has never really attained any sort of real success and is living in a house he really can’t afford. The neighborly Finches invite his family over for dinner and Buddy’s inferiority complex is deepened when he discovers that the satellite locating website MyEarth (which is Google Earth without paying Google the big bucks for using their name) shows his neighbor’s house just fine but his is too small to be seen from space. Then it hits him – what if he put up a Christmas display so bright that it can be seen from space?

This puts Buddy in a frenzy of light buying and Christmas pageantry which doesn’t sit well with Dr. Steve who is threatened by a usurper for his title of the Christmas guy around town. He sets off to sabotage Buddy’s efforts which he sees as garish and lurid. The two begin a series of escalating pranks on one another, culminating in both their wives taking their children out of the house and staying elsewhere, leaving the two obsessed Christmas porn lovers to duke it out between themselves. Will Buddy win and get his wish to be noticed, to accomplish something monumental? Or will Steve win and get his wish for a traditional Christmas?

Critics savaged the movie when it came out and in a lot of ways I can’t really blame them. The humor often falls flat and is generally crude, the script preposterous, the plot outlandish and the acting mainly phoned in. Broderick, whose character is covered at one point with camel spit and sheep doo-doo from a living nativity that Buddy throws up, was heard to mutter on the set “I’ve hit rock bottom” on a regular basis and DeVito literally flew in on the days he was scheduled to shoot, acted his scenes and left without interacting with any of the cast. Supposedly everyone on set was fully aware they were cooking up a turkey.

And yet…and yet…I still find myself strangely drawn to the movie. In some demented way, it appeals to me. I think deep down it is supposed to be a commentary on how we’ve warped Christmas in this country with rampant consumerism and a terminally competitive attitude towards showing how much Christmas spirit we have (We’ve got spirit – yes we do! We’ve got spirit – how ’bout YOU?!?) particularly in decorating our homes. Not that saying we’ve lost our way in terms of the season is anything new or earth-shattering – Miracle on 34th Street was making the same point 59 years earlier – but it’s a point that bears repeating.

Chenoweth, one of Broadway’s brightest stars and who always impresses when she gets a movie to work on, is one of the highlights. She’s the blonde bimbo who turns out to be a bit smarter than anyone gives her credit for, seeing her husband for what he is and loving him anyway although when his excesses threaten the family stability, she exhibits a lot more strength than you’d imagine she has. Maybe I have a critic-crush on the woman, but she’d make reading the phone book an interesting movie.

I mentioned the humor earlier but I neglected to mention how mean-spirited it is. For example, Buddy and Steve are watching the Christmas pageant and a trio of scantily dressed young women come out and do a provocative dance. Both men cheer and call out “Who’s your daddy?!” repeatedly until the girls turn around – and it’s their daughters. They run to the nearest Catholic church and wash out their eyes with Holy Water. That doesn’t sound like it should be appealing but remember how I mentioned laughing at things you shouldn’t? There ya go.

Sure, the ending is a bit treacly and has that timeless Christmas movie trope of healing all wounds with the singing of carols but somehow those things still work even though you know they’re coming. I guess I’m just a sucker for Christmas spirit, neighbors looking out for each other and Currier and Ives New England villages. Here in Florida, Christmas is a whole different thing where we get milder weather (although we can get heatwaves from time to time) and almost never see any snowfall. My wife longs for a White Christmas which is something I haven’t experienced since I was a little boy in Connecticut which was so long ago that dinosaurs roamed the Earth back then. Okay, not really but you get the (snow) drift.

This might not be your cup of cocoa and I respect that but if you’re looking for guilty pleasure Christmas entertainment, you can do much worse (Santa Claus vs. the Martians anyone?) and you might, like I did, get suckered in by the sticky sweet ending. Christmas can do funny things to a person.

