Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Third Row's 'It's Not Late Cause It's Orthodox' Christmas Special

Before we start with the promised reviews for this entry, it's time for a bit of trivia.

On January 6th, in Ireland, this day is known as Little Christmas, or, as it's known in other parts of the world Epiphany.  This day, particularly big with the Orthodox Greeks, marks the baptism of a young, and at that point on a fugitive, Jesus.
This is also where the so named 12 Days of Christmas come from

Why am I telling you this?

So I can pre-emptively shut up any claims that these holiday reviews are late.  We're still within the time window now, so I'll have to ask that you guys bear with me on the 'Deleted Scenes' entry.  It's coming, but I've been looking forward to these.

Now then, after the sheer 'why do you exist?' experience that summed up A Christmas Story 2, I felt like it would be nice to actually find some good holiday films.  Additionally, trying to find something beyond the traditional titles for this.

In seeking some variety, it made sense to try and look at how the holiday is handled in other countries.  The results I went with provide us with a nice range of heartwarming to a bit of the pants-crappingly insane.

...and what better way to start us off than with the insanity?

One of my goals I may never get to see happen - should I become a parent in the near future, I will hire Peeter Jakobi to be Santa for my kids.  They'll probably never forgive me for it, but it'll be SO worth it

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Santa of the most talked about and depicted characters in the holiday's tradition, and one who's been featured a great many ways.  With this regard it was only a matter of time before someone brought back the image of Old St. Nick as being less of a jolly gift-giver, and more an old world kneebreaker of the naughty (granted, in many cases that role is reserved for the Krampus.)  This older view of him is part of what makes up the first of the two entries on this list - a 2010 film from Finland that explores Europe's rather more colorful history of the bearded old man.  Based on a pair of short films, both of which are pretty damned entertaining in their own right, this movie is the expansion of director Jalmari Helander's idea of Santa as a force not to be taken lightly, and the film makes that clear fairly early on by outlining some of the older mythology about the character.  The version of the character most commonly known is referred to in the film by young lead Pietari (Onni Tommila) as "a hoax by the Coca Cola company."  He is understandably more freaked out by the older version and the film makes a good go of helping us see exactly why.

The story itself actually has two separate plotlines going that intersect as the movie goes on - the first of these is the one in which Tommila's Pietari is a major character, along with his father Rauno (played by his real life father Jorma) as a family of reindeer farmers.  The other storyline, which provides the events that disrupts their lives involving a team excavating in the mountains.  With their digging, reindeer start turning up dead, children vanish, and thefts arise.  All of these draw to one thing - the uncovering of the real Santa Claus.  The one other film I actually feel like I can compare this to in a way is Joe Dante's Gremlins.  It's a rather curious mix of comedy and horror all themed around the Christmas, while actually managing to do both well.  Actually, I'd argue this one does the horror better by comparison.  Creepy as the gremlins are (in that family friendly way,) Santa's 'elves' in this case (the beings we actually get the white-bearded old man from) are arguably much more disturbing to watch.  Peeter Jakobi, as one of these, is astonishingly nightmarish in the role in the best sense of the word.  Alongside these horror elements, the first subplot involving Pietari and his father still manages to work in the kinder side of the holidays as well.  As the misfortunes arise and Pietari suspects something is up, he is at first unsuccessful in convincing Rauno.  This leads to several moments of strain between the two, but moments where the decision to use a real life father and son pay off.  For all the friction, the movie still manages to convey a good sense of a family, and it's that nice extra bit of heart that helps make this horror-comedy have some extra stay power.

While it differs considerably from the shorts that inspired it in its approach (the originals being a sort of documentary/safety video,) this still keeps to the spirit that the concept started with.  As a warped black comedy for the holidays, this is one I hope becomes more prominent in the next few years to come.

...and with that as our first encounter with Santa, it's probably for the best he doesn't turn up in this movie as well, since this is a tough act for any other St. Nick to top.

This time around we cross over the Eurasian landmass for our next look at the holiday.  Come to think of it, we're also in for some considerable tone shift here as well, though that's certainly not a bad thing.

Maybe this is just my 'horrible person' side of me talking, but out of context, this scene looks like it'd be a great cover image for a brochure on teenage pregnancy.

Tokyo Godfathers

On paper, there's still something that feels odd about realizing the late Satoshi Kon put together a surprisingly heartwarming holiday film.  Not because I think he's a bad director, far from that, but more just because it's a bit odd considering the darker, more psychological nature of many of his other films.  So it was rather surprising to see this project from him, itself loosely based on the John Ford movie 3 Godfathers.  While keeping the core idea, three homeless people finding a child and then trying to get the child back to their parent, Kon still transports it to a different setting and cast making for a shared concept but an ultimately different story all around.  For his version, Kon transports the narrative to modern day Japan around Christmas time.  Of course, Kon also keeps that changed setting in mind with how his cast are handled - while there are a number of light bits of comedy, there are also a few rather frank scenes that show he pulls no punches about how the homeless can be treated in Japan.

While playing in elements beyond what he's traditionally known for, this movie definitely has a lot of the hallmarks of Kon's writing and direction all the same.  In particular with how he handles his three leads - in this case, an alcoholic ex-cyclist, a drag queen, and a teenage runaway.  Granted, this isn't just through Kon's script that these three are so developed - the strong voice work by the three leads (Toru Emori, Yoshiyaki Umegaki, and Aya Okamoto respectively) all give a lot of strong personality to their characters that really adds to how fleshed out they feel.  In particular, their interactions with one another - one of those areas where the Japanese practice of having the cast all record their lines together paying off - all flow very well together.  Whether it's moments like Gin and Miyuki (the alcoholic and the runaway) getting into any number of their arguments, or the two of them trying to reign in Hana's (the drag queen) getting carried away by emotion, the three have a very good chemistry together.  This is further added to by the very fluid animation that's become such a staple of Kon's work - here, barring some of the wonderfully mind-bending sequences of some of his other films, he makes up for it with the various little ways these characters all move and interact.  It's one of those movies that reminds one why Kon was so well revered among directors of Japanese animation.

The story itself, alongside the three leads it rests on, is also still a fascinating tale for Kon.  In this case, the big lynchpin that much of the story turns on is the idea of the small ways things can effect one another.  The three leads' search to find the parents of baby Kiyoko leads them on a series of unusual events through Christmas-time Japan ranging anywhere from a mob wedding, to the home of a Latin-American hitman, and one rather heartbreaking encounter involving an aged and dying homeless man.  The impressive part being these coincidences, while a bit wild at times, all still manage to feel probable within the narrative.  The end result of all these adventures is a warm, quite lively retake on a classic storyline, delivered with a mix of heartwarming and sometimes rather sad moments.

Wait a second...ending one of these on a warm, fuzzy note?  How did that happen? Ah well...first time for everything, really.

Don't worry, we'll fix that with the next entry...which, by the way, legal informs me the nudity claim I made may not be doable.  Sorry folks.

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