I Care a Lot: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels II: Dirty Rotten Lesbians

“You wanna know how nasty a lesbian I am, punk? On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m an Ellen.”

There are lots of reasons you can not care for a movie: a premise done a million times; a screenplay full of clichés; hacky acting; ugly, clumsy camera work.

I Care a Lot has none of those issues. It’s an original story idea based in a part of our culture we rarely see in movies. The writing is clever and cracking. The acting committed beyond what many performers would feel comfortable adding to their resume. The direction is sly and cinematography stylish as hell. Even the music is wisely restrained.

Technically, it’s terrific. Why this can still be a ‘bad’ film to me comes down to its tonal hollowness. Granted, I watched it the night after I saw Nomadland, so the 180 really threw me. And there are ‘pitch black comedy/thrillers’ (the kind of labored description used for films like this) that I’ve enjoyed. 

But I Care a Lot takes a genuinely disturbing issue – the systemic, physical and psychological abuse of the elderly –  and says “there’s nothing we can do about it, so let’s just use it as set-up for a crazy thriller.” Some will argue that the lead’s exaggerated cruelty serves to highlight just how evil the system can be, but the film keeps undermining this conceit by trying to give us reasons to root for that lead. 

Warning: spoilers ahead. But then this is a movie gleefully wallowing in its spoil, so…

The film opens soberly, in a court hearing where a son argues that he’s being denied access to his mother, who’s being interred against her will by her court-appointed guardian. We feel for the guy and his unseen mother, which makes us question whether this can really happen or if it’s exaggerated for the plot. A little digging says it is accurate. Courts can indeed give legal guardians a shocking amount of power over an elderly person’s life, without ever hearing direct witness from that elderly person. Family can appear – or be made to appear – either naïve or opportunistic about the diminished condition of an elderly relative, with the impartial courts as the only way to insure their safety. It’s a tragic situation, and we enter the story with disgust for the villainous protagonist taking advantage of it.

Marla Grayson, played by Rosemund Pike with the commitment mentioned earlier, is that villain. Introduced in a form-fitting red dress and a blonde bob so severe she could cut your throat just by turning her head, she is clearly the devil in Nikita disguise. Why does someone who cares for the elderly have to look dowdy, this movie challenges us. OK, cool, we say, because it’s Rosemund Pike in great accessories. And why wouldn’t the Black male judge be such putty in the hands of this gorgeous white woman, the movie challenges us. Ok, cool, we say, because…actually not cool at all, but let’s move on.

Marla has built a successful business out of her guardianship con, with doctors and elderly care facilities and courts with gullible Black male judges complicit. As Marla returns from her court triumph over the distraught son, we meet a young woman who appears to be her assistant, and secretly hope there’s more to the relationship because this actress is haw-haw-haw-hawttt

Our hopes are realized! Marla and Fran (Eiza Gonzales) are doin’ it, and Fran is a partner in the scamming. They get their crooked lady doctor friend – who is also hot though we don’t know her sexual preferences – to pass them one of her patients, a prime target referred to as a ‘cherry’. Pop! go our devious duo. 

Jennifer (Diane Wiest) is a wealthy retiree with no family, who has recently shown some minimal memory loss, which the doctor will exaggerate to recommend guardianship. We then get to see Marla’s process unfold. It is ugly, involving psychological abuse that turns physical later.

She immediately sequesters Jennifer in a care facility run by an accomplice, drugging her into compliance. While clearing out Jennifer’s assets for auction, the proceeds of which will go mostly into her pockets, Marla discovers a fortune in undocumented loose diamonds hidden in a safe deposit box. Jennifer has a secret, and it shows up in the form of Russian mobster Roman (Peter Dinklage, thankfully sans accent).

The story gets briefly shadowed by The Good Liar, in which Helen Mirren plays a seemingly helpless older woman who proves to be duplicitous. I Care a Lot quickly dodges, though, putting Jennifer under further abuse as Marla uses her in a battle of wills with Roman. 

