I watched A Christmas Story Live!


Last night, while I was wrapping presents, I watched A Christmas Story Live! on Fox.

I was worried about whether or not I would be able to enjoy the Live version.  Like all good people, I love the original movie.  If you have ever wondered who actually spends 24 hours watching A Christmas Story on Christmas, it’s usually me.  It’s the perfect holiday movie, a sweet and loving tribute to both Christmas and family.  The Live version, which was based on the Broadway version of the original film, had a lot to live up to.

It got off to a bad start, with Bebe Rexha performing a song called Count on Christmas while people in pink bunny suits jumped around behind her.  At first, I thought I was watching the worst Old Navy commercial of all time.  The sound was wonky during Rexha’s performance and what could be heard was extremely auto-tuned.

Once the actual show started, the first thing I noticed was that A Christmas Story Live was using the Stars Hollow set from Gilmore Girls.  There’s nothing wrong with that because I loved Gilmore Girls but I still kept expecting to see Lorelai and Luke arguing about whether Ralphie was going to shoot his eye out.  The second thing I noticed was Matthew Broderick walking around the set, playing the role of the adult Ralphie and providing the narration.  That took a while get used to, just because Broderick looked so sad and sometimes, it was hard not to think of him being a ghost, materializing around town and remembering what it was like to be alive.

A Christmas Story Live! lasted three hours, which was an hour too long.  One of the best things about A Christmas Story is that it tells a very simple story that everyone can relate to so it felt strange to see it as a big musical production.  But it got better as it went along.  I really didn’t feel like I’d be able to keep going after the first hour but I stuck with it and during the second and third hours, the show’s energy really picked up, Broderick stopped looking so sad, and I started to really enjoy it.  Maybe someone was backstage reading the comments on twitter because something changed between the first and second hours.

For me, the highlights where Jane Krakowski’s performance as the teacher, Maya Rudolph’s performance as the mother, Anna Gasteyer performing the Hanukkah song, and David Alan Grier as the drunk Santa Claus.  I also liked Chris Diamantopoulos as the “Old Man,” even if nothing can compete with Darren McGavin’s performance in the original film.  I was also really impressed with all the child performers in the show, especially Andy Walken who played Ralphie.

It wasn’t great but it wasn’t awful.  Mostly, it just reminded me how much I love the original film and how I can’t wait to watch it this Christmas!

 

Playing Catch-Up: Manchester By The Sea (dir by Kenneth Lonergan)


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Manchester By The Sea is the latest Oscar contender to be set in Massachusetts.  I’m not exactly sure why but it appears that if you want your film to get some sort of Oscar consideration, it’s always good idea to set it some place in New England.

Consider some of the films nominated for Best Picture since the 1992:

1992′ Scent of a Woman featured a New England prep school.

1994’s The Shawshank Redemption took place in Maine.

1997’s Good Will Hunting took place in Boston.

1999’s The Cider House Rules was set in Maine.

2001’s In The Bedroom took place in Maine.

2003’s Mystic River was set in Boston.

The 2006 winner The Departed was also a Boston-set film.

2010’s The Fighter also set in Boston.  For that matter, The Social Network started at Harvard.

2013’s Captain Phillips featured Tom Hanks speaking with Boston accent.

And, finally, last year’s Spotlight was as much a celebration of Boston as anything else.

As of this writing, it appears that Manchester By The Sea will continue the long tradition of New England-set films being nominated for best picture.  Interestingly, of all those films, Manchester By The Sea is probably the most low-key.  Though it’s a film that deals with death, it’s a natural death as opposed to the violent executions that dominated The Departed and Mystic River.  And though there are two bar fights, there’s very little violence to be found in Manchester By The Sea.  As opposed to Spotlight, Manchester By The Sea is not about moral crusaders battling against the corrupt establishment.

Instead, it’s the story of an intelligent but irresponsible man named Lee Chadler (Casey Affleck).  When Lee was a young man living in the town of Manchester-By-The-Sea, he was someone.  He was a high school hockey star.  He made an okay living, he had a lot of friends, and he was very close to his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler).  He was married to Randi (Michelle Williams) and he had two daughters.

And then he lost everything.  He lost his daughters, through a stupid accident for which he blamed himself.  Randi divorced him.  His friends abandoned him.  The only thing that prevented him from shooting himself was the intervention of Joe.  Lee eventually ended up in Quincy, Massachusetts, working as a maintenance man and keeping to himself.

