Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Pietari (Onni Tommila) and Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää) snuck onto a restricted mountain where so-called seismic researchers, some Americans, were assigned to excavate something mysterious deep within the ice. The two boys overheard that what was embedded inside was going to redefine the world’s notion of Santa Claus and Christmas. When Pietari got home, he began to research about Old St. Nick and his origins. It turned out that the legendary figure was far from nice and jolly. According to the books, every Christmas, he kidnapped naughty kids, put them in a cauldron, and ate them. Pietari was determined not to get taken. Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, “Rare Exports” brimmed with scintillating originality, enough to inject kids with increasing unease and force the adults to watch with fascination. It was fun to watch Pietari run around and put pieces together because there was something innocent and bold about him. Since he wasn’t taken seriously by adults and fellow children, he felt he had something to prove. His determination and thirst for adventure was similar to the beloved kids from Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” Richard Donner’s “The Goonies,” and J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8.” But like the aforementioned flicks, the film worked as a family drama. Pietari and his dad (Jorma Tommila) lived by themselves where interaction with others required a vehicle due to distance and safety issues. There was a moving scene during Christmas Eve when the two sat on the table and ate gingerbread cookies. Nothing else was prepared. The absence of the key woman in their lives was palpable. Even though it wasn’t fully discussed, we were able to infer that Pietari and his dad were still mourning from the death of his mother and wife, respectively. The son asked his dad whether it would make a difference to him whether he, too, would “disappear” and if he had been good this year. The father deflected the questions with a loud command of sending his son to bed. Sometimes it’s easier to circumvent the truth. On Christmas day, Pietari found that the bait for the wolf trap his father had set the day before was gone. Instead of finding a wolf in the pit, there was a skinny man with a beard. The film played with our expectations some more and threw around very strange red herrings like a kid opening presents with delirium. Our lack of knowledge involving the origins of Santa Claus in their part of the world served as a wonderful, magical, creepy source of tension. The man that the father and son found was critically injured and seemingly unable to understand language. He only responded, with extreme alarm, when Pietari was around. Pietari thought it was Santa Claus and he just had to tell his friends given what he knew. But none of them were to be found. Toward the end of the film, CGI was used profusely, but it was utilized to enhance the experience. “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” was unafraid to tackle darker material yet it was quite satirical. Its brazenness and creativity in putting our little protagonist in the face of danger without coming off as exploitative was admirable.
The Polar Express (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Billy (Hayden McFarland) was convinced that the whole concept of Santa Claus was just a myth. In order to have proof whether or not Santa existed, he tried to stay up until Christmas Eve to see who would put presents under the Christmas tree. When a mysterious train full of kids arrived and the conductor (Tom Hanks) told Billy they were heading to the North Pole to see Santa Claus and his elves, Billy chose to get on board. Based on the children’s book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg, I consider Robert Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express” to be a modern classic. I remember watching the film for the first time when it came out and I was surprised to have been deeply moved by Billy’s journey toward his own version of truth. Yes, we all know that the portly man in red who rides reindeers doesn’t exist, but it was easy to connect with the movie because I onced believed in Santa Claus and remembered the magic and joy I felt after willing myself to wake up past midnight and found presents under the Christmas tree. Furthermore, the picture’s animation was a breakthough despite criticisms of the unmoving characters’ facial expressions above the eyes (when we express emotions, we wrinkle our foreheads, move our eyebrows, et cetera). Some critics cited that the characters looked creepy because of the hybrid between real actors and animation. However, every time I watch this movie, I fail to notice such flaws. I was preoccupied with the characters’ intense experiences with the train’s technical difficulties. The train going off-track because the railroad had frozen over was incredibly suspenseful and the very elusive golden ticket would make everyone’s eyes dance across the screen. Nitpicking flaws in the animaton was farthest from my mind. The best scene in the film was its climax. Before Santa Claus appeared, the other kids from the train (Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Eddie Deezen) enthusiastically talked about the bells they heard and the beautiful sounds they made. But Billy couldn’t hear the bells because he didn’t believe. And since we saw the movie from Billy’s perspective, we, too, couldn’t hear the bells (perhaps because we no longer believe). That scene was a defining moment which made me think of powerful metaphors from other classic films like the dying plant in Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” and the black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” “The Polar Express” is a triumph because it went beyond being a typical Christmas movie with a happy but ultimately empty ending. It took risks by forming a synergy between visuals and story while adding just the right amount of danger, humor, sadness, and wonder in the protagonist’s journey toward self-discovery.
