The People’s Critic’s Top 10 Holiday ACTION Films!

Treeboom.jpgAn annual list of holiday films is a challenging endeavor once you’ve been at it for a while. I mean, sensibilities change slightly from year to year, but not enough to warrant developing a list that is nearly identical to the year’s previous list. Therefore, I have invented a gimmick to allow me to publish an annual holiday film list that is different enough from year to year and also will not damage my journalistic integrity by contradicting original recommendations. If you want to know my quintessential thoughts on the best overall holiday films, please see my 2014 list or my 2015 list.

So what’s the gimmick? Holiday films are themselves a subgenre of the various classic genres of film. In other words, we have holiday comedies, horrors, dramas, classics, tragedies, etc. Therefore, my intention is to offer a list of the best holiday films of a specific genre each year. 2016, for better or for worse, may go down as one of the most tumultuous years in recent memory. While “Tumult” is not a generally accepted genre, Action/Adventure certainly is. Therefore, this year the list is getting an action overhaul to reveal The People’s Critic’s Top Ten Holiday Action films of all time!

 

  1. reindeerReindeer Games – John Frankenheimer’s final film, Reindeer Games, does not generally enter the discussion as one of the director’s best efforts. However, when previous films include, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Grand Prix, and The French Connection…II (still pretty good though), you buy a little favor as you enter your final act. Reindeer Games does not find its way onto many top 10 lists, so I am honored to have crafted one that it most certainly (just barely) belongs on. Admittedly not a problem free film, Reindeer Games finds Ben Affleck coerced to assist in a Christmas Eve casino heist by Charlize Theron and her brother Gary Sinise.

  1. lethalLethal Weapon – Nothing says, have a holly, jolly Christmas like Mel Gibson, right? Well, the boys may be “getting too old for this shit” now, after four films and a television series, but back in 1987, the buddy duo of Murtaugh and Riggs was a new thing. Right from the start when a naked hooker swan dives out of a hotel room window to her death to the song, “Jingle Bells,” this film has the holiday spirit! A coke bust in a Christmas tree lot is just the icing on the cake. This film is a blast though. While the mismatch, buddy-cops does feel cliché now, this was the film that really put that formula on the map.

  1. majestyOn Her Majesty’s Secret Service – Not only the best Bond movie, but Diana Rigg is hands down the best Bond girl as well! George Lazenby’s sole entry as Bond sees 007 off to Switzerland in pursuit of that nasty Blofeld who threatens to release a lethal virus upon the world unless he receives a pardon for all of his previous crimes (perhaps this film would have been more aptly named, ‘Lethal Weapon’ than #9). The film is set around the holidays. They don’t play a major role, but there is a lot of snow everywhere, some dangerous Christmas gifts, and perhaps the worst Christmas song you’ve ever heard.

  1. imIron Man 3 – Occasionally I hear people ask, why hasn’t Marvel made a Christmas movie yet? Well, guess what? They did, and it was Iron Man 3.  Sure it was released in the month of May, but this one truly has a May/December relationship.  The holidays play a pivotal role here, whether it’s a scene at a 1999 New Years Eve party or a scene where Tony Stark tests out his new Iron Man suit to a funky rendition of “Jingle Bells” – the holiday spirit is there.  Iron Man 3 is a very smartly made film, and while it still addresses comic book staple themes like good/evil, identity, revenge, and freedom, an emergent theme can also be extracted from it – learning from mistakes.  This installment is Downey Jr.’s best as he tactfully and authentically balances humor, intensity, and sentimentality without ever missing a beat.

  1. batmanBatman Returns – A Tim Burton Christmas is always a good time. Add Batman and you have something really special. Megalomaniac and billionaire (sound eerily familiar?) Max Shreck (played by Christopher Walken) and Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (Danny DeVito) join forces in corrupt quest to take control of Gotham City. Another moody masterpiece from Burton using the holiday backdrop as a stark contrast to create a macabre, surreal experience for the viewer. Christmas imagery is turned on its head where ornaments and even trees are charismatic weaponry, rather than fun decorations.

  1. rockyRocky IV – Granted, this film probably has the least to do with the holidays than any of the others on this list. Still the climactic fight happens to be on Christmas, which qualifies it for the list. This is pure guilty pleasure watching as all of the tropes of the fighting genre are on full display. The epic battle between underdog Balboa and the superhuman Draggo (played by Dolph Lundgren) is worth the set-up though.

  1. gremGremlins – “No bright light, don’t’ get him wet, and whatever you do – don’t ever feed him after midnight.”  These are the three rules that are sure to be broken when Randall Peltzer brings his son Billy home a strange new pet for Christmas!  In no time Gremlins are unleashed on Kingston Falls. This film dances the line between horror/action and comedy with great results.

