Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Miserable Ones

Every year there are a handful of films that I get obsessively excited about, and usually one of those occurs during the Holiday Movie Season of November and December.  Last year it was The Muppets, the year before it was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, and the year before that it was Avatar.  You can usually count on me being gaga for one film or another and this Holiday Season was no different.  There were a great many films that came out in Novemeber and December that I wanted to see this year and was excited about (and several that I have not seen and either can still catch or have to see on disc) but only one worked me into an obsessive frenzy matching the excitement I felt for The Muppets.  It was sure to be epic, emotional, and full of beautiful music.  It is based on one of the most popular and well known musicals of the last 30 years, which itself was based on what is considered Victor Hugo's masterpiece...the novel "Les Miserables" (which has been adapted in upwards of 30 times as a film already).  As the film's star, Hugh Jackman, stated, film musicals can either be amazing or can "stink to high heaven" and this one was sure to divide audiences across the board.  However, any way you sliced it, the film was going to be a financial success due to it's enormous built-in fan base.  The real question then, is it any good.  Let's dig deep into the grime of 19th century France and uncover, Les Miserables.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a petty thief who stole a loaf of bread and then tried to elude punishment, so he has been a prisoner and slave to the French government for the past 19 years.  Finally he is released on parole by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) with a yellow ticket of leave which identifies him as a dangerous criminal to anyone who demands to see his papers.  Valjean believes himself to be free and able to start a new life, but everywhere he goes he is treated with fear and hatred due to his parole ticket.  Finally, when he is cold, shivering, and at the end of his rope, he is saved when a kindly Bishop (Colm Wilkinson) offers him shelter.  The Bishop feeds him, warms him, and gives him a comfortable bed to sleep in.  Valjean, now cynical from his treatment by others, then steals the expensive silver he ate from from the Bishop and quickly takes flight.  The next morning he is captured and the officers tell the Bishop that Valjean said he gave him the silver.  Knowing he is caught in a lie, Valjean awaits the Bishops condemnation.  Instead, the Bishop saves Valjean's life by corroborating Valjean's lie and then offering him the silver candlesticks from the table to match.  Valjean, touched and shaken to the core by this, decides to start a new life and to endevor to show the same love to others that the Bishop showed him.  He breaks parole and takes on the identity of M. Madeline.  Eight years later, Valjean is Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer and a factory owner.  At that very factory, a woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is exposed as having a child out of wedlock and the Foreman, having been denied sexual advances from her, fires her to shame her.  Valjean does nothing to intercede because at that moment he spots Javert, who has been assigned to the town as the newest inspector.  Javert is sure he recognizes Valjean, but he is unsure from where.  Meanwhile, Fantine spirals into prostitution and disease in order to pay M. Thenardier, a con man who is taking care of her child.  She has a run in with a gentleman and Javert threatens to put her in prison.  Valjean steps in and stops the punishment and takes her to a hospital where she dies.  On her deathbed she makes Valjean promise to take care of her child, Cosette (Isabelle Allen).  Javert confronts Valjean about his true identity and Valjean is forced to go on the run again.  He rescues Cosette from the evil Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) and she lives in his care for nine years in Paris.  Suddenly it is June of 1832 and Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfield) locks eyes with a young revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and soon they are in love.  This conflicts with both of their lives as Valjean is very protective of Cosette and Marius is involved in the Rebellion scheduled to occur and led by Enjolras (Aaron Tveit).  Marius also has a friend in the Thernardier's daughter, Eponine (Samantha Barks) who secretly loves him.  As the characters all barrel towards their fates at the hands of the June Rebellion, what will happen and how will Valjean keep his daughter and her love safe?

Les Miserables was a behemoth as a novel and the fact that the stage musical managed to adapt it fairly faithfully into a three hour performance was fairly amazing and required some careful cutting and clipping to shoehorn all the parts and characters together.  The film manages to faithfully adapt the play (which is a pop-opera with a completely sung-through libretto) and still add back in material that was cut from the novel to make it work as a play.  The result is an adaptation that is more like the book with music and less like the play that many have come to know and love due to several songs being shortened and the order of the tunes rearranged to better film the narrative of the film.  That will tick off the most pure of the purists, but considering that the book was fairly faithfully adapted in the first place, the film will still grab the not-so-stick-in-the-mud-ish ones. 

 Where the film is most likely to lose devotees is in its direction, which has been deftly handled by Tom Hooper.  Hooper, well known for his controversial Oscar win for The King’s Speech over The Social Network, has attracted a lot of hate in recent years from people who either were ticked over his win or who simply don’t care for his style of off-kilter dutch angles, fish eye lenses, and reliance of close-ups to capture the actor’s emotions.  He uses these along with sweeping camera moves to capture Les Miserables, in a 1.85:1 ratio no less (rather than the traditional 2.35:1 wide used for big musicals).  This film is not shot at all like a traditional musical…in that I mean that there are very few wide shots that capture scenery, costumes, choreography, and other hugely theatrical techniques that often set a musical apart from other films.  It is shot more like a narrative film where people don’t sing.  This is likely to tick off people who expected a more traditional film musical.  I however do not think that any of these tricks are too the film’s detriment.  I felt an abnormal amount of attachment to the proceedings, even more so than when I saw the stage production, because I had actors in close-up singing their hearts out to me and I could not escape into an edit or point-of-view shift.  I was forced to watch the pain and degradation and to feel it along with them.  It achieved the maximum emotional reaction from me.

 Next is the unconventional design which highlights the grime and filth of the period.  Samantha Barks as Eponine, who is a lovely person, is shellacked with grime throughout the picture.  Anna Hathaway, also lovely normally, appears with bad teeth and is completely emaciated.   Even the sexy Hugh Jackman, whom it would be hard to make look bad, gets absolutely covered in feces and muck in a scene which takes him through the sewers of Paris.  As one negative reviewer already wrote, this is an ugly movie.  However, he wrote that intended as an insult.  I think it is more of a compliment to Hooper and the production team’s intent to capture as realistically as possible the filthy and miserable world that Hugo described in his novel.  I noticed this many times and every time I saw something not look pretty or eye-catching I was pleased.  I didn’t want this to look like The Phantom of the Opera or Chicago with their bright colors and sparkles.  I wanted it to look like filth.

Finally, the performances are going to split the field hugely given that Hooper decided to cast great actors who could sing rather than great singers who could act.  This is a huge decision for material like this because the musical’s score is so important to so many people and they want to hear it presented in the most perfect and definitive way possible.  For those people, I would suggest either the 10th anniversary concert or the 25th anniversary concert, both of which are on DVD and Blu-ray.  This is NOT meant to be a recital where all the songs are sung perfectly and to the rafters.  This is meant to be a story told through music, which is why Hooper’s decision is not only correct but essential for the film he chose to make.  The film’s stage actors, Wilkinson, Barks, and Tveit all sing marvelously but also act through their songs in keeping with the tone and vision of the film.  Redmayne also has an impeccable voice and has been given many accolades (deservedly so) for his vocals, particularly in his performance of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”.

The Hollywood actors who can sing include Jackman (who did indeed win a Tony on the stage but I include him here anyway), Crowe, Hathaway, Cohen, and Carter are more of a mixed bag.  Crowe is the weakest link in the cast, which has been noted in other reviews for this film.  However, the reason he is the weakest link comes down to the fact that he simply doesn’t sing as strongly as everyone else.  His voice is actually lovely and I found myself loving his rendition of “Stars” for its understated qualities (because Javert is restrained and repressed and therefore should not be as big vocally as Valjean).  Jackman is next in taking some flack because he is a known singer and he makes the biggest target since it is his character who carries the movie.  For every amazing moment he has a few pitchy ones and it would be easy to write him off as a flaw if you were just focusing on the sound his vocals make.  What you’d miss is the incredible acting that drives the vocals and cements him, for me, as the definitive film Valjean (that’s saying something when Liam Neeson has played him before).  During his Soliloquy there is a moment where he is sobbing and singing and it sounds like the song is ripping its way out of him rather than being sung and it is like a dagger in the gut emotionally.  Overall, through incredible acting and very good singing, Jackman commands this role and is a revelation.  It is probably his best work to date.

