film

What makes a great romance? An exploration of ‘LA LA Land’

 

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Like The Artist before it, LA LA Land is a film that dares to think backward while telling a story that tells a story for a forward thinking audience.  It is a film that feels timeless, an instant classic.  Movie-goers feel like they are watching something akin to Singing in the Rain, Rebel without a Cause, and especially Casablanca.

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“I SHOULD PROBABLY TELL YOU SOMETHING NOW – I HATE JAZZ.”

Just as last year’s Whiplash had jazz purists saying, “That’s not how you become a great jazz musician,” LA LA Land has gotten some criticism for oversimplifying the genre into a “hackneyed cliché.”  While these would be fair criticisms of films that boast of being a thorough and definitive exploration of the genre, neither of these movies are actually about jazz.

LA LA Land’s got rhythm pumping through its veins from beginning to end, but the conversations in the film about the music style are used to clarify the metaphor.  Both metaphors, actually.

In one figurative sense, a jazz song is like a love story.  It is alive, improvisational, happens in the moment, and happens once.  You have to be there for it, paying attention and feeling it, or you’ll miss it.  This is a jazz song about two young hopefuls with stars in their eyes.  They find each other in a town that’s become stale, each filled with ambition to change their little piece of the world.

The second thing that jazz represents in LA LA Land film is the town in which the story takes place.   Hollywood – specifically the culture of film – is changing.  The classic cinema that this film lifts up is “dying on the vine.”  When Mia, a talented and yet frustrated actress, tells Sebastian, an equally frustrated jazz-obsessed musician, that she doesn’t like jazz, she might as well be saying, “I don’t like black and white movies.”

A writer tries to chat up Mia at a Hollywood party by telling her his specialty is “world building.”  He tells her he’s working on a “reimagining” of Goldilocks and The Three Bears, and the way he describes it makes it sound ridiculous and familiar.  As he explains that he sees it as “a franchise,” it sounds like the kind of project that could be in development right now.  This trend is comparable to the “smooth jazz” station that you put on at parties and talk over.  It doesn’t challenge or move you, because it’s elevator music.  The only debate left when talking about the popcorn fair that breaks the box office these days (Batman v. Superman, Transformers, X-Men, TMNT, etc.) is whether or not it’s actually any good.

Make no mistake, however, when it comes to that second analogy, LA LA Land isn’t a stickler for stringent traditionalism.  You can’t grow your audience if you only play for an aging audience.  You have to appeal to young people without losing the guiding principles of compelling storytelling.  Films, like great jazz, must continue to be revolutionary.

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“WHY DO YOU SAY ROMANTIC LIKE IT’S A DIRTY WORD?”

Romance stories are difficult to make compelling to a modern audience, and because of that, the genre often becomes stale and predictable.  Like the blockbusters that have come to dominate the large and small screen, modern romance stories tend to involve gimmicks and props (i.e. vampire/werewolf/human love triangles, zombie/human partnerships, or the trust-fall exercise that is a sadomasochistic relationship).  Still, instead of having mass appeal, as it once did, the romance genre has become a niche market that is often enjoyed as a guilty pleasure, usually in a bubble bath with a glass of white wine.

This is not the moment for romance stories.  In decades past, romantic-comedies were an enormous part of the industry.  I’ve heard commentary from producers that made their entire careers off that business that has bemoaned the loss.  They often speak of the quality of the films that have replaced them, insisting that the loss of rom-coms signifies a decline for Hollywood.  They refer to old stereotypes (“She’d see his comic book movie, and he’d go see her romance”), but that misses the point.

That being said, the musical is all but dead on the big screen.  The modern musical – if such a thing exists in film – exists in the form of a musician biopic (Ray, Walk the Line).  It can only be fiction if it’s purely on the soundtrack (The Great Gatsby) or if it’s centered around a music venue (Rock of Ages) or a rock star (School of Rock).  Aside from rare exceptions (Les Miserables), movie characters have only been allowed to sing where they would in the real world, such as on a stage (Ricki and The Flash).

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A BRIEF CONVERSATION WITH MYSELF

Are you saying that theaters full of mindless drivel that tell sloppy, incoherent stories?

Sure.

More so than before?

Depends on when you mean.

I mean – movies like The Lone Ranger?

Oh, or The Tickler!

The Tickler didn’t have the inflated budget of The Lone Ranger!

No, but let me tell you a story about Elizabeth Taylor and Cleopatra.

Come on!  That was a classic!

No.  It’s just old.  Just like The Lone Ranger, it was a flop when it came out, and it included similar cultural appropriation.

But some of these big blockbusters are actually pretty good.

I don’t care if your movie is Captain Philips or Captain America, if you’ve got a good script, some nuanced performances, and a competent director, I will support it.  I’m just sick of the cookie cutter stories.

And you think that the issue is more prevalent with big blockbusters?

Oh, no.  Remember when we were talking about rom-com producers talking about the decline of the genre and saying it’s a symptom of declining quality in Hollywood?

Yeah.

Well, for every As Good As It Gets or Silver Linings Playbook there was a Serendipity or a Failure to Launch.

So what separates a bad romance story from a good one?

GREAT QUESTION!

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WHAT MAKES A GREAT ROMANTIC STORY?

The prevailing consensus for romance movies seems to have been to write the main characters straight, and then write fun, interesting friends for them to get advice from.  It’s not something that doesn’t work.  After all, it comes from Shakespeare’s playbook.  If Much Ado about Nothing is the prototypical rom-com, then why wouldn’t you do that?  Write an ingénue character for the women to sympathize with.  Write a romantic man for the men to sympathize with, and if you think it will make things more palatable for the guys, simply give the male lead a gender-specific pastime, like sports.

The memorable parts of Much Ado about Nothing, however, don’t involve the young lovers.  It’s all about Benedict and Beatrice and their bickering, prickly, reluctant love story, which is why I couldn’t implore more for you to craft characters that are specific and flawed.

Let’s take a look back at a film that is reasonably considered the greatest romance ever put on celluloid, Casablanca.  Rick is a man with some principle, but he isn’t a hero.  He’s a broken man, haunted by a broken heart.  He has disappeared into a crowd of low-life criminals that prey on the innocent, and he doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone.  In walks Elsa, a complicated woman that Rick both loves and hates.  She carries a secret that is the only thing that can heal Rick, but it will only work if they are both willing to make sacrifices.  The “friend” characters are colorful because every character is colorful in this film.  Everyone is allowed to shine, and it makes for a story that is anything but dull.

Now, let’s take a closer look at what is possibly the best romantic movie in modern times to discuss the second main point.  The Notebook, also starring Ryan Gosling, takes a step back from the main ingredients of romantic storytelling and frames them in a context that gives everything greater weight and power.  The deeper subject, that of the power and longevity of love even in the face of debilitating illness has often fallen into clichés of its own.  Boy meets girl; girl gets cancer.  It’s the pitch that’s launched a thousand Lifetime Originals.

What makes both The Notebook and LA LA Land so remarkable is that they each craft the story in a way that it allows for each season of the romance to bloom to its fullest.  Make no mistake, they both come with a gut punch, but it isn’t played to manipulate the audience.  It is the poetic crux of the story.  The same can be said for Casablanca.  There is poetry in pain.  There is love in sacrifice.  There is redemption in compassion.

It’s obvious to anyone that has studied Plato’s Poetics, but the elements of a remarkable romance are the same as those for any great story:

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Language
  4. Music
  5. Spectacle

Take care of each of those things, do it in that order of importance, and you’ll have something.  If you can incorporate Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, then you might end up with a cinematic treasure.

Needless to say, LA LA Land does all of this.

 

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Ghostbusters (2016): A Superfan’s Perspective

My Qualifications

I am not an authority on “Ghostbusters.”  I do not own my own proton pack, have not engineered my own Ecto-1, and I’ve never drank an Ecto Cooler.  But people that know me have expressed interest in my thoughts on the new movie.

I do have a lot of paraphernalia from the first film.  Those are mainly gifts from people that know that the original 1984 film is tied for the top spot of movies in my heart (with “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “American Movie”).  And since I am such a movie enthusiast and because my passion for storytelling is boundless, that top spot means I can tell you details about the film to the tiniest minutia.

If it’s Ghostbusters related, I know about it, and I have something to say.

