Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Silent Night, Holy $#!+

Christmas is a time of traditions. Movies are as much a part of Christmas tradition as anything else. Think about how you’ve spent your Christmas Days in the past. Chances are, after all the presents have been opened and the family’s gorged itself on “roast beast”, you’ve just sat around watching holiday movies: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, one version or another of Scrooge, and, most recently added to the list of classics, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. The thing about traditions, though; whether they be good or bad, there’s one thing they all have in common: They are all redundant. You may not be aware of it, but there are a multitude of Christmas movies out there that venture outside the “God bless us, everyone” mentality and are more interested in rocking your stockings off. This year, why not shake things up a bit and have yourself a badass little Christmas?

The obvious place to start is with the original Die Hard. If you have any taste in action movies (or indeed any movies), you’ve seen this already, but it’s a real treat to watch on Christmas or, better yet, Christmas Eve. It’s not completely devoid of a Christmas message, either. Most families have their share of volatility, be it marital friction or otherwise, and Die Hard is as good a Christmas parable as any in demonstrating the power of putting aside petty differences to recognize what’s really important in life. Furthermore, if you’re not exhilarated enough after watching Die Hard and want to see John McClane kill some more terrorists, you could always chase it with Die Hard 2 which occurs on Christmas Eve as well. In fact, if your holiday plans involve putting up with the madness of airport travel, Die Hard 2 will make you appreciate what you didn’t have to go through.

If you’ve seen Die Hard more times than you can stand, and your opinion of Mel Gibson hasn’t been permanently soured by his more recent personal antics, the original Lethal Weapon is a perfectly good action movie set at Christmas. According to the Mayo Clinic, suicide rates do not spike during the holidays (as it is widely believed). Regardless, if you happen to be depressed during the Christmas season, this is either the best movie to watch, or the worst. Suicide is pretty prevalent in the movie not just because of Sergeant Riggs’ death wish throughout the film, but it also opens with a coked-up whore plummeting to her death. If the filmmakers had a real sick sense of humor, rather than playing “Jingle Bell Rock” over the credits sequence that precedes that scene, they would have gone with “Let It Snow” instead. Speaking of Christmas carols, Sergeant Murtaugh’s wife is played by Darlene Love who sang the 1963 Christmas song “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” which, as it just so happens, plays over the opening credits of our next non-conformist yuletide film...

Gremlins was originally intended for a Christmas release, but Warner Brothers apparently didn’t have a movie set for the summer to go up against Columbia’s Ghostbusters and Paramount’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984. That, above all else, is probably why it’s not widely thought of as a Christmas movie. It should be, though. Really, before the beasties show up, the movie sets itself up to be a virtual remake of It’s a Wonderful Life. The family and the townsfolk are so innocent and harmless, you’d think the first third of the script was written during the 40’s. The reason it works so well as a horror movie is because of how much it’s trying not to be. When the Gremlins are sprung loose on the town, you almost root for them to teach the town of Kingston Falls a lesson in how things work in the real world. Plus, it’s damn funny. Joe Dante was the king of tongue-in-cheek creature features during the 80’s and he’s in classic form here. Tim Burton was one of the original contenders considered for directing Gremlins, but he had yet to do a feature film at that time. However, he eventually had a hand in two “darker” Christmas films during the 90’s: Batman Returns and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Both of which, like Gremlins, are good movies to watch at Christmas if your favorite holiday is Halloween.

If you like your Christmas horror even darker than Gremlins, you can’t get any blacker than 1974’s Black Christmas. Skip the 2006 remake, but be warned: This film is scary as hell. It’s not exceptionally scary in terms of suspense, but it excels in being uncomfortably creepy and will likely stick with you through New Year’s. For one thing, it has one of the most psychotic psychos ever seen (or unseen, as it were) and his menacing phone calls to the sorority girls will make your skin crawl. His victims aren’t exasperatingly foolish to the point where they’re asking for it (as most are in slasher films from this era) and he kills them so stealthily that the bodies aren’t found and the remaining survivors carry on as usual. They become increasingly concerned as the movie progresses, but their unawareness in being stalked makes this movie a nightmare-inducer for sure. It’s a wonder Black Christmas isn’t recognized as being a huge influence on the slasher genre. Perhaps it was overshadowed by the overtly shocking Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was released just three months earlier. Perhaps it’s because, ironically, it was directed by the same guy who did A Christmas Story. If nothing else, it should be a lesson to keep better track of your loved-ones during the holidays.

If you think Black Christmas is too much to take, yet Gremlins is not enough, try P2. Ample-bosomed Rachel Nichols plays a paralegal who becomes locked in her workplace’s parking garage on Christmas Eve by a lonely, but psychotic security guard who’s been watching her on surveillance cameras and wants her for himself. Like the characters in Black Christmas, our heroine/victim isn’t stupid, so everything that happens in P2, while sometimes far-fetched, remains plausible. The filmmakers do a good job of keeping things interesting given the limited resources they have within a parking garage. It’s a classic “what would you do if you were in this situation” movie and it’s bound to give you yet another reason to not work late.

