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On DVD/Blu-ray: A MERRY FRIGGIN' CHRISTMAS (2014) and WILLOW CREEK (2014)

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A MERRY FRIGGIN' CHRISTMAS
(US - 2014)



Arriving on DVD & Blu-ray just four days after its VOD and scant theatrical release, A MERRY FRIGGIN' CHRISTMAS is a bland and lifeless dysfunctional family Christmas comedy that has nothing to offer aside from Robin Williams in one of his last roles. With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to play armchair psychologist knowing what we now know about Williams' battle with depression and his health issues that factored into his suicide in August.  But even here, in a film shot in early 2013 and in his unusually subdued interview in the DVD's bonus features, it's sadly evident that he looks tired and already checked out. Still, even without that dark cloud looming overhead, it would be difficult to enjoy this laugh-deprived trifle that squanders an overqualified cast of proven funny people. Forget comparisons to CHRISTMAS VACATION or BAD SANTA: this isn't even up to the level of the made-for-TV CHRISTMAS VACATION 2: COUSIN EDDIE'S ISLAND ADVENTURE. In a performance that won't be erasing fond memories of Chevy Chase's Clark Griswold anytime soon, Joel McHale is Boyd Mitchler, a successful Chicago hedge fund manager and all-around nice-guy family man with a tendency to overcompensate on Christmas, with an obsessive determination to keep the belief in Santa Claus alive for his coddled son Douglas, nicknamed "Bug" (LOOPER's Pierce Gagnon). As if the ridiculous character names weren't already pissing you off, the reason for Boyd's fanaticism about getting Christmas perfect is his abrasive, alcoholic father Mitch (Williams), whose misanthropic issues may very well be rooted in the fact that he's named Mitch Mitchler. Mitch's drunkenness had a habit of consistently ruining Christmas for young Boyd, and when Boyd is forced to drag the family--there's also wife Luann (BAD SANTA's Lauren Graham) and daughter Vera (Bebe Wood)--four hours away to his parents' house for the holiday, we know he'll be opening wounds that still haven't healed. Then we meet the rest of the Mitchler clan: enabling matriarch Donna (Candice Bergen), daughter Shauna (Wendi McClendon-Covey) and sex-offender son-in-law Dave (Tim Heidecker), and son Nelson (Clark Duke), whose cheating wife ran off with the father of the baby she left for him to raise, and who suffers from PTSD after being discharged from the military following a head injury when he fell off a Humvee during basic training. When Boyd realizes he left Bug's gifts back home in Chicago, he attempts to drive back to get them, but his car breaks down, forcing Mitch to pick him up as the pair predictably air their lifelong grievances on the ride to and back from Chicago, getting a little magical help from a homeless drunk in a Santa costume (Oliver Platt).


