There are a number of good reasons why this reviewer hates every Christmas movie besides “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“Christmas With the Kranks” might just be the purest possible expression of why.
The current model for Christmas flicks (the Governator’s “Jingle All the Way” comes to mind) spends an hour and 15 minutes bombarding the audience with corny one-liners about the worst possible aspects of the holiday: commercialism, greed, stress. Then, at the last possible second, there’s the patent-pending Moment of Holiday Clarity as “Silent Night” plays softly, everyone hugs and Christmas joy abounds as they walk into the cinnamon-scented house and close the door.
The problem with “Christmas With the Kranks” (in addition to being inane, shrill and overwhelmingly stupid) is that someone forgot to tack on the hopeful message of Christmas being about more than gifts and colored lights.
Based on the novel “Skipping Christmas” by mega-lo-novelist John Grisham (the title had to be changed to avoid confusion with the similarly crummy Ben Affleck vehicle “Surviving Christmas”), “Kranks” is the story of Luther (Tim Allen) and Nora (Jamie Lee Curtis) Krank, a pair of empty-nesters living in an idyllic suburb of Chicago. With their only daughter shipping out with the Peace Corps for Peru, Luther has an idea: Instead of spending the $6,000 they usually do on decorations, presents, cards and other Christmas goodies, they could shell out half of that for a Caribbean cruise. Nora agrees. The problem is, after word gets around that they’re not going to be decorating their house for Christmas, their nog-happy neighbors — led by block captain Vic Frohmeyer (Dan Aykroyd) turn into a kind of Ho-Ho Gestapo, stalking and harassing the Kranks to try and make them to get with the holiday program.
In the real world, lawsuits, warrants and restraining orders would fly. But here, Luther and the neighbors trade jabs Three Stooges-style while Nora cowers in the house, shivering under the covers like a Chihuahua. It’s not until the last minute — when their daughter, Blair (Julie Gonzalo), calls home unexpectedly to tell them she’s flying in for Christmas with her new boyfriend — that Luther and Nora rush around town trying to scrape together a Christmas feast and decorations.
Predictable, lame and unfunny from the first flicker of light on the screen, “Christmas With the Kranks” seems more like a really long episode of a bad sitcom than a movie.
Too, with its “let’s run around and decorate” scenes in the last few frames, “Christmas with the Kranks” seems to be saying that those who shuffle off to worship at the Temple of Consumerism every Dec. 25 are right — that Christmas is all about the baked ham and the colored lights, that it isn’t enough to have far-flung family members close to you, that you have to max out the Visa in order to be happy. It’s a bitter cherry on top of one very stale holiday fruitcake.
— By David Koon
Foreign films too often just don’t connect with those crucial pressure points that make movies work for an English-speaking audience: Passion. Anger. Love. Humor. Differences in language and culture can be like a wall sometimes, and with plenty of great English-language films out there, it’s perfectly reasonable that some people would rather not waste their energy trying to scale it.
That’s why it’s so nice to come across a film like “Zelary.” Filmed in the Czech Republic, and a 2004 nominee for the Academy Award for best foreign language film, it handily breaches the barriers of language and culture by sheer grace.
Set in Czechoslovakia during World War II, “Zelary” is the story of Eliska (Ana Geislerova), a vivacious medical student and nurse who is also a member of the Prague Resistance, working against the Nazi presence in the city. After a close shave while delivering a communique, Eliska learns from her superiors that the Gestapo knows who she is and is on her trail. Given fake papers and told to flee the city, she is paired up with Joza (Gyorgy Cserhalmi), a simple farmer from the secluded mountain village of Zelary. To make everything look on the up-and-up, Eliska is married to Joza and moves into his rustic cabin, crying into the night about her fate.
Though the marriage is all a cover and they have almost nothing in common but their fear of discovery by sporadic Nazi patrols in the area, after weeks of witnessing Joza’s kindness and small acts of courage, Eliska can’t help but fall in love with him. At the same time, she falls in love with his town, making friends and finding herself apprenticed to local midwife and granny doctor Lucka (Jaroslava Adamova), a task that affords her a glimpse into both the best and worst the people of Zelary have to offer. As the curtain falls on the Third Reich, however, the clouds of war unexpectedly roll in, leading to no good for all.
In the end, what makes “Zelary” so successful is how quiet it is. Most American films — and even most European films — suck all the air out of the theater, filling up the empty space with needless words masquerading as essential truth. Here, however, the characters are allowed to have silences that are as awkward as their thrust-together relationship. The result is like watching ballet with the sound off — all about nuance and body language, full of scenes that often turn simply on a glance, a gesture, or a pause.
Moving, intimate and luminously filmed, with performances that would bear mention no matter what language they were delivered in, “Zelary” is the foreign film for people who don’t like foreign films.
— By David Koon
Also, Rebecca Gaye Howell at the Oxford American Annex, KUHS FM, 97.9 fundraiser at Maxine's in Hot Springs, Stone Throw's Birthday Bash, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell at the Walmart AMP and Cary Hudson at White Water Tavern.
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