Sunday, July 20, 2014


I've long been a fan of Richard Linklater's films ever since I first saw Dazed and Confused way back when. It grew even more when I saw Before Sunrise and that film's two subsequent follow-ups (which I blogged about earlier this year). However, I think Boyhood may be his crowning achievement. The film was shot over the course of 12 years with the same principal actors throughout. It was a gamble that paid off magnificently, resulting in a very special film that traces one boy's life from age 6 to age eighteen.
The film traces a young boy named Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) who lives with his sister Samantha (played by Lorelai Linklater) and his mother (played wonderfully by Patricia Arquette.) His parents are divorced and his father (played by Ethan Hawke) is an infrequent fixture in his life as the film begins, although he is around more as the film goes on. The film moves from one major life event to another. His mom moves him and his sister to Houston so she can go back to school. She winds up marrying one of her professors (played by Marco Perella) and they move again. The professor descends into alcoholism and becomes abusive so they move yet again. The film goes on like this as we trace the adolescence of Mason as he grows up right before our eyes.

The performances in the film are impeccable, especially by the four leads. Patricia Arquette is amazing as the mother, turning in her best performance. Her character has to be a rock for her kids through all the dysfunctional ups and downs of their life and perfectly portrays someone trying to be an adult, but is just as confused and lost as everyone else. The real stand-out though is Ellar Coltrane, who is fantastic from the first scene as Mason at the tender age of seven when he started shooting the film. There isn't a single false note in his performance and it's incredible for someone so young.
The film itself is very honest about life and contains a great deal of wisdom. There were countless moment in the film that I recognized, that were accurately captured. The struggles in school, your first party, your first break-up, your parents getting remarried. It never shies away from the difficulties in life and I love that. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of funny scenes to balance it out as well. There were also the cultural touchstones that I remembered, playing Oregon Trail at school (although they were playing a newer version than I ever did), the Harry Potter books midnight release parties. You can even trace the years through the changing technology, from the Technicolor iMac computers to the various types of cellphones and iPods that the characters have at different times.
Richard Linklater, who both wrote and directed the film, has created a film that I think will stand the test of time. Yes, some of the surrounding aspects will age over time as happens with all films but I feel it will stand with other films that strive to capture a sort of spiritual truth. My one little criticism is not even directed towards the film but towards the MPAA, revisiting my argument at the end of my Stand by Me post. The film is rated R, mainly for language because of their ridiculous, arbitrary rules. Like I mentioned with Stand by Me, this is a fantastic film that should be seen by teenagers. I think they would relate to a lot of the things portrayed in this film and it would be one they would relate to. I know a lot of the theaters showing the film are not enforcing the R rating and I applaud that. Boyhood is a fantastic film that is likely to be the best film I see in 2014. I said it, I'm calling it now. Best film of 2014.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

National Lampoon's European Vacation

"I think Dad's lost all sense of reality."
After the box office hit that was National Lampoon's Vacation, it was only natural that we would get a sequel. And where better to send the Griswolds than overseas, which brings us to National Lampoon's European Vacation. This one has a reputation for not being as good as the original and while I admit it's not as iconic as the original film, it still has enough hearty laughs in it to be a worthwhile time.

This time around, The Griswolds win an all expenses paid trip to Europe on a game show by accidently giving the correct answer. Soon enough, Clark and Ellen (played again by Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo) are off to Europe with their two kids, Rusty and Audrey (played this time around by Jason Lively and Dana Hill) in tow. Starting in London, the family has such cultural adjustments to make such as dealing with driving on the left side of the road and roundabouts. This leads to, among other things, an amusing run in with Eric Idle, after Clark hits him while he's riding bike. He's clearly very hurt, but shrugs it off as if it's nothing, slyly mocking the overly polite British stereotype (he even references the infamous, "It's just a flesh wound!" line from his Monty Python days). The kids on the other hand are having trouble dealing with being in a country that only has three channels (Rusty panics when he finds out there's no MTV) and Audrey bemoans being away from her boyfriend, Jack (played by William Zabka).   