 Anne Hathaway has gotten nothing but raves for her portrayal as Fantine and for good reason.  She works so many nuances and subtle facial ticks into “I Dreamed a Dream”…which for many seemed a one-note song before…that she manages to achieve the film’s first full-on tissue moment in that scene (it should be noted that the majority of the song is captured by Hooper in an extreme close-up of her face that never cuts away and it is devastating).   Seyfield, on the other hand has divided many with her thinner voice.  Her light touch and reedy tone really help make Cosette seem very innocent and inexperienced however…and her acting touches, like Hathaway’s, add subtle nuances to a character that always felt like a two-dimensional character rather than a fleshed out person we could relate to.  Overall, the singing – which was recorded live on set to capture every aspect of the actors’ performances – is more triumph than failure and fits completely in Hooper’s vision of making a realistic world that you would connect to emotionally.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I loved this film and have not gotten it out of my head since I saw it, but that does not mean there aren’t a few flaws.  At over two hours and thirty minutes, you’d probably be surprised if I told you I wished it was a little longer to give some pause from one number to the next.  There were several moments where a fade or a pause would have helped cushion us from jumping to the next thing.  Instead, Hooper makes constant use of jump cuts and keeps the film moving at a frenetic pace.  This isn’t necessarily bad because boy does this film move!  I was shocked when it ended and I thought I had been duped on the running time because it seemed to have flown by, however I think an extra two minutes of fades and pauses might remove this flaw.  While we’re talking about editing, this film is a bit messy toward the beginning with its cutting.  I was familiar with the story and the shooting script (I told you I was obsessed) but there were some very fast cuts in the opening prologue and during the Fantine section where I felt the audience might be missing what was happening (because I was blinking and missing things I knew were there).  As the film progressed, either the editing smoothed out or I got used to it (probably the former), but some cleaner cutting in the beginning would have helped make the story clearer.  Some of the singing, while the majority is great, does suffer a bit at the hands of the live-recording.  There are pitchy moments and places where I was very sure that the notes hit were not the ones expected…however this was largely in the recitatives (or the sung dialogue in between big songs) and happened rarely.  A re-recording of those scenes to dub the actors might have been nice to keep it all sounding pretty, but that also would have taken away from the magnificence of the emotion they managed to capture live on the set.  I don’t think there’s an easy fix for this.  Aside from these, I did not notice any other real flaws (yes, some critics are calling Hooper’s directoral style a huge flaw, but I feel it works).

So to reiterate, if you are coming to this film expecting to see the stage version you love sung perfectly and in its entirety in a Hollywood-film-musical style…you are in the wrong theater and should seek out either one of the recorded concerts or the nearest live performance of the musical instead.  Your preconceptions will make you hate it (or at the very least feel underwhelmed by it)  If you want to see an innovative, inspiring, slightly flawed but moving motion picture adaptation of both a book and stage show…you owe it to yourself to buy a ticket to this outstanding work of art.  I cannot in words tell you how this made me feel in an effective way (the most articulate way I’ve found was to say I felt “emotionally bludgeoned”) but trust me when I say, through all the tears and the emotional exhaustion I felt at the conclusion, I loved the experience and I cannot wait to see it again. 
 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 25: A Christmas Miracle

You won't believe this, but I just wrote a fantastic post about Christmas miracles and the importance of family and all that rot while tying it to Miracle on 34th Street.  It's also one of the rare posts I wrote on my iPad because I couldn't get my laptop to work...well in trying to publish it and share some videos to it, it erased.  Nothing I wrote, as lovely as it was, was saved and there's no way to recapture it.  I'll admit, at first I just wanted to pout and say "insert curse here this!", but then I decided that that attitude would fly in the face of everything I just wrote.  How could I talk about the importance of Christmas and little miracles (especially when so many have so little to be happy about) if I let one stupid cock up ruin my good will? So, a little Christmas miracle just occurred and here I am...again writing this post...because I believe that it matters.  I have faith, and isn't that what this film is about?  So let's all enjoy some holiday cheer as we experience Miracle on 34th Street.

Kris Kringle is indignant to find that the person assigned to play Santa in the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (Percy Helton) is intoxicated. When he complains to event director Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara), she persuades Kris to take his place. He does such a fine job that he is hired as the Santa for Macy's flagship New York City store on 34th StreetIgnoring instructions to steer parents to buy from Macy's, Kris directs one shopper (Thelma Ritter) to another store. She is so impressed, she tells Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tonge), head of the toy department, that she will become a loyal customer. Kris later informs another mother that arch-rival Gimbel's has better skates. Fred Gailey (John Payne), Doris's attorney neighbor, takes the young divorcee's second grade daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) to see Kris. Doris has raised her to not believe in fairy tales, but her lack of faith is shaken when she sees Kris conversing in Dutch with an adopted girl who does not know English. Doris asks Kris to tell Susan that he is not really Santa Claus, but Kris insists he is. Kris then makes it his personal mission to convince Doris and Susan that he really is Santa Claus by making their Christmas wishes come true.

There's something timeless about this film and I think that is part of why it endures, because as long as we live there will be children and adults who doubt the existence of Santa Claus. One of the things I love the most about the film is that it never says one way or another whether Kris is or isn't Santa. Sure there are a lot of moments where Kris does something that seems magical, but at the end there is nothing to prove that he is anything more than a very talented old man.  However we, like the characters in the story, choose to believe in him because we have faith.   Faith is the most important part of the human capacity for belief and it is the one thing I think we all need to hold on to during the holidays, what with the endless to-do lists and the assurance that if we don't do this or that somehow it will ruin Christmas.  We must have faith that everything will work out...especially those of us who are in much worse places this Christmas.  With the recent tragedies still fresh in our minds and the knowledge that there are many people who aren't as well off as the rest of us, we need our faith to tell us that everything will be ok.  Miracle on 34th Street is about all of that and more.  If you can find the time this year, please watch this with your families.  It really is one of the very best.

(Forgive the lack of trailer today: the iPad just won't cooperate)

Monday, December 24, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 24: Monsters in Bedford Falls

Well it's Christmas Eve again and we are a mere 24 hours from concluding yet another Christmas season (fear not though, the holiday season continues until New Year's) and I honestly couldn't be more excited.  We've got a ton of good food in the house, good people to share it with, and a really good pile of gifts under the tree.  I know that the pile is only huge because now there are two kids (and let's face it, once you have kids Christmas is...nay SHOULD be...about them) but it still inspires excitement and visions of torn paper and tall stashes of loot.  Tomorrow seriously can't get here soon enough so it can reveal it's secrets to us (I for one can't want to find out what I got, but I also can't wait to see everyone else see what they got).  To add to this year's Christmas anticipation, I am scheduled to be one of the first in Gallatin, TN to see Les Miserables when it is released on Christmas Day (cue me singing "One Day More") so there is a lot to be excited about.  However, part of what makes the excitement so sweet is the anticipation, or rather the suspense.  I think Christmas Eve is one of the most suspenseful nights of the year (albeit a rather playful suspense) so I think it only appropriate that I should write about a rather playfully suspenseful film.  It is one that is almost always worked into my Christmas movie roundup because I adore it so, and one I try to watch every Christmas Eve because of the juxtaposition it offers the holiday.  It's like someone opened a crate of monsters and released them into the idyllic world of It's a Wonderful Life's Bedford Falls. So without further ado, I give you that seminal Christmas classic...Gremlins.

Billy Peltzer is an average 20-something living in a small town named Kingston Falls and he is finding his life going nowhere.  He works in a dead end job at the local bank, his mother and father are on the verge of losing their home to foreclosure, and his Christmas is shaping up to be one of the worst.  That all seems to change when two things occur.  One, Kate Berringer finally agrees to go out with him (he's been infatuated with her since high school) and two, his father has brought him home a very unusual Christmas present.  It is a small, furry animal called a Mogwai (which his father has taken the liberty of naming Gizmo).  Gizmo is an amazing pet.  He sings, he talks, he is clever, and he clearly loves Billy.  However, Gizmo comes with a rather strange set of rules: 1. Don't let him near bright light or sunlight (it will kill him), 2. Don't get him wet, and 3. Don't let him eat after midnight.  The first rule is broken pretty quickly when mom takes a flash picture and scares the bejesus out of Gizmo.  The second rule is also broken in an accident and causes Gizmo to multiply.  These little Mogwai are not nearly as cute and cuddly as Gizmo and they soon are breaking the 3rd rule on their own.  Billy awakens the next morning to find several green, slimy pods where the Mogwai used to be.  Not knowing what to do, he visits a science teacher friend at the local high school to get some answers.  Meanwhile, it's Christmas Eve, and it isn't just Santa Claus that is stirring.  The pods have begun to hatch and what is inside is not cute, cuddly, or clever.  It is mean, it is ugly, and it has very sharp teeth.

