A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story (1983) movie poster

(1983) dir. Bob Clark
viewed: 12/30/07

It’s funny how this film has become one of the staples of contemporary Christmas culture, playing for 24 hours straight back to back on one of Ted Turner’s networks.  I remembered when I first heard that a few years ago, I thought it was genius.  It kind of amazes me that they still do it, but the other day, on Christmas, I noticed that a couple of channels were playing the “yule log” video which is, of course, a lot more insane.  But that is Christmas culture for you, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Every year, Hollywood pumps out a handful of Christmas movies, ranging from the simpering, the jovial family film (often also simpering), and the modern “skewered” Christmas film.  And 99.9% of them suck.  Terribly.  Horribly.  Who in their right mind would see them willingly?

And yet, this oddball Christmas story, A Christmas Story, adapted from writer/narrator Jean Shepherd’s hilarious short stories, originally published in Playboy magazine of all places, is not only one of the best (if not the best) Christmas movies ever made, it’s also one of the downright funniest movies.  I guess that it’s just one of those odd things where writing, casting, and everything just came together as it so infrequently does to make one of those movies that just about everyone loves.

Darren McGavin should have probably gotten an Oscar nomination for his performance as the father.  From his completely PG diatribes of inscrutable cursing to his broad moments of physical humor, he’s beyond perfect.  And Peter Billingsley, who many of us grew up with from commercials as well as this film, is incredible.  He, like McGavin, is totally brilliant.  And all of the smaller parts are totally great as well.

I watched this with my kids and their cousin last night.  The film was a tad old for them, especially the comic narration by Shepherd (definitely over their heads), but they laughed hysterically at the tongue freezing to the flagpole and the rabbit suit scene among others.  I had to explain a few things…such as why Ralphie got his mouth washed out with soap and what “fudge” stood for.  But such is life.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Tim Burton
viewed: 12/28/07 at AMC Loews Metreon 16 with IMAX, SF, CA

Sweeney Todd, the latest collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, and heck let’s throw Helena Bonham Carter in there too, is some pretty serious Goth and gloom, Victorian era, black-sooted London, and rivers upon rivulets of blood.  Oh yeah, and singing!  I think a lot of people have commented on the oddity of the marketing of this film, which has singing and music throughout at least 95% of its running time, in which the promos show noone’s mouth open in tune.

I’ve become increasingly critical of Burton.  He seems to really recoil from working with originary material, drawn especially toward “re-invention” or “re-imagining” or simply “re-making” movies from all kinds of cultural effluvia.  And his basic lack of depth in the areas of emotion.  Surface is everything.  And it’s beautifully designed.  And then there’s Danny Elfman….

All of these criticisms I had in my head going into this film, which I’d read an interesting short critique of in The New Yorker, which seemed to sum up my expectations.  But then, I still wanted to see it.

In the taking of Stephen Sondheim’s musical to the big screen, I had little to say.  I’m not familiar with the musical, and I only had vague knowledge of the origin of the narrative.  Sweeney Todd was a character that arose in Victorian pulp fiction, the penny dreadful, as people like to refer to them.  After taking a class in 19th Century crime fiction, I have been developing quite an appreciation for the genre and the stories of the genre.

It’s high camp in any era.  A barber who slits his clients throats, whisking them headfirst into the basement, where his collaborator grinds their flesh for meat pies to be sold to an unwitting London public.  And singing!

And revenge on the judge who had him shipped off to Australia on false charges, who drove Todd’s wife toward suicide and abducted and raised Todd’s daughter to eventually be his wife.

And singing!

You know, Depp isn’t given much room to act in this film.  His constant scowl is his unchanged heart and his singular emotion throughout.  Bonham Carter gets the larger emotional scape with her doomed love for Todd, her nonplussed villainy, her dreams of love and family, and her genuine duplicity.  And blood.  There’s a lot of blood.  And singing!

The singing isn’t bad, but it’s also not all that good.  I kept wondering what the songs would sound like sung by people who sang more professionally, who knew the material and might bring out of it what was there.  I think that musically, it’s not meant to give you a lot of ringing choruses that are meant to stay in your head, but strange play and counterpoints that work with the ever clever and interesting lyrics.

It’s a musical after all.  Burton-ized.  Dark.  Lurid.  Heaving Victorian bodices.  Big hair.  Bonham Carter and Depp are virtual male/female twins of one another with their giant mops of dark curls.  And Sasha Baron Cohen shows up, a flash of color, in the dark of London.

