Home Alone – Nostalgiathon [guest post]

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When a family leaves their eight year old Home Alone, he proves to himself and his family that he “didn’t burn down the joint” and that he’s capable of being man of the house.

In Winnetka, Illinois, it’s the night before the McCallister family flies to France for Christmas to visit extended family. The house is filled with the excitement of Christmas and preparing three families under one roof for a transatlantic flight. A burglar posing as one of Chicago’s finest (Joe Pesci) is doing checks for home safety during the holidays, to which the the patriarch Peter McCallister (John Heard) assures him that they’ve taken the proper precautions. When one of the youngest, Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), begins acting out of sorts his mother (Catherine O’hara) sends him to an attic bedroom without dinner.

Due to a power outage, the McCallister family oversleeps and must rush out of the house to catch their flight. They inadvertently leave Kevin home alone and he’s left thinking he made his family disappear. While alone, he spends his time eating junk food, grocery shopping, cutting down a Christmas tree, and overcoming his fear of the basement. During this time, the house is being monitored by the “Wet Bandits” played by Harry Lime (Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern) as they pick the perfect night to rob the house. Kevin catches on to their plans and creates a boobytrap-filled house to buy time while he calls the police.

Home Alone easily my number one Christmas and Nostalgiathon movie pick. As Andy can tell you, I can recite the entire movie along with the sound effects [ed. note – it’s true, she can]. In fact, my plot description was four paragraphs before he whittled it down to the necessary details. As a kid, I thought Kevin was the coolest and I was never allowed to be left home alone when I was 8. I was also really jealous that he got to set up all the Christmas decorations by himself because that was one of my favorite things to do. My brother and I watched Home Alone year-round and quizzed each other on different parts of the dialog. I even had the Home Alone board game. I have so many wonderful memories surrounding this movie.

As an adult, I feel the movie has done well over time in spite of the changes in technology that would have probably rendered it impossible. From the cool pranks, the Chicago setting, and awesome cast (namely, John Candy) Home Alone literally has everything I could possibly want in a movie.

My childhood dream came true this past summer when I got to see the actual McCallister house, eat a piece of “Little Nero’s” pizza, and answer Home Alone trivia questions as part of a scavenger hunt. For me, the Christmas season is not complete without at least one viewing of Home Alone yet I often quote the movie throughout the year.

I give it 5 “Buzz, your girlfriend…woof” out of 5.

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Christmas Vacation (12/13/12)

Christmas VacationMovie Two Hundred Seventy Nine

The Griswold family is back and hosting a Christmas Vacation.

The Griswolds, led by misguided patriarch, Clark (Chevy Chase), wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), daughter Audrey (Juliette Lewis), and son Rusty (Johnny Galecki), set out to get a Christmas tree. Clark has decided he wants to host this year and has invited both sets of parents. When his cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) shows up with his family, the house gets a little more full and nearly everything that can go wrong does.

The great thing about Christmas Vacation, or any Vacation movie for that matter, is that the mishaps are relatable to most of us. One of the best lines from the film comes from Ellen when she says “I don’t know what to say, except it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery.” It’s not that Christmas means misery for us it’s that the stress of the situation and bending over backwards to accommodate family tends to be a bit miserable. While I don’t think anyone has really had a Christmas disaster like the Griswolds, the situations are least well-guided and we see that. All the Vacation movies are just about a family man trying his best but with a cloud of accidents and follies following him and Christmas Vacation is no different.

There are so many great, memorable scenes from Christmas Vacation that make it the holiday classic it is, but my favorite that cracks me up every single time is the cat chewing the tree lights under the recliner. Clark shopping for lingerie is a close second. It’s so hard to choose, though! So much great dialogue, so much great physical comedy, and the perfect storm of Griswold-y goodness. It wouldn’t be Christmas without some Christmas Vacation.

I give it 4 Christmas tree squirrels out of 5.

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Safety Not Guaranteed (12/12/12)

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In Safety Not Guaranteed, three reports investigate a classified ad requesting help to go back in time.

Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is interning at a Seattle magazine and when one of the editors, Jeff (Jake Johnson), finds a strange ad asking for someone to travel back in time with him, he wants to write a story about guy that placed the ad. Darius and Jeff also take along Arnau (Karan Soni), another intern and head off to Ocean View in search for the purported time traveler. They discover that Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass) is behind the ad and Darius, bored with her life and hoping there’s a shred of truth to Kenneth’s claim, hopes to go back in time and prevent her mother’s death.

Safety Not Guaranteed is a movie I was expecting to enjoy but not be totally enamored with. Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass are kind of hit or miss with me, but I like Jake Johnson so I wasn’t sure what to expect from the cast, or the plot. It’s safe to say that Safety Not Guaranteed blew my expectations away and it impressed the hell out of me. It may even be one of the year’s better films.

Aubrey Plaza is not known for her dramatic acting, in fact, all of the actors are probably better known for comedic roles, but Plaza in particular impresses in Safety Not Guaranteed. There are plenty of funny moments in the film, but the story is actually more personal and touching than it lets on. The setup makes it seem like we are supposed to be pointing and laughing at Kenneth for being weird and believing he can actually travel through time – and I certainly won’t spoil anything – but we quickly stop making fun of Kenneth and he becomes a sympathetic character.

In the end, Safety Not Guaranteed is not about time travel, it’s about not living with regrets. All the characters have some moment of self-discovery that is infinitely more important to the story than whether or not Kenneth actually knows what he is doing regarding his time machine. Existentialism was not something I was expecting to find from a quirky indie dramedy, but damned if it doesn’t do it well. Safety Not Guaranteed surprised me and for that reason, I encourage everyone to see it for themselves, you may be surprised too.

I give it 4 Kenneth’s sweet Datsun out of 5.

*sorry if you got notified of this and then it disappeared, I scheduled it incorrectly*

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The Mummy [1999] (12/11/12)

The Mummy [1999]Movie Two Hundred Seventy Seven

When an archaeological team find a lost ancient city they awaken an ancient curse of the The Mummy.

In ancient Egypt, in the city of Hamunaptra, high priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) is involved in an affair with the Pharoah’s mistress, Anck Su Namun (Patricia Velasquez). After Anck Su Namun kills herself, Imhotep tries resurrecting her soul, but is caught by the Pharoah’s guards and mummified alive and cursed. Flash forward to the 1920s, Evelyn “Evy” Carnahan (Rachel Weisz), an Egyptologist, is presented with an unusual box by her brother, Jon (John Hannah) that contains a map to Hamunaptra inside. Jon confesses that he actually stole the item from Rick O’Connell (Brandan Fraser), who is about to be hanged. Evy and Jon save Rick and the three decide to try to find Hamunaptra only to discover a rival set of adventurers are looking for the same treasure and in their search, the two teams awaken Imhotep.

I was a bit cautious tackling The Mummy again, but after being in Universal Studios, my wife and I discovered a great ride there based on The Mummy movies. While The Mummy has not aged flawlessly, it still holds up quite well and is still my preferred version over the 1930s film starring Boris Karloff. While the special effects were, at the time, bleeding edge, The Mummy has some CGI effects that don’t quite look dated but are close to it. Still, for a blockbuster summer adventure movie, The Mummy holds its own in most regards.

There are undoubtedly some horror aspects to The Mummy but it is by and large an adventure film meant for a wide audience. There are lots of gags and one-liners that lighten the mood but most characters get at least one chance for either some slapstick or comedy routine and after awhile it started to grate on me a bit. Or maybe Branden Fraser just kind of bugs me, I’m not sure. With the rumblings of yet another Mummy movie coming soon, I hope they shift the focus to more horror/action-adventure and leave some of the lighter aspects out. It may drastically darken up the film but after enduring attempted joke after joke, some even with pauses for laughter it seems, I’m up for a dark version of The Mummy.

I can’t speak much to the sequels and spin-offs, but I’ve always been fond of The Mummy. It’s probably not going to make it on any of my ‘favorites’ lists but it’s a fine, solid film that I certainly wouldn’t mind watching every few years or so.

I give it 3 the most shocking thing is how different Rachel Weisz looks out of 5.

PS – If you get a chance, check out the ride for The Mummy at Universal Studios (in Florida, not sure about California), it’s pretty amazing.

