Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Home for the Holidays

"When you go home do you ever look around and wonder, Who are these people? Where did I even come from?"

As I get older, my fondness for the oddball comedy that is Home for the Holidays grows. While my family has never been as dysfunctional as the Larson family and it's assorted in-laws, it feels familiar and there are elements of it I recognize and am able to relate to my own life. It's a film about family coming together for Thanksgiving dinner and all the assorted dramas that come with it. It's a film that is forever part of my own Thanksgiving tradition, if only because it makes me more thankful for the family that I do have.

The film centers on Claudia Larson (played by Holly Hunter), who is not having a great Thanksgiving holiday. As the film opens, she finds out from her boss (played by Austin Pendleton) that she is being laid off. Her daughter, Kit (played by Claire Danes) is ditching her to spend Thanksgiving with her boyfriend. She is dreading having to spend the weekend with her parents and her snobby sister, Joanne (played by Cynthia Stevenson), thinking her beloved brother Tommy (played by Robert Downey Jr.) won't be there. She relays all these feelings to Tommy's answering machine when she calls him from the plane. Before long, she has landed and is greeted at the gate by her parents, Henry (played by Charles Durning) and Adele (played by Anne Bancroft). She gets along reasonably well with her parents, who both have their eccentricities. Dad loves playing his organ and sneaking pumpkin pie, whereas Mom seems to treat Dear Abby as a great philosopher.

Of course, much to her surprise, Tommy shows up late that night surprising everyone, with a friend in tow, Leo (played by Dylan McDermott). Claudia at first thinks Leo is with Tommy (Tommy is gay), but it's quickly revealed Tommy brought Leo for Claudia. Ever so briefly things are looking up for Claudia. Then, more relatives arrive. First, there's the batty Aunt Gladys (played by Geraldine Chaplin) Then there's Joanne, along with her husband Walter (played by Steve Guttenberg) and her two bratty kids. Joanne pictures herself as the family martyr, proclaiming to her sister how she has sacrificed so much staying close to home while her siblings went off to live their "exotic little lives." It's a Thanksgiving to remember as this family dinner seems poised for disaster. 

The film is directed by Jodie Foster from a script by WD Richter. Foster does a good job crafting a familiar Thanksgiving setting and making the family dynamics feel real and even familiar. Holly Hunter does well in the main role, as is Robert Downey Jr as Tommy (all the more impressive since this was at the height of his drug years). Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning do well as the parents, balancing their character's eccentricities with real, genuine  performances, which you'd expect from two seasoned pros. You really buy these two as a long married couple with the way they act together. In fact, the whole family works well together, which is why the film works for me, you buy that they're a family that has history together. 

While Home for the Holidays is a comedy, it has an underpinning of truth to it as well that I really responded to. While I don't know if anyone has a family quite as dysfunctional as this, there's still something about it that feels oddly familiar without directly relating to something in the film. The film is really about making peace with your family and your parents and accepting one another for who they are, rather than trying to make each other live up to each others expectations, which is what the Larson family slowly learns that Thanksgiving. Well, most of them anyway. And maybe that's the best message of all.  

Scent of a Woman

I've always had an affinity for Scent of a Woman and I watch it every Thanksgiving without fail. It's a fantastic film anchored by an Academy Award winning performance by Al Pacino. It's a heartwarming, entertaining tale centered on two guys, one a blind, alcoholic former Lieutenant Colonel and the other a troubled young man who become the most unlikely of friends over a wild Thanksgiving weekend.

Charlie Simms (played by Chris O'Donnell) is a student at a New England Private School. Since he's there on scholarship, he doesn't really fit in with the other students. A few of the students pretend to be his friends, especially George (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), while lording their wealth over him and bragging about ski vacations to places like Gstaad. This leads Charlie into trouble, as he witnesses them setting up a prank that leads to the vandalism of the school Dean's prized Jaguar car, a gift to him from the school's alumni. The Dean (played by James Rebhorn), knows Charlie saw something and even offers him a bribe to get him into Harvard if he tells him who did it. Charlie is hesitant to say as he is unsure the right thing to do. As a response, the Dean states he will hold a special hearing with the school disciplinary committee first thing in front of the entire student body and he expects answers then.

