‘The Polar Express’ Deserves More Respect Than Most Christmas Movies Get

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The Polar Express” was directed by Steven Spielberg’s protégée Robert Zemeckis, and it is based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg which Tom Hanks was a big fan of when he was kid. It involves a boy who is selected along with many other kids to take a train ride to the North Pole and visit Santa Claus and see his intricate operation of present giving. This voyage will have this boy meeting other kids on their way as well as many other characters, most of who are played by Hanks.

That’s right, Hanks plays six different parts in “The Polar Express,” and it has me wondering if this was done to save money on what must have been a very expensive production. Among the parts he plays includes a hobo who may not actually be real, Scrooge, and Santa Claus himself. But the most prominent role he plays in this movie is the Conductor of the Polar Express itself. He’s a man who is constantly running the train on what he says is a “tight schedule,” and he cannot help but be occasionally convinced one of these kids is determined to keep the train from reaching its final destination. He also has this wonderful talent for punching out your tickets to form certain words in them. I mean really! He does it so fast! How does he do it?

The big thing about “The Polar Express” is it is an animated movie by the way of motion capture. This has become a popular way of making movies in an animated fashion as actors where these suits and have these tiny white balls glued to their face and bodies. With the help of computers, which at this point we cannot live without, they can be captured on film and manipulated to look like they are in a place too expensive to build as a set. It is remarkable stuff however, and it could serve as further proof of how actors will never be replaced by technology because we need them to make the technology work effectively. I cannot begin to tell you how relieved this makes me feel.

I was surprised at how much I liked “The Polar Express.” It’s not a perfect movie, but it does have a heart and emotions which are far more genuine than other Christmas movies. It is also exciting as we see the train and its main characters struggle to stay on board as it goes through many treacherous parts in a journey to one of the coldest places on the planet. Seeing it in 3D is a major plus as well because the effects seem so real to where the kids in the audience were literally trying to grasp at the snowflakes falling from the screen. Heck, I even found myself doing this a couple of times.

This is the one thing I want to mention; the audience was full of kids there with their families, and this initially was a problem for me. I saw “Cars” at the El Capitan in Los Angeles when it was released, and it was full of parents completely incapable of keeping their kids quiet throughout the entire movie. Here I am trying to watch one of the weaker movies from the Pixar catalogue, and there’s a little boy right in front of me who cannot get himself to sit down and kept asking his mother for more candy. If you can’t shut your kids up, don’t take them to the movies! Stay at home and watch “Finding Nemo” on DVD. My niece has already seen it hundreds of times to where her parents can recite every line (not that they want to).

But at the same time, seeing these kids get totally sucked into the magic of the movie with the 3D technology was really special. Hearing them talk back to the screen, especially my niece, brought a smile to my face as they got completely caught up in the journey “The Polar Express” took them on. This is the kind of movie you want your kids to see. When it first came out, many found the technology disturbing and scary, but that’s really ridiculous. While it doesn’t look like typical animated movies they loved from their past, it does aim to continue to preserve the innocence none of us are quick to lose.

If there is anything which takes away from the experience of watching “The Polar Express,” it’s the lame ass Glen Ballard song some of the characters sing in one scene which you hear again during the end credits. I am sick and tired of crappy love songs sung and written by white guys. They reek of lameness, and this movie is not even a musical!

Don’t worry about parents telling you about how creepy it is. This one is fine for the whole family. Those who disagree have long since lost the mindset of a child, and that’s just tragic.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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A Merry Friggin’ Christmas

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The worst Christmas memories we have tend to become the funniest and most memorable moments of our lives, and I went into “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” thinking it would reflect this fact. With a cast which includes such tremendously talented actors like Joel McHale, Lauren Graham, Candice Bergen, Clark Duke and Robin Williams, in what sadly turned out to be one of his last roles before his tragic death, this seemed to be a surefire winner and quite possibly one of the most subversive Christmas comedies ever, right?

Nope, no such luck. “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” turns out to be a tremendous disappointment as it strands its wonderful cast in a far too typical Christmas movie with very little in the way of laughs. In fact, I never got much in the way of gut-busting laughs like I hoped I would. When actors like these can’t make this holiday comedy rise above its formulaic conventions, you know something is seriously wrong in the state of Denmark.

