TIFF 2012: The Fitzgerald Family Christmas Review (Paolo Kagaoan)

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas (2012)

Starring Edward Burns, Connie Britton, Noah Emmerich, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Anita Gilette, Heather Burns, Michael McGlone, Kerry Bishe and Ed Lauter

Directed by Edward Burns

Caitlin Fitzgerald (Fitzgerald) stands looking distraught in her house. Her brother Quinn (McGlone) and sister Sharon (Bishe) are with their respective girlfriend and boyfriend driving to a beach house a few hours from New York City. Their brother Gerry (Edward Burns) is managing the family bar and asks a woman named Nora (Britton) for a drink. Those are just four out of nine siblings who seem to be living their pre-holiday lives on their own or within clusters. They traditionally have to cerebrate Christmas with their mother Josie (Gilette), but things temporarily change this year. Gerry, the family’s de facto patriarch and peacemaker, tells the members of his family that their estranged father, Big Jim (Lauter), wants to celebrate Christmas with them. Inviting him over comes down to a vote, but there’s a shocker that’s affecting their decisions – Big Jim has pancreatic cancer and has two months to live.

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

There are times in this movie that make it indistinguishable from other straight to DVD sappy family dramedies. This is true especially with that piano driven score – derived from a Christmas song then veers off to different melody – which is the kind of music that’s an unwelcome presence in one’s head. Also, family comes first, making story lines about the siblings’ romantic relationships get crudely dropped, like the one between Sharon and her boyfriend. Most of the cast is competent except for Fitzgerald and Heather Burns, the latter playing their snobbish sister Erin. Both actresses reek whiny passiveness when they get outvoted by their younger siblings. Their less than stellar turns are a shame because Fitzgerald was excellent as the ex-suicidal Priss in Whit Stilman’s Damsels in Distress. Connie and Erin are great contrasts compared to the younger yet strong-willed Sharon, showing how the sisters have and can grow up differently. Painting the female characters with different brushes is an unexpected surprise from a male writer like Edward Burns. But I can’t say the same thing about the brothers who are essentially different variations of benevolent East Coast troglodytes.

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

But a movie’s shortcomings sometimes end up to its advantage, especially with writer-director Edward Burns’ sense of structure. A working class family like the Fitzgeralds have no business being prolific (Disclaimer: I am also poor and my mother has six siblings). But a large family makes it plausible for its members to be divided not only by gender and age but also by economic class and, through marriage and relationships, ethnicity. Having a group of nine also means that each character would have their opinions about their father despite partially agreeing or disagreeing with another. We’re watching characters instead of symbols, distinct voices within contemporary symphony with just the right bittersweet tone. This movie is more about forgiveness and the uphill climb towards equilibrium towards the perfect holiday. It earns its way enough into our hearts.

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American Horror Story Review (The First Six Episodes)

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As usual, I was a bit late to catch onto the latest hit TV show, American Horror Story. I seem to have my finger on the pulse of the movie and video game scene, but TV releases require such a large time investment, so I tend to wait for a few seasons to be released and then watch them en masse. However, the insane amount of buzz that has accompanied American Horror Story, combined with the genre of the show, a modern haunted house story of sorts, has made it impossible for me to postpone my viewing of the show. After the first six episodes, I’m not quite sure what to think. I adore the subject matter, and there is a ton of creativity and talent evident in the series, but some risky and lazy writing choices have left me wondering if I will even continue with the rest of the series.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I sat through Harper’s Island every week, up to and including its nonsensical and intellectually insulting finale. I thought the idea of a weekly slasher series was amazing, and I wanted the show to succeed, much like I want American Horror Story to succeed. Well, as a whole, Harper’s Island turned out to be a massive pile of garbage, and I’m still strongly considering contacting the creators to try and get the 13 hours of my life back that I invested in it. This experience has no doubt affected how I view other horror TV shows. I will try my best not to let this attitude seep into this review of the first six episodes of American Horror Story.

The storyline of the series follows the Harmon family as they move into an old suburban home with a bloody history. Vivien (Connie Britton) and Ben (Dylan McDermott) have had their fair share of marriage problems, but are hoping that the change of scenery will help them repair past emotional damage, while their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) seems to be your typical angst ridden teenager. The mysterious supporting characters, in the form a deceptive neighbour (Jessica Lange), a two-faced stranger (Denis O’Hare), and an age-shifting maid (Frances Conroy and Alexandra Breckenridge), bolster the unsettling atmosphere of American Horror Story. In addition to the present-day storyline, most episodes of the series also feature flashbacks to ghastly murders that are a part of the house’s sordid past.

I have a lot of positive things to say about the series. For starters, the technical aspects are quite refreshing, as the cinematography and the editing remind me of the jump-cuts and crash-zooms found in The Lincoln Lawyer. This may not be my favourite camera or editing style, but it is always nice to see something different in a TV show, which are so often technical bores.

The strongest point of the series has to be the exceptional performances by the majority of the cast. Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott do an excellent job of alternating between compassionate and loving scenes, to those in which it looks like their marriage might end there and then. Taissa Farmiga’s performance seemed a little ho-hum for a while, however around episode four or five she really begins to evolve, as her character starts to get fleshed out a bit. In my opinion, the strongest performance is delivered by Jessica Lange, who absolutely owns every scene she appears in.

Minor SPOILERS

The negative aspects of American Horror Story largely stem from the quality of the writing, which see-saws violently throughout the first six episodes. Larry Harvey (Denis O’Hare), a burn victim that seems interested in helping Ben (McDermott), has a few memorable moments, but for the most part feels like an inane paper-thin character who is simply a plot device or a time filler. An episode called Piggy, Piggy had the potential to be extremely scary, but goes out with a whimper. Did the writer quit before the episode was finished? Finally, a very questionable school-shooting storyline is the focus of the sixth episode. I am not here to pass moral judgment, and every topic should be open to art and entertainment, but when you are writing a haunted house series where the focus is entertaining horror, it is a large risk to utilize such an emotionally upsetting topic and treat it as a vehicle for thrills. Also, it may be unwise to make a supporting ‘good guy’ character the perpetrator of these shootings, as the audience will likely never forgive him. In all fairness, the story arc is not entirely explained at this point, and the show may have some incredible plot twists to explain these shootings, however I doubt it.

As I said at the beginning, I really don’t know what to think of this series. There has been a lot of good and a fair share of bad to be found in the first six episodes. Unfortunately, I don’t think that I have the time to invest in any future episodes, as TV shows really have to win me over early. However, I encourage horror fans to check out American Horror Story for themselves, they may find some redeeming qualities that I’ve missed. You can catch American Horror Story on the FX Network.

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