Talking Movies [Christmas Day]: Krampus

Talking Movies

Released: 4 December 2015
Director: Michael Dougherty
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Budget: $15 million
Stars: Adam Scott, Emjay Anthony, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Krista Stadler, and Luke Hawker/Gideon Emery

The Plot:
Young Max Engel (Anthony) finally has enough of his dysfunctional family’s squabbling and loses his festive spirit, which incurs the wrath of Krampus (Hawker/Emery), a fearsome, horned demonic beast who lays siege to the neighbourhood and forces the family to band together to save one another from a monstrous fate.

The Background
Everyone knows about Santa Claus; jolly ol’ Saint Nic has been the good-natured mascot of the season for generations and is celebrated as a figure of generosity and joy for kids the world over. You may be less familiar with Father Christmas’s demonic counterpart, Krampus, however; a monstrous figure whose roots can be traced back to pre-Christian Alpine traditions, the horned demon delivers coal and misfortune to the naughty at Christmas time. After breathing new life into the Halloween season in Trick ‘r Treat (Dougherty, 2007), director Michael Dougherty turned his attention towards crafting a scary Christmas movie and became inspired by the legend of Krampus. Taking his cue from horror-holiday classic Gremlins (Dante, 1984), Dougherty sought to infuse his Christmas horror with both dark comedy and commentary on family troubles and consumerism during the festive times. A worldwide box office gross of over $61 million made Krampus a decent financial success, and reviews were generally quite positive, with the film being praised as a modern horror classic for the season.

The Review:
Krampus kicks off not by establishing a horrific or disturbing atmosphere, but by showing an amusing representation of the many and varied moods that surround the festive season; against the dulcet tones of Perry Como’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”, shoppers rage and fight each other for presents and purchases, spend exorbitant amounts of money, and basically resemble little more than a manic hoard in their rush to fill the void of consumerism. Clerks and employees are largely apathetic and little more than zombies, completely worn out by their mundane profession and the madness of it all, and even the shopping mall Santa Claus is depicted as a lecherous and unsettling figure.

Despite Omi’s best efforts, Max loses his Christmas spirit thanks to his dysfunctional family.

Amidst all of this is young Max, who gets into a fight in the middle of a Christmas recital because an older, bigger kid was bad-mouthing the spirit of Christmas. Although he’s old enough to know that Santa Claus isn’t actually real, he still believes in the season and wants to keep the dream alive for those younger than him who deserve to find out naturally, rather than from some man-spirited kid, and is enthusiastic to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas (Melendez, 1965) as is his family’s tradition. His teenage sister, Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen), is far less passionate about the spirit of Christmas, or anything for that matter; disinterested in playing nice for the season, or the turmoil in her family, she’s far more concerned with texting and seeing her boyfriend, Derek (Leith Towers), though she does try to keep Max from lashing out when his cousins mock his letter to Santa over Christmas dinner. Of all of the family, only Omi Engel (Stadler) shares Max’s appreciation for the spirit of Christmas; dutifully baking cookies and helping to wrap presents, she encourages him to keep the magic alive. Warm and friendly, she spends the majority of the film speaking in German, which is a neat twist, and all of her immediate family understand her despite talking to her in English, which really adds a flavour to her character as a wise and loving patriarch. Rather than add to the stress of the season, Omi is a calm and reliable anchor who also carries the burden of a past experience with the horrific demon who comes knocking mid-way through the film.

Sarah is just barely holding everything together amidst the chaos of her family.

Sarah (Collette) is very much a mother, and a woman, nearing the end of her tether. Like a lot of mothers around this time of year, she’s feeling the stress of having to try and keep her dysfunctional family together and increasingly exasperated by all the little issues that keep cropping up; she just wants a nice, quiet, uneventful family Christmas but Max’s behaviour throws a spanner in the works and Beth’s attitude towards her in-laws coming to stay only adds fuel to the fire. Although her husband, Tom (Scott), is sympathetic and supportive, he’s not exactly an assertive force in the family, meaning that Sarah carries a lot of the burden on her shoulders. Her stress is only exacerbated when her sister, Linda (Allison Tolman), arrives with her massive troupe: abrasive husband Howard (Koechner), sluggish Howie Jr. (Maverick Flack), sporty sisters Stevie (Lolo Owen) and Jordan (Queenie Samuel), and baby Chrissie (Sage Hunefeld). The differences between the two families couldn’t be more apparent: where Tom is pretty easy-going and attentive and content to be more of a number cruncher, Howard is a loud, proud, all-American hunter and avid sports fan; where Max is friendly and chatty, Howie Jr. is a slob-like mute. Though both Sarah and Linda try to cope with their dysfunctional families as best as they can, things are even more strained when Linda brings along grouchy Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), a rude crank who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and criticise Sarah’s house, kids, or attempts to try and mix up the usual Christmas menu.

It doesn’t take long for horrific events to descend upon the town, and the family.

Despite Tom and Omi’s best efforts to keep Max’s spirits up, the mockery of his cousins is the last straw and, disillusioned, he rips up his letter to Santa Claus and tosses it into the frigid night air after ranting at his family for ruining Christmas. Almost immediately, bad things begin to happen; first, an ominous dark storm sweeps over the entire town, then the family wakes up on Christmas Eve to find a blizzard has buried them in show and cut off their heat and power. The first signs of something truly creepy come when Max spots a mysterious snowman in their front yard and a massive sack full of Christmas presents is delivered to their house. Already struggling because of the political, financial, and familial attitudes between their two groups, the sudden weather and power outage only further escalates the tensions in the house; this pales in comparison to the fate of poor, cute Beth, however, as she spots a demonic, hooded figure out in the blizzard and is promptly spirited away by the howling creature when she braves the storm to check on Derek.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Although the families find themselves trapped, freezing, and increasingly at risk, there is room for some much-needed bonding; Sarah and Tom share a quiet moment where they reflect on how stale their marriage has become, Sarah also reconnects with Linda over their shared memories of their deceased mother, and, in a twisted way, Max’s Christmas wish comes true as the families are forced to set aside their petty squabbles and work together to fend off Krampus’s minions. Even Scott and Howard find some common ground, despite one being a pacifist and the other being a gun-toting activist; when Howard is injured while they’re out searching for Beth, he hands his shotgun to Tom and finally offers him his respect as a provider and protector of his family. Although the film is largely bloodless (and there’s a case to be made that none of the main characters actually die) and the horror is offset by dark comedy and a biting wit, this serves to make the relationships between the characters all the more real and relatable. None of them are perfect, and their relationships with each other are severely strained (either explicitly or inexplicitly), but they find common ground in their crisis as they are all bound together by their fear and the need to survive.

Krampus is a scene-stealing, grotesque, nightmarish perversion of jolly ol’ Saint Nic.

Krampus employs a number of horrific minions to do its dirty work, ranging from vicious little gingerbread men, bloodthirsty toys, a demonic jack-in-the-box (Brett Beattie), and even cackling, perverted versions of Santa’s elves. Krampus’s minions may be cute and ridiculous but they’re incredible vicious and cruel, snaking down through the chimney on iron hooks and dragging the family away one-by-one. Krampus brings a number of these to life using digital effects, as is to be expected, but excels in its use of traditional, practical effects for many of its monstrosities, such as the aforementioned jack-in-the-box, which swallows Jordan whole up in the attic. Of course, the clear highlight is the titular creature itself, a cloven-hooved horror that appears as a nightmarish version of Santa Claus, Krampus sports a twisted, screaming face mask, devil-like horns, and long, talon-like hands. A lumbering, monstrous creature, Krampus isn’t onscreen for long, but its presence is felt throughout the film; when it does appear, it’s a heart-stopping and frightening experience as it looms over its prey and regards them silently or emits an animalistic growl. Its backstory is related by Omi, who recounts how she had a similar crisis of faith at Christmas time as a girl and evoked Krampus’s wrath, which left all of her family dragged to Hell and her as the sole survivor. This is related to the viewer as a fantastically gothic and Tim Burton-esque animated segue, and really helps to sell the mythology and horror of Krampus, who punishes the naughty and those who’ve lost hope at Christmas, and it’s pretty clear that Krampus’s minions take a perverse pleasure in tormenting their victims.

Krampus culminates in a surprisingly bleak ending that punishes Max’s loss of Christmas spirit.

While Howard is all gung-ho about fighting back, Tom maintains that the family needs to stay warm and come up with a practical plan to get all of them to safety using a nearby snowplough; this is scuppered, to say the least, then Krampus’s minions attack in full force, driving the survivors to fight back but eventually forcing them out into the blizzard while Omi stays behind to face her nightmare head-on when Krampus arrives in person. Omi’s attempts to appease the beast are met with failure, and Max is soon left all alone when his remaining family members are yanked beneath the snow one by one. While this is quite the abrupt ending for these characters, I’m okay with it as it leads into one of the best scenes of the film; not content with emerging from the chimney like a lumbering devil, Krampus prepares to toss Max’s family into a hellish pit when the boy rejects Krampus’s attempts to leave him behind, as it did Omi all those years ago. Despite Max angrily taking back his wish, and desperately pleading that all he wanted was for his family to be happy at Christmas like they used to be, Krampus simply mocks his tears and, rather than sparing the boy and undoing its evils, drops him into the pit with a vindictive chuckle. Max awakens the next morning to find his family restored, happy and healthy, but any hopes that his ordeal was some horrible nightmare are quickly dashed when he finds a parting gift from Krampus, and the camera pulls back to reveal that Max and his entire family have been trapped within the purgatory of a miscellaneous snow globe in Krampus’s terrifying workshop.

The Summary:
Krampus is a delightfully devilish little Christmas treat. It hits many of the same notes as you’d expect from a Christmas film (consumerism destroying the spirit of Christmas, dysfunctional families struggling to co-exist during the holiday season, and a festive wish gone awry) but puts a haunting twist on it all with some of the most unique monsters brought to life on film. I find the idea of Krampus (a beast I had never heard of until this film) to be incredibly appealing, and the creature’s design and characterisation are worth the price of admission alone. Sadly, it’s not on screen as often as I would like, but the film is littered with some appealing performances by a variety of veteran and character actors; even the kids do a stellar job and, some dodgy CGI aside, the film is really engaging from start to finish. Obviously, one of the things people remember most about Krampus is the incredibly bleak and dark ending, which sees the family presumably forced to relive Christmas morning over and over in a never-ending purgatory, but this, to me, is the perfect way to end the film. Some biting wit and dark comedy ease much of the film’s horror, but it’s still there thanks to some dark and creative shots in the snow-strewn streets and the way Krampus is framed as this monstrous devil, and the downer ending is like the cherry on top of an excellently crafted modern horror classic that’s well worth putting on to add a bit of spice to your Christmas viewing.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Are you a fan of Krampus? Where does it rank for you against other horror Christmas movies? Were you familiar with the Krampus figure before this movie and what do you think of there being this dark opposite of Santa Claus? Were you a fan of the film’s special effects and would you have liked to see more of the titular beast? What did you think to the bleak ending? What are your plans for Christmas Day today? Whatever your thoughts, sign up to comment down or leave a reply on my social media and have a great Christmas!

Talking Movies [Christmas Countdown]: Gremlins

Talking Movies

Released: 8 June 1984
Director: Joe Dante
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $11 million
Stars: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Howie Mandel, and Hoyt Axton

The Plot:
Struggling inventor Randall “Rand” Peltzer (Axton) purchases a mysterious, cute little creature known as a “Mogwai” as a Christmas present for his son, Billy (Galligan). The creature, nicknamed “Gizmo” (Mandel) comes with a strict set of rules that see it react in pain to bright light, multiply when exposed to water, and its mischievous progeny metamorphose into mean-spirited, destructive, aggressive little monsters that wreak havoc on Billy’s hometown on Christmas Eve.

