The Hateful Eight – Review

hateful eight

Quentin Tarantino has built an enviable reputation over the years as a filmmaker to the point where every time he creates a new feature, it becomes a hotly anticipated event.  In recent years, he’s been on a particularly strong roll, with both Inglorious Bastards (2009) and Django Unchained (2012) becoming huge box office successes as well as picking up awards by years end.  What’s even more remarkable about Tarantino’s success at the same time is that he’s done all this without ever compromising his distinctive style.  I don’t know whether he’s managed to do it by just being lucky or by the sheer goodwill he’s earned in the industry, but Tarantino has manged to get away with more in his movies than most other filmmakers are able to.  And as long as his movies stay successful, then he’ll continue to keep pushing that envelope with every film.  Known for delving into multiple types of genres throughout his career, we’ve seen from Mr. Tarantino a wide variety of different stories, and yet, each one still feels connected thanks to his unique cinematic voice.  After Django Unchained, Tarantino made the unprecedented move of staying within the same genre with his next feature.  That film would become The Hateful Eight.  Though Django featured many elements that you normally would associate with the Western genre, it’s setting in the deep South helped to set it apart.  Hateful Eight on the other hand is set in the American Western frontier, so it is much closer to genre than what Tarantino has done before.  And truly, this is very much a love letter to the Westerns that Tarantino has idolized since youth.  The movie is clearly intended to invoke the memory of those old classic and Spaghetti westerns of the past.

But, this was a movie that at one point could’ve been shelved forever.  Late in 2013, Quentin Tarantino fell victim to breach in privacy when his first draft of The Hateful Eight was leaked online.  This was such a betrayal of trust for the director that he soon announced that he would not be making the film at all; canceling the project because he felt exposed by the breach and that he felt the film could never materialize out of that cloud of mistrust.  Thankfully for Tarantino, few actually saw the leaked script before it was removed, and after a few rewrites and a successful table read with Tarantino’s choice of actors in the roles, the project was back on board and bound once again for it’s 2015 release.  But, Tarantino wasn’t just interested in making any old movie this time around.  A long time champion of filming on celluloid as opposed to digital photography, Quentin wanted to use this opportunity to film with more than just the usual film stock.  For The Hateful Eight, he was interested in filming the movie using the Ultra Panavision 70 process, which hasn’t been in use since the late 1960’s.  Ultra Panavision is a 70 mm process developed back in the 50’s that became the widest format ever used in Hollywood.  While a normal widescreen film is shot in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, Ultra Panavision is able to produce an image at nearly 2.78:1 in width, making it a truly epic sized image.  Few films were produced in this wide process, such as Ben-Hur (1959), and this is the scale on which Tarantino wanted to tell this story.  Couple this with a revival of some other common features from old school Hollywood spectacles, like the Overture and Intermission, and you can see that Tarantino was intending this to be a loving throwback to a  classic film-making, all the while giving it that typical Tarantino flourish.  Was it an experiment that paid off in the end, or was it too indulgent for it’s own good?

The Hateful Eight of course is about exactly what the title describes.  In the remote wilderness of the Wyoming Rockies, eight strangers are forced into shelter to escape the bitter cold of an approaching blizzard, all with their own baggage and ill intent towards one another.  Among them are two renowned bounty hunters, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and John Ruth (Kurt Russell).  Ruth is on his way to the town of Red Rock, and cuffed to his arm is his still alive bounty, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh).  John Ruth prides himself on bringing in his prisoners alive so that they can be hung by an executioner properly, which has earned him the nickname “The Hangman.”  Daisy has continued to make his long road to town as miserable as possible and it’s also caused John Ruth to be suspicious of other characters around trying to steal his prize prisoner away from him, including the quick witted Warren.  While on the road, Ruth and Warren pick up another passenger, the future Red Rock sheriff Mannix (Walton Goggins) who doesn’t take long before antagonizing the others due to his sympathies with the Confederate cause in the only recently ended Civil War.  The four make it to their place of refuge called Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they find four others seeking shelter.  One is an English fellow named Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), another is soft spoken thug named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), another is a groundskeeper simply known as Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir) and finally the last guest is a grizzled retired Confederate general named Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern).  The eight strangers make themselves comfortable before the night grows darker and colder and the tension grows higher as some of the group soon learn that the ones they share company with are not entirely being truthful about who they really are.

It doesn’t sound like too much happens based on that premise, but that’s only because I don’t want to spoil the surprises that happen throughout the film.  Unfortunately, the film’s narrative becomes the biggest issue that I have with the movie overall.  While Tarantino does play around with his usual flair for mischief and indulgence, here it can sometimes be a hindrance to the momentum of plot.  At over 3 hours in length, at least in the Roadshow version that I saw, the movie is a long one to sit through, with lengthy patches that deliberately take their time to get going.  I’m fine with long movies as long as they do keep the viewer engaged and on the edge of their seats.  In fact, Tarantino did do just that with his nearly 3 hour long Django Unchained, a movie that never lagged once despite it’s length.  Here, I felt that there were one too many moments early on that took too much screen time without ever having a reason to be so lengthy.  It’s a case where I think Tarantino’s proclivity for indulgence may have backfired this time.  And believe me, I still love it when Tarantino indulges himself with his movies; just as long as I can still stay engaged.  The pub scene from Inglorious Bastards in particular is a perfect example of indulgence done right from the director.  In this movie, there is a lengthy passage that takes place within a stagecoach as the characters talk about their past experiences.  This scene is nice, and features some of Tarantino’s trademark oddball dialogue, but I could feel my attention drift during these early scenes in a way that I never felt from a Tarantino movie before.  That unfortunately hurts the movie in the long run, but overall, it doesn’t make this a terrible film by any means.  There’s still plenty to like.  It just doesn’t have the same kind of control over the story that Tarantino has shown in the past.