In an attempt to earn enough money to travel home for Christmas, Charlie takes a job to look after blind, alcoholic Lt. Col. Frank Slade (played by Al Pacino) for Thanksgiving weekend. What he didn't bargain for was Slade's plans for the weekend were. Before he knows it, the two of them are on a plane headed for New York City. Once there, Frank admits what his plans are. Charlie will accompany him on a tour of pleasures that include eating at fine restaurants, staying at a four star hotel, and many other things. At the end of which, he states he intends to kill himself. Charlie is clearly in over his head as he tries to figure out how to deal with the loud mouthed, bullying Lieutenant. But a funny thing happens over the course of the weekend as they gradually warm up to each other and eventually become friends. Watching this mismatched pair slowly warm to one another over the course of the long weekend, with Slade trying to help Charlie navigate his school troubles being a main bonding point, is the main thrust of the plot. Of course, Slade's final plan also hangs over the proceedings, with poor Charlie repeatedly trying to convince Slade not to go through with it. 

There is something about these two, learning and growing from spending time together, each being able to give the other something. Charlie is able to give Frank a sense of purpose in his life again, someone to guide and mold and in return, Frank teaches Charlie a few things about what it means to truly be a man. Frank may present the exterior of a gruff old drunk, but inside beats the heart of a hopeless romantic and a true gentleman and it's something that starts coming out more and more as the weekend progresses, no more so then when Frank convinces a lovely young woman, Donna (played by Gabrielle Anwar) they encounter in their hotel bar to dance a tango with him, much to the amusement of an onlooking Charlie. 

I first saw this film a couple of years after it came out. My parents owned it on VHS and at the time I was discouraged from watching it (because they either thought it was too adult for me or I wouldn't like it, not sure which) but finally one day while on summer break I gave it a viewing and I really dug it. From then on, it's one I watch every year around Thanksgiving time. It's a touching film without be saccharine and anchored by great performances by Al Pacino and Chris O'Donnell. I think it's a fantastic film and one well worth checking out.   

Addams Family Values

Anytime someone asks for an example of a sequel that was better than the original, the first film I will mention is Addams Family Values. While the first film had it's moments, this film is just one belly laugh followed by another, powered by a fantastic cast firing on all cylinders. In particular Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams and Joan Cusack as new nanny (and Black Widow) Debbie Jillinsky. The two of them absolutely steal the show.

The film opens with Morticia (played by Anjelica Huston) announcing to her husband, Gomez (played by Raul Julia) that she's going to have a baby right now. We cut to the usual birth scene, but in a clever subversion, Morticia is loving every minute of it and hardly breaking a sweat the entire time. Soon enough a new member of the Addams clan is born, a mustachioed baby named Pubert. However, Wednesday and Pugsley (played by Jimmy Workman) are not getting along with the new baby, devising ways of "playing" with him that involve such stunts as dropping from the roof or a guillotine. Enter their new nanny, Debbie (played by Joan Cusack). 

It's quickly revealed that Debbie is in fact a Black Widow, she marries rich men and murders them shortly after marrying them and collects their wealth. She is eyeing Uncle Fester (played by Christopher Lloyd) for her latest payday. However, she did not count on the formidable foe that is Wednesday, who is on to her almost immediately. Wanting to get Wednesday and Pugsley out of the way, Debbie convinces Gomez and Morticia to send them to Summer Camp. 

This is where the two storylines diverge into two parallel stories. One, has Wednesday and Pugsley raising hell at Camp Chippewa against the rich snobs that populate the camp, including the two camp directors, Gary Granger (played by Peter MacNichol) and his wife Becky Martin-Granger (played by Christine Baranski), with popular girl Amanda Buckman (played by Mercedes McNab) getting the brunt of Wednesday's biting, dead pan sarcasm. While there, she also meets fellow camp outcast Joel Glicker (played by David Krumholtz). He's allergic to almost everything and collects serial killer trading cards (he's only missing Jack the Ripper and that Zodiac guy). Because of this, Wednesday finds him endearing and feels the first pangs of romance. 

