And so we’ve arrived at the most wonderful time of the year. Well, the most wonderful time of the year next to Halloween of course. Happy holidays to all!
As we close out Naughty or Nice here at Hollywood.com, it seemed only fitting to turn our focus to the big guy himself; the jolly old elf in the bright red suit. No, we’re not referring to that corpulent, overzealous Kansas City Chiefs fan in your neighborhood. Get the milk and cookies ready, because Santa Claus is coming to town twice today.
Nice: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Director: Jalmari Helander
Cast: Onni Tommila, Ilmari Jarvenpaa, Jorma Tommila
Plot: Finish reindeer farmers suffer a rash of attacks on their livestock. They set to work laying traps for wolves and other such wild predators, but one little boy believes the culprit to be far more sinister. Nearby construction crews are excavating what they have been told is a massive burial mound, but they could never have imagined the malevolent force they were foolishly unearthing.
The most notable connection between the two films under the merry microscope today is that they both deal with the origins of Santa Claus. Rare Exports takes a decidedly darker tact in its examination of Claus’ past. It reaches into the myths held by some cultures that Claus was not always some sweet old gift-giver, or if he was, this was merely one facet of his occupation. His roots in fact intertwine Claus with a menacing wraith, a demon-like figure possibly linked to the pagan roots of Christmas rituals. Rare Exports shows Santa to be a horrifying monster whose arrival is nothing to be denoted by celebration.
The interesting thing about Rare Exports, however, is that despite its macabre approach to the story of Kris Kringle, it is not really a horror film. In fact, there is a lot of humor and heartfelt whimsy woven into the ominous story. A good deal of the humor comes from the fact that we are introduced to most of the plot points through the eyes of a small child. Little Pietari experiences quite the comical evolution in the film from a wide-eyed, sprat who believes wholeheartedly in good ole St. Nick, to being utterly terrified that evil Santa will abduct him in his sleep, and ultimately to becoming a pint-sized action hero. His little helmet and pads may make him look like a crash test dummy used especially for field-testing toboggans, but young actor Onni Tommila plays even the most exaggerated hero quip with impressive sincerity.
But it is the ending of Rare Exports where the film derives most of its comedic effect as well as its most memorable visual signature. The hideous horned creature, Santa himself, is aided in his wicked plan by not one, but an army of feral old men with white beards. These elderly minions are left stranded once the beastly St. Nick is defeated, and the solution cooked up by these poor farmers to not only deal with the octogenarian surplus but also recoup the financial losses of their reindeer herds is uproarious. To say more would be to spoil the fun, and we certainly wouldn’t want Santa after us for that.
Naughty: Santa Claus: The Movie
Director: Jeannot Szwarc
Cast: Cast: David Huddleston, Dudley Moore, John Lithgow
Plot: In the 14th Century, a toymaker and his wife are stranded during a snowstorm and seem doomed to perish. Suddenly, they are whisked away to a magical land at the top of the world and saved by a race of little people called Vendequm. The toymaker is tasked with making gifts for all good children on the planet that he will deliver each year in his sleigh. Years later, one of his top elves will strike out on his own and create nothing but problems for himself as well as Santa.
Santa Claus: The Movie is one of those epic flops; a failure as legendary as its subject matter. It was “presented,” though apparently not officially produced by Superman honcho Alexander Salkind, and is only slightly less embarrassing than Superman III. Like Rare Exports, it explores Santa’s origins, and indeed both films exhibit a great deal of reverence for the character, but instead of utilizing myth, it employs a heavy dose of winking and nudging to lend fictive roots to each of Claus’ notable tropes: the list, the suit, etc. This ham-fisted cloying is where the movie will begin to frustrate you as a viewer. Because even for its substantial budget and its stellar cast, Santa Claus: The Movie is not an eighth as strong in its artistry and/or execution as is Rare Exports.
