Film reviews

Dark Christmas
Bad Santa, dir. Terry Zwigoff.

 When I was a kid I imagined the colourful boxes under the Christmas tree at the local shopping centre were full of wonderful gifts. But at about the same time I realised Santa was more commerce than kindly, I also came to realise the gifts were nothing more than empty banana boxes from the supermarket wrapped by the check-out chick in her lunch break. It was a big blow. But after seeing Bad Santa I’m inclined to reassess my empty banana box theory. Santa’s sack wasn’t bare, it just wasn’t G-Rated!

Bad Santa not only fills the boxes under the plastic shopping mall tree (with safe cracking tools and bottles of vodka), it wraps them with a great big MA 15+ gold bow, and writes Merry #*!^*# Christmas on the greeting card. Not to mention a bar maid with Santa suit fetishes who is as likely as not to nip out and bite.

Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), a pathetic career criminal, dons a Santa suit, for 30 days out of every year, to thieve from department store safes. The other 335 days he drinks the proceeds. His partner-in-crime, and the operational brains behind the scam, midget Marcus (Tony Cox), organises the gigs and enjoys a bit of five-finger-discount Christmas shopping on the side. The pair have enjoyed years of hassle free scamming, cruising between cities to spread their own special brand of Christmas cheer. That is until they hit Phoenix. In this town their stockings are packed with more punch than usual: a politically correct mall manager (John Ritter), a corrupt store Dick (Bernie Mac) and a snotty nosed fat kid (Brett Kelly) who still believes.

Black comedy doesn’t come much easier than this. Drunks in Santa suits, conniving midgets who pack 22s, mall mums and festive expletives make for easy laughs. Sacred cows (and reindeers) are slaughtered with scant regard for good taste.

Thornton is perfectly dishevelled, if a little too handsome, as the foul-mouthed Bad Santa. His drunken destruction of papier mâché  reindeers is hilariously violent and wonderfully unsuitable, not to mention his beating up skinny teenage bullies in the mid-afternoon sun. John Ritter (in his last film role) plays eggnog to Thornton’s straight scotch, lending PC store manager, Bob Chipeska, just the right mix of nervous conscience and plain ridiculousness. In fact there are no bad performances in this little Christmas slap in the face—all tested performers having fun with light but irreverent material.

There is nothing masterful about Bad Santa, just clean foul-mouthed fun. There is a touch of the Coen Brothers about the whole thing (not surprising given they came up with the concept and ex-produced it); their particular brand of madness mixed with curly cynicism is lurking under all the mistletoe. And while it could have dug a little deeper into the inner workings of its main players, for what is essentially a Christmas flick for grown-ups, that expectation is perhaps a little churlish.

Yes, Bad Santa is a one joke film, and yes, there’s a smattering of sentimental redemption, and yes, you will see much better films this year—but if you want to laugh on and off for an hour and a half, look no further than Bad Santa.

Siobhan Jackson

Political puppetry
Team America: World Police, dir. Trey Parker.

I can’t help but feel that people underestimate Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators of Southpark, and now, Team America). Sure, they revel in the most childish forms of bodily gross-out humour, are fond of gratuitous violence, sex and obscenity, have the aesthetic sensibilities of a four-year-old, and find nothing funnier than the idea of Michael Moore destroying Mount Rushmore in a suicide bomb attack. But is that any reason not to take them seriously as artists, activists and political thinkers? You think I’m joking, don’t you …

My argument: Team America: World Police, in addition to being the funniest film I’ve seen since Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (yes, I love stupid humour), is a much more effective and cogent critique of US foreign policy post-September 11 and of left-liberal hand-wringing about it, than anything by Michael Moore or his right-wing critics. Yes, it features gratuitous puppet sex and violence, the greatest volume of vomit in one scene since Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, and Kim Jong Il as a James Bond-style super villain. (I particularly like the scene where he feeds Hans Blix to his pet sharks.) Yes, it appears on the surface to be a mere scattergun parody of action genre conventions, Hollywood A-list political pretensions and redneck jock foreign policy a la Rumsfeld, Cheney and Rice. But the sheer absurdity of a puppet action film provides the perfect medium for bringing out the gross stupidity, gratuitous violence, obscenity, and indeed absurdity that is US foreign policy (not to mention most of its film industry).

In fact, the central theme of the film seems to be the relationship between Hollywood and US politics, not just in the sense that Arnold Schwarzenegger is being touted as the next President, or that the current US foreign policy seems like a bad remake of Top Gun, or even that both revolve around staging scenes to both fool and capture the audience’s imagination. No, it has something to do with the choice of puppets as the medium for Parker and Stone’s message. Simultaneously both plastic and wooden, the fundamental inadequacy of the marionettes for their purpose (check out the puppet kung-fu, the puppet sex, the puppet dancing and you’ll see what I mean) reflects the inadequacy of the responses of both US culture and its political system to the world around it.

