Skip to main content

It's the Grinch! Scatter!

Jingle All the Way
(1996)

(SPOILERS) During the decade between The Terminator and True Lies, Arnie could barely put a foot wrong commercially, and often critically too (what he did with his hands was another matter entirely…) But then it all went pear-shaped. It would be another decade before he began governating, but movie-wise he made dud choice after dud choice; the best you could say of the best of his output during this period is that it was passable. The worst…. Jingle All the Way is generally regarded as one of his stinkers, a nadir that resulted from going back to a well that had little to yield after a deceptively full first bucket or two (Twins and Kindergarten Cop gave way to Last Action Hero and Junior). The novelty value of “comedy” Arnie wore off quickly, and the shrewd businessman who sought out James Cameron, Walter Hill and Paul Verhoeven was now taking notes from the guy who directed Beethoven. But it’s a Christmas movie, right? Arnie has to have a Christmas movie on his CV (aside from the he’d already directed one for TV).


It wasn’t as if Arnie’s nous had entirely deserted him, more that he’d miscalculated, and once you’ve done it once, errors start to accumulate. He’d have been better off going on a Crusade with Verhoeven or being the last man on Earth for Ridley Scott (it was the delayed-then-entirely-off Planet of the Apes for Philip Noyce that led to a Jingle-sized window in Arnie’s schedule). A medium-budgeted Yuletide slog can often make an appreciable profit by coasting on the festive brio of undiscerning patrons, but if you’re going to spend $75m on a comedy (Arnie’s $20m price tag is at least part of the answer to the question of why it was so pricey) you need to be able to guarantee a big hit (it made about $60m in the US, and just over the same again internationally). Producer Chris Columbus had delivered John Hughes’ Home Alone to audiences as director. Levant had directed… The Flintstones. The incredibly named Randy Kornfield hadn’t previously written anything of note, and wouldn’t again (Columbus rewrote the thing; you’d have thought, having been the originator of one of the most jaundiced Crimbo blockbusters, Gremlins, he’d have been a bit sharper).


The gist of the pitch is evident enough; make a festive box office packet soft-selling a cautionary tale in which a wee nipper realises that all he wanted for Christmas was dad, while dad simultaneously gets his priorities sorted… Except that Arnie’s Howard Langston is no Scrooge in the scheme of things, so doesn’t even have an appreciable distance to go to become a better man; he puts work first, and fails to show up to each and every one of his munchkin’s doubtless tedious karate belt graduations (I mean, give him a break, they’ll all be the same after the first couple). It’s the desire to get his son a prized Turbo-Man doll that undoes Howard, leading him to indulge in a barrage of disreputable behaviour – including accidentally setting neighbour Ted’s house on fire while attempting to steal his son’s Turbo-Man doll –  and gets rewarded for it with junior’s abiding affection. Do I buy that the moppet would then give away his toy because “What do I want the doll for? I’ve got the real Turbo-Man at home”? Not for a second.


Mighty non-morphin’ Turbo-Man (inspired by free-for-all buyer mayhem as parents trashed stores and each other seeking out Cabbage Patch Kids, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and more recently Buzz Lightyears) is too lamely derivative to be a believable toy; it would have been more impressive if the designers could have come up with something kids really did want, creating a kind of self-reflexive echo tunnel (which is what happened with Buzz, after all). That would have taken thought and care though, and this has sloppy rush job written all over it (why else would you dial up Levant?)


The ongoing duel between Howard and Sinbad’s postal worker Myron Larabee has potential; Arnie and Sinbad are reasonably well matched as sparring partners, and the originally suggested Joe Pesci might have been a little too evocative of Columbus’ earlier Christmas treat(s). There’s scope for some solid slapstick in their ongoing scrum, reminiscent of Pesci and Stern repeatedly coming a cropper at Macauley Culkin’s psychotic hands in Home Alone. Sinbad’s dyspeptic attitude also makes for a fun contrast to Arnie not quite knowing where he is (he isn’t the straight man, he isn’t the hero, and when he’s doing anything else, he resembles a inert block of buff cardboard); “We are being set up by right and powerful toy cartels” warns Myron early in the proceedings. He also gives good pratfalls. Blasting out “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” over a consumer feeding frenzy montage isn’t subtle, but it does raise a smile.


