Welcome back, and prepare to stuff your stockings with another installment of Naughty or Nice. To this point, the parallels between the Christmas films chosen for this feature have run the narrow gamut from easily recognizable to painfully obvious. This week, however, we’re asking you to stretch your brain tinsel a little further and consider this pair of strikingly divergent cinematic holiday offerings.
Nice: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Dir: Shane Black
Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan
Plot: During the Christmas season, a petty thief, while running from police, is accidentally discovered by a casting agency and sent to Hollywood to test for an upcoming detective film. When the studio decides to improve the authenticity of his performance by assigning him to shadow an actual private eye, the crook-turned-thesp gets much closer to the seedier side of Hollywood than he ever expected.
It’s hard to employ the term "masterpiece" without a resounding rebuff from the cinephile masses. Though I agree that overuse has lead to a dubious reception of the word, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang can only be adequately described as a masterpiece. It is a masterful modern twist on film noir and pulp detective stories. The story struts adeptly through a handful of clever and intriguing twists, and it proves to be as comical as it is violent. Both Downey, Jr., and Kilmer hand in tremendous performances.
Shane Black, in his directorial debut, gives us a Christmas genre film worthy of the likes of Lethal Weapon, for which he wrote the script all those years before. Black spent the '80s and '90s establishing himself as one of the most talented and interesting screenwriters in the industry. Yet somehow, it wasn’t until 2005 that he finally found himself in the director’s chair. If nothing else, this film instills no small amount of confidence that his reunion with Downey, Jr., for Iron Man 3 will be something truly special to behold.
Where Black’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang script excels is in its refusal to take itself too seriously. That’s not to say the comedy drowns out the crime thriller boiling underneath, but its self-aware playfulness is what defines and sets apart the film. For one thing, it uses Christmas as a spotlight to completely lampoon L.A. culture. The “typical Hollywood” Christmas parties attended by our East Coast hero are hilariously satirical monuments to pretension and vice. But Black also takes jabs at movie conventions and the conception of “film rules,” with the narrator constantly correcting himself, and the flashbacks in which he shouts at extras to clear the shot, standing as truly brilliant.
Naughty: The Magic Christmas Tree
Dir: Richard C. Parish
Cast: Chris Kroesen, Valerie Hobbs, Darlene Lohnes
Plot: A witch gives a young boy a ring containing magic seeds. When planted on Thanksgiving, and when an ancient spell is recited, the seeds grow into a Christmas tree with the ability to speak and the power to grant wishes. The greedy young boy wishes to have Santa Claus all to himself, throwing the world into utter chaos.
To call 1964’s The Magic Christmas Tree one of the worst Christmas movies of all time would be to drastically undersell its colossal ineptitude. The Magic Christmas Tree is the type of movie that defies all preconceived notions of the measurable depths of B-movie failure. Every possible component of the filmmaking process is executed spectacularly incorrectly. The movie even seems to invent new filmic constructs at which to then fail. As a mere amuse-bouche for this cinematic stink feast, the witch is not able to move out of her chair, because they weren’t sure how to frame both her and the little boy in the same shot. She is therefore one of the most awkwardly stationary magical beings in cinema.
The sound of your head-scratching can be heard all the way across the cyber sea. Why compare these two films that have seemingly nothing in common? For that matter, why would anyone subject themselves to something as intellectually draining as The Magic Christmas Tree? There is something to be said for the fact that magic factors heavily into both films. The use of magic in the Naughty selection speaks for itself; in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Harry has always aspired to be a great magician. In fact, the lightning-quick hands he developed during his years practicing prestidigitation save his life more than once. Also, the best moments in both films actually have nothing to do with Christmas; be it a stakeout gone wrong in Kiss Kiss or a so-idiotic-you-can’t-help-but-laugh runaway lawnmower in Magic Christmas Tree.
However, the strongest thread that unites these two gems is that they are precisely that: gems. Both of these films suffer from obscurity. However, where Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang’s obscurity is an unfortunate travesty, The Magic Christmas Tree’s is wholly earned. It is not surprising how this 48-year-old bargain-basement family film is not readily on the lips of the general populous, but it is mind-boggling how Kiss Kiss was able to fly so far beneath the radar when it was released. Sure, Downey had not yet donned the iconic iron suit, but it’s not as if he was a nobody before appearing in a Marvel property.
