Monday, December 17, 2012

I Passed Up Silent Night, Deadly Night For This

Well, I promised you guys we'd have something over the weekend besides the Apocalypse writeups (a few more days left to go until...well...nothing probably happens.)

Given how close we're getting to the holidays, I figured it was only fitting, after the amount of time I gave Halloween, to try and feign festivity with some holiday themed reviews....then I got to thinking further.  I'll be honest, the first half of this year wasn't great.  We had a lot of stops and starts and some stretches where nothing happened.  I'm not that proud of that fact.  On thinking on that, however, I decided this was as good a time as any to be a good sport about that and discipline myself a bit to avoid this for next year.  So, alongside having a couple of good holiday films lined up for after the Apocalypse writeups, I decided to include a cinematic lump of coal for the things that went wrong.

In doing so, I opted for the cinematic equivalent of going down a mineshaft and breathing deeply until my lungs got so black light couldn't escape.

OK, maybe that's a bit much...but we'll get back to that.

So I set to work trying to find something that would really go above and beyond the call of duty as a 'punishment' movie.  There's certainly a fair number of bad holiday films to work with among the good stuff.

And then THIS came along.

I'm still trying to figure out of this movie was made because someone lost a bet, or if the fact this movie now exists WAS the bet.

That's right.  We're kicking off the festivities with the sequel nobody asked for: A Christmas Story 2.

This is one of those movies where, even from the get-go, I found myself trying to wrap my mind around its existence.  As said above, for one, no one really wanted this.  Even before this was a thing, was there anyone who left the original A Christmas Story thinking "Boy, I can't wait for the next one!"?   Nevermind the fact the original team technically already did try this with the 1994 movie It Runs In the Family - and there's a reason you don't remember that one.  Further, the original doesn't really feel like it needs anywhere to go.  Now, granted, that hasn't stopped some very good sequels from happening before (for example, one of my all time favorite action movies, The Road Warrior, was pretty detached from where the original Mad Max left off, but it still managed to make itself a strong movie regardless.)  At the same time, I mean, how much more could be said for ACS's message: it was a sort of skewed look at the classic American Christmas in the 1940s.  Slightly dysfunctional in several ways, and told through the perspective of a 10 year old kid (as relayed by his older self,) it was all pretty well covered in one movie.  Roll credits, film's in the can, let's go hit the bar before it closes cause I'm not comfortable going back home yet.

"Soon, puberty will come.  I just know it!"

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I couldn't see any reasonable justification for why this movie had to exist.  I mean, even IRitF at least could say it was trying to explore another adventure in the lives of the Parker clan, how much else can they do with another Christmas?

I suppose we can take some solace that Stern's chin decided it was above this movie at least.  But then, the chin on its own doesn't have to pay for food and utilities, so that does kind of force the rest of the body along here.

It turns out, not a whole lot, really.

This sequel (which, as fun trivia goes, involved none of the original people behind the first movie) moves the clock forward to 1946.  Something has apparently gone drastically wrong in those 6 years or so between these two movies: Ralphie's become a bizarre simulacrum of his former self with his young head lashed onto a grown up body, and as Darren McGavin experienced the sweet release of death before this movie came out, his role has been filled in by the ghost of Daniel Stern's career.  The story is...well, it starts off feeling like they're going to replay the old story from the first time around - however, as a teenager asking for a B.B. gun wasn't exactly a big deal (and asking for a real gun would probably land this movie in more trouble than it's really equipped to handle) the film instead trades out for that old reliable of teenage ambitions - the car.  Of course, just when it seems like they're gonna replay that formula, it instead gets placed on the backburner.  Unfortunately, the formula it's been replaced with isn't exactly fresh or inventive either - as a result of his desire for a particular car, Ralphie causes damages at the local car dealership.  The owner gives him and his friends an ultimatum - pony up $85 for the damages or he calls the police.  I suppose it says something for the filmmakers at least trying to keep within the mindset of the era that none of Ralphie's concerns about prison has anything to do with the notion of being passed around like currency, as is now the common fear of the federal prison system.  What then follows are the misadventures of Ralphie and his two friends through several jobs, and subplots ranging from The Old Man's attempts to beat the system leading into a series of adventures in ice fishing and a rather awkwardly worked in last act message about growing up.

Additionally, there's a loose thread about high school crushes.  Where we learn Ralphie's definition of 'teenage awkwardness' is closer to everyone else's definition of 'future sex offender'

I will start by saying, for as much as I'm giving them a hard time about the story, I at least will also give them some credit for avoiding the impression the first ads made that this would just be the first movie with a car in place of Red Rider.  They could have gone that even easier road and made this film's already tenuous justification for existence even worse.  Sadly, the story they then offered up on its own...well, like I said before, it's certainly cliched.  So much so that I almost feel like this movie didn't actually start life as a sequel to ACS, but was instead retooled into the role, a la Silent Hill IV or Saw II (Sequels do this a lot, actually.)  It's a connection that arguably feels even more awkward by the film's many attempts to assure us that yes, while everything is different, it's still ACS.  They try as many of the tricks as possible to bring it back - they have the similar narration (I will at least acknowledge here that writer Nat Maudlin does a decent impression of Jean Shepherd), they have the elaborate fantasy sequences, The Old Man still cusses up a blue streak (arguably moreso in this movie), and they throw in callbacks to a LOT of jokes from the first film.  The effect, rather than being reassuring, is strangely unnerving.  The film feels like the cinematic equivalent of a pod person.  It looks the part, and to someone who never knew of the original, could probably pass muster pretty well.  To anyone who knew of the original film, however, there's something off about this new one.  Sure, it technically looks like it, but on some level, you just know this isn't that movie.

