Thursday, December 25, 2014

Die Hard

I know I'm going to catch some flack for saying this, but Die Hard is the greatest Christmas movie ever made. I should preface this by stating clearly that I do not go for the saccharine sentimentality of many so-called Christmas classics so naturally it would make sense that I would gravitate more towards something like this. And beyond the gunfights and explosions contained within, there is some genuine holiday spirit. 

The film centers on New York cop John McClane who has traveled to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged wife Holly (played by Bonnie Bedelia) and their kids. He arrives in LA on Christmas Eve and is met by a limo driver, Argyle (played by D'evereoux White) who takes him to meet his wife at her office Christmas party. Holly works as an executive for the Nakatomi corporation in their office high rise. 

Unbeknownst to them, a group of terrorists, led by Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman in a star making performance), have set their sights on the building for a holiday heist of the 640 million dollars in negotiable bearer bonds they have locked in their vault. They take the party hostage and John manages to get away in the confusion. 

From there, a battle starts between John and the terrorists. John uses his wits and everything he can get his hands on to win and rescue his wife. This proves to be extremely challenging for poor John as he takes quite beating in the process. 

What truly makes this film memorable is how well it sets up it's characters, especially John McClane. There is an Everyman quality to him that makes him more relatable than the usual movie action hero. He's scared, tired and vulnerable, but yet he fights because he know he's the only one in any position to do so. Among the growing group of cops on the ground below, led by the stupidest police chief ever (played by Paul Gleason), he finds an ally in Al (played by Reginald Vel Johnson) who helps keep his spirits up through the crisis as the two talk over the radio.

The Holiday setting of Die Hard is not just arbitrary, but actually reinforces the themes of the film. This is most evident in the theme of renewing familial ties, as seen between John and Holly. Christmas runs throughout the film, from sights of decorated trees and garlands to taunting messages John leaves for the terrorists. 

Both Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman gave star making turns in this and they make perfect adversaries. Willis went on to reprise the role four more times. The film itself went on to inspire it's own sub genre known as "Die Hard on a..." with locations such as a bus (Speed), a Battleship (Under Siege), a plane (Passenger 57, Executive Decision and Air Force One), a train (Under Siege 2), and Alcatraz (The Rock).

But none quite matched the original Die Hard. It's a fantastically crafted thriller that just keeps winding itself up tighter and tighter until the end when all hell is breaking loose. For those interested in a little Holiday cheer but just can't take any more saccharine sentimentality, look no further. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Easily topping my list of the most underrated movies of the last ten years is Shane Black's directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. At the same time though, more than any other it is the film responsible for Robert Downey Jr's career resurgence as it proves without a doubt he still had the charisma and humor to carry a film.

Downey Jr. stars in the film as Harry Lockhart, a small time crook in New York. On the run from the police, he runs right into an open audition. Thinking he's just another actor, they let him audition and with all his adrenaline and frayed nerves, he nails it and the next thing he knows he's being shipped off to LA for a screen test. To help him prepare, the producers hook him up with a local private detective to research his role. The detective is Gay Perry (played by Val Kilmer). He also meets up with former childhood sweetheart Harmony Lane (played by Michelle Monaghan) and the spark between the two is rekindled.

Perry takes Harry along on a simple surveillance gig that quickly takes a turn for the worse when they witness two masked men disposing of the dead body of a mysterious girl. From there, the two find themselves drawn into a twisty mystery as real life starts to resemble the old detective novels that Harry and Harmony loved as kids. 

The real genius here though is with Shane Black's writing. The entire film is narrated by Harry who is the epitome of an unreliable narrator. He stops the film and goes back to show something he forgot to show earlier, swears and then apologizes for it, and frequently breaks the fourth wall. He even at one point tells an audience member, "Stop picking at that, you'll only make it worse." 

The performances of all three cast members are exquisite. This film is largely responsible for proving Robert Downey Jr. could still carry a film and led to him landing the role in Iron Man. He does a fantastic job here delivering Shane's witty dialogue with aplomb and Val Kilmer as Perry is the perfect foil for him. Then there's the third stooge, Harmony, played by the lovely Michelle Monaghan. She never plays Harmony as a damsel in distress but as a very capable girl and is an equal team member to the other two, which I felt was refreshing. 
The film does a great job portraying a sparkly Christmas setting as the backdrop for the film. But at the same time, there feels like there is something artificial and put upon about it, 
which is no doubt Shane Black's point. This is no better accentuated than in a Holiday party Harry crashes that I can only imagine would be what Tim Burton's holiday party would be like.