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Ghostbusters 2

So let me start off with a story about a ten year old kid.  I was excited so excited to be going to see my heroes on the big screen for the first time.  I had watched Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson on VHS and TV showings for years.  I had watched every episode of The Real Ghostbusters on Saturday mornings.  Despite being poor, I even had a couple of the action figures (the kind that animatedly freaked out when you pushed down an arm or squeezed their legs together).  Bill Murray was then and still is one of my favorite actors (one of my personal goals is to write a role for him that would win him an Oscar).  I didn’t know it then, but the original film would easily qualify as the film I would see more times in the theater than any other (usually on my birthday).  So when I watched “Ghostbusters 2” unspool on the big screen, I was about as excited as a kid could be.

But I’ll tell you something, that movie is terrible.  It uses convenient job changes that make no sense (Dana goes from world class musician to world class art historian, Luis Tully goes from passionate accountant to lackluster lawyer, all in five years?).  They completely change characters, forgetting what made Egon funny and have him hamming it up for the camera and having Janine go from mousey Queens nerd to flamboyant Queens hipster.  The logo was changed to show it was a sequel with no world-building reason for doing so.  And most importantly, it wasn’t funny.  There are a handful of funny lines in the movie, but overall, the first film was a much-improvised masterpiece, lightning in a bottle, and the second movie fell flat.  I was a child, and they were pandering to me, and I knew I was being pandered to and felt betrayed.

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For years they talked about a third movie, and for years I was in Bill Murray’s camp.  “We made a good one.  We made a bad one.  Why make anther one?”  And when Bill callously said he was concerned that “some of the people involved” had lost their taste, siting Harold Ramis’s “Year One,” I cringed for their unresolved personal relationship but was right there with him.

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My Expectations

So here comes the inevitable reboot.  I knew it was going to happen and had been bracing myself for it.  I even wrote this blog, which is a part of my “Re-Imagining” series that I sometimes do, the premise being “They’re going to remake it, so how could they do it where it could ever possibly satisfy me.”  Knowing the rumors that they were thinking of making a female version (and this was a couple of years ago), I had even included casting choices for that.  The only actor I could think of that could come close to Murray was Melissa McCarthy, so when she was cast, I was optimistic.  Really, the whole cast had me excited.  I’m a huge fan of Kristen Wiig, and I love what Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are doing on Saturday Night Live.  These are great choices.

I watched Paul Fieg’s “Spy,” “Bridesmaids,” and “The Heat” to get a feel for his work.  The first two were great, and the last one was at least funny.  So I was optimistic about his inclusion too.

 

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The Trailer

Then the trailer came out, and it was bad.  The most hated movie trailer in internet history.  It looked lame, unasked for, and worst of all, unfunny.  People were done being tricked into watching terrible movies based on beloved franchises. . .  Sick of Michael Bay’s adaptations. . .  Tired of tone deaf recitations of The Lone Ranger’s theme. . .  Fed up with darker, overly-shadowy versions of beloved icons, this would be the battleground on which they would make their stand and say, “No More!”

In response, the filmmakers called us all misogynists, and some of us undoubtedly were, but not all.

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Ghostbusters (2016)

Which brings me to last night, when I sat in a theater with 3D glasses.  It was the theater directly across from my old store, where I had staged a legendary release party for the video game that had come out seven years earlier.  A party that had authentic costumes and equipment, games and themed snacks, and a real-world, internationally acclaimed psychic who claimed to have talked to someone’s dead mother right there that night.  And there I sat with both high and low expectations.

What a relief when the movie was actually pretty good.

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The Negatives:

There are a few times when the movie makes choices that don’t make sense (Chris Hemsworth standing in the street, saying “I’m a part of the team” comes out of nowhere).  There are a few too many one-liner references to the source material.  And lines that should have been improvised away (“That’ll leave a mark” being the sorest thumb).  But it worked.  Aside from the cameos, which were well-paced and fun, the film hummed best when it stood on its own merits.  There are scenes that lay flat here, and then there are laugh out loud lines and moments that far outweigh those.  The middle of the movie is where it would have benefited from re-writes and skilled improvisation, and the end feels heavily edited.

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The Positives:

Here’s where I might take some crap.  While the first film is a better comedy, this one is a better ghost story.  The ghosts in this movie are beautiful and scary.  The explanation for the extra psychic-kinetic energy in the city is a fun new take.  And while the story of Zuul lingers in the background of a character-driven 80s comedy and only becomes the central figure in the third reel, this new movie’s grounded in that story from the first scene.

A lot of the stuff that bothered me in the trailer were fine in the film.  This is particularly true for Kate McKinnon’s character, which only makes sense when you spend some time with her.  Kate and Leslie Jones are the comic force of this movie, and they both steal scenes, blowing a hole through the television screen to step onto the big screen in a big way.  Still, Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig are the heart of the film, and they keep us grounded in the real world while so many strange things are happening around them.  The movie is about friendship and about how finding someone that gets you can save you from torment and ridicule (or at least from caring about that stuff as much), and after an hour and forty seven minutes with these characters, I wanted to see more of their story.

The film also lets the supporting cast shine in their own right.  Every actor that speaks, from Zach Woods to Karan Soni, Nate Corddry to Steve Higgins, Ed Begley Jr. to Andy Garcia, Cecily Strong to Chris Hemsworth, turns in a strong performance here.  And this honestly shouldn’t surprise you if you’re familiar with Paul Fieg’s work.

The busting also made me feel good.  No, really.  The whole way they fought ghosts was fresh, unique, and emotionally satisfying.

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In Summary:

It’s not a perfect 10.  It’s more of a 7.5.  But in the end, when it comes to material based on the “Ghostbusters” franchise, it stands above most of the rest.  It’s on par with the video game and the best episodes of the cartoon and comic books, and that’s a hell of an accomplishment.

We also learned something about how Hollywood works, didn’t we?  When the studio puts out a trailer the fans don’t like, you can either blame the studio or the fans.  I think by focusing on the most vocal bigots in the fan community, the filmmakers were able to get the studio to back them and get the fans that weren’t rabid woman haters to give the movie a chance.  It sure got ugly and made a lot of people defend themselves for simply worrying about what they were seeing, and it put the cast and director on the defensive.  That’s not the kind of atmosphere you want a big, nerdy love fest to come out in.

Finally, while I hate to tell people their opinions are incorrect, if someone tells you that “Ghostbusters 2” is a classic and this is trash, they’re dead wrong.

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UPDATE  10/15/2016:

I don’t really purchase movies anymore.  I have over three hundred DVDs and never load them, instead streaming Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime or watching Direct TV.  But since I’d really like to see a sequel in this new franchise, I ordered the Bluray for “Ghostbusters: Answer the Call,” which includes the extended cut.  Upon my second viewing, I have a few more things to say.

First of all, I’d like to acknowledge that the first hour of the film is pretty solid.  It’s the middle portion where most of the cuts could be made (some of which were), and if I had the job of doing the theatrical edits, I would have seriously considered leaving out anything that didn’t actively move the story forward.  That would unfortunately include Bill Murray’s scenes.   I think you could have left more of the middle on the editing room floor and left in more of the end.  As stated in my review, the end felt choppy and there were some things that didn’t make sense because of the edits that were made.

That being said, I actually prefer the extended cut.  In fact, some of the scenes that remained in the deleted scenes could have been put back in as well.  Overall, it wouldn’t approve on the score I gave the movie.  It would still be about a seven, but it is more of a comprehensive narrative.  Since I enjoyed what I saw, I don’t mind having more, even if the movie doesn’t kill me like it did during that first hour.

The day I got my Bluray, I woke up from a dream about the sequel that will probably never be.  I was thrilled that it was coming out, and I imagined that they would grow the material in more meaningful, emotionally grounded ways the second time around.  Let’s hope these girls get a second chance to answer the call.

15 Favorite Films of 2015 (Updated)

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What a lovely day 2015 has been for great films!  It’s transformative and miraculous when you really think about it.

The fuel films run on has become a scarce commodity.  Not because less money is being invested in them, but because the gigantic budgets of broad, super spectacles have all but swallowed up the money necessary to fund specific, engaging, and risk-taking films.

Sure, the Transformers movies are critical disasters, but audiences from around the world go to see them.  They go even when they know the series doesn’t live up to their own expectations, because they feel invested in the franchise.  Whereas, an exploration into the psychology of the personal journey of an individual could easily go ignored by moviegoers despite the quality of the work.

This is why the market seems flooded with sequels and remakes to preexisting properties.  And this is why even something that seems to have come strictly from the minds of the filmmakers is usually an adaptation of a book or comic.

What’s crazy about 2015 is that it still worked.

