Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Post-Thanksgiving "Blahs"

I don't enjoy these three weeks that are sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  A lot of people think that it is because I simply don't want to be at work and would rather been sleeping in.  While part of that exists in my mind during this time, it's no larger than my want for weekend days during other parts of the year so I can't honestly admit to that.  The real reason these weeks stink, as a teacher, is because of the huge amount of programs, events, and scheduled interruptions to the schedule that always happen during this time.  At our school alone we have one day next week that will see no sophomores during the morning periods because of a field trip to a vocational school, another four days (two this week and two next week) that remove half of the juniors from the building for two days apiece and send them off to diversity training, interim grades are due this Thursday, and then to cap the festivities on the 16th (our last day before break) we have an early release day and our annual holiday assembly to ensure that nothing gets done before we leave for break.  The weather can be uncooperative and can dish out delays and cancellations (we had a non-weather related 2 hour delay today due to a power outage) which causes massive scrambling to speed up and edit what needs to be covered.  Oh, and the students also believe that once it's Christmas season that they aren't expected to do anything and many of them get excused absences for early vacations, which makes the last weeks before break fairly difficult.  I've given myself a benchmark to hit in each of my classes (Homecoming: Odyessy started in the Freshman classes and Act III: Crucible completed with the sophomores) and I'm hoping to hit it before the 15th.  I think I can do it, but I can't leave anything unfinished before break because otherwise it will be forgotten immediately.  I guess we'll see.

Tomorrow is the last day in November which means Thurdsay will be the first day of "The 3rd Annual 25 Days of Christmas Movies".  I've been searching around for weeks to be sure that I have plenty of new films to discuss this year, though you can expect to see a few repeats from years 1 and 2 simply because those tend to be my favorites, however I would like to try to keep those to a minimum or to not have any at all.  Heck, there are enough versions of "A Christmas Carol" alone to fill the days leading up to Christmas so I'm optimistic.  I'm Netflixing bunches and bunches of new films to share with you and hopefully you will see some that you enjoy enough to add them to your viewing rotation.  I'm looking forward to it myself, because it will get me into the holiday spirit and help me rise above these post-Thanksgiving "blahs".  For the rest of you...enjoy what is to come.  It's gonna be a good month :)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving is Better with Peanuts

Ah the age old days of holiday specials for families...we've seen Halloween and Christmas represented on this page, but what about Thanksgiving?  Thankfully, unlike films based around Thanksgiving, there are plenty of television shows and specials which have dabbled in Turkey Day.  It comes as no surprise then that Charles Schulz's iconic cartoon characters from his "Peanuts" comic strip would get in on the act.  It is a light and un-cynical little short that talks up the virtuous side of Thanksgiving without lingering any on the revisionist history that came about later on (namely, the real story of how "nicely" the Pilgrims treated the Native Americans and how well that group has been treated by white Americans since).  It might gloss over aspects that are unpleasent, but it is still an great example of wholesome and cute programing that doesn't feel dumbed down.  Come with me now and gather round the table with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.

Charlie Brown is not having a very good Thanksgiving.  First, he is tricked AGAIN by Lucy into trying to kick a football and then falling down AGAIN when she pulls it away.  (Lucy coyly says that some traditions are worth keeping at the holidays.)  And then he is horrified to discover that Peppermint Patty has invited herself over to his home for Thanksgiving Dinner since her own father is out of town.  Charlie Brown isn't sure what he's supposed to do, because he and Sally are planning to go to their grandmother's home for dinner.  Linus suggests that rather than calling Patty back and disappointing her (especially since she has also invited Marcie and Franklin to dinner as well) that Charlie Brown simply have two dinners.  Paniced about not knowing how to make Thanksgiving dinner, Linus wisely suggests that he simply make what he knows.  So Charlie Brown, Linus, and Snoopy set to work making a Thanksgiving feast of popcorn, buttered toast, pretzel sticks, and jelly beans.  When Patty, Marcie, and Franklin arrive, Patty is shocked and then outraged at the spread and demands to know where's the turkey, the mashed potatoes, and the cranberry sauce?  Charlie Brown leaves, mortified, and Marcie chastises her for her rude behavior, reminding her that Charlie Brown did his best considering he did not actually invite any of them to dinner.  Patty realizes her mistake and begs Marcie to apologize to Charlie Brown.  Marcie does so, allowing Patty to apologize herself.  She realizes now that it is meant to be a holiday for gathering with loved ones and giving thanks...not about kind or quantity of food.