And that’s probably what Lee would have done his entire life, if Joe hadn’t died.  Lee returns to Manchester-By-The-Sea and, to his shock, he discovers that he’s been named the guardian of Joe’s sixteen year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).  Still struggling with his own feelings of guilt, Lee now finds himself thrust into the role of being a father.

Patrick, of course, doesn’t think he needs a guardian and sometimes, it almost seems as if Patrick might be right.  At times, it’s hard not to feel that Patrick is a hundred times more mature than his uncle but occasionally, Patrick’s grown-up mask will slip.  When he learns that his father cannot be buried until the spring and the body will be kept in a freezer, Patrick stays calm until he opens up the freezer at home.  That’s when the reality of it all hits him and it’s an amazingly powerful moment.

Manchester By The Sea is not an easy film to describe.  There’s not much of a plot.  Instead, it’s just a portrait of people living from day-to-day, trying to juggle handling tragedy with handling everyday life.  Conditioned by previous films, audiences watch something like Manchester By The Sea and wait for some gigantic dramatic moment that will magically make sense of the human condition but, by design, that moment never comes.  That’s not what Manchester By The Sea is about.  If there is any great lesson to be found in Manchester By The Sea, it’s that life goes on.

Despite being full of funny lines, it’s a sad film but fortunately, it’s also a well-acted one.  I have to admit that I’m not as crazy about Manchester By The Sea as some of the critics who are currently declaring Manchester to be the best film of 2016 are but I can’t disagree with those who have praised Casey Affleck’s lead performance.  Lucas Hedges also does a good job as Patrick and Michelle Williams gets one revelatory scene in which she happens to randomly run into her ex-husband on the street.

As I said, I liked Manchester By The Sea but I didn’t quite love it.  It’s a well-made and well-acted film and, if it’s not as brilliant as some have claimed, it’s still worthy of respect.

Playing Catch-Up With 6 Mini-Reviews: Amy, Gloria, Pitch Perfect 2, Sisters, Spy, Trainwreck


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Amy (dir by Asif Kapadia)

Amy opens with brilliant and, in its way, heartbreaking footage of a 14 year-old Amy Winehouse and a friend singing Happy Birthday at a party.  Even though she’s singing deliberately off-key and going over-the-top (as we all tend to do when we sing Happy Birthday), you can tell that Amy was a star from the beginning.  She’s obviously enjoying performing and being the center of attention and, try as you might, it’s impossible not to contrast the joy of her Happy Birthday with the sadness of her later life.

A star whose music touched millions (including me), Amy Winehouse was ultimately betrayed by a world that both wanted to take advantage of her talent and to revel in her subsequent notoriety.  It’s often said the Amy was self-destructive but, if anything, the world conspired to destroy her.  By focusing on footage of Amy both in public and private and eschewing the usual “talking head” format of most documentaries, Amy pays tribute to both Amy Winehouse and reminds us of what a great talent we all lost in 2011.

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Gloria (dir by Christian Keller)

The Mexican film Gloria is a musical biopic of Gloria Trevi (played by Sofia Espinosa), a singer whose subversive songs and sexual image made her a superstar in Latin America and challenged the conventional morality of Catholic-dominated establishment.  Her manager and lover was the controversial Sergio Andrade (Marco Perez).  The movie follows Gloria from her first audition for the manipulative Sergio to her arrest (along with Sergio) on charges of corrupting minors.  It’s an interesting and still controversial story and Gloria tells it well, with Espinosa and Perez both giving excellent performances.

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Pitch Perfect 2 (dir by Elizabeth Banks)

The Bellas are back!  As I think I’ve mentioned a few times on this site, I really loved the first Pitch Perfect.  In fact, I loved it so much that I was a bit concerned about the sequel.  After all, sequels are never as good as the original and I was dreading the idea of the legacy of the first film being tarnished.

But the sequel actually works pretty well.  It’s a bit more cartoonish than the first film.  After three years at reigning ICCA champions, the Bellas are expelled from competition after Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) accidentally flashes the President.  The only way for the Bellas to get the suspension lifted is to win the World Championship of A Capella.  The plot, to be honest, really isn’t that important.  You’re watching the film for the music and the interplay of the Bellas and, on those two counts, the film totally delivers.

It should be noted that Elizabeth Banks had a great 2015.  Not only did she give a great performance in Love & Mercy but she also made a respectable feature directing debut with Pitch Perfect 2.