Put Arnie on a back foot in a scene, though, and the incongruity does still tend to pay off. His seething jealousy of Ted, Phil Hartman’s too-good-to-be-true lecherous neighbour (who suddenly became extra helpful and a great dad when his wife left him; now all the wives think he’s the business) is amusing, and Hartman revels in Ted’s shameless inveigling (“He’s in my house, putting up my star!” exclaims Howard). Another scene finds Arnie on an ice rink fending off outraged parents – “I’m not a pervert. I was just looking for my Turbo-Man doll” he protests. Not a scene you’d expect to get okayed in the current cultural climate, and probably not the best defence against levelled charges, any more than Sinbad claiming he’s carrying mail bombs (ah, more innocent times).


John Belushi, Arnie’s old Red Heat sparring partner, shows up as a pre-Bad Santa bad Santa (complete with opprobrious elf). There’s an amusing daft sequence in which Howard sets to on a warehouse full of Santas, complete with flying Santa dwarf, after Belushi has palmed him off with a Mexican Turbo-Man that promptly falls apart. At another juncture, Arnie punches out a reindeer (a homage to Conan the Destroyer, although it sounds weird suggesting anyone might want to homage Conan the Destroyer).


The action climax at the Christmas parade, in which Howard dresses as Turbo-Man (and, inevitably, Myron as archenemy Demento), is as slipshod and uncoordinated as you’d expect from Levant, and replete with indigestibly stodgy, sentimental guff (“Thanks, Turbo-Man, I knew you’d save me”). It bears noting that, while Rita Wilson (Mrs Tom Hanks) is note-perfect as Howard’s wife, munchkin Jake Lloyd is about as effective here as he would be in The Phantom Menace a few years later. That’s what comes from having the Austrian Oak offering notes during your formative acting experience.


Jingle All the Way isn’t very good, but mercifully neither is it a slog to get through, in contrast to certain Arnie pictures during this period (step forward Batman & Robin). You can fully see why Tim Allen – whose Christmas movie whorishness was only surpassed by Vince Vaughn during the following decade – was up for the lead part, and the picture’s cake-and-eat-it shamelessness, and general “that’ll do” quality (like everything Levant directs, it could have been made for TV) mean you’re under no illusions about it being exactly what it is.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Do you know that the leading cause of death for beavers is falling trees?

The Interpreter (2005) Sydney Pollack’s final film returns to the conspiracy genre that served him well in both the 1970s ( Three Days of the Condor ) and the 1990s ( The Firm ). It also marks a return to Africa, but in a decidedly less romantic fashion than his 1985 Oscar winner. Unfortunately the result is a tepid, clichéd affair in which only the technical flourishes of its director have any merit. The film’s main claim to fame is that Universal received permission to film inside the United Nations headquarters. Accordingly, Pollack is predictably unquestioning in its admiration and respect for the organisation. It is no doubt also the reason that liberal crusader Sean Penn attached himself to what is otherwise a highly generic and non-Penn type of role. When it comes down to it, the argument rehearsed here of diplomacy over violent resolution is as banal as they come. That the UN is infallible moral arbiter of this process is never in any doubt. The cynicism

Yeah, it’s just, why would we wannabe be X-Men?

The New Mutants (2020) (SPOILERS) I feel a little sorry for The New Mutants . It’s far from a great movie, but Josh Boone at least has a clear vision for that far-from-great movie. Its major problem is that it’s so overwhelmingly familiar and derivative. For an X-Men movie, it’s a different spin, but in all other respects it’s wearisomely old hat.

Now listen, I don’t give diddley shit about Jews and Nazis.

  The Boys from Brazil (1978) (SPOILERS) Nazis, Nazis everywhere! The Boys from Brazil has one distinct advantage over its fascist-antagonist predecessor Marathon Man ; it has no delusions that it is anything other than garish, crass pulp fiction. John Schlesinger attempted to dress his Dustin Hoffman-starrer up with an art-house veneer and in so doing succeeded in emphasising how ridiculous it was in the wrong way. On the other hand, Schlesinger at least brought a demonstrable skill set to the table. For all its faults, Marathon Man moves , and is highly entertaining. The Boys from Brazil is hampered by Franklin J Schaffner’s sluggish literalism. Where that was fine for an Oscar-strewn biopic ( Patton ), or keeping one foot on the ground with material that might easily have induced derision ( Planet of the Apes ), here the eccentric-but-catchy conceit ensures The Boys from Brazil veers unfavourably into the territory of farce played straight.