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is a delightful little show full of classic "Peanuts" wit and humor.  The characters interact and collide in holiday appropriate ways and they all learn something by the end, which is the best way to do an animated holiday special.  Sure, we already know going in that someone is going to learn something about "the meaning of Thanksgiving" and how we have to "be thankful for what we have" but it's more about figuring out how the show is going to give us that lesson.  It was wise of the writers to not have Charlie Brown have this realization (otherwise it would just be a repeat of the Christmas episode) but rather Peppermint Patty, who is traditionally more ignorent of her surroundings and unaware of how her actions affect other people.  Marcie also has an excellent role as the person who makes the message clear to Patty, a reversal of her usual subserviant behavior regarding Patty.  The interaction of Snoopy and Woodstock is also up to the high "Peanuts" standards, with slapstick and friendship equally on display (a particularly touching moment is when Snoopy and Woodstock share a turkey and break the wishbone, with Woodstock taking the biggest part of the bone).  It is an excellent short and you should definately watch it this season if you can find a station playing it.  Watch it for the first time, or share it with those uninitiated.  It's old fashioned holiday fun for the whole family.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

It's Time to Play the Music, It's Time to Light the Lights, It's Time to Meet the Muppets...

This is a really special post for me because this is the first time I am privileged to bring you, my handful of loyal readers, an advance review of a brand new film.  As you may or may not know, I am a HUGE Muppet fan.  I grew up watching the films as a child in the 1980s and 90s and then I became a fan of "The Muppet Show" when it was being played on Nick at Nite back when I was in elementary school so I was cautiously optimistic when Disney announced they would be making a new Muppet film that was co-written by Jason Segal.  I say "cautiously" because I had only seen two of Segal's films up to that point, I Love You, Man (which I thought was delightful) and Forgetting Sarah Marshall (after which I wished I could forget the image of Segal's penis) and so I didn't know if he was the best one suited for a revival of Kermit and Co.  However, after reading how Segal was an even bigger Muppet fan from me and after seeing the first trailer for the film which was a delightful fake-out (leading to one of the best advertising campaigns for a film in recent memory), I was hooked.  So imagine my surprise and excitement when I was granted a free ticket to see a sneak preview of the new film this weekend?  I couldn't wait and I promised myself that I would share my thoughts and feelings on the new film with you, my readers.  So let's have no more delay...ladies and gentlemen, The Muppets.

Gary (Jason Segal) and Walter (Peter Linz) are two brothers living in Smalltown, USA who have been virtually inseparable since they were children despite the fact that Gary has grown up as a perfectly normal looking human being and Walter looks more like a fuzzy yellow puppet.  Because of his small size and odd texture, Walter has never fit in with the other people in Smalltown and so Gary has always taken it upon himself to take care of him.  One fateful night, when Walter is rather down, Gary shows him a video of "The Muppet Show", and suddenly Walter sees a place where he belongs.  He becomes the world's biggest Muppet fan and when Gary decides to take his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to visit L.A., Walter tags along so he can finally see Muppet Studios.  What Gary, Mary, and Walter find however, is that a crooked oil company executive, Tex Richmond (Chris Cooper), is planning to tear down the studios and the Muppet Theater so he can drill for oil.  The trio decides to go see Kermit the Frog, now in retirement, to see if he can stop this sale.  Together with Kermit, they set about reuniting the estranged Muppets so that they can put on a show to raise the money needed to save the property from destruction.