McHale stars as Boyd Mitchler, and the movie starts with him as a boy hiding under the Christmas tree waiting for Santa Claus to appear. But instead of Santa Claus, Boyd is greeted by his drunken father Mitch (Robin Williams) who quickly tells him that, like the Easter Bunny, Santa doesn’t exist. Move to a number of years later, and Boyd is now happily married to Luann (Lauren Graham) and the father of two adorable children. Unlike his father, Boyd is determined to keep the magic of Christmas going for his kids as long as he can before the reality of the cruel world they live in forever robs them of it.

It’s interesting how Boyd’s daughter already knows Santa doesn’t exist as kids these days are getting increasingly harder to trick or fool. Still, Boyd is determined to keep his son Douglas (Pierce Gagnon from “Looper”) believing the jolly fat man from the North Pole is real even if he has to fly at 20,000 mph in order to deliver all those presents in a timely fashion. Of course, with climate change melting away much of the ice on this planet, Santa will most likely be living in a submarine at this point.

But then Boyd gets word from his brother Nelson (Clark Duke) that his baby is going to be baptized on Christmas Eve, and this means the whole Mitchler family is going to be reunited under one roof for the first time in years. We all know what happens when such a dysfunctional family gets together; tempers flare and old resentments quickly rise to the surface. Clearly, things are going to get worse before they can finally get better, and it doesn’t take a genius to see how predictable this “comedy” is going to end up being.

What’s even more unsurprising is how we see early on that Boyd is going to completely forget to bring Douglas’ presents along with him, and this results in him going on an 8-hour round trip to get them and preserve his son’s belief in Christmas. Coming along with Boyd on this ride is father who uses his truck which has a couple of portable toilets stowed in the back. Will one of them fall off the truck and create a disgusting mess? Does a bear shit in the woods?

Holiday movies are a dime a dozen, and I’m always waiting for one which messes around with the formula to give us something different. “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” had the potential to be such a movie, but it ends up falling apart as soon as it starts. The performances and the comedy are played much too broadly, and everything comes off as uninspired. It’s such a shame because you have an actor like Graham, who starred in one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made, “Bad Santa,” and even she can’t save this movie with her priceless expressions (and they really are priceless).

“A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” has taken on a special meaning in light of Williams’ tragic death, and it’s sad his career had to end with a movie like this one. Having said that, he does have some moments where he doesn’t say a word but his face speaks volumes about what Mitch is feeling and going through in his head. He makes you feel Mitch’s pain when he discovers he has been photo-shopped out of a family photo, and while his character is mostly a one-dimensional jerk, Williams gives him a depth many other actors would not have been able to achieve. It’s a shame his talents ended up being wasted on such a half-baked screenplay.

For me, there are few things worse than a comedy that doesn’t make you laugh, and “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” sadly turns out to be one of them. Those looking for the perfect Christmas movie for the whole family will be better off renting “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Love Actually” or “Bad Santa.” This one is not going to keep you entertained.

* out of * * * *

Movies My Parents Wanted Me To See: Love Actually

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Around Christmas, most families watch “A Christmas Carol” as an annual holiday tradition. Others watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” which I still haven’t seen (don’t ask me why). For my family, their annual tradition is not “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” but a British romantic comedy called “Love Actually.” I myself prefer “Bad Santa” with Billy Bob Thornton, but I’m in the minority of those in my family who want to see it at Christmas time. Now when it comes to romantic comedies, I usually can’t stand them because they all look the same. But my parents kept begging me to watch it just like they did with “The Big Lebowski,” so I gave in and sat on one of those comfy leather chairs they have. It took me no time to be won over by what was shown onscreen, and it got off to a perfect start with Hugh Grant’s character of Prime Minister David saying:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion is starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywThere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board weren’t messages of hate or revenge, they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”

Now whereas your average romantic comedy focuses on one relationship which goes from its wonderful beginning to its horrific breakup only for those same two people getting back together again, “Love Actually” instead focuses on relationships between eight couples. So basically, we get to view love in all its various stages from where it is just starting for some, become uncertain for others, remains unrequited for the unlucky few, and young love which is typically fret with wonder and the first of many heartaches. You have no clear idea where the movie is going, and this is what makes it so good. You become so enamored of these characters and what they go through, and you feel all the various emotions they are forced to deal with.

