Monthly Archives: December 2011
Favorite Film of 2011… GO!
It is almost time to close the book on 2011 and it has been an interesting year at the movies. It has been a year heavy with nostalgia, superheroes, and lots of Steven Spielberg. With the lack of new reviews we have currently (We are working on it, guys! Trust me! The holidays have kept us very busy.), we want to know what film YOU guys loved in 2011. This isn’t our best of 2011 list, as there are still some films that we still need to see (Ahem! The Artist and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy! How about a wide release already!), but I tried to include the ones that recieved the most attention throughout the year. So get to voting and if you don’t see your favorite film in the poll, shoot us a comment! We love hearing from you.
Merry Christmas from Anti-Film School!
From all of us here at Anti-Film School, we want to wish you a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS!
NOTE: Anti-Film School does not claim ownership of the attached video.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
by Steve Habrat
It’s a Wonderful Life ranks as one of my favorite films of all time. I fell in love with this film many, many years ago, allowing it to both carve a sweet spot out in my heart, but also finding it to be one of the most heartfelt movies I have ever laid my eyes on. I adore everything from the good-old-boy performance from James Stewart to the small town setting of the film. Doesn’t that town just feel so homey? Hell, even our contributor Charles Beall, who resides near Seneca Falls, sent me a photo of the famed bridge where George Bailey tries to end it all, the bridge all decked out and trimmed with Christmas lights. While the film’s message of savoring everything that surrounds us and using the backdrop of Christmas still resonates today, this is a sturdy production with sharp direction, bountiful sets, and a surprising romanticism that fails to be matched (“Do you want the moon, Mary?”). It still wows me that this film was made in 1946, shortly after the end of WWII. Hollywood was embracing film noir and grittier pictures rather than fantastic productions, as the world had seen the epitome of evil and destruction first hand during the war. And yet the pains of real life do hang over It’s a Wonderful Life, as suicide, hopelessness, and desperation all come up, it’s all handled with a compassionate sanguinity from director Frank Capra. Capra makes us feel George’s heart and soul breaking, and we fear he may be lost, but surprisingly, it’s not the religious tones that oddly lift the picture up and allow it to really soar. It’s George’s heart of gold.
George Bailey (Played by the marvelous Stewart) is a real stand-up guy, one who will go above and beyond for the people he loves and stand up to those who bully. After the sudden and tragic death of his father, George finds himself taking over his father’s business, Bailey Building and Loan Association. While George had dreams and aspirations to go off to college and travel the world, the board of directors beg him to stay and run the family company to keep it out of the hands of the ruthless and leering Henry F. Potter (Played by Lionel Barrymore), a majority shareholder in the company who rejects giving home loans to the lower class workers of Seneca Falls. Potter desperately pleads with the board of directors to put an end to this but George consistently stands up to Potter. On the night that his father dies, George was wooing the beautiful Mary (Played by Donna Reed), who has liked him ever since he was a boy. George also had to watch as his brother Harry (Played by Todd Karns) goes off to college and gets married. George finally marries Mary, but finds himself sacrificing the honeymoon to keep the Building and Loan from collapse.
World War II soon erupts and Harry is drafted into the army as a fighter pilot and ends up being a war hero. George cannot enlist due to a bad ear, an accident from his childhood, so he stays in his hometown to hold down the Building and Loan. On Christmas Eve, George’s Uncle Billy (Played by Thomas Mitchell) is on his way to make a deposit of $8,000 for the company when he bumps into Potter. Uncle Billy shows Potter a newspaper headline that says Harry has won the Medal of Honor. When Potter takes the newspaper, he finds the $8,000 hidden inside and keeps the money for himself. A frantic search breaks out to find the money and George finds himself at the mercy of Potter, who refuses to give him a loan to save the company. Potter then promises to have George arrested for bank fraud. As George’s world crashes around him, he begins to contemplate suicide and right as he is about to end it all, a guardian angle appears named Clarence (Played by Henry Travers) and begins showing George what life would be like without him around. If Clarence can save George, he will earn his wings he has desperately been working for.
A cozy film, It’s a Wonderful Life presents George as such a likable guy, its damn near impossible to find a flaw in him. You find yourself wanting to reach through the screen and give George a big bear hug to reassure him everything will be just fine. Potter is the epitome of a vile antagonist, a man you can’t bring yourself to see any kindness in. It’s heart wrenching to watch George realize his fate as he begs to be spared by Potter. It’s moments like this that portray the realism that cinema was trying to achieve after the war but it also is perhaps my favorite sequence in the film. The scene is bitter, cruel, pathetic, and quite possibly one of the most charged sequences I have seen in a motion picture. Yet the film eases the tension the whimsical appearance of Clarence, who comes in the nick of time and adds a much needed dash of fantastic. The ending of the film reminds us of the magic in the air come Christmas, and how it puts a spell over all of us. That is, if you are willing to believe in magic.
