A Christmas Story (12/22/12 & 12/24/12)

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A Christmas Story is about a young boy’s quest for the ultimate Christmas gift: a BB gun.

Based on a memoir by Jean Shepherd (who narrates as adult Ralphie) about growing up in the 1940s in Indiana, the story focuses on the Parker family; brother Randy (Ian Petrella), and parents (Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin) as told from the perspective of Ralphie (Peter Billingsley). Ralphie longs for an official Red Rider BB gun much to the chagrin of his worrisome mother and teacher.

My original plot overview basically covered the entire movie from start to finish so I had to hack off much of it just to keep this manageable. I have mentioned A Christmas Story as being one of my favorite movies ever and it’s a movie I have seen so many times it would be impossible to even guess the number. In fact, it’s unique that I only watched it twice this year since I usually watch it four or five times – in a row, often. It’s a tale I relate to and it’s a film I find hilarious every single time I watch it. To explain the importance A Christmas Story has to me would be impossible since I don’t wholly understand the appeal myself.

There are several Christmas movies that we usually watch during the season but to me, it’s not Christmas until A Christmas Story has been watched. Even now, more than a week after Christmas has come and gone, writing about A Christmas Story puts me back in the mood for Christmas. It’s kind of like when you drive past a BBQ restaurant and get hungry just smelling all those delicious meats (sorry, vegetarians).

Even in spite of my undying love of A Christmas Story, I would struggle to recommend it to someone that had never watched it before. I’m really not sure how much nostalgia has warped my perception of it. My wife had never really watched it before she met me and I believe she’s now a convert of the Almighty A Christmas Story, but I’m not sure if she really loves it the way I do even though she’s watched it a few dozen times by now.

To me, A Christmas Story is synonymous with the Christmas season. It’s a film I will never tire of and will force everyone around me to watch at least once a year. I even have a working replica of the Red Rider in the movie. I can hardly wait until next December rolls around so I can get a few more viewings of A Christmas Story in.

I give it 5 “stuck!”s out of 5.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (12/21/12)

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A young hobbit accompanies a group of dwarves to reclaim their mountain home from a dragon in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

On his 111th birthday, Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) decides to write his memoirs for his young nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood). He describes how the dwarves lost their home in Lonely Mountain to a fearsome dragon named Smaug. A younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is tricked by wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to hosting dinner for thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Bilbo is enlisted for his role as the ‘thief’ although he has never stolen anything in his life. After a change in heart, Bilbo decides to make the journey to help the dwarves and the group sets out for Lonely Mountain.

There are a few things that I need to get out of the way about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – the 3D 48 frames per second treatment, the need for three movies, and how it compares to Lord of the Rings.

First, the native 3D 48 frames per second filming of The Hobbit is a first in the industry. Doubling the rate of a standard film at 24 fps, the initial reaction to The Hobbit is a bit jarring of an effect. I suspect that a few of the scenes were not actually shot in 48 fps and were sped up to this speed. I say this because early on, there are some camera pans that seem incredibly, almost comically, fast. A few of Ian Holm’s movements seem jagged and weird too. I’m not sure if my reaction is simply because I hadn’t adjusted to the speed or if I’m correct and they were artificially increase in post-production, but I will say that I was quite pleased with 48 fps about 90% of the time and it is likely the future of cinema. The use of 3D is absolutely splendid as well.

Since Peter Jackson is interjecting backstory from other Tolkien works, apparently namely from The Silmarillion, in The Hobbit. While this doesn’t bog down the story for An Unexpected Journey, it does beg the question why The Hobbit, a relatively short book, needs three movies. In my opinion so far, it doesn’t. There are a few parts that slow down the pacing and there are some scenes that seem entirely superfluous. Yes, the extensive Tolkien mythology is bolstered, but keep that stuff in special features on a blu-ray set or something. This first film alone is close to three hours long and knowing there are two more, likely equally long films coming is kind of off-putting.

The obvious comparisons to Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy are not entirely appropriate since The Hobbit is a much different source material than its successors. However, in practice, The Hobbit on film feels far too close to Lord of the Rings for its own good. The Hobbit is serious but it does have a bit of a sense of humor to it, which may rub some folks the wrong way. It’s a shame The Hobbit film(s) weren’t made first because it would set the stage for Lord of the Rings without relying on it instead of the other way around.

In the end, I quite liked The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It’s far from a perfect film on its own and I always struggle to judge a film like this as a part or as a whole. Technically, this is 1/3 of a single film and it remains to be seen if the whole thing is worthy of your time. For now, I’d recommend The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to be seen in 3D and 48 frames per second, but be warned that it’s no Lord of the Rings.

I give it 4 animated Hobbits out of 5.

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Alien (12/20/12)

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The crew of a ship returning to Earth investigates a strange signal from a small planet and discovers the horrors of Alien.