Despite many attempts besides these...

I want to go back to the joke callbacks here, because it is kind of a major part of what set wrong with me on this movie.  Now, admittedly, this is more just a problem sequels to comedies tend to suffer from in general.  So I can't exaclty bust this one's chops TOO badly for that.  It's just the nature of the beast, really.  At the same time, however, it doesn't really do this movie any favors.  Especially when some of the call backs are pretty obviously thrown in just for the sake of a "Hey, remember this?" moment. The most damning in this regard is their callback to the famous flagpole joke.  In the first film, it was a demonstration of kids being kids and doing stupid things on a dare.  In this film, it's more an expression of the fact Flick is either too stupid to live or has an unhealthy attachment to pneumatic tubes.

Seriously, there's no way to NOT make this scene look disturbing.

Meanwhile, the movie's original material is honestly lacking.  There's a couple of minor chuckles here and there (most notably with regards to an incredibly bitter mall Santa who gleefully antagonizes children and later cheers on his elves fighting each other.)  Most of it, however, is the kinds of jokes we've all heard before and are likely all past the point of finding amusing.  Further, they sadly lack any of the charm or warmth of the original movie to really buoy up those more predictable gags (not to say the original film is completely sacrosanct, but there was at least more of a sense of heart to it than this film gives off.)  It's the kind of film that feels like, while it couldn't be great, it could have at least been salvaged under a more careful hand.

When the rest of your year is devoted to watching children all the time, I suppose we should be thankful that you're ONLY resorting to blood sport to take the edge off.

Which, I suppose, means now is the best time to discuss the people involved in this all around.  Casting on this film is...actually, I have to admit, not really bad.  At the same time though, I can't rightly say anyone stands out, either.  The acting is pretty much passing grade here, though to be fair, much of that's largely a product of being only as good as the script allows you to be.  Doubly so in a setting like this, where much of the characters do have a sort of oddity to them that's a result of that 'second hand narration' and perspective of the narrator that was around even in the first movie.  For as much as I bust on his eerily 'trapped in pre-pubescence' appearance, Braeden Lemasters makes a decent effort of playing teenage Ralphie.  He's likable enough, if not really a strong character...but, again, that's not entirely his fault.  Likewise, as his friends, Schwartz and Flick, David Buehrle and David W. Thompson are passable with potential for doing OK comic work in the future, but likewise, this script just wasn't the one to do it for them.  The only performance I can really say actually made any sort of impact on me was Stern again as The Old Man, as even after that "Why are you doing this to yourself?" feeling passed, I was struck by just how much of his role was over the top false cursing and grumbling.  For as odd as The Old Man always was, Stern's take comes across as less grumpily paternal and more out-and-out crotchety for much of the film, only relenting some in the last act when the writers start working in some sentiment with the above mentioned 'growing up' theme.  In particular, his better moments are largely from his scenes playing off of Stacey Travis as the Mother.  He gets to turn down the crotchety side of things for a bit and just act a bit more.  The scenes are kind of refreshing after how much of his role in this is yelling.

In terms of direction, the film does at least try to feel a bit less married to the original format to degrees.  Largely because the subplots for the other members of the family feel more prominently placed this time around, in particular where Ralphie's parents are concerned.  It does provide some minor respite from the eery 'pod person' feel the movie has going throughout, but not enough to really shake the feeling off, sadly.

You may think I'm about to imply Ralphie's here due to his involvement in this film.  Actually, no.  This movie would at worst amount to a slap on the wrist.  My take on the jail time has more to do with the images attached below.

The more I try to find ways to really get into this film, the harder it becomes for me to do so.  For as much as I've written on it so far, it all really comes to the same problem - it's just not a film with a lot to it.  It's an ultimately pretty forgettable affair that they decided to tie into a sleeper hit-turned-holiday classic.  It's not even painfully awful like I was expecting (and after a time, even hoping, I hate to admit) it's simply just there.  The acting is passable, the direction is...well...let's put it this way, Brian Levant's previous coups where Jingle All the Way and Beethoven.  It's par for the course, but not really jaw-dropping.  Likewise, Maudlin's script is passable, but ultimately feels like, with a few modifications, it could have been its own movie without having to ride the coattails or leftover humor (seriously, you can cut out most of the callback jokes and lose nothing) of the original ACS in the process.  If anything, it might have inspired Maudlin to show a little more creativity here.

Sadly, the finished film remains a pretty clear 'in one ear' out the other.  My initial "Oh HELL no!" rage at the trailers now feels rather wasted considering the finished product.  It's a strangely empty sort of disappointment.  Still a punishment, just not the one I was expecting.

So, apparently my opening was a bit of hyperbole.  I expected this to be a lump of coal, and instead I got the cinematic equivalent of getting socks for Christmas.

...actually, that's not true.  I'd use the socks again after this.

Well, that covers our first holiday offering.  As promised, the next few will be better.

But first, keep with us cause this Friday we send off the final week of Apocalypse Wow!  After which we can look forward to the wasteland of the future, in which...nothing will happen!

...well, it's something at least.

In closing, permit me one last moment to scar your psyches with these - this movie's follow-up to the embarrassing rabbit costume from relatives in the first movie.

Now THIS is what I figure that above shot of Ralphie in jail would actually be for.
  To anyone who feels that disturbed by this, I'd be happy to recommend a therapist.
EDIT: ...and THIS is how I end my 50th post at The Third Row.  I can honestly say I've got nothing to say to that one...

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