“Love Actually” was directed by Richard Curtis who brought to the screen one of the all-time great romantic comedies with “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Like that one, he keeps a sweet and mostly innocent tone which never becomes overly manipulative as it does in American movies. Plus, he gets nothing but genuine emotions from the actors, and this is a big help to say the least. With a cast as great as this, you can always expect them to make their characters appear as real as they can be.

In describing the various stories, I think it’ll be easier to talk about my favorite moments from the film. One which comes immediately to mind is the story of Juliet (Keira Knightley) who has just married Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whose best man Mark (Andrew Lincoln) videotapes their wedding. There’s one problem, all the footage Mark gets is of her. Watching Keira pick up on this and realize what it means is powerful, and Mark’s reaction to her is perfectly complemented by Dido’s “Here with Me.” Hence the pain of unrequited love comes up again, dammit.

Then you have Alan Rickman, so sublime in every role he plays, as Harry who works as a managing director of a design agency whose secretary Mia is not so subtly hitting on him. However, he is happily married, or so it seems, to Karen (Emma Thompson). Karen’s reaction to the present she didn’t expect to get is a painful one to witness. Thompson, dare we ever forget, is still an amazing actress who can move you without using words. The things people can tell about others without having to spell it out represents how good the screenplay is.

The hardest actor to watch in “Love Actually,” however, is Liam Neeson as we see his character trying to move on after the sudden death of his wife. You can’t help but think of what happened to his real-life wife Natasha Richardson when Neeson delivers a touching eulogy here to his movie wife. But getting past that, it’s fun to watch the wonderful relationship he has with his stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster) as he convinces him to chase after the girl he pines for. This might seem foolish in hindsight because we don’t want to see our kids get their hearts shattered at such a young age, but it doesn’t make sense to bottle up your feelings forever, does it?

Now while this movie has a wealth of fantastic British actors like any “Harry Potter” movie, a few Americans do find their way into the mix. The most prominent one is the always fantastic Laura Linney who portrays Sarah, a woman tending to her mentally ill brother Michael while harboring an insatiable crush on the devastatingly handsome Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). For such a well-trained stage actress, Linney has such emotionally honest moments which she handles with such delicate subtlety. Seriously, it gets to where you don’t even realize she is acting.

As for Grant, you can always count on him to bring the befuddled nervousness from “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and perform it to sheer comic perfection in a movie like this. I also loved the scene in which he puts the American President (Billy Bob Thornton) back in his place. You’d figure he would be stumbling about, but he plays the Prime Minister after all, and this is a Prime Minister who is not looking for a Bush/Blair relationship. Also, seeing him go door to door looking for the girl who strikes his fancy leads to a comic highpoint where he is forced to sing carols for young kids, and they react as if they were at a Justin Bieber concert.

But the one actor who steals the show in “Love Actually” is the hilarious Bill Nighy who plays the aging rock and roll legend Billy Mack. He is a gift for those who do not want their Christmas movie characters to be overly, if at all, sentimental. The contempt Billy has for himself as he promotes his “festering turd of a record” is somewhat softened by his inescapable sense of humor even when he blatantly acts inappropriately:

“Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them to you for free!”

Colin Firth’s performance as broken-hearted writer Jamie Bennett serves as a reminder of why women still swoon over him ever since he was in “Pride & Prejudice.” Watching him as he professes his love for his housemaid Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz) shows how disarmingly polite he can even while he is clearly scared to death. It’s all funny and touching at the same time. It’s also fun watching him trying to master the Portuguese language which he has the same amount of luck with as Lieutenant Uhura had trying to speak Klingon in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.”

There are several other cute stories in “Love Actually” worth taking in like the budding relationship which builds up between John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page). It’s great seeing John talk about how nice it is to have someone to chat with while he and Judy are working buck naked as stand-ins for a sex scene in a movie. It gives new meaning to the term “skip the foreplay.”

