Review of “Krampus”

Christmas is for children. It’s the kind of sentiment expressed by those who see the holiday as an obligation: Buying presents for people you barely know or don’t like that much because it is expected of you. You must wade into massive crowds of people doing exactly the same thing you are, choosing to purchase anything that might be considered appropriate just to check a name off a list, spending your last dime and/or going into more debt, not out of the spirit of giving but a sense of requirement. While a few people may be able to find some joy in this orgy of consumerism, most feel their soul die a little bit and can’t wait for it to be over. This can lead to an outright death of the Christmas Spirit which opens the door to something much darker: Krampus.

Max (Emjay Anthony) is the youngest child of Tom and Sarah (Adam Scott and Toni Collette). It’s almost Christmas and Max wants everyone to enjoy the traditions he’s remembered all his life. Sadly the pressures of preparing for Sarah’s sister Linda and her husband Howard (Allison Tolman and David Koechner) and their four kids and bulldog has sapped the joy from both his parents. His sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) just wants to leave everyone behind and be with her stoner boyfriend. The only person who seems to have any Christmas Spirit is his German grandmother Omi (Krista Stadler) as she continues to bake cookies and other treats in the kitchen. The big dinner with the whole family, and the surprise edition of crusty Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), turns into a catastrophe when a couple of Howard’s kids get a hold of Max’s letter to Santa Claus, reading it out loud at the table and exposing some of the barely hidden cracks in both families. Max attacks his cousins and gets the letter back. Later in his room, Max tears up the letter in disgust and throws it out the window where it is sucked up into the sky by a sudden violent wind. Almost immediately a blizzard begins and the power goes out. Everyone assumes the lights will be back on soon but Omi knows something much more ominous is heading their way to punish them for their lack of Christmas Spirit.

“Krampus” is possibly the new American holiday classic that will not be that popular in its initial release but will find a second life and cult following on cable in future years. The opening scenes of chaos at a big box store (customers fighting over stuffed animals, trampling each other, getting tazered by security officers, crying children huddled under Christmas trees) all shown in slow motion and set to a Bing Crosby holiday song could be the stock footage shown on the news on Black Friday. Christmas seems to bring the worst out of some people who are perfectly normal and pleasant any other time of the year. “Krampus” is the kind of movie Fox News would attack as being part of the “War on Christmas” when in fact it is an indictment of consumerism and letting the spirit of the holiday be extinguished by all the peripheral garbage we’ve added on to it.

Everything about the families in “Krampus” screams success: Tom and Sarah have a big, comfortable house that is tastefully furnished, Howard and Linda drive a massive Hummer and their kids are involved in sports both as participants and as fans. Howard even makes a crack about how Tom and Sarah are rich. Despite their apparent monetary success, neither family is shown as being satisfied. Both are examples of the saying “Money can’t buy happiness.” Max is the character that exemplifies the innocence of youth and, by extension, the desire of the audience to be returned to a simpler time as shown in movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “White Christmas.” Max also shows how that’s impossible and sets off the events that lead to the arrival of Krampus and his evil minions.

While I enjoyed the film and the performances of the excellent cast, I don’t think the filmmakers went as far as they needed to with either the horror or the humor. While the movie features a massive monster you never get a really good look at along with other nasty creatures including deadly gingerbread cookie men, there isn’t really anything scary about the movie. Some scenes promise a fright with a tense build up but the payoffs are rather mild and nothing gets the pulse racing. With several cast members known for their humorous roles, the film is largely devoid of any major laughs as well. Oddly enough the character that most consistently delivers a funny line is Conchata Ferrell’s Aunt Dorothy. She’s ready with a zinger at just about every turn. Even her last line during one of the major action scenes is designed for a laugh. Sadly, the funny isn’t as consistently delivered by the rest of the cast. I understand that considering it’s supposed to be a horror movie; however, the scary isn’t there as much as it needs to be either so the absence of each amplifies the need for both.

“Krampus” is rated PG-13 for some drug material, sequences of horror violence, language and terror. A bong is shown in one scene. There are a couple of scenes where something is under the snow chasing a character and dragging them under with the sound of a “chomp.” We see various scary looking creatures chasing and capturing family members. Guns are fired at various times at the creatures. A Christmas tree gets set on fire nearly destroying the house. Foul language is scattered but there is on “F-bomb.”

I identify with the feelings of young Max in “Krampus” a bit too closely for comfort. I would like to experience the same wonder I did as a child and as a young adult for that matter at the sight of a Christmas tree, the joy from hearing the first holiday song and the tingle of anticipation as the gifts would begin to stack up under the tree. I’m afraid all that is lost to me now as the hassle of crowds in stores and the mounting pressure of how to pay for all the holiday cheer has turned me into a coldhearted grown up. I suppose I’d best prepare my wife for the arrival of the shadow of St. Nicholas and to just accept the consequences. You, on the other hand, can save yourself by making a donation to the charity of your choice instead of buying a couple of needless Christmas gifts for someone who doesn’t want or need anything.

“Krampus” gets four stars out of five.

Only one new film in wide release this week as we prepare for the craziness that is “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” I’ll be seeing and reviewing “In the Heart of the Sea.”