One of the biggest problems with Santa Claus: The Movie is also simultaneously where these two films differ and are unified. Like Rare Exports, despite Santa being the central figure, a great deal of the responsibility for saving the day falls to the children in Salkind’s film. A young orphan, taken under Santa’s wing, must stop the well-meaning elf Patch (Moore) from delivering a Christmas treat that, unbeknownst to him, will ruin the holidays for a great many children. The issue here is that this plot device is a function of the bipolar nature of SC:TM’s story, no pun intended. Half the movie is about the background of Santa, and then we are shifted to a tired, cheese-coated elf cautionary tale.
This ancillary story feels like nothing but padding and the disjointed plot structure contributes significantly to Santa Claus: The Movie’s shortcomings. Rare Exports works the young hero naturally into the story, making him inextricable from the narrative progression. The little orphan boy in Salkind’s movie could not be more shoehorned into the proceedings. It makes it much harder for us to care about this character when his appearance is forced and only serves to wrap up what is far and away the lesser of the two stories.
Both of these Santa sagas are available on Netflix’s Watch Instantly service. Check them out for yourself and see which one you’d want to add to your list.
[Photo Credit: FS Films Oy; Calash]
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
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With no new releases from Lars Von Trier, Werner Herzog, David Lynch, David Cronenberg or Richard Kelly, 2010 projected to be a down, if not disastrous year for the WTF Awards – our annual celebration of the most bizarre, baffling, head-scratching and cringe-worthy moments in cinema. Thankfully, the filmmaking community, as it has always done in times of crisis, rallied to fill the void left by the absence of these WTF titans, providing us with an abundance of examples worthy of honor with the Frank Trophy. The Frankie (so named for the beloved character from Donnie Darko) may not be the most prestigious award in Hollywood, but it is undoubtedly the tallest.
This year's winners:
Most Surprising Hit: Alice in Wonderland
That Tim Burton’s CGI confection was a hit is not a surprise; that it grossed over a billion dollars worldwide – enough to rank sixth all-time -- is. Goth and emo kids, it seems, have access to significantly more disposable income than anyone previously thought. And they appear to be multiplying. Time to start building that shelter – and buying Hot Topic stock.
Most Inexplicable Flop: The Tourist
Plenty of films disappointed at the box office last year – 2010’s total tally was the lowest in 12 years – but none boasted the star power (Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp!) and sexy, exotic locales (Paris! Venice!) of The Tourist. Then again, the same combination also failed Eat Pray Love. Perhaps directing and screenwriting still matter after all.
Best Inadvertent Horror Flick: Tie –
The Nutcracker 3D – A children’s movie that triggers instantaneous terror among most children who see it? Sounds pretty darn hilarious to me. Which is why I don’t have kids.
Sex and the City 2 – Four solipsistic ghouls marauding across the Middle East, leaving dignity, good taste and America’s reputation throughout the Islamic world in their gruesome menopausal wake. Eli Roth can only dream of this kind of revulsion.
Movie Whose Mere Existence May Prompt You to Consider Ending Yours: The Bounty Hunter
On the plus side, whenever someone at a party questions the difficulty of a job that entails watching movies for a living, I can now effectively silence them with just three words.
Most Superbly Crafted Film I Never Want to See Again: Black Swan
So prodigious are director-sadist Darren Aronofsky’s abilities to unnerve that even the presence of a Natalie Portman/Mila Kunis girl-on-girl sex scene fails to inspire repeat viewings of his critically-acclaimed camp freakout. Aronofsky achieved the same feat with his nails-on-blackboard brilliant Requiem for a Dream, in which even a fully nude Jennifer Connelly couldn’t ease the existential dread.
Movie That Could Only Have Come Out of Scandinavia: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Leave it to those freaky Fins to re-imagine Santa Claus as a child-abducting, reindeer-slaughtering monster served by a corps of naked, shriveled elves. Jalmari Helander’s coffee-black comedy is perfect entertainment for tots not sufficiently traumatized by The Nutcracker 3D.