But you know, I did kind of enjoy it.  Certainly more than I was anticipating.  I’m still trying to figure out why and what and all, but it was not bad, certainly not all bad.  Maybe even good.

The Orphanage

The Orphanage (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Juan Antonio Bayona
viewed: 12/28/07 at Embarcadero Cinemas, SF, CA

Produced by Guillermo del Toro, whose Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is still fresh in my mind, The Orphanage, a Spanish thriller/ghost story film set in a former orphanage, I was thinking more of del Toro’s 2001 film The Devil’s Backbone, which also featured a haunted orphanage as its setting.  But this film, the first feature by Juan Antonio Bayona is, beyond that basic comparison, wholly something different.  In some ways it reckoned to me somewhat of The Others (2001) in that it is an almost more traditional, earnest ghost story.

The lovely Belén Rueda stars as the mother of an adoptive son, who had spent her early childhood in the orphanage, leaving it when she was adopted at age 7 or so.  She and her husband intend to restore the orphanage and turn it into a home for them to care for other children with various special needs.  Her son, unbeknownst to him, is HIV positive and needs special care himself.

Her son, who already has some imaginary friends, develops some new ones, so the parents think.   Of course, knowing this is going to be about ghosts, we suspect what it takes his parents a while to grasp.  The place is haunted, haunted by the ghosts of six children and a mystery of who they are and why they are there.  The film takes on a bit of a Poltergeist (1982) turn when some mediums are brought in to help solve the growing mystery.  That said, it’s nothing so over-the-top or special effects laden.  It’s more a drama and as naturalistic as it can be.

Perhaps that is its inherent strength, it’s tendency toward realism.  There isn’t a reliance on effects of phantasms or dripping blood to work the audience and the cheap thrills are few.  The film stays with the mother, her story, her love of her son, and the house offers up its ghosts without a huge amount of explanation of exactly “what a ghost is”.

I came to think back about 10 years ago about the viability of ghosts as a continuing site of contemporary fear.  Fear being that of the unknown or unknowable.  And laced, really truly interlaced, with death, the ultimate of those unknowns and such an obvious locus for fear.  For whether science can disprove specific incidents of the phantasmal, there could be so many theoretical possibilities for phenomena of the spectral.  And whether ghosts can really harm the living or would want to, well, that is open territory.

All that said, it’s not that I have any real belief in ghosts, but I think it’s an interesting genre of narrative.  It’s not always very well done in film.  But The Orphanage is that particular uniqueness in itself, an earnest, traditional narrative about a haunting, about death and love.  I wouldn’t say it’s a masterpiece, but it’s a very good film, in almost all of its aspects.

Divine Trash

Divine Trash (1998) movie poster

(1998) dir. Steve Yeager
viewed: 12/25/07

Ah, John Waters…gotta love that guy.

Divine Trash is a documentary focussing on Waters’ early career, up through Pink Flamingos (1972), his inspirations, his coterie, and the tale of how he became a filmmaker.  It’s an engaging piece, with good footage from both “back in the day” and current (current at time of shooting) interviews with Waters and many of his gang and stars.  Notably, of course, Divine (a.k.a. Glen Milstead), Waters’ muse, is missing from the “current” interviews due to his passing in 1988, though the film does spend a good deal of time appreciating his uniqueness.

Mainstream media, which Waters has now penetrated to the extreme, with both Broadway and mainstream Hollywood remakes in musical form of his 1988 film Hairspray, Waters appearances on The Tonight Show and The Simpsons, he is a recognized face and character.  No longer making films with great frequency or depravity, he has altered the mainstream by his very presence and his filmography.  He has changed things, and changed his own work, and the mainstream is still the mainstream.  Pink Flamingos is still quite subversive even now.  The fact that he got his start showing these films in church basements is a little beauty of subversion and yet acceptance.

His influences, from the foreign art films of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the camp gore films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, and the “underground” films of Andy Warhol, the Kuchar brothers, and Kenneth Anger, are fascinatingly subsumed in his work.  It’s also amazingly cool and fun how he brought his group of friends to be his cast of strange characters, keeping the settings in his locality, Baltimore, MD, and his acceptance and respect by the local community.

I have a friend who introduced me largely to Waters through his own love of Female Trouble (1974).  I really can’t recall enough about all of his films that I’ve seen.  But I am inspired to queue up a couple of these now.