The fact remains, both films demand to be seen, but for entirely different reasons. Again, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang should offer at least a partial barometer for what we can expect of Iron Man 3’s performance nuances. And Magic Christmas Tree is a film so magnificently awful that it actually legitimately dazzles. Either movie would make a suitable centerpiece at your holiday party.
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros.; Youtube]
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1. The Best Picture Race Down to a Pair?
A month ago I gave you the six mortal locks of the Best Picture category, movies destined to receive a nomination. I'm now ready to cut that down to the two films with a legitimate chance at victory, making me either 1) Ridiculously foolish or 2) Exceptionally brave. Maybe both. But unlike last year's depressing Avatar vs. Hurt Locker battle this one offers real intrigue, and so it deserves as much advanced bloggin' as we can give it. You ready?
127 Hours vs. True Grit. That's the Academy's choice, and it's a great one for a number of reasons. First off, we'll have two returning champions, Danny Boyle versus The Coen Brothers. Secondly, the match-up will pit two disparate styles of cinema against each other, and whichever way The Academy goes will say something significant about where our artists and culture are headed.
In one corner you've got 127 Hours, Danny Boyle's "true story brought to life," starring "it" guy James Franco. Based solely on the trailer, the film is brightly lit, offering quick cuts, rapid tonal shifts, and a dynamic tale. In the other corner you've got The Coen Bros. offering up a remake of a classic, wry and dark, Jeff Bridges squinting quietly off into the distance. Slumdog Millionaire, a tale steeped in humanity, never got a chance to face off against No Country for Old Men, a tale steeped in dread. I loved both of 'em, but you'd never confuse the directors or the films, would you?
Which brings me back to last year's Best Picture race. As the field was winnowed down it became apparent that Avatar was on a collision course with Hurt Locker (no matter how hard I tried to get the superior film, Inglourious Basterds, into the mix). It was pretty clear what the narrative was, exes facing off, the commercial titan versus the "controversial" indie, the general public juggernaut against a film that desperately needed a DVD push. The Academy made the call, correctly I think, going with a film that needed support over a movie that was big fun ... but fell apart in the last hour.
This year will be much tougher to call, but infinitely more interesting. You'll have a generation gap, Jeff Bridges battling James Franco, and a remake taking on a true story is compelling as well. A.R. Rahman's soundtrack versus Johnny Cash's mournful twang. But most of all it will be a verdict on style. Does The Academy goes with Boyle's more visceral and earnest method of cinema? Or do they reward the quieter, measured approach of True Grit? Old versus new, light versus dark, authentic versus intelligent. Now that's a race I want to tune into. A little over four months until we find out!
2. Put Without Remorse On Your Radar.
Even if you've never read a Tom Clancy novel, you know Tom Clancy. He's the novel writer behind The Hunt for the Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger. Based on those titles you're thinking "Military hero stuff, got it." Not so fast! He did two books that weren't Jack Ryan or hero based, and one of them is being adapted into a film. That book is called Without Remorse and it's completely atypical of Tom Clancy's oeuvre (the other one, Red Storm Rising, is a well-paced story of global warfare).
Without Remorse reminds me a little bit of Payback, it's a movie about an anti-hero, gritty and painful, heartbreaking and sudden. The book claims, at least on Wikipedia, to be part of the "Ryanverse" but I'd argue, having read all of Clancy's fiction, that it is far more of an origin story for a fellow named Clark (played by Willem Dafoe back in Clear and Present Danger). Without Remorse has much more in common with a series like Dexter than it does with anything Cold War related.
So when the news came down that Shawn Ryan, creator of The Shield, was tapped to handle the adaptation it put a little hop in my step. He's the perfect guy to handle it, as Without Remorse deals much more with street crime and drugs than it does far-flung political intrigue. I'm really looking forward to this project, it's the one Clancy story that evokes emotion while eschewing military hardware.
3. Paranormal Activity, Saw, And The Future of Suspense!
On October 23, 2009 a sea change occurred. Paranormal Activity, in its fifth weekend out, beat the newly released Saw VI straight up at the box office, $21m to $14m. It pulled off this feat with a thousand less theaters, and coming off a $19m weekend on October 18.
There were a number of ways to parse this occurrence. The first theory was that Paranormal Activity and Saw VI were going for the same audience, and Paranormal Activity won, while Saw VI limped to its worst opening and worst total box office of the franchise. The second theory holds that the Saw franchise and the Paranormal Activity crowd don't mix, and the Saw VI result was merely evidence of a series that had been on the decline since 2007's Saw IV. Whatever the case, I hold that it's good news for movie fans the whole world round.