The bleak, cynical tone shifts to dark comedy/thriller. Despicable as they are, Marla and Fran are devoted to each other, and so, so hot, that maybe we’ll root for them. They’re aided by the depiction of the mobsters, who aren’t the ruthless, efficient Russian mob we get in movies like Eastern Promises, but more like the crew from Barry, so hapless that Marla can easily beat them. 

Marla is supposed to be an irredeemable villain, but a great actress can’t help but to nuance a character. Pike lets barely perceptible flashes of concern cross her rigid features when threatened, and suggests a genuine love in her exchanges with Fran. As movie-goers, our demand for justice, for an evil character to get their comeuppance, is ingrained. Pike taunts us with this, her performance trying to unbalance our righteous indignation. As in Gone Girl, she challenges the way we see unflattering female characters.

After convenient escapes from the jaws of death/defeat, Marla and Fran manage to incapacitate Roman, who, being a mobster, has wiped out ways for the system to trace him. He is left a John Doe, and what does the system do with incapacitated John Does? It assigns them a legal guardian. Cut to Marla’s fabulous, knife-sharp stilettoes propped up on Roman’s hospital bed. This sounds like just the right ending for a movie like this. But it’s not. 

Marla turns her scam global, upping her abuse of the elderly and their families from a few dozen to thousands. Her evil is swollen to hideous proportions as a seeming comment on rabid capitalism. How are we supposed to react to this?

Imagine how this gonzo, farcical tone would play if instead of elderly abuse, Marla was running a scam involving caging immigrants at the border with the complicity of local authorities and ICE. Both tragedies are all too real, so why is one of them ok as fodder for this style of filmic treatment but the other not?

Does a well-written plot and committed performance keep you watching? Yes. But as we’ve seen so much lately with tech billionaires and teflon politicians, you can admire the cleverness of something and still find it gross.

I Care a Lotis streaming on Netflix.

Nomadland: A road trip is just what we need right now, and Frances McDormand is driving.

She always knows something we don’t.

This New Age of Realism (Nouvelle Verite?) Hollywood is getting into lately – where documentary-style techniques and non-actors are woven into traditional story arcs played by trained actors – is as tricky as it sounds. The goal is to remove the artifice as much as possible, but if your lead is too polished, the light reflected on everything else ruins the effect.

When movie people say about an actress “the camera loves her”, they’re typically referring to that light. It’s both technical – the way movie light plays on the planes of her face – and the intangible light from within. For a female movie star, especially one as lauded as Frances McDormand, the ability to switch that off is crucial for this mash-up to work.

The opening titles of Nomadland tell us of a real mining town in Nevada, ironically called Empire, that literally disappeared off the map (its Zip Code was cancelled) after the U.S. Gypsum mine there closed in 2011. McDormand’s fictional character, Fern, is from this real dead town, forced out alone onto the harsh plains of the American West after the loss of her husband, company-owned house and steady income. She becomes a nomad, living in her van, driving great distances for itinerant work and refusing every anchor offered her. She has no goal or lofty dreams, no destination other than the next gig that will keep her in gas and food. She’s resigned to be a ghost chained to the earthly plane by manual labor.

To make this film, director Chloe Zhao brought McDormand into the world of real houseless nomads of the American West, whom the director had met and interviewed prior. All the characters Fern meets on the road – except for one which I’ll get to – are non-actors playing versions of themselves. We anticipate a documentary-ish mood piece, where the actress herself, as much as her character, drifts among these people, listening to their stories along with us. ‘Making’ herself one of them works because of McDormand’s unmatched flexibility as an actor, and would be just enough of a layer for this experiment to become transcendent. We get these transcendent moments, but we do also get a scripted storyline that requires scenes in which McDormand has to act, has to show her movie star light, rather than just be.

I’m not saying it spoils anything. Watching McDormand act is a distinct pleasure. But it takes us out of the realism in those moments. Like I said, it’s a tricky mix.

Zhao focuses the narrative on three nomads, all playing themselves. We first meet Linda May, who befriends Fern and introduces her to the larger nomad community. Another woman, Swankie, became a nomad when she learned she was dying of cancer, and mesmerizes Fern with anecdotes about her experiences with nature. A man named Bob Wells leads a regular gathering in Arizona called the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, where nomads support each other by passing along work opportunities, trading essential tools and knowledge, and providing camaraderie that, no matter how desirous of isolation, every soul needs. 