And part of that may come from expectations that I may have had about where the story might go.  Overall, the entirety of The Hateful Eight is about subverting the expectations of the viewer.  Tarantino chose to film in an ultra-wide film process that’s commonly associated with grand scale epics, but he uses it here in a story that’s all about isolation and claustrophobic tension.  For most of the three hours of the movie, our characters occupy a small log cabin set; quite different than the grand vistas that you would expect from an Ultra Panavision feature.  But, Tarantino does make that work for him on a visual level, as opposed to the narrative one.  There are plenty of well composed shots that allows Tarantino to tell the story the way he wants and still have it feel as bombastic as his other features.  In many ways, his visual flourish does make up for some of the narrative faults, and it is fun watching the director both work within these constraints as well as play around with them.  But, what the movie lacks in the long run is the tension that usually invigorates the plots of most of Tarantino’s films.  As some of the characters begin dropping dead in the cabin and suspicions arise between them, the film stops being a typical Western and turns into more of an Agatha Christie who-done-it style mystery, which again is kind of interesting to watch seen through Tarantino’s style.  But, Quentin also has worked in this field before, with his first feature Reservoir Dogs (1992).  That film has a lot in common with Hateful Eight, including the confined singular setting and the rising suspicions between the characters.  But that movie ran at a nice compact and tense 100 minutes.  Hateful Eight takes too many detours that, while fun, kind of diminish the final result by the end.

Where the movie does triumph, however, is with the cast of characters.  I’ll say this about Tarantino; he has not lost the ability to write amazing characters in his films.  Every person in The Hateful Eight is as fascinating as any other character that Tarantino has created over the years, and like many of his features before, the highlights are always the ones where these characters interact.  Another trademark aspect of Tarantino’s films is his remarkable ability to cast his roles perfectly, and sometimes with unexpected choices.  The Hateful Eight features what you could probably call the Tarantino All-Stars, because each one has worked with the director before in the past, but mostly never on-screen together.  This includes Samuel L. Jackson (a staple of most Tarantino films), Kurt Russell (Stuntman Mike from Death Proof), Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction), Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill) and Walton Goggins and Bruce Dern (both from Django Unchained).  All that’s missing is Christoph Waltz, who I’m sure would have participated had he not already committed to playing a Bond villain in Spectre.  Each of the all-stars here are uniformly excellent and manage to deliver solid performances all around.  New to the cast though is Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is probably the one who shines the most.  Leigh plays a truly despicable character in Daisy Domergue and her performance is an absolute knockout.  You can see the absolute evil in this character just in the way she smiles with her rotten grin, but Leigh does a lot more brilliant work to help you see the humanity behind the gruffness as well.  Considering the talent involved in the cast, it’s a treat to see her stand out as well as she does and she’s placed strongly among some of Tarantino’s many other famous villains like Victor Vega, Ordell Robbie, Bill, Hans Landa, and Calvin Candie.  So, once again it’s Tarantino’s ability to create standout characters that becomes the highlight of his movie, and we get eight amazing ones to witness here too.

I should also state how special the Roadshow presentation for The Hateful Eight is as well.  It may not be something that moviegoers are familiar with today, but the Roadshow was a common practice for epic spectacles back in the early years of cinema.  Epic films back then were treated as more than just an event back in the day; they were treated more like special engagements at the local cinemas across the country, much like how we treat the opera or a Broadway show as special.  Every guest to a Roadshow presentation was treated to more than just a movie.  The film would have a fully orchestrated Overture that preceded it, along with an Intermission halfway through to allow the audience to take a bathroom or snack break before the second half would begin.  Not only that, but in select theaters you would receive a printed out program detailing the film and it’s production as a special treat.  That same presentation is lovingly recreated in this presentation by Tarantino.  With The Hateful Eight Quentin Tarantino is hoping to revive this long out of use practice in the hope that it will catch on and make movies feel like Special Engagements again.  I was fortunate to be near a theater that played this Roadshow version, and it was neat to not only see a new film that felt like a loving throwback to old Hollywood, but one that makes good use out of the tools given to it.  For one thing, it is great seeing the long out of use Ultra Panavision process return.  It’s disorienting at first seeing the very wide image on a regular cinema screen, but as the movie rolls along, you can clearly see why Tarantino chose to film it this way.  I for one want to see 70 mm film make a comeback because few other formats are able to capture as much detail in an image as this does.  The cinematography by Robert Richardson is spectacular and he proves to be remarkably adept at using this process that’s been out of usage for nearly 50 years.  Also providing a nice throwback to classic cinema, Tarantino called upon legendary composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) to write the original score for this feature, and of course the grand maestro delivered a great score that feels both uniquely new and nostalgic at the same time.  If you do see this movie, try to watch this Roadshow version if it’s available in your area.  It’ll be worth it.

So, in the end, despite some problems with the pacing of the narrative, Quentin Tarantino delivers yet another solid effort.  Overall, I would say that this film is worth seeing more for the actual presentation itself rather than it’s story.  I for one admire Tarantino’s effort to keep classic Hollywood film-making techniques alive in this digital era that we live in now , while at the same time keeping true to his frequently indulgent cinematic tastes.  By not letting us forget that movies were once filmed this way, he helps us to remember just how special the tools of the trade can be.  I certainly never thought that I’d see a new film made in the Ultra Panavision 70 process in my lifetime, so I thank Tarantino for doing just that.  Hopefully, the movie will do well and that it will inspire other filmmakers to want to make their movies in 70 mm and other long out of use widescreen formats too.  At this point, only Tarantino and Christopher Nolan seem to be championing large format film-making in this digital age, albeit in different forms (Nolan being a fan of the IMAX process).  As long as they continue to make their movies a showcase for these processes, there may be hope that some day they might be in fashion once again.  Unfortunately, despite loving the presentation, I can’t quite say that The Hateful Eight is Tarantino at his best.  The sluggish first half did lose my attention at times, which past Tarantino films have not done before.  A tighter edit might have helped the film in the long run, but what is presented here is still worth seeing.  You’ll still get the trademark Tarantino experience, even if it feels a bit too indulgent.  Just go in knowing that this will be a long sit through, but one that will reward you by the end.  The great dialogue and characters are still there and the Roadshow presentation is worth every penny if you can manage to see it that way.  It’s big and bloated, but every bit what you would expect from Quentin Tarantino and it shows that the rebel director is not losing his touch one bit.