Meanwhile, Debbie has managed to seduce Uncle Fester into marrying her, putting her plan into action. Of course, offing the poor lug proves to be harder than she anticipated. Instead, she makes him her slave and in exchange for sex, makes him swear never to see the rest of his family again. This sets Gomez into a spiral of despair that even Morticia can't free him from and the family is left in shambles. 

Wednesday hears of this and is determined to escape the camp and return home to help put her family right. In order to do so she, along with the other camp outcasts, sabotage the camp play, a wildly inaccurate and racist play depicting the first Thanksgiving written by Gary, the Camp Director.  Wednesday, cast in the role of Pocahontas, re-writes history, telling Amanda, in the starring role on the Pilgrims side, that she has heard from her Gods not to trust the Pilgrims and to burn their village to the ground. Wednesday's co-conspirators, proceed to do just that and burn down the sets. Wednesday and Pugsley escape in the ensuing chaos. They make their way home for the family's final confrontation with Debbie. Of course, at this point it becomes abundantly clear the if she wasn't so materialistic and self absorbed, Debbie actually would fit in quite well with this crew.

I have to say that I adore this movie. It is a hysterical movie, with joke following joke in rapid succession. I watch it at least once a year around Thanksgiving time, for obvious reasons. Even though both Christina Ricci and Joan Cusack stand out in this film, routinely stealing their scenes, the entire cast is firing on all cylinders. Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia make a fantastic Morticia and Gomez, so much so that I feel bittersweet pangs wishing Raul Julia hadn't died so we could've gotten a proper third film. The film has a consistent flow of madcap macabre humor flowing through it which is executed perfectly by director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Paul Rudnick. The whole thing is so gloriously over the top and I love every minute of it. It's the exceedingly rare comedy sequel that is not only as good as, but far surpasses the original, with fantastic jokes and wicked satire.    

Addams Family Values is currently available on Netflix and Amazon Prime for your viewing pleasure this Holiday Weekend.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Almost Famous

"The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool."

Whenever someone asks me what my favorite movie is, which is an agonizing and awful question to ask someone like me by the way, invariably my answer is Almost Famous. Why, you may ask. It's a fair question, my dear faithful reader and I can imagine in all the breadth and width of cinematic offerings, what makes this film my favorite? While there are multitudes of other films that I love, hence the agonizing aspect of that question before, I must say with little doubt that this film is the one that brought me the most joy. There is something seductively charming about it, the rhythm of the dialogue as it's recited by it's pitch perfect cast backed by an amazing, outstanding even, soundtrack that includes Cat Stevens, The Allman Brothers Band, The Who and even Led Zeppelin in a film written and directed by Cameron Crowe, based on his own life experiences.  

William Miller (played by Patrick Fugit) is a fifteen year old aspiring journalist. He has been a huge rock music fan since he was a young boy when his sister, Anita (played by Zooey Deschanel), left him all her records when she left home. After getting the chance to spend some time with his idol, rock journalist Lester Bangs (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), he gets an assignment to write an article on the upcoming Black Sabbath concert. At that concert, he has two important chance encounters. The first is the enigmatic and magical Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson, in an Academy Award nominated performance), a groupie (or Band Aid, as she calls herself) who William develops an infatuation for. The second is the members of Black Sabbath's opening band, Stillwater and especially their lead guitarist, Russell Hammond (played by Billy Crudup). 

After that, he receives a call from Rolling Stone asking him to write for them. He proposes something on Stillwater, which they agree to and before he knows it, he's on tour with the band. His overprotective mother, Elaine (played by Frances McDormand) hesitantly lets him go, making him promise to call home often. Life on the road proves to be a wild ride for William as he bonds with both Penny and Russell and finds himself regularly playing host (platonically, of course) to other traveling groupies Sapphire (played by Fairuza Balk), Polexia (played by Anna Paquin) and Estrella (played by Bijou Phillips) in his hotel rooms. He witnesses fights between band members Russell and lead singer Jeff Bebe (played by Jason Lee). He also finds himself in over his head when he has to try and keep a high on acid Russell out of trouble when he tags along with him to a nearby house party. To only make things more complicated, he also finds himself in a love triangle with Penny and Russell. William is completely infatuated with Penny while Penny only has eyes for Russell and Russell is trying to have it all with both Penny and a girlfriend back home. It's complicated waters for anyone to navigate, especially a 15 year old kid. Needless to say, he does a lot of growing up in a short period of time, with some help from late night phone calls to Lester.