Granted, some stories in “Love Actually” get shorter shrift than others, but everything seems to balance out just right. Movies these days tend to be better when they are condensed in structure, but the mix of stories on display here serves to show how powerful love can be to lift us up and tear us down in a heartbeat. I’m so glad this romantic comedy is anything but conventional. There are so many of them out there, several of them starring Katherine Heigel, that it drives me up the wall.

I do have to mention something in particular about the film; when we watch all the characters meeting up at the airport, it is interspersed with images of people meeting their family and loved ones at Heathrow Airport, so happy to see each other. It blends perfectly into the movie and makes you realize just how true to the heart “Love Actually” is in what it portrays. Having written this, I now understand and appreciate why my parents have made watching this movie an annual Christmas tradition.

I still like “Bad Santa” better though…

* * * * out of * * * *

Jeremiah S. Chechik Looks Back at Making ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’

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Jeremiah S. Chechik was the special guest at Arclight Studios in Hollywood a few years ago when they hosted a screening of his directorial debut, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” The third and most beloved in the “Vacation” franchise has long since become a holiday classic, and it is the Christmas film many families watch during the holiday season instead of “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” After the movie was over and the end credits were all done, Chechik came up quickly to the front of the audience before anyone could introduce him and said, ”I haven’t seen it since the day it opened!”

The screenplay was written by the late John Hughes and was inspired by an article Hughes wrote for the National Lampoon called “Christmas ’59.” Chechik tipped his hand to Hughes’ wonderful writing and went on to say it was originally written as a stand-alone movie. Warner Brothers, however, read it and immediately wanted to integrate it into the “Vacation” franchise.

When asked how he got the job to direct, Chechik explained he was directing what he called “high profile” commercials back in a time when it was unusual to go from doing commercials to directing feature films. His work eventually got him discovered by Steven Spielberg who ended up giving him an office at Amblin Entertainment. This brought a lot of awareness to his visual style, and both Chase and Hughes soon became adamant he be the next one to direct the next “Vacation” movie.

With this being his first film, Chechik said he was determined not to back down on actors who wanted to exert their power over him. While it’s tempting to think he and Chase didn’t get along as Chase’s reputation for being hard to work will never disappear, Chechik said they actually had a great working relationship on set. This came after he admitted to not being a big fan of Chase’s comedy as he described it as being “very broad.” Chechik described Chase as having a very strong point of view, a very clear intention of what the movie is about, and they worked together to find things which worked.

Chechik, however, did say he and Beverly D’Angelo had many arguments, some of which he described as being “very heated,” on set. Still, he said all the bad blood between them is now water under the bridge.

“Christmas Vacation’s” budget was $27 million, and its shooting schedule lasted for 60 days. Much of the movie was shot in Breckinridge, Colorado while other scenes were shot the following summer at Warner Brothers in Burbank, California. Chechik was happy to say Hughes had his back throughout the whole production. When the movie went through previews, the studio heads pressured him to cut the scene where the cat got electrocuted. Chechik claimed he resisted the pressure and kept it in because he thought it was funny (and it was) and that he was more of a dog person anyway. The test audiences also loved the scene, and the studio heads didn’t bother keeping the moment out of the movie’s trailer.

Chechik said “Christmas Vacation” worked so well because we truly cared about Clark Griswold and what he went through. The mood of certain scenes was very important to him, especially the one with Chase in the attic where he watched home movies of past Christmases with tears filling his eyes. Looking at this made Chechik point out the way comedy should be done in movies:

“Funny beats funny,” he said. “If everyone thought the set pieces were funny but they didn’t care about the main character, then the movie won’t work.”

With the squirrel scene, he said a trained squirrel was brought onto the set and there was also a trainer there for the dog featured in it as well. Chechik said the filmmakers “storyboarded the hell out of it” and were eager to start filming it, but when he arrived on set that day he was confronted with the grim faces of the trainers and line producers. After shuffling around for a bit, they informed him the squirrel had died. The squirrel trainer went on to say they don’t live for very long anyway as if that could have possibly softened the blow.

So, they went out and got another squirrel for the scene which they ended up drawing out onto the set with food. From this, Jeremiah said he learned how to roll with things and to use improvisation. About every scene in “Christmas Vacation” had a certain amount of improvisation in it, he pointed out.

