The Interview – Review

interview movie

Oh what turbulent December it has been for this movie.  It’s almost beyond belief that a movie like this could have caused this much trouble, both culturally and politically.  And yet, in the last few weeks we’ve seen a major studio brought to it’s knees by anonymous online hackers acting on the behalf of a despotic rogue nation, all with the purpose of removing this movie from public view.  The totality of all this actually sounds even more far-fetched than the premise of this purposefully over-the-top movie, and yet this is what happened.  Whether writer and star Seth Rogen and his directing partner Evan Goldberg saw this coming or not, their movie now stands as one of the most controversial films of all time, taking a place alongside strange company like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), and even D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915).  Now, on the surface, The Interview probably shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as these movies, and yet it has followed in their footsteps by having been censored because of the objections of powerful influences.  In this case, it was the government of North Korea, who objected to the portrayal of their leader Kim Jong-un in the movie, believing that the whole film was making a mockery of him, which is technically true.  Not to mention that the whole plot centers around his attempted assassination.  But, even though a movie causes a stir elsewhere doesn’t mean it’s deserving of censorship here.  Thankfully American cinema is welcoming to most button pushing movies, and any inflammatory film can still find an audience beyond the pressure of outsiders.  This one however seems to have been pushed to the brink.

Unfortunately for The Interview, their target in question is as humorless and unpredictable as you can get in this world.  Sony Entertainment, which is the parent company of Columbia Pictures, went forward with this movie despite the objections of North Korea.  In their eyes, they saw no problem, given that the film-making duo delivered very well on their last project, 2013’s This is the End.  Unfortunately for the studio, North Korea was not bluffing about their threats towards Sony and the United States.  In the last couple months, a deluge of leaked emails and confidential documents from Sony Entertainment have been made public, putting the company into a maelstrom of controversy.  Many of the leaked material purposely puts Sony in an unflattering light, which the news media jumped upon quickly and fanned the flames even further.  Now, previously respected industry insiders like studio head Amy Pascal and uber-producer Scott Rudin are struggling to clear up their public images, and in Pascal’s case fighting to keep her job, after off-color remarks have surfaced in their private exchanges.  Sony’s private payroll breakdowns have also created a PR nightmare for the company, which has left them crippled in the industry due to their loss of trust and credibility.  And then came the threats of public attacks on movie theaters if they were to show The Interview on it’s Christmas release date, which soon led to the choice by many large theater chains to not show the movie as planned.  For a brief window of time, The Interview fell into a movie limbo, with no future plans for release, thereby giving a victory to the hackers working on behalf of the North Koreans.

Thankfully, independent movie theaters across the country stepped in and offered to screen the film as planned, ignoring further threats made by anonymous online terrorists and displaying a strong commitment to freedom of speech in this country.  I for one don’t blame the big chains for pulling out though.  After the massacre in Aurora, Colorado during the midnight screenings of The Dark Knight Rises back in 2012, movie theaters can no longer ignore threats like this anymore, especially when it comes from people who have already caused so much trouble to a major studio.  In this case, the movie theaters did the right thing and put safety over profits.  Sony Pictures, likewise, may have a whole lot of internal issues right now, but I think they deserve credit for sticking by this project for as long as they have, and by allowing a limited showing in select theaters on the planned release date, they are showing a surprising amount courage as well.  If there are any people that have done a disservice to our culture over this whole fiasco, it would be the tabloid news media, who basically gave the cyber-terrorists a power base by regurgitating the leaked material and driving the controversy further with their buzzy headlines.  Seth Rogen himself took the media to task over this in an interview he conducted on Sirius XM’s Opie and Jim Norton Show before the movie’s release, saying that people in the news media effectively did exactly what the criminals wanted them to do and that the news essentially became a “pawn shop selling the public stolen goods.”  Seth pretty much nailed it right there.  The first step the media should have taken was to inform the public about what had been stolen from Sony, and how that could affect our own internet security, but instead they focused only on the scandalous material found in the leaks, thereby emboldening the effectiveness of the cyber-attack.  It’s another sad reality of our media driven culture that the outrage became misplaced and that cyber-terrorism won because our news media didn’t do it’s job.  And yet, with all this controversy surrounding it, and perhaps even enhanced by it, The Interview went from just another movie into becoming a cultural event that could not be ignored.

So, for now I’m going to stop talking about what I thought about the controversy surrounding the picture and actually get down to how the movie stands on it’s own.  Is it really as dangerous as you would be led to believe given all the controversy?  For the most part, not really.  If you have seen any of Seth Rogen’s other films in the past few years, you pretty much know what to expect from this movie.  And in that respect, it actually works quite well.  Though the movie was also made available online the same day that it was released quietly into theaters, I still chose to see it on the big screen, which was thankfully available not too far from where I live.  The audience experience may have helped to enhance my reaction a bit, but even still, I found myself laughing quite frequently.  At the same time, I also recognized that it wasn’t really that scandalous a movie.  For the most part, the film actually plays it safe with their concept, never quite making any inflammatory statements about world politics or saying things about North Korea that we didn’t already know.  It pretty much is just another showcase for Seth Rogen’s sophomoric style of humor, which admittedly he uses well here.  Overall, I’m more shocked than anything that this was the movie that nearly brought down a major studio and made international relations between the US and North Korea further strained.  This.  A movie where one comedy bit involves a character (played by Seth Rogen himself) inserting a metal capsule into his rectum to hide it.  This was considered dangerous.  The movie is absurd by design, but the controversy now, in retrospect, seems even more absurd.  President Obama even had to make a statement regarding the status of this film, which just shows you the full breadth of how far all this went.  It remains to be seen how long lasting the ramifications of all this will be, but from what I saw, it ended up offering a funny diversion on a cold Christmas morning.