I can always tell the buttered side from the dry.

The Molly Maguires (1970) (SPOILERS) The undercover cop is a dramatic evergreen, but it typically finds him infiltrating a mob organisation ( Donnie Brasco , The Departed ). Which means that, whatever rumblings of snitch-iness, concomitant paranoia and feelings of betrayal there may be, the lines are nevertheless drawn quite clearly on the criminality front. The Molly Maguires at least ostensibly finds its protagonist infiltrating an Irish secret society out to bring justice for the workers. However, where violence is concerned, there’s rarely room for moral high ground. It’s an interesting picture, but one ultimately more enraptured by soaking in its grey-area stew than driven storytelling.

Never underestimate the wiles of a crooked European state.

The Mouse on the Moon (1963) (SPOILERS) Amiable sequel to an amiably underpowered original. And that, despite the presence of frequent powerhouse Peter Sellers in three roles. This time, he’s conspicuously absent and replaced actually or effectively by Margaret Rutherford, Ron Moody and Bernard Cribbins. All of whom are absolutely funny, but the real pep that makes The Mouse on the Moon an improvement on The Mouse that Roared is a frequently sharp-ish Michael Pertwee screenplay and a more energetic approach from director Richard Lester (making his feature debut-ish, if you choose to discount jazz festival performer parade It’s Trad, Dad! )

Dad's wearing a bunch of hotdogs.

White of the Eye (1987) (SPOILERS) It was with increasing irritation that I noted the extras for Arrow’s White of the Eye Blu-ray release continually returning to the idea that Nicolas Roeg somehow “stole” the career that was rightfully Donald Cammell’s through appropriating his stylistic innovations and taking all the credit for Performance . And that the arrival of White of the Eye , after Demon Seed was so compromised by meddlesome MGM, suddenly shone a light on Cammell as the true innovator behind Performance and indeed the inspiration for Roeg’s entire schtick. Neither assessment is at all fair. But then, I suspect those making these assertions are coming from the position that White of the Eye is a work of unrecognised genius. Which it is not. Distinctive, memorable, with flashes of brilliance, but also uneven in both production and performance. It’s very much a Cannon movie, for all that it’s a Cannon arthouse movie.

Yes, exactly so. I’m a humbug.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) (SPOILERS) There are undoubtedly some bullet-proof movies, such is their lauded reputation. The Wizard of Oz will remain a classic no matter how many people – and I’m sure they are legion – aren’t really all that fussed by it. I’m one of their number. I hadn’t given it my time in forty or more years – barring the odd clip – but with all the things I’ve heard suggested since, from MKUltra allusions to Pink Floyd timing The Dark Side of the Moon to it, to the Mandela Effect, I decided it was ripe for a reappraisal. Unfortunately, the experience proved less than revelatory in any way, shape or form. Although, it does suggest Sam Raimi might have been advised to add a few songs, a spot of camp and a scare or two, had he seriously wished to stand a chance of treading in venerated L Frank Baum cinematic territory with Oz the Great and Powerful.

So, crank open that hatch. Breathe some fresh air. Go. Live your life.

Love and Monsters (2020) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, Michael Matthews goes some way towards rehabilitating a title that seemed forever doomed to horrific associations with one of the worst Russell T Davies Doctor Who stories (and labelling it one of his worst is really saying something). Love and Monsters delivers that rarity, an upbeat apocalypse, so going against the prevailing trend of not only the movie genre but also real life.

It’s always open season on princesses!

Roman Holiday (1953) (SPOILERS) If only every Disney princess movie were this good. Of course, Roman Holiday lacks the prerequisite happily ever after. But then again, neither could it be said to end on an entirely downbeat note (that the mooted sequel never happened would be unthinkable today). William Wyler’s movie is hugely charming. Audrey Hepburn is utterly enchanting. The Rome scenery is perfectly romantic. And – now this is a surprise – Gregory Peck is really very likeable, managing to loosen up just enough that you root for these too and their unlikely canoodle.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) (SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II ’s on YouTube , and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.