WHY RENT THIS: A primer in tacky Christmas displays. Chenoweth is always a pleasure.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Disagreeable leads. Mean-spirited.
FAMILY VALUES: Some crude humor and brief bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production used LED lights on the house that allowed programmable effects and was installed by Color Kinetics of Boston. The nodes used just 7,150 watts of energy or the equivalent of four hair-dryers, and 126 amps which is the average for 1 1/3 homes.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a blooper reel as well as interviews with young actor Dylan Blue. Featurettes on filming a Christmas movie in July, the design of Buddy’s Christmas light display and the building of the house sets are also included.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.2M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (streaming only), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (streaming only), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jingle All the Way
FINAL RATING: 6/10 (Talk about a Christmas gift…)
NEXT: The Holly and the Quill concludes

The Holly and the Quill 2014


The Holly and the QuillThis year our Christmas celebration will be a bit more abbreviated than usual. Only two days of Christmas this year for Cinema365 – mainly due to logistics and a busy holiday season. Next year the plan is to go back to three days of Holiday films, but for now we have two movies that might not be on your must-see list but are a bit better than a lot that might be.

Still to come in what is left of 2014 is our annual preview for 2015 (no, we don’t annually preview the year 2015 but we do preview the year to come – literally minded, aren’t we?) followed shortly thereafter with a look back at the best films of 2014. Yeah, I know – who else does that?

2015 looks to be a promising year for the filmgoer and we have a lot of our mini-festivals planned, coverage of the Florida Film Festival, weekly previews, our new Coming Soon section should be in full swing by then and yes, perhaps a few new features may well be on their way. Our fifth year has been a pretty fantastic one and we look forward to our sixth one with eager anticipation. Hope you’ll be along for the ride with us.

In the meantime, a very best of holiday seasons to you and those important to you, whether you celebrate them or not from all of us here at Cinema365.

Carlos, Doreen, Angel, Penelope and Autumn

Christmas in Compton


Sheryl Lee Ralph does Christmas Africa-style.

Sheryl Lee Ralph does Christmas Africa-style.

(2010) Holiday Comedy (Barnholtz Entertainment) Omar Gooding, Keith David, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Eric Roberts, Porscha Coleman, Miguel A. Nunez Jr., Orlando Brown, Edwin Hodge, Charles Kim,  Arif S. Kinchen, Charlotte Ayanna, Jayda Brown, Kristinia DeBarge, Melanie Comacho, Leslie Jones, Evan Rayner, Darryl Alan Reed, Emiliano Torres, Malin Yhr. Directed by David Raynr

hollynquill-2013

Having lived in Los Angeles for many years, I can say with certainty that the South Central community of Compton means different things to different people. Mainly populated by minorities (in particular African-Americans), the white community tends to view it with suspicion and perhaps a little fear. For the African-American community, Compton means something else entirely.

Big Earl (David) owns a Christmas tree lot that doubles as a flea market and community center. He is a well-respected member of the community, one who dispenses wisdom as well as Christmas cheer. However, his son Derek (Gooding) is a source of frustration. He wants his son to be a winner, successful as Big Earl himself is.

Derek though has other definitions of success. He dreams of being a music producer but Tommy Maxell (Roberts), the unscrupulous owner of a major record label, has stolen one of his acts and now has his greedy paws at the ready for his latest one, Sugar Stuff – a Destiny’s Child-like girl group. Derek is not real good about reading the fine print on contracts and is consistently getting screwed by those who write that fine print. Big Earl is anxious for Derek to give up what he considers to be unrealistic dreams and take over the Christmas tree lot, but Derek is reluctant.

Surrounding them are a cast of oddballs and hangers on like Steve Ho (Kim) who seems to relish being the token Korean, Squeaky (Kinchen) and Pookie (Hodge) who are kind of boys from the hood sorts, the beautiful single mom Kendra (Campbell) whom Derek becomes sweet on and her precocious 8-year-old daughter (Brown), and Abuta (Ralph) who has a love-hate relationship with Big Earl who looks upon her obsession with Kwanzaa as anti-Christmas and as such suspicious behavior. Abuta is kind of the surrogate mom for Derek since his own mom and Big Earl’s wife had passed on some years earlier.

Derek hates the thought of losing Sugar Stuff – they’re really his last shot at his dream – so he hatches a plan to steal some jewelry from Tommy and his wife and fence it with Delicious (Nunez), a fast-talking fence who constantly refers to himself in the third person, then use the money he gets to retain the rights to Sugar Stuff who are dazzled by the dollars being dangled by Maxell. Predictably, things don’t go as planned.