A Christmas Carol (1984)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ebenezer Scrooge (George C. Scott) hated Christmas. When someone greeted him “Merry Christmas!” with joy and enthusiasm, he glared back at them in an attempt to bring down the merriment a couple of notches. Then he would reply, “Humbug!” as he walked away begrudgingly, leaving the greeter in utter disbelief. The only thing missing was Scrooge actually stealing people’s Christmas presents and he could pass as The Grinch. In order to show him the error of his ways and achieve redemption, the ghost of Scrooge’s former associate (Frank Finlay) visited him on Christmas Eve. The ghost informed Scrooge that the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Angela Pleasence), Present (Edward Woodward) and Christmas Yet to Come (Michael Carter) would pay him a visit so he could examine what he missed in life for being such a grouch toward everyone he encountered. Based on Charles Dickens’ short story, I was actually reluctant to see this film because, even though I had not yet seen any adaptation of the same story, I’ve watched countless spoofs to the point where it felt like I knew all key elements in the plot. The film caught me completely by surprise because the acting was strong, the story was interesting and moving, and, despite some of the special and visual effects being a bit dated, the big picture felt timeless. I was even more surprised when I found out later that it was a made-for-TV movie. Scott’s acting stood out to me because I was convinced with his gradual evolution from a penny-pinching blackhole of unhappiness to someone who made an effort to be liked. To his surprise, he might even be a natural at it. The scene I enjoyed most was when the Ghost of Christmas Present took Scrooge to Bob Cratchit’s (David Warner) home and learned that Tiny Tim (Anthony Walters), Bob’s son, was not only a cripple but the fact that he was dying and it might be his last Christmas. It was an important scene not only because it was the point where I became convinced I was watching not just a run-of-the-mill Christmas movie, but also because Ebenezer finally allowed himself to feel and accept that he had been wrong, not necessarily about his attitude toward Christmas (which I thought was secondary anyway–not everyone had to accept Christmas), about the way he unfairly judged and treated others. Directed by Clive Donner, “A Christmas Carol” is a highly enjoyable film with a great message. Despite the fantastic elements, Ebenezer’s journey–sometimes funny, sometimes scary, sometimes sad–was believable.
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★
A year after the McCallisters accidentally left Kevin alone at home during Christmas, the family decided to go to Miami for vacation in hopes of getting some sun. Once again, the parents (Catherine O’Hara and John Heard) overslept the night before so the family had to rush to the airport in order to catch a plane. But they didn’t leave Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) at home this time around. They actually lost him at the airport because Kevin followed a man with the same coat as his father which resulted to our little protagonist boarding a plane to New York City. The sequel to the highly successful “Home Alone” proudly followed the same formula as its predecessor which was not necessarily a bad thing. While it was slightly weaker than the original because it did not feel as fresh, this installment was still entertaining because Culkin was still endearing as young Kevin and he had a knack for solid comedic timing mixed with being cute as a button. The fantasy of being in the Big Apple, staying in a fancy hotel, and spending as much money as possible was something that we can all to relate to. I have to admit I did salivate when I saw the obnoxious amount of candy and ice cream that surrounded Kevin in his hotel room. The two idiotic burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) from the first movie escaped from prison (now calling themselves “Sticky Bandits”) and planned to rob a toy store in which all of its profits were supposed to go to a children’s hospital. Kevin heard about their evil plan so he planned to punish the two in a relatives’ house currently being renovated before handing them over to the cops. The confrontation scenes were much longer and much more violent. I especially enjoyed the scene with the seemingly endless number of bricks being thrown at the villains. It was very violent but no one lost consciousness or died (there wasn’t even a drop of blood). It felt like watching an episode of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner–the slapstick came hard and fast but every chuckle and laugh was earned. I was surprised that a giant hammer or an avalanche did not make an appearance. “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York,” written by John Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus, embraced its cuddly simplicity, but both children and adults would most likely find it very entertaining. Everything felt bigger in scope with excellent supporting actors like Tim Curry as the suspicious hotel clerk and Rob Schneider as the bellboy who just wanted a generous tip but couldn’t get any. It is unfortunate that most sequels lose the energy and charm that made the original material so fantastic. Luckily, It wasn’t the case here.