The plot, in case you were wondering, involves a successful talk show host named Dave Skylark (a hilarious James Franco), who has become noteworthy for getting his A-list guest stars to spill revealing hidden secrets about their lives on his live air show.  Dave’s trusted friend and show producer Aaron Rapaport (Rogen) unexpectedly gets a call one night from a representative of the North Korean government, asking for Skylark to come to the hermit nation and sit down for a one-on-one interview with their reclusive President Kim Jong-un (Randall Park).  The two colleagues see this as a big opportunity and quickly make plans for their trip.  Before they leave, however, they are visited by CIA Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), who enlists the two men into a secret plan to take assassinate the dictator covertly on their trip.  The two agree to go along with the agency’s plans, but once in North Korea, ego and incompetence start to get in the way.  All the while, Kim Jong-un proves to be a more cunning diplomat than the two men thought, quickly winning over the dim-witted Skylark with his charm and very big and dangerous toys.  Rapaport on the other hand tries to keep the watchful eyes of North Korean propaganda minister Sook (Diana Bang) and Kim Jong-un’s security team from discovering their secret plan while at the same time trying to talk some sense into Skylark before his friend loses himself completely.  As you can see, the movie is less of an examination of US and North Korean relations than just a high concept setting for some ridiculous comedy bits.

Setting an absurdist comedy around such a volatile political situation may seem like a case of welcoming the fox into the hen house, but Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are not without company.  Indeed, Hollywood has been poking fun at dictatorships abroad for many years, no matter how intimidating or dangerous or genocidal they may be.  Look at all the propaganda films made around WWII for example.  The image of Adolph Hitler in many of our wartime movies contrasts sharply with those in the post war years.  During wartime, Hitler was mocked relentlessly as a mad buffoon who incited nothing more than our ridicule at his pathetic attempts at world domination.  Charlie Chaplin’s classic comedy The Great Dictator (1940) perfectly lampoons the image of Hitler in these early years, showing the absurdity of Hitler’s grandiose ambitions in a sharp satirical way.  However, this kind of practice became less popular once knowledge of Hitler’s true atrocities in the Holocaust came to light.  In the years since, it was seen as a dangerous practice to openly mock sitting foreign governments in movies, because some feared that it might spark international incidents in that volatile peacetime period.  Of course, once counter-cultural New Hollywood started, those old-fashioned notions started to go away as new satirists like Mel Brooks showed that you can make fun of dictators again and more importantly, make it acceptable.  Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1967) not only showed that satire about world politics was necessary, but also that the notion of ignoring it was also absurd.  Since then, mocking dictators has become largely commonplace, from Saddam Hussein in Hot Shots Part Deux (1993) to Kim Jong-il in Team America: World Police (2004).  And it’s mostly become helpful that until now, Hollywood has never received backlash for mocking world leaders.  I guess it only took that one person who didn’t get the joke.

And it’s a shame that politics ended up trumping artistic expression in this case; although I wouldn’t classify this movie as high art.  The movie is mostly geared towards making you laugh at it’s main characters self-absorbed antics rather than the political implications of their situation.  But, even still, it did make me laugh consistently throughout.  The only times when I thought that the movie hit a very introspective point was actually when they made statements about the role of media and public image, which is ironic given what’s happened because of this movie.  I believe there was an intentional connection made in the film’s plot where the attempted shutting down of the titular interview by Kim-Jong-un’s government officials is not all that different from a run-in with a celebrity publicist early on in the movie, making it one of the movie’s sharper observations.  The rest of the enjoyment in the movie more or less hinges on the absurd antics of the main characters, who most certainly do a great job here.  James Franco in particular steals this movie, playing one of the most entertainingly confident idiots I’ve seen in a movie in a long time.  Seth Rogen also gets a few good laughs throughout, even while acting as the straight man to Franco’s zanier performance.  However, special recognition should go to Korean-American actor Randall Park for his surprisingly nuanced performance as Kim Jong-un.  He helps add surprising layers to this real life dictator and actually makes him more than just a generic villain.  His scenes with Franco’s Skylark are definitely the film’s highlights and overall help to make this movie resonate more than it normally would have.

So, in the end, is The Interview this groundshaking-ly dangerous movie that we’ve all been led to believe it is?  No, it’s just a harmless, goofy comedy; but, still one that took some guts on the filmmakers’ part to pull off.  Overall, I’m glad that I took the opportunity I had to go see this.  Is it something must be seen now, given all the controversy?  Well, if you feel like you want to make a statement about free speech and show that you will not be bullied by cyber-terrorists, than you should put your support behind this movie.  But, at the same time, it’s not really a patriotic duty to go see it either.  In the end, I’d say that it’s worth watching just for a good laugh.  Yes there are some moments that make you see why it would draw the ire of international parties (particularly with the ending), but it’s also nothing really worse than most other political satires that we’ve seen over the years.  I think that more focus should be put on how we present ourselves as a culture, and that we shouldn’t let outside forces dictate what we can and cannot watch.  Cyber-terrorism is unfortunately a reality of today’s world and one that we’re still trying to understand.  But, the last thing we need to do is to embolden these attackers by doing exactly what they want us to do and abandoning our freedoms.  In the years form now, the movie may be overshadowed by the controversy that surrounded it, and oddly enough we may even see a movie made based on this whole event itself.  But, until we retrospectively examine this in the future, let me just end by saying that The Interview is still an enjoyable film to watch and worth seeking out if it’s playing at a theater near you.  It’s a well executed and funny presentation of a hilarious “what if” premise, and I’m sure most of you will get a laugh or more out of it too.  You’ll certainly never listen to Katy Perry’s Fireworks” the same way again after watching it.  It may not be the funniest movie ever made, but it certainly has already left it’s mark as one of the most important, which in of itself is hilarious to think about.

