Tag: christmas

Better Watch Out

Better Watch Out (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

Those expecting an effective hybrid of horror and dark comedy are certain to be disappointed with “Better Watch Out,” a weak attempt at wringing terror and uncomfortable laughs from the audience. It is a beautifully photographed film, the story taking place in a house seemingly taken right off a high-end furniture ad which works as great contrast against the would-be grizzly goings-on inside, but nearly everything about it comes across forced and unconvincing. I doubt that even viewers who have little to no experience with the sub-genre of Christmas horror would be impressed by it.

The premise involving a babysitter (Olivia DeJonge) having to protect a pre-teen (Levi Miller) from home invaders is nothing new, but writers Zack Kahn and Chris Peckover, the latter directing the picture, manage to deliver a few unexpected twists. The first third shows potential to genuinely entertain. I enjoyed that the big twist is not revealed somewhere in the middle or during the final fifteen minutes. Even I caught myself leaning toward the screen, wondering what else the film has under its sleeves. However, once such surprising turns are taken, look closer and realize there is no substance behind them. As a result, the twists, including the work as a whole, fail to leave a lasting impression.

Although a horror film with supposedly suspenseful sequences, the building of tension is wildly inconsistent. For example, when a character is tied to a chair, there is so many dialogue between predator and prey that drags. Obviously designed to establish a semblance of character development, the problem is that the characters are not interesting in the first place. It does not help that the pauses are empty, ill-placed, awkward. This is not a horror film told through dramatic lens occasionally and so silences function merely as nails on a chalkboard rather than creating moments of rumination or giving us the opportunity to connect the dots.

Horror pictures and dark comedies usually thrive on exaggeration, pushing the envelope to such an extent that they either offend or confuse the viewer about the messages to be conveyed. And so it is curious that the approach here is rather prepubescent, undeveloped in that it is neither pushed to be too scary nor too darkly comic. I found that the material is afraid to pummel the viewers into feeling extreme emotions. Were the filmmakers afraid that if the material were too bleak it would not make money? And if so, why bother to tackle this mishmash of genres at all?

“Better Watch Out” might have been a more potent film had the writers taken the time to revisit and think about the works of Michael Haneke and Gaspar Noé for these great directors know how to craft seemingly ordinary premises and pervert them into unforgettable experiences. Instead, what results is a mere punctuation in the sea of ordinary, unimpressive, factory-sealed horror-dark comedies released annually. Hard pass.

A Bad Moms Christmas

A Bad Moms Christmas (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

There is a handful of good ideas in “A Bad Moms Christmas,” adding the moms’ moms into the chaotic holiday equation among them, but none of them are thoroughly realized in order to create a sequel that is not only necessary but also a natural progression in terms of mothers’ roles in providing X-Mas cheer to everyone in their familial and social spheres. Laughs are sprinkled throughout, some of them big ones, but for a movie that is supposed to highlight the many struggles that mothers go through during the most stressful time of year, the situational comedy often comes across as superficial, especially those that involve unnecessary slapstick humor. The screenplay requires a bit more soul-searching.

The three mothers introduced are played by Susan Sarandon, Cheryl Hines, and Christine Baranski—the rock ’n roll mom, the mom with an unhealthy attachment to her daughter, and the perfectionist, controlling, type-A mom, respectively. All are written with distinct personalities and the performers are able to find varying notes, often in one scene, as to prevent the characters from becoming stale. One must be singled out. Baranski is a scene-stealer; she can say paragraphs while merely employing sharp looks and an entire essay using a sigh followed by prolonged silence. Every time she is on screen, she commands the room as if she were the lead in the film that was all about her. I want to see a movie that focuses on this character being played by none other than Baranski.

The mothers from the predecessor (Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn) is the less entertaining half. While they are certainly not as over-the-top as their mothers, notice there is barely any evolution to these central characters. Kunis, Bell, and Hahn retain their solid chemistry as a group, but I found the characters to be whinier this time. Consistently, they fail to find resourceful avenues to attempt to solve their problems. Perhaps the reason why their mothers are introduced in this installment is because the central characters have already learned nearly everything they could to be able to raise happy children in the previous film. It is frustrating that the writer-directors, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, have lost sight of the main protagonists.

As far as holiday comedies involving dysfunctional families go, there are effective tear-jerker moments toward the end. Particularly moving is the church scene between Kunis and Baranski. It is impressive how the former is able to shift suddenly toward a more dramatic tone with utmost sincerity. We have seen her in plenty of comedies and some sci-fi, fantasy, and thrillers thus far. It made me wonder how Kunis might fare in classically dramatic roles. It might be interesting because her look and the way she carries herself is so modern. But I think she has it in her to excel in dramatic roles with the best actors in the business.