As for the most difficult scene to shoot, Chechik said it was the dinner table scene where the whole family begins their Christmas Eve celebration. He did not hesitate in telling everyone having 9 to 11 actors in a scene is a really bad idea. The blocking proved to be very complicated, and it became such a nightmare for him as it took days and days for him to get the scene right.

Here are some other “Christmas Vacation” trivia Chechik let us know about:

  • In the scene with the two granddads snoring in front of the television, the actors playing those roles really were fast asleep.
  • Mae Questal, who played Aunt Bethany, was the voice of Betty Boop.
  • Chevy’s angry rant on his boss was done exactly as it was written by Hughes.

It was really nice of Chechik to come out and talk with us about “Christmas Vacation,” a movie he succeeded in making a timeless classic and, as he put it, “very postcardy.” When asked why he hasn’t seen the film since it first came out, he said he just wanted to let it go and let it live. It certainly has had a long life since 1989, and the series continued on with “Vegas Vacation” and “Vacation” which starred Ed Helms and Christina Applegate. In response to one audience member who said his family watches it every year, Chechik replied, “I like your family!”

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Bad Santa 2

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Bad Santa 2” is the kind of sequel I thought it would be; one which repeats the story of the original. Granted, many sequels are like this, and some get away with it like “Beverly Hills Cop II,” “The Hangover Part II” and John Carpenter’s “Escape from L.A.” Clearly, this is a movie made for fans of 2003 original which has long since become a holiday and cult classic, and this sequel does contain a number of gut-busting laughs as the world’s worst mall Santa Claus ever, Willie Soke, gets himself involved in another heist. But in its second half, “Bad Santa 2” loses much of the energy it built up and begins to run on fumes as scenes quickly remind us of the original and how great it was.

It’s been 13 years since “Bad Santa” was unleashed in theaters everywhere, and the holdup was the result of Miramax being sold among other things. Billy Bob Thornton was eager to get a sequel off the ground, but because of various rights issues, it seemed impossible to start production on one for years. While it is a relief to see this sequel finally arrive at your local cinema, it’s being released at a time where a major Presidential candidate bragged on audio about grabbing women by “the pussy.” As a result, it’s hard to watch “Bad Santa 2” without thinking about that, so the bad timing of its release is unfortunate.

So, what has Willie been up to for 13 years? Well, he’s still the same old cynical lout whose heart is smaller than the Grinch’s, and he still drinks himself silly at any given opportunity. Sue (Lauren Graham from the original) has long since left him as Willie is incapable of hanging onto any nurturing relationships, but he still gets regular visits from Thurman “the kid” Merman (Brett Kelly) who still acts like an 8-year-old even at the age of 21. Willie is prepared to put himself out of his misery, but he is much better at cracking safes than at attempting suicide. One thing’s for sure, he’s got one hell of a liver.

Despite having tried to kill Willie previously, Marcus Skidmore (Tony Cox) still manages to convince him to pull off another heist which will be their biggest yet. Marcus wants to rip off a Chicago charity which is said to have $2 million dollars, but Willie is against robbing a charity because, you know, they never have that much money. But Willie’s in for a big surprise as he discovers Marcus has brought on another partner for this caper, his mother Sunny (Kathy Bates). The fact Willie is quick to punch her right in the face as soon as he recognizes her should give you a good idea of just how dysfunctional the mother/son relationship is between these two.

Thornton hasn’t lost a step since first playing Willie back in 2003, and he still knows how to give a deplorable character like this one a complexity other actors couldn’t. The actor can still land a joke like the best can, and just when you think Willie can’t reach an even deeper bottom than he already has, he does. But as irredeemable as Willie seems, Thornton still gives us a reason to root for him even as he is about to sin again.

“Bad Santa 2,” however, scores a real casting coup with the addition of Kathy Bates who shows no fear in making Sunny every bit as cynical as Willie. She relishes playing an unrepentant biker chick who throws caution to the wind just as one would flick away a cigarette to the ground, and she’s the kind of actress who’s game for just about anything and everything.