Then we meet a fictional nomad played by David Strathairn. He’s here for the more scripted storyline, to try to pull Fern toward that which she resists, which is settling down. The problem isn’t so much that he’s a recognizable actor thrown into a group of non-actors, it’s that we don’t need his character to understand Fern’s reasons for ghosting herself. What there is to be told she slowly relates to the characters we’re more drawn to, characters we never see in movies – real people living this kind of life. Nothing McDormand and Strathairn do together tears your heart out like an exchange between Fern and Bob Wells where they each open up about loss. 

It’s these scenes, Fern amongst the real nomads, that make the movie unique and unforgettable. The tales related feel as natural and eternal as the stunning landscapes they’re set against, even though some must have been practiced. Zhao likely heard stories in her initial interviews she felt were particularly beautiful or poetic, and asked the person to retell it when they shot the film. This actually makes the words resonate more, to have a careful director lightly fan them up into the starry South Dakota sky along with the embers from a campfire.

Many of the nomads point to the 2008 recession as what drove them into this lifestyle, but the way Zhao frames their world makes it more mythical. Using a dried-up mining town in the Old West to introduce the story, and then the endless horizons of the plains and deserts and badlands as a backdrop, she sets a nostalgic, ‘lost America’ tone that lingers over everything. It lends nobility to the characters that comes from our own nostalgia for unspoiled places and simpler times when people didn’t care so much about money and success. Zhao also goes to pains to avoid any sense that she’s exploiting the inherent oddness of these cultural outsiders, or turning them into victims.

This, in the end, is the biggest deal of this movie. It is not trying to roil indignation in us at what the cruelties of capitalism have done to these people, the way the world ignores them. It is not trying to make us feel guilty that our lives are more comfortable and safe. It does not let us laugh at them or pity them.

It simply and respectfully shows us the world they’ve created out of both necessity and desire, and what about that world brings them contentment. Maybe all this movie wants is for each of us to look at the world we’ve created for ourselves, remember what about it makes us content, and embrace that.

Nomadlandis currently streaming on Hulu.

Pieces of a Woman: Vanessa Kirby has a midwife crisis.

“I want pickles, ice cream, and a better director.”

Childbirth is one of the only depictions in movies that female actors can claim as their own (Billy Crystal, put your hand down). When we get a labor scene, the ladies can mug and cuss and chew scenery in whatever way they want and no male viewer has the right to question whether it feels authentic. So, as a guy, watching Vanessa Kirby go through labor in the opening scene of Pieces of a Woman and actually feeling it, relating to it, is a pretty unique experience.

Kirby is Martha, who is way over-pregnant when she and her partner Sean (Shia LeBeouf in a beard you do not want to smell) get home with the new SUV her mother bought them. We already know something’s amiss because they are way too excited over a Toyota. They live in a nice Boston brownstone full of Design Within Reach furniture, she has a corner office in a sleek glass tower downtown, he’s a construction foreman on a major bridge project in the last union-run town on earth, and they have to have the mother buy them a $35,000 car? Somebody’s hiding something, and I’m guessing that something is logic and the screenwriter is the culprit.

But wow does Kirby give us a childbirthin’! Her belches and farts are totally realistic (they sound like Chipotle to me, but could be Taco Bell) as she contorts in every way imaginable to find a bearable position to settle her swollen belly. The sequence is done in a single take, the camera stumbling through hallways and rooms as it follows Sean doing Martha’s erratic bidding then runs back to check on Martha moaning and farting.

Martha wanted to have her first child at home using a midwife, but the one she’s been practicing with for months is right in the middle of another client’s labor. Martha demands she leave the other client immediately, because every woman in labor gets to turn into a Real Housewife whenever she wants. Instead of going to the hospital, the couple agree to use a substitute midwife recommended by the original one. If you’ve ever had a substitute teacher in school who has no idea of the lesson plan so just lets you read the whole period, you know what’s coming.

