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Naughty or Nice: 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' vs. 'The Magic Christmas Tree'

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Dec 18, 2012 | 8:39am EST

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Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

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.

The Magic Christmas TreeNaughty: 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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