There is something about Almost Famous that really deeply touched me. There's a richness to it's characters and it's storytelling that it feels real. This makes sense when you know it is very closely based on writer and director Cameron Crowe's real life working at Rolling Stone and going on tour with bands very much like William does in the film. While the characters are fictional, it's all coming from a place of truth. There really was a Penny Lane and the band William travels with is an amalgam of the groups he traveled with at the time, with Russell being based very much on Gregg Allman apparently. William's mother, Elaine, is based on Crowe's own mother and in fact is featured on the Extended edition DVD's commentary along with Cameron himself. 

I went to school and majored in Journalism and I have to admit that this film was one of the inspirations behind it. I was more than a little amused to find out that upon getting to know many of my classmates over those few years that Almost Famous figured into their decision to go into that major as well. I wonder if it's just because it looked like fun, traveling across the country and more or less running away with "the Circus" as the characters in their film refer to their tour as? I know that's a part of it for me. But another part is I just related to William as a character in a way that I hadn't before and maybe only one or two times since. He's quiet, sensitive, smart, an intense listener and close to his mother. Aside from getting to tour with rock bands, I more or less was this kid.

The film also has a dynamite soundtrack, with tracks from Elton John, Cat Stevens, The Allman Brothers Band, Yes, Lou Reed, David Bowie and most surprisingly several tracks from Led Zeppelin (who are notorious for refusing to allow their music to be licensed for films and have only allowed it a couple times since). The music works well with the film at every scene, setting a time and place as well as a feeling and mood. Tying it all together is a fantastic score from Nancy Wilson (of Heart).  

In the end though, it's the fantastic writing, the dynamite cast, and the soundtrack to the film that combine to create a near perfect film in my eyes. I loved all these characters and literally did not want the film to end. Naturally then, I prefer the longer, extended cut of the film as opposed to the theatrical version. It's the rare movie that everytime I watch it, even though it clocks in at an extensive two hours and forty minutes, I don't want it to end. Towards the end of the film, Sapphire talks about what it means to be a fan, to love something so much it hurts. Which is funny, because that's how I feel about this film. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

A Million Ways to Die in the West

"People die at the fair."

How much one will enjoy A Million Ways to Die in the West will depend on how much they enjoy crude humor. The film sets itself up to be a more contemporary Blazing Saddles. While it doesn't reach such lofty heights, I still found it to be a pretty amusing spoof of Westerns albeit one clearly made by Seth McFarlane, best known as the creator of Family Guy, American Dad and his previous film, Ted

Albert (played by Seth McFarlane, who also directed and co-wrote the film) is a fairly unsuccessful sheep farmer. He lives in a small, western town in 1880's Arizona. His girlfriend, Louise (played by Amanda Seyfried) has just dumped him. Despondent, he goes to the local saloon with his friend Edward (played by Giovanni Ribisi) and Edward's fiancee Ruth (played by Sarah Silverman). Things begin to look up when he meets the new girl in town, the tomboyish gunslinger Anna (played by Charlize Theron). The two bond after escaping the umpteenth bar fight. He tells her about his recent break-up with Louise after spotting her with a new beau, Foy (played by Neil Patrick Harris). Foy is the weaselly proprietor of the local mustache accessory and treatment shop (sure, why not?). Anna decides to accompany him to the local fair in an attempt to make Louise jealous. The plan backfires and in the heat of the moment Albert challenges Foy to a duel, despite having zero skill as a gunfighter. Foy eagerly accepts and the duel is set for the following week. 

Anna agrees to help Albert learn to shoot, which leads to an amusing western themed training montage as we see just how bad of a shot Albert is (he shoots a bottle at point blank range and still misses). During this, the two of them slowly fall in love with one another as would be expected in a plot like this. The film is also punctuated with frequent asides in which people die in horrible accidents, with Albert often pointing out how dangerous the West really is. Also lurking about is the very dangerous gunfighter, Clinch (played by Liam Neeson), looking to reunite with his wife, Anna.  