Rating: 8/10


Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Review

the force awakens

You’ll find few other movies that have left an impact on cinema as much as the first Star Wars (1977).  It is a benchmark film; one that changed the ways we watch the movies, changed the way we make the movies, and also changed which kinds of stories could also be told on the big screen.  Up until Star Wars, science fiction and fantasy were dismissed in Hollywood as B-movie nonsense, but after director George Lucas’s grand vision took the world by storm, Hollywood started to take notice.  And since it’s release, you can see the imprint of Star Wars in just about everything in pop culture, as well as in the broader culture at large.  No other movie ever made has been as widely seen or has touched as many lives as this one.  And it’s amazing that it all came from a desire on George Lucas’ part to pay homage to the old sci-fi serials of the past.  What started as a bold exercise of for an ambitious young filmmaker making  what is essentially a fan film quickly turned into a new mythology for the 21st century; something that I’m sure even the forward thinking Lucas probably never imagined.  Of course, when one of your projects hits the world as hard as that one did, it becomes near impossible to follow it up.  Remarkably, Star Wars has maintained relevance for nearly 40 years now, and as recent developments have indicated, it will only get stronger from here.  Star Wars became more than just a standalone wonder, turning instead into a great modern saga; albeit far from a perfect one.  As the prequels have shown, even the mighty Star Wars wasn’t spared from a downfall.

But, what the hatred towards Lucas’ prequel trilogy also proved is just how much this universe means to people, and that you can’t just lean on the fans sense of nostalgia alone.  For many years, the Star Wars franchise was leaning too heavily on the past at a time when it needed to grow.  And with the acquisition of George Lucas’ company Lucasfilm into the ever growing Disney empire, it was finally became that time.  Many feared that Disney’s purchase of the Star Wars brand was just going to be a cynical venture for the media giant to cash in on what was already there.  But thankfully, Disney didn’t intend on being custodians of the past.  They were ready to set Star Wars free.  Within days of the merger, Disney announced that they were planning on building a bold cinematic universe around Star Wars, much in the same vein of the hugely successful one that they’ve built within the Marvel brand.  And to start this off, they were going to continue the main story, picking up after the end of the original trilogy in Return of the Jedi (1983).  For the first time in over 30 years, we are now seeing the story advance and Star Wars finally looking into the future, rather than the past.  And best of all, it’s with the input of those who were there at the beginning (sans Lucas).  Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote the brilliant Empire Strikes Back script) was brought on board to draft this continuing adventure and cast members Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford all returned to bring life back to their iconic characters.  To top it all off, directorial duties were given over to J.J. Abrams, who also successfully relaunched that other iconic sci-fi series, Star Trek (2009) only recently.  It appeared that all the pieces were in place to make something special, and now we finally have the results of their work.  Is it everything we were hoping it would be, and a great launching off point for this new era in the Star Wars legacy?  Having finally seen it now after all that waiting, I can safely say that the Force is strong with this one.

So, what’s it about?  Without spoiling too much for those who haven’t seen it (if there’s any of you left), this film picks up many years after the events of Return of the Jedi.  The empire has fallen, but a zealous branch determined to squash the rebellion by any means has risen from it’s ashes.  They call themselves the First Order, and they’re on the hunt for the leaders of the rebellion, led by the maniacal General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) and the mysterious Sith Lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), all in service to their Supreme Leader Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis).  The First Order’s main target is the master Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who has gone into hiding after a personal tragedy forced him to retreat.  On a desert planet called Jakku, an ace Rebellion star fighter pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) manages to secure a map to Luke’s location, but is captured by Kylo Ren and his Stormtrooper army.  Before his capture, Poe entrusts the map to his droid co-pilot BB-8, who narrowly escapes.  In the barren wasteland of Jakku, BB-8 soon runs into a nomadic scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) who vows to keep it safe.  Also on Jakku is a Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) a name short for his Trooper designation of FN-2817 who went AWOL after he began to doubt the ethics of his mission.  He runs into Rey, and recognizes the BB-8 droid and it’s significance.  Pretending to be a rebellion spy, Finn convinces Rey that they need to leave the planet and join the Rebellion itself, led now by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher).  They manage to escape capture from the First Order but are intercepted by a smuggler ship, piloted by none other than Han Solo (Harrison Ford).  And, with the help of Han and his trusted friend Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Finn and Rey begin their adventure across the galaxies.

Attempting to bring Star Wars back to it’s basics was no small task for J.J. Abrams and crew.  But, at the same time the movie has the benefit of following in the footsteps of the prequel trilogy, which already set the bar low.  All that The Force Awakens had to do was be good enough and fans would be satisfied.  Thankfully, this movie is more than just good enough; it’s actually fantastic, though not entirely perfect.  Any other franchise and this would be considered a masterpiece, but of course this is Star Wars we’re talking about.  I do believe that for what this movie is, it is the best we could have hoped for.  It is light years better than the prequels (that’s a given) and it brings the Star Wars series up to date perfectly.  It is undoubtedly the best film in the franchise since The Empire Strikes Back, though it doesn’t quite reach that lofty, sublime level.  There were points in the story where I felt that the momentum lagged and there were holes in the plot that left a lot of questions hanging afterwards.  Though not as problematic as the story problems within the prequels, these issues still cause the movie to feel uneven at times.  Plus, The Force Awakens does have the added challenge of trying to carry the weight of everything that has come before it.  It’s a daunting challenge considering that we’re seeing the story continue for the first time in 30 years, and the movie does on occasion buckle under the weight of that pressure.  Buckle, but not break.  This movie does thankfully hold itself together overall, and many of the structural and story issues do end up being forgivable in the long run.  It’s not a series best (running a distance behind the original and Empire Strikes Back) but it absolutely tries harder to reach those heights than anything else we’ve seen from the Star Wars universe in recent years.

