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Thursday, December 18, 2014

The New Christmas Classics???: Christmas with a Capital C

Christmas with a Capital C (2011)

Plot: Liberal, big city lawyer/God-hating atheistic monster, Mitch Bright (Daniel Baldwin), returns to the small town in Alaska where he grew up, and upsets the mayor, his former high school rival, Dan Reed (Ted McGinley), when he demands that the town’s Nativity scene be removed from City Hall’s front lawn.  There’s also a useless B-plot in which the mayor’s son is absurdly unaware of how desperately a girl in his class wants to "go steady" him even though she makes it achingly obvious in every single scene they share.  Based on a song by a band called Go Fish.  Seriously.

Parts of Christmas with a Capital C made me mad.  Other parts enraged me to the point that I had the pause the film and passionately explain to an empty room why the movie was wrong and stupid and completely ignorant to how the real world operates.  Still other parts of the movie filled me with such red hot vitriol that I blacked out and woke up hours later to find myself bruised and bleeding amongst the wreckage of an outdoor shopping mall holiday display in the middle of the night, wearing only my boxer shorts, tennis shoes and a blue hoodie.  That only happened twice, by the way, and no charges were filed. 

To be honest, Christmas with a Capital C is pretty bipolar.  It is a movie primarily for Christians—both the breed of Christians who are under the mistaken impression that there is a full-on war raging against Christmas and the friendly neighborhood Christians you meet every day who will, in private conversation, reveal a semi-shocking attitude towards homosexual marriage or spousal abuse statistics among professional football players, but are mostly normal and think Santa Claus is “fun.” The movie tries to appeal to both groups and mostly pulls it off.  What the movie gets wrong is the same thing that most of these types of movies get wrong, and that is in its portrayal of atheists, agnostics and/or the non-religious.

Mitch Bright, Christmas with a Captial C’s Grinch, hates God.  He says it himself.  He bases his desire to see the town tear down its hand-carved Nativity display on the law, but he makes no secret of his hatred for God, Conservatives, small town values and Conservatives with small town values who also love God.  He is a simpleton’s (at best) or dangerous rabble rouser’s (at worst) idea of what an atheist/agnostic/secular humanist looks like, and it is simply not true.  Presenting non-Christian characters like this is akin to the fear-mongering my third grade Sunday school teacher practiced when she broke my brain squawking about Hell and the Devil.  Scare tactics like this are childish and potentially dangerous, and are one of the main reasons I’ve rejected religion wholesale.  Then again, I’m also fascinated with this stuff, and not just in that I like to bash people’s beliefs and make fun of them.  I don’t like to do that at all, that isn’t my passion.  I know too many wonderful Christian people to ever want to do that.  Doesn’t mean a weird movie full of unfair portrayals and dumb fanatical ideas can’t piss me off.

My favorite character in Christmas with a Capital C is the town minister (Note: There are only Christians in this small Alaskan town.  And one black lady.).  At one point during a city council meeting, the good reverend is asked what he thinks about taking down the Nativity.  He ponders the question for a moment and responds, “They’re just wooden figures.  We’re turning them into idols.”  I actually paused the movie at this point, and instead of raging, pointed at the paused image of the pastor and said, “Finally!”

Oddly, from that point forward, Christmas with a Captial C mostly stops being annoying.  It actually starts to get kind of nice.  Everybody in town who matters (i.e. the overtly Christian) gets into the true Christmas spirit, helping people and committing random acts of kindness.  Even the mayor’s whack-o brother gets into the act.

There is a last minute reveal of why Mitch Bright has returned to his hometown, his life now in utter shambles following a bad investment, but it’s nothing a handful of cookies and a Christmas carol sing-a-long can’t solve.  In the end, Mitch, while not rediscovering religion, which was both surprising and commendable, stops being a huge dick, and Mayor Reed and the rest of the town’s Christian citizens learn there is enough room at the holiday table for everyone, even well-educated, well-traveled, gravely-voiced, expertly-coiffed, non-Christian Baldwin brothers.

