5 December 2009

More Of Gravy Than The Grave

It's Chriiiiiiiiiiiiistmaaaaaaaaaaas, as that loon in the song keeps screaming from our radios every December. Preoccupied as I am with cinema, it's hard not to notice that the Christmas film sub-genre has been a real dumping ground for every cliche and shitty setup since the turn of the century. Thankfully, we're not having the dubious treat of another Vince Vaughn-starring Christmas film this year after the dual abominations that were Fred Claus and Four Christmases. Instead, we have Robert Zemeckis' new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which is as festive as Noddy Holder throwing Christmas puddings at a bunch of cold and starving orphans, (i.e. very) and The Box, which is not.

But more than just reviewing those- what makes a really good Christmas film? And more importantly, what should you all be watching in the run-up to the 25th. But first, the reviews- as something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion on here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments. Except with A Christmas Carol, because in fairness, if you don't know how that one turns out by now, you're probably not really in touch with reality enough to know what Christmas actually is.

The Box is a film that definitely doesn't fit my own strictures of the Christmas film sub-genre, despite the filmmakers going to great lengths to situate the action in the Advent season. It does however wield one of the more intriguing premises of the year, and has been marketed very well indeed, eliciting a rapturous response from film fans when they showed off the trailer at Comic Con in July. It's based on a short story by Richard Matheson and is all about what happens when a husband and wife are given a difficult dilemma in the face of an uncertain financial future. Arthur and Norma can't afford to pay their son's tuition fees unless they take part in a bizarre social experiment. They receive a box with a button on top of it, and are given 24 hours to decide whether or not to push the button. If they do, they will be paid one million dollars, but somewhere in the world, someone will die.

It would be easy to dismiss this film as a Twilight Zone episode bloated to feature-length proportions, and to some extent, it is. Matheson's short story provides ample mileage for director Richard Kelly, who's in need of a comeback since Southland Tales eradicated most of the goodwill he mustered with his debut, Donnie Darko, and the 113 minute running time zips along. While I've always found Donnie Darko to be massively overrated, I found a lot to enjoy in The Box, not least of which was its antagonist- the disfigured and seemingly benevolent Arlington Steward, played by Frank Langella. Steward is a marvellously creepy creation, and Langella has half his face CGI-ed off in the process of bringing him to life. Villains of dubious morality are always more interesting than those who are out-and-out "evil", and of course Langella is naturally watchable. Less interesting are Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, and it's difficult to empathise with their characters to begin with. They have a big house and a Corvette, which somewhat debases the merits of their selection to receive the box- in the context of the recession, audiences will hardly think they're desperate for the cash to survive. Instead, it raises questions of greed.

One of the main things that bugged me was the score by Arcade Fire, because it's almost distractingly intrusive in the early stages of the film. Creepy music is really not required in that first scene with Steward, and certainly not at that volume. The volume is dialled down later on and there's more of a relationship between the score and what's happening on-screen, but it's important to get that kind of thing consistent, because it can really take an audience out of the film. And to be fair, this is a very hard sell for most audiences. The film is pleasingly subversive of what the trailers have led you to understand about the plot, and it was the fact that the twist around 20 minutes into the film hadn't been signposted anywhere that made me sit up and pay attention. From there, I admit that the film sort of settles back into Kelly's disregard for narrative logic at times, but for the most part it's very engaging and satisfying. Though I'll bet that however many people enjoy it, an equal number will resist its charms and claim it's confusing rubbish. It is inscrutable at times, but it's far from being rubbish.

I'm really not sure how to sum up The Box, except to say that I felt a perplexing satisfaction about the whole thing once it was over. It had an odd sense of nostalgia about it that's absent in most of these supernatural thrillers. Certain kinks in the plot give it a slightly contrived sense, but overall I'd say that pushing a button is a pretty apt metaphor for how much you'll enjoy it. Whether it's pushing the right buttons or not depends entirely on who you are and how much you're willing to suspend disbelief with these things. Just please don't kill anyone I don't know if it pushes the wrong buttons.

Now of course we have A Christmas Carol. For the uninitiated- all two of you- this is the story of Victorian miser Ebenezer Scrooge, who receives three hauntings on Christmas Eve as his late business partner urges him to change his ways and embrace humanity. And there's no Muppets in this one. Instead, this is the latest motion-capture eye-boggler from Robert Zemeckis, who was a leading proponent of 3D and motion-capture around the time of The Polar Express, and it stars Jim Carrey as Scrooge and various other characters. Not least among the odder choices in this adaptation is Gary Oldman as both Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. No, really. Motion-capture technology can age or de-age an actor accordingly, allowing them to conceivably play any role. The trouble with Zemeckis' version is that motion-capture and 3D are the only new things he brings to the table.