Gremlins reminds me of those wonderful 1950s horror films where some seemingly innocuous discovery turns into a horrific experience for everyone involved when a dumb-luck accident takes place.  Granted, most of those were played seriously (usually to unintentional comic effect), and Gremlins prefers to play to the laughs.  Does that mean Gremlins isn't terrifying?  Well, you have your five year old watch it and then get back to me.  This film is very playfully scary and certain scenes (such as Mom alone in the house with the gremlins) are the stuff good horror films are made of.  Things get a little lighter once there are more gremlins in the picture, but they intensify again in the finale when there is one gremlin left fighting for it's life against Billy.  This really is, despite it's comedy and broad appeal, first and foremost a horror movie.  Enough cannot be said about it's brilliant effects work, which makes a viewer believe that (at one point) there are HUNDREDS of this vicious little monsters destroying a town.  The multiplication scenes and the hatching pods are all handled wonderfully as well, with practical effects and puppetry....good old-fashioned movie making.  Jerry Goldsmith's score is also wonderful with it's fiendishly clever little theme and creepy bits keeping us aware that this is a horror movie but one that is more fun than fright.  Joe Dante's direction too is wonderfully tongue-in-cheek and constantly acknowledges the films that inspired this one...such as featuring It's a Wonderful Life and Invasion of the Body Snatchers in key scenes.  Everything about Gremlins works and it really could be good counter programming to all the mushy and heartwarming fare that is currently on the television.  So if your kids are a little older and you don't mind them seeing some violence (and for god's sake, please explain the difference between movie violence and real violence), put on Gremlins this Christmas Eve.  I guarantee they'll enjoy it.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 23: A Little Ballet

I'm currently sitting in the guest room of my sister's new home...it is a generous sized and comfortable room that I am only using because my sister has asked my mother to move out of it for a few days this Christmas so that there would be room in the house for my father and I.  Mom has been living here for a few months now as she waits for her new condo to be finished and so for all intents and purposes, this has become her home.  So you can imagine the enthusiasm with which she met this idea.  I can sympathize, and in fact I will be spending the afternoon with her to help her not feel so left out this Christmas, but I wish she and my sister were getting along better this Christmas.  I'm not saying either of them is being a huge witch or anything like that, but there have been more than a few choice words between them over the subject and really the situation is very simple: My sister wanted some quality time with my father (with whom relations are always strained when mom is around due to their divorce back in 1989) because she has not seen him EVERYDAY for the past few months and it is Christmas...that's her side.  Mom is feeling under appreciated and unloved and feels as though she is not allowed to be part of Christmas this year (never mind that she is going to be here Christmas Eve and Day) because she has been asked to stay in a hotel to make room for time and space in the house...that's mom's side.  If they weren't so alike, I think this would be less like two bulls butting heads and more like a friendly compromise.  At any rate, I hope one of them apologizes to the other by Christmas.  This was a little off topic, but it was on my mind so I figured I'd vent a bit.  I suppose this comes with the territory this Christmas, being the first one since we were kids that both of my parents attended simultaneously.  There was bound to be tension.  So I try to escape into fonder memories of Christmas, which is where I found today's film.  I've written about it before, but now that it is on MOD (Movie on Demand) DVD I figured it was the perfect time to mention it again.  It is a fairy tale and a fully-mounted ballet that is still one of the best film versions (in my humble opinion) of the ballet ever put to film.  I give you, Nutcracker: The Motion Picture.

The story begins in the large and ominous looking workshop of Herr Drosselmeyer, the godfather of the story's protagonist...Clara.  He sits thinking at his desk until he gets an idea.  As the familiar strains of Tchaikovsky's music swirls to life, he creates a magnificent toy castle that is inhabited by many motorized characters.  He falls asleep next to it and the castle opens, revealing the inner dreams of Clara.  It would appear that Drosselmeyer's work has been to send a nightmare to Clara, punishing her for not wanting to be close to him.  In the dream she imagines a fight with her brother culminating in a rat bite that transforms her.  Suddenly the dream leaps to a different setting, that of her family's Christmas Eve party.  It appears to be a facsimile of the one she is about to attend (as I assume this nightmare was given to her in the early hours of Christmas Eve) and Clara is amazed to recieve the motorized castle as a present.  However, the toy she loves best is actually a wooden nutcracker that falls from the Christmas tree.  Later, when everyone else is asleep, Clara comes into the great hall to dance about with her nutcracker and this is where she sees the mice.  It seems the Mouse King (a three headed beast) has infiltrated the room and all of his minions are stealing the presents.  The Mouse King also has magical powers and he makes Clara shrink to his size.  Suddenly, the nutcracker comes to life to defend her.  As they both defeat the Mouse King, Clara magically becomes an adult and the nutcracker becomes a handsome prince who takes her on a marvelous adventure.

This production was very much a filmed version of a stage production which was produced by the Pacific Northwest Ballet of Seattle, Washington in 1983 and was so popular that it was decided that the production would make an entertaining movie. This version differs greatly from other versions as it omits the Sugar Plum Fairy (who has an entire dance written for her) and The Kingdom of Sweets and replaces them instead with a harem run by a sultan who resembles Uncle Drosselmeyer greatly. Also notable was that the production's sets and costumes were designed by Maurice Sendak (author and illustrator of "Where the Wild Things Are") and its staging stays much truer to E.T.A. Hoffman's original fairy tale (which was much darker and ominous). Also of note was that the production was staged with two Claras. One who represented Clara as an actual child, and another who was meant to be 'Dream Clara' and would dance and be a part of Clara's dream world. Clara also seems to share a strange love/fear relationship with Drosselmeyer which adds another aspect of depth to the proceedings, especially when the Drosselmeyer sultan shows a desire to compete with the Nutcracker Prince for Clara's affections and nearly causes their demise at the end of the film as they freefall away from each other...causing Clara to awaken in her bed as the curtain falls. It is a sumptuous and lively production and will always be one of my favorites to see every year.  You can stream it on Netflix or buy the disc from Amazon...it makes a wonderful antidote to the bland 90s film by George Balanchine.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 22: Love is All Around

If there's anything that we all can agree on, it's that the Holiday season is largely about love.  We share love with our families, our friends, our significant others, and all the rest of the special people in our lives.  So it shouldn't be surprising that a good chunk of romantic comedies take place on Christmas, given the built in seasonal expectations and universal appeal of the holiday.  One of my favorites incorporates a great deal of Christmas cliches, music, and customs into an ensemble piece that features some of my favorite British actors and actresses.  It is a story about how love exists everywhere in the world around us in many different ways, all we have to do is look for it.  I give you, Love Actually.

The film begins with a voiceover from David (Hugh Grant) commenting that whenever he gets gloomy with the state of the world he thinks about the arrivals terminal at Heathrow Airport, and the pure uncomplicated love felt as friends and families welcome their arriving loved ones. David's voiceover also relates that all the messages left by the people who died on the 9/11 planes were messages of love and not hate. The film then tells the 'love stories' of many people including an author who falls for his Portuguese housekeeper but is unable to communicate with her, a husband and wife who are growing apart, a woman who loves her co-worker but must care for a brother with a disability, and a man who's best friend just married the love of his life.  During the course of the film the stories intertwine and some will turn out well and some will fail...but that's how love works isn't it?

The message of Richard Curtis' 2003 romantic comedy behemoth, Love Actually, which showcased no less than 13 celebrities in starring and supporting roles and also featured at least 4 or 5 separate romantic storylines that interweave in and out of each other, is so simple that it almost seems to go missed by many.  Curtis wanted to show that, even in dark times like ours when events like 9/11 can make us doubt that the sun will shine again (yes, I'm being overdramatic for a purpose), love is everywhere if you look for it. And this film, set in the weeks leading up to Christmas in London, has almost all of it. Young love, old love, wounded love, lost love, parent/child love, first love, family love, etc. You name it, its there. Yes, some of the tales are just so precious you might want to brush your teeth afterwards from all the sweetness, but conversely some of the stories are bittersweet and/or complete failures (such as Laura Linney's thread with her sexy co-worker or Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman's tiny saga) and in doing this, Curtis creates one of the most realistic romantic comedies ever made. I don't mean realistic in that in real life anytime you walk around the corner love could run right smack into you...no, but it is difficult to deny that somewhere around you, someone is expressing love. And its not just romantic love. We love our friends, we love our pets, we (sometimes) love our jobs, and we love our family. Love, contrary to what some films show, is not just about falling in love with a mate. Love is also the small kinds of things that we take for granted in our everyday lives. And yes, Curtis does develop the romantic plots a little more than the other subtle love plots, but he kinda has to. I mean, that's what we came to see. However, one cannot scoff at love the way it is used in the film because he really has tried to include so many varieties of it. Its rather a corny concept actually and I'm amazed that he got it made...but the finished product is one of my favorite feel-good experiences. And what better time is there to feel-good than at Christmastime?


Friday, December 21, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 21: A Christmas Carol in Reverse

We all know the familiar story of Scrooge and his change from a bad man into a good one, so I'll spend no more time going over that here...however today I will be discussing a Christmas Carol that works in reverse for the sake of satire.  I don't know about any of you, but while I love and adore Scrooge's transformation, I always thought Scrooge's rampent overspending and charity was going to bankrupt him really fast if he didn't do some massive rebudgeting really fast.  I suppose that is why I have chosen tonight's Television special for your consideration.  It is a satire of the ideals and themes of "A Christmas Carol" put through a somewhat extreme lens, but it's all in good fun.  So I present to you, Blackadder's Christmas Carol.

Ebenezer Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson), the Victorian proprietor of a "moustache shop", is the nicest man in England. He is everything that Ebenezer Scrooge was by the end of the original story; generous and kind to everybody, and sensitive to the misery of others. As a result, everybody takes advantage of his kindness, and all but Mr. Baldrick (Tony Robinson) view him as a victim, although even he is slightly more cynical than his ancestors. His business turns no profit, all his earnings going to charity and to con artists, and he lives a lonely, miserable life.  One Christmas Eve, Blackadder's destiny changes when the Spirit of Christmas (Robbie Coltrane) makes the mistake of calling round to congratulate him for his ways. The spirit lets him see shades of the past: his ancestors Lord Blackadder and Mr. E. Blackadder, Esq., the butler of the Prince Regent (Hugh Laurie). Instead of being convinced that he is better than them, he grows to admire them and their wit and asks the spirit to show him what could happen if he became like them.

