Saturday, December 24, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Dec. 16-22

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) ***½
Director: Henry Selick
Writers: Tim Burton (story and characters), Michael McDowell (adaptation), Caroline Thompson (screenplay), Danny Elfman (music & lyrics)
Starring: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Paul Reubens, Ken Page

When I’ve watched “The Nightmare Before Christmas” in the past, it has always been for Halloween. This is the first time I’ve added it to the Christmas watch list, and I like it there. The kids did too. They’ve been begging to see it since Halloween.

Unlike all those Rankin & Bass stop motion Christmas specials, director Henry Selick really makes an effort to create some beautiful imagery with his camera. The character designs alone are works of beauty. Jack Skellington’s lanky figure allows him to morph from a scarecrow to a spider in just the way he holds his limbs. Even Santa’s traditional red and white coat is a thing of beauty here. Only the sack that is the Oogie Boogie Man lacks a certain flair, but that makes the reveal of his true form all the more shocking.

Besides looking great, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” has a wonderful spirit to it. It combines two of kids’ favorite holidays, and its depiction of the Halloween characters is not malicious. The Halloweentown residents have a childlike wonder. They aren’t evil. Scaring people is just the only thing they know. It’s fun for them, just the way it is for children.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2011) ***
Director: Hark Tsui
Writers: Jailu Zhang, Lin Qianyu, Kuo-fu Chen
Starring: Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Carina Lau, Chao Deng, Tony Leung Ka Fai

“Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” is a good old-fashioned Agatha Christie style mystery in the form of a Chinese martial arts spectacle, ala “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.  It’s not as weighty as the recent trend in Chinese wire work action. There’s a sense that the filmmakers don’t really expect the audience to take this as seriously as they do most of their period films.

Set in 690 A.D., the story tells of the coronation of the only female Emperor in Chinese history. Many oppose the ascension of Empress Wu Zetian to the throne, and days before her coronation some of her senior officials are murdered under mysterious circumstances. They spontaneously burst into flame, hence the “Phantom Flame”. It’s surprising how literal much of the material in this movie is. To solve the murders the Empress brings Detective Dee out of imprisonment, where she had placed him.

In the tradition of most of these types of movies, the production design is quite beautiful. Costumes, sets and even the action act as a dance of combat and stunning images. It isn’t the best of its kind, but it will easily please fans of the genre.

35 Up (1991) ****
Director: Michael Apted
Starring: Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Suzanne Dewey, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kligerman, Susan Sullivan, Tony Walker

This documentary was not in my plan for movies to watch this week. It was the only one of Michael Apted’s excellent “Up” series that was not available for instant streaming until just recently. Once I saw it was streaming, I had to watch it immediately. That’s how good this film series is.

In 1964, a British television network started an experiment based on the notion that by the time a child is seven, you can see the person they will be for the rest of their lives. It was originally intended simply to give people an idea of Britain’s future by looking at the personalities of several children of varying social status when they were seven years of age. Filmmaker Michael Apted decided to return to these same subjects every seven years, and so the series does at 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, and hopefully will continue hereafter. The films are interesting early on. As we revisit these people every 7 years, they become fascinating. Each episode is more intriguing than the last.

One detail I found particularly fascinating about this episode is how many of these individuals had lost either one or both of the parents by the time they were 35 years of age. That seems young on average to me. I just lost my father this year and I’m forty. Many of these people were losing their parents by 32 or 34. Is that a difference between America and Britain? I don’t know.

It’s also interesting that for the most part the social class each subject was born into has had much to do with defining their lives, but most of them dismiss the notion that class has had much effect on their lives at this point. It seemed more important to some of them in earlier episodes, but by the beginning of middle age they’ve all dismissed the effects of the class system on the quality of their lives. Certainly, the rich stayed rich and the middle class stayed in their societal positions, for the most part. There are two exceptions.

I’m not sure if the series does prove its own notion that the child at seven is the person they will be their whole lives, but it’s simply fascinating to see the lives of these individuals revisited every seven years. In “35 Up” almost all of them are happy with where they are in their lives. Will they remain that way? What about some of the assumptions they had earlier on? What about their outlook at this point will change in the future? Never has a documentary series left me with such anticipation for what is to come next. Thankfully, I haven’t caught up yet, so I don’t have to wait seven years to see the next installment.

Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) ***
Director: Renny Harlin
Writers: Steven E. de Souza, Doug Richardson, Walter Wager (novel “58 Minutes”)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, William Atherton, Reginald VelJohnson, Franco Nero, Willaim Sadler, John Amos, Dennis Franz, Art Evans, Fred Dalton Thompson, Tom Bower, Shiela McCarthy

You see everyone writing about how “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie and is cherished as a holiday classic just like “White Christmas” or “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Well, what about “Die Hard 2”? It takes place on Christmas Eve too. Where’s the holiday love for Willis’s second outing as John McClane? He says right in the movie, “How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?” It’s a Christmas miracle I tell you.