The Background:
Produced at a time when blending horror and comedy was quickly becoming a popular trend in media and fiction, Gremlins was the brainchild of Chris Columbus, who was inspired to write a spec script after being creeped out by the sounds of mice in his attic. The concept has its roots in both Chinese mythology and Second World War propaganda warning of potentially faulty or sabotaged machinery, and the script was never intended to be a film but was pushed into production after Steven Spielberg became excited enough by the concept to buy the script. Joe Dante was brought in to direct and worked closely with Spielberg to design the look of Gizmo and the Gremlins, who were brought to life using puppets and animatronics designed by Chris Walas. The script was initially much darker, and Spielberg nixed the idea that Gizmo would transform into a villainous Gremlin, though the final film remained violent and disturbing enough to help forever change the way that films were rated. While the more violent aspects upset many parents, Gremlins was a massive hit; it made over $212 million at the box office and has been widely praised for its biting dark comedy and special effects. The film was succeeded by a great deal of merchandise, videogames, and a much more light-hearted sequel, as well as kicking off a trend towards vicious little creatures in horror cinema. Another of the formative films of my youth, Gremlins has long been a favourite of mine; it’s a staple of every Christmas, and I’m keen to see how the long-awaited third entry turns out.

The Review:
Gremlins begins framed as a story told to us by Rand, though his narration simply bookends the film to add to its whimsical nature as a kind of suburban legend, or campfire story, told to caution the viewer of the dangers of meddling with the unknown. Rand is an inventory, specialising in all kinds of wacky household doohickeys that are targeted at making life easier for the lazy and the dim-witted. A running gag in the film is the unreliability of his inventions, such as an orange juicer maker that explodes in Billy’s face, a remote phone (what a crazy idea!), and the Peltzer Smokeless Ashtray that produces a great deal of smoke! His pride and joy is the Bathroom Buddy, an all-in-one bathroom assistant that actually is pretty neat, but constantly malfunctions, usually right when he’s trying to sell it. Rand means well, and his heart’s definitely in the right place, and his passion and enthusiasm for science and inventions is certainly admirable but, sadly, he really hasn’t seen much in the way of success with his patents and is therefore heavily motivated to make up for his failures as a salesman and a businessman by getting his son a gift to truly make his Christmas.

As his father’s inventions are unreliable, Billy is forced to set aside his dreams to support his family.

After trawling the streets with no luck, Rand finds himself on the imposing streets of Chinatown, where a young boy (John Louie) leads him to the dingy, treasure trove of his grandfather, Mister Wing (Keye Luke). Mr. Wing’s shop is full of curios and antiques, and Rand is taken by the old man’s offerings, but is immediately besotted by a curious, singing creature unlike anything he’s ever seen before. Despite Rand slapping down $200 for the Mogwai, Mr. Wing refuses to part with the critter since it “requires much responsibility”. His grandson, however, slips Rand the Mogwai behind his grandfather’s back, desperate for the money to help the struggling shop, and emphasises the importance of following three rules to care for the creature: Don’t get him wet, keep him out of the sunlight, and never feed him after midnight. Off screen, Rand dubs the chirpy critter Gizmo and triumphantly returns home as a boisterous and much-loved figure to his wife, Lynn (Frances Lee McCain), and son Billy. While Lynn is a stay-at-home-mum and fills her days either struggling with Rand’s inventions or cooking, Billy is a hard-working lad in his early twenties (maybe?) A gifted artist, Billy works a full-time job as a bank clerk and is practically supporting his entire family with his meagre income; while the likes of Gerald Hopkins (Judge Reinhold) are far more successful and dynamic and local elderly miser Mrs. Ruby Deagle (Polly Holliday) constantly cause him headaches, Billy longs for more but is incredibly loyal to his family and willing to sacrifice his own dreams in order to support them.

Both Murray and Kate have their quirks, but at least Kate is quite the cutie.

It’s not all bad, though; Billy has a rambunctious dog, Barney (Mushroom), a loving family an supportive friends, such as local boy Pete Fountaine (Corey Feldman), who shares Billy’s love of comic books and is equally overworked as a Christmas tree delivery boy, and his neighbour, Murray Futterman (Dick Miller). A former World War Two veteran and fierce patriot, Murray likes a bit of a drink and tends to go off on rants about the unreliability of “Goddamn foreign cars” and other items produced outside of the United States, but also tells Bully a harrowing story about how “Gremlins” sabotaged bombers and other vehicles during the war. Billy largely ignores Murray’s ramblings, and many of his other issues, to instead focus on pining after Kate Beringer (Cates), his beautiful co-worker who also works a double shift at a local bar. Although Gerald arrogantly tries to win Kate over with his wealth and higher class of lifestyle, she is far from impressed with his bravado and is as smitten with Billy as he is with her. Kate also campaigns against Mrs. Deagle’s attempts to strip their sleepy little own of its most sentimental landmarks, and is hiding a bizarre childhood trauma that keeps her from celebrating Christmas.

The Mogwai may look cute but they’re mischievous little critters, except for the adorable Gizmo.

All of these character’s lives are forever changed when Billy excitedly opens his father’s present and is met by the cute little Gizmo. A strange little creature, Gizmo is inquisitive and adorable and surprisingly intelligent; he sings a little tune and purrs when he’s happy, plays with toys and musical instruments, and can even read comics and play videogames. Gizmo develops a fascination with television, and becomes particularly inspired by the racing classic To Please a Lady (Brown, 1950) and its depiction of fast cars and romance, and can even communicate using simple, childish words. Billy and Gizmo form an immediate bond and Gizmo delights in experiencing the delights of the modern world, but is mindful and responsible enough to be fully aware of the rules he must abide by to stay safe. When Billy enters a room that’s fully lit, Gizmo squeals “Bright light! Bright light”, he dutifully sleeps by Billy and Barney’s side rather than eating after midnight, and stays far away from water at all times because the last thing he wants is to get hurt or die…or worse. As capable as Gizmo is, however, he’s subject to the mishaps of the ignorant and, when Pete accidentally spills water on him, the Mogwai reacts in a violent and disturbing way that Billy certainly wasn’t expecting: a handful of smaller, equally cute but far more mischievous and ill-tempered Mogwai pop out from Gizmo’s back and, all of a sudden, Billy’s new pet becomes a litter of ill-behaved critters.

Cruel and vicious, Stripe desires only to lead his fellow Gremlins on a merry jaunt to cause chaos.

While Rand sees a potential business opportunity in marketing the Mogwai as a hot new family pet, Billy takes one of the batch to Pete’s science teacher, Roy Hanson (Glynn Turman), who immediately experiments on it and produces even more of the Mogwai and is far less mindful of the rules. Unlike Gizmo, the other Mogwai are loud and demanding and mean-spirited, hogging all the toys and being disruptive; they’re led by “Stripe” (Frank Welker), a cruel and vindictive little critter who easily manipulates events to ensure that he and his fellow Mogwai are fed after midnight. The result is Billy waking to find them all encased in disgusting cocoons, and Gizmo distraught at how quickly things have gone south, things go from bad to worse for him, and the entire town, when the cocoons hatch and aggressive, vicious little demons emerge. These Gremlins, led by Stripe, quickly spread across town and cause all manner of havoc from shorting out traffic lights, causing fires and explosions, and even resulting in some violent deaths as they send Mrs. Deagle flying out of a window! Stripe delights not just in causing mayhem but in torturing poor Gizmo, and leads the Gremlins on a merry jaunt to find more havoc, food, and water to increase their numbers and keep the party going.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Gremlins starts off as a quirky little family movie about a struggling family in a nice little town where the wealthy oppress the working class and the character’s main concerns are trying to provide for their loved ones and mustering the courage to ask out the pretty girl. Even when Gizmo arrives in Billy’s life, things don’t really change all that much right away; he treats the Mogwai as a friend and a pet but life carries on as normal and it’s only when Gizmo is exposed to water that things take a dramatic turn sideways. The Gremlins really shake up the film and turn it more into a dark comedy as the vicious little creatures turn the town into an absolute disaster area; the once quiet and peaceful streets are soon strewn with debris, burned out cars, exploded shop windows, and people fleeing in panic and terror as the Gremlins spread anarchy in their search for food, entertainment, and procreation.

The Gremlins cause havoc across town, attacking and even killing people simply for fun!

The Gremlins are impish, wicked little monsters who delight in causing trouble, pain, and destruction all over town. Although mischievous as Mogwai, they completely lose all their inhibitions as Gremlins and become obsessed with playing cruel pranks, gorging themselves, and reproducing at every opportunity. They’re also incredibly dangerous; Mrs. Deagle might have been a miserly old bat who deserved some comeuppance but they send her blasting out of a window at high speed to a cruelly amusing death, they string up Barney and leave him to freeze in the cold before Billy rescues him, and there’s a particularly harrowing scene where Lynn is attacked by a Gremlin hiding in the Christmas tree! Stripe is the clear alpha, directing the others in cutting the power to Billy’s clock so they can metamorphose and fleeing to the local swimming pool at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), where he savagely attacks Billy by clawing his chest before jumping in the pool and birthing a veritable army of Gremlins! While he delights in causing misery, Stripe is much more composed and sadistic than his brothers, best seen when they take over Kate’s bar and they’re all causing trouble, but he’s sat playing poker and executes a fellow Gremlin for daring to beat him. The Gremlins’ greatest strengths are their nimble size, sheer numbers, and vicious nature, but they’re quite fragile and easily bested if caught unawares; Lynn takes advantage of this to mince, stab, and explode the little monsters when they wreck her kitchen.

Extremely expressive puppets and animatronics bring the film’s unique creatures to life.

The Mogwai and Gremlins are brought to life through the finest puppetry and animatronics of yesteryear; incredibly expressive and capable of a range of motion (and emotion), the puppets do a fantastic job of showcasing a great deal of personality. With his wide eyes, expressive ears, and adorable little paws and chubby, fluffy body, Gizmo is easily one of cinema’s cutest and iconic little critters ever. His fellow Mogwai all look very similar to him, but are notably distinctive; they not only act very different but have different markings, with Stripe being the obvious standout. Two Mogwai at Mr. Hanson’s lab are particularly adorable as the knock on the walls of a box and they’re all just the cutest as they play with toys and games (even when Stripe is spitting orange goo at Gizmo). Gizmo obviously has the most personality and cuteness appeal; he looks absolutely terrified when the Gremlins are torturing him, which is almost as heart-breaking as his blubbering after he cuts his head and needs a bandage and his dismay at having given birth to his mischievous progeny. Although just a short little critter, Gizmo is determined to put an end to the Gremlins’ reign of terror and helps lead Billy to where Stripe and the others are hiding out. This culminates in him getting behind the wheel of a Barbie car and racing to save Billy before Stripe and shoot him and ultimately delivering the coup de grâce to his tormentor even while putting himself at risk.

With the town in disarray, Billy and Gizmo defeat Stripe and bid a tearful farewell to each other…

The Gremlins swarm across the town, leaving it in ruins, before settling down at the cinema to watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Hand, et al, 1937) . Even as Gremlins, their needs are incredibly juvenile; they like to dress up and cause disruption, attacking Santa Claus’s and even ploughing through Murray’s house in his beloved Kentucky Harvester, but are equally as happy to sit with a load of snacks and watch movies. Billy takes advantage of this weakness, however, to break open a gas pipe and essentially set a bomb that blows all of the Gremlins to kingdom come…with the exception of Stripe, who was out gathering snacks. Billy, Kate, and Gizmo pursue him to a local toy shop, where Stripe arms himself with a crossbow, a chainsaw(!), and even a gun to find Billy off. Thanks to Kate breaking into the security office and flicking on the lights, and the timely intervention of Gizmo, Billy is saved and Stripe is reduced to a quivering, disgusting mess of goo right in the middle of trying to spawn a new batch of Gremlins. In the aftermath, the Peltzer’s nurse their wounds and the town tries to recover from their long, dark night, something Mr. Wing is far from impressed by. He chastises Rand’s foolishness and arrogance and reclaims Gizmo, but notes that Billy has the potential to be a suitable guardian in time, and heads back to his little shop after allowing Gizmo a heart-breaking goodbye to his newfound friend.  

