4 Shots From 4 Holiday Films: Home Alone, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Santa Clause, Eyes Wide Shut


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films is all about letting the visuals do the talking.

4 Shots From 4 Holiday Films

Home Alone (1990, dir by Chris Columbus)

Home Alone (1990, dir by Chris Columbus)

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, dir by Henry Selick)

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, dir by Henry Selick)

The Santa Clause (1994, dir by John Pasquin)

The Santa Clause (1994, dir by John Pasquin)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999, dir by Stanley Kubrick)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999, dir by Stanley Kubrick)

Back to School Part II #23: Adventures in Babysitting (dir by Chris Columbus)


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One unfortunate thing about both being the youngest of four and having a teenage reputation for being a little out of control is that I never got a chance to be a babysitter.  Whenever my mom wasn’t around, my older sisters were in charge.  When I was technically old enough to look after other children, nobody was willing to trust me with them.  So, I missed out on babysitting and…

Well, to be honest, that never really bothered me.  I was too busy either having too much fun or no fun at all to worry about any of that.  But maybe I should have because, whenever I watch the 1987 film Adventures in Babysitting, I’m always left convinced that I could have been a kickass babysitter.  Seriously, if Elisabeth Shue could still get babysitting jobs even after taking the kids into downtown Chicago and nearly getting them killed, then anyone could do it!

In Adventures in Babysitting, Chris Parker (Elisabeth Shue) is a responsible 17 year-old who lives in the suburbs of Chicago.  (As anyone who seen The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off can tell you, being a teenager in 1980s meant living in Illinois.)  When we first meet Chris, she’s getting ready for her anniversary date with her boyfriend, Mike Todwell (Bradley Whitford, years before achieving fame by playing assorted pompous jerks in assorted Aaron Sorkin productions) and she’s dancing around her bedroom.  There’s an important lesson to be learned from the opening of Adventures in Babysitting: if you want me to relate to a character, introduce her while she’s dancing in her bedroom.  Seriously, though, the whole film succeeds because of that opening bedroom dance.  Chris is instantly likable and relatable.  You want to see her succeed and achieve what she wants.

So, of course, we’re all disappointed when Mike shows up and breaks his date with Chris.  That said, as upset as Chris may be, she’s still willing to take the time to try to talk her friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller) out of trying to poison her stepmother with Drano.  That’s a true friend.

With nothing else to do, Chris ends up taking a babysitting job.  She has been tasked to look after 8 year-old Sara Anderson (Maia Brewton) and Sara’s brother, 15 year-old Brad (Keith Coogan).  Sara is a bit of a brat, though she’s also generally well-meaning and is obsessed with comic books (Thor, in particular).  Brad is likable but dorky.  He has a huge crush on Chris and even turns down a chance to spend the night at a friend’s, just so he can be around her.

Brad’s friend, incidentally, is Daryl (Anthony Rapp, who would later play Tony in Dazed and Confused and who starred in the original Broadway production of Rent).  Daryl is a hyperactive perv who is obsessed with Chris because she resembles the centerfold in one of his dad’s Playboys.  Daryl decides that, if his friend Brad can’t visit him, then maybe he should visit Brad!

However, Chris has more to worry about than just looking after Sara, Brad, and Daryl.  Brenda has attempted to run away from home and now she’s stuck in a downtown bus station!  Her glasses have been stolen and, as a result, Brenda is doing things like picking up a giant rat and calling it a kitten.  Brenda uses her last bit of money to call Chris and beg her to come pick her up.

(Of course, none of this would happen today.  Brenda wouldn’t have to use a pay phone to call Chris and she could just call Uber to get a ride home.)

So, Chris and the kids drive into Chicago and, needless to say, things quickly fall apart.  They get a flat tire on the expressway.  Chris panics when she discovers that not only does she not have a spare tire but she also left her purse back at the house.  They are briefly helped by a one-handed truck driver named Handsome John Pruitt (John Ford Noonan) but then Pruitt discovers that his wife is cheating on him and takes a detour so he can catch her in the act and, of course, this leads to Chris and the kids being kidnapped by a helpful car thief.  Soon, they’re being chased through Chicago by the Mafia and…

Well, it gets rather complicated but that’s kind of the appeal of the film.  The film starts out as a fairly realistic, John Hughes-style teen comedy and then it gets progressively crazier and crazier.  Downtown Chicago turns out to be a rather cartoonish place, one where one disaster follows after another.  (To be honest, if Adventures in Babysitting was released today, it would probably inspire a hundred increasingly tedious Salon think pieces on white privilege.  Bleh!)  But, regardless of how silly some of the adventures may get, Adventures in Babysitting remains grounded because of the good and likable performances and a script that is full of witty and quotable dialogue.

