(On Cable TV, July 2017) The original Bad Santa became a classic of the counter-sentimental Christmas subgenre, so any sequel would have big shoes to fill. It may not be such a disappointment, therefore, if Bad Santa 2 is more ordinary than amazing. Sadly picking up a decade and a half later with the characters in just-as-bad shape, this sequel moves to Montréal Chicago for wintry theft. The highlight of the movie is probably the mother/son relationship between Billy Bob Thornton and the irreplaceable Kathy Bates, both of them delightfully scummy as lifelong bad influences. Tony Cox shows up again as a violent wildcard, while both Christina Hendricks and Jenny Zigrino show up as voluptuous eye candy. Alas, Brett Kelly also shows up as a grown-up creepy kid (still creepy), and his inclusion in the plot is more sad than hilarious or heartwarming. Bad Santa 2 works best as a foul-mouthed criminal caper procedural than a falsely cynical Christmas movie—it’s not quite able to re-create the original’s blend of world-weary sentimentality. But it does try, and it won’t be out of place when, in two or three years from now, it will tag along the original in a combined Blu-ray edition. Like most R-rated comedies, Bad Santa 2 pushes its jokes as far as it can go, and some of them definitely end up over the line of good taste—even for seasoned R-rated viewers. That’s another reason why even if the movie does scratch more or less the same itch as the original, it won’t qualify for essential viewing even for fans of the subgenre. Underneath the unrelenting stream of foul language, sexual references and overall bad behavior, it’s an average effort made with perfunctory skill. It works, and it will work if viewers are hungry for something like the original, but it’s not much more than that.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) As a political junkie (with acute flare-ups in election years like this one), I’m perhaps more enthusiastic than most at the thought of movies seeing political operatives as heroes. Our Brand is Crisis (adapted from a true story) follows a group of American consultants as they are hired to help during a Bolivian election pitting a few bad choices against each other. But it’s not just candidates battling it out when the operatives have their own grudges to nurse against each other. In South American politics, nearly all tricks are allowed, and so much of the movie is spent following the twists and turns of the campaign as the consultants try to outwit each other. It sounds fun, it should have been hilarious and somehow … isn’t. Too contemplative to deserve a full “black comedy” qualification, Our Brand is Crisis falls short of the potential it had set up for itself. It’s also remarkably pat, as if it didn’t know about the audience’s political sophistication. Oh, so your candidate lies, cheats, won’t hold his promises and is widely disliked? Well, start with that rather than lead up to it, or be shocked when it happens. Otherwise, there seems to be a distinct lack of energy in David Gordon Green’s execution of the material, or maybe a dearth of substance itself. Sticking too close to the true story may have been a mistake. At least Sandra Bullock is enjoyable as a genius-level political consultant reluctantly dragged into the mud of a campaign once again. (She’s particularly funny early on, not so much afterwards.) Billy Bob Thornton gives her capable repartee as a longtime rival, while Anthony Mackie, Zoe Kazan (captivating in a woefully underdeveloped character) and Joaquim de Almeida are serviceable supporting players. Still, Our Brand is Crisis doesn’t reach its full potential and mishandles its ending by being far too falsely outraged after its own shenanigans. Just as there have been plenty of movies about political consultants, others are sure to follow. But it may be a good moment for newer and fresher narratives than “protagonists discover that their candidate is terrible” and “protagonists contemplate the damage they’ve done to democracy” because those have been done enough times already.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) I’m becoming increasingly fond of the small-scale gems that emerge from the muck of Cable TV movie channels, and The Baytown Outlaws pretty much qualifies as such. It’s not a big, profound or even all that clever film, but it’s executed with a decent amount of energy and skill. It helps that the tone of the film is the kind of snarky crime/comedy/action hybrid that I can watch all day long. Here, Billy Bob Thornton and Eva Longoria slum a bit as (respectively) a crime lord and his abused ex-girlfriend who hires three vigilante anti-heroes to rescue her godson from him. The plot is slight, but the incidents along the way are certainly off-beat, ranging from a killer group of prostitutes, road pirates and native bikers. The Baytown Outlaws is anarchic, scattered, cartoonish (sometime literally so, to good effect) and morally off-center, but it’s also steadily amusing as what it does. Writer/director Barry Battles clearly stretches his modest budget beyond what could have been expected from such a production. Best seen as part of the grind-house exploitation sub-genre, The Baytown Outlaws exceeds expectations, and that alone distinguishes it from most little-known movies that show up on cable TV alongside the most familiar titles.