The Summary:
Gremlins is not only another of those movies that shaped my childhood, and my love of quirky horror stories, but it’s also essential viewing at Christmas time for me. It might be an odd, violent little dark comedy by the end, but my God is it an absolute Christmas, and cinematic, classic. The practical effects are superb and still hold up to this day thanks to being timeless and irreplaceable puppets and animatronics. Gizmo remains one of the cutest little critters to grace our screens, and the Gremlins are some of the cruellest little mischief-makers ever seen and it’s not hard to see why so many other films tried to emulate the viciousness and comedy of these demonic little buggers. One of the things I love the most about Gremlins is the mystery surrounding the titular creatures; we never really know or ever find out where the Mogwai come from, why they are this way, and I’ve always enjoyed how everyday, suburban life was completely disrupted by this mysterious creature from an unknown oriental background. I loved how Gizmo was fully aware of the danger he poses to others, but still delighted in enjoying himself and playing and befriending Billy, and all of the performances are really strong throughout. Rand and Billy and the others hear the rules but don’t really understand them; they respect them enough to actually follow them, though, and it’s only through a mishap that Gizmo is exposed to water. Once the Gremlins emerge, we’re treated to one of the most unique Christmas movies ever made as these vicious monsters ransack the town, spoiling the holiday cheer more than Mrs. Deagle ever could and leaving a lasting impact as some of cinema’s most wicked critters.  

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

What do you think to Gremlins? Is it a Christmas tradition of yours or do you prefer another Christmas movie; if so, what is it? What did you think to the puppets and animatronics? Did you find Kate’s Christmas story an odd inclusion? Would you have liked to see Gizmo turn into a Gremlin as originally intended? Which of the Gremlins knock-offs was your favourite? Whatever your thoughts on Gremlins, sign up to leave a comment below or drop a reply on my social media, and be sure to check in next Sunday for another Christmas movie review!

Wrestling Recap: Whipwreck vs. Sandman vs. Austin (December to Dismember ’95)

The Date: 9 December 1995
The Venue: ECW Arena; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The Commentary: Joey Styles
The Referee: Jim Molineaux
The Stakes: Three-way dance for the ECW World Heavyweight Championship

The Build-Up:
Back in the days when the then-World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW) would trade shots at each other on television, go head-to-head in a vicious ratings war, and poach talent on a weekly basis, it was hard for other wrestling promotions to stand out against the “Big Boys” but Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) certainly did its best to offer a different brand of sports entertainment. First founded as Eastern Championship Wrestling in 1992, the company was re-branded by one of wrestling’s greatest minds, managers, and promoters, Paul Heyman, in 1993. While ECW soon came to be known for its violent and controversial matches and content, the promotion placed just as much focus on delivering pure wrestling and was instrumental in inspiring the WWF’s “Attitude Era” and giving future wrestling stars and Hall of Famers a stage to hone their characters and craft. By 1995, ECW had established a cult following with the rabid Philadelphia crowd at the ECW Arena but they were some years away from negotiating a deal to air their first pay-per-view, Barely Legal; instead, ECW hosted non-televised supercard events such as this one from the ECW Arena. The primary storyline heading into December to Dismember revolved around ECW’s ultimate underdog and unlikely champion, Mikey Whipwreck, defending the belt against the man he beat for it, ECW’s rough-and-ready Sandman, and a man who would go on the achieve phenomenal wrestling success, “Superstar” Steve Austin. Prior to this event, Austin had interjecting himself into the rivalry between the Sandman and Mikey, directly aiding Mikey’s championship victory by distracting the Sandman and then attacking the beer-swilling former champion and taking his place in the previous month’s event, November to Remember, thus necessitating this three-way dance for the championship.

The Match:
ECW was basically a non-factor for me as a fledgling wrestling fan back in the day. I could barely watch WWF or WCW programming at the time and have absolutely no idea what channel, if any, ECW was broadcast on over here in the United Kingdom so my awareness of the company only really came as more of their guys showed up in the WWF. Tazz, the Dudley Boyz, Raven and the like brought with them some ECW history but I only really became exposed to it after it was absorbed by the WWF in 2001. Even now, my ECW experience is sporadic and limited so it’s quite exciting to be dipping my toe into wrestling’s first real hardcore alternative. Another thing to not here is the difference between a three-way dance (or “triangle” match) and a traditional triple threat match; for one thing, it’s contested under elimination rules and, for another, this particular match started out with Austin and Mikey going at it for a good ten minutes before the Sandman came to the ring. Austin started out by goading Mikey and patronising him with little pats to his chest and head. Mikey responded with an aggressive tie-up and then a disrespectful slap to Austin’s jaw, which Austin answered with a handshake. A headlock takedown saw Mikey being ground down by Austin’s superior strength; when Mikey finally got in some offense, sadly it was nothing more exciting than a series of headlocks and takedowns of his own. Just as the crowd grew noticeably restless, Austin turned things up a notch with a shoulder block and a series of chops to Mikey’s chest in the corner; a gut kick left Mikey helpless as Austin choked him against the ropes but Austin absolutely lost it when Mikey tried to grab a handful of his tights off a sunset flip! As he beat on the champion mercilessly, the Sandman (apparently dressed in his pyjamas?) sauntered out with smoke, a beer, his ECW World Tag Team Championship around his waist, and with his valet, Woman, carrying his trademark Singapore cane.

After being decimated, Mikey was eliminated following a Stun Gun, guaranteeing a new champion.

Austin was so distracted with goading in the Sandman that he got caught with a big spinning heel kick from Mikey off the top rope before being dumped to the outside with a clothesline. Austin responded by whipping Mikey into the steel barricade and driving him head-first into the concrete with a piledriver on the outside and the match effectively stopped for a few minutes as the Sandman took his sweet time getting into the ring. Once he did, the two immediately exchanged clubbing blows; they got so into it that, again, they forgot all about Mikey, who took the Sandman down with a top-rope hurricanrana. Austin was able to counter another into a two count but ended up spilling to the outside off an Irish whip thanks to the Sandman pulling on the top rope. Mikey then took both off his challengers out with a big senton to the outside then tossed them both into the ring and started slugging it out with both of them, dropping them with dual low blows but missing a springboard attack. With Austin and the Sandman staggering off a couple of eye pokes, Mikey scored a near fall off a crossbody pin on the Sandman but Austin was right on him, beating him down in the corner and landing another piledriver on the champion. Reeling, Mikey was easy prey for the Stun Gun and, thanks to knocking the Sandman off the ring apron, the champion was subsequently eliminated from the match, ending his title reign to the delight of the crowd (though they may have been applauding/respecting his effort?) The match continued with the Sandman pulling Austin to the outside to bash him off (and into) the guard rail; however, the Superstar shoved him off and then brained him with a steel chair handed to him from a crowd member, only to be dumped unceremoniously over the guard rail and into the crowd and hit with the timekeeper’s table!

Austin paid for his hubris and Sandman captured the belt thanks to some brass knuckles.

Whatever the Sandman planned to do with that table didn’t come to pass as Austin kinda,,,bumped into him…sending him, and the table, tumbling over the guard rail. Austin then slammed a half-unfolded steel chair over the Sandman’s head and tried to hit the Stun Gun on the guard rail; the Sandman blocked it with his arm, however, legitimately breaking his hand in the process, and floored Austin with a chair shot to the head. Though favouring his hand, the Sandman managed to slam Austin to the concrete and even went smashing head-first through the table before being choked by some wiring. Back in the ring, Austin hit that running knee strike against the ropes he always liked to do and got a close two count; he followed up with a clumsy face-first suplex before stealing the Sandman’s beer from Woman and disparagingly spitting beer in his opponent’s face while stomping at him. As Austin posed on the ropes with his beer, Woman revived the Sandman with some beer, allowing him to briefly “Hulk Up” before being struck with brass knuckles from Austin’s trunks. Somehow, the Sandman got his foot on the ropes; as Austin argued with the referee, the Sandman was able to crack him across the back of the head with the brass knuckles and score the three count, capturing his second ECW World Heavyweight Championship, despite Austin’s foot also being on the ropes. There’s not a lot to say about this match, really; it was weird seeing Austin actually wrestling and not just brawling! Joey Styles even advised against Austin slugging it out with the Sandman since he’s clearly outmatched and suggests out-wrestling him instead, something I don’t think I’ve ever seen Austin do before thanks to his neck injury changing him from a technician into a brawler. It’s also interesting seeing the similarities between Austin’s later “Stone Cold” character and the Sandman but this wasn’t the most exciting match ever; the early going was very slow, with Mikey looking like a bit of a chump, and there was a distinct lack of energy throughout the match even before the Sandman broke his hand, resulting in a pretty anti-climactic end for me.

The Aftermath:
This would basically be the end of Steve Austin’s brief stint in ECW; he made his WWF debut as the Ringmaster about ten days after December to Dismember and wouldn’t have any dealings with ECW until 2001, when he chose to side with the ECW/WCW alliance against the WWF. Despite his injury, the Sandman would continue to wrestle; however, his second championship reign came to an end when he was defeated by Raven at the end of January. Mikey Whipwreck’s championship success continued, however, with him capturing both the ECW Television Championship and the ECW Tag Team Championship (with assistance from Cactus Jack) at ECW’s next supercard event, Holiday Hell: The New York Invasion. This would be the only December to Dismember event held by the original ECW; the evet wouldn’t be included in their annual pay-per-view calendars going forward and was largely dropped in favour of the aforementioned Holiday Hell. The December to Dismember brand would be revived in 2006, however; following a resurgence in ECW popularity, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) revived ECW as a third brand, one that promised to be a showcase of new and old talent but which quickly became an embarrassing sideshow. To make matters worse, the 2006 December to Dismember pay-per-view is widely regarded as one of the worst events in wrestling history; it was so poorly booked and received that it soured relations between WWE chairman Vince McMahon and Paul Heyman for some time and the WWE’s ECW brand never received another solo pay-per-view before being cancelled on February 16, 2010.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

What did you think to the three-way dance between Mikey Whipwreck, Steve Austin, and the Sandman? Who did you want to see win the match at the time? What did you think to Mikey as a World Champion? Were you impressed by Steve Austin back in the day? Did you use to watch ECW and, if so, who were some of your favourite wrestlers and what were some of your favourite matches and moments? Were you disappointed by the WWE’s revival of the company in 2006? Would you like to see the December to Dismember event make a comeback? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to leave them below or drop a comment on my social media.

Talking Movies [Christmas Day]: The Muppet Christmas Carol

Talking Movies

Released: 11 December 1992
Director: Brian Henson
Distributor: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
Budget: $12 million
Stars: Michael Caine, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, Jessica Fox, and Meredith Braun

The Plot:
On Christmas Eve in 19th century London, the cantankerous and cold-hearted moneylender, Ebenezer Scrooge (Caine), is visited by three spirits in a desperate attempt by his deceased former partners, Jacob and Robert Marley (Nelson and Goelz), to teach him the true spirit of Christmas and save his soul from eternal damnation.

The Background
So…spoiler alert but The Muppet Christmas Carol is my absolute favourite Christmas movie of all time. Ever since I was a kid, it’s become a Christmas tradition to watch this film on Christmas Day and it’s a custom that I have absolutely no intention of ever changing. The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppets movie to be made following the death of the legendary Jim Henson and the directorial debut of his son, Brian, which adapted Charles Dickins’ classic 1843 novella A Christmas Carol into a musical featuring the classic Muppet puppets in major and supporting roles. The Muppet Christmas Carol was the fourth theatrical Muppets movie and Jim Henson’s colourful and influential puppets had been consistently popular thanks to The Muppet Show (1976 to 1981). Filming took place right here in the United Kingdom (at the famous Shepperton Studios), where an elaborate set was constructed to allow the Muppets and the human actors to appear on equal footing and renowned actor Michael Caine was cast in the iconic role of Ebenezer Scrooge and made the genius decision to play the entire thing completely serious and straight. Upon release, The Muppets Christmas Carol received mostly positive reviews and, despite not quite living up to Disney’s expectations at the box office (it made just over $27 million) thanks to stiff holiday competition, it has gone on to be regarded as one of the quintessential Christmas movies…and rightfully so since, for me, it’s easily the best Christmas movie ever made.

The Review:
The Muppet Christmas Carol is told to us through the presence of physically omniscient narrators, in this case Charles Dickens (Goelz as the Great Gonzo) and Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire); the two introduce the film and guide us through Scrooge’s journey, in most cases acting as both comedic relief and paraphrasing lines of Dickens’ literary classic. Although you could make the argument that their roles are largely superfluous since it’s pretty obvious what is going on and what characters are thinking and feeling without it being spelled out to us, they add so much charm and whimsy to the film that their inclusion is genuinely one of the highlights, from Dickens’ mischievous and adventurous spirit to Rizzo’s cynicism and goofball antics, their involvement perfectly encapsulates the film’s truly fantastic balance of humour and pathos.

