Sean K. Cureton

Archive for December, 2015|Monthly archive page

Krampus, Late Capitalism, & Christmas

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on December 26, 2015 at 12:54 pm

Universal Pictures

Directed by Michael Dougherty
2 ½ out of 4 stars

The latest seasonal horror-comedy from writer-director Michael Dougherty has already been cast as a contemporary successor to Joe Dante’s Gremlins of 1984, despite its Alpine folklore elements never quiet cohering entirely with a central narrative reluctantly concerned with the spirit of its featured holiday season. In Krampus, the titular Austro-Bavarian creature of legend is summoned by a disharmonious family that is forced to spend the Christmas holiday under one roof, whose antagonistic displays towards and against one another continue to proliferate and emerge until the anti-Santa is unleashed upon them. In the opening credit sequence of Dougherty’s new film, there is a surprisingly well-orchestrated bit of comedy at play, wherein the consumerism of the holiday is expertly lampooned in a hyperbolic fashion. The tableaux in question centers around a violent outburst perpetrated at a local shopping mall, Santa meet-and-greet, as the Engel family’s eldest son Max erupts in a fit of violent rage over some inexplicable, and likely self-involved moment of environmental misjudgment, that plays out like any tantrum thrown by any child under thirteen in a public shopping center at the height of the winter holiday season. Much of the film’s lightly applied social satire develops from this early moment of comic clarity, though much of its fails to deliver on the nuance and light-hearted subtlety at play early on, and ultimately delivers on a wide range of ill-timed and excessive horror movie elements.

Which is not to say that most of the scare tactics and grisly movie monsters that Dougherty employs throughout his new film are entirely without merit, or contrived and silly on their own terms. Divorced entirely from the rest of production, many of the demonic children’s toys that populate the snowy landscape of Krampus are either minutely disturbing enough to warrant their own short films, or genuinely unsettling to behold, and make for some the film’s more effectively creepy scenes and sequences. But the sheer multitude of these miniature movie monsters often becomes too much, and their ubiquity for the first two thirds of the film makes for a less imposing final reveal when Max finally confronts the great beast that he has unwittingly unleashed upon his family by film’s end. The grotesque Jack-in-the-Box and the army of malevolent gingerbread men are effective on their own, but combined with an evil teddy bear, a satanic angel ornament, and a smattering of incoherent, malicious elves, much of the film’s horror movie elements fall flat inn juxtaposition to one another, and serve to flatten a lot of the film’s scares, while simultaneously diminishing the script’s more tender-hearted narrative intentions. If Dougherty had scaled back on the sheer assault of unnecessary, annoying, and entirely predictable jump scares and horrific surprises, he might have been able to produce a subtler film that relied more heavily on the imposing presence of its featured movie monster, and delivered a fable more in keeping with the quaint nostalgia that beats at the very heart of many of the film’s stellar performances.

In their respective roles, the actors who comprise the cast for Dougherty’s latest horror-comedy are at the top of their game respectively, and serve to ground the film in a humanistic story that is both sardonic and tragic. Adam Scott and Toni Collette are sweet and believable throughout as a couple struggling to stay together and in love, and serve to offer some kind of hope for the end of an entirely disparate film that never comes to pass. Likewise, David Koechner and Allison Tolman are diametrically endearing as the imposing relatives, and Conchata Ferrell is always a welcome presence to any broad comedy production. But there simply doesn’t appear to be anywhere for these characters to go except down, as the narrative that Dougherty’s quickly established over the course of the film’s second act is one that offers no hope or redeeming moral lesson to be learned from the horrific comedy of errors that otherwise ensues. Instead, the Engel’s are left to contemplate the error of their ways in an apparent purgatory that seems oddly misappropriated for a movie purportedly in keeping with the spirit of Christmas, and ends in one of the worst jump scares all year, save for the nearly identical one more appropriately tagged onto the end of Leigh Whannell’s Insidious: Chapter 3.

Joe Dante’s aforementioned horror-comedy is a better film in a every way imaginable to Dougherty’s contemporary revamp of many of the same ideas and basic dramatic structure. In Gremlins, the tiny demonic creatures who wreak near-inescapable havoc are vanquished by film’s end, and the family forced to undergo a holiday of terror are chastened and all the better for the ordeal undergone. Meanwhile, Krampus is an oppressively nihilistic version of the same story, even as it doesn’t appear to mean to be. Dougherty’s horror movie elements effectively take over what is an overtly humorous take on the scary story at the comedy production’s center, and ends up offering one of the worst holiday films imaginable, with none of the heart or understanding of many of the themes and lessons that it purports to deliver. At times, it feels as though Krampus wants to be a different film entirely, one more in keeping with much of the holistic goodness of Dante’s aforementioned cult-classic, but fails to see very far beyond the outwardly apparent bleakness of its chosen source material, and offers little more than a confused satire of late-capitalism, with a couple of scares thrown in to make sure the audience is paying attention.


