Krampus — Krampus is a delightful, deranged revision to the standard dysfunctional family Christmas film. It begins as one, with a slew of perfectly cast character archetypes — Toni Collette as a controlling mom, David Koechner as her gun-toting, obnoxious brother-in-law — trapped inside a home for the holidays. The first third of the movie is sharply written, but fairly standard. They bicker at dinner, pick at each other’s life choices and complain about the cooking. Then Max (Emjay Anthony), a young boy teetering on the edge of believing in Santa, is ridiculed by his cousins into tearing up his letter for the North Pole.
From here, Krampus comes unhinged in the best possible way. Max’s lack of faith disturbs St. Nick’s evil twin, a monstrous, horned demon who lands in the neighborhood with a band of demented elves and possessed Christmas toys. Director Michael Dougherty orchestrates a gleeful spectacle of it all, finding a perfect tone that blends absurdity with terror. From gingerbread men cackling as they fire a nail gun at someone to a giant clown jack-in-the-box that eats children, Krampus is filled with some wonderfully terrifying imagery. The ending slightly cheapens the overall effect of everything before it, but I can see this movie becoming a welcome holiday alternative whenever someone suggests that we watch The Santa Clause for the 800th time. Grade: B
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 — This final (maybe? hopefully?) Hunger Games film is a fitting send off to a series that never really came alive outside a few sporadic scenes. Mockingjay Part 1 was (and still is) the most enjoyable of the movies, honing in on the resistance fighters’ attempt to put Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) at the center of their propaganda machine as they fight to overthrow the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
The Hunger Games movies have always been slightly disappointing because they try to build to rousing climaxes that are almost always derailed by pacing issues. That is very apparent in Mockingjay Part 2, as the final 30-40 minutes are a jumbled mess of clumsy plotting and false endings. (Spoilers ahead) Katniss loses the greatest thing imaginable in this film, her sister Prim, but when she finally gets a release it feels out of place and forced. The same goes for the progression of Katniss’ romance with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who in Part 1 tried and almost succeeded at strangling her to death after being brainwashed by the Capitol.
Despite its lackluster execution, the movie has two thrilling sequences, one an underground pursuit where Katniss and company flee a band of grotesque monsters and the other, her final act of defiance. The latter features what may be my favorite shot of the series: a brief close-up of President Snow laughing in shock as Katniss chooses to turn his execution into someone else’s. Had the movie ended there it would easily have been my favorite in the series, but it went somewhere much more predictable if still emotionally satisfying. The series ends just at it started: slightly above average with a couple bursts of greatness. Grade: C
Creed — Full disclosure: I have never watched a Rocky film in its entirety. I have seen many scenes from all of them and started and stopped watching them in different parts when they were on TV, but have never sat down and watched one from start to finish. That being said, I found a lot to love in Ryan Coogler’s Creed, a tender and vicious film in its own right. Creed focuses on Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) and his attempt to make a name for himself in the same ring where his late father, Apollo Creed, is immortalized. To that end he leaves a wealthy life in Los Angeles and moves to a working class area of Philadelphia to seek the guidance of an aging, world-weary Rocky Balboa (a deeply affecting turn from Sylvester Stallone), his father’s greatest opponent and eventual friend.
Creed‘s boxing scenes are played very close; one in particular stays pinned to the fighters’ faces in one take, showing each brutal punch and its immediate impact in a squirm-inducing proximity. The sequence is impressive because it was an effective choice for the moment, not because it draws attention to its own technical prowess. Though Creed is filled with many formulaic elements — training montages, abrupt and unnecessary third act conflict — the movie also progresses in exciting and fresh ways. The storyline with Adonis’ girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is dazzlingly romantic; it feels alive because it’s given just as much weight as the fights. That vibrant humanity is what helps propels Creed past its more predictable elements. Even as it centers on the more destructive impulses of its characters, it sees their potential. Grade: B-