Reel Guys, Metro Canada by Richard Crouse and Mark Breslin
Synopsis: “Well, it’s Christmas time, pretty baby” … and the Reel Guys are watching films… With our apologies to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote those lyrics to Elvis Presley’s Santa Claus is Back in Town — that song pretty much sums up what the holiday season means for us. Next week we’ll be back to reviewing the big releases of the year, but before we get to that we thought we’d have a look at movies to get us in the Christmas spirit. They may not all be on Santa’s nice list.
Richard: James Stewart stars in one of the movies that always puts me in the mood for Christmas, but its not the one you think. Sure, It’s A Wonderful Life is a classic and yuletastic, but I also enjoy The Shop Around The Corner. It’s a Christmassy romance that sees shop co-workers Stewart and Margaret Sullivan at one another’s throats at work, unaware that they are also anonymously courting one another as pen pals. All becomes clear on Christmas Eve and they unwrap a big ol’ gift basket of love. It’s almost as heartwarming as a giant mug of hot chocolate. Mark: Richard, as I’m Jewish, the Christmas holiday doesn’t have quite the emotional pull on me that it might have on you. So, come Christmas Eve our family gathers around the TV, where we watch Bad Santa until we fall asleep from convulsive laughter. The story of an alcoholic, womanizing, foul-mouthed Santa is a delightful antidote to all that icky cheer I’m supposed to feel. Then, when the novelty dies down, I get with the program and watch Elf. But I wear my Grinch mask just in case a tear is shed.
RC: That green synthetic fur is great for soaking up tears! But an antidote to the icky cheer you describe are two films set during the holidays without an ounce of tinsel treacle between them. In The Long Kiss Goodnight an amnesiac played by Geena Davis is outed as a former hired killer when she is recognized playing Mrs. Claus in a Christmas parade. The title A Christmas Tale sounds traditional enough, but the story focuses on the bitter rather than the sweet. The English title of this Catherine Deneuve dramedy could easily have been Cancer for Christmas, but despite the downer topic it’s complex, funny and touching.
MB: I’ve never seen A Christmas Tale, Richard, thanks for the tip. But if it’s holiday downers we’re looking for, consider Black Christmas, a 1974 slasher flick starring Olivia Hussey. I guess you could double-bill this one with the 2006 remake, but that might be, ahem, overkill.
RC: Many years ago, on the first Christmas the PMC — my Preferred Movie Companion — and I spent together, I screened Black Christmas for her, which almost stopped the relationship before it had a chance to really get going. I love the slaying slasher story. Her, not so much. I quickly rebounded with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which made the yuletide bright once again. Thanks, Chevy Chase, for saving Christmas and my relationship!
MB: Well, for a Jewish guy like me, I’ll just have to be content with Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah animation classic, Eight Crazy Nights, and a glass of Manischewitz!
Not everyone appreciates the Christmas season’s candy-cane smiles and chocolate ho-ho-hos. Which is why a rare screening of Christmas Evil – originally titled the more appropriately sinister You Better Watch Out – should appeal to those who prefer naughty over nice during the holidays.
The obscure 1980 slasher film – which by today’s standards plays more like a low-budget psychological drama – has become something of a cult classic in recent years. A 2006 special edition DVD includes audio commentary by none other than singular “bad taste” filmmaker John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray) who deems Christmas Evil “the best seasonal film of all time,” adding, “I wish I had kids. I’d make them watch it every year and if they didn’t like it they’d be punished!”
Only one 35 mm print of the film is known to exist and it travels with director Lewis Jackson, who brings his road show to a screening in Toronto next Tuesday (9:30 p.m., Bloor Cinema, 506 Bloor St. W., $13 for non-members, $10 for members). Lewis will also present a reel of deleted 35 mm scenes from the film and participate in an onstage discussion with critic Richard Crouse. And for last-minute gift needs, Jackson promises a satchel full of Christmas Evil merchandise.
The film opens on Christmas Eve, 1947, in suburban New Jersey as young Harry, his brother and mother quietly watch Santa Claus quaff some snacks, deliver gifts then disappear up the chimney again. Later that night, unable to sleep, Harry hears a creature stirring; but it’s no mouse – it’s Santa (actually his dad still in costume) on his knees groping his mother’s garters. A stunned Harry goes to the attic where he smashes a snow globe and deliberately cuts his hand. Creepy music lets us know this kid’s screwed for life.
Cut to a few decades later and it’s clear the traumatic childhood experience has created a sociopath with a promising career as a psychopath. Harry, a loner, works at the dreary Jolly Dreams toy factory and at home lives a Christmas-obsessed life as a self-made secret Santa, his apartment festooned with toys and Christmas decor – he even spies on neighbourhood kids with binoculars and keeps notes on them in his “Bad Boys & Girls” book.