Caine plays the part completely serious, resulting in one of the best onscreen portrayals of Scrooge.

Of course, any adaptation of A Christmas Carol lives and dies with its interpretation of Scrooge and Caine delivers a phenomenal performance as the grouchy old miser. Despised and vilified by the whole city, Scrooge is a cold, pessimistic, greedy and down-right vile moneylender who cares little for the frivolities of others or the condition of the less fortunate (“Scrooge”). The best part about this, as alluded to above, is that Caine plays the part completely straight; it’s like watching a dramatic play or theatrical production of the story with the conviction and gravitas Caine brings to the role. At the same time, he’s able to showcase a variety of conflicting emotions throughout Scrooge’s journey, showing that the character, for all his wickedness, is a bumbling old fool at heart and a tragic, haunted figure.

Despite hardly making ends meet, Cratchit does whatever he can to provide for his family.

Surrounding Caine are, as you might expect, a smorgasbord of incredibly talented and charismatic Muppet characters, chief among them Kermit the Frog as Scrooge’s head bookkeeper, Bob Cratchit (Whitmire). Cratchit is a destitute and somewhat timid fellow when at work but retains both his Christmas spirit (“One More Sleep ‘Till Christmas”) and commands a great deal of respect from his co-workers for his position as Scrooge’s right-hand man (frog?), essentially acting as a go-between between the two parties. Though Scrooge is largely indifferent towards all of his employees, Cratchit is able to convince him to close the business for the entirety of Christmas Day by talking to him in a language he understands (i.e. money). During Scrooge’s journey through the past, present, and future, we learn more about Cratchit’s home life; he lives in a poor part of town in a tiny house filled with his large, loving family. The patriarch of the family, Cratchit is loved and appreciated by his children and wife, Emily (Oz as Miss Piggy), and even though they are paid a pittance by Scrooge and his children and wife vehemently despise his employer, Cratchit is still good enough of a man frog to raise a glass to his boss and to keep the spirit of Christmas alive even though they are basically slowing starving. Emily is a bombastic and out-spoken woman in both her affections and her opinion of Scrooge, making her brief appearances a constant highlight as she jumps at the chance to give Scrooge a piece of her mind only to be flabbergasted by his generous change of heart.

Tiny Tim’s unfortunate condition melts Scrooge’s ice-cold heart.

Of course, the most significant member of the Cratchit family apart from him and his wife is poor old Tiny Tim (Nelson as Robin); lame and deathly sick, Tim retains his enthusiasm and positivity, and basically embodies the spirit of Christmas as much as the actual spirits we see in the film. While Scrooge previously treated such poor children with disgust and apathy, his heart is visibly broken by Tim’s bleak condition and the knowledge that the boy is doomed to die unless their fortunes turn around is the first real step towards Scrooge’s redemption. This is, as is tradition, the entire point of the film; after dying, Scrooge’s old partner Marley and Marley visit Scrooge as gruesome, haunting visions and warn him of the impending visits of the three Christmas spirits (“Marley and Marley”). This is, honestly, one of the more haunting (no pun intended) parts of the film as Statler and Waldorf are shown weighed down by hideous chains and doomed to pay for all eternity for their sins of avarice and greed.

Scrooge’s heart-breaking memories haunt him almost as much as the actual ghosts!

Although Scrooge is characteristically dismissive and sceptical of his friends’ warnings, he is equally horrified when the three spirits do actually appear; even the child-like appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Past (Jessica Fox) puts him on edge and he is overwhelmed by the spirit’s ability to make him literally fly into his long forgotten past. The pain of reliving his childhood and subsequent heartbreak as a young man agonises Scrooge and the events witnessed go a long way to explaining why Scrooge became the man he is; he spent all his time at study, without the influence of a loving family, and was realised to believe that one’s time should be spent being productive and profitable, which cost him both friends and the love of a woman, Belle (Braun). Scrooge’s subsequent journey towards redemption comes to be about reconciling the metaphorical ghosts of his past and learning to appreciate the present whilst living for the future rather than dwelling on heartache and cantankerous greed.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Obviously, what sets The Muppet Christmas Carol apart from other adaptations of the book are the inclusion of Muppet characters and puppets; a good, what? 97% of the cast is made up of Muppets and puppets? And all of your favourite characters get, at least, a cameo role if not play a significant part in the film (Fozzie Bear makes an amusing appearance as the younger Scrooge’s (Raymond Coulthard) employer, Fozziwig (Oz), and Sam Eagle does a delightfully amusing turn as Scrooge’s schoolmaster (ibid). the city is also populated by all kinds of amusing puppet co-stars, from singing fruit and donkeys to shivering, staring little mice, all of whom have a role to play in breaking London to life, contributing to the ensemble songs, and emphasising how hard life is for those less fortunate.

Scrooge is taught the meaning of Christmas by the affable spirit of the present.

The city really comes to life when Scrooge encounters the boisterous and magnetic Ghost of Christmas Present (Nelson/Don Austen), a full-size Muppet who resembles Father Christmas and teaches Scrooge the wondrous joy of the Christmas season; Scrooge is uncharacteristically and immediately taken by the spirit’s infectious good-nature and whimsy, laughing and even having a bit of a dance as the spirit conveys to him the true nature of the season (“It Feels Like Christmas”). This sudden rush of exhilaration for Scrooge is quickly tempered by his dismay that his nephew, Fred (Steven Mackintosh), mocks him behind his back for his cold and belligerent ways and when the spirit throws his own words back at him when he sees the condition of Tiny Tim. Still, it’s through the Ghost of Christmas Present that Scrooge realises how marvellous the season can be and he’s pretty much convinced at the appeal of Christmas and to change his ways through that interaction alone, such is the influence of the spirit’s unabashedly good nature.

The reaper-like spirit shows Scrooge a disturbing vision of his near future.

The lesson doesn’t end there for Scrooge, though, who is forced to accompany the third and final spirit, the most gruesome and terrifying of them all, the Ghost of Christmas-Yet-to-Come (Austen), on a truly disturbing journey into the near future. Here, Scrooge sees that he has died hated and alone, with the citizens callously selling off his possessions, regarding themselves as better off without him and, most devastating of all, that Tiny Tim has died and the Cratchit’s normally vivacious good nature has been noticeably subdued. Scrooge approaches the majority of this last journey with a desperate denial and it isn’t until he sees his own ominous tombstone that he truly repents for his wicked ways and vows to turn his life around, to life in the past, present, and the future, to avoid meeting such a unsympathetic and desolate end.

Everyone (well, mainly Scrooge) learns the true value of Christmas.

Accordingly, Scrooge awakens the next day and begins to make good on his word; he’s pleasant, polite, and generous, greeting others amiably, donating to charities, and leaving gifts for those closest to him (“Thankful Heart”). In the film’s finale, Scrooge resolves to pay off Cratchit’s mortgage, raise his salary, and fully commits himself to amending his damaged reputation by being the most generous and caring man the city has ever known, thus salvaging his soul, ensuring that he is remembered as a kind and loving man, and sparing Tiny Tim from death. It’s an amusing and heart-warming end to the film, especially because of the bemused and shocked expressions on everyone’s faces at Scrooge’s change of heart, and Caine, bless him, gives it his all when he is required to sing.

The Summary:
As I’ve already mentioned, The Muppet Christmas Carol is easily my favourite Christmas movie of all time; it’s a tradition for me to watch the film every Christmas day while eating Christmas lunch and opening presents, joyfully singing along and wondering if Scrooge will learn the same lessons year after year. It’s remarkable how faithful the film is to the source material, especially considering it’s a Muppets film, and the beautifully constructed sets and whimsical puppets only add to the film’s charm and appeal. Add to that the gravitas and magnetism of Michael Caine, who treats the film as seriously as anything produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and you have an adaptation that is truly special, full of allure, humour, and some unsettling moments as Scrooge learns his traditional lessons about letting go of the pain of his past and applying himself towards the greater good to ensure a better life for everyone, including himself.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

What do you think about The Muppet Christmas Carol? Where does it rank for you against other Christmas and/or Muppet movies? What did you think to Michael Caine’s performance, the puppets, and the sets featured in the film? Which song from the movie is your favourite? Have you read A Christmas Carol and which adaptation is your favourite? What are your plans for Christmas Day today? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to comment down and have a great Christmas!

Talking Movies [Christmas Countdown]: Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas

Talking Movies

Released: 29 October 1993
Director: Henry Selick
Distributor: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
Budget: $26 million
Stars: Chris Sarandon/Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, Glenn Shadix, Ken Page, Ed Ivory, and William Hickey

The Plot:
Jack Skellington (Sarandon, with Elfman singing), the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, has grown weary of embodying the same macabre holiday year after year. When he stumbles upon Christmas Town, he is enamoured, reinvigorated, and compelled to replace Santa Claus (Ivory) but, when psychic ragdoll Sally’s (O’Hara) premonitions of disaster comes true and the villainous Oogie Booie (Page) kidnaps Santa for his own diabolical plot, Jack must attempt to salvage not only the spirit of Christmas but of Halloween as well!

The Background:
As a child, writer and director Tim Burton, known for his macabre and gothic sensibilities, was fascinated by the grandiose nature of holiday celebrations and, inspired by classic Christmas movies, wrote a three-page poem titled “The Nightmare Before Christmas” while working for Disney in the early eighties. Burton initially envisioned the poem being a Christmas special narrated by his childhood idol, Vincent Price, and spent nearly ten years developing storyboards, artwork, and the concept while he worked on some of his most successful feature films.

Burton’s twisted vision for Halloween took years and many painstaking hours to bring to life.

This success caught the attention of Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and led to the concept being developed into a feature-length, stop motion musical to be released under Disney’s adult label, Touchstone Pictures, to avoid scaring child audiences. Burton, however, was busy working on Batman Returns (ibid, 1992) at the time (and didn’t wish to be involved in the painstakingly slow and meticulous stop-motion process) but remained heavily influential in the production of the ambitious venture, which took over one hundred people three years and nearly 110,000 frames of animation to accomplish. All of that scrupulous hard work paid off, however, as, when the film released, it received largely positive reviews, eventually (after re-releases and re-uses) earned over $90 million in worldwide gross, and the film has had a lasting impact not just on cinema and pop culture but on the animation industry as well.

The Review:
The Nightmare Before Christmas begins on the night of another successfully terrifying Halloween; the citizens of Halloween Town are in joyous rapture at having once again scared people out of their wits (“This is Halloween”) and much of the credit for their success, as always, is attributed to the “Pumpkin King”, Jack Skellington, a literal skeleton who is basically the embodiment of the season. Although Halloween Town has a Mayor (Shadix), Jack is the true hero and authority in the town, revered as a celebrity and a genius when it comes to frights and Halloween trickery.

Jack’s melancholy demeanour is reinvigorated by the wonders of Christmas Town.

Jack, though, while he appreciates the adulation, has become despondent and depressed at the monotony of the routine of it all; while his creativity and imagination remains at their peak, he’s lost his zest and passion for it all and longs for something, anything, new to inspire him once more (“Jack’s Lament”). When he wanders off from the town and finds the magical nexus between seasons, he is literally sucked into Christmas Town and is immediately besotted; having never experienced such sights, sounds, and wonders, he finds his enthusiasm and curiosity piqued by the appeal of it all (“What’s This?”) and longs to bring the spirit of Christmas to Halloween Town.

Jack struggles to explain Christmas to the citizens of Halloween Town.

The citizens of Halloween Town, however, struggle with the concept of Christmas and Jack, to be fair, struggles to quantify the things he’s seen and meaning of the season (primarily because, at that point, he doesn’t yet realise what Christmas is all about). His attempts are met with confusion and misunderstanding and the only way he can explain it all is to put it in terms they will understand (“Town Meeting Song”). Since no one in Halloween Town shares Jack’s imagination and longing for change, the resulting towns and gifts they create are far from the fun, heart-warming gifts of Christmas Town and are, instead, horrific and terrifying Halloween monsters and creatures that attack and eat people “(Making Christmas”).

The Mayor and Dr. Finklestein are two of my favourite supporting characters in the film.