PPS – I would have sworn Billy Zane played Imhotep…

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Bad Ass (12/10/12)

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A YouTube celebrity dubbed “Bad Ass” takes matters into his own hands after his best friend is gunned down.

Frank Vega (Danny Trejo) is a Vietnam vet that has struggled since returning home. One day, while riding on the bus, Vega stands up to a pair of skinhead thugs and is recorded knocking them out. The video becomes an Internet sensation and Vega becomes known as “Bad Ass” and is a local celebrity. After his mother passes away, Vega moves into her house with her dog and invites his best friend, Klondike (Harrison Page), to stay with them. Klondike tells Vega he has an important flash drive and then goes out for cigarettes where he is gunned down by men looking for the drive. Vega, now embracing being Bad Ass, must avenge his friend since the police do not seem to care.

Let me get this out of the way…Yes, Bad Ass is based on the Epic Beard Man video that was storming the Internet a few years ago. Yes, they made a movie based on that. Are you going to trust me when I say Bad Ass is actually a pretty solid movie?

Obviously inspired by other revenge films like Dirty Harry and Death Wish, Bad Ass doesn’t always take itself seriously. There are a few not-so-subtle nods to the original video (the fanny pack, Vega’s neighbor is named Amber Lamps, and there are at least two or three times someone says “you’re leaking!”, just to name a few) and it’s ludicrous to think that a YouTube video could be drawn out into a full length movie and I was scoffing about the entire thing myself until I watched it. It’s a dumb movie, no doubt about it, but I actually enjoyed it.

Danny Trejo is an actual bad ass so I’m glad he was cast as the lead in Bad Ass. If Charles Bronson was still alive I would have much preferred him, obviously, but I like Trejo a lot and he doesn’t get the love he deserves. My only real complaints about Bad Ass are that it tries to be funny in a few spots – and fails – and the neighbor/love interest and her son bugged the hell out of me. I’m sure the love interest was added to be more stereotypical of this brand of film, but it bogs everything down. If they had cut that (or even trimmed it) Bad Ass would be one of my new favorite brainless fun movies in a world where no more Charles Bronson films will ever be made.

I give it 3 videos that started it all out of 5.

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Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (12/9/12)

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In the final days before an asteroid wipes out the Earth, two neighbors form an unlikely friendship as they are Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.

News that the 70-mile-wide asteroid will be colliding with Earth in three weeks comes in and Dodge Peterson’s (Steve Carell) wife leaves him. He goes into work the next day at the insurance company to find that the building is mostly deserted and people are handling the end of the world differently, either depressed or without inhibition and everywhere in between. After trying to kill himself by drinking a window cleaning product called “Windose”, he wakes up with a dog tied to him a note that says “sorry”, so he names the dog Sorry. He meets his neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley) and the two form a bond. Dodge tells her that he wants to visit his first love, Olivia, and she wants to visit her family in England and they decide to help each other meet their final wishes.

I have mixed feelings about Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, but unfortunately they are mostly negative. It’s not that I had a bad time watching the film, at the time I was largely indifferent to it, I just wasn’t charmed by it. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World has a myriad of cameos from big stars, and Carell in the lead will likely polarize people from the start. I’m a fan of Carell’s work, both good and bad, and he is totally underutilized here. Dodge is likeable, but so incredibly mundane that I never really cared for him. Keira Knightley also kind of bugs me so that doesn’t help cinch the friendship/romance we’re supposed to be rooting for.

The main problem I have with Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is its sense of humor. Most of the humor in the film is dark, sometimes so dark it’s hard to tell if it’s trying to be funny or just making light of a dark situation. End of the world films should have an air of doom to them, after all, but instead of keeping it dark comedy there are some odd bits that seem to have the opposite sense of humor. It’s almost like several people had a hand in writing different scenes of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, but not in a good, varied way, but in a way that seems directionless.

That’s kind of a lot of negative criticism to throw at a film I didn’t hate watching, but I feel like Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a wasted opportunity for a pretty damn good premise. I feel like a comedian like Louis CK could do so much with the material here and make a fantastic dark comedy with better characters. In fact, now that I’ve said that, I wish Louis CK was in the film instead of Steve Carell because Louis CK makes everything better. Speaking of comedians, Patton Oswalt has a great cameo.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is still a film I would recommend seeing but it would be low on my recommendation list. It’s a film that wants to do so much right and just doesn’t quite hit the high notes it needs to be memorable.