The Christmas aspect of It’s a Wonderful Life enters only at the end of the film, which may leave some who have never seen it to question why this is such a popular holiday film, but it is the spirit of kindness and giving that solidifies it’s place in holiday movie history. The way George Bailey lives his life, as a kind and warm soul, willing to go the extra mile, is a mentality that many of us only embrace around the holidays. What would happen if we embraced that attitude all the time? Why should it only be limited to the Christmas season? If only we could all be like George every day of the year. It’s his past actions that ultimately save his life by the end of the film, rather than Clarence, who is only there to provide examples.
Capra begins the film with a hand turning pages in an old story book and he molds it into an ethereal bedtime story for all ages. He does a hell of a job with the snow caked scenes at the end of this film, scenes that especially seem like they could have been ripped out of that old story book, sometimes so detailed they almost seem like a painting. I dare you to watch the scene of George Bailey running through the snowy streets of Bedford Falls, Christmas lights and artificial bells strung across the streets and trees, calling out “MERRY CHRISTMAS” and not help but think that would make a perfect Christmas card graphic or painting. Even though the film is shot in black and white, it remains eternal despite some dated dialogue. The film circumvents the cookie-cutter religious preaching and becomes a beacon of hope in humanity itself. Every time I see It’s a Wonderful Life, I swell with happiness and hope that kindness will reign supreme in the hearts and souls of every human being. With not one performance slacking and not one scene out of place, it’s a rare work of art that defines excellence. It really is the perfect film to watch with a mug of hot chocolate in hand, Christmas tree glowing bright, and snow quietly drifting down outside from the night sky. Who am I kidding? It’s the perfect film to watch anytime.
It’s a Wonderful Life is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Winnie the Pooh (2011)
by Steve Habrat
While Disney-Pixar’s computer animated offerings always leave me in awe over the creativity poured into each film, it’s the hand-drawn works that really showcase the artistic abilities of those who punch the clock at Disney. Take for instance Winnie the Pooh, the newest hand drawn gem from the animation factory that really takes your imagination by the hand. To many, he may seem dated and the urge to watch garbage like Cars 2 may seem like the more entertaining option, but I say give this adventure a go.
Pooh (Voiced by Jim Cummings) and his merry gang of loyal friends go on the hunt to find Christopher Robin (Voiced by Jack Boulter), who they believe has been captured by a mysterious beast called a “Backsoon”. They are also desperately trying to locate sad sack Eeyore’s (Voiced by Bud Luckey) tail, which has also gone missing. The first one to find the tail wins a jar of honey, which Pooh desperately wants due to a shortage at his homestead.
The entire gang makes an appearance in Winnie the Pooh. We have Piglet (Voiced by Travis Oates), Tigger (Voiced by Jim Cummings), Owl (Voiced by Craig Ferguson), Kanga (Voiced by Kristen Anderson-Lopez), Roo (Voiced by Wyatt Dean Hall), and Rabbit (Voiced by Tom Kenny), all along to catch and trap the dread “Backsoon”. Some stick-in-the-mud adults may find the brief 63 minute runtime to be entirely too long to tell the tale of Pooh but children should be glued to it.
Adults will enjoy the smiley croon of Zooey Deschanel (Elf, New Girl), who sings a number of toe-tapping little numbers sprinkled throughout. The characters themselves break out into a number of memorable songs that pay tribute to classic Pooh adventures. The best song is a tie between Pooh’s hallucinatory accolade to honey called “Everything is Honey” and Tigger’s directions that “Get You Tiggerized”. I should also acknowledge the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it wink to Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is a charmer.
Sure to slap a big smile on the faces of those who will level with it, Winnie the Pooh encourages a vivid imagination in every viewer. It stirs up the child in the adult viewers and it will get the kiddies riled up to venture outside and organize their own search party for the “Backsoon”. Winnie the Pooh is harmless with a sunny disposition and just as sweet as honey.