After being exploited by a co-worker and enduring other humiliations just before Christmas, Harry has a nervous breakdown and his disturbing activities – which involve toy destruction as much as revenge murder – begin. And what Christmas movie would be complete without a torch-waving mob in pursuit of a psycho Santa? It’s jolly good evil fun.
Of course, the rep houses are offering more “traditional” Christmas flick fare. The Revue (400 Roncesvalles Ave.) is screening Scrooged, Richard Donner’s 1988 modernization of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, this Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Bill Murray stars as a cynical TV exec visited by three spirits on the eve of producing a crass live broadcast of A Christmas Carol – the scenes of Carol Kane, as Christmas Present, continually punching Murray in the face (literally trying to knock sense into him) still crack me up.
Tonight the Bloor presents perennial holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life (7 p.m.), worth catching on the big screen particularly for those who have only watched it interrupted by commercials on TV.
And for a decidedly different kind of holiday treat, the Bloor rings in the New Year with a return run (Jan. 1-7) of Repo! The Genetic Opera, one of the rep cinema’s most successful premieres ever when it opened last month. The explosive popularity of the grisly rock-opera musical has inspired a local group, the Shadow Cats, to organize North America’s first amateur live interactive performance to the film à la Rocky Horror Picture Show on Jan. 3 (check bloorcinema.com for show times).
The week after Halloween is a strange time to be writing about Christmas movies. Almost like cooking a Thanksgiving dinner in July.
But if department stores can display Lady Gaga masks beside Christmas ornaments and Hollywood can release A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas while we’re still digesting our Halloween haul, I can write about some movies that put the tinsel in Tinsel Town.
Harold and Kumar isn’t your average Christmas movie.
I doubt Jimmy Stewart would have considered burning down the family Christmas tree part of his wonderful Yuletide life, but Harold and Kumar aren’t the first to put the X into Xmas.
Many movies are set at Christmastime — the Brat Packer flick Less Than Zero features an LA Yule, and Die Hard takes place on Christmas Eve — but I’m thinking of movies that use the holidays as a springboard for the action.
The raunchiest Christmas movie has to Bad Santa, starring Billy Bob Thornton as a boozed-up, thieving department store Kris Kringle.
Unsentimental and crude, Bad Santa is bound to make the elves choke on their eggnog.
Dan Aykroyd also played a less than cuddly Santa in Trading Places. Drunk, disorderly and waving a gun around, he even has a fish hidden in his fake beard.
Unwrap Mixed Nuts, the 1994 Nora Ephron black comedy, and you’ll find Christmas tree theft, lunatics and the worst Christmas gift ever: a dead body.
Staying up on Christmas Eve, waiting for Santa to come, will be easy after watching Black Christmas. You’ll be too scared to sleep!
The tinsel terror about a mysterious killer in the attic is considered to be the first modern slasher movie.
Gremlins mixes horror, humour and ho ho ho’s. Set at Christmas, the story of little creatures who turn nasty when wet features a gory story about a missing father, a chimney, an overstuffed Santa suit and the punchline, “And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.”
A very merry Crime Christmas can be had in both The Ref and Reindeer Games.
In The Ref, cat burglar Dennis Leary soon regrets breaking into the home of squabbling couple Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis on Christmas Eve.
Reindeer Games sees Ben Affleck reluctantly rob a casino at Christmas.
The movie is such a lump of coal that one of its stars had this to say about it: “That was a bad, bad, bad movie,” said Charlize Theron.
I think Billy Bob Thornton is one of the best actors working today. He too often falls back on his comfortable grumpy-drunk-guy persona in movies like Bad News Bears and Bad Santa, but when he breaks free of his tried and true tricks the results can be impressive. In the new movie from filmdom’s only twin co-directing siblings, The Polish Brothers, Thornton hands in a moving and inspirational performance as a man with his head quite literally in the clouds.
Charlie Farmer (Thornton) is an engaging eccentric, an inspirational American folk hero who won’t let anything stand between him and his dreams. A former NASA employee, he had to leave the astronaut program to run his family’s farm after the death of his father. An engineer by trade, he ran the cattle farm by day and by night built a giant rocket ship in his barn. Framer may have left NASA but his dreams of visiting outer space didn’t stop there. Farmer, his wife, (another supportive wife role for Virginia Madsen), and children become media darlings when the FBI swoop down on his operation, looking for WMDs and leak the story to the press.
The Astronaut Farmer works on several levels. The Polish Brothers have stepped out from behind the art house veneer that informed their past work to make a film that has one foot in the mainstream, but doesn’t betray their roots. The movie is beautiful to look at, with a soft glow that feels timeless and nostalgic, but is also subversive.
When asked “Mr. Farmer, how do we know you aren’t constructing a WMD?” by a NASA Committee Member, Farmer replies, “Sir, if I was building a weapon of mass destruction, you wouldn’t be able to find it,” with a cutting charm that wouldn’t be out of place in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
The Astronaut Farmer is a warm family film that breathes new life into the hoary old “follow your dreams” storyline.