It’s also great to see Tony Cox back as Marcus, and that’s even though the logistics of Marcus working again with Willie are beyond belief. Then again, you don’t bring logic into a sequel like this. While Lauren Graham is missed, it’s crazy fun to watch “Mad Men’s” Christina Hendricks let it loose as a reformed alcoholic who still feels the need to be bad when the opportunity presents itself. As for Brett Kelly, he still gives this sequel the heart it needs as man-child Thurman Merman. You would think Thurman would have long since outgrown his attachment to Santa, but again, this is not the kind of sequel you bring logic to.

But as “Bad Santa 2” heads into its second act, the laughs begin to die down as our familiarity with original sinks in to where what was once fresh now feels sadly stale. We are introduced to Regent Hastings (Ryan Hansen) who heads the charity and is Christina’s husband who cheats on her and indulges in a foot fetish which is best left to the imagination, and there’s also the security officer who is on the verge of uncovering Willie’s true identity. They eventually bring to mind the characters John Ritter and Bernie Mac played in “Bad Santa,” but these characters are nothing more than mere caricatures supplied for the audience to despise right from the start. The characters Ritter and Mac portrayed were not clichéd ones, and each actor inhabited them with a comic brilliance not easily duplicated. The both of them are very much missed this time around.

Directing “Bad Santa 2” is Mark Waters who gave us “The House of Yes,” the “Freaky Friday” remake and the infinitely enjoyable “Mean Girls” which made a star out of Lindsay Lohan and gave Tina Fey a life outside of SNL. With this sequel, he feels obligated to stay within the original’s formula as straying from it wouldn’t have worked. Waters succeeds in keeping the comic pace of the movie up, and he generates some big laughs which left me in hysterics. However, he can’t keep it from losing steam as we become more aware of where things are heading as this sequel heads to its inevitable climax which is not as inspired as it wants to be.

For me, “Bad Santa 2” is a near miss. Some sequels are mere replications of the original, and this drives most critics up the wall. I can be a bit forgiving as I’m willing to accept this to a certain extent if the sequel proves to be entertaining, but even I have my limits. “Bad Santa 2” succeeds in its first half, but its second half shows its filmmakers running out of steam long before they crossed the finish line. It’s a shame because the original is one of my favorite movies to watch during the holidays, but this one comes up short. It definitely has its devilishly inspired moments, but it could have used more of them.

* * ½ out of * * * *

 

Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates Team Up for ‘Bad Santa 2’

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Billy Bob Thornton is back in the Santa suit as Willie Soke in “Bad Santa 2” which once again involves Willie teaming up with his partner-turned-nemesis Marcus (Tony Cox) to rob a charity in Chicago on Christmas Eve. But this time they have an additional partner in crime, and one Willie didn’t expect to deal with, his mother Sunny (played by Kathy Bates). It’s no surprise to see Willie and Sunny don’t have the best mother and son relationship, and both seem intent on outdoing each other when it comes to insults and political incorrectness. But can these two get past their differences to pull off a heist and maybe try some love and tenderness in the process? Well, you’ll have to see the movie for yourself to figure this out.

It’s great to see Thornton back in one of his most famous roles. “Bad Santa” has long since become a cult hit, and the fans were eager to see Willie back in action even as we wondered if his liver could take much more damage. Thornton was joined by Bates at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the “Bad Santa 2” press day, and I was eager to find out how they prepared to play their loathsome and yet strangely appealing characters. The two of them are Oscar winners, Thornton for “Sling Blade” and Bates for “Misery,” and they have since been nominated several more times. Their attention to developing a character is impeccable, and I was fascinated to learn how they worked on the ones they played in this sequel.

Their answers to my question led to a hilarious story involving Thornton and his mother, and Bates reflected on one of the first movies she ever appeared in.

Ben Kenber: First, I just want to say Willie has one hell of a liver. Also, Billy and Kathy, I read the two of you worked on your characters’ backstories a lot for this movie. What specifically did you come up with that you really agreed on and which really helped to inform your performances?

Kathy Bates: I remember one day we were talking that maybe they were carnies together and con artists and had lived in that atmosphere. Nothing against carnies, but we figured that that’s probably where they were from. What else Billy?