After a quick (and unfortunate) stop at Stonehenge, the family continues on to Paris, with such amusing moments as the kids being faced with having to make their way through the entire Louvre in 15 minutes before it closes, to which Audrey faints at the prospect ("Are you happy now, Dad? She's dead!"). From there, the family moves on to Germany (which ends with them being chased out of the country by villagers with pitchforks), and then on to Rome.

There are moments in this movie that really struck a cord with me as very familiar. One example is the scene where the Griswolds are walking by Notre Dame in Paris. Clark and Ellen are ahead of the kids, enjoying the sights while Rusty and Audrey are fighting over the Walkman. I laugh at this scene every time because I've had that exact fight with brother, with my parents not caring. 

Unfortunately, there are also elements in this movie that never quite worked for me, such as Clark taking Ellen to a topless burlesque show in Paris. Yes, he flirted with Christie Brinkley in the first film and everything, but him cheering them on and asking for encores always rubbed me the wrong way somehow and was never particularly funny to me. There's a similar scene in the Germany section of the film where Rusty hooks up with a girl and as soon as their alone, she immediately takes her top off. It's just another example of a bizarre sense of sexism in parts of this movie, made all the more odd since it was directed by a woman, Amy Heckerling. To be fair, this installment in the series also has my favorite Audrey, played by the late Dana Hill. While her character does spend a fair amount of time pining for Jack, she also does a bit of growing over the course of the film especially when she finds out Jack has been cheating on her. It's a more well rounded performance than the other actresses gave in the other films, and helps balance out some of the more sexist moments listed above.  

While National Lampoon's European Vacation doesn't rank with the first one or even the third one, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, it does make for a reasonably amusing time, with enough good laughs to make it a worthwhile sequel. I don't think it deserves it's reputation as a bad movie and while it has some elements that have not aged well, that could be owed to the time it was made (1985).

National Lampoon's Vacation

"Hey, hey, easy kids. Everybody in the car. Boat leaves in two minutes... or perhaps you don't want to see the second largest ball of twine on the face of the earth, which is only four short hours away?" 

One of my all time favorite films has always been National Lampoon's Vacation. I've always joked my Dad was Clark Griswold (memorably played by Chevy Chase) and on his better days he really was. So naturally, I could always relate to these films and the son, Rusty (played here by Anthony Michael Hall).

For those who, after 31 years, still haven't seen this movie, the film tells the story of a wild road trip taken by all American family the Griswolds. In addition to father Clark and son Rusty, there is the mother, Ellen (played by Beverly D'Angelo) and daughter Audrey (played by Dana Barron). They travel from Illinois to Los Angeles to visit the amusement park Walley World (basically Disney World). What they encounter is one disaster after another, including having an obnoxious Aunt Edna (played by Imogene Coca) hoisted on them along with her hostile dog, Dinky, losing their money and accidently launching the car rather spectacularly off the road.

Of course, the family continues to press on despite each road block, determined to reach the finish line in their quest for fun, even if poor, hapless Clark loses his mind in the process. The thing is, so much of this film is just an exaggerated version of what real road trips can be like, just turned up to eleven. There wasn't a single moment in this film I couldn't relate to except maybe Christie Brinkley showing up in a red Ferrari, as she does several times in the film, driving alongside the Griswolds and flirting with Clark (the rest of the family is always asleep or otherwise distracted). Anyway, I have yet to have something like that happen to me, but that's ok.  

It really is Chevy Chase that owns this film, never afraid to play what a total doofus Clark Griswold can be, but at the same time make him completely lovable. Chase has always been charming and witty in film roles and a bit of a smooth operator. Clark is the complete opposite of everything he had played in films up to this point. Clark so desperately wants to be Father of the year, but his efforts bring nothing but disaster and it's hysterical. Then, towards the end he reaches the end of his rope and gives what would become a series staple: a profane rallying cry, in this case telling his family they're not giving up and no matter what they will make it to the amusement park and they will have fun.

It's also amazing how edgy this film is, even today 30 years later. From scenes of the kids learning about porn, masturbation and pot from their cousins to the scene where the family gets lost in a bad neighborhood in St. Louis that skirts some questionable racial stereotypes, among others that I don't want to ruin for people who haven't seen the film yet. It definitely still deserves it's R rating. 