“A Bad Moms Christmas” is a stocking filled with mixed goodies. But what cannot be denied is the energy behind the performances. At times the actors manage to sell the stupidest jokes and because they try so hard, we laugh anyway… sometimes simply because of how awkward it is. Here is a comedy that is entertaining enough but one that is not as smart nor as pointed as it could have been had the writers taken the time to really hone in on 1) who the main characters are, 2) why this chapter is worth telling, and 3) the connections between points one and two.

A Christmas Horror Story

A Christmas Horror Story (2015)
★ / ★★★★

“A Christmas Horror Story,” directed by Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban and Brett Sullivan, is not a slasher film but it might as well have been one because by the final ten minutes, almost all of its characters have died in gruesome ways. It is a depressing horror picture because it offers no suspense, thrill, or even a modicum of gore shed in a creative way.

Instead, the film offers a lot of busyness, from the intolerably ordinary dialogue to high-pitched tones and screeches when something pops up from the corner or ceiling. Although the plot involves four stories told side by side, tenuously connected by a pair of horrible teen murders in a prison exactly a year ago, not one is even marginally interesting. The most convincing element in the movie is how the snow looks.

Perhaps the “best” of the four terrible strands, certainly one with the most potential, takes place in the North Pole as Santa (George Buza) makes last-minute preparations for Christmas Eve. During their busiest time of the year, an infection begins to spread amongst the elves, rendering them rabid, murderous. There is a brilliant twist in the end that completely captivated me, I caught a smile being drawn on my face despite wasting more than ninety minutes of my precious life with this truly egregious picture.

Right on that story’s tail, in terms of potential but not execution, is a family of three (Adrian Holmes, Oluniké Adeliyi, Orion John) who sneak off into the woods to cut down a pine tree. On their way back, the little boy gets separated from his parents. Mom and Dad find him after a couple of minutes… at least someone who they believe to be their son. This story should have been the most suspenseful because there are plenty of quiet moments where—if the screenplay had been sharper—we had a chance to wonder what one was thinking or feeling. Instead, the material relies on jump scares and badly edited, so-called attacks.

Most intolerable and groan-inducing involves a trio of high school students (Zoé De Grand Maison, Alex Ozerov, Shannon Kook) sneaking into the aforementioned prison to capture eerie images for a school assignment. These teenagers do and say nothing interesting or funny, or anything mildly amusing. The images are plain, downright ugly, computerized, most uninspired. And yes, because the characters are teenagers, sex just had to be utilized for the sake of being utilized—which I found disgusting, degrading, and insulting.

I would like to know whose idea it was to include such unnecessary scenes to the story and tell him, or them, personally to grow, barter, or buy imagination because what he has, currently, is not working. Audiences do not need more people like you to contribute such tawdry, vile, less-than-nothing ideas and pass them as art. If you are unable to acquire said imagination by your next project, please do yourself—and us—a favor and find another career path. It is never too late to find something you’re actually good at, preferably a path that could actually benefit society, not set it back.

Dead End

Dead End (2003)
★★ / ★★★★

It is Christmas Eve and the Harringtons are on their annual trip to spend the holiday with their extended family. But this time is a little different—while everyone sleeps, Frank (Ray Wise) decides to veer off the interstate and take the backroads. After a scare from an oncoming car, the Harringtons soon realize that they are lost. As they drive on a straight line for miles, there is nothing on the side of the road but trees… and a woman dressed in white, holding something. Frank pulls over to ask if the woman needed help.

“Dead End,” written and directed by Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa, is a horror-mystery with some dark humor but its energy and creativity is not sustained throughout. What results is a lopsided picture—very strong up until the halfway point but lukewarm at best as it reaches the climax. It offers solid performances, particularly from Ray Wise and Lin Shaye who play the bickering parents.

Some humorous dialogue is found here. Wise and Shaye approach the delivery of their lines almost like a dance—they hold their own and yet there is grace in their partnership and so we believe that their characters have been married for decades. Notice that some of the comments they have for one another are jokes that are clearly meant to annoy yet at the same time there is a sting embedded in these comments. It is almost as if they cannot help themselves because being silent around one another would mean they would have to deal with some of the more deeply hurtful things they keep secret.