Rating: 8/10

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Review

hobbit gandalf

Once again we have arrived at the end of a remarkable cinematic journey that has taken us to the far reaches of the fictional land of Middle Earth.  The place dreamed up in the mind of J.R.R. Tolkein and brought to cinematic life by New Zealand-born director Peter Jackson has become one of the most fully realized worlds ever put on the big screen, giving us all great entertainment as we explore deeper with every new adventure.  When Jackson undertook the adaptation of Tolkein’s novels in the late 90’s, he was heading into an unexpected journey that would not only redefine his career, but cinema as a whole.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a monumental cinematic achievement, earning a whole bunch of acclaim and Oscar gold, as well as influencing a whole new generation of tech savvy filmmakers who were blown away by the groundbreaking visual effects in those films.  Given the success of the movies, it seemed logical that a film adaptation of Tolkein’s other works would follow.  Unfortunately, years of legal tie ups with competing studios and with Tolkein’s estate prevented a quick follow up from happening.  It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that we would see the world of Middle Earth back on the big screen.  And of course, the most natural way to follow up the story of The Lord of the Rings is to adapt it’s predecessor, The Hobbit.  Tolkein’s grand vision actually began with this modest sized fantasy tale of Bilbo Baggins, only to be expanded upon in one of the grandest sequels ever concocted with Rings.  And though The Hobbit is smaller in size and scale on the page, expectations were high for a cinematic retelling that could match the grandeur of Rings, and even surpass it.  It was a daunting challenge that director Peter Jackson faced, and in the end, it was one that really showed his best qualities as a filmmaker.

Though originally planned as a two parter, The Hobbit became such an overwhelming project that the decision was later made to expand it out into a trilogy just like The Lord of the Rings.  What’s most interesting about these Hobbit movies is that unlike Rings (which was already structured as a three part story from the beginning) they didn’t have the blueprint for exactly how to split the story.  It was largely determined by Peter Jackson as to how the story should be taken apart and spread out over three separate release dates.  For some, this was a terrible decision, because they saw The Hobbit as just a standalone story, and not something that had to follow the same formula as Lord of the Rings.  But, there were many others, like myself, who found this to be an interesting experiment.  Like Rings, every film in the trilogy has it’s own character and the expanded story-line actually helps to improve upon some things that were missing from the books; namely extra development for some of the secondary characters.  And there is textual basis for many of the additions that Jackson put into his movie.  Tolkein himself was always rewriting and expanding on his previous works, even years after they had first been published.  The Hobbit utilizes many of the extra notes that Tolkein had added over the years to help make this story feel more complete as well as more true to the larger world that the author had created.  And as a result, Tolkein’s original Hobbit has now become a great cinematic epic on it’s own, becoming a worthy follow-up to the enormous success of the Rings trilogy.  Following the success of An Unexpected Journey (2012) and The Desolation of Smaug (2013), we are now treated with the closing chapter, and it may very well be the final tale of this series as a whole; The Battle of the Five Armies (2014).

Five Armies is an interesting entry into this series, because unlike the other movies, it was titled something else for the longest time; being renamed only a few short months ago.  Up until this summer, the movie went under the name There and Back Again, which given the restructuring of the trilogy, really no longer made any sense.  As we learned at the conclusion of Desolation of Smaug, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the band of Dwarves he has traveled with have already made it “there,” so the title no longer had the same significance.  The “there” in question of course is the great Lonely Mountain of Erebor, home of the greatest Dwarf kingdom in Middle Earth.  At the end of the previous film, the Dwarves successfully expel the evil dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), only to lead him towards destroying the nearby human settlement of Lake-Town.  There Smaug levels the city and leaves thousands homeless, until he is brought down by the skilled bowman Bard (Luke Evans).  Seeking restitution for the loss of their home, the men of Lake-Town travel to Erebor in hopes that the Dwarves would honor their promise of riches.  However, once there, the men are shut out by King Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) who has become consumed by greed after returning to the mountain.  Matters are made even worse when Elven King Thandruil (Lee Pace) arrives to stake his own claim on the mountain’s riches.  And unbeknownst to all is another army of killer orcs coming down from the north, led by the fierce Azog (Manu Bennett).  Caught up in all the fierce fighting is an overwhlemed Bilbo, who only seeks to ease the tension between those who should join together.  Meanwhile, wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) learns of an even greater danger that he knows could lead to even worse problems for Middle Earth in the future.  All of this sets up for the titular Battle of the Five Armies, which serves as the climatic completion of this epic story, as well as the bridge into what happens next in The Lord of the Rings.

In the last couple of years, I have enjoyed this series immensely.  The Hobbit may not hit the same cinematic highs as The Lord of the Rings, but I don’t believe it was ever intended to.  Rings is the bigger story, and always has been.  It was colossal by design and was meant to take what was set up in the Hobbit to the next level.  Yes, Peter Jackson spread the story out into a trilogy, but story wise it still captures the same narrow focus of the original book, which is where it should be.  In The Hobbit, we don’t cut back and forth between different factions and different points of view; everything still ties together into Bilbo’s story, and comes to a climatic skirmish that resolves everything together nicely.  What worked in Rings  doesn’t work the same way in Hobbit, and I’m glad that Peter Jackson found an effective medium to tell the story in a way that helped this trilogy work on it’s own.  Not only that, but the movies also work well as standalone films in addition to being part of a larger narrative.  I especially found that to be true with last year’s Desolation of Smaug, which had probably the most interesting story structure of the entire series, being the middle chapter.  The Battle of the Five Armies takes everything that the other movies were leading up to and gives us a spectacular finish that hopes to resolve all the loose ends of this grand epic.  And did Peter Jackson manage to stick the landing?  On the whole, I would say that he absolutely did.  Armies is a spectacular closing chapter to this series that should satisfy anyone who’s been a fan of the series.