Nonetheless, National Lampoon's Vacation remains one of my favorite comedies and is no doubt one for many others. The film spawned three sequels, National Lampoon's European Vacation, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, and Vegas Vacation. There's also set to be a fifth film, focusing on an adult Rusty taking his family on their own road trip. I'll admit it, I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Stand By Me

"Do you guys wanna go see a dead body?"

When I started writing about movies I loved as a kid, I knew I'd have to tackle Stand By Me sooner or later. I first saw this movie when I was roughly the same age as the boys in the movie and for me, that was the perfect time to see it. Even though the film takes place in the 50's, the themes of growing up are truly timeless. It's been a favorite ever since. Very few films have left as indelible a mark as this one. 

The film is told largely in flashback focusing on a group of four friends, Chris Chambers (played by River Phoenix), Gordie Lachance (played by Wil Wheaton), Teddy Duchamp (played by Corey Feldman), and Vern Tessio (played by Jerry O'Connell). One day while they're hanging out in their treehouse, Vern asks them if they want to go see a dead body. Turns out Vern overheard his older brother Billy (played by Casey Siemaskzo) talking to one of his friends, Charlie Hogan (played by Gary Riley), about finding the body of a missing local boy. The two decide not to do anything about it, so Vern and his friends decide to go find it and claim the glory and reward for themselves. 

Of course, Billy and Charlie crack in record time, confessing to gang leader Ace Merrill (played by Kiefer Sutherland) about the dead body. Wanting the reward money for themselves, they set off to retrieve the body themselves. Ace and his gang are a bunch of thugs and bullies who participate in such pastimes as Mailbox Baseball, which is exactly what it sounds like. A confrontation between Ace's group and the four boys is inevitable.

The bulk of the film focuses on the journey of the four boys as they progress towards their destination, which proves to be both more physical and emotionally arduous than they anticipated. Teddy is taunted by a junkyard owner over his mentally ill father that Teddy idolizes despite the fact that his father held his ear to a hot stove. Gordie works through his grief and survivor's guilt over the death of his brother Denny (played in flashbacks by John Cusack). Chris is struggling with being seen only as a thug like his brother and never being given a chance. And Vern, well he's largely the comic relief but he does have a moment when he has to face his fears and outrun an oncoming train across a train trestle. The power of these scenes are how the other friends pick each other up and support each other. This is especially clear in the relationship between Chris and Gordie, how they support each other push each other to do better. 

Narrating the film is adult Gordie, played by Richard Dreyfuss. He provides a great tone to the film, bringing just the right weight to the events and injects some humorous asides as well. There is also an extended cutaway to a story aspiring writer Gordie tells his friends around the campfire that somehow works, largely because it's largely Gordie narrating the action. 

The film is punctuated with a bunch of golden oldies, with artists such as Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Chordettes and of course Ben E King's title track. It's a perfect mix of songs and the soundtrack was in fact the first CD I ever bought.

The one big injustice with this film is the fact that it's rated R. The only thing that could possibly be objectionable is the language, which isn't even that frequent and such an argument is ridiculous anyway because I can confirm first hand when they're alone, that's exactly how thirteen year old boys talk. This film is perfect viewing for boys of a similar age and I think it would be a deep and meaningful experience for them as it was for me, despite what the MPAA thinks. It should've been PG-13, end of story. 

Stand By Me is a masterfully told film with a lot heart and truth by director Rob Reiner and screenwriters Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon. It's based on a novella, "The Body," written by Stephen King and appeared in the book "Different Seasons," which also included novellas that became the basis for The Shawshank Redemption and Apt PupilStand By Me was the first of the group to be adapted and for me, 28 years after it's initial release, still reigns as the best. The film is fantastic beginning to end and is highly, highly recommended.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Wizard

"50,000? You scored 50,000 on Double Dragon?"
I still remember being a kid and telling my parents I wanted to see The Wizard and them responding no, it was just a 90 minute Nintendo commercial. When I did finally see it on video I did discover they were correct. It was about an hour and 40 minutes of shameless Nintendo promotion.  At least it was an entertaining hour and 40 minutes. 