Overall, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a fun, if slightly atypical holiday treat. If you're burnt out on the usual Christmas movies and want something with a little more bite, then there is nothing better than this. I love this film and I make time to watch it every year. It's not for everyone, but if you can get in it's groove, it's a blast. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

I find it rather reassuring that over the years, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation has found it's place as a contemporary Christmas classic. It's certainly one that fits my sensibilities as a genuinely funny holiday comedy while eliminating the sort of saccharine sentimentality that makes me hate many so-called Christmas movies. It's one that I have enjoyed ever since it first came out in 1989 and one that's gotten funnier every year thereafter.

We catch up with the Griswold clan again having decided to have a fun, festive Christmas at home with the family. Clark (played by Chevy Chase) is determined that everything will be perfect while his doting wife, Ellen (played by Beverly D'Angelo) tries to help and/or be the voice of reason. The two kids, Rusty (played by Johnny Galecki) and Audrey (played by Juliette Lewis) are also dragged into helping. Rusty is made to help Clark with a Christmas lights display so over the top the local power plant has to switch on the auxiliary power and Audrey is recruited to help with the cooking. 

Then there are the Grandparents, a quartet of oddballs portrayed by John Randolph and Diane Ladd as Clark's Parents and E.G Marshall and Doris Roberts as Ellen's parents. And of course, there has to be an appearance by Ellen's cousin Eddie (played by Randy Quaid) and his wife Catherine (played by Miriam Flynn), the country bumpkin weirdos that they are. Eddie is a strange duck whose entire life is made up of stupefyingly bad decisions. 

Meanwhile, Clark is stewing, waiting for his Christmas bonus to show up. He is planning on putting in a pool in the backyard and needs the Christmas bonus to show up to cover the deposit he put down on it. With that, on top of all the other holiday insanity that his family brings with them, it's only a matter of time before Clark loses it in another of his patented freak outs. When it does happen, it may be the best one in the series. 

The thing that makes National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation so memorable is the fact that everyone can relate to it at least on some level. We've all had Christmas gatherings that maybe didn't go perfectly and while they may not have been on the level of this film (which is admittingly pretty over the top), there is still some level of familiarity that makes it all that much funnier. At the very least, it does for me.  

Friday, December 19, 2014

Joyeux Noel

There are certain films that I will watch every Christmas without fail and Joyeux Noel quickly became one of them. It is a genuinely moving film about the 1914 Christmas Truce during World War I. The film focuses on three groups on the western front lines, a French, a Scottish and German regiment.

A German Tenor, now soldier, Nikolaus Sprink (played by Benno Furmann) is called from the front lines to sing in concert for a Christmas Eve party for a group of German generals with his wife Anna (played by Diane Kruger). Feeling his fellow soldiers could use a morale boost and the two return to the front lines to sing for the men together. When they arrive, they can hear the Scots singing "I'm Dreaming of Home." When Nikolaus and Anna begin singing "Adeste Fideles," they are surprised to hear the pipers begin to accompany them. The three sides step out of their trenches, gathering in No Man's Land and decide to call a truce for Christmas Eve. 

Small gifts of wine and chocolates are exchanged as the opposing sides find commonalities and become friends. The truce extends to the following day as they decide to bury the bodies of the dead. It is followed by an impromptu soccer match in the afternoon. Things get complicated as the three sides keep dragging out calling and end to the truce. Each side even invites the other side to ride out the artillery bombardment's in the other side's trench. 

The film was written and directed by Christian Carion who balances the stories of all three sides brilliantly. The film also moves between three languages, English, German and French, depending on which group we are with, with subtitles where needed. I know some viewers may roll their eyes at this, but I felt it helped with the realism of the scenes in a way. There are excellent performances all around, especially from Guillaume Canet, as Lt. Audebert, whose in charge of the French regiment and Daniel Bruhl as the German Lt. Horstmeyer. These two play wonderfully off one another, as they bond together over the course of a couple days. Horstmeyer reveals he honeymooned at a small hotel in France in the neighborhood where Audebert lives and reminisces about a cafe they liked. He says perhaps when the German Army takes Paris he can visit again. ("You don't have to invade Paris to come round for a drink," retorts Audebert.) 

It's moments like this that really gets one thinking and reflecting on the nature of war. If anything, Joyeux Noel functions as perhaps one of the best anti-war movies. It shows so perfectly, so wonderfully that if we could just put aside whatever conflict we have with each other, we can find find common ground with one another and see that deep down we're not all that different. The film also looks into what breeds this conflict in the opening scene of the film as three schoolboys, one English, one French, and one German recite the reasoning their countries went to war as was given by the media at the time. It's a jarring scene and certainly makes its point about propaganda and fear mongering that continues even today, through the likes of certain cable news networks. This is bookended at the end as the Scottish regiment's chaplain (played by Gary Lewis) overhears a priest giving a sermon preaching to their soldiers to fight their enemy, to destroy every last one of them that comes off as nothing less than chilling. 