What ultimately makes this movie work as well as it does are the characters, both old and new.   First of all, I would like to say that it is so refreshing to see characters worth caring about again in the series.  After watching the bland characterizations in the prequel trilogy, namely the dull as rocks main couple of Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala, these new, interesting characters are a god send.  I especially liked the fact that the entire first act of the movie focuses entirely on the new cast, allowing the audience to grow comfortable with their story before the old guard comes along.  I loved that they don’t start off the movie as especially crucial either.  When we first meet Finn and Rey, they are outsiders, un-connected to anything that has happened before.  Finn is a lowly Stormtrooper who has never seen combat before and Rey has lived in isolation fending for herself her entire life.  Only Poe and Kylo Ren have an already established history, and thankfully the movie devotes enough time to these new characters to make them feel both essential to this world and also distinctive on their own.  At the same time, the legendary characters are also well used here.  Han Solo is given the most amount of screen time of the classic characters, along with Chewie, and their banter is one of the film’s many delights.  It’s also great to see humor in a Star Wars movie that isn’t forced, and comes naturally out of the characters’ circumstances and personalities.  I also loved the sweet moments between Han and Leia in the film, which both helps to enrich their characters and also give the movie an added sense of nostalgia.  It’s moments like those that show exactly why it was so crucial bringing Lawrence Kasdan on board to help write the script, because he knows these characters’ minds better than anyone else, other than Lucas of course.  The characters are by far the movie’s biggest strength, which has always been the case with the series during it’s best times.

And with great characterizations like these, you need performers who can pull them off perfectly, and again the casting for the movie becomes another strength.  Special credit should be given to John Boyega and Daisy Ridley who play Finn and Rey respectively because so much of the movie rests on their shoulders.  I love their ability to bring out the personalities of the characters without making them too archetypal.  Rey is fiercely independent, but still willing to open her heart when the moment is right.  And Finn is a lost boy trying to find a better way in the universe, and his journey helps to lead him towards acting in service of a good cause.  Oscar Isaac also adds great support as Poe Dameron, making him a charismatic hero worth rooting for.  And of course, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher fall back into their iconic roles like no time has passed and their chemistry is just as strong as ever.  As for Mark Hamill’s return as Luke Skywalker, well you just have to watch the movie to see what he does here.  But, I think the best performance in the movie belongs to Adam Driver as Kylo Ren.  He makes for one of the more interesting villains we’ve ever seen in this series, and that’s saying a lot.  Whether behind his imposing mask or without it, Driver delivers a performance of remarkable subtlety that really builds a lot of fascination around the character.  There are secrets revealed about him that will shock many people in the audience, but Driver handles them perfectly and makes the character one of the best in the series by the end.  I should also mention the astounding puppeteer work done on BB-8.  It’s amazing how much personality they get out of this little robot, and he stands strongly among his peers C-3PO and R2-D2, both of whom also appear briefly in the movie.  With great characterizations and endearing performances, these two elements make this a great experience overall.

Also worth praise is the work of the director J.J. Abrams.  To say that he had a lot of pressure on his back is an understatement.  Still, it’s not like J.J. hasn’t been here before.  Abrams managed to resurrect the beloved Star Trek franchise as well, mainly by borrowing a few ideas that worked so well for Star Wars in the past.  So, it seemed like a natural step for him to cross over into this universe instead.  Overall, he handled the pressure very well and managed to make something that honored the legacy of the original, but still works well enough to take the franchise into another phase.  And it has to be said, nobody does fan service better than J.J. Abrams; at least when it’s done right.  There are several references to the past in this movie, and while some ideas aren’t quite as ingenious as they should be (seriously, you think the Empire would have learned it’s lesson before they built an even bigger Death Star) there are still a lot of elements in this movie that will make fans very happy.  I especially love the way things are introduced here that are instantly recognizable to serious fans, like the great reveal of the Millennium Falcon.  Abrams also proves his skill at staging action set pieces once again, with many of the battle scenes proving to be invigorating as well as distinctively Star Wars.  In addition, Abrams insistence on doing these action scenes in real locations with real elements as opposed to CGI green screen manipulation is a welcome return to what made Star Wars so memorable in the first place.  Overall, Abrams made a movie that feels throughout like a genuine Star Wars film.  You can honestly watch this movie in succession after viewing Return of the Jedi, and it wouldn’t feel out of place.  It’s proof that the series is back to where it belongs and it will hopefully continue to build in the years ahead.  The John Williams score helps to reinforce that as well, giving the movie that extra bit of nostalgic oomph.  In the end, you’ll be grateful that J.J. Abrams crossed galaxies to make this happen.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens may not have delivered the greatest story ever told in this series to date, but it still managed to right the course of this beloved franchise for the better, and that’s it’s greatest triumph.  Finally, we now have a Star Wars film for the 21st Century that we can honestly say is worthy of the title.  What’s especially great about it is the fact that we are no longer looking at what Star Wars was in the past, but what it can be in the years ahead.  Disney plans on not just continuing the main saga of Luke Skywalker and all his comrades alone; they want to expand the universe and tell all sorts of stories in this world too.  Already, they have standalone features that they call “Star Wars Stories” in the works that will tell the adventures of other characters that exist in this universe but are only slightly connected to the main story, starting off with next year’s Rogue One, which tells the tale of the rebel spies who stole the original plans of the Death Star, before the events of the original film.  After seeing the results of The Force Awakens, I can’t wait to see all the expanded universe adventures that are coming our way.  Finally, we are seeing the world of Star Wars unleashed and no longer tied down by the weight of it’s own legacy.  Truth be told, it is sad that for this to happen, control of the franchise needed to be taken away from it’s original creator, George Lucas, but at the same time he himself has stated that he enjoyed the new film too, even if it deviated from his original intention.  A lot of praise will be justly given out to J.J. Abrams and the stellar cast for pulling this off, and I’m sure that whatever I say in this review won’t matter in the end.  Most of you are going to see it anyway, because it’s Star Wars reborn and brought back to the light side.  I’ll leave by just saying that despite some minor story flaws, this will be one of the best movie experiences that you’ll have this year at the movies and it only makes me anxious to see what comes up in the next episode.  May the Force be strong with Star Wars for many years to come.