Christmas Classic, Fine Holiday Fare or Lump o' Coal: Depends on who you are really?  For most readers of this blog, Christmas with a Capital C will angry up the blood early and often, but then even out said blood somewhere around the middle, returning it to a simmer during Uncle Greg’s “hilarious” retelling of the Christmas Story, and then leaving it at an indifferent room temperature in the home stretch.  Other folks, might find the film charming and faith-affirming, perhaps agreeing with Uncle Greg’s crazy-eyed coffee shop rant about how Christmas is the best and all other holidays can suck it.  It all depends on how you feel about Uncle Greg, which is why, for me, Christmas with a Capital C is a big ol’ Lump o’ Coal. 

OH!  Perhaps you’re wondering who wins the Christmas Cup, the cross country skiing race mentioned here and there whenever anybody thinks about it throughout the film.  Well, I don’t remember, because who could possibly care.

Next Time: A couple is unfairly persecuted for doing something I’m certain thousands of people do every year; and America's most beloved dum-dum successfully saves Christmas.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

The New Christmas Classics???: 12 Christmas Wishes For My Dog; Coming Home for Christmas

12 Christmas Wishes for My Dog (2011)
Netflix Summary: “Taking the advice of a life coach, a young woman makes 12 wishes to bring about positive change—only to discover there are unintended consequences.”
“Unintended consequences,” huh?  Color me intrigued.  And how does the dog fit in?  This mystery dog isn’t even mentioned in the plot summary.  I wonder what he’s up to.  And how young is this woman?  Are we talking early twenties?  Late teens?  Late twenties-early thirties, but no older than 35?  This feels like it might be the perfect Christmas movie.
It’s important that you understand I’m not intentionally seeking out garbage movies.  Sure, if something floats up like a drowned squirrel in a rain-filled garbage can (true story!) with a title like, say, 12 Christmas Wishes for My Dog, I’m going to watch it, because even if it’s terrible, it could be “fun terrible.”  I do, however, adhere to my own personal Golden Rule, the rule I officially put into place after a viewing of Boardinghouse, without a doubt the worst movie that has ever been and ever will be made, which states simply, “If a movie straight up sucks from the get-go, I bounce, son!”  This has served me well in the ensuing years, though it almost screwed me last year when I nearly shut off 1970’s And Soon The Darkness because of its ridiculous theme music, but for the most part I’ve been pleased with my decision.  It hasn’t kept me from watching some fabulously good-bad movies, and that’s never been the point.  I love bad movies, but not Boardinghouse bad, not now, not ever.
What does any of this have to do with 12 Christmas Wishes for My Dog?  Well, after exactly 6 minutes and 40 seconds, I turned 12 Christmas Wishes for My Dog off, removed it from my Netflix Watch List and burned all memories of the almost 7 minutes I regrettably saw with the help of a turpentine-soaked rag.  So, this one is obviously a Lump o’ Coal.

Coming Home For Christmas (2013)
Plot: Two estranged sisters organize an old-fashioned family Christmas at the house they grew up in after their parents separate for reasons that are not entirely clear, but may be related to the husband's new rescue dog.  The only obstacle standing in the way of recreating the perfect Christmas is the fact that their old house is now owned and lived in by Mike, a hunky war veteran with mad wood-working skills and self-described “fields of game.”  All of this happens in Canada to Canadians, but don’t tell anyone because it’s a secret.  Shhhhh.
Earlier in this post, I mentioned my affinity for bad movies, specifically ones that capture my attention through their outright awfulness.  Coming Home For Christmas is not one of those kinds of movies, however, I did watch the entire thing.  It took me two days and I took a break halfway through to re-watch the first V/H/S movie, but for some reason, I just couldn’t quit this schmaltzy little turd bag.  