It’s a great thing to be appreciated for one’s work and influence in one’s own time.  And Waters’ position in our culture is something that should not be underestimated, even if his role of today is more of a coy and witty bon vivant than filmmaker.  It’s also quite interesting to consider how far radical some of his work really was.

Long live John Waters!

Crazy Love

Crazy Love (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Dan Klores, Fisher Stevens
viewed: 12/25/07

Crazy Love is a well-made documentary about a compelling, disturbing and fascinating story.  The films follows a straight narrative slant on a tale of a lawyer, Burt Pugach, who, in 1957, falls in “love at first sight” with Linda Riss, a then 21 year old woman from the East Bronx.  He is well-to-do, having made a good life for himself as an ambulance-chasing personal injury attorney and she is a striking beauty.  They wind up seeing one another over a period of a year or two, until she discovers that he is already married.

Undaunted, Pugach starts in right away saying that his divorce is almost through and shows her the phonied up paperwork to “prove” it to her.  He manages to string her along again for some time.  Her feelings toward him were never inspired, while his were purely obsessive.  When she discovers his deception yet again, she winds up finding a new romance, a young handsome guy who she does really feel something for.

Pugach, descending quickly into a mania, first thinks of killing his rival, going so far as to take a gun down into a doorway near her residence before chickening out.  He then hires three African-American men to do the shocking and unthinkable.  He clearly states that if he can’t have her, no one will.  The men throw lye onto her face, blinding and scarring her for life.

While this is shocking and stunning, the rest of the story is, in a sense almost more so.  I won’t belabor trying to tell it all out here because the film does unroll its narrative effectively, drawing the viewer through the turns and twists that make this story so amazing and impossible.  It must be said that Pugach is perhaps apparently completely without empathy.  As he tells every aspect of his story, the only one for whom he feels anything for is himself.  The depth of his cruelty and selfishness are genuinely psychotic, and though he is found sane on more than one occasion, one might question exactly what those parameters were.  He’s a horror.

I’d remembered reading about this film when it came out earlier this year, but I had forgotten a lot about it, enough to really be shocked as each fact is unveiled.  Apparently it’s not new subject matter for the world media, having been covered broadly in not only New York newspapers and magazines but all over the world.

When talking to someone about it today, she said: “That’s what you watched on Christmas Day?”  I’d rented it for the long haul of the long weekend from the video store.  I hadn’t really planned it out exactly.  But, in the end, yes, that is what I watched on Christmas Day.  I don’t know if it’s out and out depressing.  Some aspects are utterly sad.  But there are other aspects of it that really broaden the sense of the world, of people, of lives over time.  And while I don’t think it redeems Pugach in any way, it does allow for room to understand how the future is clearly impossible to know.

First Snow

First Snow (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Mark Fergus
viewed: 12/25/07

This was one of those films that comes through town and disappears.  If you’d blink, you’d miss it.  And then you don’t remember it even enough to think about it when it comes out on DVD.  I read the film reviews when they hit the paper on Fridays, mainly to get an idea about what is out there and to see if anything that I haven’t heard of shows up and sounds interesting.  And starting a few years back, I developed the habit of trying to keep track of these smaller films that come and go.

Well, this film, starring Guy Pearce, is about a small-time salesman, whose life is thrown into chaos when he has his future read by a man at a roadside stop somewhere in Arizona.  It’s a good and earnest film, not the best, but certainly interesting.  The prediction leaves him paranoid, suspicious, increasingly psychotic.  And one wonders how much the world and his perspective have in common.

Pearce is an interesting actor.  He’s taken a lot of roles in smaller, independent films when he started hitting in big in Hollywood.  Having gotten his start on Australian soap operas, he got a lot of attention when he starred in L.A. Confidential (1997), but a number of films that he’s made have been quite excellent, namely Memento (2000) and The Proposition (2005).  He seems to pick good material, or at least interesting material.

Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters (1984) movie poster

(1984) dir. Ivan Reitman
viewed: 12/24/07

Part of the ongoing exploration of films that my kids might like, we ended up watching Ghostbusters last night.  I can’t remember the last time I saw it, but I’m willing to say that it’s been about 20 years.  I somehow recall catching Ghostbusters II (1989) on tv or something whole or in parts over the years had perhaps begun to wonder if the movie would hold up after all this time.

