Full disclosure: Kipp is a colleague of mine here at filmcritic.com, as is Christmas Party producer Rachel Gordon. This taken into account, I had even more incentive to pretend to misplace the disc as soon as I saw it. After all, if it sucks, I carry the burden of publicly berating my peers. And while I normally relish that sort of thing, most of the people I insult in my reviews are nearly anonymous actors and directors -- not big-time, powerful movie critics like Kipp and Gordon. But ultimately, good sense (and the promise of a hefty filmcritic.com paycheck) prevailed, and here we all are waiting to see what I have to say about this movie. It's as if the eyes of the world are on me at this very moment. Wow. That's a lot of responsibility. I hope I don't say anything stupid.
Anyway, I pressed play, waiting to see the stock opening title bounce around a poorly framed shot as unfiltered background noise blared through my speakers. This sort of stuff is standard fare in short cinema, and everyone knows critics are talentless oafs, so what more could I expect?
A lot more.
The Christmas Party breaks all the rules of independent shorts. From opening scene to closing credits, the film shines with smooth, rich photography invoking the texture of a New England winter with stark lighting that hardens the faces of the cast and sets an ominous tone. The score, which intimately enwraps the action of each scene, is fresh and moving. And more astonishingly, the cast--especially child actor Austin Labbe -- brings the dialogue to life with a crisp, honest delivery seldom found in films of this genre. All these forces combine to produce a startlingly watchable film. Within minutes, I found myself actually following the story -- just like a real movie.
This is the story of Gabriel (Austin Labbe), a young boy who lives with his grandparents because his mother is an alcoholic. Naturally, Gabriel has some depression issues and while it may be Christmastime outside, inside this kid's head it's Halloween year-round. To cheer him up, his grandparents send him to a Christmas party they find listed in the classified section of their local paper. As it turns out, the creepy couple who've suckered local families into trusting them with their children are spreading more than Christmas cheer in their living room. Today is Gabriel's lucky day: He's going to be saved!
Stephanie Foster is truly riveting as the freakishly zealous Betty, shaking the spirit of Christ into Gabe as they kneel together on the bathroom floor. Tom Reid is bizarre and frightening as Betty's husband, Don, who leads the hapless children through a series of creepily sung Jesus carols. And with a stark stoicism, Pete Barker plays the role of grandpa Bill with a somehow morbid effect -- just imagine your grandfather as Lurch from The Addams Family, only folksier.
All things considered, The Christmas Party is a strong, potent film. But it's not without its share of troubles. Just as too much candy can be poisonous in small animals, the otherwise intriguing soundtrack overpowers some scenes in a manner reminiscent of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, making the dialogue almost inaudible. And though most of the film is beautifully shot, the critical opening scene suffers from harsh, washed-out lighting that snaps the viewer out of the story and into the production.
But The Christmas Party's biggest setback has nothing to do with its production values. Early in the film, as Gabriel mopes in his grandparents' living room, something absolutely unbelievable happens: His grandfather actually decides to drop him off at the home of some whacked-out strangers who placed an ad in the paper. Say what you will about the state of the world today, but this scenario is so hard to swallow that it would take some serious storytelling to get me to buy it even for a few seconds. Unfortunately, this film isn't up to the task and I languished in skeptical detachment for the remainder of the film.
Even with this fairly serious flaw, The Christmas Party is a fun, surprising short worth every one of its 19 minutes. Intelligently acted and bristling with smart imagery, it captures the weird intensity of the evangelist set with a masterful eye. Go for the production values; stay for the Jesus freaks.
Run time: 86 mins
In Theaters: Friday 6th November 2009
Production compaines: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
IMDB: 3.7 / 10
Director: Jeremiah Kipp
Producer: Rachel Gordon
Screenwriter: Jeremiah Kipp
Starring: Lionel Barrymore as Himself (uncredited), Wallace Beery as Himself (uncredited), Jackie Cooper as Himself (uncredited), Marion Davies as Herself (uncredited), Reginald Denny as Himself (uncredited), Marie Dressler as Herself (uncredited), Jimmy Durante as Santa Claus (uncredited), Cliff Edwards as Himself (uncredited), Clark Gable as Himself (uncredited), Charlotte Greenwood as Herself (uncredited), Leila Hyams as Herself (uncredited), Polly Moran as Herself (uncredited), Ramon Novarro as Himself (uncredited), Anita Page as Herself (uncredited), Norma Shearer as Herself (uncredited), Jerry Madden as Himself (uncredited)
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