Sure, under the direction of Renny Harlin, there’s a lot more goofiness in this “Die Hard”. You’ve got the villain lamely shooting the television off with the remote in his introduction scene. There’s the ejection seat flying into the camera with Willis obviously green screened into the shot. There the Washington D.C. snowmobile chase that takes place in an area looking suspiciously like Vail Pass, Colorado. But, at least he doesn’t have his most famous catch phrase censored by a dubiously placed gun shot sound effect.

Batman Returns (1992) **
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Daniel Waters, Sam Hamm, Bob Kane (characters)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Andrew Bryniarski, Pat Hingle

I think “Batman Returns” gets worse every time I watch it. It’s hard to believe that I once claimed this was an improvement on the already perfect first “Batman”. How many things are wrong with that thought?

I really don’t know what happened here. You have an incredible cast, two competent screenwriters, and Tim Burton, the man who made the comic book adaptation marketable. But, this movie stinks. It’s full of cliché one-liners. I don’t know how Michael Keaton could even justify cashing his paycheck. Not only does he phone in his performance, but also Batman is really just a supporting role in this movie with his name in the title.

Take a look at the new "The Dark Knight Rises" trailer. It will make you feel better and help you forget the earlier series.

Scrooged (1988) ***
Director: Richard Donner
Writers: Mitch Glazer, Michael O’Donoghue, Charles Dickens (novel “A Christmas Carol”)
Starring: Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, John Glover, Bobcat Goldthwait, David Johansen, Carol Kane, Robert Mitchum, Alfre Woodard, Nicholas Phillips, Michael J. Pollard, Mabel King, John Murray, Jamie Farr, Robert Goulet, Buddy Hackett, John Houseman, Pat McCormick, Lee Majors, Brian Doyle-Murray, Mary Lou Retton

“The bitch hit me with a toaster!”

Christmas Vacation (1989) ****
Director: Jeremiah Chechik
Writer: John Hughes
Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, Randy Quaid, Miriam Flynn, Cody Burger, Ellen Hamilton Latzen, William Hickey, Mae Questel, Sam McMurray, Brian Doyle Murray, Nicholas Guest, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Nicolette Scrosese, Natalie Nogulich

“Where do you think you're going? Nobody's leaving. Nobody's walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We're all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We're gonna press on, and we're gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat white ass down that chimney tonight, he's gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse.”

Some movies just speak for themselves.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) ****
Director: George Seaton
Writers: George Seaton, Valentine Davies
Starring: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood, Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, William Frawley, Jerome Cowan, Philip Tonge

This one, along with “A Christmas Story”, is just incredible in the way it balances the kids’ notions of Santa Claus with the adult reality of the holiday. It incorporates the childhood myth of Santa with the adult reality that the parents really bear the burden of providing gifts for their children. Somehow it keeps Santa plausible for the kids.

The adults can relate to the stress the parents must go through in order to find the toys their kids want, yet Santa provides the magic to make it all possible. I’ve always loved how the D.A. says once he losses his case against Santa that he still has to get that football helmet his son testified he asked Santa for on the stand. Of course, the final scene where little Natalie Wood sees the house the she asked Santa for plays to the mythology as well. But, Santa hasn’t just given her the house. It’s for sale and her mom is going to have to buy it.

Somehow these realities make the holiday (and these movies) work better for me now that I’m an adult. The movies that don’t explain how the adults reconcile their disbelief in Santa with the fact that their kids somehow end up with the presents Santa brings are much harder for me to accept.

30 Minutes or Less (2011) *½
Director: Ruben Fleisher
Writers: Michael Diliberti, Matthew Sullivan
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Danny McBride, Aziz Ansari, Nick Swardson, Michael Peña, Dilshad Vadsaria, Bianca Kajlich, Fred Ward

The makers of this comedy are operating under the delusion that a funny situation is enough to make a movie funny. Their first mistake is the idea that the situation they’ve presented is funny. It’s not. It’s not inherently funny. It’s not even remotely funny. And yet they’ve hung every notion of comedy in their story on it.

Is it funny to have your hero kidnapped by a couple of losers and forced to rob a bank with a bomb strapped to him so the head loser can hire a hitman to kill his father to gain his inheritance of the millions his father won in the lottery? Hardly. The only way to make such a situation funny is in the way these people deal with this situation. Here they only deal with it by yelling at each other and threatening to kill each other when nobody can actually do that because everyone needs everybody else in order to obtain their goals. Why does the hitman talk with a lisp? Does that make him funny? Not unless the lisp is used to create misunderstandings. It isn’t.

There are a couple of funny moments, like when the hero thinks he can pull a typical getaway move during the car chase and miscalculates his driving abilities. But, these moments are few and far between. This movie needed a professional screenwriter. Unfortunately, it employed amateurs, just like it’s bank robbers, who pulled off their score when the writers couldn’t.

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