It does, surprisingly well.

But frankly, a lot of that has to do with Bill Murray.  He gets the best lines and manages to make them all sound as if he was making them up and ad-libbing the entire experience.  Who knows?  Maybe much of it was.  While Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis who together wrote the script are also good, Bill Murray is just hilarious.  Is this guy due for a lifetime achievement award already?

It’s funny, too.  The 80’s-ness of the scenery, make-up, and costuming.  And the pre-digital special effects, including some stop-motion animated demon dogs.  And even the Ray Parker, Jr. theme song, with its catchy pop and ad jingle sensibilities, even that kind of works, too.  Though, I don’t know if I need to hear it again for another couple of years.

The kids liked it.  I think that they thought it would be scarier than it was.  There was an amusing amount of cursing and a couple of things that might not have made it into the film if it were made today (God, I hope they do not re-make this).  It’s a film of its time, and probably one of the better comedies of the 1980’s.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. David Yates
viewed: 12/24/07

My approach to the Harry Potter series has been to read the book before the movie is released.  So, I’m still two books away from the ending.  And this series is, I think, two installments left now, too.

I think the films as a whole are pretty well-put together.  The casting and art design captures the books as well as one could imagine films doing.  But the big problem that they have is handling J.K. Rowling’s tomes in the duration of a typical, long feature film.  With a running time of 138 minutes, it’s no short film, but still, they bloat by trying to get in as much of the books’ narrative elements and characters.

In this episode (how it feels), director David Yates manages much of the sequences pretty well, but to try and downsize the time and number of sequences, the film drops into 3 or 4 long montages that are meant to depict the passage of time and events in a tighter fashion.  While this is a typical cinematic narrative device, here, you can almost see someone reading more intently in places and then skimming large parts in order to hurry the whole thing up.  I don’t know if there is a better way, but it felt pretty uninspired.

Most fans of this series of books and/or movies have probably read the finale already, so my speculating on what is to come is a moot point for anyone but myself.  I have to say that while I enjoy these films to a degree, there is also a sense of drudgery to it as well.  I guess that I’ve committed this much time and energy to them, I might as well see it through to the end.

And not even once did I consider Dumbledore’s sexual orientation.

Balls of Fury

Balls of Fury (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Robert Ben Garant
viewed: 12/23/07

Though I thought some of the images from this movie looked funny in the trailers: Christopher Walken in uber-campy Chinese robes and pompadour, the Siamese twins two-handed ping-ponging,…okay, maybe it was mainly Christopher Walken, but anyways…I also thought it looked like a typically awful comedy with lots of obvious crotch jokes and whatnot.  My step-sister really liked it, and somehow it seemed maybe like it would be more funny than not.

It’s the holidays, I’ve got four days off from work.  I’m hitting the video store more heavily than I normally do.

But the funny thing is that this movie is actually pretty funny.  It’s inconsistently funny, but more so than not.  And while it has its share of mild crudeness, it’s far more mild than crude.  I had the unusual experience of being five to ten minutes into the movie and actually thinking, “Man, this is funnier and better than I expected!”  Normally, a striking thought in movies, when such a thought does arise, is that the movie is very bad and to realize it so early on, is a damning thing.  I didn’t even know how to handle the opposite feeling.

Star Dan Fogler shows good timing and charm in a role that you could easily have seen Jack Black in (though thankfully not).  Christopher Walken is always amazingly funny.  And George Lopez was less obnoxious than I expected, too.

Written and directed by some guys from the Reno 911! gang (a show that I never watch but have heard can have its moments), Balls of Fury is probably the second funniest movie that I’ve seen this year.  It certainly doesn’t achieve greatness, which I am actually willing to pin on Superbad (2007), but it’s a pretty fun flick.

It’s a broad sports comedy about ping pong.  What else would one need to know?  Oh, it’s got the gorgeous Maggie Q in it too, whose knockout qualities struck me in this year’s Live Free or Die Hard.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Talladega Nights (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Adam McKay
viewed: 12/22/07

The only reason that I considered seeing this awful film was because I’d heard that Sacha Baron Cohen kind of stole the show as the fey French opponent to Will Farrell’s NASCAR dunce/all-American hero of this dumb-ass comedy.

I don’t hate Will Farrell personally.  But I find him stunningly unfunny.

I don’t know what I was thinking.  This movie is rancid and I was regretting renting it within 1/2 an hour.