It’s awful to watch. Martha and Sean get to hold their newborn daughter for two minutes before the baby starts turning blue, the midwife unable to revive her. By the time the breathtaking and heartbreaking sequence is over, you’re ready to award this film Best Narrative Short. Too bad it’s a feature length movie.

Now the logic gaps start appearing like potholes on a dreary stretch of road. First and foremost, this coupling makes no sense in any world. Yes, opposites can attract, but LeBeouf, committed actor that he is, has been goaded too much lately by inexperienced directors to go down a rabbit hole of erratically violent characterizations. In the right movie, fine. But here, where you need to see something in him that the erudite, self-aware Martha would be attracted to, it’s bad casting and directing. When things get to the point where LeBeouf, loaded as he is with his off-screen behavior, is made to channel Sean’s grief by raping Martha, my annoyance tilted to disgust. There was absolutely no need for the narrative to go there, and you can just picture producer Martin Scorsese nodding approvingly on set. And LeBeouf being escorted back to rehab for the fourth time right afterward.

Then the plot turns to Martha’s overbearing mother, played by the brilliant but also miscast Ellen Burstyn. Kirby looks to be in her early 30s, while Burstyn is clearly pushing 80. And just when we agree to stretch for the movie’s sake and believe she could be late 60s, they dash that by giving her character a Holocaust Backstory™! And we get it through another display of the director’s inexperience, when he stops the narrative in its tracks to give Burstyn her Best Supporting Actress Monologue™.

The incongruities keep stumbling along. It seems the baby’s death is a set-up for a competing plot, itself a mash-up of B story lines from House and CSI. Martha’s mother and Sean orchestrate a wrongful death lawsuit against the substitute midwife, which Martha wants no part of. The lawyer, played by Sarah Snook from Succession (or maybe it’s Biden’s new press secretary?), is expensive, though, and mother’s pockets are only Toyota deep. So how do they pay her? No guess would be more idiotic than what we actually get: the lawyer agrees to take the case after sucking Sean’s cock. We saw Sean’s cock in the rape scene, and take it from an expert, it is not worth $300 an hour. How desperate are Boston women?

This movie goes through such machinations to say ‘Look at me, I’m serious filmmaking!” that it too often sidelines the simple, devastating narrative of a mother’s journey through the loss of a child.

Thank god we have Kirby to watch. It takes a lot of talent for a subtle, nuanced performance to pull our attention from all the dramatic showboating and belabored plot-making, and she feels like she’s in a different, much better, film. The acclaim she’s getting comes not just from the virtuoso performance in the opening, but from the novel way she navigates through the bereaved mother trope we’ve seen so many times. Refusing to play sympathetic without crossing over into unlikeable is tricky, and the breakthrough she saves for the climax feels genuinely cathartic instead of Screenwriting 101.

Will the filmmakers leave us with Kirby’s beautifully-paced and satisfying arc through grief? Nope! Someone told them Americans need their movies wrapped up with a happy bow, so we get a BS ending that nearly spoils the work Kirby has done.

The amateurishness of the production shows even in the editing, where repetitive close-ups of female body parts – literally pieces of a woman – are used as scene transitions. 

Maybe they’d have had a better result if they’d titled this Pieces of a Good Movie.

Pieces of a Woman is currently streaming on Netflix. 

Wonder Woman 1984: This goddess-awful mess gives women just what they don’t deserve.

Gal Gadot gazes wistfully at the Marvel universe.

Rejoice, fellow superhero fans! The Wonder Woman franchise is finally back, just in time to brighten our quarantine. Oh, thank you, Warner Bros and HBO Max, for not making us pay for a $20 Dolby seat spaced six feet away from a shut-in who may be carrying COVID and is certainly carrying feline AIDS.