The younger performers pale in comparison. In fact, I found them somewhat unbearable. Mick Cain and Alexandra Holden play siblings, but there is not one convincing moment that Richard and Marion really did grow up under the same roof. There are a few hints of generational gap in the script in an attempt to create some sort of substance in how they relate (or not relate) to one another, but—unlike Wise and Shaye—they share no partnership or bond, even a tenuous one.

There are no big scares but there are a handful of creepy moments. A baby carriage appearing in the middle of the road stands out. The matriarch warns that none of them should take the risk of going out and looking at what’s in there; they should simply drive the car around it. Meanwhile, the rebellious son thinks it would be funny to jump out of the vehicle to check it out. This scene and others like it—at least during the first half—work because the writer-directors take their time with beats and pauses. They have the acuity to deliver exactly what we expect at times and something we do not at all expect in other instances.

The ending is predictable because the foreshadowing is not subtle enough. The manner in which the foreshadowing is executed likens that of a novel aimed at tweens. More perceptive viewers are likely able to sit through the increasingly bizarre events and guess correctly what exactly is occurring. It takes away some of the enjoyment from the picture. There ought to have been more red herrings to keep us off-track.

“Dead End” offers some intrigue, eerie moments, humor, and solid lead performances, but it might have been stronger as a horror picture if the screenplay had gone though more revisions. Work is needed during the latter half—particularly in adding more genuine scares. Writer-directors Andrea and Canepa could have made the material more dynamic—a consistently beautiful dance between morbid dark humor and old-school road trip horror with a dash of “The Twilight Zone.”

You Better Watch Out

You Better Watch Out (1980)
★ / ★★★★

When Harry was a boy, he saw Santa Claus go down the chimney, deliver presents under the tree, and leave where he came in. But his brother, Phil, said Santa was not real. Harry, disappointed, went back downstairs to confirm what he had seen. However, his mother was there with his father, dressed up as Santa, and the two were engaging in a sexual activity.

About thirty years later, we learn that Harry (Brandon Maggart) has not yet recovered from his discovery. Once he encounters anything related to his favorite holiday, his mind goes back to a place of anger. He has a plan. On Christmas Eve, he will not only dress up as Santa but actually become him. By giving presents to the nice children and punishing the naughty ones, he hopes that children will cement their belief in Father Christmas.

“You Better Watch Out,” also known as “Christmas Evil” and “Terror in Toyland,” is far from an effective horror flick, but it does have a few scenes with fine touches that hint at its raw potential to entertain. What we have here is a terribly confused screenplay. While Harry is a killer, somehow we are supposed to sympathize with him because he is not in control of his fractured mind. This can work but only if the material has a solid understanding of the complexities of abnormal psychology. But since the film barely scratches the surface of a troubled mind, a lot of it comes off as sick.

I liked the several seconds of Harry making his Santa outfit from scratch. There is no dialogue and so the attention is on the images. Maggart is a good fit for the role because he is able to convey a manic hunger in his hands as his character caresses the red cloth. But there is not enough scenes like this. Most of the time, we see him slowly losing his temper in public and in front of his co-workers. I argue that truly disturbed people, the ones functional enough to take the time to plan out their attack, are very good at hiding their true natures. Once they strike, we are shocked because they seemed so normal.

The kills are cheaply executed. There are only a few of them but there is neither energy nor originality in the violence. We might as well be watching a slideshow: one shot depicts the raising of the hatchet, the next shot is of the weapon making contact with a body part, and the last shot involves blood gushing out. These are accompanied by music that is real loud and annoying, a sign that the filmmakers do not have the confidence to let us interpret that the images are horrific. A supposedly terrifying music had to be there to lead us.

Because the script lacks strength, it is all the more reason for the filmmakers to allow the images to speak for themselves. With the exception of Harry creating his Santa suit and the scene involving Harry as Santa being invited at jubilant gathering—drinking, dancing, and handing out gifts—the images lack spark. You can get up and not look at the screen for five minutes or so and not miss anything. This is never a good sign.

Written and directed by Lewis Jackson, “Christmas Evil” might have been better off as a psychosexual horror-comedy. I was amused by Harry being so easily upset by a boy looking at Penthouse magazines. (He spies on the neighborhood kids using a pair of binoculars—what a creep!) I wished that his disgust toward anything that relates to sex or sexuality had been explored more. Why not have a woman (or man—whichever) at work be interested in him physically and allow the story to go from there? After all, his madness is directly related to what he saw during Christmas ’47.

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

Ebenezer Scrooge (voiced by Jim Carrey) is an old man who holds onto his money so tightly, he eventually gets a reputation of being a parsimonious grouch around town. Christmas disgusts him because the very idea of people sharing food, exchanging good words, and being easy with money seem so foolish and false. Recognizing that Scrooge needs to change, Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman), Ebenezer’s deceased business partner, pays him a visit and announces that three ghosts— The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future—are going to show him why he needs to change his outlook on life and the way he treats others.