I never imagined that anyone would ever make a decent reboot of the Muppet film franchise, much less make a great one.  However, Segal and co-writer Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and director James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords) seem to have done the impossible.  They have created a Muppet movie that is reverent and respectful of what has come before (with corny jokes and squeaky clean wit) while also being relevant (providing the kids of self-referential jokes and pop culture references that the Muppets became famous for on their television show).  One of the biggest running gags in the film is how out-of-touch and behind-the-times the Muppets seem in this day and age.  Rashida Jones as a television network executive bluntly states this several times to our intrepid heroes and they look on completely uncomprehending.  It is the same kind of comment that cynical internet site commentators and teenagers made when the film was first announced and the fact that Segal and Co. understand this and write it into the script for the film only strengthens the concept of underdogs fighting to get to the top.  We may think that the Muppets are old news and out of style now in 2011, but that doesn't stop us from desperately wanting to see them succeed.  The performers, both puppet and human, are all perfectly placed and suited for the film.  Amy Adams and Jason Segal are just cute and odd enough to fit right in with the crew of Muppets without sticking out as "those humans who are in scene with the Muppets".  Peter Linz has created a new Muppet character who is worthy of the weight that the film puts on his shoulders.  Essentially, Walter has to carry the movie by being sympathetic and relatable and without being annoying (as new characters invented to drive a sequel/reboot tend to be).  I can imagine seeing him again in the future, and hopefully there is a future.  Chris Cooper is also a delight to see as he gleefully chews the scenery as the villain who cannot laugh maniacally.  You can tell that Cooper is having a great time letting his hair down and slumming it with the Muppets.  Rashida Jones (Parks and Recreation) is also a delight as the executive who's heart is also eventually won over by the Muppets.  To round it all out, as is true with other Muppet films there are a slew of cameos from old favorites like Whoopi Goldberg, Alan Arkin, and Mickey Rooney along with newer sensations such as Selena Gomez, Zach Galifianackis, and Neil Patrick Harris.  There are many more cameos for those with a keen eye for spotting them, which will promote this film's re-play value.

Also on display is some excellent music (music so wonderful that I simply had to buy the CD) that is a combination of old-favorites from the Muppet cannon as well as new songs specially created for the film.  Songs that fans will remember fondly include "The Rainbow Connection" (which is the subject of it's own send up early in the movie and then is treated reverently near the finale) "Mahna Mahna", "Together Again" (in an improvised and short state), and "The Muppet Show Theme".  Each song is used absolutely perfectly, and in ways I shant spoil here, you do need to actually go and see the movie you know.  The new songs are also infectious and should become classics in their own right if the film and soundtrack prove to be hits.  The opening number in particular, "Life's a Happy Song", has been stuck in my head since leaving the theater yesterday and I've played it twice on my iPod since.  It is an excellent introduction to the tone of the film.  It is whimsical, has a great beat, is full of corny jokes and has a bit of a chance to make fun of itself in every verse.  Another great new song is "Pictures in My Head", which is sung by Kermit the Frog shortly after he comes into the film.  In it, he sings of how he and the other Muppets have lost track of each other and how he regrets their parting of ways.  The Muppets are no longer friends he sees or hears from and are now just images in his mind.  I'll admit, the scene was handled so well that I teared up just a bit.  Other new songs include "Me Party", sung by Mary and Miss Piggy and "Man or Muppet", which is a hilarious and touching moment for Gary and Walter.  Also on display are some wonderful old and new hits you've heard on the radio including "Me and Julio Down By the School Yard", "We Built this City", and Cee Lo Green's "Forget You" (which is hilariously performed by chickens, and which I think should have been called "Cluck You" on the album).  All of the music combines together marvelously to create a rich tapestry reminiscent of the smattering of styles seen on "The Muppet Show".