Love Actually (2003)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Richard Curtis, “Love Actually” followed nine stories of people in love, which did not necessarily have to be in connection with romance, prior to and during Christmas. “Love Actually” is one of those films I feel the need to watch around early December to get me in the mood for the chilly holidays. It is also one of those movies that I decide to watch whenever I’m in a bad mood because it never fails to make me smile. Out of the nine storylines, two of them were uninteresting compared to the rest. Kris Marshall’s character believing that he’d only get sex in America because he claimed that British girls were snobs was good for one laugh but the rest of his scenes felt as desperate as he was. Meanwhile, Colin Firth playing a broken-hearted author felt too Nicholas Sparks for me and, aside from when he finally had the courage to ask the woman he believed he loved to marry him in broken Portuguese, the pace was too slow compared to the other vignettes. The three best stories involved Bill Nighy as a rockstar who would say and do anything to get his song to be the number one hit on Christmas (I loved the line when he advised kids not to buy drugs, that they should instead aspire to become pop stars so they could get drugs for free–hilarious!), Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman’s crumbling marriage, and Laura Linney’s struggle between taking care of her ill brother and finally making a move on Rodrigo Santoro after years of pining over him. Those three were very different from one another but they worked side-by-side because, while each was about love or passion, there was genuine sadness in each situation so we laughed more when something surprising or cute happened. The other four stories ranged from mediocre to barely above average. Hugh Grant as the quirky Prime Minister falling for the coffee girl (Martine McCutcheon) who everyone thought was fat was cute but ultimately superficial, the two pornographic actors (Heike Makatsch, Martin Freeman) were slightly amusing because they were awkward to watch but nothing more, Liam Neeson as a stepfather of a boy (Thomas Sangster) whose mother just died was incredibly sappy (but was somewhat saved by the “Titanic” scene), and Andrew Lincoln secretly pining (via exuding very negative energy) for his best friend’s wife (Keira Knightley) lacked edge and real drama. But I do have to say that, out of all the characters, I can relate with Lincoln’s character most because I usually act the same way as him with someone I like. I think he said it best: It’s self-preservation. But nevermind the film’s shortcomings. The clichés were abound but there were enough changes to the formula to keep me interested and, more importantly, laughing from start to finish. For a movie that runs for over two hours, it was relatively efficient with its time. If you’ve ever loved someone despite their imperfections, that is tantamount to how I feel toward this romantic comedy. To me, it is perfect.
Home Alone (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
The McCallister household was frantic a few days before Christmas because the entire family and a few relatives were about to head to France for vacation. Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), one of the youngest of the kids, felt neglected because his siblings and cousins wouldn’t take the time to help him pack his luggage. Not even his parents could take a minute of their time to aid the plucky youngster. So, during dinner, Kevin acted out and was sent to sleep in the attic as punishment. The next day, everyone slept in and had forgotten they had a flight. As a result of their hustle and bustle, they boarded the plane to Europe completely unaware that Kevin wasn’t with them. “Home Alone,” written by John Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus, was a huge success commercially because it played upon one of a kid’s and a parent’s biggest fear (being alone at home while burglars tried to force themselves in and leaving behind a child, respectively). One of the many smart elements about the film was the fact that the two criminals (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) were kept outside of the house for the majority of the picture. Kevin was forced to create many creative and funny diversions to make the robbers believe that the house had people in it. Much to Kevin’s advantage, the two criminals were complete idiots. (Their modus operandi was leaving the water running in the sink after they’ve looted the place.) What made the film much better than a typical child-in-trouble story was Culkin’s energetic and hilarious performance. He was as cute as a marshmallow but he was precocious so he was able to pull off lines that adults might say. His facial expressions–may it be surprise, joy, or teary-eyed sadness were simply priceless. Surprisingly, I found the slapstick comedy thoroughly entertaining. It wasn’t done just because it was convenient. The slapstick was a result of Kevin using household items (and his toys) as a defense against men who wanted to hurt him. When someone slipped on the ice or when someone was hit on the head with an iron, I couldn’t help but wince as if I was the one in pain. But the whole experience was enjoyable because we didn’t want the villains to get their hands on our tiny but brave protagonist. What did not work for me as much was the creepy-looking neighbor (Roberts Blossom) who turned out to have a heart. The scene dedicated to exploring the man’s backstory (a typical one at that) slowed the story’s momentum. Nevertheless, “Home Alone” is a very charming film. More that twenty years have passed since its release, but it still holds up as one of the favorite family movies often played around Christmas. I cannot image anyone not being entertained by its sharp wit, heart, and manic energy.