The Paranormal Activity franchise is high on suspense, low on gore, and shot on the cheap. It feels more intimate than contrived torture porn. It opens up the horror genre, if it is even in that category, up to a wider group of folks. You couldn't take a date to Saw -- you can take one to Paranormal Activity. I don't want to be the guy that says "Back in my day," but back in my day scary films didn't have to beat you over the head with blood. Let's chalk up films like Hostel and Saw to the previous decade of irrational exuberance and discretionary income. Where will we get our scares from here on out? Hand-held cameras, lower budgets, and limited special effects. Anyone with a camera has a shot at making a splash, and you won't need to keep upping the ante on your "kills." At this point, go ahead and insert the inspiring sounds of "What a Wonderful World" (The Iz version) into this conversation. And check out Paranormal Activity 2 this weekend, you'll get a few jumps. Saw 3-D next weekend? I can't go for that, no can do.
On that note, I hope you have a weekend without any special effects at all.
Check out last week's Movie Musings here
Laremy is the lead critic and senior producer for a website named Film.com. He's also available on Twitter.
Ana (Sarah Polley) a hard-working nurse living in a picturesque Wisconsin suburb wakes up early one morning to find a little blonde neighborhood girl chomping on Ana's husband's jugular. She makes a quick getaway only to find her pruned-lawn universe in complete disarray: Houses are on fire cars are careening out of control and people are literally running for their lives--and that's before the title art even appears. It turns out a mysterious plague is transforming people into zombies with an insatiable appetite for living human tissue. Now on the run Ana joins up with other survivors including tough cop Kenneth (Ving Rhames) good guy Michael (Jake Weber) street-smart Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his very pregnant wife Luda (Inna Korobkina) and decide the Crossroads Mall would be a good sanctuary. After convincing three security guards to let them into their safe haven the group bands together to defend the mall against the growing army of zombies pawing at the glass doors. But while the mall with its stores packed with food clothing TVs and radios serves as an ideal refuge the group realizes that no one is coming to rescue them and their only chance of survival is to plot their own escape. But their getaway is squelched when some of those still living barricaded inside the mall begin to show signs of infection including the expectant Luda.
Drawing a skilled cast to a horror film--a genre that's not taken very seriously--is always a good move because it gives it a certain credibility. Dawn of the Dead's lineup which includes Polley Rhames Weber and Phifer offer up likeable characters despite the lack of character development. As the bleeding-heart nurse Polley (My Life Without Me) is clearly the heroine here: Not only does she care for everyone's medical needs but she is also the film's biggest risk taker diving nose-first into dangerous situations for the group's sake. Her character Ana is a nice balance to Rhames' badass cop Kenneth whose decisions are grounded and never clouded by emotion. Other dueling characters include Weber's (Wendigo) Michael the group's strategic leader and militant security guard CJ played by Michael Kelly (Unbreakable). The cast plays off each other nicely; it's just a shame that they are emotionally disconnected. For example although Phifer is persuasive as the doting father-to-be it's difficult to sympathize with Andre's gut wrenching predicament with his pregnant zombie wife because their bond was never established. Look for actors from the original film in cameo appearances including makeup artist Tom Savini (also a biker in the original) as the sheriff; Scott Reiniger (Roger) as the general; and Ken Foree (Peter) as the televangelist.
Dawn of the Dead marks Zack Snyder's directorial debut--and what a project he chose. Snyder however fittingly resurrects the undead created by Romero 24 years ago into much more menacing zombies for modern-day horror-savvy audiences: They are lightning-fast have shark-like radar for human flesh and demonstrate pack mentality. Of course the film's look is a lot slicker that its predecessor minus a few action sequences involving the zombie hordes that almost appear to have been shot on digital video. Snyder for example was careful not to make the film too CGI-laden and instead relied on special effects makeup designer David Anderson (Men in Black Nutty Professor II: The Klumps) to make the zombies extremely gross lifelike and menacing. But in focusing on creating this fear-provoking look the film loses some of the subtle humor that distinguished the 1978 production from the average horror pic. Remember the scene in the original film that has the zombies robotically trying to walk up the down escalator? Romero had a way of laughing at the film's own absurdity without demeaning it; Snyder's humor here is less sophisticated and instead relies on screenwriter James Gunn's dialogue. But this modern Dawn of the Dead is still a thrilling moviegoing experience with tons of scares to be had.