To be fair, in between Nintendo plugs (and later Universal Studios Tour plugs!), there is a reasonably touching story of two brothers reconnecting and traveling cross country to a California. The older brother is Corey (played by Fred Savage), who lives with his dad, Sam (played by Beau Bridges), and older brother Nick (played by Christian Slater). His parents are divorced and his mother, Christine (played by Wendy Phillips) is remarried and takes care of his younger brother, Jimmy (played by Luke Edwards). He suffers from unspecified mental difficulties and his mom decides to put him in a home. The only person who seems to object to this is Corey, who hits the road and rescues Jimmy from the home they've put him in. 

Shortly after, while stopping at a bus station, Corey discovers Jimmy's incredible talent at video games. They also meet up with Haley (played by Jenny Lewis), who after seeing Jimmy's talent suggests taking him to a massive video game competition in Los Angeles. They decide to team up to travel to LA with the understanding they split the winnings if Jimmy wins. Hot on their trail is Sam and Nick as well as a sleazy bounty hunter hired by Christine named Putnam (played by Will Seltzer). The escalating rivalry between Sam and Nick and Putnam provides some of the film's more humorous moments as both sides cars become increasingly smashed up.

Along the way, Corey, Jimmy and Haley encounter another video game whiz kid, Lucas (played by Jackey Vinson), a stereotypical villain character that even has minions (including a very young Tobey Maguire at one point!). He also apparently has the only properly functioning Power Glove in existence (in a metal case no less). It is easily the most ridiculous scene in the film, and the most shameless promotion as well as Lucas proclaims his love for the Power Glove that still makes me twitch 25 years later. You can no doubt find the clip on YouTube. I'll wait here.

This film is a heavy dose of nostalgia. From all the classic Nintendo games I grew up on (including the premiere of Super Mario Bros 3, which made me want to see it as a kid all the more and was no doubt the whole point) to soundtrack offerings such as The New Kids on the Block, it's a time capsule to my childhood. It all helps me overlook some of the more troubling plot aspects that become more apparent with an adult set of eyes, chiefly three unaccompanied kids traveling cross country. Still, it was that element that made the film appeal to me as a kid in the first place. It was a film that empowered kids in a way that the well remembered films from childhood seemed to. While the stunts Corey, Haley or Jimmy pull in the film should in no way be emulated, nor do I think kids actually would, it is a fun adventure film they would certainly enjoy even if they didn't have the same nostalgic ties I do.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The NeverEnding Story

"But it's just a story! It isn't real! It's just a story!"

Although it was not originally planned, I seem to be revisiting favorite films from my childhood. The next one up, courtesy of Cinema Rex at the 2014 Sci-Fi and Fantasy convention Convergence (located in Bloomington, MN), I got a chance to revisit a longtime favorite, The NeverEnding Story. If this trend continues, brace yourselves because there may be a Witch Mountain retrospective in our near future as well.
The film tells the story of bullied misfit Bastian Bux (played by Barrett Oliver), who one morning on his way to school, ducks into a bookstore to escape a trio of bullies chasing him. The he encounters the shopkeeper, Mr. Coreander (played by Thomas Hill), who at first assumes Bastian is like other kids who doesn't like books and asks him to leave. However, Bastian insists he does like books and asks about the one Coreander is reading. Coreander discourages Bastian from that book, saying it will personally bring him into the story. When he puts it down and leaves to take phone call, Bastian looks at the book, called The NeverEnding Story. Intrigued, Bastian takes the books and runs, leaving a note promising to return it. He proceeds to go to school but upon discovering that they are taking a test, ditches and goes up to the school attic to read his book instead. 