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Sisters (dir by Jason Moore)

It’s interesting how opinions can change.  For the longest time, I really liked Tina Fey and I thought that Amy Poehler was kind of overrated.  But, over the past two years, I’ve changed my opinion.  Now, I like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey kind of gets on my nerves.  The best way that I can explain it is to say that Tina Fey just seems like the type who would judge me for wearing a short skirt and that would get old quickly, seeing as how I happen to like showing off my legs.

Anyway, in Sisters, Tina and Amy play sisters!  (Shocking, I know.)  Amy is the responsible one who has just gotten a divorce and who wants to make everyone’s life better.  Tina is the irresponsible one who refuses to accept that she’s no longer a teenager.  When their parents announce that they’re selling the house where they grew up, Amy and Tina decide to throw one last party.  Complications ensue.

I actually had two very different reactions to Sisters.  On the one hand, as a self-declared film critic, it was easy for me to spot the obvious flaw with Sisters.  Tina and Amy should have switched roles because Tina Fey is simply not believable as someone who lives to have fun.  Sometimes, it’s smart to cast against type but it really doesn’t work here.

However, as the youngest of four sisters, there was a lot of Sisters that I related to.  I saw Sisters with my sister, the Dazzling Erin, and even if the film did not work overall, there were still a lot of little scenes that made us smile and go, “That’s just like us.”  In fact, I think they should remake Sisters and they should let me and Erin star in it.

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Spy (dir by Paul Feig)

There were a lot of very good spy films released in 2015 and SPECTRE was not one of them.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more disappointed I am with the latest Bond film.  It’s not so much that SPECTRE was terrible as there just wasn’t anything particular memorable about it.  When we watch a film about secret agents saving the world, we expect at least a few memorable lines and performances.

Now, if you want to see a memorable spy movie, I suggest seeing Spy.  Not only is Spy one of the funniest movies of the year, it’s also a pretty good espionage film.  Director Paul Feig manages to strike the perfect balance between humor and action.  One of the joys of seeing CIA employee Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) finally get to enter the field and do spy stuff is the fact that there are real stakes involved.  Susan is not only saving the world but, in the film’s best scenes, she’s having a lot of fun doing it and, for that matter, McCarthy is obviously having a lot of fun playing Susan and those of us in the audience are having a lot of fun watching as well.

Spy also features Jason Statham as a more traditional action hero.  Statham is hilarious as he sends up his own macho image.  Seriously, who would have guessed that he could such a funny actor?  Here’s hoping that he, McCarthy, and Feig will all return for the inevitable sequel.

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Trainwreck (dir by Judd Apatow)

There’s a lot of great things that can be said about Trainwreck.  Not only was it the funniest film of 2015 but it also announced to the world that Amy Schumer’s a star.  It was a romantic comedy for the 21st Century, one that defied all of the conventional BS about what has to happen in a romcom.  This a film for all of us because, let’s just be honest here, we’ve all been a trainwreck at some point in our life.

But for me, the heart of the film was truly to be found in the relationship between Amy and her younger sister, Kim (Brie Larson).  Whether fighting over what to do with their irresponsible father (Colin Quinn) or insulting each other’s life choices, their relationship is the strongest part of the film.  If Brie Larson wasn’t already guaranteed an Oscar nomination for Room, I’d demand that she get one for Trainwreck.  For that matter, Amy Schumer deserves one as well.

Seriously, it’s about time the trainwrecks of the world had a film that we could truly call our own.

Shattered Politics #65: Election (dir by Alexander Payne)


Election_1999filmLast year, when I did my series of Back to School reviews, it somehow slipped my mind to review Alexander Payne’s 1999 comedy, Election.  Don’t ask me how I managed to do that.  Election, after all, is one of the greatest high school films ever made.  Not only does it feature Reese Witherspoon’s best performance (or, at least, it was her best performance up until the release of Wild) but it also features Ferris Bueller himself, Matthew Broderick, as the type of teacher who regularly inspired Ferris to skip school.  Trust me — when I realized that I had managed to review Cavegirl while somehow ignoring Election, I was mortified.

But then, a few months later, I decided to do Shattered Politics and review 94 films about politics and politicians.  And it occurred to me that Election may have been a high school film but it was also a political satire.  Add to that, it’s totally plausible that Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick will someday end up running for President.