Here’s the plot we’ve been waiting three years for: It’s 1984, and Kristen Wiig wishes she could learn how to walk in high heels to attract Asian tech nerds. RuPaul hasn’t been invented yet, so Kristen finds a magic wishing stone to realize her big dream. Abra cadabra, and she’s rocking rhinestone platform stripper heels, which also hadn’t been invented yet, chunky highlights and a mall dress. Now she’s so hot she wants to remove the only obstacle to becoming the hottest woman in the world – Wonder Woman. Kristen is aided by Pedro Pascal, a gaudy TV personality who takes over the Presidency so is clearly supposed to be riffing on Trump. If you think I’m describing a weak SNL skit with host Gal Gadot, you are mistaken. If you think this sounds like it is directed by one of Hollywood’s man-child big-budget directors, you are also mistaken. It was co-written and directed by Patty Jenkins, a grown woman, who made the first terrific Wonder Woman but has clearly tucked her vagina into a backwards baseball cap for this.

The filmmakers want to have fun with tacky 1984, so they first cleanse our palate in the classically tasteful Themyscira of Diana/WW’s youth. Diana is 10 years old and competing with grown Amazon women in an obstacle-course challenge that is no more interesting than a typical episode of American Gladiator, other than it’s conducted on giant bathroom fixtures. It is all CGI work and no play. Robin Wright is back, even more ripped and heavily-accented, but, alas, she’s only here to teach Diana a Lesson About Truth, and us a lesson about expecting DC to make more than one decent movie per decade. 

We move to 1984 and immediately meet every important character in two minutes. Diana strides by TV screens of Pascal’s oily pitchman Maxwell Lord selling his Ponzi scheme and then bumps into the nerdy new girl at the office who can’t walk in heels, Wiig’s Barbara Minerva, which is not the character’s name from the original comic and trying too hard to be clever (Diana and Minerva were both Roman deities). 

Diana’s still working at that artifact place and running out periodically on wacky escapades to save people from mishaps at the mall, like falling over railings and running up the down escalator. Even the Wonder Woman 80s TV series wasn’t this silly! You go, Patty! Show us how low-budget action is done with $100 million in 2020! 

A magic rock that grants wishes driving the whole plot? That’s so 80s! It would help if anyone on screen besides Wiig and Pascal, who ham it up like they’re in Goonies, were in on the joke. Wiig has always had the most fun on SNL with characters wallowing in delusion, like pathological liar Penelope and Broadway never-ran Mindy, and for his contribution, Pascal sledgehammers his Mandalorian’s stoic charm with a villain who’s equal parts Tasmanian Devil, coke fiend and J.R. Ewing. They certainly don’t save the film, but do make it more watchable in the brief moments when they’re the focus.

The supposed focus of this sequel is Diana pining for her dead lover Steve, whom she inadvertently brings back through the wishing rock. Not only do neither play well with the lame 80s references shoveled into their dialogue, but there is not an ounce of the chemistry and sexual dynamic these two characters had in the first WW movie. You can’t fault solid actors like Gadot and Chris Pine for this, so, yeah, Patty, step up to the online fan firing line.

There have been plenty bereft superhero film scripts where the villain’s motivation to destroy the world comes down to petty jealousy, and, fine, yes, we have a real-life villain in the White House with the same motivation. But the simple-minded ideas in comic books and their respective filmed versions grew more complex decades ago, including Jenkin’s first Wonder Woman film. So why revert to bone-headed pablum now? Just because it’s set in the 80s, when pop culture was bone-headed?

Wonder Woman is a symbol of female agency, and in the first film Gadot owned both her action scenes and her romantic ones. Here she’s dulled by a loss that happened 70 years ago, weakened – literally and figuratively – by the need for a man. Seriously. Patty? And as for Jenkins’ prowess with action scenes, we wait one hour and 20 minutes – when most movies are rolling credits – to get our first big action set piece, the climax of which is a truck flipping (wow…) and WW saving kids who, despite a Sahara’s worth of flat space around them, are playing soccer in the middle of a highway.

The first film also had a little fun with the inescapable bisexual subtext to Amazonian culture. This sequel introduces female villain Cheetah, WW’s most long-standing and formidable nemesis (she’s to WW what Joker is to Batman) who even in the earliest days of the comic, like the 1930s, had a Sapphic fixation on our heroine. Somebody other than the angelic, self-sacrificing male lead needed to tell Diana that she was letting a man hold her back, and Cheetah, a woman obsessed with domination, would have been the more interesting way to do that. But no, all we get here is a (terribly-shot) catfight because Cheetah hates that Wonder Woman “has it all”. Look, no one’s demanding deep social commentary or girl-on-girl action, but for the high-paid talent involved here, we need motivations a little more thought-out than what you’d find on Dynasty.