  1. prisoners2Prisoners – Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a construction worker who lives in a quiet New England suburb with his wife, teenage son, and six year old daughter. While spending Thanksgiving with the family of his life-long friend and neighbor, Franklin Birch (Terrance Howard), Keller and Franklin discover that both of their daughters are suddenly missing. With the help of Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the police, they are able to track down the RV and apprehend a suspect (Paul Dano), but due to his mental incapacity and lack of evidence, he is released. This sends Prisoners in a harrowing new direction as Keller and Franklin wade through some ethically murky waters in the search for their daughters. This is an intense one, and while not a traditional holiday film nor a traditional action film, it has both and is outstanding!

  1. jurassic-worldJurassic WorldHow will you spend your Christmas vacation? Why not at the same Costa Rican island where just 22 years prior, dinosaurs ran wild killing everyone in their path? That’s the premise of this blockbuster sequel whose cold-blooded characters heighten our warm blooded heartrates with more action and more “chaos.” Grab a cup of cocoa and hitch a ride on a raptor for this year’s number two holiday action film!

  1. dieDie Hard – Perhaps the film that made the holiday action film subgenre possible, Die Hard is a classic. That nasty Hans Gruber (played expertly by the great Alan Rickman, whom we lost earlier this year) takes control of the very office building where NYC cop John McClane’s wife, Holly, works. With all of the building inhabitants except John McClane now held hostage by Gruber and his band of terrorists, McClane finds himself the only one who can save Christmas…and the lives of his wife and her coworkers! Rickman makes “snarky, German terrorist” an art form and the action and the tone in this film are perfect. There’s just no topping this one.

What do you think?  Did I get it right or did I miss your favorite holiday film?  Let me know!

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

beastsDirector: David Yates

Screenwriter: J.K. Rowling

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Samantha Morton, and Ezra Miller

There is little debate that the Harry Potter book and film franchise are the paradigm of pop culture success. Rarely does “lightening” strike twice, but if there were a wizard who could do it, it would be J.K. Rowling. The first film in her Potter spin-off series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, pulses with the awe, beauty, and excitement of the original films and opens an entirely new chapter in the longevity and impact these characters will have on us for years to come.

Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, an English wizard fixated on magical and enchanted animals, and his efforts to study these creatures take him to America. Scamander is also writing a book detailing these animals. These “fantastic beasts” were not always as celebrated by the magical community as they were when a young boy named Harry Potter read about them in his Care of Magical Creatures class 70 years after the setting of this film. Yes, in 1926 these animals were villainized and terribly misunderstood; Scamander hopes to change that perception with his book. Scamander keeps his menagerie inside of an enchanted brief case that acts as a portal to an immense zoological park where he cares for and studies these animals. When this brief case is mixed up with that of a no-maj (the American word for muggle) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), things obviously get out of hand, and magical creatures are inadvertently set loose all over New York City. This draws the attention of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an officer of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, who desires to apprehend Scamander and bring him in. Meanwhile, a subversive extremist group of no-majs led by Mary-Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) wants to rid the world of witchcraft, causing even more trouble for Scamander, his animals, and all of wizarding kind.

Summing up the plots to this film is actually a very tall order. There are many moving parts in the storyline, but Rowling does an outstanding job of weaving together an entirely new mythology that of course will give way to the Potter-era material. It also doesn’t hurt to basically have the crew responsible for the previous four Potter films including director, David Yates back for this film. There is a visual and immersive quality that we have come to expect when entering the Harry Potter universe, and Yates delivers once again. The characters are delightful, realized, and fun, and the environments (including the aforementioned “fantastic beasts”) are dazzling and eye-catching.

One of the most cited components to the Harry Potter series’s success is that the content grows with the characters (and the audience). It’s no longer any kind of secret that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the first in a planned five-film series, so it figures that the same progression of sensibilities will take effect. With only the first film to analyze, I think Yates and Rowling strike the perfect initial tone here. There is a childlike, Dr. Doolittle innocence to Scamander and his animals, but that it balanced well with an emerging sense of darkness and danger. The most important factor to this film’s success, however may be Fogler’s turn as the clownish, Kowalski, a no-maj who due to certain circumstances is brought along for the ride. Rowling crafts Kowalski to act as our “Dante” being guided by Scamander’s Virgil through a wizarding Inferno, and it works! His scenes steal the show and likely will cause you to reach for that hanky in the final act.

If there is one thing to pick at with this film, it is that the climax of the film, while effective does have one, shall we say, “component”  that completely took me out of the movie. It remains to be seen if that “component” will be worthwhile down the line, but I am worried about it. That “component” aside, Potter-philes can rest assured; Rowling has done it again, and I can’t wait to see where things go from here! A-

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 13 minutes.