Winnie the Pooh is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Feature: The Magic of Woody Allen
by Steve Habrat
One theme that often appears in the films of Woody Allen is themes or use of the supernatural or fantasy. In multiple films, we get to see how he uses things ranging from extraterrestrials, ghosts, death, or magic. The interesting aspect is that he applies it to his very personal films, like Stardust Memories or he uses it in his funnier films like Love and Death. Allen has even gone as far as to play a magician in one of his more recent films. Through his use of these supernatural elements, he takes subjects that are very serious and with the use of the supernatural, he allows his audience to take the subjects in a lighter way. I think this is an interesting aspect to the work of Allen and how he applies the use of the supernatural. Through the use of fantasy, he brings almost a childlike awe to some of his films. He also makes some very important statements on important topics like death and even his own career.
During the teenage years of his life, Woody Allen did not seem to be particularly interested in the intellectual elements that fill his career and work today. Throughout this period, Allen spent long hours in his room practicing magic tricks. It was around this time as well that he started submitting jokes and he got himself noticed (Woody Allen Biography). In Stig Bjorkman’s book Woody Allen on Woody Allen, Allen states “It has been said, that if I have any one big theme in my movies, it’s got to do with the difference between reality and fantasy. It comes up very frequently in my films. I think what it boils down to, really, is that I hate reality. And, you know, unfortunately it’s the only place where we can get a good steak dinner. I think it comes from my childhood, where I constantly escaped into cinema” (Bjorkman, 50). When you analyze what Allen’s films tend to be about, which is love, death and relationships, we can see that he is interested in making intellectually stimulating films that are not just special effects and mindless entertainment. It is interesting that someone who says that they hate reality would be interested in these specific topics. In many of his films including Play It Again, Sam, made in 1973, Love and Death, made in 1975, Stardust Memories, made in 1980, The Purple Rose of Cairo, made in 1985, Alice, made in 1990, The Curse of The Jade Scorpion, made in 2001, and Scoop, made in 2006, all have fantasy elements that I believe to be rather personal to Allen. When you break down what each of these films is trying to convey with its fantasy elements, it becomes much clearer.
Starting with Play it Again, Sam, Allen plays a film critic who has just gotten a divorce and is trying to move forward and find a new relationship with the help of his friends. Throughout the film, Allen goes into conversations and gets relationship advice from the apparition of Humphrey Bogart. What is interesting about the set up is the fact that Humphrey Bogart is in character as Rick Blaine, from Casablanca. When we go back and look at the quote from Allen when he says “I think it comes from my childhood, where I constantly escaped into cinema”, it becomes more obvious that this role that he has taken on may be more personal than one would imagine. He uses the Bograt apparition to try to find an answer to his relationship problems. Allen’s character begins living through the film to help him cope with the relationship that he has been involved in with the Diane Keaton character. The film even ends similarly to Casablanca, as he lets the love interest go, just as Rick Blaine does with the character Ingrid Bergman plays, Ilsa Lund.
As you continue to trace the development of Allen’s use of fantasy to escape reality, we arrive at his 1975 film, Love and Death. This time around, Allen does not use fantasy to escape relationship problems but rather to escape ideas of death. The film follows a cowardly Russian man, Boris, played by Allen, who gets enlisted into the Russian army after Napoleon’s troops try to invade. Soon Boris and his wife, Sonja, played by Diane Keaton, devise a plan to assassinate Napoleon. As the finale plays out, we realize that Boris is going to die. Throughout the film, Boris sees the apparition of death claiming souls. Death looks like the Grim Reaper only rather than wearing a black cloak, he wears an all white cloak. At the end of the film, the white-cloaked Death comes to claim Boris and as the film ends, we see Boris and Death dancing with each other as Death takes Boris’s soul to the afterlife. When one think of death, it is often a very serious topic and we would hardly believe that Death would appear cloaked in white. Once again, Allen tackles a very serious subject with fantasy and also with quite a bit of slapstick comedy in the film. He seems to address the serious topic of death by showing us a fantasy apparition that dances with its victims rather than just presenting a very depressing affair. This seems once again to be going along with the idea that Allen wants to tackle a serious topic but uses fantasy to analyze it. We obviously know that Death does not come for us in a cloak and carrying a sickle. It seems here that Allen is trying to comfort his own fears on death by trying to convince himself that death really is not a grim affair but rather something can be celebrated.