As plots go, this one is about as stale as a re-gifted fruit cake. It’s fairly standard for an urban comedy – think Barbershop and Friday for starters. Gooding doesn’t have the charisma and likability to really carry the movie – he comes off a bit bland. David, however, lends gravitas and genuine warmth which really makes up for it.

While not all the humor really appealed to me – keep in mind I’m not really the target audience for this film – there were some laugh-out-loud moments for me. Most of all though you want a Christmas movie to deliver heart and the warm fuzzies and Christmas in Compton does that. I don’t know that Compton in 2013 is anything like this – I suspect it isn’t all Kumbaya and neighborhood barbecues but the community spirit depicted here is at the core of what Compton is and was when I lived and worked there (just out of college I sold a subscription TV service there). Sure, there are problems there. Poverty will do that to a community, but there has always been a sense of togetherness that is enviable. I often wonder how much could be accomplished were the spirit of Compton a more universal thing.

In any case, despite the staleness of the plot, I actually found myself warming to Christmas in Compton which I didn’t honestly expect to. Sometimes a good heart can overcome an unremarkable script.

WHY RENT THIS: Nails the heartwarming aspect. Gives a sense of community.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Been there done that. Some of the jokes fall flat.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of foul language, some sexuality and some crude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gooding is the younger brother of Cuba Gooding Jr. and also has a thriving rap career as Big O.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a short film, Santa Better Do Me Right.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Best Man Holiday

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The last day of The Holly and the Quill 2013!

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation


Norman Rockwell or Norman Bates?

Norman Rockwell or Norman Bates?

(1989) Holiday Comedy (Warner Brothers) Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, Randy Quaid, Miriam Flynn, Cody Burger, Ellen Hamilton Latzen, William Hickey, Nicholas Guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Brian Doyle-Murray, Mae Questel, Natalia Nogulich, Nicolette Scorsese. Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechnik

hollynquill-2013

We all have our ideas of what an ideal Christmas is – snow on the ground or fun in the sun. Most of our ideals however involve being surrounded by family. There’s nothing quite like a traditional family Christmas.

Clark Griswold (Chase) believes that with all his heart. He has become reasonably successful and provides well for his wife Ellen (D’Angelo), his daughter Audrey (Lewis) and his son Rusty (Galecki – yes that one). His gift to the family is a swimming pool and although the ground is too hard to start digging, he needs to put the deposit down for it before Christmas. He’s counting on his bonus at work to pay that bonus but it is late in arriving.

Clark is planning on having all the grandparents at his place this year – his own parents Clark Sr. (Randolph) and Nora (Ladd) as well as Ellen’s mom (Roberts) and dad (Marshall). Naturally the two sets of parents take to ceaseless bickering.

Add to the mix the unexpected arrival of cousin Eddie (Quaid) and his family in a dilapidated RV which it turns out the family is living in after Eddie lost his job and was forced to sell the family home. Clark offers to buy cousin Eddie’s Christmas presents this year which Eddie gratefully expects. With senile Aunt Bethany (Questel) and crotchety Uncle Lewis (Hickey), things descend into utter chaos.

With nothing going right, Clark loses it a little bit – all right, he loses it a lot, especially when he finds out that his bonus isn’t what he thought it was going to be. Power grids will be overloaded, sleds will fly as will flaming Santas and sewage will explode before Christmas comes to town.

The third movie in the Vacation franchise broke with formula a little bit. For one thing, the Griswolds weren’t fish out of water in some unfamiliar place – they were in their home base which was being invaded by others. Legendary director John Hughes wrote the screenplay based on his own short story which had been published in National Lampoon (the first movie in the franchise was also based on a short story in National Lampoon). Quite frankly this wasn’t his shining hour.

And yet it was a cut above the odious National Lampoon’s European Vacation. There are some terrifically funny moments (like Clark’s sled ride from hell) but not enough of them. However the funny moments are so hilarious it kind of makes up for it. There’s also a heartwarming element that’s present in most of the other Vacations but more so here than in any of the others.