Rating: 8.5/10

What the Hell Was That? – How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

jim carrey grinch

The holiday season has it’s fair share of the good and the bad.  It’s true with every form of holiday entertainment.  In music you have Bing Crosby’s immortal “White Christmas” sharing playtime on the radio with Elmo & Patsy’s “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”  With TV Specials you have to endure Shrek the Halls (2007) in order to get to A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965).  And of course, there are a dozen or so bad Christmas movies to go along with the great ones.  We all have come to accept that not everything Christmas related is going to turn into quality entertainment.  It’s true with these as it is with any other type of film.  But, what I find so strange about bad Christmas movies is that they are sometimes given more of a pass for being awful just because they can serve as a time filler for the holidays.  Once out of the multiplexes, any Christmas movie is then able to find itself spotlighted once again in the holiday home video section at your local marketplace or on television as a featured presentation, regardless of whether or not it was good.  It doesn’t matter to the studios who make them, just as long as it shows that they’ve made something available for the consumer at Christmastime.  I think that’s why some of the lesser holiday fare like the laughable Jingle All the Way (1996) or the horrifying Jack Frost (1998) endure to this day;  consumers will still eat that garbage up just because of holiday nostalgia.  But, that becomes problematic when it keeps a truly awful film alive and fools everyone into thinking that it’s a worthwhile holiday film when it’s not. That’s exactly the case with what I believe to be one of the absolute worse Christmas movies ever made; the 2000 remake of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

The Grinch, to me, doesn’t just represent the worst kind of bad Christmas movie; it also represents the worst kind of film-making that Hollywood can create period.  Every wrong decision that could have been made in the creation of this disaster is present on screen and it just screams out as being nothing more than a studio driven market machine.  It wasn’t made to do anything other than make money, which completely goes against the original intention of the story itself.  Which leads to my other reason for hating this movie so much; it shamelessly exploits a holiday classic written by the legendary Dr. Seuss.  Seuss’ 1959 classic is not just a great Christmas tale, but also a brilliant meditation on the true meaning behind the season, stressing the importance of community over the desire for goods.  The remake attempts to retain that message, but it is constantly undercut by the film’s own superficial flashiness and it’s extensive studio driven requirement to appeal to every demographic, running contrary to the story’s original basics.  The end result becomes an ugly, aggressive, and just plain unpleasant cinematic blunder.  It’s everything that a Christmas movie shouldn’t be.  Is it the worst ever made?  In a relative sense, it probably is.  Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (2014) is more offensive morally, and direct to video fare like A Christmas Story 2 (2012) and Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure (2003) are more shameless as cash-ins.  But, as a big budget Christmas season offering, they don’t get much worse than The Grinch.

Dr. Seuss (alias of author Theodor Geisel) was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century and How the Grinch Stole Christmas is arguably his most renowned and widely published masterpiece, alone with “The Cat in the Hat”.  The rhyming prose and the illustrations done by Seuss himself both contributed to a delightful tale that has endeared itself into the hearts of multiple generations.  Telling the story of a grumpy green skinned hermit named the Grinch, the tale shows the character as he greedily wants to steal away everything related to Christmas from the neighboring Whos of Whoville in order to share with them the same misery he feels during the holidays.  But, to his surprise, he discovers that the Whos celebrate the holiday despite having nothing and their enduring spirit makes the Grinch reconsider what he’s done; and as the book states “his heart grew three sizes that day.”  In the end it’s a story that reaffirms what Christmastime should be about, which is goodwill towards our fellow man, whether they be a Who or a Grinch.  It’s a story that transcends age, race, gender, and religion, and because of that it is a universally beloved tale.  Naturally, something as popular as Dr. Seuss’ story would get the attention of Hollywood, and thankfully, it was acclaimed animator Chuck Jones that brought the story to life first, with the involvement and approval of Seuss himself of course. The 1966 special perfectly translated the book, retaining it’s loving message and it too has become a beloved classic over time.  Best of all, it added new elements like popular songs, including the always memorable “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” sung by Tony the Tiger actor Thurl Ravenscroft.  Both the book and the short have rightfully made the Grinch an iconic part of the holiday season, which makes the spoiling done by the movie remake all the more painful.

When it was announced that Universal Studios was going to do a big screen adaptation of the Dr. Seuss’ book, I’ll admit that I was looking forward to it.  I grew up with the short like everyone else, watching it almost religiously every Christmas with my family.  It’s the kind of holiday tradition that never gets old and How the Grinch Stole Christmas still holds up to this day.  The Boris Karloff narration, the unforgettable songs, the over-the-top way that Chuck Jones animated the Grinch’s devilish smile.  It’s all an indelible part of my childhood.  It’s also a beloved thing that crosses over generations.  My own mom considers this to be one of her favorites as well, and like me, she too was looking forward to the big screen version.  And when it was announced who was involved in it’s making, it appeared to all that this was going to be a top class production.  Not only did they manage to get Jim Carrey into the role of the Grinch, coming off a strong winning streak in the 90’s with films like Dumb and Dumber (1994), Liar, Liar (1997) and The Truman Show (1998), but Universal also tapped acclaimed filmmaker Ron Howard (1989’s Parenthood, 1995’s Apollo 13, 1996’s Ransom to name a few) to direct.  Overall, this looked like it was going to take Seuss’ vision to a whole other level and become a grand Christmas classic like it’s predecessors.  Both me and my mom went into the movie expecting something like that, but once the film started playing and we watched the final result of all that potential, we both walked away severely disappointed.  It was hard to comprehend at the time what went wrong, but when looking deeper into all the factors that made the original such a masterpiece and how this version ignored all of that, it became clearer as to how a disaster like this could happen.