Ms. Jenkins, fans are way past the belief that to be taken seriously in this genre female directors have to show they can write and shoot a film in the exact way a man would. You should be past that belief as well. We saw you in the first Wonder Woman, but Zach Snyder is all over this one.

If I had the wishing stone, I’d wish for Patty Jenkins to tell the boys’ club to f*ck off when she makes her Star Wars movie.

Kringle & Rudolph: The subversive joy of the animated Christmas special.

After failing to find widespread voter fraud, Bill Barr hears he isn’t invited to Trump’s Christmas party.

With all the sugarplums thrown at our TV screens during the holidays now, directed squarely at our squareness, I don’t see how Fox News is convincing anyone that there’s a ‘war on Christmas’. These dozens of holiday films are disseminated by the ‘liberal media’, and no matter how diverse the casting, all end in reasserting the power of the holy days to quell discontent, depression, division and any other negative emotion. They are snowflakes dropped by the snowflakes, so where’s the issue?

There was a time, though, when Fox might have had a point about liberal messaging in holiday fare, though they surely wouldn’t have been observant enough to recognize it.

Remember that back in the 60s there were only three commercial channels on TV. Ratings were still important, but writers didn’t have the same pressure to copy banal-but-successful formulas as they do now that everyone from The 700 Club to Logo makes holiday movies. Add to this the creative atmosphere of those times, when writers’ rooms were full of Ivy League libs nicotined to the gills and wasted on spiked eggnog.

The animated film version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer appeared in 1964, the first holiday season where Lady Bird Johnson’s Christmas tree would be compared to Jackie Kennedy’s. It takes a novelty song about mean reindeer and ups the asshole quotient by a lot. Christmas’ most beloved icons – Santa, his elves and reindeer – are presented as corporate taskmasters and judge-y shamers, victimizing Rudolph and other characters to the point they put their lives in danger to escape. This poke at the patriarchy mixes with a selective 60s blindness, leaving the whole outing with a yellow streak in its Styrofoam snow, and thus so much more fun to watch than another pretty white couple Gift-of-the-Magi-ing each other.

From the get-go, all the male authority figures are pricks, with Santa the worst. Reflecting the ethos of 60s masculinity, he shows up periodically to instill fear of his disapproval in reindeer and elf alike. Rudolph’s ‘handicap’ makes him literally unable to brown-nose Santa, as if he were born with a subversive gene, so his dad insists he cover the glow nose with mud, forcing Rudolph to risk suffocation to fit in. But you can’t hide who you truly are for long. Lesson.

Meanwhile, over in the slave-labor toy factory, Hermey the likely-gay elf is berated by his boss for wanting to study dentistry instead of continuing in the proud tradition of mind-numbing factory work for a Santa who has no doubt threatened to outsource to the South Pole if quotas aren’t met.

Rudolph and Hermey bye Felicia this BS to wander the wilderness, where they hook up with a loner named Yukon Cornelius, inspired by Yosemite Sam and, at least for Hermey, Heath Ledger’s character in Brokeback Mountain

Running from the Abominable Snow Monster lands the group on the Island of Misfit Toys, where the writers have clearly switched from Marlboros to marijuana. Kids whose families could afford a TV in the 60s are made to laugh at a dumping ground of faulty manufacturing, toys that are suicidal because no kid wants them. A train with square wheels, a Jack-in-the-box whose name is Charlie and talks like Paul Lynde on helium, a bird with no wings. I can’t remember what was wrong with the girl doll. Maybe her name was Sylvia Plath? They are ruled by a lion. 

Then it gets all Lion King as Rudolph grows into a studly stag and bumps into his girlfriend who has gone looking for him. She convinces him to go back but then…the Abominable Snow Monster! 