Here you will find my list of favorite films from 2015.  Note that I have not seen every movie yet.  I will update this list when I’ve seen anything else* that might rank on this list.  Also, this isn’t about the best movies of the year.  It’s about the movies I thought were the best personally.  Our lists will definitely be different, and I hope to hear your thoughts on this year in cinema.

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15. Amy, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, and What Happened, Miss Simone?

Positives: 

2015 was a great year for documentaries about troubled singers.  All three have very common trajectories with different stories, and each is like traveling into the minds of the subject.

“Amy” explores how the pressures of fame changed Amy Winehouse as she struggled to find someone she could rely on in a world where she was perceived as the cash cow.  “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” takes us on a journey through the audio recordings of Nirvana’s frontman.  And “What Happened, Miss Simone?” weighs the consequences of chasing personal satisfaction versus commercial success when you measure your own personal value on your fame.

Each of these documentaries is excellent for their own reasons, but if you look at it as a body of work – like I do for reasons I think I have already articulated here – then I think you’re really in for a cinematic treat.  If, however, you are simply interested in watching one of these films, I would recommend that you pick the subject closest to your own musical taste.

Negatives: 

As most people aren’t familiar with the work of Nina Simone, it will probably not get the attention it deserves from viewers.

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14. Spy

Positives: 

This is a fun, funny, visually appealing movie where you can tell the performers are having a blast.  The results of that mirth are some great performances.  Melissa McCarthy is at the top of her game.  Miranda Hart was a revelation (at least for Americans).  Jason Statham clearly loves parodying himself.  Jude Law, Bobby Cannavale, and Rose Byrne have nuanced roles with plenty of great moments.  And Peter Serafinowicz basically stole the whole picture.

Perhaps this was director Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy rehearsing the action comedy format for the new “Ghostbusters” reboot, and if that’s true, then this is a better trailer for that movie than what we’ve been presented with so far.  What’s on display here is a display of excellent comic taste.

Negatives: 

There are a lot of spy spoofs out there, and as far as the story is concerned, “Spy” doesn’t do much to reinvent the wheel.

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13. Trainwreck

Positives: 

Amy Schumer tops off her best year ever with this foray into film.  Bringing her comic sensibilities from her television series (“Inside Amy Schumer”) and stand-up career, she wrote a film loosely based on her personal journey in hopes that some A-list actress could pull it off.  Hollywood wisely made the decision to have Amy do it herself.

The story is pretty basic, but the scenarios within it are creatively inspired.  Since Apatow and Schumer cast performers that don’t often get opportunities like this, every performance builds off of that inspiration.  This is a stellar ensemble where everyone brings their a game.

Negatives: 

It’s an excellent freshman effort, but I still have a feeling that when Schumer has more experience, we’ll see more visual cinematic ability on display.

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12. The Revenant

Positives:

The true story that inspired this film is one that resonates with me.  In fact, I have been tinkering with a modernized version of my own for years.  The writers clearly make the correct decision to add the character of the son to increase the meaning of the betrayal.  It is also smart that they allowed the hero (and audience) to focus on one villain.

The film is beautiful, haunting, and filled with major set piece moments.  DiCaprio doesn’t give his best performance, but he does earn his Oscar.  Tom Hardy rounds out the best year of his career with a perfect portrait of an Appalachian sociopath, complete with a dead-on dialect.  And Alejandro G. Iñárritu cements his hand prints into film legend with his follow up to last year’s Birdman.

Negatives: 

The movie is too long and has too many dream sequences.

The filmmakers also juggle too many balls.  There are three themes to this film, and that works when they all coalesce in the end.  However, these themes are at odds with one another, and the ending comes as a cop out.

The first theme is survival.  “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe… keep breathing.”

The second theme is revenge.  Both Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and the tribe of hostile natives (lead by Duane Howard) are seeking vengence.

The third theme is forgiveness and of letting go the past.  Arthur Redcloud’s character says, “My heart bleeds. But revenge is in the creator’s hands,” and it is later echoed.

However, the forgiveness doesn’t feel organic or true, and the danger or revenge flies directly in the face of living for survival.

 

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11. Sicario

Positives: 

This has the pulse of an action movie, the stakes of a drama, and the psychology of a thriller.  The nearest comparison I can give to this movie would be Hurt Locker.  It’s gritty and (seemingly) real, takes you along for the ride, and speaks on issues of international interest.

Each character is interesting and floats in the film like an ice berg.  There is clearly more below the surface than above, and this goes for everyone that shares the screen with our hero.  She is the only one we feel we can trust.  But from the onset, we feel safe and would make the same decisions she does.  We are drawn into the conspiracy the same way that she is, and we feel just as trapped.

Basically what you get here are Oscar caliber people making a movie that should appeal to the masses and to the art house alike.

Negatives: 

I guess if you’re looking for a problem with this film, you could bring up the running time. The common theme with almost every movie in 2015 was that it runs long.

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10. Straight Outta Compton

Positives: 

As a rapper and a fan of N.W.A, I felt very close to the scenes that took place in the studio.  Eazy E’s first step up to the microphone felt a lot like my own, because the movie allowed the scene to play out with realism and charm.

The story of N.W.A is fascinating.  They were basically made up of four studio gangstas and one for real dealer, and they brought the raw story of street life out to the mainstream in a way that resonated with kids in Compton and kids in Connecticut.  The album itself is not a retelling of actual events that happened but was a encapsulation of an experience.  It is symbolism and analogy.  Except when Eazy E was at the mic.  Then it was just emotion.

The film, which also has the ability to appeal to virtually anyone, relays the behind the scenes story of that album and the fallout that came with it.  It’s about the making and breaking of a band and the toll it takes on the individual member.  It allows us access into the lives of three of the most influential forces in music during the most crucial time in their lives, and it as it is a well-crafted telling of that story, it is well worth viewing.

Negatives: 

The movie spends a lot of time worshiping Dre and Cube at the expense of the other contributors.  I really respected that this was a tribute to E, but I felt like Yella and Ren got disrespected.  Not in their representation on the screen, because they were not the stars of the group in the end.  But in the dismissal of their work.  Cube says he wrote for everyone, and Dre takes credit for all of the music.  But if you look at the album credits or listen to the response of their band mates, you’ll see contradictions, and since this will likely live on as the historical record, those discrepancies will have devastating impact.

Also, the tell that E has AIDS is that he starts to cough a lot, which feels a bit TV movie.

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9. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Positives: 

What can be said that hasn’t already been said in a million other places across the galaxy?  It’s something the fans wanted: a good Star Wars movie.  Only, a lot of the fans are so obsessed with the mythology of Star Wars that perhaps they didn’t need another good movie.  They seem perfectly happy watching and defending the dreadful prequels and will watch and rewatch and introduce their children to anything Star Wars related that is better than the Christmas special or Ewoks: The Battle for Endor.

No, I take that back.  Some of them watch and rewatch and introduce their children to those too.

What we actually got here is not a movie for the hardcore Star Wars fans, who interestingly enough are conflicted about whether they appreciate the fact that J.J. Abrams ignored the expanded universe.  They seem okay with feeling a little ambiguous about George Lucas as long as you don’t try to fix his mistakes.  Let George retweak everything, and yes, they might moan, but in the end, he’s the creator.

Right.

The best thing Abrams did here was to hire Lawrence Kasdan and to allow him to tell the story he wasn’t allowed to originally with Return of the Jedi.  Sure, we had to reset Han Solo to A New Hope in order to build to that climax, and we had to rehash a lot of the story we already know with characters we are just meeting.  But in the end what we got was something satisfying and mature.  And isn’t it nice to actually use the word “mature” again when talking about Star Wars?

Negatives: 

It’s good, but it’s not the best sci-fi film of 2015.  It’s not even the best one Oscar Isaac was in.

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8. Ex Machina

Positives: 

A lot of films have gone after the question of what it means to be alive.  Can machines transcend?  But this film goes deeper into that question.  What does it mean if they fail our tests?  And what is the value of our opinions in the first place?

This film is a well-crafted drama with really good actors and a dynamite script.  Added to that is the award winning special effects that layer onto the performances and do not detract from them.  The location is stunning and interesting and allows for diversity within a fairly confined setting.  And the director helms it all with impeccable taste and surprising choices.

It’s basically just a really well done psychological thriller that allows you to both like and dislike every single character.

Negatives: 

It won’t be the Oscar Isaac sci-fi film people remember from 2015.