There is a lot to like about this film. There are plenty of jokes that worked for me throughout the film. They did a great job poking fun at the cliches of the genre and the time period itself. The film juxtaposes a modern sensibility against a Western setting as well (much of the dialogue, especially from Albert, is very contemporary) which I found amusing. The problem though is when the film descends into outright vulgarity, especially bowel functions, I just groaned rather than laughed and all I could think was, "Come on guys, you're better than this."  

McFarlane and Theron make a good pair and have some decent chemistry, which helps the movie and the two of them were probably the strongest asset. Ribisi was good as McFarlane's milquetoast best friend who doesn't mind that his fiancee is one of the town's most popular prostitutes (of course the two haven't slept together yet because they say they're waiting until they're married). Neeson makes for a genuinely intimidating villain and Harris is equally smarmy as McFarlane's romantic rival who gets a particularly nauseating comeuppance courtesy of Anna. The film also has a slew of cameos, some more recognizable than others, leaving the audience wondering, "Was that just..." (Yes it was). 

Overall, A Million Ways to Die in the West is a funny comedy and your ability to stick with it will be determined solely by if you can get past it's cruder moments. I laughed plenty, but at the same time, I wish it had aimed a bit higher at times. Like McFarlane's character, Albert, the film is scatter shot at times. That said, enough of them hit their mark to be a reasonably satisfying comedy. 

The 'Burbs

As someone who grew up in the Midwest Suburbs, I've always loved the movie The 'Burbs. Anyone who has lived on a suburban street or cul de sac has had the thoughts wondering who their neighbors are. The ones that are a little strange and keep to themselves. This film takes this universal feeling to it's most absurd levels. 

Overstressed suburbanite Ray Petersen (played by Tom Hanks) just wants to have a quiet weeks vacation at home with his wife, Carol (played by Carrie Fisher) and son Dave (played by Cory Danzinger). However, he gets pulled into looking into his mysterious neighbors, The Klopeks, by his neighbors Mark Rumsfield (played by Bruce Dern) and Art Weingartner (played by Rick Ducmommun). The three men's curiosity turns into an obsession as they witness such bizarre events as weird lights and noises from their basement, them digging in their backyard in the middle of the night, and one of them driving their garbage to the end of the driveway and beating it with a garden hoe into the can. They're watched over by local teen Ricky Butler (played by Corey Feldman), a teen home alone who is supposed to be painting his house but spends most of his time inviting his friends over to watch the neighborhood shenanigans with him, claiming it's better than TV (honestly, he's kinda right).

The more Ray, Art and Mark investigate, the more ghoulish the neighbors appear to be. Things got to another level when another neighbor, Walter (played by Gale Gordon), goes missing. Convinced the Klopeks had something to do with it, the three men prepare to launch a full scale investigation into their secretive and possibly ghoulish new neighbors. Meanwhile, Carol is trying to convince Ray to stay out of it and take her and Dave to a cabin by the lake for the week. He keeps turning her down, saying he wants to relax around the house, all the while actually plotting with Art and Mark. 

The 'Burbs is directed by Joe Dante and infuses with the same off kilter charm that he added to the likes of Gremlins and Explorers. This is more of a straight forward comedy than his other works, which were more humorous sci-fi or fantasy. But it has the same twisted sensibility and light parody of small town, Middle America suburbia that probably made his films so endearing to me as a kid, since I was secretly convinced no place could be this benign, there had to be something sinister lurking behind closed doors.

Tom Hanks, back when he was still making primarily straight comedies, headlines the film nicely in what is by and large an ensemble cast of assorted oddballs that populate this cul de sac as well as Dante mainstays Robert Picardo and Dick Miller as the two garbage men who pop up briefly to witness some of the insanity. In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of the film is the action of the film never leaves this tiny section of Midwest suburbia.  All of the film's action takes place in this one place and never ventures outside of it, which I think is a novel touch of the film.  

I hadn't see The 'Burbs in a few years but recently re-discovered it when it got added to Netflix and I have to admit I had forgotten how funny it really was. It is a true screwball comedy in every sense of the word, anchored by another memorable Jerry Goldsmith score and a great cast that are a hoot to watch as they dig themselves in deeper and deeper as they investigate their creepy and odd new neighbors. It's an underrated film in my book and one I've always enjoyed.