To wrap things up, The Muppets is a fun, funny, and touching film that is like a love letter to fans of the troupe as well as an invitation to those outside of Muppet fandom to come and see what they've been missing.  It is one of those rare musical comedies that is just right for every age and I truly believe that it will be THE family film to see this holiday season because it has been made with everyone in mind.  Adults will laugh at the wit and sly humor while the kids will marvel at the songs and the slapstick.  At our screening yesterday the audience applauded not once but twice at the end of the picture and it was quite a grab-bag of personalities and backgrounds.  I can't believe I'm saying this about The Muppets, but I really think that this is going to be on many "Best films of 2011" lists and will be a must own when it is released on DVD and Blu-ray.  You owe it to yourself to go with your family or friends to see The Muppets this holiday season and enjoy one of the best times you will have at the cinema this year. (****)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

An Update and Something New

Alright, I have several things to update you on today before I launch into today's full blog post but let me assure you that I have neither forgotten nor neglected you, my readers.  I made a decision that there weren't enough Thanksgiving films to really do a whole month or even a whole week, so I've just decided to do one a week and thus not run out of material (or get burned out on blogging, its win-win).  So first thing, I just finished watched the entire film of Home For the Holidays and was surprised at the dramatic material.  Yes it was funny to see Holly Hunter as Claudia fighting and clashing with her parents and siblings (Charles Durning, Anne Bancroft, Robert Downey Jr., and Cynthia Stevenson respectively) and it was amusing to see Cynthia Stevenson get hit with a turkey carcass, but I was surprised at the poignant emotions on display.  There was the pressure of living up to family expectations, the thought of being betrayed by a loved one, the tendency to want to baby parents as they grow older, and feeling as if no one in your family understands who you really are.  It's really a deep film that goes beyond a simple "Lets get a bunch of family members together for Thanksgiving to fight and then resolve it" plot and evolves into a much richer tapestry of what it really means to be part of a family.  Claudia has a great line toward the end where she says "Joanne, we don't have to like each other...but we're family."  And I think that sums it up...no matter how much you may clash, you will always be bound by the ties of family.

Ok, now onto updates two and three.  I decided, after a long time of wondering and wishing I could do it, I decided to start writing a novel.  Its going to be short and it isn't going to be hugely profound, but I am hoping that it lives up to what I want it to be...funny and sincere.  It is semi-autobiographical in that the character is largely based on me, but many of the side characters and situations are mostly manufactured to make a funny point.  I'm very excited about it and I am simply hoping to complete it.  To say I finished a novel would be a great achievement (no, I'm not yet even contemplating publishing).  Finally, I got a big surprise on Monday evening and I'm sure that this will be a great bit of news to anyone who's a Muppet fan.  I managed to snag a free ticket to a sneak preview of The Muppets, the new Muppet film with Jason Segal and Amy Adams, in Columbus this weekend and I am planning to bring you all the goods in an exclusive advance review here on The Life and Times of a Midwestern Movie Addict!  I am very excited about this and I can't wait to write all about it...I suddenly feel just like a real film critic!  Also, I just really LOVE the Muppets and I've been waiting for this release all year long.  So if you want to know how the new film is and how it stacks up against previous Muppet films, check back here for the scoop on Sunday.

Now, onto today's film...or should I say advertisement?  Or should I say faux advertisement?  There are only so many levels of cheekiness I can go through before I have to just say what it is I'm talking about right?  Today's post is perfect for today's blog because it involves a (very) short subject that deals with the Thanksgiving holiday, but not in the usual warm and fuzzy or family centric way.  When Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino created the exploitation film opus Grindhouse, they wanted to make it as authentic an experience as possible.  To do this, it required a double feature that looked and sounded like it was filmed cheaply and handled poorly, so that it would be full of nicks and scratches.  They also knew that the true exploitation experience would require more than 'bad' films, it also needed 'bad' trailers before and in between that were in the same vein.  So, gathering together such directors as Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth, they commissioned these men to make trailers for movies that don't exist.  Roth's trailer was one of the most popular as it depicted an 80s slasher film that finally addressed one of the last missing days from the legions of 'holiday horror' films.  We had New Years, we had Halloween, we had Christmas, we even had April Fool's Day and Friday the 13th...but until now we had never had Thanksgiving.  In this film (rather, in the trailer) we see the small city of Plymouth, Massachusetts besieged by a killer who dresses as a pilgrim and chops victims heads off with an axe.  According to Roth, he does this because he had a pet turkey when he was a child which he then watched his father kill at Thanksgiving for the meal.  This sent him over the edge mentally and made him into the murderous killer of the film.  Also is the film are Judy and her family and friends who are targeted by the killer and made to suffer on this day of thanks.  Thanksgiving was everything I ever wanted in a slasher film based on a holiday and more.  It uses familiar images and traditions to both create suspense and to give the killer a great many clever ways to kill someone.  I admit, I reacted strongly when he unveiled the 'main course' on the dinner table at the end and it was a person who had been roasted and trussed up like a turkey (complete with stuffing and meat thermometer) and I thought it was great when the killer decapitated the Turkey in the big parade, who then runs around (like a turkey with it's head cut off...har har.)  The taglines are wonderful too ("Prepare to have the stuffing scared out of you", "White meat, dark meat...all will be carved", "You'll go home for the holidays...in a body bag") in both their punnyness and overall corniness.  I loved this trailer and would definately pay to see the movie if they ever make one (Roth keeps saying how he wants to, but I'll believe it when I see it).  If you enjoy the satire and artistry that it took to make this trailer, you should watch the whole Grindhouse film...it's a hoot and a half for people who get it.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Family...Can't Live With Them, Can't Kill Them