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7. Inside Out

Positives: 

Inspired by a parent who was watching their child grow up and become more challenged by their emotions, Inside Out is a whimsical journey through the psychological impact life changing events can have on a kid.  It’s told in a sort of Alice in Wonderland narrative, only Alice didn’t fall through the rabbit hole.  She’s still dealing with the real world while her insides are churning down a river of sudden change.

The characters in this film are fittingly well drawn, and the story is heightened with stakes and stunts only an animated film could pull off.  The inside and the out are both equally engaging and play toward the same climax.  This is Pixar doing what it does best: telling quality, original stories for audiences of all ages.

The studio wisely chose to keep one of their major characters a secret, and I will do so for the benefit of readers that may not have yet seen this gem.  All I will say is that the moments that include this character bring about all the tenderness and nostalgia of watching a child grow into virtually another person.

Negatives: 

If you don’t like crying when you watch cartoons with your kids, then you might want to fast forward through a bit of this.  They probably won’t cry though.  Not until they’re older.

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6. The Look of Silence

Positives: 

A film about a historic massacre told through the lens of memory.  There are some vibrant accounts.  Some that are clouded by the cataracts of senility.  Some that are unreliable.  And some that are heartbreaking in their lack of empathy.  All of these memories will be unsettling.  All of them are hard to sit through.  And all of them are important enough for our intrepid filmmakers to risk their lives to record.

In an age where our own politicians debate how we should treat our enemies, our immigrants, and our competition, this film is relevant.  If we do not know and learn from our past, we can not save ourselves from it happening again, and this film explores atrocities that were carried out to “please” America.

Negatives: 

If you are seeking a historic account of things, this is more anecdotal.

Spotlight

5. Spotlight

Positives: 

Proving that sometimes all you need is a compelling story, an ensemble of excellent actors, and a capable director to run away with Oscar gold, “Spotlight” tackles an important subject that the world already thinks they know all about.  Unraveling a mystery that everyone already knows the answer to is not a simple story to tell, but Spotlight keeps you riveted to every twist and turn.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this film is the time in which this period piece takes place.  Recent history is difficult to duplicate, and this film is all about how the world of journalism has completely changed in such a short period of time.  The theme of old medium versus new – of analog and digital – builds just as much tension throughout the movie.  Every billboard advertising faster bandwidth, every new discovery on the computer, every sleepless night spent manually searching documents reminds us that print journalism is on the brink of extinction, which begs the question of who will have the resources to investigate the next big story.

And that’s what this film does.  It tells important stories.  And in an era where the stakes are super good versus super evil, it may not be the most popular choice to tell such a realistic, human story, but it’s important to do so.

Negatives: 

Let’s just hope that sometime in the near future, we don’t have a film that tackles the subject of how big blockbusters have choked out smaller, more important films.

The Martian

4. The Martian

Positives: 

I’m a fan of drama.  I’m a fan of comedy.  But what I’m the biggest fan of is when you can properly mix the two together into a film that has both types of tension.  The Martian is a perfect recipe.

Smart, witty, and well executed, Ridley Scott told a personal story that had enough spectacle and gravitas to engage audiences of all ages.  The story behind the story is also an engaging one.  A blogger who wanted to write a book and give it away for free becomes a best selling author with a film adaptation that is nominated for Best Picture.  Both stories are inspiring and worth our attention.

I also really enjoyed the diversity of the cast and the occasional inside joke (ie Sean Bean’s character’s thoughts on The Lord of the Rings, etc).  This movie has class and sophistication, and it’s not afraid to break the fourth wall.

Negatives: 

Uh. . .  Poop potatoes?  I don’t know.

The Big Short

3. The Big Short

Positives: 

It’s like Adam McCay took Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone, put them into the blender together, and spiced the mixture up with his Second City and SNL sensibilities.  The filmmakers serve up a dish that is a perfect balance of drama and comedy, and every course is an unexpected serving in a meal you thought already knew.

Like “Spotlight,” this is another important story with a spectacular ensemble cast.  Essentially we have four consecutive story-lines that parallel and amplify one another, paired with small sketches that could fit into an unconventional documentary on the housing market crash.

The cast aren’t the only stars of this film.  The characters – and the real people on which they are based – so rich, so textured, and so eccentric that there are no dead spots in the movie.

Negatives: 

There is an incredible amount of insight in this film regarding the market crash, but they will probably be marginalized by people with imbedded political leanings.

room 01

2. Room

Positives:

As a kind of rule, I don’t cry watching movies.  There are a handful that have choked me up or jerked a tear during the most moving scene, but I’m pretty stoic when following someone’s fiction.  Documentaries, however, do make me cry.  That being said, I will tell you right now that I sobbed through pretty much all of Room.

The book from which the film was adapted is told from a boy’s perspective, and his understanding of the world is shaped by what he is exposed to throughout the story.  In the beginning, Jack knows only lies that were told to him by his mother in her attempt to keep him safe.  Now that he is five, his mother forces him to grow up in order to once again keep him safe.

I won’t go much deeper into the plot, because I know that most people probably didn’t budget their time to watch this film in the sea of releases this year.  However, I will say that the brilliance of the screenplay, which was also penned by the author (Emma Donoghue), allows Jack to tell us how he sees the world while showing us the stark reality the book did not.

This film is truthful and told with great simplicity.  The acting in this movie is absolutely stunning.  Honestly, the directors may very well have captured the greatest performance ever by a child actor by casting and trusting Jacob Tremblay and by letting the cameras roll to capture him in candid moments on the set, and Brie Larson gives the best performance of the year by any actor.  Maybe the best performance of the decade.  The pair is perfect.

Negatives: 

Every decision made on this film was the right one.  The set design, editing, directing, casting, everything. . .  No complaints from me.

room 02

mad max 01

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Positives: 

It’s no wonder that Mad Max: Fury Road swept most of the technical awards at the Oscars.  The costuming, set design, hair and make-up, the input from every department was inspired and inspiring.  Just watch the trailer.  If it gets you excited to watch this movie, then you’re going to have a great time with it.  It had me giggling with glee just to see how creative and passionate the filmmakers were when they labored lovingly over every frame.

In an age when quick cuts of shaky close-ups pass as action sequences, it is truly refreshing to watch George Miller’s boundary pushing practical stunt work.  This isn’t simply a retro rehash of the 80’s action genre.  This is next level work.

One example of how this is cutting edge comes with the representation of both male and female characters that are more than cardboard cut-outs.  The movie doesn’t spoon-feed you details about these characters.  It doesn’t slow down to dig deeper into the psychology of these characters, because it’s a high-octane roller coaster ride.  But all of the details are there, played appropriately by highly skilled actors that give you all the clues you need to know who these post-apocalyptic people are and what motivates them.

Negatives: 

If you are looking for a movie where Max is the main character or where we see his character get steadily developed, this is not the film for you.

 

mad max 02

Brie Larson

* Notable movies I still need to see include: Carol, The Danish Girl, Creed, Brooklyn, Trumbo, Steve Jobs, Joy, and. . . I don’t know.  Magic Mike XXL?

NOTE: I’ve seen some lists that include Selma as one of the best films of 2015, but since it was from last award’s season, I do not include it on my list.

2015 movie 13 2015 movie 14 2015 movie 15 2015 movie 16 2015 movie 17 2015 movie 18 2015 movie 19 2015 movie 20 2015 movie

The 50+ Films of Christmas (Part 10)

The 50+ Films of Christmas

Follow me as I watch 50+ of the best (and worst) holiday films! I will blog mini-reviews as I go and then rank them when I’m done watching them all.

6 Meet Me in St. Louis

Meet Me in St. Louis

There are few things more in the spirit of the season than Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to her baby sister.

That being said, I found very little in this film that I could relate to. It isn’t that the movie is not entertaining. It is. But it acted as more of a curiosity to me than anything. I had a lot of trouble sympathizing with the characters or their trials.

“Meet Me in St. Louis” follows four beautiful sisters. There’s the boy crazy older pair (Judy Garland, “The Wizard of Oz,” “A Star is Born;” Lucille Bremer, “Ziegfeld Follies”) and younger tomboys (Joan Carroll, “The Bells of St Mary;” and Margaret O’Brien, “Little Women,” “Jane Eyre”). They look forward to the upcoming World’s Fair, seek out Victorian style engagements, and fret over leaving the family home for dad’s promotion.

It’s all really much ado about nothing. The writing is clever, but the plot is dull. And the characters spend most of their time crying over one tiny crisis or another.