In 1980, Allen released the film Stardust Memories, which seems to be one of his more personal films. Stardust Memories follows the filmmaker Sandy Bates, played by Allen, who has recently been trying to make more artistic films rather than the humorous films that he was known for making. As a result of Bates making these more serious films, he has been losing or getting a lot of criticism from his fans. Throughout the film, we get several fantasy versus reality aspects that seem quite personal to Allen. Two notable scenes are one involving a young boy who looks slightly like Allen and a group of extraterrestrials that pay Sandy a visit. At one point, Bates is getting bombarded by questions from fans and press and at one point Bates looks through the crowd and sees a young boy with his mother. We notice that the boy has on a pair of glasses that are similar to what Allen himself wears as well as a cape. As Bates watches the boy, the boy suddenly flies up into the air without warning. The interesting thing about this particular scene as that it seems to suggest in terms of the theme of the film, that Bates just wants to go back to his childhood and start new. When he flies up into the sky, he seems to want to escape the crowd and go to a different place rather than take numerous questions and criticisms. This could also be alluding to Allen’s real life, in which he would like to escape all his criticisms and fly away. The other interesting scene comes when extraterrestrials visit Bates and tell him that they prefer his early funny films rather than his recent serious ones. Now we have to take into consideration that two years prior to the making of Stardust Memories, Allen released a film that seemed more serious than his previous work. That particular film was Interiors and it caused him to loose some of his audience, as he was known for making funny films rather than tackling very serious topics. This scene in the film seems to deal with some sort of anxiety that Allen had about people from all over the world being upset that he is making more serious films rather than funny ones. The aliens could represent people from another country that would be upset with the direction he is going with his work.
After Stardust Memories, Allen made a film in 1985 called The Purple Rose of Cairo. The film is about Cecilia, played by Mia Farrow, who is living during the Great Depression and is caught up in a bad marriage. She begins going to see a film at her local movie theater called The Purple Rose of Cairo to escape her lousy, everyday life. One day, one of the characters, Tom, played by Jeff Daniels, emerges from screen to be with Cecilia. This particular plot seems very reminiscent of what Allen would do during his childhood. The plot of the film feels very personal to Allen, as he would try to escape reality when he was younger by going to see films. The film implies that films create magic and that we can avoid dealing with bad relationships and problems at our work. As the film goes on, we learn that the actor who portrays Tom in the film, Gil, and the studio executives are all working to get Tom back into the film so the film can continue playing. At the end of the film, Cecilia, who is pursued by Gil and Tom, looses both men and instead of embracing reality, she slips right back into fantasy by going back to the movies.
Allen’s next film to continue the trend of people trying to escape reality with fantasy would be Alice, made in 1990. The film is about Alice, played by Mia Farrow, who is very wealthy and seems to have a loving family. Alice suffers from back pains and one day goes to an oriental herbal healer. He realizes that her back pain is stemming from more serious problems in her life. As the film moves on, we see Alice falling in love with another man. The oriental herbalist, Dr. Yang, gives Alice special herbs that give her magical powers. One of the herbs causes her to become invisible while one is a love potion that makes several men fall in love with her. At the end of the film, Alice decides that she wants to leave her husband, who is also having an affair, and try to reinvent her life. She decides to do work with Mother Theresa and devote her life to helping people less fortunate than her. Allen seems to be saying that through magic and fantasy, we can break away from our troubled mundane lives and start over. We can get away from our troubled love lives and do something for the better rather than just wasting our lives unhappily.
In 2001, Allen released The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, which used the idea of magic at its core. The film follows CW Briggs, played by Allen, who is an insurance investigator and an efficiency expert named Betty Ann Fitzgerald. One evening, CW and Betty Ann are both put under a spell at a magic show and once they are under the spell, a crooked magician convinces them to go out and steal precious jewels and money for him. The interesting idea that stems from use of the supernatural in this film is while under the spell, both CW and Betty Ann confess feelings for each other but when they are not under the spell, they hate each other. Allen seems to be implying that with the help of fantasy and magic, we can fall in love with someone who is our complete opposite. It also seems to say that magic could revive love and make people happy in the world. This seems very personal in the same idea that in fantasy we can have exactly what we want. The film also seems very personal to Allen, as the film’s plot is based off a magician and a magic spell.
When we look back on how Allen spent his childhood, one of the ways was practicing magic in his bedroom. In 2006, Allen made Scoop, which follows a young journalism student, played by Scarlett Johansson who gets involved in a murder mystery along with a magician. Allen plays the magician and when we study his background, we can assume that this role may also be very personal to him. This seems like Allen is fantasizing about a career he wished he had. We also get the same fantasy and supernatural themes that showed themselves before in Allen’s previous works. We get death showing up and leading souls to the under world, only this time death wears black instead of white like it did in Love and Death. We also get an apparition who interacts with the main characters, which feels slightly similar to what we saw in Play It Again, Sam.