Ahhhhh, I am feeling refreshed after taking a week off to focus on things other than blogging.  One, I caught up on some sleep this weekend (the extra hour Saturday night really helped)...two, I caught up on a backlog of grading...and three, I started thinking about what I wanted to write about this month regarding Thanksgivng movies.  Would you believe that there aren't that many films that are set at this festive holiday of feasting and giving thanks?  There are scads upon scads of them based on Christmas, but few that really hit at Thanksgiving.  I guess that's because, financially, studios would much rather produce films set during that much more colorful and festive time (and then release them at Thanksgiving so they can play all through the season).  I really don't think storytelling has anything to do with it, because television shows have been making great Thanksgiving episodes for years...usually centered around the idea of family squabbles coming to a head over the dinner table.  Oh the irony, fighting and bickering on a day when we're supposed to be thankful for what we have.  There was one film that took this long-mined sitcom staple and fashioned it into a respectable film that is both humorous and dramatic.  It was the second directoral outing of Jodie Foster, who had proved her leadership skills with Little Man Tate, and though it used the title of a famous Christmas song, it chose the less-used Thanksgiving setting.  Now let's grab a turkey leg and head Home for the Holidays.

Claudia Larson is doing fine as a single-mother and making a decent living as an art restorer.  All of that changes however when she is let go from her job due to budget cuts.  Already planning to go home for Thanksgiving, Claudia must then prepare herself for breaking the news to her family...especially her mother who is already critical of her being a single-mother.  Claudia also is dealing with the maturing of her daughter, Kitt, who has decided to stay home from the holiday gathering to have sex with her boyfriend.  Upon arrival, Claudia's stress is compunded by her uppity sister Joanne, Joanne's two spoiled children, and her gay brother Tommy.  If the whirlwind of personalities wasn't enough, there is still a holiday to get through.  You can feel safe in assuming that before the meal has ended, tempers will flare, tears will flow, and food will be snubbed.  Sounds like a typical family Thanksgiving to me.

I have a confession to make...I have not actually seen this film all the way through.  I know, I know, why am I writing about it then?  You have to understand that finding Thanksgiving movies to write about is very difficult because there really just aren't very many of them.  I will say that I have seen the very beginning of this film up to where Claudia finally has to confess to her mother that she lost her job.  It's a pretty hilarious film up to that point because the humor all stems from situations that we have all found ourselves in at some point I'm sure.  Who hasn't had to admit something disappointing or embarrassing to an overbearing parent?  Who hasn't felt harried and stressed at a holiday?  Who hasn't recieved horrible news at a holiday?  Seeing the world beat up on Claudia is part of the fun...and also part of why we can also emphathize with her.  I am planning to finish the film before the big day this month, because I have been wondering what happens to her ever since catching the first bit on television years back (my Netflix is just now catching up).  So I'll make you a deal...once I've finished the movie I will post my reaction here and decide if my initial impression of it (a funny and dark film) still applies.  Stay tuned!