Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas With the Cranks

In the spirit of giving, gentleman, film scholar, and gimlet-eyed movie skewerer Hank Parmer (known in the blogging demimonde as "grouchomarxist") has brought us an early Christmas present. Sure, it's a sooty little nugget of anthracite, but then we weren't very good this year, were we?  Okay, admittedly, some of you have been really good -- kind to cats and people, generous of your time and money, striving to make the world a better place (or, in the case of Wo'C Chief Medical Officer Dr. BDH, at least to do no harm) -- but that doesn't excuse the fact that someone allowed half the Country music duo of Brooks and Dunn to make a Christmas movie! And that right here in this room! (And by "room" I mean "the World Wide Web," because I'm sure whoever it is, they probably have an email account at the very least, and maybe a Pinterest, which I understand is some kind of virtual scrapbook where people post cute pictures of British playwright Harold Pinter.)

So put on your plaid flannel robe and your fuzzy slippers, grab a cup of piping hot cocoa, and join us under the tree as we wincingly scratch away the wrapping paper like a scab to reveal:

Babes in Tenther-land: A Narrative of the KringleKrieg 

By Hank Parmer

A Country Christmas (2013)

Note that, contrary to the poster, in the part of the movie which actually involves driving in a pickup, Santa can't drive, and the vehicle is neither green, nor a spiffy 1950s Ford. No reindeer appear in this movie, and the barn isn't red.

True to its promised zeitgeist,  A Country Christmas gets drunk and tries to pick a fight with its audience right from the opening credits, as we're treated to the title song by Brooks and Dunn: "Who Says There Ain't No Santa?" (The “Kix Brooks” who's so proud to present this mangy dog is of course the first half of that duo.)

The film opens with the camera panning across two young boys, fast asleep in their beds. It's early on Christmas morning; soap flakes swirl past the window. One of the boys wakes up: he hears something downstairs! Stealthily descending the steps, he catches Santa by a grotesquely lavish mid-20th-Century style Christmas tree, flanked by a mound of presents teetering dangerously near a fireplace, where stockings have been hung from the mantle with care. In true Clement Clark Moore fashion, the jolly old elf lays a finger beside his nose and winks at the kid. He magically fills the stockings with a wave of his hand, then disappears. Feverish with anticipatory gluttony, the child reaches into his stocking -- and it's filled with coal!

Ha ha! Santa's a dick. Blackout.

Cut to the present day, on a ranch outside Hope, Arizona, where we're introduced to the picture-perfect Logans, a typical Authentic-American family, whose collective albedo rivals that of the polar icecap. Joe, the patriarch of the Logan clan, is played by William Shockley. No, not the racist nutball who invented the transistor, but the actor nobody's ever heard of, who also insists on taking one-third of the blame for this insipid script. He has greying, shoulder-length curly blond locks, and a beard -- I suspect he's still trying to relive his glory days as the lead in the road company of the Oberammergau Passion Play. He certainly looks quite Aryan.

His beautiful wife Renae -- who really should have walked away from this one -- Logan (Joey Lauren Adams) is fussing about in the kitchen. The tv's on while the Logan kids, Miley (Caitlin Carmichael) and her older brother Zach (Benjamin Stockman), eat breakfast with Pappy.

But this gratingly wholesome tableau is interrupted by terrible news from -- where else -- Washington, D.C. Their own senator is leading a national movement to ban belief in Santa. Worse, his bill to accomplish this dastardly scheme is poised to pass the Senate. In a message simply dripping with sanctimony, the senator claims he's only doing it to better prepare children for the cold, hard real world of reality which they'll have to face when they grow up.

The senator's name is Max Schmucker. Oh, ain't we clever. With a name like that, he's got to be no good! (So much for the obligatory jam joke.)

Our schmuck of a senator is portrayed by stand-up comedian and actor Kevin Pollak (The Usual Suspects). Whose appearance, let's be honest, fits a certain stereotype of a particular ethnic group. Combine that with the Yiddish pun name, and his being a stand-in for the loathed Federal government, and I'm afraid you're going to have a very hard time convincing me that our villain isn't meant to represent several cherished and moldy Sovereign Citizen/militia/Bircher tropes. Suffice it to say he's clearly not Authentic-American, like our salt-of-the-Earth Logans.