While Allen says that he prefers fantasy to reality, we also have the opposing idea that Allen is interested in making very serious works. He first started making funny films and then started gravitating towards more serious works of art. With films like Interiors, Hannah and Her Sisters and Husbands and Wives, he does not incorporate elements of fantasy or the supernatural. Other serious filmmakers have obviously influenced Allen and I believe that we see the true Allen when he makes films with a fantasy element, even if it is very subtle rather than blatantly obvious.
Overall, I think it is important to monitor the elements of fantasy versus reality in the films of Woody Allen. I believe he conveys personal ideas when he adds this particular factor, as they show up in several of his more personal films. I hope to see more of these fantasy elements show up in Allen’s upcoming work and see what he has to say with them. I believe some of his most interesting works contain these elements of fantasy and I hope he keeps putting intellectual ideas behind his fantasies. For me, I prefer his supernatural work, but hey, that is just me.
Allen’s newest film, Midnight in Paris, deals with supernatural elements and will soon be added to this feature. It is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. See Anti-Film School’s review of it here.
Woody Allen on Woody Allen by Stig Bjorkman. Pg. 50
5,000 VISITS! Anti-Film School is a HIT!
In just under five months, Anti-Film School has crossed 5,000 visits to our site. We want to thank each and every one of you who have visited, whether it be out of love, intriguing, or hate. I still cannot believe how quickly Anti-Film School gathered its audience and we sincerely hope you are enjoying what you are seeing. We go to great lengths here to make sure each person that visits is entertained and leaves the site remembering us. We all try to remain as down to earth as we possibly can. We encourage you to keep interacting with our site, leaving comments, requesting reviews that we do not have posted, and stopping back. Both myself and the other contributors work other jobs, which make it difficult for us to post a review or feature every single day, but believe me when I say that we try very hard. This is only the beginning of Anti-Film School and we have plenty more on the way. You can look forward to more reviews, a top 10 films of 2011 list, some Oscar predictions, more reviews of grind house films (Hey, it goes with the site’s aesthetic! What do you expect?!), reader-picked reviews, more features, new contributors (?), more polls, a list of the best comic book films, and who knows what else we will cook up for you in 2012. So, here is to another 5,000 hits! Pass us along to your friends, and while you are visiting, take a moment to visit our site designer Will’s site Creature from the Blog Lagoon…in 3D! You can find the link to his site in our Blogroll. Together, we make a truly delectable double feature. Just be weary of some of the audience members, sorry about the broken chairs, the sticky floors, and missing reels.
Bad Santa (2003)
by Steve Habrat
From the snowless southwest setting to it’s alcoholic, self-destructive tomfoolery, Bad Santa seems like an unlikely holiday hit. Just get a load of its sloshed opening where Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie, dressed as the skinniest Santa Claus you will ever lay eyes on, vomits in a snowy alley on Christmas Eve. It’s certainly not one you could put on for the kiddies to distract them while you wrap your Christmas gifts or gather as a family to have a few guffaws at. Bad Santa is bad, naughty, anti-social, raucous, dirty, ugly, and downright side-splitting if you are not one with virgin ears. The best part is that Willie clings to his bad attitude the entire journey, making him one of the most loveable anti-heroes in a Santa hat. It is important, though, that you gauge if this film is appropriate for you, as I could see some getting their panties in a bunch over Willie’s womanizing, violent temper, and treatment of the kiddies. I howled with laughter over his short fuse, especially when one tyke sneezes chocolate ice cream all over his white beard. The funniest part is that we really don’t hold his mood against him.
Willie (Played by Thornton) and his dwarf friend Marcus (Played by Tony Cox) pose as a mall Santa and one of his elves. Willie has issues holding his temper together and Marcus has to constantly keep him in check. Every Christmas Eve, they rob a mall and disappear until the holidays return, only to show up at a new mall in a new city. A year later, Marcus contacts Willie in Miami and recruits him for a new job in the southwest. After checking in to the mall and meeting the prim and proper mall manager Bob Chipeska (Played by the late John Ritter), they begin their duties. Bob begins to suspect something strange about the duo and he seeks the help of the mall security chief Gin Slagel (Played by the late Bernie Mac), who agrees to keep an eye on Willie and Marcus. Willie also begins shacking up at the home of a pudgy kid who he nicknames “the Kid” (Played by Brett Kelly) and his senile grandmother. He also begins seeing a seductive bartender named Sue (Played by Lauren Graham), who he develops genuine affection for. As Willie and Marcus begin to plot their heist, they find themselves at the hands of Gin, who figures out their history and demands half of what they steal. Willie also begins mentoring the Kid and he begins to show glimmers of kindness.