I give it 3 Friendsy’s out of 5.

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The People Vs. George Lucas (11/28/12)

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The People Vs. George Lucas covers the intense feelings towards George Lucas over the years.

This documentary, loosely in the form of a courtroom debate, gives both sides of the debate about George Lucas’s recent changes to the  beloved Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. Many die-hard Star Wars fans abhor the changes made to the original trilogy and also the newer prequel trilogy, but some fans argue that Lucas has artistic license to make these changes. The film also gives a brief biography of Lucas himself and the release of Star Wars.

I am a huge Star Wars fan, my basement is littered with memorabilia and I’m not ashamed of it. Since I grew up with Star Wars, many assume I hate the prequel trilogy which isn’t true. Yes, they are disappointing films and pale in comparison to the original trilogy in my mind, but I’m not going to get worked up about it. Same goes for the changes made to the original trilogy over the years. Do the changes ruin the film? Not for me. However, at its core, what The People Vs. George Lucas is really asking for is the release of the remastered original trilogy in their theatrical forms and this is a viewpoint I share.

The People Vs. George Lucas is fairly interesting, as a Star Wars and Indiana Jones fan, but for non-fans I’m not sure it would be much more than “wow, look at those nerds get so angry about nothing”. Well, even I was kind of thinking how I was glad I wasn’t at that level of nerdiness that I would throw a tantrum just talking about George Lucas. The back-and-forth between differing viewpoints in The People Vs. George Lucas is interesting and works really well given the largely strong contrast between opinions but the entire thing goes on slightly too long and the filmmakers opinions start to become evident through what is portrayed.

The only people I would recommend The People Vs. George Lucas to are fellow Star Wars nerds. The downside is that we all have our own opinions and the film does nothing to persuade, only presents the opinions on both sides. It’s interesting, for sure, but it’s probably a limited interest group that would care to watch The People Vs. George Lucas.

I give it 3 HAN SHOT FIRSTs out of 5.

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Beyond the Black Rainbow (11/27/12)

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A woman is held captive by a strange corporation and a strange doctor in Beyond the Black Rainbow.

[I was having difficulty recounting the plot, so here is Wikipedia‘s version]

“In 1983, deep within the mysterious Arboria Institute, a beautiful girl (Eva Allan) is held captive by a scientist, Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers). Her mind is under the influence of a sinister technology (a mysterious pyramid-shaped light). Speechlessly, she waits for her next session with the deranged Dr. Nyle. She eventually escapes her cell and journeys through the darkest reaches of the Institute – but Dr. Nyle won’t easily part with her.”

Do not watch Beyond the Black Rainbow, it has few redeemable traits. When I first saw the trailer for Beyond the Black Rainbow I was mesmerized by its 80s style and unique feel, but the film itself is a true exercise in patience. The synthy 80s soundtrack is mostly a droning buzz, and it is nearly constant throughout the movie. This may not be so annoying except that there is very little dialogue and after 15 minutes of nothing but droning synth fuzz, I was gritting my teeth – then I had to make it to the end of the movie. The plot is also pretty nonsensical, which doesn’t help.

The only thing Beyond the Black Rainbow really has going for it are the admittedly cool visuals and 80s sensibilities. It’s a film that hearkens back to films like 2001 but with a dark twist. I would swear there was a VHS-like grain added to the whole film too, despite watching it in high definition. It’s true to its roots on a visual front, I do applaud it for that. However, as a film it’s a mess. I can sit through some pretentious stuff and sometimes come out enjoying what the director was aiming for, but Beyond the Black Rainbow seems to have no aim other than the visuals and soundtrack. Not good enough. What a shame too, because even watching the trailer now makes me wish this was a better movie.

I give it 2 watch the trailer and forget the full movie exists out of 5.

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (11/25/12)

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In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, during his third year at Hogwarts, Harry learns that a dangerous killer is on the loose and is coming for him.