And don’t get me wrong, this movie is a five-alarm bag of flaming turds, but something about it kept me coming back.  I found myself genuinely curious about how Kate, the hero of this sub-ABC Family non-classic, would get her family to agree to reunite for Christmas at the old house.  At times I felt myself caring about Kate’s budding relationship with Mike, the handsome foster care kid/haunted American soldier with a Canadian accent, who actually utters the following line at one point: “You learn a lot from urban dictionaries these days.”  (What is he talking about? The Urban Dictionary online?  Or is an “urban dictionary,” of which Mike seems to think there are many, the 2013 version of a Tijuana Bible?).  I wanted to see Kate and Melanie’s oddly ageless parents--one of which is played by Amy Jo Johnson of Pink Power Ranger fame--get back together or at least explain to the audience why exactly they broke up in the first place since it appears to be the fault of an overzealous puppy.  I wanted these things and I cared about these characters, while, at the same time, hating the movie and wishing it would end already.  I blame my inner romantic, a side of me I am not embarrassed by nor desirous to get rid of.  It is true we aren’t currently speaking, seeing as it made me watch Coming Home For Christmas in it’s entirety and all, but I’m sure we’ll reconnect by Christmas Eve and it’ll be romantic and heartwarming.
Kate and Melanie are played by real-life Canadian sisters, and when they sing together—there is a whole lot of singing going on in Coming Home For Christmas—things aren’t so bad.  However, one of my least favorite scenes in the movie does revolve around singing.  It’s the last scene in the movie: Kate and Melanie’s parents are back together; Kate and Mike have settled all of their ridiculous non-issues and decided to become an item; Mike’s dead buddy’s son returns the war medal he stole (another “non-issue” the movie tries to make a thing for five seconds); and Melanie is sitting awkwardly in a corner, abandoned by her cheating husband, poor as dirt and going home to an empty McMansion when the holiday festivities have concluded.  Kate, Melanie and their dad begin singing a song titled “I Wanna Be Home For Christmas.”  It’s fine, nothing special, but halfway through, the aforementioned dead buddy’s son—whose name I don’t remember and whose portrayer doesn’t even make Coming Home For Christmas’s IMdB page (???)—busts in with a verse, LIKE IT’S A REAL SONG THAT EVERYBODY IN THE WORLD KNOWS!  “I Wanna Be Home For Christmas” isn’t a Christmas carol that everyone on the planet knows and loves, man!  It’s not “Jingle Bells” or “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeers” or “I Want a Ninja For Christmas.”  It’s a mediocre country-pop Christmas jingle tacked onto a boring movie about annoying Canadians.  Sure, the chorus has been stuck in my brain for weeks now and I’ve found myself singing it at weird, inopportune times (the shower; staff meetings; during sex), but it’s still not a thing.
Christmas Classic, Fine Holiday Fare or Lump o’ Coal: It’s cheesy and boring and innocuous, but I didn’t feel cheated out of precious time nor was it so awful that I found myself filled with homicidal rage, and, hey, I got to watch V/H/S/ again, which was pretty fun, so, I’ll give it a Lump o’ Coal.

Next time: A Baldwin brings the War on Christmas to a small town in Alaska!

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Saturday, December 6, 2014

The New Christmas Classics???: I'll Be Home For Christmas

Long ago, either by chance or secret, underground, unelected committee, it was decided which movies were worthy of the moniker “Christmas Classic.”  We are all aware of the films that comprise this list—It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Christmas Evil, The Santa Conundrum, Too Many Santas, Too Many Santas 2: The Santa-ning, just to name a few—but what if there are other holiday classics out there, movies that have been unfairly overlooked or outright shunned, waiting patiently to be discovered?  For example, Netflix is packed to the proverbial gills with Christmas movies that I’ve never even heard of!  What if one of them is the next It’s A Wonderful Life?  The next Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause?  The next Santa With A Shotgun?

I’ve made it my goal this holiday season to discover more films for the “Christmas Classics List,” a list currently on display at The Smithsonian in Washington, DC.  You may remember it’s cameo in the second Night in the Museum film, which was cut out of the movie proper, but included in the deleted scenes on the Special Edition Blu-ray, voiced by rap’s Biz Markie.  Throughout December,  I’ll be watching a bevy of holiday films, some currently streaming on Netflix, others recorded from TV, and still others from my personal collection, in the hopes of discovering a lost or overlooked classic, a Christmas diamond in the Holiday rough.  I’m calling this feature The New Christmas Classics??? and here comes our first candidate now.

I’ll Be Home For Christmas (1998)

Plot: Jonathan Taylor Thomas (doing an 86-minute Christian Slater impression) plays Jake, a Zack Morris-type, whose dad (Gary Cole, slumming it) promises him a Porsche if he can make it from the posh boarding school he attends in California to Larchmont, New York in time for Christmas dinner.  Unfortunately, Jake runs afoul of some campus toughs, who knock him unconscious, dress him up in a Santa suit, glue a Santa beard to his face and leave him for dead in the desert.  What follows is a “humorous” cross country road trip, rife with “hilarious” peril, in which JTT learns a handful of valuable life lessons.  It’s sort of like Planes, Trains & Automobiles without the jokes and the dynamic lead performances.  Also stars a young Jessica Biel.