Going against the usual messages of hope, love, cheer, joy, and peace on earth, Bad Santa embraces degenerate behavior and a foul mouth that, if an open flame were lit near its boozy breath, it would burst into hellfire flames. It has the balls to go against “the norm”, which I absolutely love. Willie is pathetic, one who we want so desperately to loathe but can’t help but like. He is perpetually nursing a hangover, an acting style that Thornton excels at. I have to admit I love his as the grump. The other shining star in Bad Santa is John Ritter as Bob Chipeska, who steals some of the funniest lines of dialogue in the entire film. He plays an uptight family man role who is always squeaky clean. Bernie Mac hits a homerun as a smart-ass swindler who is just looking out for himelf. His negotiating skills will have you slapping your knees. It is these three performances that make the film a must see.
While Cox, Graham, and Kelly are memorable, they sometimes don’t hold a candle to the work done by Thornton, Ritter, and Mac. The story has enough outrageous and taboo situations (Chipeska stumbling upon Willie and another woman becoming intimate in a dressing room is a classic, especially a certain line of dialogue delivered with such seriousness by Thornton, I almost think he meant it.) to keep its one-dimensional message buoyant. It is basically the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, someone who rejects the season at first, only to finally come around and see the error of his ways. At least Thornton has the good sense to retain the disgust that flashes in his droopy eyes every so often–sometimes I think it is at himself. The love does come creeping in, even if it is in a rather left of center way. The film also rests heavily on irony, mostly by placing the un-jolly Thornton in the britches of Santa and having him display zero enthusiasm and a strong dislike for kids. It’s a joke that many may fear will get stretched a too thin but it continues to get us chuckling.
Bad Santa doesn’t do much to change the Christmas comedy through technicalities, as the film is rather flatly shot. Director Terry Zwigoff lets the script do most of the work, which usually means having one of the contemptible characters deliver a hugely over-the-top line of dialogue. It also relies on its shock-and-awe premise, leaving us asking ‘Will it go there?’ and it usually does. It’s a staple that raunchy comedies heavily rely on but we have become largely forgiving for it. It has boiled down to how far can the envelope be pushed and how much will audiences take. Bad Santa basically wants nothing more than to give the adults a break from the childish touches of the season. With everything revolving around the kiddies and family orientated activities, it’s the perfect middle finger to the season.
Bad Santa is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Black Christmas (1974)
by Steve Habrat
If you feel like taking a break from all the holiday cheer of the Christmas season, pop in director Bob Clark’s subtle and ominous Black Christmas. You won’t regret it. Well, maybe you will if you are watching it alone at night with nothing but a Christmas tree lit and no one else at home to keep you company. One of the more muted horror films of the 1970’s, Black Christmas is all about sounds, creaky halls, dimly lit bedrooms, faint holiday tunes emitting from radios, soft cinematography, heavy breathing, and some of the most abhorrent and creepy phone calls ever made. You will also find it hard to believe that the guy who made this also went on to make that other holiday classic A Christmas Story and the teen sex romp Porky’s. Miraculously never conforming to a typical slasher flick, mostly from the addition of the hard-boiled detective striving to solve the baffling disappearances, phone calls, and deaths taking place around a mostly deserted sorority. It’s a left of center choice to watch around the holidays because, lets face it, who really wants to get lost in a horror film during the most wonderful time of the year? Isn’t that what Halloween is for?
During a boozy Christmas party one evening, a strange man wanders around a sorority home, ascends a trellis, and climbs into the attic. Soon, a strange phone call interrupts the party and Barb (Played by Margot Kidder) grabs the phone to provoke the vulgar call. Turns out, this is not the first time this sorority has received an enigmatic call like this. The call is all heavy breaths, strange moans, and graphic threats aimed at the girls. This must all explain why the caller has earned himself the nickname “the moaner” amongst the girls. At first, we are lead to believe that this is one of the girl’s boyfriends pranking the skittish chicks but Clark plays this straight and it’s a little too effective when we learn that it’s for real. Soon, one of the girls, Clare (Played by Lynne Griffin), meets a truly grisly demise while she packs her bags to leave for a trip home. The next day, Clare’s uptight father Mr. Harrison (Played by James Edmond Jr.) arrives to take her home but her absence begins to frighten him. He goes to the sorority housemother Mrs. MacHenry (Played by Marian Waldman), Clare’s boyfriend Chris (Played by Art Hindle), and the pregnant and conflicted Jess (Played by Olivia Hussey) to help him locate his daughter. As they team up with the police and a dead body is discovered in a park near the sorority house, the eerie phone calls grow more disturbing and the body count begins to rise.