This is the kind of program that makes people love British comedy.  I love how the show lampoons the wealthy, the leeches of society, the dumb, and yes, even the good people of the world.  Like "The Simpsons" no one is spared in the satire.  The Blackadder version of the Carol is nothing short of comic genius.  The way Ebenezer Blackadder comes to the realization that "Bad Guys Have All The Fun" is so wonderfully inspired that it made me wonder why someone hadn't done a film or tv program like this one earlier than the late 80s.  The actors are also something of a rouge's gallery of famous brits including Robbie Coltrane, Miranda Richardsom, Rowan Atkinson, and many others.  In fact, I was surprised at what a who's who of British thespians (and ironically, Harry Potter alums) the piece was.  If you want a good laugh and an answer to all the sentimentality of the usual Christmas Carol, give this one a whirl...you will laugh.  I swear.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 20: Picard Does Dickens

Another day, another Christmas Carol adaptation. I think if I really put my mind to it, I could do a 25 days of Christmas movies that subsists entirely of Christmas Carol adaptations (some would argue that last year I nearly did).  Today I'm cutting to the chase quickly, since it was the last day with students and it really wore me out (making me less anxious to work on a blog tonight) and the point to reach is really very simple...I watched another film last night and I need to talk about it to fill my quota.  So here we go...once upon a time about 13 years ago, TNT aired a new version of a classic story starring Patrick Stewart, fresh off his success as Captain Jean Luc Picard in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and the subsequent film adaptations, as Ebenezer Scrooge.  It was a highly anticipated event as Stewart seemed taylor made for the role.  Would he nail it or would he flop?  Let's find out as we watch A Christmas Carol.

In the Victorian period, Ebenezer Scrooge is a skinflint businessman who loathes the Christmas season and begrudges having to give time off to his best employee, Bob Cratchit. On Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his late friend and business partner, Jacob Marley, who in the afterlife has come to see the errors of his ways. Marley arranges for Scrooge to be visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come in hopes of teaching Scrooge of the importance of embracing the joy of the holiday season. Scrooge reforms, learning to keep the spirit of Christmas alive in his heart, ultimately becoming a well-loved and respected man.

I feel like my synopsis there was largely a waste of time because, seriously, do any of us not know this story?  That redundancy aside, this "Carol" is a rather mediocre and unmemorable adaptations.  There's nothing special at all about it...it's shot rather routinely and acted in a fairly obvious way.  Only Stewart really tries to make something unique in this film by performing Scrooge in a slightly different way.  He seems almost amused by the ghosts at first, rather than frightened, even though he obviously is afraid and is covering for it.  It's a unique decision that goes against most of them being immediately afraid of Marley and his cohort.  Also, the scene between young Scrooge and Belle is played differently.  Rather than Belle being ticked at Scrooge or sobbing uncontrollably, she seems almost relieved to be having this discussion with Scrooge.  Other than those moments, this one is fairly routine...which probably explains the middling reviews it got when it first aired.  It's certainly not going to become one of my go-tos in the future, but at least I finally watched Patrick Stewart as Scrooge.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 19: One of those Other December Holidays

Yes, I admit it...I run a Christmas centric blog.  I have talked primarily about Christmas movies and yet I still, annoyingly PC as I am, still talk about the "Holidays" as though I am representing all of the December holidays on my blog.  I have no excuse for my behavior, I'm a terrible Christo-centric person (and yes, I even invent words when I so choose).  Whatever could I do to improve my tarnished image? Well, what if I took a break from the holiday of red and green and focused on the 8 day marathon of blue and white?  Yes friends, Hanukkah has come to The Movie Addict's blog and it has arrived with a vengeance.  I personally don't have any Hanukkah memories to tie this entry to, but I did talk to a Jewish friend about it (and no, I'm not merely saying that as an ironic joke).  She told me that compared to Christmas, Hanukkah was like a gift marathon.  She also said that 8 days of presents ways WAY better than just one way.  I won't lie, she gave me a lot of real education on the traditions and customs that go into a traditional Hanukkah and I found it truly fascinating.  I suppose that is what inspired me to look beyond my Christian and secular roots to examine another holiday that people hold dear.  So today, I examine a film inspired by one of it's lead actor's songs.  Let's all get together around the menorah and celebrate Eight Crazy Nights.

In the small town of Dukesberry, New Hampshire, Davey Stone (voice of and resemblance to Adam Sandler), a 33-year-old alcoholic troublemaker with a long criminal record, is arrested for walking out on his bill at Mr. Chang's (Rob Schneider) Chinese restaurant and, while attempting to evade arrest ("Davey's Song"), destroying a giant Menorah/Santa ice sculpture. Davey is about to be sentenced to jail time when Whitey Duvall (Adam Sandler), a 70-year-old volunteer referee from Davey's former basketball league, intervenes and comes forward at his trial. The judge (Norm Crosby), at Whitey's suggestion, sentences Davey to community service as a referee-in-training for Whitey's Youth Basketball League. Under the terms of the community service, if Davey commits a felony before his sentence is completed, he will be sentenced to ten years in prison. The next day, Davey referees his first game, which ends in disaster: after being told to remove his shoes, Davey kicks them off, smashing an overhead lighting fixture with one and striking the timekeeper with the other. He then taunts an obese child, and his parents, who attack Davey in retaliation; Whitey suffers a grand mal seizure, and the game is abruptly brought to an end. Attempting to calm Davey down, Whitey takes him to the mall, where they meet single mom Jennifer Friedman (Jackie Titone, singing voice by Alison Krauss), Davey's childhood girlfriend, and her son, Benjamin (Austin Stout). Though Whitey reminds him that he lost his chance with her 20 years ago, Davey still finds himself attracted to Jennifer. On the way home, Whitey threatens to have Davey arrested after the latter implied that he stole peanut brittle from the mall. However, Whitey decides not to report the incident. As time progresses, Davey and Whitey's relationship becomes more contentious, as Whitey's various attempts to encourage Davey are met with humiliation and assault. Upon arriving home one night ("Long Ago"), Davey finds his trailer being burned down by a man who lost a bet to him. Davey rushes into the burning trailer to rescue a Hanukkah card from his late parents, then watches the trailer go up in smoke. Whitey opens his home to Davey, who reluctantly accepts the invitation.  Soon, Davey finds himself forced to confront what has kept him so miserable all these years when Whitey reminds him of the death of his parents and Davey has to decide if being miserable is worth being alone.

Eight Crazy Nights doesn't do much to differentiate itself from other Holiday comedies in the exception that it uses Hanukkah instead of Christmas in most of it's utterings of the holiday's name...it is not really about the holiday nor about the 'crazy nights' of it's title.  It is more of a standard cliche holiday movie about a despicable person who learns to be a little less so because of the holiday.  Indeed, it is even less about Davey, who is clearly the protagonist, and more about Whitey and what he eventually gets for his trouble.  That doesn't make it a bad film, just a highly confusing one that seems unsure of where it wants to take it's story.  There are some wonderful comic moments and then just as many that fall flat.  The scatological humor adds little to the story in the way of amusing moments and mostly just serves to make the obnoxious characters more obnoxious.  There are some touching moments amidst the mess however, such as when Davey is forced to relive his most traumatic moment of childhood with Whitey and his twin sister or when Whitey is given his due reward.  These scenes are enhanced by Sandler's knowledge of Holiday movie tropes and how he lampoons them with random song lyrics and wit.  It shows how good a comic he is underneath all the obnoxiousness and scat.  This is definitely not a cartoon to watch with the kids and if you hate Sandler's brand of humor, this will not win you over, but if you'd like to see a Holiday movie that talks about more than just Christmas...this is certainly one to go to.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 18: A Nearsighted Scrooge

Anyone who reads my blogs yearly knows that one of my favorite Christmas stories is also one of the most often adapted ones ever...namely A Christmas Carol.  In fact, there have been no less than 21 film adaptations and equal amounts in television and the theater.  Several of them are rather joyless affairs, but some of them are inspired adaptations and worth making into holiday traditions.  The one I am presenting to you tonight is a favorite of one of my co-workers and he often mentions it when we talk about our favorite versions of the Dickens classic.  I had never seen this particular one until this year when it was added to Netflix instant watch, and I am very glad that it was.  Now I can stop him from bugging me about seeing it...I kid, I kid.  This particular adaptation features a cartoon character that you may be familiar with, the nearsighted Mr. Magoo.  Yes, "the" Mr. Magoo who has entertained us for years with his lovable antics has taken on the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge and he is here to 'humbug' us while not seeing an inch in front of him.  So let's put on our glasses (cause we know Magoo won't wear his) and watch Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.

