(*homocinematically inclined)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Reverend’s Reviews: A Movie Christmas to All!

The cavalcade of Yuletide-themed movies and TV shows seems to grow longer and denser with each passing year. When I was a kid, we only really had the Rankin-Bass animated specials such as Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to look forward to, as well as It’s a Wonderful Life and a few film adaptations of A Christmas Carol. Each December now brings a number of new productions intended to help a cheer-hungry public ring in the holidays… and make a tidy profit for their backers in the process.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (opening December 3 in New York and in Los Angeles on December 10) is a clever horror-comedy suitable for older teens and adults. In Finnish writer-director Jalmari Helander’s feature film debut, an archaeological team uncovers biological evidence behind a local Santa Claus-related legend. Whereas Northern European Christians believed St. Nicholas rewarded well-behaved children at Christmas time, they also told stories of a massive horned beast — the Krampus — that would punish naughty boys and girls by beating them, carrying them to Hell and/or eating them.

In Rare Exports, the Krampus is all too real if in a temporary state of suspended animation, and it comes complete with vicious, protective “elves” awakened by the archaeological dig. A little boy, Pietari (endearingly played by Onni Tommila), notices his friends are starting to disappear along with his neighbors’ potato sacks and electrical appliances. As Pietari realizes what’s going on, it falls to him to convince his father and other adults in town before the Krampus regains its strength and goes on a rampage.

Helander has an excellent visual style in addition to his storytelling skills. He is assisted very well here by cinematographer Mika Orasmaa. The film’s low budget is at times apparent and ultimately prohibits an all-out presentation of monster mayhem, but Rare Exports still boasts fine acting (Peeter Jakobi, who plays “Santa” initially, is creepily good) and impressive if minimal special effects. The screenplay features inspiring messages common to the holiday movie genre about faith (in this case, “Always believe… always”) and family, as well as a very funny finale. This is a must-see for anyone interested in a darker take on Christmas myths and traditions.

Happy Holidays is another new, frequently funny if less-than-“merry and bright” Christmas story. It is currently available for viewing on Hulu, iTunes and Amazon On Demand but will be screening theatrically this December in New York, various New England cities, and Los Angeles (visit the film's official website for details).

Set in Connecticut, the plot revolves around a gay man, Patrick (the engaging Paul Hungerford). The pet groomer backs out of their planned trip to see his partner’s family for Christmas when an old high school friend calls with a crisis. Alden (John Crye) has turned down his longtime girlfriend’s marriage proposal, primarily because he has recently converted to Judaism and she isn’t Jewish. Alden’s conversion is news to Patrick, but he feels guilty about Alden spending Christmas alone even if his friend is no longer celebrating the holiday.

The two are soon reunited with another friend from their high school days, Kirby (Thomas Rhoads, who does a great job of making his unpleasant character likable). Kirby is back in town for his father’s funeral, so Patrick and Alden are duly sympathetic at first. Things change, though, once they discover Kirby cheating on his wife and Kirby begins speaking negatively of Patrick and his partner’s relationship.

The talented James C. Ferguson, who wrote and directed Happy Holidays, seems to have taken many cues from the cinematic master of East Coast angst, Woody Allen. While the film’s seriocomic dialogue is perhaps most reminiscent of Hannah and Her Sisters, Ferguson chose to shoot in black and white à la such Allen works as Manhattan, Stardust Memories and Celebrity (as Allen has often drawn from the b&w style of Ingmar Bergman). The photography is great except in a gym-set scene, during which the actors’ faces appear murkier than need be.

Ferguson’s script and the film are best when it keeps things light; the characters’ more serious conversations tend to be too long and intense. Most of Happy Holidays is smart and frequently amusing, especially its score that has fun with Christmas and period music stylings. The opening jazzy title music instantly brings Charlie Brown’s “Christmas Time is Here” to mind and the film’s closing song, “Happy Generic Winter Holiday,” is a hoot.

Finally, the holiday season can’t be called complete by gay men until all have seen Make the Yuletide Gay. This occasionally amateurish but sweet-natured and thoroughly enjoyable comedy by Rob Williams (of the more recent, award-winning Role/Play) was released on DVD earlier this year by TLA Releasing.

Beyond these three movies, one can rightly wonder how to begin sifting through the glut of mediocre movie merriment each year to find the true seasonal gifts? Fortunately, gay film critic Alonso Duralde has ridden to the rescue! The author of 101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men has just published Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas (Limelight Editions), a handy guide to virtually every film that has anything remotely to do with the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

What I enjoy most about reading another critic’s take on a particular genre is learning more about movies I’ve never seen and, in a few cases, never heard of. In this regard, I’ve put several films Duralde mentions on my “must see” list this season provided I can hunt them all down. They include the French films La Buche and A Christmas Tale; the 1944 film noir-musical Christmas Holiday, starring Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin; The Silent Partner, a heist movie featuring Christopher Plummer as a villainous mall Santa; and the documentary The Store, which focuses on a Neiman-Marcus store in Texas weathering the all-important holiday season.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale: B+
Happy Holidays: B
Make the Yuletide Gay: C+

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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