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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In other words The Holiday probably falls under the “guilty pleasure” category. Its not a classic romantic comedy by any standards but darn it it still makes you smile more often than you want to admit. The story centers on two women: Iris (Kate Winslet) a British newspaper columnist hopelessly in love with a man about to marry someone else and Amanda (Cameron Diaz) a highly successful L.A. career woman who just broke up with her latest cheating boyfriend. Being at the right place at the right time these two gals meet online at a home exchange website and impulsively switch homes for the holiday. Shortly after arriving at their destinations both women find the last thing either wants or expects: A new romance. Amanda is charmed by Iris' handsome brother Graham (Jude Law) and Iris with inspiration provided by legendary screenwriter Arthur (Eli Wallach) mends her heart when she meets film composer Miles (Jack Black). Oh just go ahead and take a big gooey bite. It’s good for the soul. The biggest problem in The Holiday is unfortunately the casting—which is real shame because you really want the chemistry to zing. They get it right with Winslet and Law who are both trying something a little different as romantic leads. Winslet in fact admitted to Reuters this was one of the more nerve-wracking parts she’s ever played because she couldn’t hide behind an American accent or a costume playing someone closer to well herself. But you would think these two Oscar-nominees had been making these type movies all along especially the insanely gorgeous Law who should have every woman swooning with his sensitivity. Where they get it wrong is with the Americans as the Brits just act giant circles around them. Black is clearly out of place. Although being very charming and funny looking like he made Winslet laugh a LOT (and who wouldn’t with that guy around?) their connection on screen is somewhat amiss. Diaz comes off looking even worse. Even though she’s the veteran of the romantic comedy (There's Something About Mary My Best Friend's Wedding) her screechy neurotic klutzy Amanda is in no way appealing. You have to scratch your head wondering why Law’s Graham would fall so hard for her. What does make The Holiday work however is writer/director Nancy Meyers. She’s proven herself quite adept at the genre with films such as What Women Want and Something's Gotta Give under her belt. With The Holiday Meyers skillfully crafts individual moments of refreshing comedy as well as heartening scenes of blossoming romance. The initial seduction scene between Amanda and Graham is particularly sweet and quirky with the crisp dialogue flying at a nice clip. And isn’t it comforting to see a holiday movie minus feuding neighbors commerciality or any sort of mean-spiritedness? But Meyers has the tendency to go more for the superficial rather than dig deep with her characters. The Holiday has a one of those glossy rosy glows whose only aim is to make you feel good. True the film will mostly speak volumes to the women in the audience (that’s a polite way of saying its a “chick flick”) but oh well. It’s fluff may be a nice reprieve during the hustle and bustle of the season.
While passing through Cairo during a sabbatical from the priesthood following World War II Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) receives an offer from Semelier Ben Cross) a collector of rare antiquities to join a British archeological excavation in the remote Turkana region of Kenya where a Christian Byzantine church has been unearthed. Although Merrin has lost his religion (he left the church after being forced by the Nazis to commit atrocities against people of his parish) the skilled archeologist accepts the mission out of curiosity: The pristinely preserved church dates back more than 1 000 years before Christianity even reached the East African plain. Once there Merrin anxiously heads to the excavation sight and enters the partially buried church to discover it has been vandalized--or so he thinks; a large wooden cross has been broken and hung upside down. He also encounters Dr. Sarah Novack (Izabella Scorupco) who runs a local hospital and informs the men that the last man in charge of the excavation had gone mad and was now in a sanitarium in Nairobi. The mystery thickens when a local boy Joseph (Remy Sweeney) shows signs of satanic possession. The Turkana blame the mysterious church for the unexplained supernatural activity including a woman's delivery of a Satan-like maggot-covered still born infant. Soon tension mounts between the Turkana and the British troops stationed there.
Poor Skarsgard. To his credit the veteran actor tries his best to add a dash of distinctiveness to his underdeveloped character Father Merrin. Skarsgard (King Arthur) supplies Merrin with an air of attitude a sort of aloofness that screams I don't owe anyone anything. Armed with brute strength and fearlessness (he moves a large concrete slab without breaking a sweat and crawls through unlit basements without ever flinching) Merrin is practically transformed into sexy religious superhero. But Skarsgard even can't escape the silly dialogue that explains what is self-explanatory. "If everyone died who buried them?" Merrin asks aloud outside a cemetery where a plague supposedly whiped out the village's population. Scorupco (Reign of Fire) meanwhile doesn't inject anything extra into her rather forgettable role as Sarah a rather sweet but boring physician. Her metamorphosis in an identical looking Regan MacNeil form the original 1973 Exorcist however pumps some much needed thrills into what's otherwise lackluster horror. One of the most memorable performances comes from Alan Ford (Brick Top Polford form Snatch) who plays a perpetually drunk archeologist with a putrid skin ailment. Ford's rendition of Jeffries is so alarmingly disgusting that it makes Lucifer look like a sweetie pie.
The best thing about Exorcist: The Beginning is its deceptively promising opening set in Africa in the mid 400s. It's an eerie scene bound to make audiences' hair stand on end as a lone bedraggled priest slogs through a dry and dusty plain littered with millions of corpses nailed to upside-down crosses. But in its post-World War II setting the film suffers a setback both in storytelling and visuals. The film was originally directed by Paul Schrader who replaced helmer John Frankenheimer who died before filming began. But producers reportedly thought Schrader's version wasn't frightening enough and handed the reins over to Renny Harlin (Driven) in hopes he would turn out a more spine-chilling rendition. But sadly there is no chilling of the spine to be experienced here. Harlin uses horror film clichés to spook the audience like the faithful light-going-out-in-dark-settings scenario that the film feels more like an episode of Scare Tactics. Harlin's special effects are laugh-out-loud funny too including his inane man-eating CGI hyenas with beaming blue eyes. The beasts move about the screen as if they have no weight or substance to them. What makes those cartoony hyenas even sillier though is the fact that their presence is not needed (they're hardly scary) or even explained which pretty much sums up the film's biggest problem: The spotty story leaves too many questions unanswered. The script credited to Caleb Carr and William Wisher and later revised by Alexi Hawley is so vague it's irritating.