It is opening night on Broadway for the talented Mr. Magoo and he is very excited to be starring in a new stage musical of A Christmas Carol.  Things get off to a rocky start as he arrives late to the performance...30 minutes late in fact...and has to be rushed on stage by the director.  Soon the show begins and the story segways into that of Ebeneezer Scrooge (Magoo) who hates people, is greedy, and has no use for Christmas.  However his life is turned upside down when he is visited by his dead partner, Jacob Marley, who informs him that his soul is doomed if he doesn't change his ways.  According to Marley, he will be visited by three ghosts who will show him the true meaning of Christmas.  Will Scrooge learn from the experience, or will he stay doomed for eternity?

Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol is unique in that it was one of the first regularly run Christmas specials ever shown on television.  It premiered in 1962 and was run annually on NBC in the years since.  It's actually a rather cute and slim adaptation of the tale and with a completely natural casting of Magoo as Scrooge (and a very natural way of explaining why he is so Scroogey by placing him as the star of a play).  The songs are a little overly cute and some of the jokes fall flat, but as a piece of Christmassy nostalgia it works.  I'm certainly glad I've seen it and I think I may add it to my yearly rotation, we will have to see how I feel a year from now.  As far as versions of the Scrooge story go, this one is a winner in my book.  See it with your kids if you have a chance, I think they'll take to it.


Monday, December 17, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 17: Renting a Family for Christmas

There are moments when I feel I am blessed to have my family.  That sounds like somewhat of a backhanded compliment I realize (I can already hear my mother saying "What do you mean 'moments'? Aren't you always blessed to have us?") and you'd be correct.  It does sound a lot like I don't care for my family except for those 'blessed' moments.  However, if I were to say that I am always happy and glad to be a part of my family you might be confused as to what I might mean.  Actually, it's fairly simple.  Sometimes I see other people talk about (and even interact with their families) and it causes me pain to watch.  It's a general fact that there are a great many of people who don't enjoy their family's company due to varying reasons (and some because they don't have a family of their own) but it still distresses me to see.  I think for a family to be as close as we are is a treasure and something to be celebrated over the holidays.  This leads us somewhat into today's film as it addresses the chief problem of the protagonist, in that he feels like he has lost that 'family' connection and he wants to regain it.  How he goes about it...well, that's another issue entirely and one that gives the film it's main source of conflict.  It's time to head home for the holidays, and for Surviving Christmas.

Drew Latham (Ben Affleck) is a wealthy advertising executive. Just before Christmas, he surprises his girlfriend Missy (Jennifer Morrison) with first class tickets to Fiji. She is horrified that he would want to spend Christmas away from his family. Citing the fact that Drew has never even introduced her to his family, she concludes that he will never get serious about their relationship and dumps him. Drew has his assistant send her a Cartier bracelet to apologize. Desperate not to spend Christmas alone, Drew calls all of his contacts to find a place to stay on Christmas, but he is not close enough to anyone to be invited. He tracks down Dr. Freeman (Stephen Root) at the airport, hoping to squeeze in a therapy session. The hurried doctor tells him to list all of his grievances and then burn them at his childhood home. The house is now occupied by the Valcos (James Gandolfini and Catherine O'Hara), who wonder what Drew is doing on their front lawn. When he sets his grievances on fire, Tom Valco  sneaks up behind him and knocks him out with a shovel. After he comes to, Drew explains what he was doing and asks for a tour of the house. Thrilled to see his old room, Drew impetuously offers Tom $250,000 to let him spend Christmas with the Valcos. Tom accepts, and Drew's lawyer draws up a contract that requires the Valcos to pose as his family. This action sets into motion a strange and surreal Christmas for everyone involved as Drew slowly infiltrates the family and begins to meddle both to their benefit and detriment.  Will Drew's presence help this family, or will it destroy it?

I recall Surviving Christmas getting fairly foul reviews upon it's release and I can certainly see why.  For every wonderful and subversive comic idea, there are about two or three jokes that feel like they came from another movie.  It's almost as though the filmmakers decided that their dark and cynical idea was a little too dark and cynical.  Still, for this film to have a 7% on Rottentomatoes.com is rather harsh I would say.  I think it is a funny film and a fine film to watch, particularly in the fresh way it deals with that so-familiar formula of  "a family gets together and loves/annoys each other at Christmas."  It was a novel idea to have Drew be so shattered and eccentric that he literally rents a family to love him this Christmas...it's too bad other choices don't work.  For example, casting Ben Affleck was a mistake.  Now I am NOT part of the old "Ben sucks" club that has curiously evaporated since he became a director and I actually find him to be a very good performer, but he is far too attractive and poised to really sell Drew as a character.  I mean I can't imagine that a guy who looks like him couldn't find some other bimbo to spend Christmas with.  They can sell it as him being 'sensitive' all they want, but it doesn't work.  Also, the way that the majority of the family (except one) all take to Drew's crazy sauce feels a little convenient.  I think more conflict could have been achieved through them wanting the money but also resisting him more, and it would have made Christina Applegate's character a bit less of a shrew in comparison.  Still, it is a nice film and certainly worth watching if you want some perspective on your own natural family at Christmas.  Just imagine how much worse this could all be?


Sunday, December 16, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 16: The Closing of the Year

Today has been a remarkably productive day.  I feel like this is the first day I've gotten since December 1st that I've actually had the time to do any of my holiday preparations and while it might have passed quicker than I would have liked due to my massive amount of activity, I feel really good about the rest of the holidays now (whereas before they were looming in front of me like a massive deadline with a frowny face on it).  In the space of one day I finished all my baking, wrapped all the presents I currently have in hand, figured out how much pizza would cost for my Broadcasting holiday party, washed my laundry, wrote up my rehearsal schedule for the week, and even completed a blog post (that is, I'm assuming I'm going to complete this post).  I'd say I've done fairly well for this day.  Honestly, with just a week left till my holiday break and two weeks (give or take) left in this year, I feel comfortable preparing for the end of yet another year.  Afterall, part of the significance of the Holidays, aside from getting together with friends and family and sharing gifts and goodwill, is coming to grips with the closing of the year.  We get a chance to look back on the ups and downs of our year and decide if, at the end of it all, it was a success or not.  That is partly the theme of today's film which is again bookended by Christmas scenes and tells a tale of the year in the life of someone who has yet to decide how to own his own life.  I think it's time to hit up the factory and play with some Toys.

At the Zevo Toys factory in a lovely field of green, owner Kenneth Zevo (Donald O'Connor) is dying. He expresses to his assistant Owen Owens (Arthur Malet) that he wants control of the business to go to his brother, military man Lt. Gen. Leland Zevo (Michael Gambon). Leland Zevo himself is uncertain of his brother's wishes, instead pointing out that his nephew, Leslie Zevo (Robin Williams), would be a worthy successor as he has apprenticed at Zevo Toys his entire life. Kenneth Zevo states that although Leslie loves his work, he is also too immature to be a good business owner and deal with the corporate world. After Kenneth dies, Leland takes over. At first he has no interest in anything at the factory until he hears of possible leaks and corporate espionage. Leland brings in his son Patrick (LL Cool J), a soldier and expert in covert military operations, to oversee security. He soon decides to make a series of war toys. This dismays Leslie as Zevo Toys has never made war toys as Kenneth did not like them. After a confrontation with Leslie, Leland halts the development of the war toys. He asks Leslie for some space to work alone to develop some toys of his own and states he doesn't want Leslie to see them because they might not be good enough. Leland's continued demands for more space, rigid security and top-secret projects dismay the childlike Leslie, his innocent and childlike sister Alsatia (Joan Cusack), Owen, and a factory worker Leslie has developed a crush on named Gwen Tyler (Robin Wright). Leslie becomes more suspicious when Owen shows him children arriving at the factory and ushered into the restricted area. He breaks into a research area and discovers kids playing realistic war video games.  Leslie then must decide how he can regain control of Zevo Toys from the demented General and restore the company to it's original principals.  But can he do it in time?

Toys was a huge flop upon release because it was advertised as a holiday family film when in reality, it's a surreal adult fantasy about learning to accept responsibility.  Naturally, it's target audience could not grasp it's satire and adults who would have enjoyed it's subversive messages about war and the desensitization of children through violence stayed away because it looked like a kid's movie.  It reality, Toys is one of those excellent niche films...a movie that appeals to a small group of people and never would have been made today (as a big budget tentpole anyway....maybe as an independant).  I love Toys for it's darkness juxtaposed with it's lightness, for the wonderfully dramatic turn by Robin Williams (yes, he did do serious movies 'before' his later years), for it's music, for it's design, and for it's messages.  There are many messages in Toys that children really should see, but I feel like a lot of them would miss them on a first viewing because the film is so surreal and strange.  No matter though, it will always exist for them to see...in fact it's streaming on Netflix now.  I suppose it's a good thing that director Barry Levinson didn't dumb down his vision to make a 'kid's' movie.  He made exactly the film he wanted to and while it didn't connect with audiences at the time the way everyone might have wanted it to, it still endures today as a grand example of how we can look at a year in our lives and how we can face the obstacles in our lives to make our lives either successes or failures.  FYI, I feel like my year has been a major success...in cause you're wondering.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 15: Pain is Pleasure

Ok, don't get all filthy.  Pleasure can mean a lot of different things, including having a good laugh. Some of my best holiday memories center around hefty belly laughs.  Sometimes it is a present that makes us  laugh, sometimes someone tells a really funny joke, and sometimes someone gets a turkey dropped on their head (long Thanksgiving story).  I think laughter is important to having a good Holiday season and this is why I think some of our favorite Christmas movies are comedies...particularly broad comedies.  National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, and even Deck the Halls deal with slapstick situations, surreal comedy, and an overall devotion to the absurd.  This is especially true in today's film where the sheer violence would be painful to watch if it wasn't done in such a cartoony manner.  I think it's time to order a pizza, set up some booby traps, and enjoy an evening Home Alone.