There's no edge to A MERRY FRIGGIN' CHRISTMAS. It's a strictly connect-the-dots story that never finds a spark. Everything about it is perfunctory and forgettable. It wants to be this dark, "did that really go there?" comedy, but it just doesn't have the balls to do anything, instead choosing to pull its punches and be safe, nice, and thoroughly neutered. It makes overtures toward pushing the envelope with Dave's sex offender status and the situation with Nelson's dark-skinned son, but it's too afraid to ruffle feathers. Even the wacky elements--Boyd's pants somehow catching on fire ten seconds after he arrives at his parents' house, Bug hallucinating after his competitive eating champ cousin dares him to down a 40-year-old jar of pickles, Mitch serving Boyd squirrel with buckshot when he finds out Boyd doesn't eat chicken, Luann finding some portraits in the attic that reveal Boyd's childhood Bea Arthur obsession--land with a strangely awkward thud (in the right hands, that Bea Arthur subplot could've killed). At the height of the TV series COMMUNITY's popularity, FRIGGIN' began life as a Joel McHale vehicle at Universal with ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT directors Joe and Anthony Russo and a script by WRECK-IT-RALPH writer Phil Johnston. But it never got made and the Russos eventually moved on to CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. McHale kept the project alive through independent means, bringing regular COMMUNITY director Tristram Shapeero (also a vet of PARKS AND RECREATION and NEW GIRL) onboard. Things probably got drastically changed along the way, as an obviously displeased Johnston had his name removed from the credits, with the script now blamed on the non-existent "Michael Brown," and the film ended up being acquired by the lowly Phase 4 Films, home of many an Uwe Boll joint. A MERRY FRIGGIN' CHRISTMAS is so slight and has so little to say and offer that the closing credits start at 73 minutes, rolling as slowly as possible to stretch it to a reasonable running time. There's also a post-credits stinger involving two unfunny Cowboy Santa bit players as well as a nice enough tribute to Williams. He doesn't go overboard as in the recent THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN, possibly his worst film, but he seems completely disengaged from the project and isn't funny, spending FRIGGIN' grunting like Clint Eastwood in GRAN TORINO, chomping on a cigar, derisively calling Boyd "Sally" or "Gladys," and barking things like "Are you on the friggin' rag?" at him. Williams had three other films completed at the time of his death--the grim indie drama BOULEVARD, which got raves at this year's Tribeca Film Festival but is still without a distributor; his last onscreen performance in NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: SECRET OF THE TOMB, due out in theaters in December; and he voices a dog in the comedy ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING, set to be released in spring 2015--and hopefully any of those will provide him with a more fitting sendoff than this friggin' depressing holiday dud. (Unrated, 82 mins)


WILLOW CREEK
(US - 2014)



1991's SHAKES THE CLOWN was annihilated by critics before becoming a legitimate cult classic, but it another decade of TV directing gigs before veteran comedian Bobcat Goldthwait would make another film. With the Comedy Central mockumentary WINDY CITY HEAT (2003), and the extremely dark and quite often uncomfortable comedies SLEEPING DOGS LIE (2006), WORLD'S GREATEST DAD (2009), and GOD BLESS AMERICA (2012), Goldthwait has unexpectedly become one of America's boldest and most interesting indie filmmakers and one of the undisputed kings of cringe. He's carved a niche for himself in that field, which makes his delving into found-footage horror a bit perplexing. WILLOW CREEK follows a couple, Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) on an excursion into Trinity National Forest where Bigfoot enthusiast Jim intends to follow the path taken in 1967 by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, the men who claim to have filmed a female Bigfoot on Bluff Creek. Kelly isn't a Bigfoot believer but goes along because it's a hiking trip with her boyfriend. Goldthwait subscribes to the Ti West slow-burn methodology for over half of the running time, but once he finally gets Jim and Kelly in a tent and lets the tension build over a 20-minute uninterrupted take as noises, wailing, growling, and footsteps get closer and closer, WILLOW CREEK really hits its stride. The sequence inside the tent could almost be its own short film and is a textbook example of slow-burn done right. Goldthwait follows the template of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, almost to a fault: someone or something wrecks the camp site and hangs Jim's sock from a tree branch while he takes a swim, and after the tent sequence, the same noises seem to surround them and they end up running in circles (interestingly, BLAIR WITCH co-director Eduardo Sanchez just released his own found-footage Bigfoot opus EXISTS). Those who like concrete explanations probably won't care much for the deliberately ambiguous ending, one that has disturbing implications and expects you to have been paying attention. WILLOW CREEK does a good job of feeling improvised but being very carefully constructed and making early throwaway lines and jokey humor turn out to be quite significant bits of foreshadowing. It's rare these days for a found-footage film to be the kind of movie that prompts discussion and debate, but therein lies the conundrum of WILLOW CREEK: it takes its rightful place among the best that the subgenre has to offer, but it arrives so far beyond fashionably late that it can't really be greeted with anything but a shrug by horror scenesters who, if found footage's waning recent box office numbers are any indication, are getting to be just about over this type of thing (they're cheap to produce and easy to turn a profit, so even with diminishing returns, these movies aren't going anywhere for a while). It's not fair to WILLOW CREEK to judge it by the all the garbage found-footage bottom-feeders that came before it, but one can't help but wonder why Goldthwait decided to make this now. (Unrated, 80 mins)




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