That certainly seems to be the concern of Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) in Election.  When he learns that Tracy is planning on running for student body president, Jim is concerned.  Tracy is an overachiever.  Tracy is the type of student who always raises her hand in class and who always has the right answer.  Tracy is the type of student that tends to drive other students crazy.  As Jim puts it, if Tracy is elected Student Body President, who knows where it will end?

Of course. Jim has other reasons for disliking Tracy.  Earlier in the year, for instance, Tracy was seduced by Jim’s fellow teacher and best friend, Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik).  When Tracy’s mother (played by Colleen Camp) discovered the affair, Dave was forced to retire and was subsequently divorced.  When Tracy mentions that if she’s elected President, that means she and Jim will be working closely together, Jim panics.  Jim thinks that Tracy will try to seduce him and he knows that he would be too weak to resist.  Instead, Jim would rather have an affair Dave’s ex-wife (Delaney Driscoll) while trying unsuccessfully to get his own wife (Molly Hagan) pregnant.

So, of course, Jim decides to recruit Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her.  Paul is a simple-minded but sweet-natured jock who, as the result of breaking his leg while skiing, has become something of a school martyr.  As soon as Paul announces that he’s running, his cynical little sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) also announces that she’s running, despite the fact that she hates school and thinks that idea of student government is a joke.  Tammy’s main motivation is that her ex-girlfriend, Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia) has announced that she was just “experimenting” and is now dating Paul and managing his campaign.

Got all that?

As the campaign plays out, Jim is panicked to discover that, while Paul may be popular, he’s also amazingly inarticulate and really doesn’t seem to care whether he wins or not.  Meanwhile, Tammy announces that her first action as president will be to destroy the student government.  However, Jim then has reason to believe that Tracy destroyed some campaign signs (mostly because Tracy did) and he comes up with a plan to get her disqualified from the ballot.

Except, of course, it’s not that easy to get rid of Tracy Flick…

One of the things that always amuses me about TV shows set in high school is that they almost always feature an absurdly powerful student council.  Remember that episode of Boy Meets World where Topanga is elected president because she gives a speech about how somebody has to do something about the mold in the cafeteria?  That’s the fantasy view of the student council.  The reality is that, when I was in high school, the student council was something that, whenever we remembered that it actually existed, we all laughed about.

(One of the great things about Degrassi is that it’s one of the few teen shows to acknowledge that the student council has no power.  Considering that the current President of the Degrassi Student Council is Drew Torres, that’s probably for the best.)

But here’s the thing — we all knew someone like Tracy Flick.  We all knew someone who took things like the student council very seriously and who would always get very angry whenever the rest of us showed less reverence for school institutions.  And, in retrospect, you almost have to feel sorry for her because what she never understood was that devotion to the rules and hard work really don’t mean much in either high school or college.  The genius of Reese Witherspoon’s performance is that she brings to life a character that we all know and then, at the same time, makes her a unique human being.  In the role of Tracy, Witherspoon allows us to understand what motivated the girls who always used to get on our nerves.

And then, of course, there’s Matthew Broderick.  Broderick starts out as a glibly self-confident character just to end the film as something of a twisted gargoyle, unshaven because he’s been sleeping in his car and, as the result of a bee sting, a frightfully swollen eye.  By the end of the film, Jim has essentially been destroyed by his fear and obsessive hatred of one student.  Broderick is not exactly playing a sympathetic character here but it’s still a compelling performance because it confirms everything that I always suspected about all of my teachers — i.e., that they specifically and targeted certain students and that most of them were motivated by jealousy.

Thank you, Election, for letting me know that I was right!

Back to School #42: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (dir by John Hughes)


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Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. — Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

While I was rewatching the 1986 John Hughes comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for this review, I found myself thinking about all of the days (or, to be more precise about it, half-days) that I took off back when I was in high school.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like school.  Though I certainly didn’t truly appreciate it at the time, I actually had a pretty good time in high school.  I had an interesting and diverse group of friends.  I had lots of drama and lots of comedy.  I got good grades as long as it wasn’t a Math class.  (Drama, History, and English were always my best subjects.)  My teachers liked me.  But, at the same time, I couldn’t help but resent being required to go to school.  I do not like being told that I have to do something.