It’s an entertaining movie and it’s one of those films that always seems to be either on Showtime or Encore.  If you’re sad, watch it and be prepared to be massively cheered up!

(Avoid the Disney Channel remake.)

 

Playing Catch-Up With The Lesser Films of 2015: Get Hard, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, Pixels, The Wedding Ringer


SPOILER ALERT!

One or more of the films reviewed below will appear on my list of the 16 Worst Films of 2015!  Can you guess which one(s)?

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Get Hard (dir by Etan Cohen)

Will Ferrell is funny and Kevin Hart is funny and you would think that putting them together in one movie would be especially funny but … nope.  Get Hard, which I watched on HBO a few weeks ago, is incredibly not funny.  Ferrell plays a hedge fund manager who is convicted of fraud and embezzlement and it’s a sign of how haphazard this film is that I was never really sure whether he was supposed to be guilty or not.  Anyway, Ferrell is terrified of going to prison but fortunately, he runs into Kevin Hart.  Hart is playing the owner of a car wash here, a mild-mannered family man who simply wants to be able to afford to send his daughter to a good school.  However, Ferrell assumes that, since Hart is black, Hart must be an ex-con.

So, Ferrell hires Hart to teach him how to survive in prison and Hart agrees.  And, to be honest, this is not a terrible idea for an edgy satire but the film pulls it punches and never really exposes or challenges the racism that led to Ferrell hiring Hart in the first place.  Instead, it’s more interested in making homophobic jokes about prison rape (there’s a particularly long and unpleasant scene where Ferrell attempts to learn how to give a blow job that feels like it was lifted from a deservedly forgotten 90s film) and eventually, it devolves into a painfully predictable action film.

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Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (dir by Andy Fickman)

I know what someone out there is saying.

“YOU’VE NEVER EVEN SEEN THE FIRST PAUL BLART: MALL COP!!!  WHO THE HELL ARE YOU TO REVIEW THE SEQUEL!?”

Well, listen — it’s true.  I’ve never seen the first film and the only reason I watched the second one (on HBO at a friend’s house, which means that it literally cost me nothing) was because I had heard how terrible it was and I figured that I should see it before making out my list of the worst films of the year.  But, even with that in mind, I think I can still give this film a fair review.

(At the very least, I’ll try.  Dammit, I’ll try.)

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is one of those films that is so forgettable that you forget about it while you’re watching.  Kevin James plays Paul Blart, a mall security guard who goes to Las Vegas for a security guard convention and ends up getting involved in thwarting a big heist.  It’s a comedy, though I can’t think of a single time I laughed.  Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 was not quite the abomination that I had been led to expect.  It was, in no way, comparable to Birdemic, April Rain, or Man of Steel.  Instead, it was just an incredibly empty and soulless film.  It was a zombie movie that existed only to eat money.

One thing that is frustrating about a film like Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is that Kevin James seems like he could actually survive appearing in a good film, if he could just get a chance to make one.  He’s likable and he’s got an everyman quality about him.  But, for now, he seems to be trapped in films where he either plays Paul Blart or he’s surrounded by talking animals.

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Pixels (dir by Chris Columbus)

Speaking of Kevin James, he’s also in Pixels!  He plays William Cooper.  When he was a kid, he was obsessed with playing video games.  Now that he’s an adult, he’s the President of the United States!  And he still keeps in contact with his best friend from childhood, Sam.  Sam, needless to say, will never be President.  When Sam was a kid, he was traumatized when he lost a national video game championship.  Now that he’s an adult, he installs home-theater systems and he’s played by Adam Sandler…

When Earth is invaded, it turns out that the aliens are under the impression that video games are real!  So, they recreate a bunch of classic video game characters and send them off to do havoc.  Who better to stop them than the President and Sam?  And who better to help than a nerdy conspiracy theorist (Josh Gad) and Eddie Planet (Peter Dinklage), the same guy who cheated in order to defeat Sam at the video game championship….

If you’re thinking that sounds like way too much plot for a silly comedy about video games coming to life, you’re right.  Pixels has some cute moments (though, based on the comments and occasional laughter of the middle-aged people in the theater around me, I get the feeling that a lot of the film’s video game-themed humor was a bit too “before my time” for me to fully appreciate) but oh my God, it was such an unnecessarily busy movie.  The idea behind Pixels had some potential but the film refused to take advantage of it.

I’ve said this before and I always get some strange looks but I honestly do think that — if he would actually break out of his comfort zone and stop doing movies that mostly seem to be about finding an excuse to hang out with his friends — Adam Sandler could be an acceptable dramatic actor.  Check out his work in Punch-Drunk Love, Funny People, Reign Over Me, Spanglish, and even the first half of The Cobbler.  (Tarantino even wrote the role of Donny Donowitz in Inglourious Basterds with Sandler in mind.)  The fact that Sandler could be doing good work makes his continual bad work all the more frustrating and annoying.