Certainly, there is nostalgia for those childhood and teenage years, but the traditions that this film show are somewhat foreign to a modern audience. In fact, the Halloween scenes are almost completely unrecognizable. It’s more like a film about another country than one about the Gateway to the American West.

Certainly there are people to whom this film will speak to more than myself, and for those I can say just one thing. Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

6/10

8 Christmas in Connecticut

Christmas in Connecticut

When this film was made, Barbara Stanwyck (“Double Indemnity,” “The Lady Eve”) was the most wealthy woman in America. She was talented, beautiful, and rich, and this film represents the pinnacle of her talents and career.

Dennis Morgan (“Kitty Foyle”) is a WWII soldier that was stranded on a raft. He spent that time dreaming of food. A nurse at his hospital and an enterprising newspaper man (Sydney Greenstreet, “Casablanca,” “The Maltese Falcon”) cook up a great plan for charity and publicity.

Barbara Stanwyck’s character is supposed to be a cross between Emily Post and Martha Stewart. Well, she’s supposed to be. That what she tells her readers. She lives on a farm, has a loving husband and an infant, and can whip up gourmet meals in the kitchen. The reality, however, is that she’s a single lady in the city that gets recipes from her favorite restaurateur (S.Z. Sakall, “Ball of Fire,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy”). When she is all but forced to host a Christmas party on her imaginary farm, she has to agree to marry a wealthy friend (Reginald Gardiner, “The Great Dictator,” “The Flying Deuces”) and create a series of elaborate lies.

The charade is the fun of this film. As the holiday lies spin more and more elaborate webs, Stanwyck gets entangled more and more. She’s also falling deeper in deeper in a kind of love those lies will only prevent.

What’s more festive than lying to those you care about?

When seeking out a fun and witty way to spend the holidays, perhaps you should consider spending Christmas in Connecticut.

8/10

8.5 The Holiday

The Holiday

When two strangers who were recently involved in horrible break-ups decide to trade spaces for Christmas, a Londoner finds herself in Beverly Hills and the Hollywood blond goes to a tiny, frozen cottage.  A mere whim of heartbreak and the blowing Santa Annas promise to change both of their lives with holiday magic.

Cameron Diaz (“There’s Something About Mary,” “Shrek”) is the film industry’s hottest cutter of trailers, which is a fun device as she occasionally imagines her life in those terms.  Kate Winslet (“Titanic,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) writes wedding announcements for the paper but suffers from unrequited love.  When they swap lives for two weeks, they each find love in unexpected places.  Cameron hooks a serial one-night-stander (Jude Law, “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Sherlock Holmes”).  Kate flirts with a guy that scores movies (Jack Black, “School of Rock,” “Bernie”).  The love stories follow the standard formula and are rather predictable, but both unwind their yarns with fun, well-acted scenes that effectively demonstrate the transcendent power of love.

Honestly, if this film simply told the pair of love stories, it would have been satisfactory, but there is another story line that demonstrates non-romantic love in a gentle and very entertaining way.  Eli Wallach (“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” “The Magnificent Seven”) plays Cameron – err, Kate’s next door neighbor.  He’s an aging man that can’t walk on his own power, and for that reason, he keeps blowing off the Writing Guild’s invitation to pay tribute to his work.  Winslet and Black find the wily older man and his pals to be charming and decide to offer him a hand.

A lot has been made of “Love Actually,” but if you ask me, the superior romantic Christmas movie is “The Holiday.”

8/10

9 The Shop Around the Corner

The Shop Around the Corner

Before the internet, before eHarmony.com and speed dating, the concept of anonymous courtship still existed.  In Budapest, Hungary in 1940 when a person wanted to meet a potential mate, they could go to the dance halls or they could respond to personal ads in the newspaper for a pen pal.

That’s just what Alfred Kralik (James Stewart, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”) has done.  The lead salesman at Matuschek and Company has found passion in the words of a stranger, and he has no idea that his anonymous amor is actually the new salesgirl, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan, “The Mortal Storm,” “Three Comrads”).  In their letters, they find love, but on the sales floor, they find nothing but disagreement and discord.

Director Ernst Lubitsch (“To Be or Not to Be,” “Ninotchka,” “Trouble in Paradise”) calls “The Little Shop Around the Corner” his greatest comedy, and it’s not simply because of the playful romance.  This film will find a special place in the heart of anyone who has worked retail.

Matuschek and Company is a place that is both foreign and incredibly familiar.  Who in sales hasn’t had someone ask a question like, “How much is that belt in the window, the one that says ‘2.95?'”  No matter where you are in the world, this little store could be the shop around the corner.  All the characters from the sensitive manager (Frank Morgan, “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Great Ziegfeld”) to the older and wiser salesman (Joseph Schildkraut, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Orphans of the Storm”) to the style-obsessed upstart (Felix Bressart, “To Be or Not to Be,” “Ninotchka”) are remarkably like people that I’ve worked with.  They’re realistic and endlessly entertaining.  I particularly enjoyed the story of the errand boy, Pepi (William Tracy, “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”).

With all of your Christmas shopping this year, you really ought to see if there’s something you might like at “The Little Shop Around the Corner.”

9/10

4 Silent Night, Deadly Night

Silent Night, Deadly Night

A boy is traumatized when his parents are murdered by a man dressed as Santa Claus.  He is raised in an orphanage run by a nun that punishes naughty wards with brutality.  As a man, he is given the job of being a toy store Santa, and the terrible flashbacks and an incident of witnessed workplace harassment makes him snap.  This year, Santa is bringing more than lumps of coal to the bad little boys and girls.

Just like most horror flicks of the 1980’s, “Silent Night, Deadly Night” is a gimmicky romp.  It follows all of the required rules.  There’s a harbinger, a set of bare breasts about every twenty minutes, and a creatively dispatched body count that rises into the double digits.  The writers could have used some clever puns, and the deaths aren’t particularly holiday themed.  But if you need a Christmas horror movie, you’re choices are pretty much just limited to this one anyway.

Well, this and its four sequels.

4/10

The 50+ Films of Christmas (Part 9)

The 50+ Films of Christmas

Follow me as I watch 50+ of the best (and worst) holiday films! I will blog mini-reviews as I go and then rank them when I’m done watching them all.

8 We're No Angels

We’re No Angels

Imagine that The Three Stooges were lowlife criminals and quite a bit smarter. Now replace Moe with Humphrey Bogart (“Casablanca,” “The African Queen”), Larry with Peter Ustinov (“Spartacus,” “Death on the Nile”), and Curly with Aldo Ray (“The Green Berets,” “Pat and Mike”). Okay, that’s not easy to imagine; I realize that. But it might pique your curiosity enough to check into this little gem.

The three gentlemen are escaped cons on Devil’s Island. They want off the island to live a free life in Paris, so they’re looking for easy money. That lands them on the roof of a struggling shopkeeper and his family, and that changes their plans. Slightly.

Using their enterprising criminal minds, they descend from the roof like angels and begin performing little Christmas miracles for the family. Their hi-jinks and shenanigans are a lot of fun to watch, dark though they might be, and the chemistry between these three is fantastic.

The film is based on the play “My Three Angels” by Samuel and Bella Spewack, which was based on the French play “La Cuisine Des Anges” by Albert Husson. The film feels like a filmed play, and for the most part it works well. However, sometimes in the theater unwieldy exposition flies whereas it does not in the movies. This movie starts off with quite a lot of clumsy exposition, including the line, “Don’t you know, me, dad? It’s me. Your daughter.” And if you don’t know that these guys are criminals at the very start, don’t worry. They will tell you over and over again.

This is a light Christmas tale with a dark underbelly, and it’s a real treat for classic movie fans.

8/10

8.5 Arthur Christmas

Arthur Christmas

Are you looking for an animated Christmas film with a twist of Monty Python flavor? “Arthur Christmas” features the voice talent of some Britain’s biggest talents and has a dark streak that runs right through it.

Arthur (James McAvoy, “X-Men: First Class,” “The Last King of Scotland”) is the youngest son of Santa (Jim Broadbent, “Moulin Rouge,” “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince”). His older brother Steve (Hugh Laurie, “House M.D.,” “Stuart Little”) is the next one in line, and his grandfather (Bill Nighy, “Shawn of the Dead,” “Love Actually”) is the former Santa. Of course that makes his mother (Imelda Staunton, “Vera Drake,” “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”) Mrs. Santa.