Most Egregious Bait-and-Switch: The American
As much as I enjoyed Anton Corbijn’s avowedly minimalist take on the quintessential “one last job” tale, I couldn’t help but feel for moviegoers who, lured by the film’s somewhat misleading marketing, went to see it expecting a polished popcorn thriller more worthy of an A-lister like George Clooney. Instead they got a spare, melancholy art flick, albeit one with a surfeit of nudity.
Most Disturbing “Love” Scene: Splice
Adrian Brody’s mad genetic scientist enjoys a drunken dalliance with Dren, the androgynous (and uncomfortably hot) offspring of his unholy experiments, in a scene glazed with just enough sensuality by director Vincenzo Natali to make our discomfort visceral. That the creature’s jambalaya genome includes bits of his own DNA as well as that of several other animals, qualifying the act as both incest and bestiality, is the icing on the cringe-cake.
Most Dubious Marketing Tagline: “From the Mind of M. Night Shyamalan” – Devil
Best WTF Cameo: Ed Corbin (The Bear Man), True Grit
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn enjoy an awkward exchange with a hulking figure, clad in a bear suit and towing a corpse, who inquires in a creepy drawl as to whether either of them require medical attention. The scene wasn’t in Charles Portis’ source novel; it’s purely a creation of the Coen Brothers, whose yen for quirky peripheral characters is unmatched.
The George Lucas Award for Achievement in Legacy Dismantling: Kevin Smith
At first heralded as the voice of a generation and an inspiration to aspiring indie auteurs, the Clerks director has since degenerated into a just another Hollywood hack, reaching his creative nadir in 2010 with his buddy-cop flop, Cop Out. As a fan of his early work, I’m sad to see that he’s essentially become the Insane Clown Posse of filmmakers: amateurish, puerile, gimmicky, and a joke to everyone outside his army of inexplicably devoted followers.
Most Disconcerting Movie Trend: The Live-Action Comedy Famine
While animated comedies continued their profitable reign in 2010, their live-action counterparts were rejected en mass by moviegoers. Part of this can be explained by the dearth of quality titles; the rundown of rom-coms in particular -- Leap Year, The Bounty Hunter, Killers, When in Rome, The Switch, How Do You Know, et al -- reads like a to-do list at Guantanamo, and Little Fockers is now routinely invoked in pagan rituals to summon the fertility demon Naberus. But what’s more distressing is that the better comedies, like Easy A, Get Him to the Greek, MacGruber, and Hot Tub Time Machine, struggled to find audiences as well.
WTF Performer of the Year: James Franco
Let’s be honest: Any year in which Nicolas Cage makes a film is a year in which he wins this award. The man owns this category like Wilt Chamberlain owned the paint. As such, like Chamberlain, his dominance has inspired a rule change: In the interest of variety, the award will henceforth be known as the “Nicolas Cage Award for Achievement in WTF Performance.”
In 2010, no other actor dazzled, confused and, indeed, nauseated us as much as James Franco. His artistic output – from creative writing to cross-dressing photo shoots to Funny or Die shorts to big-budget cameos to his continued run on General Hospital -- was nothing short of baffling. And the strangest thing is, it all paid off. Among other accolades, he’s received his first Oscar nomination for his performance as arm-severing bicyclist Aron Ralston in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours.
Whichever agents negotiated Franco’s pact with Satan have earned their 5%.
WTF Movie of the Year: Splice
Human Centipede’s grotesqueries, while numerous and undoubtedly WTF-worthy, were of a strictly intestinal variety. Splice’s approach was much more holistic: It not only churned your stomach; it skull-f*cked your id. This is the kind of boldly batsh*t filmmaking for which the WTF Awards were invented. Congratulations to director Vincenzo Natali; we hope this helps ease the disappointment of losing out at the Teen Choice Awards.