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Review of “Black Mass”

James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) is a violent mobster that runs most of the crime in South Boston. His brother William (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a state senator with no connection to his brother’s criminal doings. FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) grew up with the Bulger brothers in the same low income project. Whitey even saved Connolly when he was getting beat up by a gang of neighborhood boys. Now stationed in the Boston office, Connolly believes he can use Whitey as an informant to get valuable information about the Angiulo Brothers, a powerful crime family with ties to the mafia. Connolly approaches William hoping he will talk to Whitey on his behalf. Initially reluctant, William does mention Connolly to Whitey. When they meet, Whitey is resistant to the idea of helping the FBI but figures he can use them to take out his rivals in the Italian mob. Connolly promises Whitey his gang will have a wide berth with the FBI as long as they aren’t involved with drugs and don’t kill anyone. Whitey provides the location of the Angiulo Brothers headquarters and the FBI plants listening devices to gather intelligence. Whitey then uses what is essentially protection from the FBI to expand his operations and fill the vacuum left by the dismantling of the Italian mob. As time goes by Connolly’s boss Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) and his assistant Robert Fitzpatrick (Adam Scott) notice much of the information attributed to Bulger is actually copied from reports given by other informants. Connolly, who never had any real control over Bulger, is actually giving the mobster information that is leading to the deaths of any FBI informant that gives the agency dirt on Bulger. Connolly’s life is spinning out of control and both Bulger and the FBI are putting pressure on him to deliver results.

Real life crime dramas, or those that feel like real life, have a special place in my heart. Watching the events of “The Godfather” or “GoodFellas” play out, getting to know the characters, seeing them enter into a life of crime believing it to be easily manageable and then finding out it is all consuming and the toll it takes on their relationships and sanity is, if done well, absolutely fascinating. Based on the book “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob” by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Johnny Depp stars in “Black Mass” as James “Whitey” Bulger, the eye of the hurricane, the center of calm surrounded by chaos and destruction. While Bulger doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty from time to time, he leaves most of the death dealing to his associates. Bulger maintains an air of control and absolute knowledge, instilling fear in his underlings by making those he suspects of disloyalty disappear from the face of the Earth. Bulger is never to be questioned, teased, threatened or shown disrespect under threat of death. Depp is consumed by the visage of Bulger, displacing any resemblance to Capt. Jack Sparrow and Charlie Mortdecai and Tonto and Willy Wonka. This is not a man to be trifled with. This is evil with thinning hair and scary blue eyes. This may be the best character work in Depp’s career and he may be up for an Oscar.

“Black Mass” lives and dies on Depp’s performance and the film has plenty of health to spare. The rest of the cast also pumps life into the rest of the characters. Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and, in smaller roles, Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson, Rory Cochrane and others flesh out parts with quality acting work despite limited screen time. The one scene Depp has with Connolly’s wife, played by Nicholson, could have been considered a bit of throw away business; however, the tension and implied threat by Bulger towards his FBI handler’s wife is so thick and menacing, it sticks out as a highlight of a film filled with memorable scenes.

Not all the best parts involve violence and threats of violence. Depp’s Bulger is a doting father in his own way. He has a son with Lindsey Cyr played by Dakota Johnson. He gives the boy some godfatherly advice about handling a situation privately. After all, if no one sees you do something, it didn’t happen. Bulger’s gentleness extends to his neighbors in South Boston, helping an elderly woman get her groceries inside her home and telling his thugs to make sure she has everything she needs. He also has a playful relationship with his mother, letting her win a few hands of Gin while sweetly teasing her about cheating. These moments of normalcy provide sharp contrast and welcome relief from the violence that permeates Bulger’s business dealings.

The entire film is a fascinating look at how sometimes law enforcement enters uneasy alliances with criminals. While Bulger did give the FBI some information that helped bust up the local Mafia, the film says he used his relationship with his former neighbor and now FBI agent to better his own criminal business. The story of how law enforcers and law breakers can make the line between them disappear is certainly troubling but it also creates a myriad of emotional conflicts and ethical compromises that “Black Mass” uses to turn the good guys into questionable characters and the bad guys into borderline heroes. While the story is fairly simple and easy to follow it weaves a complicated tapestry of loyalty and lawlessness and how one can lead to the other.

“Black Mass” is rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use. There are numerous on-screen killings including strangulation, multiple gunshot wounds to the body and head shots as well as a couple of bloody on-screen beatings. There is one slang reference to oral sex as well as a slur calling someone a homosexual. There is a brief scene of a character snorting cocaine. Foul language is common throughout the film.

Johnny Depp had been a on a bit of a losing streak recently with less than successful films such as “The Lone Ranger,” “Transcendence,” and “Mortdecai” all losing money (and in the case of “The Lone Ranger,” a great deal of money). While he can always depend on the next installment of the “Pirates of the Caribbean,” films, due in 2017, to do well at the box office, Depp probably also needs a film that is a critical success to maintain his status as one of the most in demand actors in the world. “Black Mass” should be the critical darling that allows him to maintain his popularity among film executives. Its relatively low production budget of $53 million probably means a film that will turn a profit after worldwide distribution. This is all good news for Depp; but it also works out well for moviegoers since “Black Mass” is a riveting experience best seen on a big screen. And unlike most other releases at the local multiplex it’s a film you will think about after leaving the theatre.

“Black Mass” gets five stars out of five.

This week, hungry natives, friendly bloodsuckers and an older than average intern desire your attention at theatres; I’ll see and review at least one of them.

The Green Inferno—

Hotel Transylvania 2—

The Intern—

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