But, I should stress that even though the movie is a rousing adventure that will keep you at the edge of your seat, it is also the one movie in the series that has the most structural problems.  Not that they ruin the film by any means, but this movie unfortunately feels the least defined of the entire trilogy.  My gripe about the structure is mainly due to the fact that unlike the other Hobbit films, this one doesn’t quite stand alone as well. With Journey and Desolation, you could easily come into those two features with little knowledge of what comes before or after and still get swept up in the overall flow of the story.  With Battle of the Five Armies, I think the movie unfortunately becomes the only victim of Peter Jackson’s restructuring of the narrative.  While still engaging, Armies unfortunately feels more like an extended epilogue than a fully realized three act structured film.  Not to mention, the movie leaves nothing left for the viewers other than to see what amounts to one single climatic finale, which of course is the “Battle,” which makes up the majority of the film’s run-time.  This leaves little room for character development and world-building, which the previous films did so well leading up to this.  So, if you’re a casual viewer who has never seen one of these Middle Earth set films before and you go into this one cold, this movie more than the others will leave you confused as to what’s going on.  But, if you’re like me, and you’ve followed the movies from the very beginning, then you’ll still come away satisfied, as this movie works best when combined with the others.  I’ll be interested to see how this movie plays with the other five “Middle Earth Saga” films.  My guess is that it will serve as a perfect conclusion to Bilbo Baggins’ story line, as well as a great introduction into the beginning of the Lord of the Rings.  I just wish the restructuring hadn’t stolen away some of the movie’s identity as a singular piece.

But, even if the story is lacking in some of the elements that made the previous films so engaging, there is still a lot to enjoy in this movie overall.  Namely the performances by the actors, who have really made this series work splendidly over the years.  I actually hold a controversial opinion about this, in that I believe that the performances in The Hobbit trilogy have been stronger and more consistent on the whole than those in The Lord of the Rings.  I know some of you might think different, but there’s no denying that this series has been perfectly cast all around.  This is especially true with actor Martin Freeman, who has been pitch perfect in the role of Bilbo Baggins.  The greatness in his performance comes from the little gestures he adds to character during the quieter moments, showing just how great an improvisational performer he is.  Here he shows even more brilliance as Bilbo stands out as the voice of reason in a growing chaotic world.  And while his performance is great, it is actually overshadowed in this movie by Richard Armitage’s work as Thorin.  Armitage has been good in the series up to now, but here in Armies is where he really shines.  He brilliantly captures the tragic elements of the character, almost to Shakespearean levels, as Thorin falls deeper into madness once he’s gained his crown.  If a character benefits from more development in the crowded film, it’s definitely Thorin, and Richard Armitage utilizes his screen-time to full advantage.  The supporting cast also lends strong support, especially Luke Evens and Lee Pace as the opposing kings in the story.  Returning Rings stars Ian McKellan and Orlando Bloom also shine as Gandalf and Legolas respectively.  If there are any parts of the cast that don’t work, it probably be the underdeveloped Lake-Town characters, like comic relief character Alfrid (Ryan Gage) who feels a bit out of place in this film.  Apart form that, it’s another superbly acted film in the series from a very praise-worthy cast.

Of course, under the direction of Peter Jackson, we expect this movie to feature a lot of eye candy, and it doesn’t disappoint.  However, unlike the last films, this movie doesn’t take us anywhere new, and instead just retreads already familiar ground.  This may be disappointing for fans of the series who were hoping to see more of this amazing world explored, but Jackson still manages to use what he has effectively.  The titular Battle takes place at the very door step of the Lonely Mountain, and while it may not have the same scale as the Battle of Pelannor Fields from The Return of the King (2003) or the tension of the Battle of Helm’s Deep fro The Two Towers (2002), it still is an impressively choreographed scene that keeps you invested throughout  What Peter Jackson does very well here is to break up the huge army clashes with more intimate moments within the battle, like with smaller fights happening within the ruins of the human city of Dale, or the one on one battles between heroes and villains.  Fans of Legolas in particular will be pleased to know that the character once again delivers some more amazingly acrobatic combat tricks in his fight scenes here.  The films prologue, which picks up right where the previous film left off, is also stunning to look at, and gives the character Smaug an impressive sendoff as a perfect starting point for the rest of the movie.  Peter Jackson may not be hitting the same heights as he did with Lord of the Rings, but he’s not trying to either.  Here, I think he accomplished a respectful adaptation of Tolkein’s story by telling it to it’s fullest extant while at the same time improving on it’s potential.  It also helps that he’s maintained the same production team all these years later who also bring their A-game material to the crafting of this picture.  Whether it’s the wizards at Weta Workshop and Digital or Howard Shore’s rousing score, everything works together to create a rousing and beautiful picture.

So, in the end, The Battle of the Five Armies completes what I believe to be a very satisfying trilogy of fantasy films.  It may not be up to the level of  Lord of the Rings splendor, but what else is?  The last decade has been full of plenty of failed franchises that have tried to capitalize on Rings success, so I think Peter Jackson deserves a lot of praise for even trying to go there and back again into Middle Earth and get it done right.  But, even though the series comes to a pleasing end, there is also the unfortunate feeling of knowing that this will be the end of it all.  We will never see this version of Middle Earth realized on film ever again.  I know there are people out there that believe that Tolkein’s further writings about Middle Earth in The Simirillion will make it to the big screen someday, but if it does, it won’t come under the direction of Peter Jackson.  Jackson even wanted to stop his input on the series after Lord of the Rings, instead handing the reigns over to director Guillermo del Toro at one point in development.  But, once del Toro dropped out, Jackson took it upon himself to see this thing through and I’m so very happy he did.  I think these Hobbit movies, along with The Lord of the Rings, make up a remarkable 6 part story-line that will be unparalleled in all of cinematic history.  But, even with all this, I can understand if Jackson chooses to leave Middle Earth behind now.  Sadly, it appears that our journey into this remarkable world comes to a close with Battle of Five Armies, which in the end makes for a stunning final chapter and a great seg-way into what comes later in Lord of the Rings.  Is it the be all and end all of the entire series?  Not quite; The Return of the King is a much stronger climax and of course is the end point for the story chronologically.  Still, it is a superbly crafted film and one of the best experiences at the movies I’ve had this year.  But, if this is where we leave this version of Middle Earth for good, than I view it as a journey well taken.      