And as anyone with two brain cells to rub together will have already guessed, he's the kid who got the coal in his stocking at Christmas, all grown up now. I guess the Schmucker family was Reform. Really Reform.

(The only explanation I can come up with for Pollak's participation in this atrocity is that he must have been extremely hard up for cash, or they had something incredibly incriminating on the guy.)

To continue: upon hearing about the impending triumph of the anti-Santy killjoys, Miley plaintively demands to know why aren't people believing in Santa anymore? Pappy Logan shakes his head ruefully, says he doesn't know. He just doesn't know. Zach tells them Jimmy Baxter at school says that's because nobody can see Santa.

Pappy reassures them that just because some senator doesn't believe in Santa, that doesn't mean the Logans can't.

Cut to Senator Schmuck, post-interview, as he's hounded by reporters who want to know what his plans are for the Presidency. The senator plays coy, claims he's devoting all his energy right now to removing the Santa mythos from our culture and certainly our schools. (And after that, he'll get the government to bus Black Muslims into your neighborhood to kill puppies and kittens.) Now, if you'll excuse him, he has our government's work to do.

Schmucker gets in his limousine -- limousine liberal, get it? Dang, that's a good 'un!

Surprisingly, he hates reporters. His strongly New-York-ish handler and Gal Friday Susan Satcher (Illeana Douglas) warns him he may be going a bit too far with this Santa thing, but he won't listen. She tells the driver to get moving. Max makes a crack about backing up over the reporters, first. He's a big, fat phony, just like all those big-gubmint-lovin' types.

Cut to daughter Miley's classroom at her public school. Her teacher -- who bears a remarkable resemblance to Sarah Palin, right down to the horn-rims -- notices Miley's not paying attention, as two of her classmates prepare to square off in their re-enactment of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Miley's preoccupied, drawing a surprisingly professional likeness of Saint Nick. Caught goofing off, she whines to her teacher about no one believing in Santa. Teacher bends down and whispers "I believe in Santa, too!"

Note the cruel oppression already being experienced by the true believers. Why did that teacher feel the need to whisper? Why can't she stand up and proudly proclaim, “Kris Kringle lives!” But worse is yet to come.

The principal appears, and gives Miz Palin the terrible news as they stand in front of a big American flag: the Cold War on Christmas just got hot! Washington has passed the anti-Santa legislation! Santa is a non-person, who must be expunged. You don't talk about him in class, no more pictures, no Santa Claus. Cheery Yuletide Thought Criminals -- as well as any student caught wearing Santa colors -- must be sent to the Vice-Principal's office for immediate de-jollification.

Yes sir, I understand, says Teach, shoulders slumped in dejection.

Class is dismissed. In the hall, Miley sees the janitor taking down a flimsy plastic sheet with a life-size picture of Santa stenciled on it. He stuffs it in the trash. She storms back into the classroom and confronts her teacher: they're getting rid of Santa! I'm afraid so, admits Miz Palin. None of this would happen, wails Miley, if only Santa would show everybody he's out there!

Miley runs out of the classroom, while our Sarah Palin clone tries to simulate a pained grimace, but merely succeeds in looking mildly constipated.

Miley rescues the Santa picture from the trash can, takes it home with her and attempts to tape it on her bedroom wall. Despite being such a precocious artistic talent, she's rather incompetent for her age group. She uses only one measly, clearly inadequate piece of Scotch tape to secure this big sheet of plastic, while your average nine-year-old would have been far more likely to use up half the dispenser sticking that to the wall.

So the poster peels away from the wall at the first touch of a sudden breeze.

A blazing white orb streaks down from the heavens, leaving a curling trail of pink smoke. Miley sees it go through the roof of their barn. With her skeptical brother in tow, she investigates. Peeping under the barn door, Miley is astonished to glimpse two sets -- one large, one small -- of feet and legs, in strangely Christmas-y attire. But when they open the door, no one's there except Leroy the goat!

Miley has an inspiration. (Warning, hyperglycemics should leave the room for this next scene.) 