Steve is all about the future with his tech-based approach to the logistics of Christmas with just one Santa and about a billion kids. Grandsanta is still clinging on to the classics, real reindeer and lead based paint. Santa is caught up in the glory of being the top man and isn’t ready to relegate his throne quite yet, even though he’s become forgetful. Meanwhile, Arthur thinks the most important part about Christmas is that every child gets a present from Santa. When one gift goes undelivered, the race is on to get it under the tree, and everyone has their own motive.

This is a rare animated film that delivers on the promise of creating a satisfying story for both children and adults equally. The humor that is aimed at the children works with the big kids, and the adult humor is neither inappropriate or juvenile. Every note hits its mark with perfect pitch.

“Arthur Christmas” delivers., and everyone gets a gift from Santa.

8.5/10

8.5 Elf

Elf

Buddy the “elf” (Will Ferrell, Anchorman,” “Step Brothers”) is the first human to ever be at the North Pole. In fact, he was accidentally picked up from an orphanage by Santa (Edward Asner, “Up,” “Mary Tyler Moore”) and adopted by an older elf that never found time for kids of his own (Bob Newhart, “Newhart,” “The Bob Newhart Show”). When he discovers the secret that he isn’t just a very, very tall elf, he makes a journey through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, through the sea of swirly twirly gum drops, and then through the Lincoln Tunnel to meet his real father (James Caan, “The Godfather,” “Misery”), his wife (Mary Steenburgen, “Step Brothers,” “Back to the Future III”), and his young son.

Of course Buddy knows nothing of the world outside of the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” inspire North Pole. He doesn’t know it makes him seem odd when he eats spaghetti with syrup, makes toys out of furniture, or beats up the Gimble’s Santa for impersonating the real Santa. And he can’t understand why his dad keeps calling the police every time he shows up.

Buddy meets a girl (Zooey Deschanel, “Yes Man,” “New Girl”), falls in love, and tries to work his way through the walls she’s put up with a wide-eyed innocence only Will Ferrell could deliver.

This is a sweet movie about a very kind and compassionate man who is seeking a place where he feels he can belong. It’s about family. It’s about love. And it’s about finding the Christmas spirit in a world that is not as gentle as Santa’s workshop.

Who wouldn’t want to take a sleigh ride brought to you by the director of “Iron Man,” Jon Favreau?

8.5/10

10 It's a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life

This film has become a Christmas staple for two reasons:

1) It bombed at the box office, drove the studio out of business, put its famed director out of a job, and eventually became public domain property, thus was free to be broadcast on television every Christmas for free.

2) It is a perfect movie.

Frank Capra is one of Hollywood’s greatest directors.  He is responsible for dozens of classics like “It Happened One Night,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.”  James “Jimmy” Stewart is one of the biggest stars of the silver screen, turning in a lifetime of great work in films like “The Philadelphia Story,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and “Rear Window.”  These two together had already created “You Can’t Take It With You” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to great success, and while Stewart was reluctant to return to films so soon after returning from serving in the war, he trusted Capra.

What they got for their final collaboration was powerful.  The shot of George Bailey (Stewart’s character) sitting at the bar, weeping, and begging God for a miracle was so rich with real emotional turmoil that Capra blew up the image to make it a closer cut.  This is a movie about the ultimate “every man” and how much of an impact he is capable of making.

The film begins with a collage of voices in prayer, asking for God to please help poor George out in his time of need.  We are introduced to the wingless angel, Clarence (Henry Travers, “The Bells of St. Mary,” “The Invisible Man”), who will be trying to earn his wings by helping George.  As Clarence learns about his client, we see the life of George unfold.

George Bailey is a man with large dreams.  He wants to build skyscrapers and see the world.  He wants to shake the dust of the crummy little town of Bedford Falls off of his shoes.  He wants to be important.  But complications with his family, community responsibilities, a local love interest (Donna Reed, “From Here to Eternity,” “The Donna Reed Show”), and a miserly old man (Lionell Barrymore, “Key Largo,” “Captain Courageous”) have kept him from every realizing his dreams.  All through the years – the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II – George has raised up a family, run his buildings and loan, and fought Old Man Potter.  But due to a financial disaster he had no control over, his life is falling apart.  And that’s when George Bailey wishes he had never been born.

It has moments of melodrama and moments of saccharine sweetness, but they both work perfectly well in the context of this heart-warming tale of drama, comedy, and thrills.

A neat little piece of trivia: Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer is the boy that gets jilted by George and Mary at the school dance and opens up the dance floor.  This isn’t the only Christmas classic he makes a cameo appearance in.  He’s also the freckled-faced older brother of The Haynes Sisters in “White Christmas.”

10/10

8.5 Home Alone

Home Alone

This movie is one of the top grossing comedies of all time, which easily makes it writer John Hughes’s most successful film.  This is the guy behind the Brat Pack films, “Christmas Vacation,” and the updated “Miracle on 34th Street.”  To a lot of people, this fact was a mystery to some people back when the movie came out in 1990, but never to me.

“Home Alone” centers around an actor that may possibly be the biggest child star since Shirley Temple, Macaulay Culkin (“My Girl,” “Uncle Buck”).  He is accidentally left home alone by his parents (Catherine O’Hara, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Surviving Christmas,” “Best in Show” and John Heard, “Big,” “Awakenings”).  He has to survive on his own and defend his house from two deranged thieves (Joe Pesci, “Goodfellas,” “Lethal Weapon 2” and Daniel Stern, “City Slickers,” “The Wonder Years”).

There are essentially two different movies here.  The first is about a boy that learns to act like an adult when the family he wishes weren’t there aren’t.  He does all his own shopping, seeks a toothbrush that’s approved by the American Dental Association, applies aftershave, and then runs around the house screaming from the pain of applying aftershave.  Then there’s the second film.  The one where the boy uses his childish ingenuity to clobber, burn, tar and feather, and maim the bad guys.

The real reason that this movie works so well is Culkin.  He’s sweet, cute, clever, has great delivery, and is believable even when he’s using words he’s probably too young to use.

What’s not to love?  The film has heart and it has very violent slapstick.

8.5/10

The 50+ Films of Christmas (Part 8)

The 50+ Films of Christmas

Follow me as I watch 50+ of the best (and worst) holiday films! I will blog mini-reviews as I go and then rank them when I’m done watching them all.

6.5 Love Actually

Love Actually

This movie features an all-star cast in a film that claims that love actually is all around, using arrivals at the Heathrow Airport as the primary evidence of this claim. Thus, we enter into the stories of several people who would wind up in that same airport three months after Christmas and see where they were for three weeks leading up to the holiday.

There is an aging rocker who is trying to revitalize his career (Bill Nighy, “Shawn of the Dead,” “Arthur Christmas”), who finds that the more his manager’s plan works, the further he grows from his manager. There’s the new prime minister (Hugh Grant, “About a Boy,” “Notting Hill”), who finds himself attracted to a member of his staff that closely resembles Monica Lewinski in the “chubby” commentary she attracts and also in dress (blue jacket is red, black beret is white). A father (Liam Neeson, “Taken,” “Schindler’s List”) has lost his wife and finds himself teaching his step-son how to court his first love. A writer (Colin Firth, “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “The King’s Speech”) finds an attraction that transcends language when he is saddled with a foreign assistant who can speak no English. A lonely American (Laura Linney, “The Truman Show,” “Mystic River”) has to decide between caring for her mental patient brother or pursuing a relationship with a co-worker. Then there’s the British loser in love that decides he can score in America with his accent and decides to go and find out. There’s also the best man (Andrew Lincoln, “The Walking Dead”) that has fallen in love with the bride (Keira Knightley, “Pride and Prejudice,” “The Pirates of the Caribbean”) but doesn’t know how to tell his best friend the groom (Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”). Adding to the list is the naked body double couple that films the same sex scene for three full weeks (Martin Freeman, “The Hobbit,” “Sherlock;” Joanna Page, “From Hell”). And finally there’s the husband (Alan Rickman, the Harry Potter series, “Die Hard”) that is cheating on his wife (Emma Thompson, “Saving Mr. Banks,” “Wit,” “Sense and Sensibility”) with his gold-digging secretary.

Add to that long list a thread of political intrigue with a smarmy cowboy US President (Billy Bob Thornton, “Bad Santa,” “Sling Blade”) and the mysterious jewelry salesman that appears right when one of our characters needs him (Rowen Atkinson, “Mr. Bean,” “Blackaddar”).

Okay. Take a deep breath. Now that the introductions are out of the way, I will attempt to give you my assessment.