Rating: 8.5/10

Loss of Seasonal Spirit – Saving Christmas from Kirk Cameron and Bad Holiday Movies

cameron christmas

The holiday season is unique because no other time of the year has inspired the setting for so many movies.  Many of them are of course beloved classics, whether it be Frank Capra’s immortal It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), the classic Miracle on 34th Street (1948), or even a more recent classic like A Christmas Story (1983).  And while most of these movies view the holiday with great reverence, there are also many Christmas movies that skewer the season’s traditions and still become classics, like 1987’s Scrooged or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989).  The reason why the Christmas season has such a strong cinematic history is because no other holiday touches so many lives every year, especially given the more secularized multicultural festivities that have arisen in the holiday through the years.  Though still a distinctively Christian holiday, Christmas has become something bigger, affecting people of all religions and nationalities with charity, community and goodwill becoming the underlying meaning behind the festivities.  Most great Christmas movies reflect this and many of them have found great new ways of telling these same lessons to us year after year.  But, the Christmas season is also a colossal revenue maker for both Hollywood and the retail market, and sometimes those important meanings can be lost in favor of more superficial messages, aimed more at exploiting the holiday spirit rather than renewing it.  That’s why you see so many Christmas movies that end up being more bad than good, because they care only about the bottom end, and not about the deeper, more complex meanings.  And one movie this year managed to miss the mark so completely that it’s earned the distinction of being one of the worst movies of all time.

This movie in question comes from none other than former sitcom star turned fundamentalist Christian, Kirk Cameron.  His new film Saving Christmas examines what Cameron and the filmmakers believe is a “War on Christmas,” which is the common complaint you hear this time of year when holiday traditions are banned in the name of equality and tolerance.  And yeah, sometimes local governments can annoyingly overreach when they remove even the most harmless of Christmas symbols from public view, but Kirk Cameron believes that there is this vast conspiracy to suppress Christianity in America by secularizing the Christmas holiday.  That’s the fundamental thesis behind his new movie Saving Christmas, which bears the tagline, “Putting Christ Back in Christmas.”  Now, let me be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making a movie about Christmas that focuses on it’s religious roots.  Hollywood has done that for many years with movies like The Bishop’s Wife (1947).  Hell, you could even consider The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) a positive Christian-themed holiday movie.  But, there’s something horribly wrong and downright dangerous with what Kirk Cameron’s movie tries to say.  In Saving Christmas, Cameron’s character confronts a religious skeptic who rightly states that many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas have been assembled together from cultures from around the world, helping to make the holiday more secular and more inclusive.  Cameron disputes this in the movie, creating all these convoluted reasons as to why modern Christmas symbols are Christian in nature, disregarding all other cultural traditions.  Cameron’s film tries to present it’s case as a positive affirmation of faith, but it instead turns into a narrow-minded proclamation of religious exceptional-ism, as if he believes that Christmas should be exclusively Christian.

It’s not surprising that this movie has been panned across the board by critics, and I don’t blame them.  I grew up celebrating Christmas both in secular and religious ways and I gained very deep understandings of how both traditions have defined the holiday season, as well as being able to differentiate the two even from a young age.  Kirk Cameron’s movie removes that differentiation in a way that unfortunately minimizes the significance of both.  Case in point, his argument in the movie as to why Christmas trees are Christian and not a tradition usurped by the Church in it’s early years in order to appeal to Pagan followers (as History clearly states), is because Christ died on a cross, which is made of wood and therefore it is a tree.  And by his logic, that is why we have a tree in our homes during Christmas.  It’s convoluted and has no scriptural basis at all, and yet Kirk Cameron states this as being a fundamental truth behind the Holiday.  I stress this again, I have no problem with Christmas movies that have a religious point-of-view.   But at the very least, have a message that makes sense.  This is the fundamental problem behind Cameron’s movie.  His Christian world view is so narrow that it’s about starting at an end point and working backwards, disregarding any evidence that may override his claims.  For him, Christian traditions trump Christian teachings, and there’s no part of scripture that he can’t rework towards his own ends.  In Saving Christmas, it’s less about learning the lessons that Christ taught us about charity and goodwill towards others, and more about finding Biblical justification for shallow and gluttonous celebrations during the holiday season.

I may be coming off a little cranky and harsh towards Kirk Cameron and his movie, but it’s only because I view his film as something that’s deeply insulting as both a fan of the Holiday season, as well as a fan of cinema.  Not only does Saving Christmas have a rotten message at it’s core, it’s also a poorly made movie as well.  I don’t know much about filmmaker Darren Doane’s career as a director, other than what I’ve read on IMDb.  He’s certainly become a go to guy for Kirk Cameron, as he’s directed the actor’s last few movies, but I’m not sure where he stands on the film’s message overall.  He may have some directorial talent, but none of that shows up here.  The movie seems to have been assembled together with little thought for set dressing, cinematography, or even script writing.  It’s as if the concept behind the project dictated everything else, and the production was quickly slapped together in order to get this thing in theaters by the Christmas season.  Don’t go into this movie expecting to see character development or a deeply involved plot.  In  fact, don’t go into it at all.  Doane probably tried the best he could to make everything coherent, but I’m sure everything was overshadowed by Kirk Cameron’s choices as Producer.  I put more of the blame on him, seeing as he wants us the audience to know that this is his project through and through, given that the full title is Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas.  But, if you’re setting yourself up for all the attention, you’re also inviting yourself into all the criticisms as well, and Cameron’s film is certainly seeing a lot of that right now.