I mentioned the Mayor earlier and he really is one of the highlights of the film for me; he has two moods: loud and positive (happy face) and panicked and scared (anxious face). He’s clearly a respected and influential figure, for sure, but, when it comes to actual decision making, even he admits that he’s useless and needs Jack’s guidance and influence to get anything done. While sceptical of Jack’s fondness for Christmas, he goes along with it out of belief in Jack’s abilities and is hopelessly despondent when it appears that Jack has been killed while posing as Santa Claus. Another standout character is Doctor Finklestein (Hickey), a crippled and half-addled mad scientist whose macabre technology brings many of Jack’s designs and ideas to life; while Finklestein appears to be a doting old codger, he is met with resentment by his “daughter”, Sally, a ragdoll girl he created who desires only to escape from the confines of his dilapidated gothic abode.

Sally feels she can relate to Jack’s lament but foresees disaster for his Christmas venture.

Jack, who feels he can no longer relate to his peers in Halloween Town, is so wrapped up in his depression and subsequent obsession with Christmas that he fails to truly notice Sally, the one soul in all of Halloween Town who can relate to Jack’s torment. Like everyone in Halloween Town, Sally is besotted with Jack but, rather than merely idolising him, she pines for him with all of her heart and genuinely believes that they would be able to fill the emptiness in both of their lives (“Sally’s Song”). Sally also (somehow…) possesses some limited precognitive abilities; she foresees disaster for Jack’s Christmas venture but he’s too blinded by his fixation on the holiday to even consider failure (after all, he’s never failed at anything before so why should this be any different?)

Oogie Boogie is the bombastic antagonist with his own malicious plans for Santa and Christmas.

Of course, Jack’s state of mind and fixation on Christmas is the only thing working against him; despite specifically ordering Lock (Paul Reubens), Shock (O’Hara), and Barrel (Elfman) not to involve “that no-account Oogie Boogie” in his plot to kidnap Santa Claus (“Kidnap the Sandy Claws”), the three, of course, deceive Jack and take Santa to Oogie Boogie the moment Jack has usurped Santa’s position. Oogie, who is a colony of disgusting bugs within a burlap sack, is a malicious bogeyman who lives outside of Halloween Town and makes for a boisterous and diabolical villain who has a bit of a gambling addiction and wishes to cook up Santa and, it is implied, take over Jack’s role as the spirit of Halloween (“Oogie Boogie”).

The Nitty-Gritty:
Of course, the most striking and memorable aspect of The Nightmare Before Christmas is the painstakingly detailed stop-motion animation used to bring Burton’s twisted, gothic imagination to life; every frame is full of little details, many of which no doubt took hours or even days to complete, and needlessly complex creatures such as a melting sludge man, Oogie Boogie’s bugs, and the elaborate sequences where Jack is delivering his horrific gifts as Santa. It’s impressive, to say the least, and make the film a must-watch venture even if only from a purely technological standpoint. Of course, The Nightmare Before Christmas has much more to it than the remarkable and ambitious animation work on show; it also has an extremely catchy and unforgettable number of songs, all of which perfectly convey a variety of emotions and characterisation for each of the film’s characters to help bring Burton’s world to life.

Jack’s attempt to usurp Christmas is a failure but his passion is reawakened regardless.

There are several poignant themes at work in The Nightmare Before Christmas as well: alienation, loneliness, the desire for change, and obsession being chief among them. Jack is so disillusioned with Halloween and so tantalised by Christmas that he rejects his former position as the Pumpkin King and fully believes that he will be able to take Santa’s place and claim Christmas as his own. He is astonished when the human world opens fire on him and blasts his sleigh from the sky and, in his defeat, realises that he has ruined the once pure-hearted holiday. However, he still feels his stagnated passion reignited and reclaims his position, vowing to apply himself even harder to making Halloween as memorable and terrifying as possible (“Poor Jack”).

Jack defeats his rival, saves Santa, and he and Sally finally admit their feelings to each other.

Sally’s frantic attempts to reach Jack fall on deaf ears and nothing she does to sabotage his attempts work; in her desperation  to save Jack and get things back to normal, she proactively tries to rescue Santa but ends up being kidnapped as well. Seeing Sally and Santa held at Oogie Boogie’s mercy enrages Jack and, after defeating Oogie Boogie, he finally realises that what he’s been searching for all this time has been standing right in front of him from the start (not just the spirit of Halloween but Sally, with the two of them finally admitting their feelings and appreciation for each other in the film’s heart-warming conclusion (“Finale/Reprise”)).

The Summary:
It’s extremely difficult to put into words how much I enjoy The Nightmare Before Christmas; it’s not only a technical marvel but also a pretty flawless achievement in filmmaking. “Unique” doesn’t seem like a good enough adjective to describe the film, which is both macabre and terrifying while also being heart-warming and genuinely touching. It perfectly encapsulates the feeling the Christmas isn’t something that can simply be appropriated or distilled; it’s a spirit of giving and joyous celebration that requires a certain level of belief and understanding to pull off. Jack’s mistake was thinking that he would be able to usurp Christmas as his own without really understanding it; he just wanted to experience something new for a change and could have just as easily become as equally besotted by Easter or Thanksgiving or any other holiday had he entered a different door.

Nightmare Before Christmas is a technical wonder and a fantastic Christmas film to boot.

What makes The Nightmare Before Christmas truly unique is Burton’s ingenious idea of what these holidays are; disparate fantasies embodied in a magical, fantasy world separated form ours only by the veil of imagination, the holiday seasons are depicted as being the work of largely benevolent mythical denizens of these worlds who are fully committed to delivering the spirit of each holiday. With his twisted, gothic imagery and distinctive depiction of such a dream-like fantasy world, Burton’s imagination makes for an entertaining and enthralling film that is more than suitable for Christmas or Halloween viewing and is a timeless classic through and through.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

Are you a fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas? If not…seriously, dude, what the hell’s the matter with you? If you are a fan of the film, do you watch it at Christmas or at Halloween and which do you think is more befitting? Are you a fan of stop-motion animation and Burton’s gothic sensibilities? Which character was your favourite and what did you think to Jack’s surprisingly complex characterisation? Have you got a favourite song from the movie (or one of the many remix albums) and, if so, what is it? Would you like to see a sequel produced some day or do you think it’s best left as a stand-alone, cult classic? Whatever your thoughts on The Nightmare Before Christmas, leave a comment down below and join me next Saturday for Christmas Day!

Talking Movies [Christmas Countdown]: Batman Returns

Talking Movies

Released: 16 June 1992
Director: Tim Burton
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $65 to 80 million
Stars: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, and Michael Gough

The Plot:
Gotham City’s preparations for Christmas are interrupted by the emergence of Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (DeVito), a deformed former circus performer who quickly wins the hearts of the city and is manipulated into running for Mayor by Machiavellian businessman Max Shreck (Walken). While Bruce Wayne/Batman (Keaton) works to uncover the Penguin’s truth motivations, he faces a secondary threat when Shreck attempts to murder his assistant, Selina Kyle (Pfeiffer), instead causes her to become Catwoman and wage a vendetta against him and Batman while also being romanced by Bruce!

The Background:
In the eighties, DC Comics readers saw the culmination of a long period of alteration for Batman who, for the majority of the sixties, had been transformed from a ruthless vigilante and into a colourful, camp, family friendly figure. One of the principal examples of this change was Batman (ibid, 1989), a dramatically different take on the DC Comics staple that saw noted auteur Tim Burton bring his signature gothic flair to the character, transforming both Batman from a spandex-wearing goof and into a stoic, armour-clad urban legend and “Mr. Mom” Michael Keaton into a brooding, tortured vigilante, and resulting in a surge of popularity for the character as audiences flocked to see the movie. Despite some criticism regarding the film’s tone and pacing, Batman was an incredible success, making nearly $412 million against a $35 million budget. Although Warner Bros. wished for a sequel to begin as early as 1990, Burton held back on returning to the franchise until he was ready, and, when he did return, he was successful and proven enough to be granted far more creative control over the film’s production.

The original draft of the film was quite different from the finished script.

Originally known as Batman II, Batman Returns underwent numerous rewrites, with both Harvey Dent/Two-Face and a version of Robin originally being included and the original character of Max Shreck originally intended to be the Penguin’s brother. The majority of the filming took place on sound stages that included full-size sets of downtown Gotham City and the sewers, the many real-life penguins featured in the film were given special treatment, and Keaton received not only top billing this time around but also a significant salary increase. Upon release, Batman Returns received largely positive reviews from critics and made over $280 million at the box office. However, there was a prevailing sense that the film was too “dark”; parents, especially, were horrified at the film’s macabre content and McDonald’s weren’t too thrilled at being associated with such a controversial picture, this backlash, of course, led to Burton being replaced by Joel Schumacher and a dramatic reinvention of the franchise for the two subsequent films but, for me, Batman Returns remains one of the quintessential formative movies of my childhood and an often overlooked entry in the series.

The Review:
Right off the bat (no pun intended), Batman Returns separates itself from its predecessor in a number of ways: first, it’s set at Christmas so Gotham City is blanketed by flurries of snow and full of Christmas trappings (if not yuletide cheer); second, it’s far darker and much more brooding in its atmosphere and tone. Burton’s vision for Batman and Gotham is of a nightmarish, gothic landscape full of ominous, intimidating structures, gargoyles, and an overall sense of foreboding hanging in the air. All of this is expertly punctuated not just in Burton’s distinct aesthetic style but also Danny Elfman’s peerless Batman theme, which is now mixed with a haunting chorus of chanting and a tragic ambiance amidst its bombastic and heroic overture.

Bruce is more brooding and violent than ever despite the catharsis he achieved in the last film.

Some time has passed since the events of Batman; it’s not clear or made explicit exactly how much time but Gotham has adjusted to the presence of Batman, with Police Commissioner James Gordon (Pat Hingle) calling for the Caped Crusader’s assistance at the first sign of the Red Triangle Circus Gang. Though Batman’s relationship with the police, particularly Gordon, is much improved, he’s still a stoic and mysterious individual, talking very little and in a blunt, gravelly whisper. It seems avenging the death of his parents has done little to assuage his grief at their deaths or bring him any semblance of peace; instead, he’s more brooding than ever, literally sitting alone in the dark at Wayne Manor until being called into action by the Bat-Signal and more than willing to kill even regular thugs like the Penguin’s colourful goons.

In a city full of monsters, the twisted and manipulative Shreck fits right in.

Max Shreck is introduced as “Gotham’s own Santa Claus”, a beloved and well-respected businessman who has captured the hearts of the city between films. Shreck is, however, a devious and snake-like individual; he plots to construct a massive power plant to monopolise Gotham’s energy supply on the pretence of having a legacy to hand over to his cherished son, Chip (Andrew Bryniarski), but truly desires simple accolades such as power and control. In a world seemingly populated by freaks and monsters, Shreck fits right in as he is twisted on the inside, more than willing to threaten the Mayor (Michael Murphy) with a recall and to kill to get what he wants (he pushes his absent-minded assistant, Selina, out of a window with the intention of killing her and it’s heavily implied that he killed his wife).

Selina undergoes the most dramatic change from a meek victim to an aggressive vigilante.

Speaking of Selina, of all the characters in the film, she is the one who undergoes the most dramatic development throughout the story. She begins as a meek, helpless woman; she stutters and struggles to speak her mind to her boss, is little more than a witless hostage for one of the Penguin’s goons, and lives alone with nothing but her cat and her nagging mother’s voicemail for company. After her brush with death and subsequent…resurrection (seriously, Selina’s rebirth is one of the stranger aspects of an already-batshit (also no pun intended) film), she becomes an enraged, vindictive, aggressively confidant and capable woman. As Catwoman, she begins a short-lived campaign against Shreck but comes to violently oppose all men, especially those in positions of authority, and even women who allow such men to walk all over them.

Despite his eloquent persona, the Penguin is constantly at odds with his more animalistic nature.

Catwoman’s outward transformation into a monster pales in comparison to the Penguin’s position as an actual monster; far from an upstanding crime boss or distinguished member of high (and low) society, Burton reimagines the Penguin as a horrific circus freak who eats raw fish, spits black goop, and is completely maladjusted to humanity and society. And yet, the Penquin is an eloquent, intelligent, and ruthless villain; while Shreck believes that he is the one  manipulating Oswald, the Penguin is actually the master manipulator as he uses Shreck to glorify his ascension to the outside world in order to enact his twisted plot to kidnap and kill the first-born sons of Gotham. Like Shreck, the Penguin is fully capable of blackmail, murder, and violence but he takes this to the next level, eventually launching a desperate campaign against all of Gotham City once Batman scuppers his scheme.