She fetches the cookie tin from the pantry. Using a cookie as bait, they lure the invisible elf who's accompanying invisible Santa out into the open, tracking him by the footprints he makes in the scattered hay stems. (This effect, by the way, is produced by someone off-camera directing puffs of air at the ground in a somewhat haphazard manner, making this invisible elf look like he has the blind staggers.)

Zach succeeds in throwing a bag over him, and Miley tells Santa to get visible pronto -- or the elf's reindeer food. (I took a bit of poetic license, there, but you get the idea.) Santa and his little helper, Elliot the Elf, drop the invisibility gag. Leroy the goat seems especially relieved, making me wonder exactly what that elf was up to, while no one could see him.

The getup for the actor who plays the Big Guy from the North Pole (Abraham Benrubi) looks just about as convincing as your average downscale department store Santa. His flowing white wig and incredibly cheesy beard appear to have been inspired by Oak Ridge Boy William Lee Golden, but if truth be told, the total effect is more like someone stuffed a Yeti in a Santa suit. Judging by his performance, Benrubi was heavily sedated during much of this film. I wish I could say the same.

Santa tenderly lifts up Miley by the scruff of her neck and tells her she's a clever child. Too clever, echos the elf, whose name is Elliot. He wants to put the tykes on the Naughty List -- with extreme prejudice, he mouths silently -- but Santa won't hear of it. Elliot the Elf's frightfully keen on putting people on the Naughty List. It'll be a major part of his tiresome shtick.

Time for a big gooey hunk of exposition: Santa travels the world through "magic portals", noting every child who's naughty and who's nice. Sort of like the NSA, but holly-jollier. But now, all of a sudden, the portals are malfunctioning. He thought he was stepping through the portal that would take him back to the North Pole, yet here he is in Hope, Arizona!

Now what could possibly have put those magic portals on the fritz? Anyone?

Miley invites Santa to stay with them as long as he wants. Santa cautions the children not to tell anyone about them. You see, he and his helpers are irrevocably bound by The Three Rules of Santa-ics (first codified by Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard, during that memorable weekend in 1952 when they shared a room in Tijuana).

Just so he won't forget, Santa has the rules inscribed in an impressive-looking book -- which has one only page -- that he produces from his magic bag.

The Three Rules:

1. They must never reveal themselves to mortals.
2. They must never use their powers for evil. (But only for niceness.)
3. They must never interfere in the lives of mortals in any way.

What happens if you break one, asks Miley. Santa doesn't know, because he's never broken one before. (Except for that one about showing himself to mortals, which he broke just now. Make that, two unbreakable rules. Or, maybe they're sort of guidelines ...)

The children promise to keep his presence a secret. Which will of course allow for several excessively lame comic sequences over the course of the film, as Miley and Zach conspire to hide Santa and his little helper from their parents.

Santa tells them their parents will be back soon, so they must return to the house. He won't let them leave without a present, though. He magics up a little golden angel pendent for Miley, but gives her brother jack squat.

You know, when you get right down to it, Elliot the Elf and Santa are right bleeding bastards. The only significant difference is that the elf doesn't bother to hide it. On the other hand, Santa's definitely creepier.

Later that night, the children sneak back out to the barn. Santa's magic powers are becoming erratic. He explains that he gets his magic from the children who believe in him. Miley wants to know what will happen if no one believes in him anymore. Santa tells her he'll just fade away. Miley is distraught, but Santa bravely tells her not to count him out yet.

Brother Zach now makes the brilliant deduction that Santa's declining potency is somehow linked to Max Schmucker's legislative jiggery-pokery. Santa and elf Elliot then reminisce about Schmucker as a child. As was mentioned earlier, and should have been blindingly obvious in the first ten minutes to any viewer over the age of three, or not pumped full of Thorazine and parked in front of a TV at some mental institution, Max was the boy in the prologue who got the coal.

Elliot recalls Max was on the Naughty List for years. Santa says the boy had lots of nice presents, but what he really needed was love. (Which is why he lovingly gave the poor, trusting child a stocking full of coal.)