Directed and written for the screen by Robert Zemeckis, “A Christmas Carol” is a lively animated film that proudly takes some liberty in diverting from Charles Dickens’ classic novel. While others might criticize or dismiss the style of animation as “creepy” due to the characters’ blank and bug-like eyes, I enjoyed its artistry and level of detail.

I liked seeing the many wrinkles on Scrooge’s hand and face. By highlighting his physicality, the minutiae force us to look a little bit closer, especially on his facial expressions when another character says, does, or shows him something that pushes him to become emotional. It gives us a chance to look closely at the protagonist prior to his inevitable change of heart. For the record, I did not care if the animated humans looked convincing. (I did not they think were.) What matters is how well the story is interpreted, if its strengths overshadow its weaknesses, and if it entertains.

The film takes risks when it comes to embracing the scarier elements. For example, prior to Marley’s appearance, Scrooge is shown cowering in his chair when he hears strange noises in the other room. There is a dance between silence and a suspenseful score. I enjoyed the way the film takes its time to milk every emotion that Scrooge experiences: uncertainty, curiosity, and fear. When he hears creaking noises, he does not simply rush to the door and slam it close. His stubborn personality dominates even when his instinct urges him that something is very wrong.

Furthermore, there are some exciting and beautifully rendered chase sequences between The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, a shadow in the shape of the Grim Reaper, and Scrooge. While the scarier elements can potentially force younger kids to want to look away or leave the room, they are effective and necessary because the main character’s intractability needs to be shaken out of him.

However, the picture’s enthusiasm in featuring what it can do with its style of animation is not always for the better. There are a handful of scenes when it takes on a little too much like when Marley leaves and Scrooge sees a lot of suffering translucent green ghosts outside his window. Marley’s appearance and exit are executed just right but adding other ghosts just because they are pretty feels like an overindulgence. This problem persists in scenes where Scrooge must interact with the three ghosts. Instead of following a formula that works sans flashiness, the picture occasionally goes off on tangents in terms of its visual effects and I wondered when it was going to get back to simply telling a story.

“A Christmas Carol” is an optimistic exercise of an evolving technology. Since it offers some good humor, the more sensitive moments are believable. It just needs to pull back when necessary so the magic it wishes to show does not lose its power.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
★★ / ★★★★

The Grinch (Jim Carrey) was born in Whoville, a place where everyone loved Christmas, but he ran away to live at Mt. Crumpet because he was bullied as a child for looking different. He grew up to hate Christmas and was absolutely willing to do anything to ruin Whoville’s good cheer. When a little girl (Taylor Momsen), doubtful of what Christmas was supposed to be about, suggested that the residents gave Grinch a chance to be a part of them, it just might be the perfect opportunity for him to ruin Christmas once and for all. Based on Dr. Seuss’ book and directed by Ron Howard, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” was harmless, silly, and colorful which almost made it a perfect movie to watch around Christmastime. I just wished its heart was the priority instead of the comedy. Admittedly, despite the many slapstick scenes that made no sense whatsoever yet without a doubt would appeal to younger children, I did laugh at Carrey’s manic energy and deranged facial expressions. I smiled at the small chaos he created like giving little girls a saw and encouraged them to run around with it. I especially loved it when the filmmakers were brave enough to allow the mean, green Grinch to look into camera and comment on things like kids being desensitized by movies and television nowadays and the dangers of stress-eating. The latter was especially hilarious because most of us are guilty of it during the holidays. The Grinch mentioned the innate commercialism of the holiday as well. Some may perceive it as distracting but since he was a cynic, I thought it was appropriate for his character. While it was amusing because of Carrey essentially carrying the picture, I yearned for more moving moments. A bit of silence would have gone a long way. Naturally, the Grinch was a lonely creature. Although the material provided background information about why he decided to live by himself, it felt too superficial. I kept waiting for the film to explore the Grinch’s feelings of abandonment at the gut level. Furthermore, didn’t his parents look for him after he ran off into the snowy mountains? How did he meet his adorable dog? There were some unanswered questions that should have been answered or at least acknowledged. After all, without really understanding the misunderstood creature, how could we buy into his eventual change of heart? We wouldn’t just love him because he decided to return the toys he stole in the first place. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” didn’t quite steal my heart but it managed to entertain. Hats off to Carrey for shining through the green costume and make-up.