Batman is noticeably more mobile and far better equipped this time around.

While Keaton’s range of motion is still restricted by his absolutely bad-ass Batsuit, Batman’s action scenes are much improved over the previous film; Batman fights with a simple, blunt efficiency, making full use of his many bat-themed toys and even busting out some new ones, like his inexplicably rigid gliding ability. Batman’s suit is far less anatomically correct this time around, resembling armour more than anything; as a kid, I disliked these changes but, now, I’ve come to regard the Returns Batsuit as one of the top live-action costumes for its impressive appearance, being both practical and frightening. Burton’s awesome Batmobile also makes a return, now sporting all kinds of new gadgets and even being featured in one of the most entertaining sequences of the film when the Penguin is bizarrely able to take control of the Batmobile, with Batman in it, and take it on a destructive joyride through the snow-strewn streets of Gotham.

Practical effects and miniatures are used to great effect throughout the film.

One of the most appealing aspects of Batman Returns is its fantastic use of practical effects, camera tricks, miniatures, and elaborate sets; Gotham feels noticeably more claustrophobic this time around but that actually adds to the ominous nature of the film and positions the city as an gloomy presence in its own right. Not every effect is a winner, of course; Batman’s glide through the bat-swept skies of Gotham hasn’t aged too well but the digital effects of the Penguin’s rocket-firing troops is still impressive, Penguin’s prosthetic make-up makes for an unsettlingly horrific villain, and Batman’s Batskiboat chase through the sewers and the destruction of the Penguin’s frozen zoo hideout are all impressively realised through the use of models and miniatures. The film also goes to some effort to tie up some loose ends and complaints about Batman; Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) is mentioned a couple of times, with Bruce explaining that their relationship “didn’t work out” because he couldn’t give up being Batman and he and his father-figure and loyal confidant, Alfred Pennyworth (Gough), debating his much-contested decision to reveal Bruce’s identity to Vicki. As I’ve explained, I never had a problem with this scene but I’m sure it did a lot to quell the complaints.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Batman Returns contains some of my favourite moments of any Batman film, from Batman and Penguin’s intimidating first meeting outside of Shreck’s shop to the heart-breaking death of Oswald at the conclusion (I remember, as a kid, being somewhat distraught at Penguin’s emperor penguins being left without their master and wondering who would look after them with him dead). It also stands out as being one of the first big-budget superhero films of its time to not only feature multiple villains and masked characters but also to balance them extremely well. Sure, Batman still doesn’t have as much screen time as you would expect considering his name’s in the title but it’s easy to infer much of his motivation and development from Keaton’s characteristically stoic and haunted portrayal of the character and through the parallels between Batman’s dual nature and those of his villains.

Bruce continues to be more comfortable as Batman and struggles with his dark nature.

I can understand why parents and audiences were more than a little perturbed by Batman Returns when it was released as it’s not only full of dark, gothic imagery but also some puzzlingly ghoulish choices on Burton’s part. However, I watched this film as a kid both alone and with my parents and it never did me any harm; plus, I feel like Batman is a character and concept that can never be “too dark” and grisly as he works best when depicted as a dark and terrifying force in an increasingly insane world. Furthermore, Batman Returns is rife with subtle (and explicit) themes duality, humanity, and deception. All four of the main characters wear a mask of some kind, whether explicit or metaphorical (or both) and is hiding their true, darker nature. Bruce is, of course, one of the most obvious since he literally garbs himself in a heavily armoured suit and becomes an entirely different person when acting as Batman. There’s again a sense that he’s not entirely comfortable being in public or out of the suit as he is only truly able to confide in Alfred before becoming attracted to Selina and, though he openly opposes Shreck’s plans as Bruce, he’s seemingly only able to make a real impact on the city when operating as Batman.

Catwoman’s appearance degrades alongside her mental state as the film progresses.

Selina, too, hides behind a physical mask; after her rebirth, Selina becomes more and more disassociated with her former life and revels in the freedom and power of being Catwoman. Previously, she was timid and powerless but, once she has power, she exercises it without restraint or mercy; when she first encounters Batman, she attacks with a combination of sexuality and violence, seeing him as the ultimate symbol of patriarchy. He fractured state of mind only degenerates further as the film progresses and this is reflected in the explicit destruction of her alluringly skin-tight outfit; by the film’s conclusion, she’s hardly recognisable, resembling little more than a besmirched wild animal who feels she has to reject Bruce’s advances and offer of a “normal” life because of her altered nature that drives her to obsessive pursue Shreck’s death even at the potential cost of her own life.

Though a tragic villain, the Penguin is still a monstrous individual willing to slaughter all of Gotham.

The Penquin doesn’t hide being a mask in the way as his adversaries; indeed, because of his monstrous appearance, he is forced to literally hide from society first in the circus and then, for many years, in the sewers and when he does emerge into the limelight, it’s under the guise of being a misunderstood outcast. Ironically, this isn’t actually too far from the truth as the Penguin is a truly tragic figure within the film but, even as a baby, his violent tendencies are made explicit so, in many ways, he’s the opposite of Catwoman: his true nature is to be a wild animal and he masks it with the shroud of respectability. It’s an ill-fitting persona for Oswald, though, as his animalistic urges and lack of social graces make him undignified; indeed, as eloquent and charismatic as the Penguin is capable of being, he descends into a monstrous individual that salivates over the merciless death and destruction of everyone in Gotham.

Shreck’s true, twisted nature is revealed when he meets his gruesome end.

And then there’s Max Shreck; yes, I would have preferred Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) to have returned and supplanted this character but Christopher Walken sure as hell does steal the show, every time he walks into a room, the scene becomes about him, with the camera seemingly naturally focusing on him even when he’s standing next to vivid characters such as the Penguin and Batman. As fantastically alluring as DeVito is at portraying this nightmarish version of the Penguin, Walken’s natural charisma and bombastic acting method makes him an undeniable highlight of the film. Like the Penguin, Max doesn’t where an actual mask but his is a mask that is far more subtle and all the more dangerous in its application; having won the hearts and minds of the city, and being a wealthy businessman in a position of great power, Shreck represents the horror of aggressively ambitious capitalism and the power of the social elite. Confidant to the point of arrogance, Shreck exudes authority and ensures that he is always the most powerful man in any given situation; he barely flinches when he first meets the Penguin, immediately attempts to bargain with Catwoman, and defiantly stands up to both her and Batman but his true, twisted nature is revealed for all to see after he meet his gruesome, explosive end in the finale.

The Summary:
When I was a kid, I always preferred Batman to Batman Returns; I think this was mainly because of the iconography of the Joker as a character and it being a little less heavy-handed with its themes and imagery. As I grew older, though, I came to really appreciate all the positives of Batman Returns; in many ways, it’s a far superior film, which a much more unique visual identity, far superior costume design, and even improving on Elfman’s already flawless score. While it’s far more of a standalone sequel than a direct continuation, Batman Returns drops us into a twisted, nightmarish version of Gotham City that seems to have been physically changed because of the city’s adoption of Batman as its protector. My appreciation for the film’s themes of duality and humanity came to a head during my studies at university when, asked to produce a presentation on a film, I spearheaded Batman Returns as my group’s project and, in the process, delved deep into the way it deals with its complex themes. Getting an A in that presentation encouraged me to further pursue writing about the things I loved from my childhood and influenced my eventual PhD and I owe most of that success to Batman Returns, a film that, while probably not too suitable for young kids and despite not being massively accurate to the source material, remains one of the darkest, most visually engaging, and thought-provoking Batman movies ever made and, to this day, is a must-watch film during the Christmas season.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

What are your thoughts on Batman Returns? How does it compare to the first film, and the other films in Batman’s long cinematic history? Did you see this as a kid; if so, did you enjoy it or were you traumatised by its dark, macabre tone? Perhaps you were one of those parents who kicked off about the film; if so, what was it that set you off and how do you feel about it now? What did you think to Burton’s twisted interpretations of the Penguin and Catwoman? Did you enjoy Christopher Walken’s performance? Were you a fan of Michael Keaton’s performance this time around? Which Batman film, and actor, is your favourite and why? Do you consider Batman Returns a Christmas movie and, if not, why not and what the hell is wrong with you? It’s set at Christmas! Whatever you think about Batman Returns, go ahead and drop a comment down below and be sure to check in next Saturday for more Christmas content!

Talking Movies [Christmas Countdown]: Jingle All the Way

Talking Movies

Released: 22 November 1996
Director: Brian Levant
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $75 million
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, Jake Lloyd, Robert Conrad, Rita Wilson, and Phil Hartman

The Plot:
Howard Langston (Schwarzenegger) is a workaholic husband and father who, after missing his son Jamie’s (Lloyd) karate class graduation, promises to make it up to him by buying him the hottest action figure of the year, Turbo-Man, for Christmas. But, having forgotten to by the toy ahead of time, he must race both across town and against a similarly motivated mailman, Myron Larabee (Sinbad), on Christmas Eve or risk once again breaking a promise to his son.

The Background:
It’s easy to forget that, amidst all the action and science-fiction movies of the mid-eighties and nineties, Arnold Schwarzenegger also dabble din a bit of comedy. Not all of these ventures were successful, mind you, but it was a decent attempt by the Austrian Oak to showcase some range to his acting ability. Arnold joined the film for a reported $20 million salary, attracted to the idea of portraying an “ordinary man” for a change, and having experienced the difficulty of last-minute Christmas shopping itself. The script, which originated from a screenplay by Randy Kornfield, drew upon the mad rush shoppers faced to purchase some of the most sought-after Christmas toys over the years, from Cabbage Patch Kids to Power Rangers and the much-coveted Buzz Lightyear. Ironically, the film was shot so quickly that there wasn’t enough time to produce much in the way or merchandising for the film, which went on to gross nearly $130 million and received mixed to average reviews at the time. Perhaps because of its bonkers nature, it has become something of a cult classic over the years and a standalone, straight-to-DVD sequel was even produced in 2014 with an entirely new cast.

The Review:
Jingle All the Way is the story of Howard Langston, a workaholic father and husband who is such a big-wig at his company (which, I believe, is a company that sells bedding and furniture) that he’s working up to the wire on Christmas Eve-Eve during he office party. Though Howard is very much consumed by his work and ensuring that his many “number one customers” are satisfied, he’s not a maliciously neglectful father; I never got the sense that he was a bad Dad or husband, he’s just a cliché mid-nineties businessman whose primarily about the business.

Howard grossly underestimates the popularity of Turbo-Man.

When Howard misses his son Jamie’s karate graduation, he desperately tries to make it up to his son but the only thing that really works is him being honest; by admitting that he screwed up, Howard is able to turn Jamie around and learn about his Christmas wish for a Turbo-Man action figure. Sadly, Howard doesn’t twig to this revelation so, when his wife Liz (Wilson) asks him if he bought the doll when she told him to “weeks ago”, he opts to lie to her to cover his ass and avoid further reprisals. Unfortunately, while Howard is a great liar and a convincing act, he greatly underestimates just how popular the Turbo-Man action figure is. Seriously, this guy is like the Power Rangers on steroids, having a super cheesy television show, comic books, and all manner of merchandise and, despite Jamie clearly being besotted to the point obsession with the character, Howard is too thoughtless to notice that Jamie has greater respect and admiration for a fictional character rather than him before it’s too late.

In place of his neglectful father, Jamie idolises Turbo-Man to the point of obsession.

If there’s a weak link in the film, I’m sorry to say that it’s Jake Lloyd; it’s painful to say it about a child actor who was once so prominent in the industry, and considering everything he went through later in life, but Lloyd is pretty insufferable in the two films I’ve seen him in (three guesses what the other one is…) and even more so here. To be fair, much of this seems to be due to the script as Jamie is quite the spoilt, condescending little brat at times. I get that he’s desperate for his Dad’s attention but, as I said, he’s taking his love of Turbo-Man to an unhealthy obsession at times; however, this just goes to show how powerful and influential television, merchandise, and advertising can be on a young boy since he has based his entire life philosophy and morals on the teachings of a Saturday morning show in place of his inattentive father.