The Nostromo is traveling back to Earth from a mining expedition with a crew of seven but picks up a strange signal from a planetoid LV426 and are forced to investigate. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Kane (John Hurt), and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) set out to investigate the signal where Kane encounters a strange egg that opens up and a creature attaches itself to his face. Brought back on-board the Nostromo, the creature eventually pops out of his chest and the rest of the crew has to find it. Along with the rest of the crew, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Ash (Ian Holm), Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), and Parker (Yaphet Kotto), they are trapped with the alien creature on board when they discover that Ash is actually an android and the discovery of LV426 was actually a secret directive from their employer.

In this post-Prometheus world we live in, I imagine people will either strongly side with Alien or welcome the “prequel” with open arms. Watching Alien again after several years actually made me appreciate Prometheus a bit more from a broad view. On its own, however, Alien is still a terrifying and claustrophobic film that has aged incredibly well and manages to maintain its status as one of the best sci-fi/horror movies ever made. Also, having watched the director’s cut of the film from the blu-ray anthology set, I didn’t notice any real differences in the film.

Much has been made of Ripley as a strong female lead for a film but in Alien, much of her survival is based on being at the right place at the right time. If she had gone out onto the planet, she might have ended up like Kane. She could have been killed by Ash, but Parker is there to help. If she had gone with Parker and Lambert in search of the alien, she might have been killed. There are obviously situations in which she is smart and strong, but in 1979, Ripley was not much better equipped for a situation like this than anyone else on-board the Nostromo.

I’m not a big fan of defining genres of films and Alien is a shining example why. Is it sci-fi or is it horror? Frankly, it’s both but I would argue that it’s more horror. The setup of Alien is not very different from a film like Texas Chainsaw Massacre where a group of people stumble on a bad situation and have to survive. The only difference here is the location is space, hence the sci-fi connection. Other films in the series take a different path, to varying results, but Alien proves to be a favorite among many fans of the franchise – and with good reason.

Personally, I prefer the more action-oriented sequel, Aliens, but Alien is a film that utterly chills me every time I watch it. I know the twists, I know the parts that make me jump, but they still have a profound effect on me even after multiple viewings. I’ll change what I said at the beginning of the this review; Alien is definitely one of the greatest horror films ever made.

I give it 5 chestbursters out of 5.

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Love Actually (12/19/12)

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At least eight different, intertwining tales of love at Christmastime in London come together in Love Actually.

The different stories –

  • Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) is an aging rock star looking to stage a comeback with a new Christmas album with the help of his manager, Joe (Gregor Fisher).
  • Juliet (Keira Knightley) marries Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) but learns that Peter’s best friend, Mark (Andrew Lincoln) is in love with her.
  • A writer, Jamie (Colin Firth) finds his girlfriend sleeping with his brother and travels to a remote French cottage where he falls in love with the Portuguese cleaning lady, Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz), who doesn’t speak English.
  • Harry (Alan Rickman) finds himself attracted to his secretary, Mia (Heike Makatsch), and his wife, Karen (Emma Thompson) begins to suspect something when she finds a gift for her.
  • David (Hugh Grant), the new Prime Minister, falls for Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), a member of his household staff.
  • Daniel (Liam Neeson) and his stepson, Sam (Thomas Sangster), mourn the loss of their wife and mother. Sam has also fallen for his American classmate and Daniel decides to help him win her over.
  • Sarah (Laura Linney) has had a crush on a coworker, Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), for years but their relationship is constantly interrupted by calls from her mentally ill brother.
  • Unlucky in love in London, Colin (Kris Marshall) decides to travel to America to find a girl, or girls.
  • John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) meet while filming as body doubles for various sex scenes.

Wow, do you have all that? It’s not nearly as confusing as it sounds as each of the stories is short and all of them overlap in some way. Characters crop up in different stories and the golden thread of the film is love. Love Actually is surprisingly one of the best romantic comedies I’ve ever seen. Love Actually is incredibly charming, honest, and funny and it’s a Christmas movie to boot. In fact, it’s the only Christmas movie I can think of that has nudity, so that doesn’t hurt.

There is a lot to keep track of in Love Actually and some of the story lines play out better than others, but the film rarely feels like it is trying to pull in too much. The only real disappointment comes if your favorite story lines don’t wrap up as fully as others. The cast is so varied that even if you have an aversion to an actor, they likely aren’t on screen long enough to get under your skin. When I was reviewing Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, I noted that Keira Knightley bothered me in that film, but here she is pleasant.

I had seen Love Actually a few years ago and vaguely remembered a few of the characters and their stories, but the film felt fresh to me. I could see moving Love Actually into regular Christmastime movie rotation, but it’s also complex enough to have it be “new” every few years. Regardless, I know it’s past Christmas but let Love Actually into your heart and onto your screen when the seasons rolls around again next year.

I give it 4 “to me, you are perfect…”s out of 5.

PS – I could not have written this review without the help of Wikipedia.

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King Kong [1933] (1/15/12 & 12/18/12)

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The original King Kong is one of my favorite movies ever. It literally has everything you could possibly want out of a movie. For a movie that is nearly 80 years old it has held up incredibly well and the Blu-Ray treatment is superb.