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The Wedding Ringer (dir by Jeremy Garelick)

And speaking of Josh Gad…he’s also in The Wedding Ringer!  For that matter, so is Kevin Hart.  Hart plays a guy who, for a sizable fee, will pretend to the lifelong best friend (and best man) for grooms who do not have enough real friends to fill out a wedding party.  Hart refuses to get emotionally involved with his clients but that all changes when, despite himself, he becomes friends with Josh Gad, who is on the verge of getting married to Kaley Cuoco.

The Wedding Ringer got terrible reviews but it also was very popular with audiences and I imagine a lot of that had to do with the relationship between Hart and Gad.  Both of them give very sincere performances that elevate some otherwise unpromising material.  The Wedding Ringer wasn’t good (it’s predictable, it’s portrayal of Kaley Cuoco’s character verges on misogynistic) but, at the same time, it wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be.  In the end, it was pretty much a typical January film.

I'm so excited!  I'm so excited!  I'm so ... wait a minute, am I just here because this is a post about bad movies?

I’m so excited! I’m so excited! I’m so … wait a minute, am I just here because this is a post about bad movies?

Which of these four films will make my list of the worst 16 films of 2015?  The answer shall be revealed soon!

 

 

Film Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 (dir. by David Yates)


Well, we all knew it would have to end someday and now, it’s over.  The Harry Potter film series, which began way back in 2001, is concluding right now in a theater near you.  On Friday night, me, Jeff, my sister Erin, and our friend Evelyn went down to the AMC Valley View and we saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. 

The cinematic story of Harry Potter is over and yes, I did cry as I watched it end.  I didn’t just cry because of the movie, though the movie itself is one of the best of the year and it has one of those wonderful endings that just makes it impossible to remain dry-eyed.  No, I cried because — with this film — an era of my life is truly over.  

When the first Harry Potter film came out, I was only 16 and still trying to deal with the fact that I had been diagnosed as being bipolar just a few weeks earlier.  I felt alone and broken and destined to spend the rest of my life on the outside looking in.  The three hours that I spent watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone were three hours when I didn’t have to worry about suddenly bursting into tears and having everyone around me worrying about whether or not I was actually taking my hated medication.  For three hours, I could escape to another world where those who were different were celebrated precisely because they were different.  For three hours, I could imagine that just maybe I had a special purpose for existing too and maybe I had benevolent wizards and witches looking out for me too.  And I’m sorry if all that sounds trite in retrospect but, when you’re 16 and you think you’re too damaged to love, anything that gives you hope and pleasure in the present is a precious treasure.

Over the years, I eventually came to realize that being bipolar was hardly a curse and, as I matured and grew up and discovered new things, there was always a Harry Potter film either playing or about to come out.  Whether I was escaping high school, graduating college, or dealing with just every good or bad thing that makes up life, Harry Potter — this character who I first met (in book form) when I was 13 — was always there.  So, at the risk of sounding overdramatic, the end of Harry Potter is the end of a chapter of my life.

One final personal note: As I watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two, I had three dolls (or action figures, as boys insist on calling them) in my purse.  These dolls — Harry, Hermione, and Ron — came out around the same time as the second Harry Potter film and my mom (who collected dolls) ordered them off of Ebay three years ago, shortly before she entered the hospital for the final time.  Now, my mom was not a huge fan of the Harry Potter series but she knew that I loved it and that’s why she made those dolls her final gift to me.

And those are some of the reasons why I found myself crying as I watched the finale of Harry Potter.  However, there’s another reason why I cried and that’s that this is just a great film and the perfect conclusion to the series.

Essentially, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two starts up immediately after the conclusion of Part One.  Dobby is dead, Lord Voldemort (a wonderfully neurotic Ralph Fiennes) and the Death Eaters are intent on destroying everything, and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman, wonderful as always) is in charge of Hogwarts.  After spending the first part of Deathly Hallows as fugitives, Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson) return to Hogwarts to take a final stand against Voldemort.  Things end in a surprisingly bloody battle (this film is not for children) that leaves several characters dead and ultimately reveals that one wizard wasn’t the saint we always assumed he was while another is revealed to be the secret hero of the entire series.

Let’s get one question out of the way right now: will non-Harry Potter fans be able to follow this film?  Uhmmm…no.  Sorry.  Then again, why would a non-Harry Potter fan be at a film called Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part Two anyway?  I mean, seriously, if you’re just going to film because everyone else is doing it than who are you to bitch anyway?  This is what you non-Harry Potter fans need to do.  Stop reading this review.  Go watch the previous Harry Potter films.  Watch them in order.  Take your time because Deathly Hallows is going to be in theaters for a while.  And then, once you’ve become immersed in the story, go see how it all concludes.  And then come back here and read rest of this review.

Okay, so is everybody up to date?

