Friday, December 17, 2010

The 10 worst Christmas movies of all time

Word has it that some Christian groups are up in arms (what else is new) about “Black Christmas,” the new remake of the 1974 horror flick. In the movie, a group of Sorority sisters move into a new house and begin getting threatening phone calls during Christmas break. Soon, the girls start disappearing, and it ain’t cuz’ they’re hiding, waiting for Santa.

We think it’s rather silly to get upset about nothing more than the use of the word “Christmas” in the title of a slasher film. There are far more reprehensible Xmas movies that don’t contain one murdered sorority sister. Let’s take the black bow off of our package of the ten worst Xmas movies ever made!

10) “Surviving Christmas” (2004)
Even the concept is depressing: Ben Affleck plays Drew Latham, a narcissistic, materialistic, lonely millionaire who pays the family currently living in his childhood home to let him spend the holidays with them. The Valcos turn out to be a dysfunctional, bickering lot who don’t exactly make the holidays bright. Of course, by the end, all is merry and gay, but despite a stellar supporting cast including James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara and Christina Applegate, the film is as discomforting as when creepy Uncle Chester catches you under the mistletoe.

9) Jack Frost (1998)
We’re on record as stating that we don’t think children’s entertainment needs to pull punches when it comes to difficult or disturbing material. And yet, there’s something that just feels wrong about a Christmas movie in which a neglectful dad dies and gets reincarnated as a snowman in order to have one last chance to prove his love. Part of the film’s problem is that it’s far easier to accept star Michael Keaton as a kinda jerky musician who would rather be on the road instead of home with the wife and kid than it is as a sentimental Frosty who spouts “clever” one-liners like “My balls are freezing!”

8) Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
Having had some success with another flying guy in a red suit, the producers of “Superman: the Movie” turned to Saint Nick, hoping for a repeat lightning strike (even reusing the superfluous defining tag, so we wouldn’t confuse it with “Santa Claus: the Hemorrhoid Cream”). Following the “Superman” formula, the script starts with the secret origin of Santa (a serviceable but unspectacular David Huddleston), then moves into a modern adventure in which an errant elf named Patch (a grating Dudley Moore) teams up with an unscrupulous businessman (John Lithgow) to create a competing holiday, “Christmas II.” Ponderously directed by Jeannot Szwarc (of, uh, “Supergirl”), the movie is amazingly devoid of any sense of wonder or joy, given the subject matter. The Rankin/Bass TV special “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” is a far more satisfying origin tale for Herr Kringle.

7) I’ll Be Home for Christmas (1998)
In this execrable Disney flick, Jonathan Taylor Thomas plays Jake, a wise-alecky college student who has trouble getting from California to New York for the holidays (he was gonna blow the whole thing off until his Dad promised him a vintage Porsche). Stuck in a Santa suit without a ticket, Thomas endures countless sitcom-level obstacles on his journey home. It’s kinda like “Ferris Bueller” meets “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” but with none of the humor of the former, nor heart of the latter. And Thomas (perhaps taking lessons from his “Home Improvement” dad, Tim Allen, the star of many a crappy Christmas movie) is one of the least likeable, most obnoxious leading men, uh, lads in film history.

6) Ernest Saves Christmas (1988)
In the second (of NINE!!!!) films starring Jim Varney as the mugging, “knowwhutahmean” spouting hillbilly, Ernest P. Worrell has to help Santa Claus find a replacement (a recurring notion in some of these films that we frankly find both improbable and troubling). “Ernest Saves Christmas” is about as warm and inspiring as any holiday movie starring a former commercial spokesman and shot entirely in Orlando Florida can be.

5) Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis play the Luther and Nora Krank, a couple who decide to skip Christmas when their daughter Blair (Julie Gonzalo) announces she’s going to go on a Peace Corps mission instead of coming home. But when Blair changes her mind at the last minute, the traditionally traditional Kranks have to rush to make the holiday happen in a hurry. It’s an okay premise, but the film is a ham-fisted, unfunny slapstick handled with the deftness and skill of a troupe of lobotomized orangutans. It’s a schizophrenic mess that wants to mock the Styrofoam snowman trappings of a middle-American suburban Christmas while celebrating them at the same time.