The McCallister family prepares to spend Christmas in Paris, gathering at the home of Peter and Kate McCallister (John Heard and Catherine O'Hara) in a suburb of Chicago the night before their flight. Eight-year-old Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) their youngest son, finds himself the subject of ridicule from his siblings and cousins. After getting into an argument with his older brother Buzz, he is sent to the third floor bedroom of the house, where he wishes his family would disappear. During the night, a power outage resets the alarm clocks and causes the family to oversleep. In the confusion and rush to reach the airport on time, Kevin is left behind and the family does not realize it until they are already airborne. Once in Paris, his mother and father desperately try to book a flight home to get Kevin. Unfortunately, they learn that all flights to the USA are completely booked for the next 2 days. Kate refuses to leave the Paris airport unless it's on an airplane. The clerks put Kate on standby for any possible seat to the USA that opens up. The rest of the family go to Peter and Frank's brother, Rob's apartment in Paris. Meanwhile, Kevin wakes up to find the house empty and is overjoyed to find that his wish came true.  However, soon his excitement turns to fear as two burglars, Harry and Marv, set their sights on his house.  It soon becomes a race to see if Kevin can keep the out of the house and if his mother can make her way home to him.

Home Alone is the kind of film that one can only watch through a lens of nostalgia.  You cannot view it through today's filter because we've gone back to "the new serious" of the 70s and the cartoony comedy just doesn't jive with that.   That's not to say that the film isn't still fun and deserving of its classic status, it just means that those of us who grew up on it will enjoy it much more than someone watching it fresh today.   However, for me, no Christmas is complete without a healthy belly laugh with Kevin and co. during their two adventures (for the record, I prefer the New York set sequel).  It is a tradition like cookies and carols.  Is it funny? Well, I think so.  But in the end it matters only if you think so.  If you enjoy stories about travel complications, cartoony violence, and Christmassy emotions you will enjoy this....especially if you remember it fondly.



25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 14: What You Own

Christmas is a time of discovery for a lot of us.  I feel like I learn something every year.  Sometimes that knowledge is about myself, sometimes it's about others.  Lessons we learn during the holidays can be some of the most important ones we learn, for example last night I learned that I've largely ignored some of my best friends these past few months in the interest of my busy career and spending as many of my free moments with my boyfriend.  I saw the two of them last night and noticed that one of them was clearly exhausted (out of character) and the other had lost a significant amount of weight since I had last seen either of them.  I feel as though these are things I should have noticed more recently than the holidays, only I didn't cause I've been so tied up in my own affairs.  My friends are important to me and I learned that I need to create more space with them I my life.  Friendship is the theme of today's post...indeed it is the spontaneous growth of friendship at Christmas that forms the whole story.  As it turned out, everything is Rent.


On Christmas Eve, 1989, aspiring filmmaker Mark Cohen, and his roommate, Roger Davis, learn that the rent previously waived by their former friend and landlord, Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III, is due. At the same time, their former roommate Tom Collins shows up and gets mugged in an alleyway. Meanwhile, Mark and Roger meet with Benny, who tells them he plans to evict the homeless from the nearby lot and build a cyber studio in its place. He offers them free rent if they can get Maureen, Mark's ex-girlfriend, to cancel her protest against his plans, but they refuse. A street drummer and drag queen, Angel, finds Collins in the alleyway and helps him up. They bond once they find out they both have AIDS. Later that night, Roger, who is HIV-positive and an ex- druggie, tries to compose his one last great song. He's then visited by his downstairs neighbour, Mimi, an exotic dancer and heroin addict, who flirts with him.  Soon after the two of them strike up a relationship and discover that they too share the disease of AIDS.  The group forms a bond that endures through a year of fights, break ups, life changes, and even death.  By next Christmas, will they still be together?

Rent is one of those stage musicals that connected with a wide range of people, largely the youth of the time, and so a film of it was always going to be tricky.  It has gone on to be one of the more reviled film musical adaptations of all time, for largely cosmetic reasons.  There are those who say that they don't care for Chris Columbus as a director, but that really doesn't say anything about a finished film so much as it reveals a personal bias against a film.  It was also mentioned that the cast ( many of whom were in the original stage production) was too old to portray belivable bohemians by this point...which is ludicrous given that one of them keeps making comments on how they need to grow out of this phase and so the age makes that make more sense....why should age make bohemians more credible in fiction? If they're ridiculous at 30 they're also ridiculous at 20.  Finally, they write that the important themes have been drained away by turning the film from a sung-through show into a more traditional talk and then sing musical.  While I can't comment on people's perceptions, I don't see how the overreaching themes of the show have been drained.  The story, based on La Boheme, is largely about friendship through adversity, love, loss, and resilience. If you can't see these in the film, you're not paying attention.  It is a beautiful (if a little cloying both on stage and film) story that helps put life and love in perspective.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies - Day 13: A Year in the Life of a Christmas Present

As I look back through the years, I think about the various gifts I have received at Christmas and how, so very quickly, they lose their identities as Christmas gifts and become just a normal part of my every day life.  I suppose this is true of most of us, but if gifts could feel I wonder how they would react to this 'demotion".  I mean really, being a Christmas gift must be a great honor among gifts because it is 'the' biggest holiday of the year for a large percent of the population.  To hold that loved and cherished status in our hearts, however briefly, must be lovely.  It must really be tough on the gifts that actually CAN feel themselves being replaced or shuffled aside like pets.  Pets are the most understanding and forgiving companions that we have, and I think it is often a devotion that is taken for granted.  Today's film, for example, deals with the gift of a pet and how that pet manages to change her family's life while also having hers changed in return.  It is a sweet film, bookended by Christmas scenes, and which shows just what can happen from the end of one year to the end of another.  For all you dog lovers out there, I present Lady and the Tramp.

On a snowy Christmas Eve in 1909, Jim Dear gives his wife Darling the gift of an adorable cocker spaniel puppy named Lady.  Lady, Jim Dear, and Darling all spend several more months learning how to live with each other.  Sometimes Jim Dear and Darling get what they want, and sometimes Lady gets what she wants.  It is a beautiful co-existence until Lady begins to notice Jim Dear and Darling acting peculiar.  When she explains their change in behavior to her neighbors, Jock (a Scottish Terrier) and Trusty (a Bloodhound), they explain that Jim Dear and Darling are expecting a baby. Around the same time, Lady meets Tramp...a stray who plays by his own rules.  As the baby begins to change life as Lady understands it, Lady finds herself drawn to Tramp and his no-rules attitude.  What then blossoms is an affection that has the potential to become something beautiful or something that destroys Lady's world.

I know, it seems as though I am cheating a lot this year by featuring films that don't take place largely at Christmas.  But I thought that looking at how a gift goes from being a special Christmas gift to being an every day part of life would be an interesting perspecive to take. Frankly, few films examine this like Lady and the Tramp.  It looks at how we take for granted many things in our life...not just pets, but how any of us (like our pets) can take for granted how wonderful and warm our families are and how safe they make us feel.  Lady's journey comes down to realizing that, as long as Jim Dear and Darling are in her life, they will always love her....even if it isn't always shown.  It's rather like the way we feel around our own families.  I hope all our past gifts can understand this as they are added to the shelf with all the others, and I hope they won't be jealous of the new ones when they are reserved a place this December 25th.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies - Day 12: How Many Christmasses Do You Celebrate?

The idea of visiting several different homes for Christmas is not a foreign one for me and my family.  Ever since I was 5 and my parents divorced I've been making at least two different Christmas trips in order to spend time with both parents.  In the busiest time of my life, when my father was remarried, I actually had four Christmasses in one day (and that didn't include the Christmas spent with my mother later in the month).  Lately, my sister and I have done two Christmasses in order to see both my mother and father now that we are grown, but this year we are seeing a return to one single Christmas day.  Thank god my sister had two children, because they have forced mom and dad to be in the same place on the same day since my sis and brother in law won't be doing any traveling with two tiny babies.  It's something of a relief actually, because it means I get more of my precious two week break to myself.  However, it does mean I probably won't be seeing my uncle and grandmother this year as I have since I went to college.  But I like to think I'll be there in spirit.  However, it makes me wonder how many other people are doing similar Christmas Marathons this year.  It almost seems like it would be ripe enough conflict for a film...and it turns out, that it was.  Today's film deals with a couple who has to go to four different houses for Christmas this year and the various indignities they are subjected to in process.  It's time to hop in the car and to go home for not one, not two, not three, but Four Christmasses.