Yukon and Hermey show up just in time, and all realize that their biggest obstacle is easily overcome by tackling it head-on and defanging the threat with knowledge. Lesson. Unfortunately, this won’t work back in Santa’s village. The elves are too worried about their jobs and the reindeer too blindly pro-Santa. But everyone feigns contrition when a global-warming super-snowstorm hits and they need Rudolph. 

Then comes the clincher: Rudolph insists Santa pick up the misfit toys. Sure, Santa says, but then refuses to sully his hands or his reputation with defective toys. So an elf hands each misfit toy an umbrella and tosses it out of the sleigh to float down to poor children, who will love the misfits because that’s all they’re gonna get. Santa hasn’t learned a thing, ending the story as the same cruel capitalist he was at the beginning, while Rudolph busts his ass up front for this entire unappreciative lot, secretly relishing the moment China takes over toy manufacturing from the North Pole and the elves are forced to make solar panels.

By 1970, the liberal sleigh ride was over with grinch Richard Nixon in the presidency. It was time for rebellion to come from Santa himself, not just a quirky outsider. 

In Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Santa is a straight-up revolutionary. If you were to read a synopsis of the plot minus the Santa layer, it would sound like a big-budget action thriller: an orphan-turned-rebel tries to help a town oppressed by a tyrant, is hunted down and imprisoned, his family’s home burned to the ground, until he escapes into exile, launching insurgencies from a secret base.

Star Wars is still light years down the road, so we open instead in the milieu of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in the Bavarianesque village of Sombertown. Like Chitty, the tyrant ruler Burgermeister Meisterburger hates children and is aided by a skinny henchman who overdoes his bidding (think Trump and Stephen Miller). When an infant is laid at the castle doorstep (what was the mother thinking?) Burgermeister orders his Stephen Miller to send the child back to Mexico the Enchanted Forest where lives a warlock who does God-knows-what White Walker thing to babies. 

The child is saved by the Kringles, a toy-making elf clan led by a matriarch. They name him Kris, and he grows into a hot ginger. Kris gets his rebel on when he hears the BMMB has banned toys and the town children have to amuse themselves with only their imaginations and musical numbers written by failed Broadway songwriters. 

On his first not-so-clandestine outing to deliver toys, Kris is scolded by a schoolteacher for breaking the law, until he gives her a doll and promises to advocate for equal pay. When the BMMB and Miller show up, Kris gifts the infantile ruler a yo-yo, but killjoy Miller reminds the ruler that though he may be a nasty piece of work, he’s no Mitch McConnell, and breaking his own law is hypocritical. BMMB demands Kris’ arrest, and ginger boy has to escape through the Enchanted Forest. 

The Winter Warlock is waiting, with his stalactite fingers and frozen drool. After some shameless flirting and a gift of a toy train, Kris melts the evil warlock into a kindly old gay man in an Obi Wan robe. Then we get a coming-out anthem called ‘Put One Foot in Front of the Other’ which ends in the lyric “and soon you’ll be walking out the door!” Of the closet! 

An old gay man walking arm-in-arm with a muscle twink is not a good look in Sombertown, much less a children’s special, so they are joined by a penguin and the lady schoolteacher, and the gang come up with more and more subversive ways to get the toys to the kids, including sneaking down chimneys and hiding toys in stockings. The 8-year-old cultural anthropologist in me loved this part. 

Eventually they are all caught and imprisoned, and the elves’ village burned down. Winter has one last trick up his robe, and the rebels escape via flying reindeer to the North Pole, far out of the evil empire’s reach. There’s no triumphant revenge scene, though, just the inevitability of a disruptive entrepreneurial venture going corporate. Kris marries the teacher, builds a new toy factory and settles into a once-a-year toy dump. Everyone ignores the Burgermeister after he gets voted out for Angela Merkel, who pardons Kringle on condition that his toy parts get made in 13 different EU countries.

So once you get tired of the cartoonish humans in yet another Home for the HoliDaze, go watch something where the puppet strings are visible, where the asshole Santas at least aren’t Tim Allen and where ‘abominable’ refers to a plush toy and not a script.