★★ / ★★★★
A baby orphan snuck into Santa Claus’s bag of presents and ended up in the North Pole. The baby was named Buddy and raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) and whole-heartedly embraced by the elfin community and strange creatures that lived there. But when Buddy became an adult (now played by Will Ferrell), he became more of a nuisance to the elves due to his size so he traveled to New York City to find his biological father (James Caan). The movie started off with promise because it was creative with its joke about a man who was so out of his element but was blind to the fact. Even more amusing were Buddy’s scenes with people in utter disbelief that he actually believed in Santa Claus with fervor to spare. Ferrell did a wonderful job playing a wide-eyed boy stuck in an adult man’s body. The slapstick comedy worked because kids like to put themselves in physically uncomfortable situations. However, the film failed to reach an emotional peak and establish a resonance like the best movies that took place around Christmas. While Ferrell’s interactions with Caan were amusing, I didn’t feel a genuine connection between the father and the son. When the son hugged with enthusiasm, the father reluctantly put his arm around his son to pat him on the back. There was no real growth between them. Too much of film’s running time was dedicated to the biological father’s challenges at work (which did not add up to much) instead of focusing on the problems at home (Mary Steenburgen as the very accepting wife was a joy to watch). I wish there were more scenes between Buddy and a salesgirl who loved to sing named Jovie (Zooey Deschanel). Farrell and Deschanel may not have chemistry (the film unwisely pushed their relationship to a romantic direction), but watching their friendship grow put a big smile on my face. Jovie always looked sad (which was ironic because I’m assuming her name came from the word “jovial”) and did not like to put herself in potentially embarrassing situations. Buddy was all about attracting all kinds of attention. Nevertheless, they got along swimmingly. While the majority of the film was about Buddy’s attempt of reconnection with the human world, the last twenty minutes was more about people believing in Santa Claus. I was left confused and I thought it was completely unnecessary. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that typing up dramatic loose ends was riskier than generating more pedestrian laughs. I thought the last few scenes were a desperate attempt to cover up weak storytelling. Directed by Jon Favreau, “Elf” had its share of funny and silly moments but its story needed a lot of work. Maybe the elves should have worked on the script so it could have had a bit of magic.
Black Christmas (1974)
★★ / ★★★★
A series of obscene phone calls terrorized a group of sorority girls during Christmas break. Little did they know that the person making the calls was hiding in their attic and he was just waiting for the right opportunity to kill them one by one. The three main girls were Jess (Olivia Hussey), reluctant to tell her boyfriend (Keir Dullea) that she wanted to abort their child, Barb (Margot Kidder), the one who did not seem to take anything seriously, and Phyl (Andrea Martin), the geek-chic with a funny haircut. I watched this film with incredulity. Chances are, if one had seen a lot of slasher flicks, one would not find anything particularly new from this picture. First of all, if I get multiple prank calls, I’l just unplug the phone. I’m not quite sure why such an action did not occur in the girls’ minds. The characters made one bad decision after another and I would not have put up with it if they weren’t so funny. I particularly liked the house mother (Marian Waldman) of the sorority who seemed to hide alcohol everywhere. She even used booze to wash her mouth after brushing her teeth! There were times when the comedic angle outshined the horror aspect which could not have been a problem for me if it wasn’t so hit-and-miss. At times I felt like it tried too hard to be amusing and it took me out of the experience. Like in most slasher flicks, the incompetency of the police force was highlighted. There was one obvious decision that was overlooked. When one of the girls from the sorority went missing, I was astounded when the police failed to search the sorority house from top to bottom. The girls had informed the police that the last time they saw the girl in question was when she headed upstairs, possibly to her room. A good detective knows where to start looking first. Since such an important piece was overlooked, I felt like the whole picture was merely a gimmick, to capitalize on the fact that the caller was actually in the house. Undoubtedly, “Black Christmas,” written by Roy Moore and directed by Bob Clark, influenced movies like Fred Walton’s “When the Stranger Calls” and Wes Craven’s “Scream” franchise. It did have its truly creepy moments such as the extended silent confrontation in the basement toward the end. I also liked the fact that certain questions remained unexplained so I could not help but think about it afterwards. But in the end, it felt too convenient. I’m just glad John Carpenter’s “Halloween” came out 4 years later to redefine slasher pictures or else “Black Christmas,” despite its good intentions, might have taken its spot.