Orlando "Brad" McVie (Vince Vaughn) and his girlfriend, Kate (Reese Witherspoon) are a happily unmarried and childfree, upscale San Francisco couple whose respective households are somewhat similar - both bearing divorced parents, warring siblings with out-of-control kids and general awkward memories and simmering resentments from the past, which they find too embarrassing to share with each other. In an effort to avoid these families at Christmas time, Brad and Kate pretend to be engaging in charitable work and escape to exotic sun-spots, such as Fiji, to enjoy a relaxing Christmas there. Unfortunately, in the third Christmas of their relationship, Brad and Kate are trapped at San Francisco International Airport by a fogbank that cancels every outbound flight. To make matters worse, they are caught on camera and then interviewed by a CBS 5 news crew, revealing their whereabouts to the whole city and, worst of all, their families.  Suddenly, each of them is trapped into committing to four different visits with their parents and siblings and each one must face old and long-avoided confrontations and fears.  Will they survive this Christmas?

Four Christmasses is a comedy that has a really funny and witty film buried somewhere deep inside it.  It's almost a shame that it becomes something of a mess with the load of talent involved.  Witherspoon and Vaughn are lovely to watch most of the time, but their parents are played by such greats as Sissy Spacek, Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, and Mary Steenburgen.  With a cast like that, how did they end up with such a vapid script.  It's really not even the story's fault that it sinks on execution, it is the way that our protagonists have been written.  They aren't the stereotypical nice couple who just so happens to be related to complete psychotics...they are actually written as two of the most unlikable hip yuppies ever allowed to be protagonists.  In fact, they are so obnoxious to listen to in the early scenes that what happens to them is rather like watching obnoxious teenagers in a Friday the 13th movie...you can't wait to see them get whats coming to them.  The script attempts to compensate by making their respective parents and siblings into terrible people too, but all that does is provide a film with no one to like and no one to empathise with.  Even by the end of the film, no one has learned anything to fix their obnoxiousness...rather they are simply given more reasons to be terrible people.  Like I said, it's a real shame, because buried underneath the horrid characters there was actually a decent movie idea here.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 11: Guardians

I think that the requisite family Christmas film is a staple of Hollywood and has become something of a tradition in America.  Every year, people get together as families and, quite often, they will go to the movies in a large group to enjoy watching the colorful and safe features wash over them.  However, this year there seems to be a severe lack of Holiday related material for families to go see.  Oh sure, they have plenty of films for grown ups this year (Argo, Lincoln, Life of Pi, and my personal favorite Les Miserables among them) but we don't have much like Happy Feet Too, The Polar Express, or Arthur Christmas. However, there is one film that...while not featuring a winter Holiday setting...features one of the best loved Holiday figures in history as a butt-kicking dude.  Yes friends, Santa doesn't just give presents at Christmas...he also swings swords like a beast.  Let's all learn a little about the Guardians of Childhood as we witness the Rise of the Guardians.

It is a few days until Easter and all the preparations for it seem to be going swimmingly, particularly for St. North (Santa Claus for those not in the know) who is enjoying the coming spring by relaxing and making elaborate movable ice sculptures.  However, a disturbance on the globe showing all the children who believe in fantastic beings makes North nervous.  It would seem that Pitch, the Boogeyman, has returned to Earth and North is anxious to know his purpose.  He calls together the other three Guardians of Childhood, E. Aster Bunny, The Tooth Queen, and The Sandman, to discuss what is to be done about Pitch.  They look to The Man in the Moon for guidance and he informs them that the time has come for them to take in a new guardian in the form of Jack Frost.  Jack has been enjoying hundreds of years of pranks and fun with children by causing snow days and making ice that causes people to fall.  He also has a tendency to throw snowballs at children and making them feel full of mischief.  He is not interested in all at being a Guardian as it requires a great deal more responsibility than he is willing to give.  However, once Pitch's purpose is revealed, he feels as though he must help to protect the children and to find out who he used to be.  Pitch is planning to turn all the dreams of the world's children into nightmares and also plans to steal their memories of childhood by stealing their teeth from the Tooth Palace.  Soon, children everywhere begin to stop believing in the Guardians and they begin to fade from existence.  Will Jack tip the scale in their favor or will Pitch destroy them all?

As I said, none of this film takes place during the Holidays but I feel that due to it's heavy reliance on snow and winter as well as a featured role for Santa Claus, it makes the cut.  Rise of the Guardians continues the 'dark kids film' revival started with Harry Potter 10 years ago and continued through several others and I really hope it ushers in a whole new flood of them.  My favorite movies growing up were always the ones that skewed a bit darker...like The Neverending Story and Sleeping Beauty.  The current trend of sweet and syrupy, while it has it's place, has never sat as well with me.  This film rectifys that by making a villain that is genuinely scary, "killing" a beloved protagonist early on, and seriously facing the possibility of spoiling our magical holidays for all time.  It is a necessary film for children, I believe, to keep them aware that not every thing and everyone is safe out there.  There is evil and there are bad people...but there are also good people and hope that triumphs over evil.  It's a very healthy message and one I fully support.  I also rather enjoyed the theme of "belief" that is much less heavy handed a message than it was in say, The Polar Express.  Here, it is not a child that needs to keep believing (though that is an important plot point) but Jack himself who desires the feeling of being believed in.  That is a very nice switch from the usual cliche and it helps make "believe in magic" as a theme a little less cliche.  Check this one out if you haven't already, you and your kids will love it.


Monday, December 10, 2012

25 Days of Christmas 2012 - Day 10: Christmas in Discworld

I won't lie, I don't care much for television movies.  I always feel that for all their production value and effort they always look cheap and low-rent.  But every once in a while, a tv movie comes along that has such a good story that it simply wows me.  It happened with It, it happened with Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story, and it happened with today's film.  On the surface it looks like a "Harry Potter" ripoff being that the title sounds like Hogwarts and the whole thing is based on one of the many books Terry Pratchett has based in his fictional universe named Discworld.  However there is much much more happening in the narrative than magic and wizards.  It is a delightful send up of our own secular Christmas tales while also spoofing our perception of death, belief, and Gods or saints.  I think it's time we all visit Discworld and learn about the Hogfather

It is Hogswatch in Discworld, a world that mirrors our own with odd aspects to separate it, and everyone is very excited for it as it is a time for togetherness, food, and fun.  It is also the time of year when The Hogfather (Discworld's Santa Claus) travels across Discworld giving gifts to all the good children of the world.  However, the Auditors of Reality (supernatural celestial bureaucrats) have decided that the Hogfather is useless and creates too much chaotic imagination in the world so they hire Mr. Teatime to assassinate him.  When Death gets wind of this, he assumes the identity of the Hogfather to ensure that children don't stop believing in him.  Meanwhile, Death's daughter Susan embarks on a mission to find and stop Teatime before he succeeds.  What then transpires is an adventure of epic proportions.  Will Death and Susan succeed or will Hogswatch be ruined forever?

I had to give a relatively short synopsis because there is really no way to sumarize a massive novel and story such as this with all of it's many layers and quirks.  It's rare one comes across a fantasy universe as diverse and carefully constructed as Discworld (worlds like the Wizarding world of Harry Potter or Middle Earth).  Naturally the medium of television is perfect for a vast world like this because it allows you to tell an entire story over the course of several nights of programming.  The acting is pretty good for a television production and the budget afforded it really allows the production values to stand out like a feature film.  As a Christmas film, the film also works as a dark adventure and an exploration of our secular Christmas beliefs through a different lens.  It is a fantastic film and one that is worth seeing for many reasons.  Check it out.


25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 9 (so very late): Long Live the Hud

I'm late and don't have a lot of time to elaborate so I'm writing this at a breakneck pace.  It's rather like the world of business portrayed in today's film.  This is one I've written about before and yet not as a Christmas movie, though it certainly works as a holiday tale.  First it deals with themes of love, perseverance, and miracles.  Second, it takes place during the holiday season (though it could be argued that the film's climactic scene takes place during New Year's Eve and not Christmas).  But who cares about those details when it works so well as a Christmassy feel-good romp.  Let's watch the underdog win in The Hudsucker Proxy.

Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) is a recent graduate of the Muncie College of Business Administration in 1958 and has just hit the streets of New York City looking for a job. He manages to get a job in the mailroom of Hudsucker Industries at the same time that the company C.E.O., Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), decides to commit suicide by jumping from the 45th floor window oh his building. Hudsucker's second in command, Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman), realizes at that moment that the company's stock will go public on January 1st and they could lose control of the company to anyone. The board of directors decides that they will hire a fake boss, a proxy, who will look like a huge financial risk and therefore allow the price of the stock to plummet so it can be bought cheaply. Suddenly, after a terrible introduction, Mussburger decides to put Norville in the role of C.E.O. because he has no experience. The stock drops fast and a tenacious reporter named Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) becomes convinced that Norville is a fraud and sets out to expose him. However, Norville has a surprise up his sleeve. Its round, inexpensive, and destined to take the nation by storm. Will the proxy succeed or will the world of business crush him?