First of all, let’s talk about translation.  Story wise, Dr. Seuss’ book is an easy one to comprehend.  Written for children, but also equally appealing to adults, the original tale is subtle and heartwarming.  Animation proved to be a perfect match for this kind of story, as the 30 minute run-time allowed for just enough time for the story to unfold without ever losing it’s momentum.  And Chuck Jones managed to find the right tempo as well, brilliantly casting Frankenstein actor Boris Karloff whose soothing yet intense British accent matched the persona of the Grinch to perfection.  The animation was also better suited to translate the Seussian style of design, which includes many twisted and unnatural shapes in both the architecture and environment, all recreated perfectly by famed background artist Maurice Noble.  Needless to say, if The Grinch needed to be brought to life, this was the way to do it.  Now, expanded to a 90 minute feature, there arises many more challenges, given the limitations of the material.  Not that they can’t be overcome with a deft adaptation, but what ended up happening here proves that even the most talented of artists and cast can fail in this endeavor.  Ron Howard’s The Grinch unfortunately dilutes the original tale to the point of being unrecognizable by adding a bunch of pointless filler.  Not only that, but the filler is also both crude and unnecessary, adding nothing to the film other than cheap laughs that only degrade the material rather than elevate it.  This movie unfortunately came at a time in the nineties when gross out humor was deemed popular, in the wake of the hit comedy There’s Something About Mary (1998).  Sadly this kind of sophomoric comedy seeped into family films as well, and The Grinch was not exempt.  In the movie, you get constant flatulence jokes throughout and even something as crude as a character kissing a dog’s behind.  Yep, just as Dr. Seuss envisioned.

The characters themselves are also mistreated in the story’s adaptation.  Now, I will admit, Oscar-winning make-up legend Rick Baker’s work on The Grinch is fairly impressive.  Jim Carrey, an actor with an extraordinary ability to transform himself physically in a role, is almost unrecognizable here.  In order to make the Grinch come to life in live action, this is about the best that could have been hoped for, and Carrey does throw himself admirably into the part.  Unfortunately, the script gives him nothing more to do than shtick, and it becomes grating after a while.  Carrey tries his best doing a Karloff impression in line with the original cartoon short, but the voice just sounds off when he’s combining it with wacky antics.  And he never shuts up.  One wishes for the restraint of Boris Karloff’s delicate reading, especially when we have to constantly hear Carrey’s Grinch screaming obscenities and telling characters to “pucker up” and kiss his ass in the film.  The Whos of Whoville don’t fare much better.  Of course, Seuss didn’t give much characterization to them in the first place, with only Cindy Lou Who being the only one of them named in the book.  Sadly in the movie, none of the Whos are given meaningful characterizations and they mostly come off as bland archetypes as a result.  Strangely, the script chooses to make them even more unlikable than the Grinch, showing them as shallow, greedy and prejudice people, changed only by the noble heart of Cindy Lou, who’s also generically drawn herself.  It’s their portrayal that really betrays the intention of Seuss’ story, diminishing the sense of community that made the original such a heartwarming tale.  Even Rick Baker’s make-up effects can’t save them, as actors like Bill Erwin, Jeffrey Tambor and Molly Shannon come off looking more grotesque than charming in their Whovian faces.

Which gets us to one of the more upsetting aspects of the film, which is the fact that it is an ugly looking movie.  Ron Howard’s approach to the story is exactly the wrong way to bring it to life, with bizarre choices in art direction and cinematography throughout.  The Seuss style in architecture is painstakingly recreated in the movie’s sets and environments, but it just feels wrong on screen.  By trying to be overly faithful to that style, the film only heightens the viewers sense of the setting’s artificiality, and it makes the audience keenly aware that this entire movie was filmed on a sound-stage.  There’s nothing that looks organic in the film; it’s all a messy overload of Seussian design.  To make matters worse, Howard took the extra bizarre step of washing out the color from the finished product in it’s color grading.  I don’t know if that was an artistic choice or not, but it adds an extra layer of unpleasantness to the film’s aesthetic.  The washed out color just leaves the film with this cold and sickly feel, which again steals some of the heartwarming appeal of the design away from the film’s look.  In addition, Howard also frames the story in a weird way, using numerous Dutch angles and in-your-face close-ups.  It’s the kind of off kilter directorial choices that you would expect in a slasher movie and not in a family friendly Christmas film like this.  Howard’s tonal control is also off too, with wacky hi-jinks abruptly undercutting moments that were meant to be touching.  Jim Carrey’s unsubtle performance doesn’t help much either, with the Grinch’s moment of clarity near the end being undermined by an out of place wacky reaction to the character’s heart growing three sizes.   It’s one baffling bad film-making decision after another and it overall adds to a thoroughly unpleasant cinematic experience.

Though many other Christmas movies have done worse, this one feels like the biggest betrayal of them all due to the talent behind it and the way it completely trashes the classics that came before.  The Grinch is a bad Christmas experience on an epic scale.  Thankfully, it didn’t tarnish it’s creators completely.  Ron Howard would win an Academy Award for his very next film, the Best Picture winning A Beautiful Mind (2001), and deservedly so.  Rick Baker continues to be a legend in the make-up effects community.  And Jim Carrey would go on to make more hits like Bruce Almighty (2003) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), though not with the same consistency he did prior to The Grinch.  Both Howard and Carrey themselves have also dismissed the movie publicly too, showing that they both recognize it as a less than positive addition to their resumes.  Sadly, the film still endures and is continually presented to us again whenever the holidays are around.  Universal has shamelessly turned it into a cash cow, making money off the merchandise and home video sales whenever the holidays come around.  And it’s that crass commercialism behind the movie today that is the biggest betrayal to Dr. Seuss’ story.  What he wanted to tell us with his original Grinch was that we don’t need all the gifts and traditions to enjoy the holidays; all we need in the end is each other and the desire to do good deeds.  Somehow, this Grinch has fooled us into believing that it’s an essential holiday classic despite the fact that it doesn’t earn any of that respect.  If you want to enjoy Seuss’ tale the right way, read the original book or watch the delightful Chuck Jones adaptation.  This big budget mess will only leave a bad taste in your mouth like a spoiled can of Who Hash.