Saving Christmas has become a landmark film in the last few weeks, not because of it’s box office success (which has been modest surprisingly, because of the help of church-based audiences), but due to how universally panned it has become.  Critical reception has been rough on this movie, with a dismal 0% on  And just last week, it earned the #1 spot on IMDb’s notorious Bottom 100.  That means that it’s not just the worst movie of this year, it’s the worst movie EVER.  Yes, worse than such cinematic gems like Birdemic (2010), From Justin to Kelly (2003), or even Baby Geniuses 2 (2004).  But, I’ll give movies like Birdemic this; they’re actually hilarious to watch because of how bad they are.  Saving Christmas is just infuriating.  So, I can honestly say that no better movie is deserving of this dishonor than Saving Christmas.  Unfortunately, Kirk Cameron’s movie is not without company as far as Christmas movies go.  Christmas movies have become so abundant over the years, and very few of them are ever any good.  Saving Christmas, in it’s short time in theaters, has managed to surpass them all on IMDb’s list, so that tells you something more about it right there.  Even many Christian-centric film critics are distancing themselves from the movie, seeing as how strong the critical backlash to it’s messages have become.  But, even as repulsive as Saving Christmas is compared to all the rest, there are still a great many hate-able Christmas movies out there, and it shows that even secular based holiday fare can be rotten.

What ultimately makes a bad Christmas movie is a complete lack of understanding about the holiday spirit and more of an emphasis on the shallower aspects of the season, like focusing on the decorations or the presents.  That, or taking a traditional symbol of the season and just exploiting it for cheap gags or a convoluted message.  I can’t tell you how many different movies have centered around Santa Claus and his antics at the North Pole, and how very few of them actually present him as a genuine character, instead of making him more than an icon.  There’s also the dreaded Christmas themed comedies, which in recent years have more or less have just been trying to copy Christmas Vacation‘s formula and failing badly.  Christmas Vacation hilariously lampooned traditional family Christmas festivities, but did it with the underlying appreciation of the season and the unity of family, as oddball as they may be.  Other like-minded movies, like Deck the Halls (2006) and Christmas with the Kranks (2004) missed the mark completely by presenting no underlying message, and instead just came off as crude, mean-spirited, and superficial. Of course, one of the big problems with these bad Christmas films is that they always stress the commercial over the inspirational.  Just look at movies like the Schwarzenegger dud Jingle all the Way (1996) or the made-for-TV The Christmas Shoes (2002),  both which stress the importance of finding the right gift over anything else.  The Christmas Shoes in particular shares the same awful message with Saving Christmas, stating that commercialism is a Christian value.  Overall, there are many ways to make a horrible Christmas movie, and it ultimately comes from a lack of a moral and compassionate center.

This is especially terrible when the good message is right there in front of the filmmakers, and they refuse to actually use it.  Case in point, the truly awful remake of Dr. Suess’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), directed by Ron Howard.  The original book was a perfect expression of the Christmas Spirit, stating the need to look beyond the presents and the decorations, and instead celebrating the values of community, and the welcoming-in of outsiders.  Animator Chuck Jones brilliantly brought this story to life in his 1966 animated adaptation, which added even more depth to the character of the Grinch (voiced by Boris Karloff) by showing how the Christmas spirit changed even his cold heart, making it grow three sizes on that day.  It’s a beloved story and an equally loved animated short, both becoming standards of the season.  Ron Howard’s remake, however, strips that away by instead putting more emphasis on style over substance.  The movie adaptation devolves into merely a showcase for the art department as well for actor Jim Carrey’s comedic style (which is done under some admittedly impressive prosthetic makeup).  But the message of Dr. Suess’ story is lost midst all the Hollywood splendor.  What’s left is a movie that ultimately just rehashes all the negative aspects of the holiday, rather than stressing the good.  And most offensively, it tries to relay an anti-commercial message while at the same time trying to develop a brand for itself in a very hypocritical way.  It just shows that even a very secular take on the Christmas season can be shallow and rotten, especially when it departs from a well-laid foundation before it.

So, unfortunately like every other genre, Christmas movies have their own fair share of terrible entries.  Also unfortunate is the fact that Hollywood seems so keen on making even more holiday “classics” every year without ever attempting to actually make them good.  The Christmas season has it’s own attractive power, and Hollywood seems more content to exploit rather than renew the holiday spirit with anything new or original.  Kirk Cameron seems to believe that his film is reclaiming a part of the holiday spirit, but I think his movie only adds to the problem.  Christmas movies at their best touch the lives of people from all walks of life, filling them with universal feelings of hope and joy.  Kirk Cameron only wants to reclaim the holiday for Christianity and ignore the multi-cultural contributions that have made the holiday so special to our modern society.  What I find so peculiar about Cameron’s movie is how poorly it even sticks to it’s own principles.  We see Kirk Cameron blast attempts to take the holiday season out of the public square, and yet by arguing that everything about the holiday should have a religious basis (even the things that don’t), he is actually trying to take the holiday away from even more people.  Whether he likes it or not, Christmas is multi-cultural and a secular holiday in today’s culture, celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike in all parts of the world.  And I think that a Holiday that links everyone together in a positive way like this is something worth celebrating.  Cameron thinks he’s being uplifting by championing the “Christ” in Christmas, but he instead is choosing to be greedy about the holiday, which is decidedly un-Christian.  And that’s why his new movie is not the present you should be opening up this Christmas season.

Collecting Criterion – Fanny and Alexander (1982)

fanny and alexander

Christmas movies and prestige cinema have never really mixed well together.  Considering that Christmas has become such a commercial holiday over time, it’s not surprising that Christmas themes have become abundant in commercial films as well.  Though not always a negative thing for both the movies and the holiday they reflect, it’s pretty safe to say that most Christmas movies tend to be safe and formulaic family fare.  Rarely do you see a Christmas movie that deals with button-pushing issues or harsh, negative themes.  The point of the holiday is to rejoice and be festive after all.  But there are some Christmas movies out there that have taken risks and still delivered a powerful presentation of the holiday spirit.  In some cases, these movies end up being some of the most beloved classics of the holiday season; Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is probably the best example, given that it touches upon themes of depression and suicide in it’s story-line.  Sometimes it helps to add a little spice to the sugar and address the darker side of the holiday season in order to make us better appreciate the good things.  The Criterion Collection, always a home to movies that represent the many dual layers of the human experience, has also become the home to many holiday themed films as well that share this complexity.  Some are very strongly centered around the holiday, like French director Arnaud Desplechin’s 2008 film A Christmas Tale (Spine #492), while others use the season as a backdrop for a larger narrative, like Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955, #95) or Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997, #426).  But, if there was a title in the Criterion catalog that makes the most of it’s Christmas setting and has won the acclaim of critics and cinephiles alike, it would be Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 masterpiece, Fanny and Alexander (#261).