Santa then sententiously observes that money won't buy happiness. I'd like to take this opportunity to point out that it's quite obvious the Logan spread is not so much a working operation as an authenticity-enhancing prop, sort of the architectural equivalent of Pappy's jeans and plaid shirt. That Southwestern Moderne ranch house is obviously brand spanking new, and worth at least a million bucks, most likely considerably more. Their huge barn is immaculate. As far as I could tell, the Logans' livestock consists solely of Leroy the goat and the horse, Duke. My guess is the location is some country music star's vanity ranch, where they go when they want to play cowboy.

Back to the movie: Even though Santa assures Miley he's weathered storms of unbelievers before, it's obvious he's getting nervous. Elliot wants to put the kids on the Naughty List once more, for sneaking out of the house after bedtime, but Santa again overrules the little twerp, and sends them off to bed. Once back in the house, Miley has another inspiration: The rule said Santa can't reveal himself to mortals, but it didn't say anything about people discovering Santa. They'll arrange it so Senator Schmuck will meet Santa accidentally, and then he'll have to stop being such a big meanie.

That's completely brilliant!

The next day, as the first step in this cunning plan, the children fake being sick so they don't have to go to school. After Mom leaves for her doctor's appointment, and Pappy Logan goes off to do rancher stuff, Zach and Miley go back to the barn and fill Santa in on the scam. Zach records a video in which Miley issues a taunting challenge to Senator Schmuck, daring him to debate her on the existence of Santa. (Metaphor alert!)

They put it out on the web, but the response is -- to say the least -- disappointing. After a whole three hours, it should have gone viral!

Zach has another idea. With the elf at the steering wheel and Zach operating the pedals, they can drive the pickup to the local tv station. It's a mere five miles from the ranch. In a skyscraper, in a major metropolitan area. Hope, Arizona, has a truly remarkable pattern of land use.

Back at the barn, Duke the horse gets loose, and joins Leroy the goat in scarfing down some grain from Santa's magic bag. In what may be the onset of a severe case of ergot poisoning, the animals are suddenly transfigured by a golden glow.

At the TV station, Zach and Miley once again demonstrate their superlative ninja skills as they evade the adults. They make it to the deserted newsroom and load their video, at which point they're discovered by an over-actor who has his arm in a sling. Miley decides to confide in this rumpled and frantic stranger, who for all they know is an escaped psycho. It's not like this place has the tightest security. Miley asks him if he believes in Santa Claus. Yes, he confesses, he does. Fortunately, he's a producer -- although this certainly doesn't rule out the possibility he's psychotic. So now their video will be featured on the evening news.

During their death-defying drive back to the ranch, they're pulled over by the sheriff -- country singer Trace Adkins -- for doing 90 in a 25 mph zone. Santa thinks it's quite humorous. Along with the scriptwriters, he's apparently unacquainted with the concept of “reckless endangerment".

When the sheriff demands to see Elliot's license and registration, the elf knocks him out with some sparkly pink pixie dust. They drive off, leaving the sheriff sprawled on the road. Don't worry, Santa tells the kids: he'll only be unconscious for a couple of hours. Until then, he'll be lying out in the middle of traffic, helpless, but hey, did you see the expression on the poor sap's face?

They make it back to the ranch without further comic complications, but uh-oh, they see ranch hand "Chim" in the distance, heading their way as they park the pickup. They sprint for the barn -- and find that the animals are high on rye. Literally.

Both Leroy and Duke the horse have been mysteriously endowed with the power of speech and the ability to levitate. Leroy turns cartwheels in the air. He's ecstatic about finally being able to communicate with Duke. (It'll come in mighty useful, as they plot their bloody revenge against the two-legs!)

Santa theorizes that that they must have gotten into the magic grain which enables his reindeer to fly. The speech thing is an occasional side effect, he says.

But what the heck does he need the reindeer for, if he's got those magic portals? Furthermore, why did he leave his magic bag set on “Grain”?

Never mind: Pappy Logan's returned from doing vaguely rancher-y stuff which somehow never manages to soil his jeans and flannel shirt, and he's headed for the barn! Time for another "hilarious" interlude, as Santa and the elf dive into the haystack again, while the kids act nonchalant. The goat and the horse almost give the show away by speaking up when Dad's back is turned. Thankfully for the viewer, this sub-plot is quickly abandoned.