After leaving Privet Drive for making his aunt inflate like a balloon and fly away, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is picked up by the Knight Bus and taken to the Leaky Cauldron. After reuniting with his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), Harry learns that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a convicted murderer and supposed Voldemort supporter, has escaped from Azkaban prison and is looking for him. While on the train to Hogwarts, the train stops and fearsome creatures known as dementors attack the train looking for Black, but greatly affect Harry as well. Harry is protected by the new Defense of the Dark Arts teacher, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis). Harry’s safety is a top priority as everyone is fearful that Sirius Black is on the loose but Harry eventually learns the truth.

Now free from the shackles of previous director, Chris Columbus, the Harry Potter franchise really comes to life with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón gives Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban a completely new sense of style when compared to the first two films and also sets a fairly dark tone that would carry throughout the rest of the films. Another change is the actor playing Dumbledore becomes Michael Gambon, who gives the role a bit of mystery and I think is a much better fit. Visually pleasing and easily one of the most interesting plots of the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite of the series.

While I wouldn’t say there are any short Harry Potter movies, Cuarón was able to keep the runtime under 2 1/2 hours but still cram all the plot points in the film. I don’t think there is much, if anything, that is superfluous in the film. One thing that bugged me at the time of the release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was that the students don’t really wear robes in this film, they wear trendy clothes most of the time. A small detail but for some reason it still sticks out to me. Some may not like the departure from PG films to PG-13 with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but I think the decision makes sense and doesn’t feel out of place in the franchise.

Giving several different directors control over a film in a franchise is risky, both for the director and the financiers. If the director changes too much, the franchise could suffer but the director could be hobbled creatively. If too little is changed, the director will certainly be hobbled and the movie may suffer as a result. I applaud the decision to bring different directors on, and Cuarón seemed like such a crazy choice for an English film, but he really works his magic (I can’t believe that’s the first magic pun I’ve made in these Harry Potter reviews).

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the watermark for the Harry Potter series for me. While other films come close, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the perfect blend of story and style. I could even see myself recommending this film for newcomers to the Harry Potter franchise.

I give it 5 Buckbeaks out of 5.

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Life of Pi (11/25/12)

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In Life of Pi, a boy must survive on a small life boat with a tiger and discovers a sea of wonders.

A novelist (Rafe Spall) visits an adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) to hear a story that will supposedly make a great book and make him believe in God. Young Pi, originally named Piscine Molitor after a French swimming pool, has a strong fascination with all religions. His family owns a zoo but his father decides to sell the animals and take his family to Canada. Now a teenager, Pi (Suraj Sharma), travels on a ship with a full crew, many animals in the cargo area, and his family. During a violent storm, Pi is able to get on a life boat along with a frantic zebra. The zebra breaks its leg in a fall, but the life boat is drifting away while the ship sinks. An orangutan finds its way to the boat and is brought on board, but a hyena makes trouble for two animals. Then the Bengal tiger, named Richard Parker, emerges from beneath a tarp on the boat and Pi must survive the open seas alongside the beast.

If you want to read my Life of Pi preview, you can find that here. I still have not yet read the novel Life of Pi, but seeing the film certainly increased my interest in doing so. Life of Pi is one of the most visually stunning movies I’ve seen and while the plot is low on action, I would struggle faulting it too much. To think that Richard Parker, the tiger, is almost entirely animated is simply staggering. Most of the imagery is fantastical and at times even surreal but that all pales in comparison to how amazingly realistic that tiger looks.

We saw Life of Pi in 3D and it would be hard to recommend seeing it in any other format. The use of 3D is mostly subdued, though at times things do fly at the screen. I don’t think it’s too late to see this in theaters and I strongly urge everyone to try to see it in 3D before it’s too late. It’s weird to think that an existential film about a teenager and a tiger trapped on a small boat would be a special effects powerhouse, but it truly is a wonder and it also happens to be a beautiful story.

If I had to choose a downside to Life of Pi it’s that the ending is far too swift. If you aren’t paying close attention to the dialogue in the final scene you will miss out on what Life of Pi is really about. I’m not sure how closely this mimics the book, but there could have been some floating at sea trimmed to beef up the finale. I’m not sure if you will have your faith in God affirmed by the end of Life of Pi like Pi proclaims, but the story will likely stay with you regardless of your faith.

I give it 5 amazing CGI tigers out of 5.

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