Finnish film introduces us to Very Bad Santa.
We've had "Bad Santa"; here comes Very Bad Santa. Though it promises more than it ultimately delivers, this charming little holiday horror story is a welcome counterweight to the usual yuletide sentimentality. Pietari, a plucky Lapland pre-teen, spies on a mining outfit excavating a giant Kris Kringle-shaped burial mound near his remote home. He reads up on the original Sami folk tales about the old guy; it's not a pretty picture. "Coca-Cola Santa's a hoax," he warns his skeptical pal. "The real Santa spanks kids to pieces. Not even their skeletons survive." Meanwhile his dad, a reindeer hunter with a struggling slaughterhouse business, digs a spike-lined pit to trap the creature that has been gutting his herd, and the cops are investigating who stole all the village's radiators. The film is bracingly suspenseful, packed with perverse humor and great to look at, with an icebound, rundown production design reminiscent of John Carpenter's "The Thing." Real-life father and son Jorma and Onni Tommila have a great chemistry in the lead roles, while Peeter Jakobi is a malevolent wonder as a silent, mysterious old codger. The finale is a riotous affair that must set a world's record for geriatric male nudity. Even as you view it you can't believe what you're seeing.
A real rarity in Hollywood, veteran auteur/film distributor Henry Jaglom finances his own independent features. Theoretically, this is good, allowing him to pursue his vision uncompromised by crass commercial considerations. Then again, some people would benefit from a focus group. Jaglom's latest, a shapeless, under-rehearsed movieland satire, stars Tanna Frederick as a conniving B actress who discovers that the quickest path to fame comes not through lining up great projects but by generating scandals, thereby increasing her "Google points." The paparazzi magnet has a fiancé descended from faded Hollywood royalty, but it's his sweet, sincere brother, a failed screenwriter played by Noah Wyle, who appears to be her perfect match. Overpacked with subplots (Peter Bogdanovich pops up as an out-of-work movie director) and shambling in pace, the movie is not energetic enough to be obnoxious. The best response is a big sigh.
Frederick Wiseman advocates a purist, hands-off approach to documentary filmmaking. No voiceover, no character biographies, just doctors, soldiers, ballet dancers or social workers doing what they do while he observes. In his 38th feature, "Boxing Gym," he directs his camera at Richard Lord's gym in Austin, Texas. In this refurbished garage, men and women of every ethnicity and body type run their drills with near-religious dedication. Artless beginners jab and jump rope next to would-be world champions. Wiseman finds a ballet-like grace in the choreography of sparring -- except for brief snatches of dialogue, the movie is one continuous workout. There's very little actual fighting in the film. Lord's good-humored clients are more interested in conquering their own limitations than inflicting pain. I find Wiseman's anti-narrative vow of chastity off-putting; I like a story with my pictures. But taken as a sort of live-action sports painting, "Boxing Gym" is so vivid you can smell the liniment and sweat.
With a collage of Cold War news broadcasts and droll teasers for Alfred Hitchcock's 1950s and '60s chillers, Belgian media artist Johan Grimonprez considers the links between auteurs of fright films and fearmongering politicians. At least I think that's the aim; the motive of this disjointed film essay is a mystery worthy of the master himself. The focus skips from the Nixon-Khrushchev kitchen debates, to the Cuban missile crisis, to anecdotes from Ron Burrage, a personable Hitchcock impersonator. There's a fictional conceit about Hitch encountering his doppelgänger that loosely binds this mash-up of found images into a surreal anti-history. Grimonprez playfully implies that 1963's "The Birds" reflected America's growing anxiety about death from above, six years after the launch of Sputnik. Amusingly dated spots for Folger's coffee prey on domestic anxieties, a reminder that advertising is a branch of the fear industry. Hardly earth-shattering enough for a 5-minute short, much less an 80-minute movie.