Ingmar Bergman is a favorite among the Criterion publishers, and is competitive with the likes of Akira Kurosawa for having the most titles to his name under the Criterion label.  Bergman’s filmography is lengthy and varied, but they are all well defined by the director’s very distinct and recognizable style.  Both a renowned director on the silver screen and on the stage, Bergman’s style is very earthbound and confined to small, intimate portraits of ordinary life.  That’s not to say that he doesn’t take flights of fancy every once and a while, but even those moments have a cold, stoic nature to them.  Bergman can be an acquired taste for some people.  His movies often are sometimes so devoid of kinetic energy that it may leave some audiences bored.  But no one can deny the visual power that his movies often have.  In many ways, Bergman is the Grandfather of modern Scandinavian cinema, and many filmmakers who have come up in the years since from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark have in one way or another drawn inspiration from his films.  Even some American filmmakers have been inspired by Bergman’s work; probably the most surprising would be Woody Allen, who credits Bergman as a direct influence.  Of course, Criterion has honored Bergman with many fine editions of his most noteworthy movies, including his first international hit and probably his most famous overall film, The Seventh Seal (1957, #11).  Other noteworthy hits like Persona (1966, #701), Wild Strawberries (1957, #139), and Autumn Sonata (1978, #60) have also made it into the collection.  But Fanny and Alexander holds a very special place in the collection, not just for it’s reputation as a movie, but because it also marks the end of an era.  Fanny was to be Bergman’s final theatrical film as he decided to work solely on stage and television in the years after.  He would come out of his semi-retirement in 2003 and direct one final film called Saraband, but that pales when compared to the effort he put into this project.  It’s a spectacular feat of cinema, which Criterion has matched with an equally grand special edition.

Fanny and Alexander is an interesting film in the Bergman filmography mainly because of it’s epic scale, and also the fact that it centers on such a young protagonist, something that Bergman had never done in any of his previous films.  While most of Bergman’s movies run at a brisk but methodically paced 90 minute average length, Fanny and Alexander runs a lengthy 187 minutes theatrically, which even itself was cut down from a staggering 5 hour long television version.  Though the movie is nearly twice as long as most of Bergman’s other films, it’s understandable as to why.  The story follows the tale of the wealthy Ekdahl family at the turn of the 20th century, led by their matriarch Helena (Gun Wallgren), and her three sons Carl (Borje Ahlstedt), Gustav (Jarl Kulle) and Oscar (Allan Edwall).  Oscar, the elder son, has managed to successfully run his family’s theatrical business with wife Emile (Ewa Froling) and children Alexander (Bertil Guve) and Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) in tow.  The close knit family spends a festive Christmas season together, showing how closely knit the whole of them are, but that joy is soon shattered when Oscar is stricken by a sudden stroke while rehearsing a play.  After his death, Emile is in need of security for both the theater and for her children, so she turns to local Lutheran bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo), who takes Emile and her children into his home after she agrees to their marriage.  Soon after, things start to go sour as Bishop Edvard proves to be a cold, unloving husband and father.  Emile resolves to end the marriage after she finds Alexander alone and bloodied in his room after a beating given to him by the bishop.  However, a problem occurs when Emile ends up with child, and Bishop Edvard refuses to let his new family go.  This resolves the extended Ekdahl family to take action and find a possible way to free Emile, Fanny and Alexander from the cruel bishop.

Naturally the primary theme of Fanny and Alexander is the bonds of family, and how festivities like Christmas keep those bonds growing stronger over time.  The whole beginning of the story presents that idea perfectly with the extravagant party put on by the Ekdahls in both their theater and in their lavish home.  The party is played out in extravagant detail, giving us an interesting and personal look at Swedish Christmas traditions as well as the intimate relationships between all of the characters, young and old.  In the theatrical version, this Christmas celebration takes up nearly 40 minutes of run-time, and in the television version, it makes up the entire first 90 minute episode.  It also marks the high point of Ingmar Bergman’s vision.  In this scene alone, we see the director at his most lavish as well at his most introspective.  The movie has been called semi-autobiographical, and that wouldn’t be surprising.  Christmas celebrations like this were probably a major part of Bergman’s early life growing up in pre-WWII Sweden.  It also marks a strong contrast with Bergman’s earlier, bleaker films in the post war years.  Those films would often focus on shattered dreams and harsh realities with little in the way of solace.  Not to mention, most of them were devoid of color.  In this film, however, color is abundant.  Fanny and Alexander is far and away the most extravagant of Bergman’s films, helped largely by the Oscar-winning set design, as well as the Oscar-winning cinematography by long-time Bergman associate, Sven Nykvist.  But, the most interesting aspect of this opening Christmas celebration is how it contrasts with the latter, bleaker part of the movie.  Once Bishop Edvard enters the picture, the whole movie pivots into a darker, more typically Bergman-esque narrative.  This gives the pleasing Christmas scenes a interesting context within the movie, and also in Bergman’s own mindset.  Is joy from festivities like Christmas the ideal that we want in life, or is it merely a dream that momentarily dulls the pain of reality?

