The Severe Impatience of a Child on Christmas Morning

Photo by Tammy Kenber.

It was Christmas morning in 2013, and I was sleeping in the loft of my parents’ home in Northern California. While everyone else had a comfortable bed to sleep on, I was the odd man out as I was forced to sleep on an air mattress in the loft which is as spacious as it sounds (which is to say, not really). This shit happens when all the bedrooms are occupied.

Even after I woke up, and at a time which was far too early for my aging body and mind to tolerate, I kept my eyes shut in the hopes that maybe I could get just a few more minutes of sleep. But alas, I had no such luck because eventually felt a foot tapping on my air mattress, and looked up to see my niece who told me, with a very stern look in her eyes:

“Wake up Uncle Ben, we’ve got to open presents!”

It took me a few more minutes to haul my ass out of bed after her statement of purpose, but even though I was waking up far too early, I had to admit I knew exactly how she felt. Her impatience in waiting for Christmas Day to arrive brought back a lot of memories for me. I still vividly remember waiting for Santa Claus to arrive at whatever house me and my family was staying at to leave us presents, but I also remember getting little to no sleep on Christmas Eve which made the wait to open presents all the more agonizing.

The rule for me and my older brother was we couldn’t open up any presents until 7:00 a.m. but waiting for the clock to reach this early morning hour was simply pure torture. Back when you were a child, Christmas could never come soon enough. Time just dragged on and on as you waited to open the presents nestled comfortably under the tree. As we get older, time beings moving a lot faster, but back then those hands on the clock seemed to move at a snail’s pace.

When my niece finally did open the presents Santa left for her, her immense pleasure proved to be quite audible. Among the gifts she received was a trampoline which will be waiting for her back home. To this, she let out a very loud scream of joy which must have woken up the whole neighborhood. Then again, if my parents watching “Skyfall” on their HD television with the soundtrack blasting out of the speakers doesn’t wake the neighbors up, what will?

But then there were the rest of the presents under the tree for the whole family to unwrap, and my niece had to wait even longer to open those meant for her. Us adults had to get up, take a shower, get dressed and have breakfast. While children might be content to skip meals to get at those presents, we older people have long since developed a level of patience which never comes easily. Nevertheless, we all couldn’t help but tease my niece as she shifted anxiously in her chair. Just when she thought we were done with breakfast, we informed her we needed to go on a 5-mile walk to burn all these calories off. All the same, she didn’t quite get the joke, and her impatience in waiting to unwrap her presents became all the more palpable.

Seriously, she came up to each of us, prepared to take our plates, and said, “Are you done?” Her parents told her she needed to ask us nicely. As a result, she once again asked if we were done, but this time she asked us the same question with a big smile. Somehow the message didn’t get through as her actions and facial expressions shows a child shamelessly seeking to manipulate our emotions to her advantage.

Following this, my niece rushed up the stairs to the Christmas tree and awaited our appearance. When we didn’t show up, she began writhing on the floor like she was Linda Blair furiously bouncing up and down on her bed in “The Exorcist,” possessed by a demomic force which needed to be banished from her body forever. She really couldn’t wait for much longer and, in her mind, we couldn’t make it up the stairs fast enough

Just as when I was a child, my niece had the job of handing out presents to everybody. But, of course, the first one she picked out was for herself (I used to do the exact same thing). She also insisted we open our presents individually and not all at once. For a moment, I thought she was doing this to get back at us for making her wait to unwrap her gifts, but her mother pointed out how much fun it is to watch the expressions on everyone’s faces when they opened theirs.

It was worth it just to see my niece get super excited about her gifts. She didn’t even try to hide her glee, and it got to where she spoke so fast that we couldn’t understand what the hell she was saying.

Among her gifts was a doll which was tied up ever so securely in its box, and she asked for our help in getting the doll out as it seemed not just child proof, but adult proof as well. Seriously, I thought we were going to have to use the table saw in the garage to get this doll free.

I got her a Target gift card worth $15, and I have never seen a child get so exhilarated over receiving one before. I hope she wasn’t putting on some sort of act to hide any disappointment over the amount not being larger. Then again, if it were a $10 dollar gift card, she probably still would have gone apeshit over it.

Watching my niece opening her presents proved to be a reminder of how wonderful a holiday Christmas can be. I have been kind of blasé about it for the past few years because of all the commercialization surrounding it, and this has resulted in “Bad Santa” becoming my holiday movie of choice as it serves as a gleefully vicious rebuttal over this over-commercialized occasion. When it comes to my family however. there is no beating Christmas. It also reminds me of how precious time is because it keeps going by faster and faster as we get older and older. It almost makes me feel kind of envious of my niece because she has yet to discover how quickly time can fly by. Moreover, it reminds of how we need to treasure these precious moments as they will vanish before we know it.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good set of presents you put on your wish list. As for the stockings, any complaints need to be sent to Mrs. Claus.

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

The Polar Express movie poster

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 * * * *

Bad Santa

bad-santa-movie-poster

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…

* * * * out of * * * *