I love this movie.  It is just the right mix of surreal send-up and loving homage to films of the 1940s where heros were average joes and the dames were smart and fast-talking.  It shares more in common with films like It's a Wonderful Life than it does with other films of it's day.  It's not much of a crowd-pleaser because of this actually, since it requires some filmic knowledge and a love of the old-fashioned.  Also, it's ridiculous factor (the jokes about suicide, the fast talking, the supernatural last act elements) all seem to come from very different films.  Yet, the film is very well constructed and serves it's purpose quite well.  I love a good old-fashioned film and that's probably why I loved this.  If you love old movies and surreal humor you probably will too.

(I apologize for the slap dash writing, I have to do two of these today).


Saturday, December 8, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 8: If Santa Had a Son

Santa Claus may very well be the face of Christmas.  I know I know, some would argue that he can't really be anything in the grand scheme of things because he doesn't exist.  But how do we really know that? How do we know that Santa isn't real?  Has there been conclusive evidence provided of his non-existence?  Sure, satellite photos can show us that there's no workshop in the North Pole and science can tell us that reindeer don't fly but honestly, don't you think that if an immortal man with magical powers existed that he couldn't conceal his home from surveillance or make reindeer soar across the sky?  I don't think so.  So who's to say that those of us who don't believe simply are left presentless because we choose to not believe?  I cannot say one way or another, but I can infer.  However, when was it that we all decided to stop believing?  Was it because Santa never showed himself to us?  Was it due to unmasking a fake Santa at a mall?  Was it due to allowing logic to determine that no man could ever travel across the globe and give presents to EVERY child in the world in one night?  Or was it simply due to not getting the one gift that we decided would make or break our Christmas?  I know for many of us, it is that last answer that hits home the hardest with most of us.  Certainly it must mean that Santa doesn't exist if we didn't get our gift.  Or perhaps Santa simply made a mistake...which is what today's film centers around.  It is a touching and delightfully funny story that shows how important one missed present can be.  Come along for an adventure of a lifetime as we follow the exploits of Arthur Christmas.

It's Christmas Eve and hundreds of elves are helming the command centre of Santa's mile-wide,[6] ultra–high-tech sleigh, the S-1. Santa and the elves deliver presents to every child in the world using advanced equipment and military precision. These complex operations are micromanaged by Santa's oldest son Steve and his obsequious elfin assistant Peter (amongst thousands of more elves) at mission control underneath the North Pole, while Steve's clumsy and panophobic younger brother Arthur answers the letters to Santa. During a delivery operation, when a child wakes up and almost sees Santa, an elf back in the S-1 inadvertently presses a button, causing a present to fall off a conveyor and go unnoticed. Having completed his 70th mission, Santa is portrayed as far past his prime and whose role in field operations now is largely symbolic. Nonetheless, he is held in high esteem, and delivers a congratulatory speech to the enraptured elves. Much to Steve's frustration, who has long anticipated succeeding his father, Santa announces he looks forward to his 71st. During their family Christmas dinner, Arthur's suggestion for the family to play a board game degenerates into a petty quarrel between Santa and Steve, while Grand-Santa, bored by retirement, resentfully criticises their over-modernisation. Distraught, the various family members leave the dinner table. Meanwhile, an elf named Bryony finds the missed present—a wrapped bicycle that has yet to be delivered—and alerts Steve and his elf-assistant to the problem. Arthur is alarmed when he recognises the present as a gift for Gwen, a little girl to whom he had personally replied. Arthur alerts his father, who is at a loss as to how to handle the situation; Steve argues that one missed present out of billions is an acceptable error whose correction can wait a few days. Grand-Santa, on the other hand, proposes delivering the gift using Evie, his old wooden sleigh, and the descendants of the original eight reindeer, forcefully whisking away a reluctant Arthur and a stowaway Bryony. They get lost, lose reindeer, and land in danger several times, ultimately being mistaken for aliens and causing an international military incident. Through all this, Arthur eventually learns to his compounding disappointment that Grand-Santa's true motive is to fulfil his ego, that Steve refuses to help them out of petty resentment, and that his own father has gone to bed, apparently content.  Arthur must now decide whether one present really is that important and if he can complete the mission with the best interest of the child rather than for anyone else's interest.

Arthur Christmas is a surprisingly mature and well-crafted story that deals with quite a few adult themes while still adhering to an animated film's sense of adventure and humor.  The jokes come fast and furious in this too.  I found myself chuckling many times and was completely caught up in the magic of the film from beginning to end.  The design of the S-1 was also ingenious in that it made me believe that this was a believable way to explain how we never see Santa's sleigh.  The characters are all very likable, even the ones who are meant to be antagonists, with Arthur leading the pack.  His youthful innocence and devotion to the principles of being Santa really make him shine.  Grand-Santa is also amusing in his angry-old-man mode.  As far as the adult themes, the film has a lot to say about feeling obsolete due to age and how we often put our own petty interests before the interests of others...particularly when thinking of others is what is more important.  This is something I think the film wishes us to guard against, not just during the holidays but during other times of the year as well.  Above all things, however, this film made me believe in Santa again not just because it does such a good job explaining how magic and technology can work together to conceal his existence but also because it makes Santa into someone who is just as flawed and susceptible to flaws and shortcomings as anyone else.  An imperfect being who delivers gifts to people to try to make them happy...that's something I can believe in.

Friday, December 7, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 7: A New Vision of "Naughty!"

If you've been reading my 25 Days of Christmas Movies for a few years now, you should be aware that amongst the heartwarming and relatively family friendly Christmas fare I tend to pepper my posts with films that are a little bit darker.  You've seen me talk about the psychotic Billy Linz, gremlins, Jack Skellington, and even an ax-weilding Santa Claus in the past three years so why should this year be any different?  Before I do, however, I feel I must yet again justify why I write about the darker side of Christmas.  Perhaps it is because while there is something very beautiful about snow falling silently outside, I feel that there is something quite eerie about it when it is dark out.  Or maybe I think that the pretty lights strewn across bushes and eaves (and even our own Christmas trees) cast a lovely, but dim glow that could conceal any number of horrors in dark corners.  Perhaps I just have a deranged mind and I imagine too many crazy things.  At any rate, this year we were blessed with a remake (in name mostly) of one of my favorite sleazy Christmas horror films from the 80s.  I know, I know...what won't they remake these days right?  But I never pass judgement until I see a finished product.  You never know, you might end up with a new genre classic on your hands.  So let's enjoy "the scariest damn night of the year" as we experience a Silent Night.

Aubrey Bradimore (Jamie King), a deputy in a small American town where a steel mill has closed and left a lot of people out of work.  The town has gotten rather sleazy now as people try to make ends meet.  Aubrey herself has just been left by her husband and is hoping to enjoy a Christmas at home with her family and forget about her recent trouble.  However the sheriff, James Cooper (Malcolm McDowell), calls her in to work so that she can help monitor and manage the annual Christmas parade.  However, not all is joy and Christmas cheer.  Someone in the town has donned a Santa suit and is taking revenge on all the 'naughty' people who are spoiling Christmas Eve for those who are good, an M.O. that matches the Santa of an old urban legend circulated around town.  In this legend, the a man who had been cheated on by his wife killed her and her lover with a flamethrower and then proceeded to kill anyone who was naughty.  Aubrey discovers Santa's first victims, a dismembered woman and an electrocuted man, in an old abandoned house.  Soon after a bratty child, a soft core pornographer, his assistant, and one of his models is murdered by Santa in quick succession. The police are soon faced with figuring out who this killer is in a town where almost everyone is dressed as Santa Claus for the parade and where anyone could be next.  The naughty 'better watch out' for Santa.

Silent Night's identity rests somewhere between formulaic slasher and an episode of CSI.  There is a lot of police procedure and quite a bit of detective work in this that sets it apart from the usual slasher film.  Usually the main characters in these films are teenagers and in this one, they are cops.  Actually, by making the main characters in this film cops...Silent Night rather limits it's potential for good suspense scenes.  What I mean by that is, neither of our characters is going to get into a situation where he or she gets stalked by the killer and so therefore we are forced to empathise with the victims and this is rather hard to do since they are all some of the most reprehensible people ever dreamed of.  In fact, I was cheering when some of them were butchered (the bratty 14 year old girl especially) so I couldn't find myself caring much at their chases.  The climaxing deaths were simply a means to an end.  Thankfully, there are some real doozies as far as death scenes go, including one that features a wood chipper.  The film is also one of the goriest I have seen in a while and has some delightful, "I'll-bet-Friday-the-13th-wishes-they-had-gotten-away-with-this" kinda way.  In terms of the acting, the only people not phoning it in in this movie are King and McDowell (though the latter could be debated).  Everyone else is decidedly one-note and it definately highlights the cheap factor of the film.  With a better supporting cast, this actually could be a better movie.  Not a great one by any means, but a heck of a lot more fun.  As it stands, it is a passable slasher film with a few great scenes....but you have to sit through a lot of bad acting to get through them.  If you like Christmas horror as much as I do, you should give this one a try just to see something a little different.  If you're not grazy about Christmas horror...avoid this one at all costs.  It will only make you sick.