Cool.

One of the more interesting features of the Harry Potter series is that so many different directors (each with his own definite, individual style) have been involved in bringing these films to the screen.  Among Harry Potter fans, hours can literally be spent debating the merits (and weaknesses) of Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell, and David Yates.  My own theory is that each director was perfectly suited for each film he directed.  The audience-friendly vision of Chris Columbus was what the first two films needed, just as Prisoner of Azkaban needed Cuaron’s far darker vision and Mike Newell’s attention to character made Goblet of Fire one of the best of the Harry Potter films.  And while David Yates may not be as well-known (or critically acclaimed) as Newell or Cuaron, he brings exactly the right tone to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a perfect combination of spectacle and humanity.  It is to Yates’ credit that the scenes in which the characters simply talk to each other are just as compelling as the dramatic sequences where Voldemort and the Death Eaters attack Hogwarts.  Yates understands that this material could easily come across as silly or childish and to his credit, he never allows the audience to simply dismiss this film as a lot of blathering about wands and CGI magic.  As opposed to other directors who have given us summer blockbusters, Yates takes his film seriously.

And, fortunately, so does his cast.

One of the great pleasures of the Harry Potter series is that it’s given American audiences the chance to discover (and rediscover) some of the great British character actors and a lot of them show up (some for only a matter of minutes) here in the finale.  Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Gary Oldman, John Hurt, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, and Jason Isaacs all put in appearances.  Kelly MacDonald has a great scene playing a ghost, Helena Bonham Carter is perfect as the evil Bellatrix Lestrange, and Alan Rickman is brilliantly ambiguous as Severus Snape.  (And yes, Snape’s actions are explained in this film and yes, I did cry.)

Ralph Fiennes plays so many villains that I now find myself expecting him to show up killing people in every movie I see.  He’s like a British Christopher Walken.  Still, it’s easy to take an actor like Fiennes for granted.  For the entire Harry Potter series to work, Lord Voldemort can’t just be an ordinary villain.  He’s got to be the sum total of all things evil and deadly.  You’ve got to believe that people would be scared to speak his name.  Great heroes need a great villain and Fiennes’ Voldermort is a great villain.

Ultimately, however, the true credit for the success of the Harry Potter series belongs to three actors who have literally grown up on the movie screen — Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson.  The producers are fortunate indeed that the cute kids that they cast over a decade ago have all grown up to be talented, attractive, and likable actors.  If the first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows seemed to showcase both Grint and Watson (almost to Radcliffe’s expense), part 2 is most definitely centered on Harry Potter.  That doesn’t mean that Watson and Grint aren’t good in this film.  They are and they get to share one of the best movie kisses of 2011.  (As well, for those who keep count, Grint says “Bloody Hell,” three times in the film.)  But, for obvious reasons, this film is all about Harry and Radcliffe’s performance as Harry.  It’s a challenge for Radcliffe and it’s a challenge that he more than succeeds at conquering.  As the film ended, I realized that I was sad to know that the adventures of Harry Potter were done but I was excited to see what the future will hold for Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson. 

Incidentally, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 has been released in both 3-D and 2-D.  We saw the 3-D version and if you have any knowledge of how I feel about 3-D (and how motion sick I tend to get while watching 3-D films) then that should show you just much I love the Harry Potter series.  I loved it so much that I was even willing to overlook my hatred of 3-D.  The 3-D here (which was added after the film has already been filmed) doesn’t really add much to the movie.  There were a few cool moments where I was all like, “Look, I can reach out and grab a piece of Voldemort,” but otherwise, the 3-D was a negligible factor as far as the overall film was concerned.

Still, there was one interesting thing about the 3-D.  The theater we saw the movie in was half-way empty.  At the same time, the neighboring theater — in which the 2-D version was playing — had a line of people waiting to get in.  They were not only waiting to see the 2-D version, they were waiting to see a showing that wouldn’t even begin until a full 90 minutes after the 3-D version started.  I mention this because, in the wake of Avatar, so many people have taken it for granted that 3-D is the future of movies and soon, as long as a film is in 3-D, we won’t have to worry about the difficult stuff like an interesting plot or compelling characters.  However, 3-D has become an overexposed gimmick.  For every film like Cave of Dreams that uses 3-D to craft an actual artistic statement, there’s a 1,000 films like Priest which use 3-D just because it’s an easy way to trick sucks into spending an extra dollars to see a crappy film. 

What so many filmmakers seem to forget is that the majority of film goers are not looking for 3-D.  We’re just looking for a good film.  And sometimes — like with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — we get lucky and we find a great film.

(Oh, and one last thing: I know everyone always expects me to claim to be just like Hermione but actually, I’ve always related more to Ginny Weasley.  Like her, I’m the youngest of four siblings, I’ve got red hair, and I always get my man, in the end.)