This is, by now, one of the most adapted stories ever. As society grows more and more secular, this is the story that will eventually replace the nativity play in schools. Blackadder did it, Mickey Mouse did it, and most abominably it was done to explore why Michael Moore hates America. Most successfully however, it's been done by the Muppets, in The Muppet Christmas Carol back in 1992. Some will argue that Alastair Sim or Albert Finney starred in the definitive version, but never underestimate how big a fan of Michael Caine I am. Not to mention Muppets. So in the matter of the latest iteration of A Christmas Carol, I spent a large amount of the film knowing every line from the book and wishing it was Fozzie Bear or the Hecklers saying them instead. The only new additions in terms of plot and execution are a number of frankly unnecessary action beats spaced throughout to show off the technology.

Don't get me wrong, it looks pretty, and although the 3D still adds nothing, Zemeckis has recreated Victorian London in consummate detail, creating an atmosphere that works immeasurably to the film's advantage. Everything else is rather plain though. I'm not a huge Jim Carrey fan, and here we're treated to a Scrooge that's more like Mr. Burns and most bizarrely, a Ghost of Christmas Present who sounds like Ringo Starr. Somehow it's always better to see Carrey in the flesh, and you're generally left wondering why he was the best choice for the role. Gary Oldman suffers too for the lack of physicality in his roles, restricted by the motion-capture technology. On the other hand, that doesn't really stop Bob Hoskins, who's arguably better known for his voice than for his physical presence and makes a memorable but brief impression as Fezziwig.

Zemeckis has been well-served by this technology in the past, but both The Polar Express and Beowulf benefited from being adapted for the screen for the first time, whereas everybody knows all about A Christmas Carol. That begs the question of why you would go and watch a miscast Jim Carrey ham it up in 3D when you can stay at home with the Great Gonzo playing Charles Dickens. The next project in this vein will be a remake of Yellow Submarine, and I can't help but wondering when the creator of Back to the Future is going to give us another more original piece. This one looks good, but it's nothing we haven't seen before.

Despite some fairly anvil-sized hints as to where this is headed, we move now to my top five favourite Christmas films. The criteria here being that Christmas has to play some role in the plot for it to be a Christmas film. Therefore Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a Christmas film as it has Michelle Monaghan's damsel-in-distress investigating what happened to her dead sister over the Christmas period, whereas The Godfather, in which the assassination attempt on Vito Corleone happens to occur at Christmas, is not. Hopefully now that we have that cleared up, there'll be no quibbling about what counts and what doesn't in my estimation.

5. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Yeah, I mentioned this one ahead of time, but then you can probably already guess what my number one is already too. Robert Downey Jr. plays an out-of-luck petty criminal who is embroiled in a murder investigation with his childhood crush and a gay private eye. And it's Christmas!

4. Batman Returns
This one seems to get a number of unfair drubbings lately, with words like "camp" and "silly" being thrown around. These people have obviously never seen Batman & Robin. Anyways, Michael Keaton returns as the Caped Crusader to do battle with Danny Devito's Penguin and Michelle Pfieffer's Catwoman. I actually prefer this one to its predecessor, oddly. Not just because it's set at Christmas either.

3. Die Hard
It spawned a million knock-offs, and not one matched the quality of this one. Bruce Willis makes a name for himself in action films as John McClane, an ordinary guy who takes on a skyscraper full of terrorists on Christmas Eve. Never mind that the sequels elevated him to superhuman status just like every other 80s action hero, the original is still one of the best action films of all time. And the end credits rolling to "Let It Snow" is as festive as it gets.

2. It's A Wonderful Life
This one's a given, right? It's the seminal Christmas film. James Stewart is George Bailey, a man driven to throw himself off a bridge on Christmas Eve. Before he can go through with it, an angel appears to show George exactly how important he is to the people of his small town. You can probably watch and enjoy this one all year round, but the warm feeling it leaves you with is doubly nice at Christmas.

1. The Muppet Christmas Carol

Obviously. The Great Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat narrate the redemption of Michael Caine's Scrooge. The Hecklers, Fozzie, Animal, Bunsen and Beaker all show up, and it's the best adaptation of the story ever, in my humble opinion. Even the vegetables like it.

Yes, I am very humble, and if you agree or disagree about A Christmas Carol, The Box or anything else on the blog, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch

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