If you’re looking for an excuse to not take your kids to see Santa Claus at the mall, refer to Bad Santa. Despite the fact this is a comedy, it’s probably the most objectionable Christmas movie mentioned in this article. You probably need to be even more thick-skinned to sit through this than Black Christmas. That’s not to say it’s not funny, but boy is it ever depraved. Even Billy Bob Thornton admitted he was genuinely intoxicated during most of his scenes. That said, it’s not without its holiday spirit. Buried deep in there, there’s a Christmas message on par with the moral of a “South Park” episode. You just have to wade through the sea of the insults and curse words to get to it.

Speaking of morally inept mall Santas, The Silent Partner from 1978 is worth checking out if you like cat-and-mouse heist flicks. Christopher Plummer plays a particularly nasty thief disguised as Santa Claus who intends to rob a bank in a mall. Elliott Gould plays an insightful teller who anticipates the robbery and boosts the money for himself once the criminal tries to make his move. Unfortunately for the teller, the thief is also quite resourceful and goes after Gould in his own less subtle and more intimidating ways. The film’s a bit dated and none of the characters are particularly likable (which is probably exactly how it should be), but there are some clever moments, surprising twists and a great payoff in the end.

The Ice Harvest is another Christmas robbery teeming with deceit and double-crosses. John Cusack plays a mob lawyer who masterminds a scheme to embezzle roughly $2 million from his boss. Billy Bob Thornton plays his accomplice with enough balls to pull it off. It’s never a good idea to steal from the mob, but as Bad Santa clearly demonstrates, it’s an even worse idea to trust Billy Bob Thornton as your partner. Interestingly enough, though, Thornton seems to remain the most sober throughout the entire ordeal. Watching this movie, you have to wonder if all characters are drinking because they made bad decisions, or if they made bad decisions because they’re drinking. If you intend to get liquored up at Christmas, this movie will make you glad you stayed home to watch it.

While the driving force behind The Silent Partner and The Ice Harvest is the money, a great Christmas heist film that’s more about the getaway is The Ref. Denis Leary plays a safe-cracking burglar stealing jewels who, while trying to evade incompetent local law enforcement, holes up in a dysfunctional married couple’s house and keeps them hostage while he awaits arrangements for an alternate getaway. The couple’s contempt for each other is so intense, it outweighs any danger they may feel in being held at gunpoint and, at some point, the thief concedes that the best way to keep these people at bay is to just let them go at it. He comes to find the dysfunction extends beyond just the marriage as their relatives start showing up for Christmas Eve dinner and that’s when things get really interesting. Leary essentially plays himself and you either find him funny or you don’t, but the credibility of the film comes from the impassioned performances by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis who deliver their lines as if this were a drama instead of a comedy. If your family Christmases have a tendency to become shouting matches, chances are you will find this film exponentially funnier.

A film with a similar set-up as The Ref, but a completely different outcome, is the highly underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Robert Downey, Jr. plays a petty thief whose botched store burglary (attempting to steal highly-coveted Christmas toys) sends him literally running into an audition for a movie role. His anxiety impresses the casting directors so much, they send him to Hollywood to take private detective lessons for the role they want him to play. In his apprenticeship with the PI, he stumbles across a murder investigation that involves his former childhood sweetheart. To tell you more would be to ruin it, but you should know the film received a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival. Shane Black, the screenwriter of Lethal Weapon, directs his own script and creates one of the most entertaining and astute pieces of film noir to come out of Hollywood in recent years. Ya gotta love a detective story where the narrator says “I was wetter than Drew Barrymore at a grunge club.”

Another great Christmas movie with clever crooks on the lam exchanging lively dialogue is In Bruges. The Christmas element is virtually absent from this film (it’s only really mentioned once in the beginning, once in the end, and we see a pregnant woman decorating a Christmas tree sometime in the middle), but it’s still worth mentioning. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play Irish hit men hiding out in Belgium over the holidays after an assassination that went bad. They later find out they were sent to Bruges for reasons other than what they were made aware of. The film starts off seeming as though it will merely be a comedy with these two becoming so bored at sightseeing in an ancient city that they’ll eventually blow their cover, but it’s surprisingly smarter and more complicated than that. It also pulls out some unexpectedly effective dramatic scenes and some profound observations about honor and redemption. This film would be ideal to watch when you’re traveling during the holidays and unable to spend Christmas with your family. Although, it’ll probably make you miss them even more.