Basically, “Love Actually” is a fairly shallow look at what love actually means. The kind of love observed on this particular day at Heathrow Airport is the kind that flourishes in the first few weeks – you know, when lust is a primary component still – and that’s all. In this film, enduring love is rewarded with death (as in the case of the Liam Neeson story) or with infidelity (as in the case of the Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson story). There is one other enduring love story, but it’s purely platonic and mostly one-sided (the Bill Nighy story). The rest of the movie is about new love, and that would be okay if it wasn’t so cynical. You can’t have love if you care for an ailing family member. If it’s “love” that you feel, then why not go behind your best friend’s back and confess it to his wife? I mean, it’s Christmas, right? And why go after British girls when American girls are such giant slags that they’ll throw a foursome at the first Brit they see? This film had the freedom – and the cast – to truly explore the theme it proposes, but in the end there are only three halfway decent *love* stories.

The comical, clumsy courtship of Freeman and Page is a great short film buried in the two plus hours surrounding it. Colin Firth’s earnest yearning is intriguing but under nourished. And Hugh Grant’s battle within over what to do with that darned intern is playful and flirty but also overwrought with silly political commentary.

Overall, this is film has enough great actors in it that it is watchable. It almost even tricks you into thinking your watching a story with substance. But deep down, “Love Actually” is hard to find in this film.

6.5/10

6.5 Home for the Holidays

Home for the Holidays

“When you go home do you ever look around and say, ‘Who are these people? Where do I even come from?'”

Bill Clinton is in office. Gay is a bad, shameful word. And everything is changing.

Holly Hunter (“The Incredibles,” “The Piano”) plays a woman who is falling apart. She lost her job, made out with her sixty-something boss, and just as she’s getting on the plane, her teen daughter (Claire Danes, “The Family Stone,” “My So Called Life”) tells her she’s going to have sex with her boyfriend. Her aging parents (played beautifully by Anne Bancroft, “The Graduate,” “The Miracle Worker” and Charles Durning, “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “The Sting”) are playing host to the family for Thanksgiving. When the brother (Robert Downey Jr., “Iron Man,” “Chaplin”) shows up with a man (Dylan McDermott, “In the Line of Fire,” “The Practice”) that isn’t his longtime boyfriend, Hunter worries that her brother has given up “the one.” The holiday isn’t complete until the dotty aunt (Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s daughter, “Doctor Zhivago”) and the conservative sister (Cynthia Stevenson, “The Player,” “Jennifer’s Body”) and her husband (Steve Guttenberg, “Three Men and a Baby,” “Diner”) join in the festivities – and the insanity.

Jodie Foster directs this textured, realistic picture of a family searching for the point in life, love, and family. Perhaps the point isn’t something we can point to, some video of a moment that we shared. Perhaps life is in the moments that we didn’t think amounted to a picture at the time, the moments that we have recorded in our minds and think back on with great fondness.

“Home for the Holidays” is not technically a Christmas movie, since it takes place on Thanksgiving, but it certainly is an excellent primer to get you in the mood to spend those hectic, stressful, and so so important moments with your family.

6.5/10

5 Batman Returns

Batman Returns

A Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer, “Scarface,” “What Lies Beneath”) that was a secretary until her boss shoved her out the window. After that she eats birds, bathes herself with her tongue, can do acrobatics without training, and has nine lives. Not metaphorically. She literally has nine lives.

A Penguin (Danny DeVito, “L.A. Confidential,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) that was raised in the sewers by birds and lunatic circus performers. He spew black bile and bites people’s noses until they bleed, but he’s still the best candidate Gotham City has for mayor. Also, while living in the sewers, he built a floating rubber ducky scissor-lift.

A Batman (Michael Keaton, “Beetlejuice,” “Birdman”) that has a suit that can stop bullets but not a sewing machine needle. He straight up murders at least two henchman (one he deliberately sets on fire with the Batmobile’s jet engine, the other he straps a bomb to), but he won’t kill the boss.

A venture capitalist (Christopher Walken, “Deer Hunter,” “Catch Me If You Can”) that pollutes the river with toxic waste, murders partners and assistants, and who wants to steal Gotham’s power. He creates Catwoman and the Penguin and drives their evil plans.

An evil plan, by the way, that requires a recall and election, for the Penguin to pilot a coin operated kiddy ride, and bombs to be strapped on the backs of an army of penguins. But don’t think this movie is just visual gags for the kiddies. The Penguin tells Catwoman that she’s “just the pussy” he’s looking for and tells the penguin army that there’s gender equality when everyone’s “erogenous zones are blown sky high.”

This is Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns.”

There have been many versions of my favorite superhero. In cinema alone, there were the 1940’s serials, the 1960’s campy show and movie, Burton’s dark original, the nipple-raising Joel Schumacher sequels, and Nolan’s gritty trilogy. In the comics, there have been seventy five years of different Batman stories. My problem with this film isn’t that it’s *not* Batman, *not* Catwoman, and *not* the Penguin. It’s that I don’t care for *this* Batman, *this* Catwoman, and *this* Penguin.

This period in Tim Burton’s career was his best. It was a period when visual effects were still more practical than digital. Burton’s worlds just more artistic and magical when they were cobbled together with miniatures, puppets, and props. These aspects in the film are quite good. The march of the Penguin is somehow romantic. The world of Gotham explodes with character. And quite simply, this is the best Catwoman costume we’ve seen. If only Burton had drawn inspiration from the best comics and less from the Adam West series, we could have had a truly great film.

If you want some Burton this Christmas, I’d recommend that instead of watching “Batman Returns” that you watch “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” I mean, *this* Catwoman is basically just Sally anyway.

6/10

7 Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

“I am going to prove that Santa Claus exists and that you are him.”

While the original film did a fantastic job of fulfilling that promise, the remake, which celebrates its twenty year anniversary this year, had a slightly different focus.

When you find out that John Hughes (“Christmas Vacation,” “Home Alone,” the Brat Pack films) was the producer and writer for the remake, it should come as no surprise that the scope the film takes is much more family centered than the original.

In the original film, the mother rightfully keeps her child out of the courtroom drama. In the remake, those scenes become much more about what the child bares witness to. The good news is that Mara Wilson (“Matilda,” “Mrs. Doubtfire”) does an exemplary job filling the larger role. The bad news is that the movie loses some of the realism that made the courtroom and psychological drama a textured and compelling thing.

The role of Santa Claus was played by Richard Attenborough (“The Great Escape”), who was very recognizable to audiences at the time due to his role in “Jurassic Park.” He plays the role with a jolly vigor, but some of the ambiguity regarding his sanity is missing. This, again, is due to the change in focus, since the stakes don’t feel as largely against him.

Elizabeth Perkins (“The Flintstones,” “Big”) is just as powerful a female role model in this film, but this time she seems higher ranked in the department store. Dylan McDermott (“Home for the Holidays,” “The Practice”) is just as slick an attorney, but he doesn’t always seem to think his propositions or proposals through. He, just like the film, has faith that everything will turn out okay in the end.

This version of the film may literally fill every street in New York with people who care about the verdict, but in the end, it is the personal belief of the family that is of importance. Unsurprisingly, the argument made in court is weaker than in the original, but the final scene, the one that involves Kris Kringle building faith with Susan and her mother, actually works better.

Overall, I would say that this is a good film, and if you value the belief of the individual over the masses, you might even think it’s great.

7/10

6 Holiday Inn

Holiday Inn

With “Holiday Inn” in 1942 and “White Christmas” in 1954, Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby are a dynamic Christmas duo. Both films are loaded with great music, but the latter is filled with nostalgia for the former.

This begins with the song that won “Holiday Inn” the Oscar, “White Christmas,” which takes on a slightly different meaning in this film. This movie has a few patriotic moments, but it’s not really about the war. It’s about the pleasures and freedoms Americans were fighting the war for.

The story is pretty simple. Bing Crosby (“The Bells of St. Mary”) and Fred Astaire (“Top Hat,” “Swing Time”) are competing for the same girl. Bing thinks he can win her with singing – and an inn in the country – and Fred thinks he can win her with dancing – and the promise of fame and fortune. Bing has given up the fast life of performance for the “lazy” life on the farm. Unfortunately, work on the farm isn’t as easy as singing, so he’s cooked up a scheme to turn the place into an inn that only operates on holidays. Every holiday, he puts on a big show for the guests and writes an original song for each. This attracts a new talent, Marjorie Reynolds (“The Life of Riley,” “The Time of Their Lives”), the girl caught in the middle.