Billy Bob Thornton: Yeah and the idea that I was sort of like the artful dodger and she was faking. That sort of idea that I grew up, and it even says in there, where she used to sell me out to do stuff for her all the time, and so we’re sort of grifters in a way. So, it’s not like Willie doesn’t have an understanding of what she does and why she’s that way and why I’m the way I am. We grew up rough in a weird business, so that was mainly it. And also, you can see the mother-son relationship because you know how if you’re watching a movie with your parents… My mom’s 83, and if I’m watching a movie and somebody starts making out, I get so embarrassed. I’ll never forget when my mom called me once and she said she had been to see my movie, and I was like, what movie? I never even thought she would know this existed, and she just gone to see “Monster’s Ball” with her best friend and I was like, why did you do that? How could you do that to me? But I’m still that way. I have never said the F-word around my mother to this day, and she’s 83. So, there is the scene where Kathy has the dildo, and you can see the kid and the mother in that scene and it’s kind of like, golly! Don’t do that! So, I think we had that part too. You can see a mother and son in there. I think we felt it. We did talk about it to a degree, but a lot of it just came naturally.

Kathy Bates: Can I just say one last thing? I remember doing a movie years and years ago with Dustin Hoffman, and it was my first talking part in a movie. Gary Busey was in it and his son, Jake Busey, was in it too, and he was five. Jake got the part, but Gary said, “Do you want to take the night to think about it?” So, Jake came back the next day and he said, “Well, yeah, I’ll do the movie because I think acting is pretending and making believe like you’re not pretending.” And I thought, okay, that’s it. Lee Strasberg, you can go home, and that says it all.

I want to thank Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates for taking the time to answer my question. “Bad Santa 2” opens in theaters on November 23, 2016.

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Bad Santa

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I don’t know about you, but I am SICK TO DEATH of holiday movies with families getting together and chaos ensuing. After a while, they all blend into one another and look no different from what we saw the year before. These are movies which shamelessly manipulate audiences into feeling joyful during the Christmas season, but this only works for so many people. Then there are other movies which preach against the commerciality and consumer frenzy which has come to overwhelm the Christmas season for years and years. But ironically, these same movies are released by studios infinitely eager to make a huge profit and potentially start a new franchise.

Yes, it is great to see films which really get to the true meaning of Christmas providing you have a couple extra dollars for them as well as for popcorn and drinks, let alone for the date you are lucky to bring along with you. So, like romantic comedies, I tend to avoid these “festive” cinematic experiences whenever they arrive at a theater near you.

This is why I love “Bad Santa.” It is free of the sentimentality and sugar coated characters which all but mar your typical holiday movie, and this is regardless of whether or not they are intended for the whole family. It is a crude and politically incorrect film, and it has a gleeful amount of fun at Mr. Claus’ expense. But don’t worry; Santa is too busy giving presents to all the children to have any time left to sit through it.

Billy Bob Thornton, one of the best character actors working, plays Willie Stokes, a department store Santa Claus who is anything but fat and jolly. You are more likely to see him drinking backstage, making out like the womanizer he is, and doing other things completely lacking in sensitivity. Seeing him talk with the kids makes you wonder how the hell he manages to keep a job anywhere. Willie cusses at them when they sneeze in his face, and he never lets them ask about the presents they want. I kept waiting for one kid to pee on him as this happens with every department store Santa, but it turns out he is the one doing the pissing. But as cruel and Scrooge-like as Willie is, there is one person he clearly despises more than the kids and their snooty parents, himself.

Eventually, the truth comes out. Along with his partner in crime, Marcus (Tony Cox), Willie robs each mall he works at. They wait until everyone has left, then they disable the security system and go on a shopping spree where they steal all the things they want but can’t afford. Willie’s specialty is opening safes which contain the majority of the store’s loot, and he is clearly a professional safe cracker when we first observe him at work. In addition, Marcus’ wife Lois (Lauren Tom, whose face is contorted into a permanent frown) is there to drive them away when their work is finished. Following this, they take the rest of the year off and live off of the money and valuables they have taken. Marcus goes back to living with his wife while Willie goes off to Miami to get endlessly drunk, and Willie somehow gets lucky with the ladies regardless of his infinitely inebriated state.

Then we catch up with these characters a year later when they are employed at another mall where they plan their next big heist. But of course, things do not go as planned.