It’s really quite a shame that Bob Clark didn’t stay in the horror genre because this man is really on top of what makes a film scary. While Black Christmas has plenty of gore to spare (Not the type you’d find in Saw, mind you), mostly everything is oblique. A hook goes through one person’s head but it’s heard before we get a shadowy glimpse of it; another is stabbed do death with a phallic-looking crystal unicorn head. It’s a symbolic rape sequence that I’m sure impressed Hitchcock. Even the killer, Billy, is rarely shown, only once do we get to briefly see his face, but it is concealed with crafty shadows and one beam of light revealing a lone wild eye. We are consistently put in the killers POV, which is actually even more chilling than just seeing him lurk around the sorority house. I found myself filling in his thoughts, what he looked like, and constructing my own monster in my head. I also painted in the gore with my own imagination, with very little help from Clark. He doesn’t underestimate his audience and kudos for that!
Clark also makes glorious use of sound in this film, having the killer call the girls and make gargled sexual threats, perverted groans, and lisping whispers, efficiently making your skin crawl. The effective is enhanced by the juxtaposition of faint Christmas tunes calling in the background. The first time we actually see the girls get a call, the camera never cuts away from the girls. Instead, Clark slowly pans through the group of girls as they huddle around the phone and listen, repulsed by the sounds, their eyes conveying the hope that this is truly just a group of boys playing a prank. In all frankness, I hoped the first call was a prank too, just due the vulgarities uttered to the girls. The big reveal about the phone calls is carefully handled, a demented reveal that would give anyone home alone the willies.
Black Christmas offers up an abundance of rather complex characters for a slasher film. The heroine here, Jess, is pregnant and has decided on an abortion. She seems like a driven gal, one who refuses to be controlled by any dominating and controlling male force, especially her seemingly sophisticated but volatile boyfriend. She is with out a doubt a product of the Feminist Movement. She rejects pleas of marriage and shows more interest in furthering her education and career than dropping out and raising a child. The housemother Mrs. MacHenry is a sneaky alcoholic who apparently never married and the lush Barb seems to be following in her footsteps. She would rather have an independent love affair with a bottle than a man. Barb is also extremely off putting and direct, two traits that make her hard to root for. She has a shocking disinterest for figuring out what happened to her sorority sister and would rather crack open a can of beer than be bothered to really help anyone. The inclusion of Mr. Harrison as the old-fashioned conservative father was also a nice touch to all these empowered women. He is portrayed as a nerdy, timid, and stern man who needs these stronger women to lead him along.
Black Christmas was remade in 2006, but it made the inevitable mistake that all recent horror films do and tried to give everything a longwinded explanation, sucking all the fear out of the premise. In 1974, there is no explanation for why this is all occurring. Perhaps this is the film that inspired John Carpenter to unleash Michael Myers on the horror genre. It applies the same stationary camera shots of empty hallways, darkened bedrooms, and quite snowny neighborhoods where ordinary people live out their lives. Evil can be anywhere and strike at any moment. Even the police can meet grisly ends without a seconds notice. It has the same faceless killer who could very well be the boogieman. I also found myself drawn to the patient storytelling and the way Clark lets the terror unfold almost naturally. Maybe more prominent that we are willing to admit and an overlooked gift to horror, don’t be afraid to unwrap the gift of Black Christmas come the holiday season. It’s a gift that will keep on giving. Fear, that is.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
by Steve Habrat
Did you miss him? Robert Downey Jr.’s motor-mouthed brawler/detective Sherlock Holmes blasts his way back into theaters and the people are flocking to his latest case. While I found myself smitten with Downey Jr.’s magnetic performance during the first case, I found the events swirling around him too tortuous. I understand what British director Guy Ritchie is trying to achieve, which is to put us in Holmes’ rutty boots and work along side him in racing the clock and solving the diabolical plot. Yet Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows gets tangled up in its own reveals, twists, turns, and fake-outs. I found myself backtracking to pinpoint which character Holmes and Jude Law’s Dr. Watson were chattering on about. Do not interpret this as me saying the film was over my head, but I just wish these movies would slow down for a minute and let me catch up before it dashes off again. The film leaves you mentally exhausted. I suppose that the modish action sequences are there to let us rest our brains, but Ritchie goes above and beyond the normal slam-bang intensity that is rampaging through action films of late. He stages some of the most rousing action sequences of the year, with precise slow-motion halts to give us a clear glimpse of the bone snapping action. It’s exhilarating and you can’t peel your eyes from it. So much for a second to catch my breath.