Sinbab’s bombastic comedy is a particular highlight of the film.

Being a comedy film, much of Jingle All the Way’s success lives and dies on the content of the actual jokes and gags; for the most part, these come from the comedic chops of Sinbad, whose character, Myron, is a troubled mailman who is equally desperate to get his son a Turbo-Man after experiencing a similar let down as a kid. Myron represents a different social class compared to the fairly well-off Howard; Myron is the working class everyman, a man driven to desperate and near insanity by the thankless nature of his job and the pressure of living up to the expectations placed upon him (and all fathers) by television advertising.  Because of this, Myron tends to go off on increasingly ridiculous tangents, ranting and raving about the season and his lot in life to the point of hilarity; Sinbad pretty much steals every scene he’s in, chewing the scenery and delivering a performance that is the perfect blend of bombastic and belligerent.

Ted is Howard’s annoyingly helpful neighbour who has his sights set on Liz.

Speaking of scene-stealers, Jingle All the Way also includes a fantastic turn by Phil Hartman as Howard’s overbearing next-door neighbour Ted Maltin; if Ted has a counterpart in the world, it’s Ned Flanders (Harry Shearer) as he’s overly polite, super helpful, and can seemingly never put a foot wrong. When Howard is late or misses Jamie’s big events, Ted is there with his video camera; when Howard is too buys to put up Christmas or be at home with Liz and Jamie, Ted is right there. So beloved is Ted that all the neighbourhood mothers swoon over him, openly flirting with him and attracted to how handy and capable he is, but Ted has his sights set on Liz. Interestingly, though, as accommodating and as a nice a guy as Ted seems to be, there are some interesting cracks in his persona: he snaps at his son Johnny (E.J. De La Pena) and Jamie after burning his fingers when watching over them and delivers a very icy quip to Howard after he wrecks his house. Ultimately, though, Liz is somewhat repulsed by Ted’s advances and he receives his comeuppance when Howard upstages him in the film’s finale.

Howard repeatedly runs afoul of Officer Hummell, who constantly ends up worse for wear.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Howard constantly runs afoul of Police Officer Alexander Hummell (Conrad) in a recurring gag in the film; Hummell pulls Howard over and causes him to miss Jamie’s graduation, then gives Howard another ticket when he accidentally reverses into his police bike, and responds to the radio station’s call for help when Howard and Myron burst in in a desperate attempt to win a Turbo-Man. This results in one of the best, and most cartoonish, scenes in the film when Myron threatens the cops with a mail bomb that turns out to actually be real. Conrad delivers a very dry and sarcastic performance, which makes for some fun exchanges between him and Arnold.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Jingle All the Way is quite the madcap film, with a near relentless pace as we follow Howard on his desperate search for a Turbo-Man. At every turn, he finds nothing but empty shelves or units of Turbo-Man’s weird bear/tiger sidekick, Booster, crazed fellow shoppers, and overworked, underpaid, jaded retail staff. I’ve worked in retail at Christmas time and I can say that I fully understand the attitude of the staff Howard encounters as shoppers go absolutely ape-shit at Christmas time, literally clambering over each other to get at products, and it’s only gotten worse over the years as Black Friday sales have been extended to an entire week! Still, you can make the argument that Liz should have known that Howard couldn’t be trusted to buy the doll and should have picked it up herself, since she’s much more attuned to her child’s needs, but then we wouldn’t have the movie now, would we?

Howard ends up in some weird and uncomfortable situations in his quest.

Amidst Howard’s dire quest, he ends up in some really weird situations: there’s the uncomfortable moment where he chases a little girl through the mall to get a lottery ball and is attacked by rightfully concerned mothers, for one thing, and his encounter with the mall Santa (Jim Belushi). Santa turns out to be one of a number of Christmassy crooks who sell knock-off toys from a warehouse at a criminally inflated price and, when Howard tries to get his money back, a massive fight ensues between him and the Santa’s (including Paul Wight, better known now as the WWE’s Big Show, and Verne Troyer). This sequence is another highlight of the film thanks, largely to Belushi’s memorable performance; he’s not in the film for longer than a cameo but he makes an immediate impression once he shows up and you almost wish he could have had a large role in the film’s events.

For the finale, the film descends into full-blown cartoon buffonery.

Of course, the biggest and most ridiculous scenario Howard finds himself in is when, after being chased by Hummell, he ends up being forced into the Turbo-Man suit for the “Wintertainment Parade” when the organises mistake him for the replacement stunt man. In the process, Howard not only finally gets his hand son the Turbo-Man doll but ends up in an elaborate and overly cartoony fight with Myron, who disguises himself as Turbo-Man’s arch-nemesis Dementor to steal the toy. This leads to a Myron chasing Jamie up a fire escape and across rooftops and Howard inexplicably activating the actual, fully functional jetpack built into the suit to rescue his son and defeat Myron. It’s a massively over the top sequence that is, in many ways, at odds with the generally more grounded, if wacky, antics that have followed but it certainly makes for a memorable finale in which Howard learns to appreciate his family, Jamie gifts Myron the Turbo-Man doll, and everyone ends up in a better place than they originally started (…except for Myron, who ends up in prison…).

The Summary:
Jingle All the Way is far from the best Christmas movie and is definitely one of the weaker films in Arnold’s impressive resumé; it’s a schmaltzy, over the top cringe fest of a festive comedy with some really weird cartoonish moments, some dodgy performances, special effects (especially noticeable in the finale) and line delivery from Arnold and Lloyd, and all the clichés you’d expect from a film of its kind. And yet…there’s something about it that I find unironically entertaining. Nostalgia helps, of course, since I grew up watching this film, as does the festive nature of the movie and the feelings of yuletide joy it inspires within me but, even disregarding those obvious aspects, Jingle All the Way is a wild, but entertaining, ride with some amusing moments and exchanges that really bring it up a notch. Not only that, but the film’s excess actually contributes and plays into the overall plot concerning consumerism and Christmas mania, which remains as relevant as ever, meaning there’s plenty of different elements at work in the film to appeal to kids and adults. Plus, you know…it’s a Christmas movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger so a certain amount of cheese is to be expected but you can certainly find worst Christmas movies out there.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

What do you think to Jingle All the Way? Is it a Christmas tradition of yours or do you prefer another Christmas movie; if so, what is it? What did you think to the performances of the actors? Do you enjoy seeing Arnold playing against type or do you think he should stick to what he’s best known for? Have you ever had to face last-minute Christmas shoppers? What was the hot Christmas toy when you were a kid? Whatever your thoughts, leave a comment below and be sure to check in next Saturday for another Christmas movie review!

Talking Movies [Christmas Countdown]: Shazam!

Talking Movies
ShazamLogo

Released: 5 April 2019
Director: David F. Sandberg
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $80 to 100 million
Stars: Asher Angel, Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Fulton, and Djimon Hounsou

Plot:
Billy Batson (Angel), an abandoned boy searching for his missing mother, is suddenly bestowed with magical superpowers, transforming him into an adult superhero (Levi) with the mindset of a teenager. When Doctor Thaddeus Sivana (Strong) attains equal power through possession of the seven Deadly Sins, Billy is suddenly faced with putting aside his personal issues and becoming a fully-fledged superhero.

The Background:
Following the success of Clark Kent/Superman and Bruce Wayne/Batman, Fawcett Publications sought to establish their own colourful superheroes, each sporting the powers of Greco-Roman Gods, before Ralph Daigh combined them into one superpowered entity to directly oppose Superman initially dubbed “Captain Thunder” and transformed by writer Bill Parker and artists C.C. Beck and Pete Costanza into Captain Marvel. Although legal issues dogged the character even after Fawcett was absorbed into DC Comics, Captain Marvel was joined by a colourful extended family and even enjoyed some success in adaptation with a live-action television show back in the seventies. Development of a big-screen adaptation can be traced back to the early-2000s, when Peter Segal was attached to direct and the first rumblings of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnsons interest in playing Teth-Adam/Black Adam came about. When production stalled, Segal left the project and Shazam! fell into Development Hell for a while as Warner Bros. tried to establish their own cinematic universe. The project came back to life in 2014, with Johnson still involved, though he was soon given a spin-off project while director David F. Sandberg casting Zachary Levi in the title role and tackling the concept asBig (Marshall, 1988) but with superpowers”. Levi underwent a physical transformation and worked closely with his child co-star, Asher Angel, to portray the World’s Mightiest Mortal. Following a favourable response to the film’s first teaser trailer, Shazam! went on to make $366 million at the box office, making it a reasonable success. Critical response was overwhelmingly positive; reviews praised the comedic aspects and performances, and colourful visuals and heartfelt messages, though some noted issues with the tone and finale. Regardless, Shazam! was a big hit amidst the mess that is the DC Extended Universe; not only was a sequel announced not long after the film’s release but the Rock finally got his long-awaited Black Adam movie, setting the stage for a showdown between the two.

The Review:
Shazam! was released at a time when the DCEU was in a very chaotic flux; it’s not much better these days, to be fair, but back in 2019 we were still in the murky depths of the whole “Release the Snydercut” movement that saw a very vocal and very toxic splinter cell of “fans” decry anything and everything that wasn’t spearheaded by Zack Snyder. Consequently, I’ve seen discussions online trying to claim Shazam! isn’t canon to the DCEU films that came before it simply because Superman (Ryan Hadley) is wearing a blue suit instead of a black one…like he couldn’t just change his bloody costume! Well, I’m sorry to tell you but, at this point, Shazam! is more canon than the bloated and over-rated Zack Snyder’s Justice League (ibid, 2021) and different superheroes in the same shared universe can have different tones to their movies; if you don’t want to look at Marvel’s movies for proof of this, maybe try comparing Man of Steel (ibid, 2013) to Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017) and then each of those to Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016) and Aquaman (Wan, 2018), four films that most definitely are a part of Snyder’s flawed vision of DC’s most famous characters. For me, Shazam! represented a shift towards telling more light-hearted, comic-accurate, and action-packed stories that focused on getting to the heart of these beloved characters rather than muting and saturating them or making them unnecessarily grim; Snyder extremists may lose their nut when Batman (Ben Affleck) mercilessly slaughters people and swears like he’s Frank Castle/The Punisher, but that’s not true to Batman’s character at all so I saw Shazam! as a bit of a course correction for the DCEU towards a less ridiculously serious take on these characters.

Streetwise Billy pushes everyone away in pursuit of his missing mother.

I feel it’s important for me to point out that I haven’t read any of the New 52 comics featuring Billy/Shazam’s altered background and extended family; I’m vaguely aware that his origin and situation were changed and updated somewhat, but I’m much more familiar with his classic comics and his appearance throughout the mid-nineties as a budding kid reporter and the “Big Red Cheese” who goofed about on the Justice League International team. I was therefore amused and intrigued to find Billy portrayed not a newspaper boy living on the streets with aspirations of working in radio, but instead as a streetwise orphan with a reputation for causing trouble with both his foster families and the cops and businesses of Philadelphia. Billy is a lot more in common with young John Connor (Edward Furlong) in that he resents being placed in the care of others, prefers to rely on his own wiles to get by, and frequently scams his way into police databases to track down his birth mother, Marilyn (Caroline Palmer), who he became separated from at a carnival ten years previously. Although he’s a rebellious kid who actively rejects assistance and affection for others, there’s a real tragedy to Billy; he believes he has a “real” family and mother out there waiting for him, refuses to entertain the notion that Marylin isn’t interested in finding him, and is desperate to be reunited with her and feel that sense of belonging once more. Unfortunately for him, he’s only fourteen and therefore legal mandated to be placed into foster care; having run away from good families before and been rejected because of it, he’s placed into the care of the lovable Víctor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vásquez (Marta Milans), who shelter a whole troupe of foster kids of all ages. Since he’s a self-sufficient kid who doesn’t see the point in connecting with others because he’s trying to get back to his real mother, Billy is unimpressed by the Vásquez’s friendliness and the mixture of personalities in their household.

Billy revels in the power and freedom offered by his superpowered alter ego.