There are those that consider this a “classic” Christmas movie. I wouldn’t quite go that far but it certainly is one of the more popular ones from the 80s. By this point in his career I was finding Chase less funny than he had been during his SNL days (and I think most people agree) and certainly less funny than he’d been in Caddyshack. Still while the Griswolds weren’t particularly subversive, they did strike a chord with the American public and for many people of a certain generation this is required Yuletide viewing. To each their own.

WHY RENT THIS: When it’s funny, it’s funny.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It’s not funny often enough.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some rude humor and sexuality, more than a bit of bad language and comic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be Mae Questel’s final film. She is best known as the voice of Betty Boop.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition comes in a Christmas tin with a Santa hat, coasters, an “I Survived a Griswold Family Christmas” button and a plastic cup. While no longer available in stores, you might try picking one up on E-Bay or Amazon. Otherwise you’ll just have to make do with the standard Blu-Ray or DVD which have the same features as this more expensive edition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $71.3M on a $25M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Christmas With the Kranks

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: More of The Holly and The Quill!

All is Bright (Almost Christmas)


Paul Giamatti has taken the Beatles "I Am the Walrus" too much to heart.

Paul Giamatti has taken the Beatles “I Am the Walrus” too much to heart.

(2013) Comedy (Anchor Bay) Paul Giamatti, Phil Rudd, Sally Hawkins, Peter Hermann, Hailey Feiffer, Michael Drayer, Amy Landecker, Curtiss Cook, Colman Domingo, Tatyana Richaud, Adam Phillips, Nikki M. James, Gordon Joseph Weiss, Darren Goldstein, Rob Munk, Morgan Spector, Marcia Haufrecht, Gracie Lopez, Liza Colon-Zayas. Directed by Phil Morrison

hollynquill-2013

It is part of the human condition that we all need love. Not just to love something but to be loved back in return. I guess it has something with the urge to perpetuate the species but it has become much more complicated than that over time.

Dennis (Giamatti) is a criminal in rural Quebec who has spent four years in prison for a robbery. His partner, Rene (Rudd) didn’t show up when he was supposed to, leaving Dennis to hold the bag and do the time. While Dennis was in the slam, Rene was stealing away Dennis’ wife Therese (Landecker) who has told their daughter Michi (Richaud) that her dad died of cancer. Nice.

Dennis goes to see Rene and you would think it would be to open up a can of whoop ass but Dennis has other needs. He desires to go straight but he is out of cash, can’t get a job and is one step shy of being homeless. Rene has a job – he is delivering and selling Christmas Trees in New York. Dennis persuades Rene that he owes Dennis a job and Rene reluctantly agrees. Of course, Dennis is on parole and isn’t supposed to leave town but Dennis has another motive – he promised to buy Michi a piano and he means to keep his promise, even though Michi won’t know her dad is alive.

Easier said than done though. Dennis and Rene aren’t exactly experienced salesmen and they choose a rat-infested vacant lot to sell their trees. Moreover a slick operation from Vermont sets up shop across the street and before long the two criminals from Quebec are staring at a holiday season with no trees sold in the face. Dennis is befriended by Olga (Hawkins), a Russian dental assistant house sitting her employers’ home for the holidays after he sells her a tree and installs it for her but it takes some old fashioned intimidation to get their spot to themselves.

Dennis and Rene bicker but it looks like things are turning the corner. However, guys like this never can get a break and something occurs that threatens to send them home empty-handed and for Dennis that idea is absolutely intolerable as it is for Rene – who means to marry Therese. At least, just as soon as his own divorce is final.

Morrison last directed a feature eight years ago but that was the acclaimed Junebug which started Amy Adams’ career with an Oscar nominated performance. Like that film, the characters here are quirky and complex and not in an indie-cute kind of way but more in a depth of field kind of way. These are characters with a topography.

Giamatti despite a very unfortunate facial hair situation commands attention here. Dennis is temperamental and prone to flying off into rages at a moment’s notice. He still loves his wife despite her betrayal and his daughter beyond measure. He even has a soft spot for Rene, although that is sorely tested. Dennis tries very hard but occasionally can’t help his criminal behavior which has been engrained in him. Giamatti gives Dennis all that and a soul too.

