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

I don’t need to be held together, I’m fine just floating through space like Andy.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)
Or, to give it its full subtitle, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – The Story of Jim Carrey & Andy Kaufman Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton. Carrey’s in a contradictory place just now, on the one hand espousing his commitment to a spiritual path and enlightened/ing state, on the other being sued in respect of his ex-girlfriend’s suicide and accompanying allegations regarding his behaviour. That behaviour – in a professional context – and his place of consciousness are the focus of Jim & Andy, and an oft-repeated mantra (great for motivational speeches) that “I learned that you can fail at what you don’t love, so you may as well do what you love. There’s really no choice to be made”. The results are consequently necessarily contradictory, but always fascinating.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

No, by the sky demon! I say no!

Doctor Who The Pirate Planet
I doubt Pennant Roberts, popular as he undoubtedly was with the cast, was anyone’s idea of a great Doctor Who director. Introduced to the show by Philip Hinchliffe – a rare less-than-sterling move – he made a classic story on paper (The Face of Evil) just pretty good, and proceeded to translate Robert Holmes’ satirical The Sun Makers merely functionally. When he returned to the show during the ‘80s, he was responsible for two entirely notorious productions, in qualitative terms. But The Pirate Planet is the story where his slipshod, rickety, make-do approach actually works… most of the time (look at the surviving footage of Shada, where there are long passages of straight narrative, and it’s evident Roberts wasn’t such a good fit). Douglas Adams script is so packed, both with plot and humour, that its energy is inbuilt; there’s no need to rely on a craftsman to imbue tension or pace. There is a caveat, of course: if your idea of Doctor Who requires a straig…

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

This place sure isn’t like that one in Austria.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Brawl in Cell Block 99 is most definitely cut from the same cloth as writer-director-co-composer Craig S Zahler’s previous flick Bone Tomahawk: an inexorable, slow-burn suspenser that works equally well as a character drama. That is, when it isn’t revelling in sporadic bursts of ultraviolence, including a finale in a close-quartered pit of hell. If there’s nothing quite as repellent as that scene in Bone Tomahawk, it’s never less than evident that this self-professedchild of Fangoria” loves his grue. He also appears to have a predilection for, to use his own phraseology, less politically correct content.

We’re not in a prophecy… We’re in a stolen Toyota Corolla.

Bright (2017)
(SPOILERS) Is Bright shite? The lion’s share of the critics would have you believe so, including a quick-on-the-trigger Variety, which gave it one of the few good reviews but then pronounced it DOA in order to announce their intention for Will Smith to run for the Oval Office (I’m sure he’ll take it under advisement). I don’t really see how the movie can’t end up as a “success”; most people who have Netflix will at least be curious about an all-new $90m movie with a (waning, but only because he’s keeps making bad choices) major box office star. As to whether it’s any good, Bright’s about on a level with most of director David Ayer’s movies, in that it’s fast, flashy and fitfully entertaining, but also very muddled, mixed-up and, no matter how much cash is thrown at it, still resembles the kind of thing that usually ends up straight to video (making Netflix his ideal home).

This is how we do action in Uganda.

Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010)
Uganda’s first action movie”, Who Killed Captain Alex? is a cheerfully ultra-low budget, wholly amateur picture made by Nabwana Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey. It’s the kind of thing you and your mates would make and (rightly) expect no one else to ever watch (aside from a few hundred hits on YouTube). But stick a frequently hilarious running commentary over the top from VJ (video joker) Emme, and it this home-ish move takes on something approaching the spoofy quality of What’s Up Tiger Lilly?

Nothing in the world can stop me now!

This is not going to go the way you think!

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
(SPOILERS) The most interesting aspect of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, particularly given the iron fist Lucasfilm has wielded over the spinoffs, is how long a leash Rian Johnson has been granted to tear apart the phonier, Original Trilogy-lite aspects of The Force Awakens. The resulting problem is that the areas where he’s evidently inspired are very good (almost anything Force related, basically), but there are consequently substantial subplots that simply don’t work, required as they are to pay lip service to characters or elements he feels have nowhere to go. The positives undoubtedly tip the balance significantly in The Last Jedi’s favour, but they also mean it hasn’t a hope of attaining the all-round status of IV and V (still the out-of-reach grail for the franchise, quality-wise). Which is a shame, as thematically, this has far more going on, handled with far greater acumen, than anything in the interim.