Doctor Strange

dr_strangeDirector: Scott Derrickson

Screenwriters: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, and Benedict Wong

If you’re like me, you watched 12 years a Slave in 2013 and during the scenes between Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup and Benedict Cumberbatch as plantation owner, William Ford, you thought – man these two guys would be great in a superhero film. Well, rejoice because just 3 years later, Doctor Strange is that film. But don’t rejoice too much because in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this film ranks at the bottom of my list. It has also been 3 years since Thor: The Dark World, which is the last time I wrote a sub-par review of a Marvel film, coincidentally. I think it was Jimmy Stewart who said, “Every time a Cumberbatch/Ejiofor film opens, a Marvel film will suck.” Something like that. Well, now two worlds collide, creating a Cumberbatch-paradox the like of which has never been seen since Cumberbatch solved the enigma code!

Doctor Strange answers the question: What if Tony Stark was a surgeon? Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a successful New York surgeon with an ego the size of Stark Tower. When distracted driving turns deadly, Strange is laid up in a hospital with irreparable damage to his hands essentially ending his medical career. Friend and fellow surgeon, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) attempts to comfort him, but she’s about as successful as Pepper Potts was at convincing a dejected Tony Stark to stop making robots. When Strange catches wind that a previously untreatable paralytic patient of his is suddenly miraculously recovered, he investigates leading him on a journey to Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu to find The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), in the hopes that he can be healed and resume his surgical supremacy.  The Ancient One sees more in Strange than a surgeon however and agrees to teach him despite his arrogance. Under the teachings of the Ancient One and another sorcerer named Mordo (Ejiofor), Strange learns that the Earth is protected from other dimensions by three mystical sanctums in three separate global locations, and it is the job of the sorcerers to protect these sanctums.  He also learns the ancient spells that allow him to access various panes and dimensions of existence permitting him to bend space and time to open portals of access throughout the planet (and maybe beyond based on the post-credit scenes).

tilda
Opening interdimensional portals with Kate McKinnon as The Ancient One on SNL
A technique also taught by Kate McKinnon as Tilda Swinton on Saturday Night Live during Cumberbatch’s monologue on the November 5th, 2016 episode. Much of this ancient knowledge is under the protection of the Librarian, whose name is Wong (Benedict Wong).

What did the Librarian say when he was asked if it was fun playing Sherlock Holmes on TV?  

-You have the Wong Benedict!
 A previous apprentice named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) has recently gone rogue, slaying the previous Librarian and stealing an ancient spell that could destroy the sanctums and unlock the power of the Dark Dimension. Now Strange must battle Kaecilius to protect the Earth from what lies in the Dark Dimension.

So, what’s wrong with Doctor Strange? Not everything. I’d like to take a moment in this review to say I still rather enjoyed Doctor Strange. I also did like parts of Thor: The Dark World; I gave it a B-, but Marvel has set the bar so high, that films that sink to the bottom still have merit. Visually, this is the most ambitious and dazzling film in all 14 Marvel films. Clearly inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the sequences of inter-dimensional shifting and battles are breathtaking and outstanding, so kudos director Scott Derrickson who leaves his horror comfort zone behind for sci-fi/fantasy blockbuster territory. Still, like Barack Obama said, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” Oddly enough, many of the same problems I had with Thor: The Dark World are present in Doctor Strange. The film plays with so many already established archetypes and story devices, for the first time I experienced the feeling that some of this is getting old. I enjoyed Cumberbatch as the title character and I can easily picture some incredible opportunities for his character and powers in other films. Still as far as his stand-alone film, it suffers from too much, “been there, done that.” Another male, egotistical genius battling his arrogance for enlightenment. Another intergalactic time and space mess characteristic of Thor: The Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy, both of which share the bottom ranking in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Doctor Strange. Another recycled hero cycle story-line. It remains clear that the most attention was spent on the digital effects this time around, as opposed to punching up the dialogue, plot, and placement in terms of the other films in the franchise. The climax, however was quite clever. Still, I’d be far more excited to see Stephen Strange become a Bruce Banner-type who is an endearing and forceful player in the overall universe, but not in his own films. Of course, here we are going into the film’s second weekend and it’s projected to cross the $400 million mark at the global box office, so Doctor Strange 2 is an inevitability.

So what grade does the #14 out of 14 MCU films get from The People’s Critic? The clever climax and impressive effects are bogged down by the slow-paced second half, recycled content, and flat characters. Therefore, for the first time, I have to dig through the Basement and award a Marvel film a C+

Doctor Strange is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes. There are two post-film scenes: one mid-way through the credits, and another after the credits, both of which are marginally important enough to endure the 10 minute credits to see.