Oh, and did I mention the puppet sex?

Allan James Thomas

Travels in Neverland
Finding Neverland, dir. Marc Forster.

Finding Neverland is, technically speaking, a flawless film. The story moves along with Hollywood cause-and-effect; its irony powerful and its meaning well-pitched to a broad audience. But the tried-and-tested style of its storytelling is a tired one. Imagine a film that trumpets imagination actually utilising some. That would be something to see!

Set in Edwardian London, Finding Neverland tells the story of J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp), a struggling playwright, whose chance encounter with a family of four boys and their widowed mother (Kate Winslet) inspires the tale of Peter Pan. Predictably, as his relationship with the family develops, he teaches each of the boys a valuable life lesson, and his play goes on to become the story we know today. The true test of Barrie’s faith in the power of imagination is saved for the film’s finale, and will make the experience of watching Neverland rewarding enough for most, not to mention decidedly family friendly.

Johnny Depp’s performance is as compelling as the script allows. For Australian audiences Depp’s Scottish accent will prove watertight, and while he may be blessed with remarkable good looks (for a playwright) Depp draws Barrie with a social ineptitude and sufficiently subtle intellect to allow an audience to embrace his character. His straight-faced shenanigans with the four boys are charming, without an over-bearing masculinity that might have affected a more American approach.

Of the supporting roles, Dustin Hoffman, Kate Winslet and Radha Mitchell are wasted; tiny satellites that orbit Depp and push the plot forward with a morbid mechanisation. Only Julie Christie, (in a role that threatens to devolve into stereotype) appears to be having any real fun, as the crotchety grandmother who inspires the malevolent Captain Hook in Barrie’s play.

Neverland harnesses much of the appeal of Edwardian London—bizarre facial hair, new-fangled ‘automobiles’ and a host of children who speak the Queen’s English with the innocent charm of the Famous Five. But where movies like Big Fish or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory are examples of the imaginative vision they celebrate, Neverland regrettably chooses the safer path of realism and point-form storytelling. While it is, essentially, successful, as the credits roll you may find yourself wishing that the story of a peculiar and irreverent act of artistic risk-taking hadn’t been turned into the safest film of the summer.

Zane Lovitt

Totally 80s, dude
Napoleon Dynamite, dir. Jared Hess.

Napoleon Dynamite is set in Preston, a small town in rural Idaho in the America of 1982. The film’s namesake is the underdog figure of Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), a mouth-breathing teenage geek in happy pants who draws mythological beasts in lead pencil and performs hand-dance recitals with the ‘Happy Hands’ club.

Utterly unaware of how the rest of the populace may see him, he sports a big ginger afro to high school, and talks up his nunchuck skills (between getting body-checked by the hallway bully and unsuccessfully inviting girls to games of tetherball in the quadrangle).

Napoleon lives with his grandmother and unemployed 32-year-old brother Kip, who spends his days in front of a computer screen, engaged with a mysterious soulmate who dwells on the far side of a chatroom. Their quad-bike riding grandmother is injured in the early stages of the film, and she summons the beflared figure of Uncle Rico to babysit the two brothers.

You could describe Napoleon Dynamite by employing popular film-reviewer’s words like ‘offbeat’ or ‘cultish’. But never that dreaded word ‘alternative’ here—that would be way too 1994, dude.

Plenty of films have explored the inherently tribal atmosphere of high school, but what holds this flick together is its authenticity: Hess is actually a native of Preston, Idaho. Napoleon makes hilarious attempts to impress the only kid at school with lower status than himself, Pedro the new Mexican student. He does this with lines like ‘there’s like a buttload of gangs at this school, this one gang kept wanting me to join ‘cos I’m pretty good with a bo-staff’. However, beware—the bleached bones of formulaic Hollywood scripting that poke up from the sands a few times, are all but washed clean with original humour, good comedic timing and solid direction.

This is the 1980s that some of us have intentionally forgotten. In Napoleon’s world, it’s still a few years before martial arts obsession and teenage angst get mass validation from The Karate Kid and slacker-classic, The Breakfast Club. Anyone who experienced the popular culture of that decade will recognise cultural artefacts, mannerisms and fashions that were laid to rest long before Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became passé.

Napoleon Dynamite’s dialogue is so credible that those still reeling from high school trauma may find certain scenes cringeworthy. Others may find themselves saying ‘totally friggin’ sweet’ out loud for the first time in 20 years.

As nostalgia, it’s amusing and accurate, and as a comedy of quirk and oddity it?has?surprised audiences everywhere, making a big splash at film festivals. There’s a?brief epilogue that you’ll miss if you don’t wait out the credits. Don’t be afraid about laughing out loud in the?cinema—your inner nerd can hide in the?dark. 

Gil Maclean



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