4) Jingle All the Way (1996)
You know how every December, the news has stories about parents beating each other up at the local Wal-Mart to get their hands on the last super-hot toy, be it Cabbage Patch Doll, Tickle Me Elmo or a Nacho LIbre action figure (that last one was a joke)? That’s the germ of the idea that begat the virus known as “Jingle All the Way.” Arnold Schwarzenegger alternately mugs and emotes through this stinker as Howard Langston, a neglectful Dad in a citywide race against an evil mailman named Myron (Sinbad!) to find the last available Turbo Man action figure on Christmas Eve. The film has all the believability of a Road Runner cartoon (a mail bomb explodes leaving a cop with nothing more than a dirty face), but with worse acting and an ending that will make you wish for a giant falling anvil to crush Ah-nuld and his annoying kid (played by the boy who would be Darth Vader, Jake Lloyd!).

3) Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
New York City, despite being mostly laid out in a simple grid system, can be a daunting place in which to maneuver, especially during the hectic holidays. But for the ever-precocious Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), it’s a brightly lit playground in which he can handily outwit the staff at the Plaza hotel, befriend a homeless pigeon lady, impress the head of the biggest toy store in the world and again enact kooky cartoon violence upon that inept pair of burglars, the Sticky Bandits (no longer wet, as they were in the first, almost as painful film). The contrivance that allows Kevin’s parents to again travel far without their youngest child is enough of a stretch, and we KNOW it’s not supposed to be a realistic film, but by the time Donald Trump makes his inevitable cameo, you wish he’d fire the entire cast and crew of this pile of pigeon droppings.

2) Santa with Muscles (1996)
We’re shooting fruitcake in a barrel here, but this “comedy” starring Hulk Hogan just can’t be ignored. The Hulkster (in a toupee worthy of William Shatner) plays Blake Thorne, a bodybuilding billionaire who gets konked on the head and wakes up with thinking he’s Santa Claus (see, he was wearing a Santa suit… the reason is absurd and besides the point). In short order, the steroid Santa battles an evil real estate developer (Ed Begley, Jr.) who wants to take over the local orphanage (home to a young Mila Kunis)! As in every Santa Claus film, the ripe, jolly old elf beats the crap out of bad guys and… oh, forget it. Yes, it’s that putrid.

1) Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
You may wonder why films like the cult classic, “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” (1964) or the 1959 Mexican weirdie, “Santa Claus” aren’t on this list. Well, first of all, they were made on a budget comparable with the cost of filling up the tank of an H3 and secondly, they’re actually a lot of fun! The same cannot be said of the big budget, live action version of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Ron Howard directs a hyperactive Jim Carrey as the scourge of Whoville in a film so overblown, so loud and crass, so utterly grating and charm-deficient, so lacking in rhyme (and reason) that you have to wonder if the filmmakers ever read Seuss’ beloved 1957 book or saw Chuck Jones’ classic 1966 cartoon version. Fans of this film argue that something had to be done to stretch the story to feature length, but by giving the Grinch a complicated backstory to explain his two-sizes-too-small heart and adding a superfluous romance, the beautiful simplicity of the tale gets buried at the foot of Mount Crumpet. The extreme accompanying merchandising likewise felt like something anathema to what Seuss intended, completely going against the notion that Christmas, perhaps, doesn’t come from a store.

Maybe the reason that generally acknowledged Christmas classics such as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story” and “Miracle on 34th Street” achieved said status is how brightly they shine in comparison with the crass unoriginality of most holiday fare (and note that there’s nothing on this list from earlier than the 1980s). It’s as if one of Hollywood’s favorite holiday traditions is churning out crappy Christmas movies! Tim Allen, knock it off! Please!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

To oldly go where no man has gone before

Back when the original “Rocky” was released in 1976, probably not even Sly Stallone himself thought he’d be playing the character thirty years later. “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “Million Dollar Baby” aside, not too many movies about heavyweight boxers star senior citizens. But at least “Rocky Balboa” is ABOUT the fact that the sexagenarian Italian Stallion may well be too old to step into the ring. Hollywood has certainly set precedents that would allow the sequel to completely avoid the issue of Stallone’s age.

The issue of time is a fluid one in motion picture series. While it may take years for a I to stretch into a II and beyond, the story being told rarely matches production time. In the context of character-based franchises like “Spider-Man,” the characters are supposed to stay relatively the same age, while in something like “Harry Potter,” the maturation of the main character is an integral part of the story. Einstein’s theory of relativity almost feels as if it were designed for movie franchises.

