Arthur Christmas

I don’t particularly like “Christmas Movies” unless they are able to adequately set themselves apart from the hoards of films that pollute this odd sub-genre. I don’t necessarily hate Christmas movies, some I actually love, but the overwhelming majority, particularly in the last 10-20 years can simply be clumped together in my memory as one big blob of movie lore that continues to accumulate mass year after year. For this reason I had low expectations for Arthur Christmas. Perhaps these low expectations aided in my enjoyment of the movie, but more I think it was due to a superb voice cast, a fun an interesting story, relatable characters that mixed well with the normally dismal attempt at cinematic holiday humor.

We’re introduced to our reluctant hero in the introduction of the Movie. Arthur, Santa’s younger son, works in the letter writing department of the North Pole. He reads and responds all day every day to children that write letters to his father. Decked from head to foot in novelty Christmas apparel, it becomes extremely apparent that Arthur loves his job, he displays enthusiasm and dedication to a job that almost anyone else would find abysmal. Despite being surrounded by Christmas themed everything all year round, he maintains a childlike sense of wonder, something that most of his family has lost after years of perfecting the “business” of delivering presents with militaristic precision. The story follows Arthur and his quest to get a present that was missed to a little girl before sunrise.

The relationship between the members of the “Claus” family are plagued by emotions and complications shared by most of the world. So, while they’re an extraordinary family, they are a group of people that we, as the audience, can easily relate to. Relatable characters in Christmas movies has become increasingly rare as exaggerated antics and cliches of the Christmas season are often overused. Santa is an aging man on the cusp of retirement, too afraid to let go of a career that has defined him. In his refusal to step down his older son Steve becomes increasingly frustrated that he can not take the position of “Santa” yet, a fact that is fueled due to his hard work and revolutionizing of the Christmas delivery system. The Grandfather figure is an old, withered rendition of his Santa, he lives in the past and talks about his days relying on reindeer and an ancient sleigh to deliver presents instead of the new spaceship like method of transportation. Then there is Arthur, selfless and joyful, always excited and optimistic in increasingly pessimistic circumstances. Three generations of the Santa Claus family all with their unique struggles.

The film is genuinely heart warming. All the characters wrestle with selfishness and are forced to face obstacles ranging from annoying to life threatening. The humor is fresh and funny and the animation works perfectly with the story. Having expected much less, I was pleasantly surprised that I found this to be one of the most enjoyable Christmas movies in recent memory.

TrollHunter

TrollHunter is a Norwegian dark fantasy that uses the shaky camera method to tell a faux documentary about a man that works for the government to keep the troll population in check, namely stopping them from harming or being viewed by the public. A small group of college students track down the man, who they believe to be a bear poacher, wishing to expose his crimes on camera. They, naturally, get much more than they bargain for when they find out his real profession. The man agrees to let them tag along.  he is weary of his job and the of the fact that he has had to bear the secrets of his profession so long.

Like Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, TrollHunter takes a pretty absurd premise and approaches it with a serious face. The documentary style filming works to the advantage, special effects are used sparingly. Plenty is left to our imagination, a far more powerful tool than anything special effects has produced. Though effects are used little in comparison to other monster movies, we’re still given a satisfactory number of views of the titular beasts, albeit often times a little blurry. The movie is just as much a drama as it is a suspense or action film. Hans, the man that hunts the trolls, is a very interesting character. He’s essentially a mix between a secret agent and a park ranger. The incredible premise of hunting trolls appears to him a mundane task that he approaches with a high level of routine and habit. His troubles are only increased when he allows the students to follow him, which permeates the film with even more drama and plenty of room for character flaws and errors that put the whole group in danger.

The sparring use of special effects gives more room for story and character development, focusing on the film as a whole rather than the shiny polished look of a blockbuster. However, the film, despite it’s often gritty appearance, is excellently constructed, it’s scary when it should be and funny when it intends to be. the premise and title are certainly worth a chuckle, but the film on its own merits is powerful enough to draw you in and hold your attention for it’s entire run time.