Not many westerns take place over Christmas and even less take place in Australia, but The Proposition is the superlative western that fits both of those categories. It touches on similar themes as In Bruges (though it’s a helluva lot less funny and a helluva lot more violent) as the story is about an outlaw in the outback faced with a paradoxical ultimatum. Guy Pearce plays Charlie Burns, middle brother in the infamous Burns Gang. The oldest brother in the gang, Arthur, has become so ruthless and merciless in his criminal atrocities, the younger two brothers, Charlie and Mike, decide to separate themselves from the gang. Shortly after going on their own, they are ambushed at a brothel and captured by police. Police Captain Stanley then makes Charlie an offer. The always-reliable tough guy Ray Winstone as Captain Stanley croaks out the lines “Now, suppose I told you there was a way to save your little brother Mikey from the noose. Suppose I gave you a horse and a gun. Suppose, Mr. Burns, I was to give both you and your young brother Mikey here a pardon. Suppose I said that I could give you the chance to expunge the guilt, beneath which you so clearly labor. Suppose I gave you 'til Christmas. Now, suppose you tell me what it is I want from you.” Charlie croaks back “You want me to kill me brother.” From here, the violence escalates and eventually culminates into the bloodiest Christmas dinner you’re likely to see. If it’s a particularly cold Christmas where you are, this film will likely make you feel warm. Not in that touchy-feely way, but because the outback appears so swelteringly hot, you may even want to turn on the air conditioning.

If you’re interested in the pursuit of criminals, but you’re not up for something as grim as The Proposition during a time of peace on Earth and goodwill toward men, try the James Bond Christmas installment, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. At some point, Blofeld had to deliver the line “Merry Christmas, 007” before revealing his diabolical plan, so it’s good it’s in the proper context. It’s also good they set the bulk of film in Switzerland, not just for the Christmas-y feel of the Alps, but also because James Bond skiing is always a good thing.

If you like spy stories, but find 60’s era James Bond too quaint, try the Will Smith vehicle Enemy of the State. Smith plays a lawyer who is inadvertently slipped some incriminating evidence against the National Security Agency while he’s Christmas shopping. In turn, the NSA completely uproots his life to destroy his credibility and turn him into a fugitive. If you’ve had an especially frantic holiday season and feel like you’re dealing with more than you can handle, this movie should set you at ease. The foot chases alone will make you glad at least the government’s not after you.

Another manic Christmas action/comedy is the 1999 rave culture film Go. The second half of the 90’s produced a number of Pulp Fiction wannabees (i.e. criss-crossed story lines involving witty criminals), but Go was one of the better ones. In fact, watching it today, it feels original enough to not come across as merely a Pulp Fiction follow-up. It’s got a Christmas-themed rave, tantric three-way sex, Amway-selling cops, supermarket Macarena, a telepathic cat, and an interesting diatribe on The Family Circus. The Christmas elements are worked in rather cleverly as well. Most notably, one lascivious character holding mistletoe over his crotch.

A darker look at a “hedonistic” Christmas can be found in Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut. Rumor has it Kubrick set this film at Christmas predominantly for the lighting. Whether that’s true or not, setting the story during the holidays emphasizes its impact. Like most Kubrick films, this one is pretty eerie and, given the subject matter, probably not one you’d want to watch with your wife or girlfriend over Christmas. However, it will probably scare you straight in matters of fidelity. If you do watch it with your lady, be prepared for some heavy conversation afterwards. Furthermore, if you were thinking of cheating on your lady during the Christmas season in the first place, shame on you. Consider this movie your penance.

Lastly, what list of badass movies would be complete without a nod to war films? Two emotionally-stirring war films occurring on Christmas are the similarly-themed Joyeux Noel (set during World War I) and A Midnight Clear (set during World War II). The most effective war films usually end up being profound anti-war stories and both of these films are exactly that. More specifically, both highlight the absurdities of war.

Joyeux Noel is based on the true story of the cease-fire on Christmas in 1914 along the Western Front. French, German and Scottish soldiers agreed to a truce for the duration of Christmas, first for the sake of singing Christmas carols. But, they ended up not only having a joint-Christmas Eve service on the battlefield, but helped bury each other’s dead soldiers the next day and even played soccer together as well. Of course, when fighting resumed, the soldiers couldn’t bring themselves to kill their “enemies” and even went so far as to allow the Central Forces to hide in the Allied Forces’ trenches and vice versa in order to avoid artillery fire. If there ever was a “touching” war picture, Joyeux Noel is it and it probably exemplifies the true meaning of Christmas more than any other film mentioned here.

A Midnight Clear is much like Joyeux Noel, but on a smaller and possibly more tragic scale. A squad of six American soldiers is sent to an abandoned house in Ardennes to keep an eye on the border during the final days of World War II. They come across a German platoon who, despite ample opportunity, decline to attack or kill the Americans. Naturally, this confuses the Americans, but during an impromptu Christmas service held by the Germans, it occurs to the Americans that perhaps the Germans wish to surrender, but are hesitant for the sake of treason. This leads to a delicate dilemma for all the soldiers involved and, in the volatility of war, doesn’t work out as well as you would hope. This is a more existential look at conflict and ultimately concludes that, in war, even when you win, you lose.

So, now even the Grinchiest of you can’t say that you entirely hate Christmas movies. You’re bound to find something you like amongst all those holiday flicks. In fact, there are almost enough movies mentioned here to make yourself a movie-a-day advent calendar, if you’re so inclined. Start a new tradition at your household this year by inviting Martin Riggs, James Bond and Batman to join George Bailey, Ebeneezer Scrooge and Charlie Brown in your holiday NetFlix queue. As the closing line of Die Hard says, “If this is your idea of Christmas, I gotta be here for New Year’s.”

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