Harry Potter” is unique in that at this point, the films practically piggy-back J.K. Rowling’s books, and the 7th installment is slated to be the final chapter of the young sorcerer’s tale. Since the books follow through the school years and the movies come so quickly, the actors are able to remain age-appropriate to their characters. It’s hard to imagine that at this point even Rowling herself doesn’t envision the films’ Harry, Daniel Radcliffe as she’s pounding at the keys.

But youth is adaptable, and even if takes years to get the final Harry film onscreen, many twenty-something actors can convincingly play both teens and more mature roles. As an actor passes through middle age, the suspension of disbelief can start to strain. Harrison Ford was in his late thirties when he first strapped on the whip and fedora to play Indiana Jones in 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which is the perfect age for the well-traveled, yet still spry archaeologist. It remained easy to buy Indy’s derring-do in the film’s two sequels over the next eight years, but the prospect of a 64 year old Ford returning to the role in the long-delayed fourth installment feels like it’s pushing it a bit. It’s probably no coincidence that one of the film’s working titles is “Indiana Jones and the Ravages of Time.”

But what about when a character doesn’t age, as in, say James Bond? In Ian Fleming’s original 1953 novel, “Casino Royale” (someone should make a movie out of that), the fledgling superspy is described as being in his mid-30s. Today, despite a 40-plus year history of films that outlasted the Cold War, 007 should still be about the same age. Of the six actors who played the character in the official series, George Lazenby was the youngest at 28. But “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969) was his only stab at the role, so we never got to see him age into the character. Conversely, Bond #3, Roger Moore, was already 45 when he stepped into the role in 1973’s “Live and Let Die.” Moore would stick with the character for another six films, making him 58 in his final outing, 1985’s “A View to a Kill.”

Now, obviously, Bond the character is not closing in on 60 in the film, but movie magic can only go so far and Moore seems in need of more than just the usual Q gadgets to keep going. You can practically hear Bond’s lumbago acting up as he battles Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) atop the Golden Gate Bridge. And with Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts) being perhaps the least appealing Bond girl of them all, you have to wonder how 007 kept his reputation in those pre-Viagra days.

But James Bond the icon is bigger than any actor (yes, even Sean Connery) who’s played him. We can accept new faces behind the Walther PPK. But what happens when characters become so identified with their portrayers that their fans would never go for a replacement, no matter how long in the tooth they get?

What happens is you get “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.” The 1989 entrant in the series (directed by Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner) finds the Enterprise being hijacked by Spock’s half-brother Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) in order to breach an energy field known as “The Great Barrier” and reach the planet Sha Ka Ree, the home of… wait for it… God! In fact, “God” turns out to be an evil presence imprisoned on Sha Ka Ree eons ago, but maybe it would’ve been better if the crew of the Enterprise HAD met their maker in this awkward, embarrassing flick.

The movie is filled with ill-advised humor at the expense of the crew, almost all of which were pushing (or past) retirement age at this point. They creak through the movie under the constraints of girdles, wigs, caps and layers of wrinkle-concealing makeup. A mountain-climbing Kirk sports a T-shirt under his Starfleet uniform that says (we kid you not) “Go Climb a Rock,” proving that Spencer Gifts still exists in the 23rd century. An overweight, dottering Scotty (Patrick Doohan) actually konks his head on a doorway and knocks himself out. Even the Enterprise itself, despite being a newly commissioned ship (to replace the one Kirk destroyed at the end of “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock”) is shown as being buggy and clunky, perhaps an unintentioned metaphor for the entire series?

The film was pilloried by the press (as well as the typically more forgiving fans) and the next film, “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991) wisely brought a decommission to the original full crew of the Starship Enterprise. And yet It seems as if it took nothing less than the deaths of James Doohan and DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy) to finally permit Paramount to recast the original characters in the upcoming reboot helmed by J.J. Abrams (creator of “Lost.”).

Still, Hollywood is so youth-obsessed that there’s probably some karmic balance in the fact that Steven Seagal (at a jowly 55) is still kicking butt and sporting ponytail in action films like this year’s “Attack Force.” Okay, so it’s a horrible, straight-to-video piece of product that doesn’t add anything worthy to the cultural landfill, but at least he’s not a drain on society!

And it’s undeniable that there’s something reassuring in the idea of Stallone returning to the role that made him a respected artist (remember, “Rocky” won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1977), even if that status was fleeting. It’s more believable in the context to think that Rocky Balboa could step back into the ring in his sixties than to think that the 23 year old Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane is an established Pulitzer Prize winning journalist with a four year old kid in “Superman Returns!” Just goes to show ya, there are times when older is better.