When Peter Jackson remade King Kong a few years back I was very excited. When the movie released I was kind of let down. While Jackson’s take modernizes the effects and fleshes out some of the characters and story, for me most of the magic was lost. Watching the 1933 iteration is guaranteed to put a smile on my face and keep me on the edge of my seat, even after a dozen or so viewings.

I won’t bother with the details of the movie because if you haven’t seen some sort of version of King Kong you have likely been under a rock for 80 years. However, if you’ve only seen the 2005 version or, god help us, the 1976 version, then please consider watching the original.

I realize some people have a hard time watching old movies, or even black and white movies. I can understand that sometimes, but I firmly believe King Kong is an exception. It still delivers thrills and wonder, even by today’s CGI-laden standards.

[Update 12/27/12] I got around to watching King Kong again on and thought I would repost one of my very first reviews from the first week I started the site. Enjoy!

I give it 5 screaming Fay Wrays out of 5.

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Elf (12/17/12)

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Elf is the story of a child being adopted by elves in the North Pole and returning to New York City as an adult to find his real father.

After a baby crawls into Santa Claus’s (Ed Asner) bag and brought back to the North Pole, Santa and his elves have no choice but to raise him. Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) raises Buddy (Will Ferrell) as his own, but when Buddy towers over all the other elves and isn’t quite the toy-making genius they all are, he starts to suspect something isn’t right. Papa Elf tells buddy that his real father is Walter Hobbs (James Caan) and lives in New York City, so Buddy decides to go and live with his biological father  and spreads holiday cheer to everyone around him.

Yeah, I’m going to be that guy that is still reviewing Christmas movies after Christmas is over, sorry.

Elf is one of the handful of films in my regular holiday rotation but unlike Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Story, it’s a film that I generally only watch once a year. I love  Elf almost as much as those movies but I think the lack of nostalgia for me makes Elf a great movie to watch but once a year is enough to satiate me.

I don’t care what anyone says, I will always consider Buddy the Elf to be Will Ferrell’s greatest role. The naive but pure-hearted Buddy is a great character and Ferrell is perfect for it. Elf is a movie that could have easily been crude and loud, but Ferrell keeps it in check and knocks it out of the park. The supporting cast is great too with Zooey Deschanel, Peter Dinklage, Mary Steenburgen, Andy Richter, Kyle Gass, Amy Sedaris, Artie Lange, Jon Favreau (also the director of Elf), etc. While I’m on the subject, why doesn’t James Caan get better work now? He’s great.

Where my two aforementioned favorite Christmas movies both have a sometimes cynical take of the holidays and focus on the follies, Elf focuses on Christmas spirit and believing in miracles. The childlike sense of wonder the film exudes makes you really want to believe in Santa and this really sets it apart. It’s not quite a movie for kids, but it’s definitely a movie for the whole family. There’s the perfect balance of humor for all ages here and throw in all the holiday stuff and Elf is just an absolute joy to watch.

I give it 4 “my finger has a heartbeat”s out of 5.

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s (12/16/12)

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In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a young New York socialite resistant to love ends up falling for a man in her apartment building.

After eating a pastry and drinking coffee while window shopping outside Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) heads home to her New York City apartment. She tries avoiding her date from the night before, and buzzes her neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi (Mickey Rooney) to let her in. The next morning, Holly is awakened by her own doorbell ringing and a new tenant is trying to move in. She invites him in and learns his name is Paul Varjak (George Peppard).Soon, Holly tells Paul she needs to visit Sing Sing prison and deliver a coded message as a “weather report” to a famous mobster. As Paul learns more about the true Holly Golightly, he falls for her despite her adherence to keeping up appearances of her lifestyle.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s fans be warned, I was not at all charmed by this film. Within minutes of the film starting, Mickey Rooney’s horrifyingly racist portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi almost made me turn the film off but I pressed on thinking it was just a sign of the times. Then I discovered the film was not supposed to be a comedy and Mr. Yunioshi seems to be injected, superfluously I might add, to add some “humor” to the movie. Disgusting. But my distaste for the film didn’t end there.

I also kind of hated Holly Golightly as well. I don’t understand why so many girls see her as a role model. She is lying about who she is, she is only interested in money, she doesn’t seem to actually believe in love, she is superficial, it’s hinted that she’s a call girl, she is mentally unstable, etc. Maybe she is “real” and just trying to find herself but that wasn’t my impression of her. I had never seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s but have seen Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly emblazoned on all sorts of memorabilia and while watching the film I kept asking myself  “why?”.

Now that I’m (maybe) done bashing Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I will praise the film’s sense of style. I’m a huge fan of the TV show Mad Men and while I was kind of hating Holly Golightly I did like her manner of dress.

I really don’t know why I was so put off by Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Perhaps it is just one of those movies so many people talk about that you just assume greatness. Now I know how all those folks feel that don’t like Citizen Kane. Breakfast at Tiffany’s was recently just admitted to the National Film Registry and I kind of cringed when I read that news. Maybe if they recut the film without Mr. Yunioshi it would leave a better taste in my mouth.

I give it 2 the only scene I really liked was the opening title sequence out of 5.

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