But enough of the rib-tickling. Mom's home from her doctor's appointment. She bravely tries to hide her tears from the children. Her persistent cough is worse. Later, the family's watching the news again. Miley's challenge to Senator Schmuck is aired, and before the sun sets, the story's been picked up by the major media. Santa and Elliot and the kids are elated when shortly thereafter, Senator Schmuck agrees to the debate.

The scriptwriters decide this is the moment they're going to go for the jugular, emotional manipulation-wise: Mom breaks the news to the kids that she's got terminal cancer. Miley exits the room, bawling her desolate little heart out. In the barn, Santa clutches at his chest: he feels a sudden disturbance in the Sappiness, as if millions of Thomas Kinkade paintings were tossed into a dumpster at once..

I'd like to put aside the snark for a moment here. I mean, you'd have to have a heart of stone not to tear up a bit during the scene where Renae tells her kids she's going to die. And to their credit, the actors did a fairly convincing job of it. But that still doesn't let the scriptwriters off the hook for their cynical exploitation of a real-life horror, just to give their bone-headed Tenther screed some “heart”. Doubly so, since they've pitched it as a family comedy. Plus, any sympathetic reaction to Renae's plight has to be almost instantaneously negated by the certain knowledge that there's no way there's not going to be a miracle cure in the final act. In short, screw you, Kix Brooks. And anyone else who believed this story was worth filming. (Yes, I'm angry.)

Miley seeks out Santa and tearfully begs him to heal her mom. He sadly reminds her that his powers are gone, plus, even if he could use them, there's that pesky Rule Number Three. And now he's starting to get a little indistinct around the edges. Time is running out for our jolly old elf.

Though nowhere near fast enough, if you ask me.

Next morning, they're setting up for the debate. Crowds of protestors -- pro- and anti-Santa -- are there, along with a raft of reporters. Schmuck's assistant Susan covertly hands him the file of medical data on Miley's mom, which she stole the night before. She urges him to use it, if he thinks he's losing.

The Senator wins the toss and opens the debate by assuring everyone the government is just outlawing Santa Claus for their own good. The anti-Santies cheer enthusiastically. But not so fast: Miley  proceeds to thoroughly whup his ass with sheer cuteness. So as was absolutely inevitable, he goes nuclear with the dickishness, demanding to know, why, if Santa's real, he doesn't cure her Mom's cancer? Huh? Huh?

Miley dissolves in tears, and runs to Santa -- who's getting more insubstantial by the second. Miley begs Santa to forgive her for losing the debate. Santa tells Miley he'll always be in her heart, and thanks her and Zach for believing in him when others wouldn't. Senator Schmuck enters the barn. Miley realizes he's not at all surprised to see Santa again. She demands to know why Max is doing this, if he knows Santa exists.

The senator then confronts Santa with a piece of the coal left in his stocking. He's actually kept a souvenir of that traumatic incident, for all these years, and even carries it around with him. Obsessive little bugger, isn't he?

Instead of admitting it was a rotten thing to do, Santa launches into a tedious spiel -- during which he grows continually more opaque -- repeating for the slower ones in the audience that Max couldn't help turning out such a twisted little ferret because he was given everything but love. Then Santa crushes the coal in his hand, and lo! it's a ruby. (They never clarify whether Santa is supposed to have some kind of Superman Power Grip, or the ruby was just hidden inside the coal.)

You see, he explains, he gave Max the coal to make him look inward and realize what he really needed was love. Well, ok, never mind then. And this is supposed to make sense, how? Though I suppose there's an outside chance this is supposed to be Zen Santa, and the entire film was meant as one mind-fucker of a koan.

Nonetheless, Max somehow finds this absurdist drivel convincing and repents of his jerk-ish ways. After pushing his assistant onto a dungheap -- well, maybe he doesn't have to repent all at once -- he returns to the podium. Senator Schmuck tells the crowd he's seen the light, and realizes now that everyone needs to believe in Jeez -- er, Santa.