Small Town Hero

In My Favorite Movies on December 19, 2015 at 6:21 pm
What's Eating Gilbert Grape

Paramount Pictures

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
Directed by Lasse Hallström
Commercial Release: December 17, 1993

Standing as the first feature film script from writer-director Peter Hedges, who later made such tender and indispensable twenty-first century dramas as About a Boy and Dan in Real Life, Lasse Hallström’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is an important stepping stone in the aforementioned filmmaker’s body of work. Starring a young Johnny Depp as Gilbert Grape, the reluctant patriarch in a family consisting of two put-upon sisters, a mentally-challenged younger brother, and one morbidly obsese, and accordingly incapacitated, widowed mother, Hallström and Hedge’s drama serves as one of the most masterfully articulated cinematic portraitures of domestic stagnation. Endora, Iowa serves as the geographic locale for much of Gilbert’s imposed moral servitude, a rest-stop between places where life is truly lived. The inhabitants of the film’s metaphoric nowhere-land are all well seeming enough, though their lives are accentuated by an undeniable undercurrent of tacit apathetic resignation to personal progression of any kind. There is no real goal to be achieved in Hedges’ Endora, which makes Hallström’s film a special sort of American fable.

Upon first seeing the film, when I was perhaps only about thirteen or fourteen, I was immediately drawn into a story wherein an inexplicably precocious young man was the chief object of female affection. Watching Gilbert’s desires placated, first by a sad housewife, played by the comfortingly doting Mary Steenburgen, and later from a more age-appropriate, but likewise unrealistic and effectively fanciful, young girl of the proverbially adolescent imagination, conjured on the screen however capably by Juliette Lewis, was regressively heartwarming to me at the time. In the years since, I find no emotional sustenance in either of these two central romances of the film’s plot, but still see something tragic in both of their characters that serves to uplift the surrounding, and more thematically compelling, drama. In the Endora of Hedges’ fever dream, simply wishing to be good is enough for a while, but escape from the comforts of familiar tradition and home is ultimately made necessary with the passage of time, and the dawn of oncoming adult maturity. When the Grape home is burned following the death of Gilbert’s mother at the end of the film, there is a sense of renewal for all of the characters involved, thus allowing Gilbert and his brother to go anywhere at film’s end, even if their chosen destination with Lewis’ manic-pixie-dream-girl remains a childhood fantasy.

But there is still something held up within the hyperbole and schmaltz that allows some of the film’s better intentions to shine through the immaturity of a screenwriter still coming into his own as a filmmaker. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is an entirely self-reflexive and emotionally self-involved production, to the say the least, but it is also one of the truest cinematic expressions a very specific sense of desperation and melancholy known only to small town, American life. Gilbert is educated to a certain extent, and is sympathetic and compassionate in a way that is unusual given his circumstances, and as such plays like a sort of manic-pixie-dream-boy to Juliette Lewis’ symbiotically precocious young woman. There is a certain give-and-take element at play between the young lovers in Hallström’s film that serves to heighten the social drama at work against the larger surrounding picture and narrative circumstances. The encroaching threat of capitalism, seen in the invading presences of the Burger Barn fast food outlet and FoodLand supermarket, is a menace to the film’s celebration of conservative privacy, though the influences of a surrounding global culture still seeks to make its presence known in a way familiar to anyone now living in an age of hyper-connectivity via social media, that serves as a symbol for Gilbert’s more personal strivings towards worldly independence and freedom, that stands as the film’s sole escape from small town servility.

And yet there is a tenderness and emotional sustenance to be sustained by staying within the boundaries of childhood and familial longing that tethers Gilbert to his family estate, regardless of the toxic consequences such a decision may wreak upon his own mental health and general stability. The incontinent nature of his younger brother, played with an understated significance by a young Leonardo DiCaprio, is both a boon and a bother to Gilbert’s own sense of self-agency, however much he cares, loves, and has paradoxically come to depend on that very same sense of co-dependency. For Gilbert, Endora is a small town wherein he is the lone hero, keeping him from wandering very far for fear of leaving those who are the most nearest and dearest to himself in harm’s way. Enter Juliette Lewis, the untimely death of his beleaguered mother, and the extermination of his ancestral abode, and he becomes freed to pursue personal transcendence outside of the bonds of familial responsibility. There is liberation at film’s end that feels like a shaking off of authoritarian bonds, but there is also a somber reluctance to leave, with our hero’s final exit one decided for him by the will of the world around him.

Finally, then, Hedges’ feature film debut is something of a quaintly articulated coming of age tale, as familiar as any other, and as fool-headed as any like-minded social fable born out of youthful ignorance and passion. However, through the more guided directorial vision of Hallström, a more nuanced and carefully orchestrated domestic epic unfolds in miniature that is as judiciously minded visuall speaking as the script at times pretends to be rhetorically. Twenty-two years after the fact, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a modest success, but not one that warrants any serious critical study. But by the power of its emotionally impassioned melodrama, Hedges’ original story and adapted script remain as powerfully moving and movingly precious as ever, for better and for worse. There are greater films from the past two decades to cite and revisit before this one, but due to the performances contained within the confines of Hedges’quaintly applied small town yearnings, his adolescent hero is still one worth celebrating for the sake nostalgia for one’s own quickly receding youthful effervesce.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is available to own on DVD, and is the latest feature to be included as one of My Favorite Movies.