Rudd is a very likable actor but he translates that likability to blandness here. Rene is a compulsive talker who quickly gets on Dennis’ nerves (and ours) and always seems to do the wrong thing with the best of intentions. He isn’t terribly bright but he is likable. Granted, this is kind of a hard role to play but Rudd doesn’t give it a lot of life.

I blow hot and cold about Sally Hawkins. She can be very irritating (Happy-Go-Lucky) and very compelling (Made in Dagenham). Here she has an over-the-top Russian accent and a kind of Natasha Fatale attitude. I actually kind of liked her here but I think the part would have been better served to keep her English background and let her be a little bit more natural. That’s just me though.

The Christmas vibe here isn’t as overwhelming as other movies we review this time of year. It isn’t a Christmas movie per se in that the film isn’t about the holiday – it just takes place during the holiday a la Home Alone. The good news is that the themes of friendship, needing to be love, forgiveness and sacrifice all have a place in the holiday spirit and so this kind of squeaks by.

I liked that the movie lets the audience mull those themes over without being overt about them – that Dennis finds a way to co-exist with someone he was so thoroughly wronged by is nothing short of miraculous (and unlikely) but I think that at the end of the day he does so not only for his own ends but so he can deliver on a promise made to his child. You can’t get any more Christmas-y than that.

REASONS TO GO: Paul Giamatti. Quirky in a good way. Thought-provoking.

REASONS TO STAY: Paul Giamatti’s facial hair. A bit aimless.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of bad language and some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie played the Tribeca Film Festival under the title Almost Christmas but changed names for its theatrical release.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Santa

Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)


Adeste fideles.

Adeste fideles.

(2006) War Drama (Sony Classics) Diane Kruger, Benno Furmann, Guillaume Canet, Gary Lewis, Dany Boon, Daniel Bruhl, Alex Ferns, Steven Robertson, Bernard Le Coq, Lucas Belvaux, Natalie Dessay, Rolando Villazon, Ian Richardson, Thomas Schmauser, Robin Laing, Suzanne Flon. Directed by Christian Carion

 The Holly and the Quill

We live in an imperfect world, one in which man’s inhumanity to man can be staggering. Yet sometimes when it’s least expected in conditions that would seem to be non-conducive to it, our higher selves show through.

In December 1914, World War I rages in Europe. Trench warfare is at its height which to modern audiences means nothing but picture this; seven to eight foot-deep trenches filled with soldiers and machine gun nests separated by literally the length of a football field under consistent bombardment by artillery shells. Men would be ordered periodically to charge out of one trench to attempt to take another; those that rose out of the trenches would be slaughtered horrifically, often caught by barbed wire where they’d be picked off by snipers or machine gunners. The casualty rates were staggering.

German tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Furmann) has volunteered to serve his country in uniform. His wife Anna Sorensen (Kruger), a Danish soprano, has been commissioned to perform for the Crown Prince Wilhelm (Schmauser) and is allowed to bring her husband from the front to perform with her. Sprink, disgusted by the comforts that the generals are enjoying behind the lines, resolves to return to the front to sing for the troops. Anna resolves to go with him which he is less enthusiastic about but eventually gives in.

Brothers William (Laing) and Jonathan (Robertson) enthusiastically enlisted when war broke out because they saw their lives as boring. Father Palmer (Lewis), the parish priest in their small Scottish village, goes with them as a stretcher bearer. During an assault on the German lines, William is mortally wounded and Jonathan must leave him behind to rot in No Man’s Land.

Lt. Audebert (Canet) is the son of a general (Le Coq) who has shown signs of brilliance as a commander in the trenches. He inspires his men who would walk through Hell for him, but he holds inside his own grief at having left his pregnant wife behind, not far from where the men are fighting – but behind German lines. His aide Ponchel (Boon) can almost see the farmhouse where he was raised from the trench he now fights in.

Horstmayer (Bruhl) is in command of the German trench and is Jewish. Following the Allied assault on his trench, he discovers a wallet with the photograph of a lovely woman. It belongs to none of his men and so he deduces that one of the French or Scottish soldiers dropped it during the fighting.