Santa regains his powers! This Schmuck guy really is astoundingly influential! Although it certainly is a sad comment on the fickle, easily-swayed nature of the American public. (Probably because so many of them aren't Authentic-Americans, like the Logans.) Here this politician who has about as much charisma as week-old roadkill on a busy highway in mid-July is able to lead a nation-wide movement, which succeeds in passing a Federal law to banish the Lor -- I mean, Santa -- from the minds of their children. Then all he has to do is have some second thoughts, and they instantly come over all "We do believe in Santa! We do! We do!"  

Whatever. Followed by Elliot the Evil Elf, a rejuvenated and dreadfully jolly Kris Kringle buggers off with a merry  "Ho! Ho! Ho!"

Two weeks later. It's Christmas Eve, and Mom's failing fast.

Santa's back, though, and he's rarin' to take on those tumors. Thanks to that grueling crash course he took in the interim at Oral Roberts University, he's able to magic Mom's cancer away.

But he's still broken the Prime Santa Directive. Oh, boy, now he's in for it!

In the twinkling of an eye, his magic and immortality privileges are revoked; he's stripped of his Santa suit, his Oak Ridge Boys wig and fake beard; worst of all, he's forced to dress like Junior Samples! Now he's just plain old Nick, while -- surprise! -- his accomplice Elliot has been transformed into a new convenience-size Santa, itching to begin his reign of terror. ("We're gonna need a bigger Naughty List!")

Christmas Day: Nick's cooking pancakes for his adopted family, as they relax after opening presents. Mom's glowing with health. Judging from the conversation, the children are perfectly aware their parents bought the gifts, which makes you wonder just what the hell all this treacle-soaked dreck was about in the first place. (Or would, if anyone by this point actually gave a damn.)

Nick, though, has also left the kids a present: The Book of Rules, which now has a Rule #4 - Rules are made to be broken. The End.

And now, a special holiday message to my fellow Crappers:

Comrades in the War on Christmas, this combination of whacked-out Christian theology and Santaria miracles is a disturbing new development in our fateful struggle. If we are to counter such effective propaganda, we must never falter in our determination to crush the imagination of each precious little child with our Scientific Rationalism, as a necessary prerequisite to our long-range goals of instituting Shari'a and Agenda 22.

(Though, obviously, we'd better re-think our plan to subvert the legislative process. I think Brooks has tumbled to it.)

Meanwhile, we must re-double our commitment to our Kenyan Socialist Leader, while faithfully following the precepts of the KringleKrieg. Not just at this special time of year, but every day, in every way.

What are these precepts? Hell, I don't know. You'd better ask that Brooks guy.

Time now to make a quick Sterno run. Then I can toss another nutcracker on the fire, put my feet up and commence to knocking back the “Squeeze” Nogs. Hopefully, a couple dozen of these will remove this cloying, pine-resin-y, Protocols-of-the-Elders-y aftertaste from my brain. Or render me comatose. At this point, both alternatives sound damned attractive.

God help us, every one!

(Seriously, though, you guys are the best, and writing these reviews has been a blast. Happy holidays!)


Dr.BDH said...

Who names their kid after a breakfast cereal? I see a lot of odd names at WoC medical clinic and rescue center (don't ask what we rescue, you wouldn't approve): Porche, Oakley, Ram, and the charming Deja Vue (I am not making this up). But Kix? Why not Cap'n Crunch or Froot Loop? This is why you can't have nice things, country folk...

maryclev said...

Until this movie review (Bravo, Hank-er, I mean Grouchomarxist!), I had never heard of Hope, Arizona, so I decided to look it up.

Here is the Wikipedia post (in full):

"Hope is a small unincorporated community in the deserts of La Paz County, Arizona, United States. Its name was inspired by the community's hope for increased business after merchants visited the town. Today, it consists of one RV park, one gas station, one church, and one antique store."

I think it's time to edit that entry to add: a modern skyscraper housing a TV network.

Weird Dave said...

I live in Arizona. There is no Hope*.

Oh, and did somebody say nutcracker?

*Arizona actually has some very nice places. Mostly where the people aren't.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

The senator then confronts Santa with a piece of the coal left in his stocking. He's actually kept a souvenir of that traumatic incident, for all these years, and even carries it around with him. Obsessive little bugger, isn't he?