Thornton is a hoot as Willie Stokes. While his character does many things which would get him fired from any and every other job available, he gives this endlessly crude character a heart covered with a big slab of cynicism. And amazingly enough, he also makes Willie somewhat empathetic. This comes about when he meets a young pudgy kid who you’d think would teach him the meaning of Christmas, but he is really just stalking Willie out of loneliness. It allows Willie to warm up a little, and seeing him make any sort of effort with this kid is remarkable considering how far from sobriety he is.

The kid’s name is Thurman Merman (Willie basically calls him “The Kid”), he is played by Brett Kelly. Kelly is not anything like those clean-cut kids in Disney movies, and I found this to be very refreshing. Thurman is a short, pudgy little unpopular guy who doesn’t have any friends and is an easy target for bullies in and out of the classroom. What I really dug about Kelly is how dryly comic he is. He never seems to be the least bit fazed by anything Willie does. Willie gives Thurman a ride home and then proceeds to steal from his dad’s safe and steals his car, and Thurman responds by waving at him and saying, “Bye Santa!”

Thurman lives alone in this big house with his senile grandmother who herself is barely dealing with reality as it is. With Willie, Thurman sees him as someone who could be the friend he doesn’t have. Once Willie catches a cop sniffing around his motel room, he ends up moving in with Thurman to stay out of law enforcement’s sight, and this also allows him to play with Thurman and make out with a local bartender in the hot tub while the grandmother watches television listlessly.

“Bad Santa” was directed by Terry Zwigoff whose previous films include “Ghost World,” “American Splendor” and one of the best documentaries of the 1990’s, “Crumb.” Zwigoff is interested in personalities who are far from normal and have been damaged by life. With “Crumb,” he took a close look at a man who dealt with abuse through his creation of comic books which kept him from going completely insane. With “Ghost World,” he followed a couple of girls who prided themselves on being outsiders at their high school. But in the process of becoming adults, their world is shattered by the onslaught of the corporate world which robs what was once original and special to them. Now with “Bad Santa,” Zwigoff deals with his most damaged character yet with Willie, and you wonder if he is worthy of any kind of redemption. As a result, he is more than well-suited to take on this story which was originally written by the Coen Brothers.

Zwigoff also has a blast digging away at the banal culture of American malls. While they were havens for us as teenagers, they eventually became tiresome places to visit as adults because all the stores and food courts became indistinguishable from one mall to the next. From the anal-retentive managers to the overconfident mall security officers to those annoying boy bands, the movie cuts down the sugar coating of the holidays which will be a relief to those who find it fake or something they don’t care much for anymore.

Tony Cox is hilarious as Marcus. You quickly realize Marcus works with Willie out of necessity, not friendship. Truth is, as great a safe man as Willie is, Marcus cannot stand the way he degrades himself and those around him. Lauren Tom plays Marcus’ wife, and I love how she maintains the same snarky expression as she constantly blows off mall employees who want to sell her stuff she plans to steal anyway. I also got a big kick out of Lauren Graham who plays Sue, a local bartender who starts up a relationship with Willie. Sue is not with Willie out of pity, but in large part because of a sexual fetish she has had for Santa Claus ever since she was young.

But the two actors who deserve special recognition for their great work in “Bad Santa,” and who are sadly no longer with us, are John Ritter and Bernie Mac. This actually turned out to be Ritter’s last live action role before his sudden death. As mall manager Bob Chipeska, Ritter reminds us of what a great comic talent he was as he becomes incensed with what Willie gets away with, and yet he is too much of a wimp to do anything to stop him. Instead, he turns to Gin Slagel, mall security chief, who is played by Mac. Even when he doesn’t say a word while eating an orange, Mac still has us laughing hysterically throughout. The diner scene Mac has with our main characters is brilliant in how he maintains a strong air of confidence, and I loved how he kept finding different ways of repeating the same number over and over again.

“Bad Santa” is the perfect holiday film for those who love infinitely black comedies like “The War of the Roses” or “Observe and Report.” It is a much-needed antidote to the manipulative schmaltz many get suckered into seeing, and it makes us root for a character you would never root for in real life. This is definitely one of Thornton’s best movies, and I consider a new holiday classic for those who have seen “A Christmas Carol” and “The Polar Express” one too many times.

Just remember, you have been warned…

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