As Christmas Eve deepens, Anna and Nikolaus arrive and begin singing Christmas carols to the German troops. Their lovely harmonious voices carry through the crisp, bitterly cold night air across No Man’s Land to the enemy trenches. Moved by the songs that remind them of the season back home, Scottish pipers accompany the singers. Nikolaus is touched by this and impulsively carries a Christmas tree, one of thousands provided for the German troops by their command, out into No Man’s Land while singing “Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful).”

Following his lead, the French, German and Scottish officers also proceed out into No Man’s Land and agree to a one-day cease fire. The men slowly venture out into the cratered field between the lines and exchange chocolate and presents. Horstmayer returns the wallet to Audebert and the two find common ground in their memories of life before the war. Palmer celebrates Mass in Latin on the field which affects the soldiers profoundly.

The next day the soldiers engage in an impromptu soccer match while the officers agree to bury their dead on the day Christ was born. The officers and enlisted men assist each other in creating a field cemetery for their valiant dead. A connection has been made and friendships formed so that when the artillery shelling resumes, the men shelter each other in their trenches.

Of course when word of this remarkable truce filters back to the generals, they are furious and the Germans are mostly sent to the Eastern front. Ponchel, who had snuck back home disguised as a German soldier to visit his family during the cease fire, is shot by Jonathan after being ordered to do so by an officer who was offended by the truce. Before dying, he brings word to Audebert that his wife has given birth to a son.

Nikolaus and Anna, wishing to remain together, ask Audebert to take them prisoner which he does. Father Palmer is ordered back to his parish and the regiment of Scots disbanded in shame. A vitriolic bishop upbraids the troops, ranting about the intrinsic evil of the German people and reminding them that it is their duty to kill them all. Father Palmer, hearing this, removes his rosary in disgust.

The Christmas Eve truce of 1914 actually happened and that it did happen in those circumstances is nothing short of miraculous. While this is a fictionalized account of the cease-fire, many of the incidents depicted here are documented to be true.

The movie’s one mistake is that writer-director Carion takes a story that really needs no embellishment and lays on the sentiment a little too thickly. He is trying to make a point, I believe, about the nature of faith in an atmosphere of cruelty and horror and that point tends to be drilled into the audience ad infinitum until there’s a tendency to say “OK, we get it. Can you please just tell the story now?” Even despite this, France submitted the movie as their entry in the 2007 Academy Awards field for Best Foreign Language Film where it was selected as a finalist although it did not win.

Fortunately, Carion makes a lot of really good decisions. Rather than showing the story from one perspective, he tries to get all three from a microcosmic stretch of trenches. He weaves together the stories of the main participants skillfully not only showing how unique they are but also how similar. This is a more delicate balancing act than you can imagine.

While Kruger is probably the best known actor to American audiences, Canet, Bruhl and Furmann all fare the best in my opinion. They give impassioned performances which I suppose given the background isn’t a hard sell. If they descend into occasional over-sentimentality that is the fault of the script and not so much of the actor.

We often in our zeal to defend our individual nations forget that at the end of the day are all one people who are more alike than un-alike. It is those similarities that bind us together, that give us hope that one day we can stop slaughtering each other and learn to help each other. Perhaps it’s a pipe dream but on this Christmas Day one can’t help but hope that one day it comes to pass. As the events of December 24, 1914 in a war as hellish as any ever experienced in human history proves, we have the capability inside us all to say “enough” and lay down our weapons, even if for only a brief moment.

WHY RENT THIS: A powerful story based on actual events. Exceedingly well-acted, particularly by Canet, Bruhl and Furmann.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally schmaltzy and sometimes overly repetitive about its message.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of war violence and a little sexuality with some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The MPAA originally gave the film an “R” rating but when film critic Roger Ebert protested it was eventually reduced to a “PG-13.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: An interview with Carion discusses the real 1914 truce, which elements were used for the film and how they were chosen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.7M on a $22M production budget; the film wasn’t a box office success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: War Horse

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Hyde Park on Hudson

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!