So, I would skip on occasion.  For some reason, it always seemed like my favorite classes were early in the day.  So, I’d go to school, enjoy myself up until lunch, and then me and a few friends would casually walk out of the building and we would be free!  There was a Target just a few blocks down the street from our high school and sometimes we’d go down there and spend a few hours shoplifting makeup.  Eventually, we did get caught by a big scary security guy who threatened to call our parents, made us return everything that we had hidden in our purses and bras, and then told us that we were never to step foot in that Target ever again.  And you know what?  In all the years since, I have yet to step back inside of that Target.

Interestingly enough, with all of the times that we skipped school, the worst thing that ever happened to me or any of my friends is that we got banned from Target.  We all still graduated, most of us still went to college, and, as far as I know, none of us have ever been arrested for a major crime.  None of us ever regretted missing any of the classes that we skipped.  For all the talk of how skipping school was the same thing as throwing away your future, it really was not that big of a deal.

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I think that’s one reason why, despite being nearly 30 years ago, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a film that continues to speak to audiences.  It’s a film that celebrates the fact that sometimes, you just have to take a day off and embrace life.  Technically, Ferris, Cameron (Alan Ruck), and Sloane (Mia Sara) may be breaking the law by skipping school and you could even argue that they’ve stolen Cameron’s dad’s car.

But, who cares?

You know who probably had perfect attendance in high school?  Principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) and seriously, who wants to grow up to be like that douchebag?

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Whenever I do watch Ferris Bueller (and I’ve seen it more times than I can remember because seriously, I freaking love this movie!), I always find myself wishing that real-life could be as much fun as the movies.  As much as I may have enjoyed skipping school and shoplifting, it’s nothing compared to everything that Ferris does during his day off!  Ferris goes to a baseball game!  He takes his friends to a fancy restaurant!  He goes to an art museum!  (And, much like Sloane, my heart swoons at this point because I would have loved to have known a guy who would skip school so he could specifically go to the museum.)  Perhaps most importantly, he encourages his best friend Cameron to actually have a good time and enjoy himself.

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In Susannah Gora’s book You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried, an entire chapter is devoted to the making of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and, to be honest, it’s actually makes for rather melancholy reading.  Ferris Bueller was the last teen film that John Hughes directed and the book suggests that a lot of this was due to the fact that Hughes didn’t have as good a time making the film as audiences would later have watching it.  In the book, Mia Sara speculates that Hughes never bonded with the cast of Ferris Bueller in the same way that he did with the casts of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club.

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And indeed, it’s hard to imagine either Ferris Bueller or Matthew Broderick popping up in either one of those two films.  Ferris is far too confident to relate to the angst-driven worlds of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, or Pretty in Pink.  True, he doesn’t have a car and his sister (Jennifer Grey) resents him but otherwise, Ferris’s life is pretty much care-free.  Not only does he live in a beautiful house but he’s also already come up with a definitive philosophy for how he wants to live his life.  You look at Ferris and you know that he probably grew up to be one of those people who ended up working on Wall Street and nearly bankrupted the country but you don’t care.  He’s too likable.

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His best friend, Cameron, is far more angsty but even his overwhelming depression doesn’t seem like it would be at home in any of Hughes’s other films.  If Cameron was a member of the Breakfast Club, he’d probably just sit in the back of the library and zone out.  Regardless of how much Judd Nelson taunted him, Cameron would stay in his shell.  If Cameron was in Sixteen Candles, it’s doubtful he would have been invited to the party at Jake Ryan’s house in the first place.  His depression is too overwhelming and his angst feels too real for him to safely appear in any film other than this one.  As a character, Cameron could only appear in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off because only Ferris Bueller would be capable getting Cameron to leave his bedroom.  On the one hand, the film may seem like a well-made but standard teen comedy where a lovable rebel defeats a hateful authority figure.  But, with repeat viewings, it becomes obvious that Ferris Bueller is truly about the battle for Cameron’s damaged soul.

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There’s a prominent theory out there that the entire film is supposed to be Cameron’s daydream and that Ferris either doesn’t exist or he’s just a popular student who Cameron has fantasized to be his best friend.  I can understand the theory because Cameron really is the heart of the movie.  At the same time, I hope it’s not true because, if this is all a fantasy, then that means that Sloane never said, “He’s going to marry me,” while running back home.  And that would be heart-breaking because I love that moment!

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Ferris Bueller’s Day Off may have John Hughes final teen film as a director (he would go on to write and produce Some Kind of Wonderful) but at least he went out on a true high note.

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