As much as I enjoy movies about privileged white kids learning important lessons from various poor people and other assorted lowlifes, I could forge a real connection with I’ll Be Home For Christmas.  Sure, the soundtrack was packed with recognizable Christmas tunes, but for some reason I just couldn’t lose myself to the holiday spirit.  I think it had something to do with Jonathan Taylor Thomas.  In fact, I know it had something to do with Jonathan Taylor Thomas.

Look, I’m sure he’s a nice dude in real life—I haven’t heard any stories about him verbally assaulting any significant others or kicking kittens—but Jonathan Taylor Thomas is so intensely unlikable in I’ll Be Home For Christmas, it’s nearly unbearable.  Granted, maybe it’s his character, Jake, I don’t like. He’s a schemer and a liar and half-a-sociopath, but there’s something else, something unsavory under all of it, and I have a sinking sensation that it’s JTT himself.  He’s just so smarmy and cocksure at the same time, and that Christian Slater act doesn’t help.  I know Slater’s been getting shit for years for ripping off Nicholson, but that doesn’t seem so egregious when watching JTT rip-off a notorious rip-off artist.

My problem with Jonathan Taylor Thomas’s overall personality leads to another weird problem I found myself having while watching I’ll Be Home For Christmas.  Like it or not, Jake is the film’s hero, and like it or not, there were several points in the film in which I felt sorry for him, and in the end, I even started rooting for him, even while growling through gritted teeth, “Stop talking like that!” and “Why are you doing everything you are doing right now?!  Stop it!!!”  The resulting mix of feelings led to a spiritual nausea that made the viewing experience kind of difficult.

Another question that came to my mind while watching I’ll Be Home For Christmas was that old bon mot that many people detest, but has served me just fine over the last 30-plus years, “Who is this movie for?”  I had a guy yell at me online—I assumed he was yelling, and shaking his fists threateningly, though I guess I’ll never truly know—for asking this of the Joseph Gordon-Levitt vehicle Don Jon.  “It’s for whoever wants to watch it,” was essentially what he said, after explaining he hated when people asked this question and called me a stupid idiot moron (not really, but that’s how it felt) for even asking.  All I meant then, and all I mean now, is when the studio sat down and looked at I’ll Be Home For Christmas, who did they believe the film would appeal to, who was their intended target audience?  Was it kids?  Couldn’t be, really.  I mean, you had Jonathan Taylor Thomas, who we all fell in love with on Tool Time, as the star, but he wasn’t really a kid anymore and the situations he finds himself in are pretty dark—or dark for a Disney family holiday comedy—and adult-oriented.  So, maybe Disney wanted a more adult crowd?  Um, probably not, because there isn’t anything truly funny or original going on and the story isn’t even a little engaging, and you know how much adults love that stuff.  Well, families then.  Families would eat their Christmas dinners, maybe sing a few carols around the old tannenbaum and then fire up the VCR for a little I'll Be Home For Christmas-magic, after all, it is named after a popular holiday standard.  But, no, I don’t buy that either, because there is nothing for the majority of families in the American viewing public to latch onto or identify with.  I don’t know about you, but I never got a Porsche for Christmas.  But there are some important lessons about being selfless and giving to others and not being an asshole.  I don’t know.  Maybe that is a stupid question.  Maybe that guy on the Flop House Facebook page was right.  Maybe I am a stupid moron idiot dummy.

Christmas Classic, Fine Holiday Fare or Lump o’ Coal?: There’s nothing going on in I’ll Be Home For Christmas that hasn’t been done elsewhere better, the aforementioned Trains, Planes & Automobiles, for example.  Or Christmas With The Kranks, a film I’ll be discussing later this month, which also features one of the stars of Tool Time being a complete asshole (not of the unbearable, JTT-type however), learning important life lessons at Christmastime.  I’m afraid this one is a big old Lump o’ Coal.

Next time: A false start followed by gelatinous glop of holiday schmaltz, Canadian-style!

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