After a string of seemingly unrelated crimes throughout Europe, the peculiar detective Holmes (Played by Downey Jr.) suspects that there is more to these strange events than meets the eye. He begins applying his usual unorthodox detective work and enlists the help of the less-than-patient Dr. John Watson (Played by Law) to aid him in discovering the truth. The trail leads them to Professor James Moriarty (Played by Jared Harris), a genius that can match Holmes every step of the way. As Holmes tries to piece together what all these crimes are leading up to, he crosses paths with a dagger-throwing gypsy named Sim (Played by Noomi Rapace), who is the next target of Moriarty. Sim proves to be useful in aiding Holmes and Dr. Watson in figuring out what Moriarty’s plot is, which turns out to be more destructive than Holmes could have ever imagined.
I don’t really want to dive into many more details about the plot of the second entry to the Sherlock Holmes franchise; the slow reveals of this one prove to be a hell of a lot more interesting than the first installment. A Game of Shadows benefits from a much better villain, one who can go toe-to-toe with Holmes both in a fight and in brains too. The film does have some incredibly exhaustive art direction, featuring some lavish costumes, realistic CGI, and some sets that are to die for. It maintains the steam-punk industrial aesthetic that Ritchie established with the first film. Yet my qualm about Holmes stems from its overly busy inner workings, mostly in the plot department. Everyone speaks in a thick British accent and rambles on about characters that are hard to remember. Trust me, there are a TON of characters so I would advise you bring a notebook to scribble them all down in. The film also moves at a breakneck speed that left me wishing I could just have a brief intermission and review everything that had just happened before piling on more plot points. This one will leave you exhausted but I commend its unremitting energy.
The one aspect that I love about Sherlock Holmes is the driven, fanatical performance from Downey Jr. I think he may be a bit sharper with Holmes than he is with Tony Stark, a role many love a bit more than Holmes. Credit should be given to his spot-on and rich British accent that pours effortlessly through his mumbling mouth. He sometimes comes off as a ranting lunatic that would seem more at home in a straightjacket rather than an overcoat and bowler cap. He’s unpredictable (He shows up on a train dressed as a woman), brash, and poised in every move he makes. When at one point he admits he made a mistake and lives are lost, we feel his distress in himself. It’s only one of two times we see a crack in his self-assured manner. Law’s Dr. Watson acts as the voice of reason when Holmes goes on a brain-frying rampage. Law also has perfect comedic timing to Downey Jr.’s deadpan delivery. Truth is, their relationship is given room to grow and evolve here. We get to see their affection for one another. They are an odd couple but, hey, opposites attract right?
Moriarty is a memorable villain, one who spits his words out with vitriol to spare. He truly does have a diabolical plot and I love his final moments with Holmes. Harris look like he had a good time playing evil. Rachel McAdams returns for a brief cameo as Adler, one that seems a little bit pointless, as she wasn’t in the original all that much. Rapace, for all the celebration around her performance in the Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems to just be a pretty face stuck between Law and Downey Jr.’s stubbly faces. I would have liked to see more range from her, as all Ritchie has her doing is running from bullets, hitmen, and cannonballs. Stephen Fry turns up as Mycroft, Sherlock’s posh brother who is just as deadpan and batty as the good detective.
As someone who is always rallying for more intellectual blockbusters, I have to hand it to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. It refuses to dumb itself down too much, even if it is just escapist fluff. If there is another Sherlock Holmes, and I’m sure there will be, I would love to see the screenwriter shave things down a little bit and I’d love for Ritchie to ease up on the pace. Don’t be in such a rush to push Holmes through the case, as I enjoy watching him tick. I’ll definitely have thirds on the relationship between Holmes and Dr. Watson, as that acts as the heart and soul for this franchise. The action should also be noted, as it turns out to be much more epic the second time around. Just wait until you see the gunfight between Holmes, Sim, and Watson against a gang of German soldiers. All I will say is that it involves stellar slow-motion effects and a gun named Little Hansel. Funnier than the original, a bit more straight forward (Just slightly!), with style and energy to burn, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is the ideal thrill ride to distract you from all those Christmas presents you still have to buy.