Mr. Christmas – The Makings of a Holiday Movie Hero

clark griswold christmas

Most Christmas themed movies usually end up reflecting the spirit of the holiday by the time the credits roll.  In the end, our characters are rewarded with gifts and love from their family, and all the worries of the world fall away for that brief moment of holiday cheer.  It’s a touching conclusion to any story, but if handled improperly, Holiday films can run the risk of becoming very sappy.  And sadly, far too many holiday movies end up choosing to go the sentimental route in their stories.  For the most part, it prevents the movies from ever resonating with an audience.  Just look at any of the many Hallmark Channel style films that are pushed on us every single year.  Can any of you tell them apart?  More than anything, Christmas movies have become the domain of the romantic comedy genre, and not all for the better.  Sure, there are classics among them like Love, Actually (2003), but that had the benefit of an excellent screenplay and a top-tier cast to carry it.  Christmas movies overall have succumbed to the same kind of formulaic problems that have also plagued the rom com genre.  Does it reflect badly on the holiday itself?  Not necessarily.  Most audiences have become accustomed to the gluttony of Christmas themed entertainment this time of year, and most of the generic fare usually fades into the background, catching a passing interest only because it’s the holiday season.  But, as we have seen in the past, some holiday films do rise above the rest and become classics of the genre.  And usually the defining element that helps these movies stand out is the strength of their main characters, or in this case their Holiday Heroes.

Protagonists in holiday films tend to be an interesting group.  Though individually distinct, a Holiday Hero is always defined in these movies by their one purpose in the story; to make everything right by Christmas Day.  Their stories can be as simple as trying to find the right gift for someone, or using the spirit of Christmas to inspire them to do something wonderful, or even leading the hero to actually saving the holiday itself.  But, apart from what they do, the other interesting thing that I’ve noticed about the heroes in Christmas movies is that they are usually the embodiment of the common every-man.  They are the kind of characters that deal with all the hardships of the world with the hope that the good work they do will make just a little bit of difference, even if it means making Christmas worthwhile just one time.  This is a trait that has been around for many years, and owes a lot to the films of Frank Capra, and in particular, his Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life.  George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is the quintessential example of a traditional Every-man hero, and the fact that his triumphant story is tied so closely with the holiday has left a huge a huge mark on all the holiday films that have come after it.  He has become the archetype of what we know now as the Holiday Hero, and though many different characters have had different challenges put before them during the holiday season, a little of George Bailey’s can-do spirit is still found in all of them.  But, just like how every Christmas movie needs to bring something new to the genre in order to stand out, so must the hero of each story, and as a result, most Christmas movies are made or unmade by the effectiveness of their main hero.

So what does a hero need in a Christmas movie.  That all depends on the narrative that the filmmakers want to tell.  Let’s start with the most common version of the Holiday Hero, that being the George Bailey model.  This is the kind of character that goes through a story arc which leads them to reach a turning point in their life once Christmas Day comes around.  In George Bailey’s case, it’s something as dark as losing all faith in his existence, only to be reminded through how much he means to everyone around him, something that the spirit of Christmas brings out perfectly in everyone.  This redemptive arc is a popular one for holiday stories, and it has it’s roots in the works of Charles Dickens.  Dicken’s A Christmas Carol showed the redemption of Ebeneezer Scrooge through a spiritual journey through the character’s past, present, and future in order to redeem his soul and make him a new man in time for Christmas.  It’s a Wonderful Life does the same, but in reverse, taking a good decent man to the brink of despair only to remind him of the worth he has in this world by the end, preventing him from becoming a bad person.  Though both Scrooge and George couldn’t be more different in personality at the beginning, their transformations by the end fulfill the same purpose in the story, and that’s to make the Christmas holiday the point where their life turned around for the better.  This is reflected in so many holiday themed stories where a character’s life is renewed through the spirit of the holiday; sometimes in a supernatural way like with the Nicolas Cage film The Family Man (2000), or just through enduring a harsh reality through the season itself, like with the childhood woes of Ralphie in the perennial favorite, A Christmas Story (1983).  That’s what has shaped so many memorable Christmas movies over the years; a Dickensian catharsis that’s given to Capra-esque every-man, and it helps to underline the redemptive spirit of the holiday by making the hero so relate-able to our own anxieties during the holidays.  We root for these heroes, because they represent our own desires to change in time for Christmas and the New Year.

The other most common type of hero you’ll find in a Christmas movie is the character trying their hardest to make Christmas turn out right.  This is another relate-able hero type because it’s something that we all try to do.  We try our best to have the nicest decorations, buy the best presents, and throw the greatest parties.  In many ways, this type of character embodies our competitive side during the holidays, and how it bring out both the best and worst of us.  And as a result of this, this becomes the easiest version of the Holiday Hero to get wrong.  Sometimes we enjoy seeing the effort of someone who wants to make the holidays perfect, even when the world is against them.  Jack Skellington from Tim Burton’s classic holiday mash-up, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), is a perfect example of this type of character.  There we see a hero who is so smitten with the warm feeling of Christmas time, that he takes it upon himself to fill Santa Claus’ role, despite Ol’ Saint Nick’s objections.  We know that Jack’s plans are doomed to fail, and yet we still celebrate his enthusiasm because that love for the holiday is something we all share, and that need to spread the positivity of the season is what distinguishes Jack as a Holiday Hero, misguided as he may be.   The flip side of this comes from people who are so narrow minded in their pursuit of a perfect holiday, that it makes them unappealing as a hero.  We see this in countless Christmas movies that shamefully turn their “heroes” into mindless consumers of every Christmas tradition.  This is true in soulless holiday movies like Deck the Halls (2006) or Christmas With the Kranks (2004).   It does matter when your hero uses Christmas as a way to spread cheer to others, and not as an excuse for constant one-up-manship.  In this case, the Holiday Hero must be self-less in order to appeal to audiences.  Anyone who celebrates Christmas purely for attention is not worth paying attention to in the end.