From there, the action shifts to the land of Fantasia. There is a growing force slowly destroying the lands called The Nothing. A young hero named Atreyu (played by Noah Hathaway) is summoned by the Childlike Empress (played by Tami Stronach) to find a way to stop The Nothing. He is only given a special medallion called the Auryn to identify himself as an agent of the Empress. He and his horse, Artax, go out in search of the Southern Oracle, who may know of a way to stop The Nothing. Along the way, Bastian's presence is subtly revealed to Atreyu over the course of his quest until it's finally revealed to the both of them that Bastian is a critical part in the saving of Fantasia more or less through the power of his imagination.
While the overall theme of reading is good is a bit heavy-handed, it's never so much so that it's hitting you over the head with it's message. Also the fact that Bastian plays an active part in the story is empowering for kids, especially those who would relate to him. I would say this film, which was made in 1984, still holds up well. Yeah, it's clearly 80's in everything about it, but the themes of the story are universal and still hold up without a doubt.
The film went on to spawn two sequels, The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter and The NeverEnding Story III. The second film, made in 1990 with a whole new cast led by Jonathan Brandis and John Wesley Shipp is at least watchable, but still a noticeable drop in quality from the original. The NeverEnding Story III, starring Jason James Richter and a before he was famous Jack Black, is an unmitigated disaster of a film. The film is so far removed from everything that was great about the original film. All of the characters are different and somehow incredibly irritating. Atreyu isn't even in it (thank god) and it has no real continuity with the previous films and it also leaves the door open for another film, something that seems more of a threat than a promise.
I was a huge fan of this movie as a kid and it was something that was renewed in me as an adult when I re-discovered the film on DVD, along with the first sequel. One of my friends even gave me a replica of the Auryn that Atreyu wears in the film, which I treasure to this day. It remains one of my all time favorite films and is a unique fantasy adventure well worth seeking out.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Revisiting Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

It's a sobering thought that Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, a movie I fondly remember seeing in the theatre as a kid is now 25 years old and has since been introduced to a whole new generation of kids. I suppose it's just another sign that I'm getting older. Still, rewatching it through the eyes as a thirty-something young man, I was surprised how well it holds up as a film. Some of the effects are a little dated, but beyond that the film was still as much fun as ever.
The film has a simple enough plot that focuses on two families that live next door to each other. Both are equally eccentric in their own special ways. One family, the Szalinskis, is headed up by Wayne (played by Rick Moranis), an inventor who is struggling to get his shrink ray to work and as a result has been neglecting his family a bit. The kids, Nick (played by Robert Oliveri) and Amy (played by Amy O'Neil), don't seem to mind as much, but has been bothering their mother, Diane (played by Marcia Strassman) and it referenced a few times that there is more than a little trouble in the marriage.
The other family is The Thompsons, headed up by gung-ho, macho man's man Big Russ Thompson (played by Matt Frewer) who is planning to take the entire family on a fishing trip. One son, Ron (played by Jared Rushton), is equally enthusiastic about this while the quiet, sensitive Little Russ Thompson (played by Thomas Brown) is less excited. As the parents pack up the RV, Ron decides to play a little baseball, knocking a baseball through the Szalinski attic window (where Wayne has his lab set up) and the ricocheting ball accidently activates the machine. Seeing what he did, Little Russ takes Ron next door to confess. Ron is sent upstairs with Nick to retrieve the ball and clean up the mess. They are promptly shrunk once the laser's targeting system locks onto them. When they don't return, Little Russ and Amy go up to check on them and are shrunk as well.
Soon, Wayne returns home depressed after a failed pitch meeting to try and get a grant for his research only to have his audience literally walk out on him. He cleans up the mess in the attic, along with all four kids and accidently takes them out with the trash, which is promptly deposited in the alley behind the house on the other end of the backyard. The kids cut their way out of the plastic bag and are faced with a backyard that at their new size is more accurately miles and miles of treacherous jungle.
What I always loved about this movie was the way it completely changed the perspective of something as benign as the backyard. Ants are suddenly big enough they can all ride one comfortably, a stray Lego brick is big enough for them to sleep in for the night, discarded lit cigarette is as big as a car and a discarded sandwich cookie is as big and could provide a monumental amount of food for them. Of course, there is plenty of adventure as well, especially in their encounters with a honeybee and a scorpion. The latter has always been unnerving to me somehow, probably because the stop motion effects make it seem somehow even more horrific.
Rewatching the film recently (thanks Netflix!), I was struck how this film seemed a bit offbeat in a Joe Dante sort of way. The film was actually directed by Joe Johnston, but it had that feel to me of a movie that was really comfortable with all it's characters just being oddballs in their own distinct ways (especially both the fathers, Big Russ and Wayne) and I loved the film for it. It was something that was missing in the sequels that kept them from matching up to the original film.
Overall, I was surprised how well this film still holds up 25 years later. Some of the effects are a bit dated, but if you can get past that it's still an absolute blast.