This theme plays out in a very interesting way in the movie, because it is told entirely through the eyes of a child.  Though the movie is named after the two siblings, young Fanny is actually more of a secondary character, as Alexander is the main protagonist.  Bergman clearly drew upon his own experiences in childhood, but interestingly plays things in reverse in Alexander’s story.  In reality, Ingmar Bergman was born into a stern, religious household and was constantly reprimanded by his authoritarian preacher father.  He would later find escape in the world of theater and film, and while never really abandoning his faith, Bergman would always cast religious authorities in a negative light in most of his latter work.  Alexander on the other hand was born into the theater, and grew up in a loving and imaginative household.  It’s only when religious authority enters Alexander’s life that things start to fall apart.  In many ways, the two fathers in Alexander’s life represent Bergman’s ideas between dreams and reality.  Oscar is the father Bergman wishes he had, while Bishop Edvard is the father that he actually had.  This is probably why the latter part of the movie feels so bleak, because of that loss of innocence.  Bergman feels fortunate to have found joy in his ability to create, but he expresses great pity to anyone who has that taken away, like with Alexander.  The movie does a brilliant job of expressing that duality, with the lavish and colorful Ekdahl residence contrasted against the stale, white walls of Bishop Edvard’s home.  And although Fanny and Alexander portrays religious figures negatively, Bergman still presents a very spiritual side in the movie, as ghosts and ghouls roam free among the characters, especially in the imagination of Alexander, who often sees his lost father Oscar still roaming the hallways at a distance.  It’s a deeply moving portrayal of childhood and growing adolescence, which is perfectly portrayed by young Bertil Guve as Alexander.  Overall, he becomes one of Bergman’s most intimately interesting protagonists.

Upon it’s initial release, Fanny and Alexander was hailed as a masterpiece, and has steadily grown in reputation as one of cinema’s great classics.  It’s often been called Bergman’s greatest achievement and the greatest Scandinavian film ever made, which is a high honor.  So, given it’s monumental reputation, Criterion had to do something special with this edition, and they certainly delivered.  First of all, it should be noted that the Fanny and Alexander edition not only contains one movie, but two by the famed director.  In addition to directing the film itself, Bergman also had a second camera on his set to capture the whole process of him working behind the camera, which he later edited into a documentary called appropriately, The Making of Fanny and Alexander (1982).  This feature length documentary is an interesting look at Bergman’s process, and how it often led to many struggles on the set, both internally and with the cast and crew.  It’s an intimate portrait of the man himself and helps to really show the mind and method of an artist in a fascinating way.  Overall, the presentation of the movie and the documentary comes in a lavish three disc blu-ray set.  The theatrical edition is included, given a beautiful high definition remaster, as well as the lengthy television version, made available for the first time here in North America.  The documentary makes up the third disc, along with all of the extras.  Each of the different films on this set are given brilliant digital presentations that do justice to this over 30 year old film.  The picture quality really brings out the lush colors of Sven Nykvist’s photography, and the sound presentation, although low-key generally, still feels true to life and sounds perfect.  It’s a worthy visual and aural presentation that shows exactly why Criterion is the best home possible for Ingmar Bergman’s collection of films.

The extra features also help to fill out the set nicely.  In addition to the colossal Making of Fanny and Alexander feature, you also get two other noteworthy documentaries on this edition.  The first one is called A Bergman Tapestry, which gives you a comprehensive look at the making of the movie from the perspectives of the cast and crew, all looking back on their experiences with the director.  The second documentary is a made-for-TV retrospective interview with the director called Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film.  Conducted in 1984 by Swedish film critic Nils Petter Sundgren, the two men sit down and discuss Bergman’s career and why he decided (at the time) to stop making feature films.  Fanny and Alexander is discussed extensively, as well as many of his other noteworthy works, and it’s an overall very enlightening interview that feels right at place in this set.  The remaining supplements are extensive galleries of the many award-winning sets and costumes, showing just how much care went into the crafting of this film, and showing just how much Bergman wanted this film to glow visually.  Rounding it all out, there is an audio commentary track by film scholar and Bergman biographer Peter Cowie, on the theatrical version only.  In it, Cowie discusses the themes of the movie in more detail, as well as discussing the film’s place in Bergman’s whole filmography and it’s legacy.  It may not seem like a lot on the surface, but each of these extra features are enormous in of themselves, especially the monumental Making of.  It’s another sign of Criterion’s high standard, and of course they wouldn’t do anything other than the best for a film that is widely considered one of the greatest that’s ever been made.

Fanny and Alexander is a movie that needs to be seen by any film fan out there, especially those who want to expand their understanding of international cinema.  Along with The Seventh Seal, this would be considered essential Bergman, and would probably be the best way to introduce the director’s work to someone who is unfamiliar with it.  Do not be daunted by it’s epic length; Bergman fills every moment of this film with awe-inspiring artistry and doesn’t waste any of it on needless indulgence.  In fact, for such a personal film, the movie is surprisingly accessible, and that’s probably because of the universal themes of family and coming of age that Bergman chooses to address here.  Not only that but it has one of the most lavish and beautifully crafted visions of a Christmas celebration that has even been put on film.  Upon seeing it, you can see why this movie is often considered a holiday classic, because few other Christmas movies feel this joyous about the holiday.  It’s not cynical or shallow, and it shows what the holiday spirit should be all about, and that’s the bonds of family.  I only wish that more Christmas adaptations would follow that example and stop sending bad messages in the guise of Christmas cheer (I’m looking at you Kirk Cameron).  Ingmar Bergman has had the reputation of being a bleak and cold-tempered story-teller, which is sometimes reflected truthfully in his earlier films.  But Fanny and Alexander presents something altogether different in the vision of hope, presented beautifully in the image of a family Christmas celebration.  Hope and joy may be an unusual theme to find in a story made by the same guy behind the post-apocalyptic Seventh Seal, but Fanny and Alexander shows the legendary filmmaker at his most introspective and surprisingly, at his most optimistic.  This treasure of a film gets a much deserved edition from Criterion and would make a very wonderful gift under the tree for any cinephile this year.

fanny bluray