The movie gets a little confusing at points, but not to the point of frustration. Rather the confusion ads to the larger than life premise, troll hunting, despite Hans efforts, is not an exact science that the audience should hope to grasp while watching it. Too often I tend to feel the need to fully understand the mechanics of the world in which a movie places itself, however if the characters aren’t even 100 percent sure, why should I be? TrollHunter throws both the characters and the viewers in the middle of something that has been going on for a very long time, it gives us plenty of information, but leaves us guessing and interested in a profession that would be simultaneously awesome and terrifying; a Troll Hunter

It’s November which means it’s Christmas. “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale”

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Santa Claus is not the jolly “Coca-Cola” picture of kindness that we’ve come to know and love. Rather, he is a monster that catches and dismembers naughty children. Based on the Short film Rare Exports Inc. This film follows a group of men that are pitted head to head against Santa Clause and his army. While the premise sounds like the perfect recipe for a Mystery Science Theater episode, what we’re treated to instead is a well crafted fantasy tale that takes itself seriously both in storytelling and film crafting. It would have been easy to take this premise and crank out a no holds barred goofy horror movie based on the holidays. However, this movie is more akin to Jurassic Park  or Gremlins.

We’re introduced to a small community in a snow covered wilderness that makes their living by hunting reindeer. Their livelihood is threatened when they find that all the reindeer in the area have been mysteriously killed. This event happens simultaneously with the unearthing of a massive burial tomb unearthed within their region. The only person that recognizes the signs of what is happening is a young boy. The boy is absolutely terrified of Santa Claus, going so far as to ask his father to spank him with a switch because he’s been bad. What he has learned from his research is that the true Santa Claus lives for punishing bad children. The story seems to combine the characters of St. Nicholas and Krampus. Krampus being an “old world” demon with a goat like appearance who, in legends, accompanied St. Nicholas and punished the bad children.

It’s such a campy premise that you can’t help but expect this movie to be a joke filled romp with plenty of over-the-top violence to accompany it’s R rating. But this is just as much adventure as it is horror. We’re given time to get to know the characters and their lifestyle, the cinematography is very good and the whole atmosphere gave the film a Spielberg-like sense of wonder similar to E.T. or Super8 The pacing of this movie was a little slow for what I was expecting, but not to the point of it being unbearable by any means.

Not since Trollhunter have I seen a movie take such a ridiculous premise and make so much of it. The film doesn’t openly joke about the fact that Santa Claus is the villain, it embraces it wholeheartedly and the characters are forced to play by those rules with dead seriousness. This includes some tongue in cheek humor but mostly it’s just a fun dark fantasy movie that has very few other films to compare to itself.

Millennium Actress

Art and life have always imitated each other. With the rise of film this fact has become more evident than at any other point in history. People want their lives to play out like movies while film makers strive to make their movies feel more like real life. It’s a tantalizing dichotomy that will go on until humanity has ended. In Millennium Actress we are told the story of a famous actress who, in her old age, agrees to be interviewed by a documentary film maker. She tells the story of her life. What could have become a rather dry fictional dramatic film, becomes something entirely different when each scene that she describes unfolds onscreen through the various genres she has worked in. The story though simple, is sweet, enduring and very human. Although the story is simple, the way it’s portrayed is complex and often times confusing, in the same way that life is.

We are introduced to Chiyoko Fujiwara in the opening scenes of the movie through segments of the films she has been in. Two men prepare for a meeting with one of Japan’s greatest film stars, whose career has lasted 70 years. What starts as a simple enough interview, develops quickly into something very unusual. Chiyoko starts by talking about her birth and childhood, then changes gear into her career as an actress. The remainder of the film becomes one elaborate pursuit. As a teenager she briefly met a wounded young man that she aided in escaping from the authorities. In an attempt to follow him, she agrees to a star in a movie being filmed where she believes him to be. Her rise to stardom is paralleled by her constant search for the man she loves. Her pursuit is shown through a patchwork of scenes crossing nearly every genre of film.

