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)

Safety Not GuaranteedMovie Two Hundred Seventy Eight

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

Seeking a Friend for the End of the WorldMovie Two Hundred Seventy Five

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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Lilo & Stitch (11/24/12)

Lilo & StitchMovie Two Hundred Seventy

In Lilo & Stitch, a lonely Hawaiian girl finds a friend after an alien fugitive crash-lands nearby.

Dr. Jumba Jookiba is under galactic trial for illegal experimentation and his experiment #626 is used as evidence of this, a creature of his own design. Jookiba is to be transported to prison and 626 is to be sent to an abandoned asteroid, but 626 takes escapes from the ship and ends up landing on Earth, in the Hawaiian Islands. 626 gets hit by a truck and is taken to an animal hospital, thinking it’s a weird breed of dog. A young girl named Lilo, who is being taken care of by her older sister, adopts 626 and names him “Stitch”. As the galactic council searches for 626, Lilo and Stitch bond and they learn the true meaning of ‘ohana (family).

When my wife (then girlfriend) and I traveled to Disney World about 6 years ago, Lilo & Stitch merchandise was freaking everywhere and we felt kind of out of the loop since we hadn’t seen it. Flash forward to present day and we decided we needed to finally see Lilo & Stitch before heading to Disney World again. Neither of us were very impressed by the film, and Stitch had a lessened presence, but at least we understood it.

Oddly enough, Lilo & Stitch is the film that brought back the use of watercolor painted backgrounds in Disney features, a practice mostly given up around the 1940s. The animation style is also unique to Disney films and even the character design is atypical. I found the entire art style pretty fantastic and when the story started to bore me I found myself staring at all the backgrounds. It is easily the strongest single aspect of Lilo & Stitch in my mind.

One thing that has always bugged me about central characters that are horrible people but we are supposed to cheer them on, even if they aren’t improving themselves or anyone around them. For most of the film, Lilo is an annoying kid. Yeah, she’s had some hard times…but she punches a classmate in the face for no real reason. Cute behavior to teach kids, Disney. The dysfunctional family life (sister raising kid, social worker trying to take the kid away) also seems really deep for a movie with such juvenile jokes. It would be hard to recommend Lilo & Stitch to really young kids, but most of the stuff would go right over their heads and they would be in it for Stitch acting silly anyway.

As an adult, I found very little to like about Lilo & Stitch outside the production values of it. The story didn’t grab me, nor did the characters. It wasn’t a movie I hated watching but seeing it once was probably enough for me. However, Lilo & Stitch is certainly a unique Disney animated film, for better or worse.

I give it 3 Elvis Presley plays a large role for some reason out of 5.

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The Phantom Tollbooth (11/21/12) – Nostalgiathon

The Phantom Tollbooth

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Movie Two Hundred Sixty Seven

A bored young boy takes a wild journey though The Phantom Tollbooth.

Milo (Butch Patrick) comes home from school one day and is bored. While on the phone with a friend, he hears something in the other room and upon investigation, discovers a large package that holds a tollbooth. After Milo passes through the tollbooth in a tiny car, he is turned into a cartoon and travels to a strange new world called the Kingdom of Wisdom. Milo, along with his faithful traveling companions the Humbug and Tock the watchdog, a dog with a watch in his side, travel through Dictionopolis and Digitopolis and meet a host of interesting characters including the Awful Dynne, the Dodecahedron, the Whether Man, the Lethargians, and The Mathemagician.

Many of you may be more familiar with The Phantom Tollbooth in book form. I’m not sure if I saw the film first or read the book first, but I do know that I used to love both. In fact, I think I’ve read The Phantom Tollbooth three or four times. It’s the type of book that makes learning interesting even though you don’t necessarily learn much. The wordplay is delightful, though. The movie version, directed by Chuck Jones, is not quite as good as the book even though it tries desperately. Still, it’s the perfect entry for me for Nostalgiathon! Many of my childhood favorites come from Chuck Jones and that is really saying something since I watched so many cartoons and movies as a kid. I’m sure I will have more Chuck Jones movies for Nostalgiathon soon.

I have long been a fan of Chuck Jones animation style and The Phantom Tollbooth is no exception. What ends up hurting the film is the pacing. While Milo is traveling he is constantly running into new characters and visiting new places but there isn’t much to it beyond that. The different scenes almost don’t connect to each other and while they are fairly interesting, they run together by the end. Oh, the kid that plays Milo is kind of irritating and they added songs too. Still, love that Chuck Jones animation…

While The Phantom Tollbooth is one of my favorite childhood books, the movie is not on the same level. It was barely even given a release on DVD. In fact, I had to special order it from Warner Brothers’ vault just to get it and it’s totally barebones. Because of this, it’s hard to recommend The Phantom Tollbooth but I still have a good time watching it. I would almost recommend the book over the movie, but I’m including a link to the movie if you’re curious.

I give it 3 Milo and Tocks out of 5.

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