The third type of Holiday Hero we see in movies falls into the the more supernatural category, where the fate of the holiday itself falls into their hands.  Of course, it’s impossible for a holiday to rest on the shoulders of a single person, but Hollywood has managed to create stories that do just that, and some of them can be quite charming.  This is more commonly a favorite premise in animation, where you can get away with a lot more of the fantasy elements.  The heroes in these stories often come in contact with holiday icons like Santa, or are related to Santa Claus in some way, or in other cases are Santa himself.  But, what is always the case with these movies is that the hero puts aside their own troubles and worries in order to make Christmas go off without a hitch.  A great example of this kind of hero can be found in the under-appreciated animated film Arthur Christmas (2011), where the title hero takes it upon himself to save the holiday by making sure no loose ends are left after his father (Santa) forgets to stop at one home.  It’s the optimism and belief of doing the right thing that motivates the character and his faith in what the holiday means helps him to undermine the cynical corporate approach that his more ambitious brother wants to bring to the holiday.  It’s a perfect example of how to do this kind of hero right, mainly because his personality really helps to sell the idea that Christmas is worth saving.  The same kind of story-line can also give characters a strong redemptive arc, like with the Tim Allen hit The Santa Clause (1994), where a cynical common man is transformed (literally and figuratively) when he has to take Santa’s place at the North Pole.  Whether the character is pure from the start or not, their generous personality must shine through.  Otherwise, if they stay too cynical and never learn to change, then you get something bland like a Fred Claus (2007).

When you look at all the great heroes in all the Christmas movies, they usually fall into these different kinds of models.  Not all of them end up in the same place, but they nevertheless share similar traits, and of course their fates are tied to the holiday itself in the end.  I of course have my own favorite, and it’s a character who actually represents a bunch of these different traits all together in one story.  I’m of course talking about Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989).  To me, Christmas Vacation is the perfect Christmas movie and Clark (Chevy Chase) the quintessential Holiday Hero.  The reason I like it so much is because it plays upon every Christmas tradition there is and mocks it relentlessly while at the same time embodying the spirit of the season throughout.  What I love best is the way that Clark Griswold takes an almost zealous approach to the Holiday, right to the point of madness.  In the end, he actually embodies every aspect of a Holiday Hero; he’s a Capra-esque every-man who tries to make the holidays perfect despite everything going wrong in the process, to the point of nearly losing his mind.  But what makes Clark such a great character is that the movie refuses to turn him into a purely heroic figure or purely cynical person either; he can sometimes turn into a real jackass when pushed to far.  But, you still want him to succeed because we can relate to his frustration.  Seriously, wouldn’t you freak out too if your boss cut out your Christmas bonus and you got a Jam of the Month Club membership instead.  That’s the appeal of Clark Griswold for me; he suffers for his love of the season, and it’s his imperfection that makes him interesting, and the putting up with hardship that makes him heroic (like having to put up with slovenly Cousin Eddie or disposing of a fried pussy cat from under the Christmas Tree), which helps to make his moments of madness seem forgivable by the end.

Unfortunately, Clark is character too little seen in holiday movies today.  More often we see too many characters in Christmas films that lack depth and personality.  This is the most common problem with holiday films, which tend to favor formula over originality.  It seems like Hollywood sometimes believes that you can just throw around anything with Christmas in the title and it will instantly bring in audiences.  Sadly, that part is true, since there is an appetite this time of year for anything holiday related, but nothing that comes out of this ends up lasting beyond that.  For a Christmas movie to have a long lasting legacy, it needs to have both a story worth watching and a hero worth following; otherwise it’s just a glorified Christmas card.  I’m sure that nobody remembers the pair of Christmas movies made by Vince Vaughn in the late 2000’s called Fred Claus and Four Christmases (2008), or how about the “edgier” Ben Affleck comedy Surviving Christmas (2004), or any of the endless Hallmark Channel fare we see every year.  Sometimes a Christmas movie also becomes notorious for missing the mark completely and hitting the wrong tone about the holiday, like Schwarzenegger’s Jingle All the Way (1996), the deeply disturbing Jack Frost (1998), or the horribly offensive Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (2014).  For a Christmas movie to resonate, it’s got to have a hero interesting enough to follow and a story original enough to keep us interested, while still maintaining the traditions of the holiday.  This is what has made classics like Christmas Vacation, Elf (2003), A Christmas Story, and The Santa Clause withstand the test of time; they have the familiar Christmas spirit, but put a twist on it that makes them interesting to watch.

So, like most Christmas movies themselves, there’s a right way and a wrong way to portray a Holiday Hero.  In the end, the character must be interesting and original, but driven by the spirit of the season.  The most resonant of these usually are the ones whose life takes a turn once Christmas arrives.  Making the hero relate-able is a factor, which is why the It’s a Wonderful Life model is so popular in the genre.  George Bailey’s Christmas is the thing that we all desire to have in the end, where all of our worries go away and we have our faith of humanity renewed when all of our friends and family extend their goodwill towards us.  It’s the dream of the average every-man in modern day life, and it’s what has made the idea of a Holiday Hero so personable in our culture.  But, at the same time, Clark Griswold is also a perfect Holiday Hero, because he represents the dogged spirit of the every-man who just wants to survive the holidays with both his sanity and dignity in tact.  They both represent the highs and lows that the holiday can bring and how each are changed by the end makes the experience of the Holiday such an important factor in those stories.  It’s what makes a Holiday movie a classic, and so often we see other films that get the idea from these archetypal stories very wrong.  Either a Holiday film will have a hero who’s too pure and optimistic or a character so dogmatic about their drive for holiday perfection that they become unappealing and uninteresting. Overall, we long for the heroes who experience the Christmas season the way we want to experience it, whether it be in a traditional happy way or in a life-altering, challenging way.  The holidays are after all about helping us to remember the needs of our fellow man, so our heroes should embody that spirit as well.