What could have easily become a cheap novelty becomes one of the strongest aspects of this movie. Flawlessly the scenes between movies are switched crossing genres and timelines all while maintaining the continuity of Chiyokos life story. The scenes fit perfectly. Too perfectly. The movie, obviously, is not made up of actual film footage from different movies, so it doesn’t have to play by those rules. If one were to be too nit-picky, you might say that everyone of her films over a 70 year period all had the same story; which would be true in a sense. In this movie art and life don’t just imitate each other, they are the same thing. Despite the fact that the movie is animated, we’re treated to a very high level of dramatic respect, we can relate to the characters, the losses, the emotions, the fears, the love; this is a human being, not just a beautifully animated character.

Satoshi Kon Directed and animated Millennium Actress and is therefore responsible for not only a beautiful cartoon, but an eclectic but cohesive film that stands as one of the most unique creations in the industry (though not nearly as confusing or unique as his later film Paprika which was on a whole other level). This movie can certainly be confusing sometimes, especially if you have a hard time following a single story over multiple times and genres; most of which are allegories for the actual story. Regardless, it’s a fantastic film that’s very ambitious.

Dragon Wars: D-War

I finally got around to seeing Dragon Wars: D-War, the South Korean film made with an entirely North American cast. I hate the term “so bad it’s good” because so often films that try to fit into this title are just bad. However, in rare instances the title fits the film. This is just such an occasion. This move is, for all intents and purposes, a South Korean movie. Shim Hyung-rae directed this film based on a Korean legend about dragons. basically this guy named Ethan is chosen to protect the Yeouiju (A woman named Sarah who bears a birthmark that looks exactly like a dragon tattoo) just long enough to deliver her to the “good dragon” the Imoogi. before the evil dragon gets to her. Naturally (as was the case in their past lives) Sarah and Ethan fall in love.

This movie has some of the most unintentionally hilarious situations and dialogue I have ever seen in a movie. I don’t even want to describe some of the lines because I wouldn’t do it justice. However, I will tell you about my favorite scene. At one point a zoo keeper is making the rounds at night. He hears a commotion coming from the elephants habitat and is almost crushed when one flies through the air and lands, badly wounded, right next to him. Basically, these dragons are giant, building sized snakes, they reduce elephants to the size of feeder mice. The reaction of the zoo keeper, and the awkward way he must maneuver around the “dying elephant” prop had me rolling. Another highlight was when all the FBI agents started leaving their cubicles to go out and find the dragon, and as one guy exits he whips a shotgun out of nowhere and loads it. Seriously, it’s a lot funnier when you see it.

The dialogue is…not stale, but feels like something was lost in translation. I have this theory about movies foreign films. I feel like I could watch a movie and think it was terrific, all while missing some major flaws that I chalk up to cultural differences and language barrier. This movie takes place in LA using an (almost) all English speaking cast, which makes this whole ordeal somewhat surreal by seeing some of these cultural differences seep through. Ethan looks like a GQ model, and dresses accordingly despite it’s inconvenience to the situation (seriously, he wears a sports coat, All. The. Time.) He also wears a medallion the size of a small dinner plate around his neck that no one seems to notice or address. It is tacky, but the actors are dedicated to a scripts that just feels unnatural.

As of 2007 this was the highest budget movie to ever come out of South Korea. I can’t help but assume that almost their entire 70 million dollar budget went to special effects. The dragons are awesome looking, despite the difficulty in distinguishing the “good dragon” from “the bad dragon” it’s fast paced and isn’t stingy on the eye candy, something that other “so bad they’re good” movies tends to do (I’m looking at you Shaks in Venice)

It’s short and ridiculous, well worth at least one watch. I mean, did you SEE the poster? If nothing else, watch it to see the strange way that this “Foreign Film” uses American actors and settings to tell it’s story. Also, it has fat lizards with rocket launchers on their backs.