Bing is my favorite crooner, and no one in the world can dance like Fred Astaire. Their chemistry together is pretty good, but it’s not dynamite. What is explosive is the July Fourth dance by Astaire. It’s one of my favorite dance routines in any film.

I do have to say that a segment of this film is usually edited out due to controversial material. However, the scenes leading up to it and following it are so relevant to the plot that they are never removed, and they prove to be hard to watch for a modern day audience. On Lincoln’s birthday, there is a blackface routine. We see some actors in blackface and there is a lot of talk about the routine. It’s used as a way of hiding Reynolds’s appearance, but her line about how she had hoped her hopes of looking pretty for the show were now dashed as Crosby spreads the black make-up on her face is rather distasteful.

Of course, “White Christmas” paid tribute to nostalgia for minstrel theatre too, but that time, they left out the blackface.

6/10

The 50+ Films of Christmas (Part 7)

The 50+ Films of Christmas

Follow me as I watch 50+ of the best (and worst) holiday films! I will blog mini-reviews as I go and then rank them when I’m done watching them all.

8.5 A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story

American humorist Jean Shepherd, who spent many years spinning semi-autobiographical yarns on the radio and in books, wove several of his stories into this tale of Christmas Americana. The result is one of the most beloved holiday films.

I could write endlessly of bee bee guns that shoot out eyes and the glowing light of sexuality that burns in the front window and the hillbilly neighbor’s dogs and tongues on flagpoles and the f dash dash dash word, but that would make this review seem more like a love letter to the movie. That would be unprofessional. I might as well be writing these words while wearing a set of pink bunny pajamas with long floppy ears and a cotton tail.

This movie has been nostalgia typified for a handful of generations. There are those who were adults in the 1980s that knew what a decoder ring was. There are those who were children in the 1980s that viewed Christmas through their parents’ experience and could see their reflection of their own. And then there have been those who have come after, who see that those stories Mr. Shepherd told about his own life are both frozen in time and alive in our own.

If you’re an adult and want to see Christmas as a kid again, “A Christmas Story” is a great way to go.

8.5/10

9 Die Hard

Die Hard

“Die Hard” is the manual for how to create a compelling action movie.

First, you get the cool, quick witted hero. Someone like John McClain (Bruce Willis). You put him into a situation where he has personal interests in stake. In this case, it’s his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and kids and the opportunity to save his marriage – and his wife’s life.

Now you need a great bad guy. Someone you really love to hate. Someone like Alan Rickman will do, and if you can make him a racist, perhaps install overtones of neo-Nazism, that will work best. Give him a sinister plan, like a terror plot to hijack the building where John McClain’s wife is having her company Christmas party.

You need some great henchmen, and Die Hard starts off with twelve really good ones. There’s the Aryan twins, the obnoxious hacker, a bunch of guys with machine guns (ho-ho-ho), and everyone’s favorite 80’s stuntman (Al Leong).

Now, if you’re making this movie in the 1980’s, you’ll need more than just Al Leong. You’ll want the coked up business guy, a journalist a-hole (no one better than William Atherton for that part), and if you can find a way to work in Mary Ellen Trainor (“Lethal Weapon,” “Scrooged,” “Romancing the Stone,” “Ghostbusters II”), then you’re really cooking with grease.

You’ll need a sidekick. He could be the hero’s driver and played for laughs. Or he could be the only one that believes in the hero and played for heart (Reginald VelJohnson).

Create a series of plausible scenarios. Use physics as a guiding principle for how things will react in your world. Hobble your main character with some kind of injury that makes the audience worry even more as the third act draws near. And make it one man against a small army.

Oh, and if it can be on Christmas Eve, and you can work in as many references to the holiday, you might end up with a movie as good as “Die Hard.”

9/10

6 A Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppet Christmas Carol

There was a time directly after Jim Henson’s death when the future of The Muppets was in peril. Mr. Henson realized that in order for the creations he and his workshop had come up with to continue in perpetuity after his demise, he would have to entrust the characters to a studio that could continue the legacy. A studio like Walt Disney.

Whereas the live Muppet Theater show at Disneyland is the perfect example of what this new collaboration could be, Jim had a major part to play in that attraction. However, subsequent to Disney taking full control of The Muppets, there was a period where the classic formula was set aside. It was only natural, after all, since that formula was very driven by Henson, Oz, and the gang and their distinct sense of humor. Without them as the driving force – and coming off of a declining franchise of theatrical releases – the Disney executives were tasked with reinvention.

That reinvention came in the form of overlaying The Muppets onto classic public domain literature. Treasure Island and A Christmas Carol. By the time the studio had figured out how to do an original Muppet story (the excellent “Muppets from Space”), the audience had all but forgotten about the clan of crazy puppets.

Luckily, the internet kept the characters alive long enough for modern stars that grew up loving The Muppets (director James Bobin, actors like Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Tina Fey, and Ricky Gervais) to revitalize the dying franchise with nostalgia for the best material.

Okay, that subjective history lesson aside, “The Muppet Christmas Carol” is a pleasant and utilitarian retelling of the Dickens classic. While it is not the best Muppet story – or the best version of “The Christmas Carol” – there’s some nice work here. Michael Caine is quite good as Ebenezer. The puppet work is endlessly clever. And if you’re a fan of Rizzo, this is his most important part.

There are some problems too. Some of the characters work well (Waldorf and Statler are perfectly cast), and some of them are definitely forced puzzle pieces (Miss Piggy being the worst offender).

If you’re a huge fan of The Muppets, this is a fun holiday movie. But may I suggest you stagger this one with the other Muppet Christmases? There are quite a few.

6/10

8.5 The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Henry Selick’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a love letter to those who sometimes feel isolated. That’s the ultimate origin and what drew many of the key players into giving some of their best work.

Tim Burton had gone back again and again to draw storyboards for a poem he had written. He was inspired by the classic television special, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” so when it came time to produce the film for Disney, he sought out a director with experience in stop-go-animation.

Henry Selick, who would go on to create “James and the Giant Peach” and “Caroline,” had created some shorts that showed great promise. He was given the great task of helming the film.

Danny Elfman had done some great instrumental music for films and television, including “Batman” and “Beetlejuice” for Burton. However, he hadn’t yet tapped into the type of songwriting he had done in Oingo Boingo. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” would be a chance to create music for a full musical. He was so eagerly involved that he ended up voicing the singing parts for several parts, including Jack Skellington.

The material itself came from Burton’s childhood memories. He felt isolated, but when Halloween or Christmas came around, things felt magical. In the film, Jack Skellington has lost his zeal for his own holiday, Halloween, but finds himself drawn to the light and mysterious Christmasland. Not yet seeing what makes him special, Jack does everything he can to adopt the magic of Christmas. Unfortunately, these two holidays don’t and shouldn’t feel the same.

Selick and Elfman felt they could understand Jack, and that was very advantageous for the cult audience that can too.

“The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a treasure of a holiday film that manages to do what Jack could not, find the proper mix of both Halloween and Christmas that would please the world.

8.5/10

7.5 The Bells of St. Mary's

The Bells of St. Mary’s

Though not technically a Christmas film, this school house drama has become a holiday staple for classic film lovers the world over. There are, after all, two scenes during Christmas and a reference to the spirit of the holiday in one of the closing speeches.

Bing Crosby (“White Christmas,” “Holiday Inn”) plays Father O’Malley, a priest with a straw hat and swagger. Ingrid Bergman (“Casablanca”) is Sister Benedict, the head nun that teaches compassion and discipline to the students. Henry Travers (“It’s a Wonderful Life”) is Horace Bogardus, a venture capitalist that has his mind set on tearing down the school to make a parking lot. Sister Benedict, however, has her mind – and prayers – set on Bogardus donating the building to the school.

Many of the best moments and scenes in this film seem improvised, which is a very uncommon thing for movies during this period. My favorite scene, in fact, is the reenactment of the nativity by a group of first graders. For about five minutes, the movie becomes a Little Rascals title of the highest caliber.

The plot is fairly melodramatic (and the ending ever so), but in many ways it takes the back seat to tableau of kindness and compassionate tutoring.

The greatest strength of this film is that the crooner and the beauty have incredible chemistry together, but it never becomes inappropriate. It’s a pleasant story of the Christian compassion that makes up the spirit of Christmas.

Honestly, this one is worth watching just to watch Sweden’s greatest Hollywood starlet dressed as nun teaching a boy how to box.

7.5/10