As in the source material, Billy is approached by the aging wizard Shazam (Hounsou), here depicted as a desperate demigod seeking to pass his great powers on to a suitable heir before his time ends. Djimon Hounsou is a great choice for this role; his gravely voice oozes a perfect mixture of menace, authority, and despair. Burdened by the guilt of having misplaced his trust in a previous Champion and witnessing the deaths of his fellow Council of Wizards, the Wizard is determined that his next Champion be pure of heart in order to fend off the influence of the Seven Deadly Sins (Steve Blum, Darin De Paul, and Fred Tatasciore) but is forced to rely on the reluctant Billy after the Seven Deadly Sins are freed from their prison. By speaking the Wizard’s name, Billy is transformed into an adult form sporting one of the best and most comic-accurate costumes ever put to cinema; the effort sees the Wizard crumble to ash but empowers Billy with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. Whenever he utters his name, Billy becomes a boy trapped in a man’s body, leading to many humorous moments such as him struggling to navigate the world now he’s a six-foot, musclebound man, him learning the alcohol usually tastes terrible, and his awkward attempts to exude authority as a superhero. Zachary Levi shines in the role, though it can’t be overlooked that Billy seems to act more immature as Shazam than he does as a kid, somewhat negating whatever influence the Wisdom of Solomon is supposed to have on him; however, I would chalk this up to the freedom and power offered by his adult form and superpowers and it results in some of the film’s best moments as he and Freddy test Shazam’s limits, try to think up a suitable superhero moniker, and attempt to become social media celebrities by recording his feats of power and heroism.

Freddy encourages Billy’s growth from a super celebrity into a capable superhero.

The Vasquez house shelters five kids of various ages, including avid gamer Eugene Choi (Ian Chen), the enthusiastic, the overly affectionate and chatty Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman), introverted workout aficionado Pedro Peña (Jovan Armand). While Darla steals every scene she’s in with her endless excitement and Billy can’t help but be taken by her childish positivity, it’s cripple Freddy Freeman (Grazer) and academic prodigy Mary Bromfield (Fulton) whom Billy spends the most time with. A superhero fanboy who’s constantly wearing Justice League t-shirts, showing off his Superman memorabilia, and rattling off Justice League statistics and abilities as Billy explores his powers. While Freddy’s nonstop chatter quickly exasperates Billy, the self-styled loner can’t help but step in when the snarky Freddy is set upon by a couple of douchebag jocks; Freddy’s a bit of an odd duck, one who sports a dark sense of humour, chatters incessantly, and struggles to maintain his boundaries. It’s lucky for Freddy that Shazam’s powers are so formidable as he doesn’t hold back in putting him through his paces; he actively encourages armed thugs to shoot him in the face, secretly sets him on fire, and delights in watching him barrel into buildings and fall from great heights in his attempts to fly. Eventually, however, a rift forms between them that only grows wider when Billy chooses to goof off as Shazam rather than show appreciation for Freddy’s assistance; even Eugene and Pedro question Shazam’s heroism as he’s more concerned with grifting and showing off. Although Shazam’s able to pull off and impressive physical feat and save a busload of civilians from certain death, Freddy chastises him for causing the accident in the first place and chews him out for not appreciating how lucky he is to have such incredible powers.

Though empowered by the Seven Deadly Sins, Dr. Sivana covets the Wizards gifts most of all.

Billy is put to the test, however, by Dr. Sivana, who we first meet as a little boy (Ethan Pugiotto) suffering emotional abuse at the hands of his strict father, business tycoon Mr. Sivana (John Glover), and his obnoxious older brother, Sid (Landon Doak). Although seemingly a more playful and less repugnant individual compared to his domineering elders, young Thaddeus is a perfect cause of nurture over nature; when he’s magically transported to the Rock of Eternity and offered the chance to become the Wizard’s Champion, he’s easily swayed by the influence of the Seven Deadly Sins, who offer him the power he needs to prove his strength to his father by claiming the Eye of Sin rather than the Wizard’s staff. Deemed unworthy because of his impure heart, young Thaddeus is rejected by the Wizard and his subsequent outburst causes a car crash that sees his father paralysed from the waist down and sets the boy on a lifelong quest to research the Wizard and his other rejected attempts to find a Champion in order to force his way back into the Rock of Eternity, confront the Wizard’s rebuff, and become the vessel for the destructive power of the Seven Deadly Sins. Largely represented as grotesque gargoyle-like creatures comprised of rock and smoke, the Seven Deadly Sins imbue Dr. Sivana with power to rival that of Shazam, which is a far cry from the mad scientist he was in the original comics but, as I understand it, is more in-line with his New 52 counterpart and allows Dr. Sivana to pose a physical challenge to the titular demigod. Composed, spiteful, and revelling in his dark powers, Dr. Sivana is the polar opposite of Shazam, who takes far longer to reconcile his immaturity with his magical adulthood and to realise the potential of his superpowers; it’s telling that Dr. Sivana can both fly and throw more effective punches in their first encounter, such is the benefit of his lifelong quest for the Wizard’s power, and he doesn’t hesitate to use every advantage at his disposal, even threatening Billy’s foster family, to add Shazam’s power to his own.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Some of you reading this may question why I’ve included Shazam! in my Christmas Countdown series considering it’s not a “typical” Christmas movie. Well, for me, the reason is very simple: the film is largely set around the festive season, Christmas songs, trees, and lights are all over the place, as is snow and a general sense of festive anticipation in the air and, while Christmas might not be at the heart of the narrative, this is enough for me to justify it being a Christmas movie. Plus, why not take the opportunity to slap on a fun or enjoyable film around Christmas even if it isn’t a focal point of the movie? A common criticism I have of early Shazam! comics is the depiction of the Rock of Eternity; it would take some decades for artists to render it in a way that felt both grandiose, fantastical, and foreboding and to not simply have cartoonish writing all over the walls to explain to kids what was happening. Thankfully, Shazam! addresses this issue, depicting the Rock of Eternity as a cavernous labyrinthine temple home to the aging Wizard and seven thrones where his peers once sat. The Seven Deadly Sins are also entombed there and, while they do have their name sand natures etched into their rocky surfaces, they’re far more monstrous and impressive than in those early comics; the Rock of Eternity is also home to various other magical doorways and artefacts that effectively lay the groundwork for future films, villains, and characters.

When his perfect memory of his mother is shattered, Billy turns to his foster family for support.

Family plays a central role in the film; as indicated, the influence of Mr. Sivana and Sid has a lasting effect on Dr. Sivana’s nature and life, with every action he takes in his quest for power, both magical and otherwise, motivated by a need to prove himself worthy and superior to his father and older brother. Billy holds his last memories of her close in his heart, remembering her as a kind-hearted and loving mother who did her best and gifted him with a compass so that he could always find his way, and he both dreams and actively rehearses what he’ll say when they’re reunited after they got lost in a bustling crowd. It’s therefore all the more heart-breaking when Billy does eventually track her down and learns not only that his memories of this event were skewed by his childish perception, but that Marylin chose to abandon him as she couldn’t cope with the pressure of being a mother. Asher Angel absolutely sells Billy’s dejection at this revelation as he realises that his whole life has been a lie, that this perfect memory and vision of a loving mother was far from the actual truth, and that his mother dropped him at the first chance she got rather than try to live up to her responsibilities. Despite his earlier reservations, this means that Billy comes to recognise the importance of his true family; while he’s spent much of the film pushing others away and only reluctantly accepting Freddy’s help in discovering the limits of his superpowers, the Vásquez’s and their foster kids have been nothing but warm, welcoming, and understanding to Billy. When he first meets them, the family is coming to terms with Mary’s impending departure for the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), a move which is encouraged but also a subject of sadness, especially for the emotional Darcy. After saving her as Shazam, Billy relates his belief that family is for those who can’t take care of themselves and encourages her to make it on her own and, similarly, early on, refuses to say grace over dinner or join hands with his foster family. However, when Dr. Sivana threatens his adopted family, Shazam agrees to hand himself over in exchange for their lives, finally seeing himself as their brother, and later turns to his adopted siblings for help by sharing his magical powers in much the same way as Victor and Rosa share their love.

Alongside his superpowered family, Shazam defeats Dr. Sivana and finds his place at last.

Although their power is primarily embodied through Dr. Sivana, the Seven Deadly Sins make a hell of an impression, delivering some disturbing PG violence that’s more than on par with the explicit brutality of previous DCEU films. Dr. Sivana barely flinches when his assistant (Lotta Losten) turns to ash before his eyes, launches Sid (Wayne Ward) out of a window, and unleashes the monstrous Seven Deadly Sins upon his father and his board members, whom they slaughter with an unexpected malice for an otherwise kid-friendly film. Although he can easily manhandle Shazam thanks to his composed nature, Dr. Sivana covets the Wizard’s magic above all and takes advantage of Freddy’s very public relationship with Shazam to hold his foster family hostage in exchange for Shazam’s powers. Their loyalty to Billy sees the kids come to his aid and reveals a glaring weakness in Dr. Sivana’s otherwise formidable powers; he becomes more vulnerable as the Seven Deadly Sins expel from his body, so Billy shares his powers, transforming his foster siblings into their own adult, superhero forms to divide the Seven Deadly Sins and weaken Dr. Sivana. While it’s convenient that Lady Shazam (Michelle Borth), Shazam Jr. (Adam Brody), and the others are all able to master their abilities faster than Billy, it leads to a fun and explosive finale as Freddy revels in finally having the superpowers he’s long idolised, Pedro Shazam (D. J. Cotrona) marvels at his physical stature and finally finds his confidence, Eugene Shazam (Ross Butler) delights in spouting videogame catchphrases to match his powers, and Darla Shazam (Meagan Good) retaining her childish exuberance. Although the Seven Deadly Sins and the Shazam Family are technically evenly matched in their strength and durability, Shazam’s able to render Dr. Sivana powerless by goading Envy into leaving his body. He then saves Dr. Sivana from certain death and forcibly extracts the Eye of Sin from his head, imprisoning the Seven Deadly Sins once more, though Dr. Sivana is approached by another potential villainous ally, the hyper-intelligent caterpillar Mister mind (David F. Sandberg) while languishing in prison. Having now found a safe, loving home and family to share his life and powers with, Billy chooses to stay with the Vasquez’s, joins them in their family traditions, and establishes himself and the other Shazams as the new keepers of the Rock of Eternity. He’s even able to bolster Freddy’s credibility at school by joining him for lunch as Shazam and alongside an awkwardly-framed Superman (seriously, it would’ve been just as good, if not better, to show Superman from behind and floating outside the window).

The Summary:
It can be difficult to craft a truly original superhero origin movie; even I’ll admit it’s usually better to fast-track or skip the origin entirely, especially for more well-known superheroes, but Shazam does a great job of establishing its world and Shazam’s powers through well-paced exposition and different means. Rather than opening with a voiceover explaining everything to us and then having that information repeated later, we see the conflict between the Wizard and the Seven Deadly Sins and how that influences Dr. Sivana and, when Billy first gets his powers, he’s completely clueless how to use them and is forced to turn to superhero nut Freddy for help. Seeing the kids become their own magical superheroes was a blast as all the adult actors equally conveyed their thrill at their newfound abilities and I really enjoyed the film’s humour, especially in the man-child personification of Shazam and his not being able to hear Dr. Sivana’s villain monologue. Seeing Billy grow from a damaged loner to truly accepting his foster family and his newfound powers was a charming development after the utter gut-punch delivered by his mother; Mark Strong was, ever, a deliciously scene-stealing villain and I absolutely loved the costume design and presentation of the film. Infused with exactly the right balance of action, comedy, and heart that’s often sorely lacking in the DCEU, Shazam! is a hugely enjoyable romp that’s got just enough Christmas spirit laced throughout it to justify an annual watch every festive season regardless of how much of a hard-on you have for Snyder’s grim and gritty perversion of DC’s characters.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Did you enjoy Shazam!? Are you a fan of the comic books and, if so, were you happy with the way it adapted the source material? What did you think to Billy’s characterisation, his mother’s true nature, and his acceptance of his foster family? Which of his siblings was your favourite and did you enjoy seeing them get a share Shazam’s power? What did you think to Dr. Sivana and the Seven Deadly Sins? Are there any Shazam characters, villains, or story arcs you’d like to see adapted one day? Do you prefer the grim and gritty DCEU or its more light-hearted side? Whatever your thoughts on Shazam!, feel free to drop them below or leave a comment on my social media.