In the end, this is a genuinely moving, heartfelt and incredibly well made movie that really leaves a viewer thinking. With fantastic performances and exquisite writing and directing, this is a film that really hits the mark. It's become a film I watch every Christmas without fail and is one that is well worth seeking out. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Few Christmas Carols...

Is there any story that has been adapted for the screen more times and in more ways than Charles Dickens' seminal classic, A Christmas Carol? There are literally dozens of films based on the classic tale, some better than others. Being that it's Christmas, I decided to take a look at three of my favorite renditions.

Originally made for television in 1984, this rendition of A Christmas Carol remains my favorite straight adaptation. With exquisite production design, fantastic direction and a top notch cast headed by a perfectly cast George C Scott, this production a class act all the way through.

The film belongs to George C Scott as Ebeneezer Scrooge. He gives a fantastic performance, accomplishing more with a low growl than others did with loud shouts. He's backed by an exquisite cast that includes David Warner as Bob Cratchit, Susanna York as Mrs. Cratchit and Edward Woodard as the Ghost of Christmas Present among many other familiar faces. 

The Production Value of this film is top notch, especially considering it was made for television. It does a fantastic job of recreating Victorian London. Director Clive Donner does a good job of creating a good sense of mood for the story as well. With all this coming together, it is easily my favorite straight rendition of the classic Dickens tale. Of course, I have another couple favorites, which skew things a bit in an amusing fashion.

Next up, we have the priceless The Muppet Christmas Carol. The Muppets give the well-worn story the good natured ribbing it so richly deserves. With Michael Caine as the perfect Scrooge and the usual gang of Muppets filling in most of the other parts (Kermit is Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy is Mrs. Cratchit, etc.) with Gonzo and Rizzo narrating the story and providing much of the humor of the film. 

This film does a good job of balancing the humor of the Muppets, with Gonzo and Rizzo present to work in narration from Dickens' original text as well as the occasional aside, like Rizzo asking if this might be too scary for little kids. "Nah, this is culture," responds Gonzo. The bulk of the Muppet cast more or less plays their familiar role well, but with a sense of fun and absurdist moments here or there, like Miss Piggy, er, I mean, Mrs. Cratchit threatening to beat up Mr. Scrooge that I found quite amusing. Michael Caine balances this out by playing Scrooge as the straight man, not reacting to the lunacy around him, which naturally makes it all the more funny.
The Muppets give the classic Dickens tale the good natured ribbing it deserves. A lot of care and heart was put into this and you can tell the makers really liked the story, but after it has been told so many times, you can't help but want to have some fun with it all. 

One of the mainstay adaptation variations is to move the action to the present day. Of these, Scrooged is easily the best with Bill Murray in the lead role. This one is unique in the sense that it is a looser adaptation of the classic story, focusing on a workaholic television executive on the eve of his big budget live television presentation of A Christmas Carol

This rendition always worked for me because of one big reason and that is Bill Murray. No one else could have possibly played the role of Frank Cross and still have been likable. But somehow, Murray still makes it work with every sarcastic remark not only working but provoking a laugh. It doesn't hurt that he has great chemistry with Karen Allen, who plays his lost love Claire, who he reconnects with during his misadventures with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Credit also has to be given to the Ghosts of Past and Present. David Johansen plays the Ghost of Christmas Past as a loudmouthed cab driver and Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present as a glittered up waif who takes great delight in physically abusing Frank. 

Richard Donner directs the film and has a good hand on the material, having come off another Christmas movie you may have heard of, Lethal Weapon. In fact, the Alastair Sim rendition of A Christmas Carol plays on a TV at one point in both films. He does a good job of capturing the comedic chaos, but also allowing the sweeter moments, especially at the end to have the payoff they deserve as well. It's a slightly underrated, certainly meta rendition on the Dickens classic that I happen to love.

But there are a staggering number of adaptations of this tale, and everyone who enjoys the story has their favorite adaptation or adaptations and these ones are my favorites. Because with so many why limit yourself to just one?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Hundred Foot Journey

It's not often that a film surprises me. Going into this film, I had a feeling I knew where it was going from the beginning. While it did cover the beats I was expecting, albeit with style, grace and heart, it also threw enough curve balls into the narrative to keep me on my toes. It was one of the things that made The Hundred Foot Journey such a pleasant surprise. 

The film opens with a young Hassan (played by Manish Dayal) and his family moving to France. They left their native India after the death of their mother in a fire at the restaurant they owned. The fire was the result of rioting after a recent election and because of the political unrest, they left in search of a more stable home. They find their new home in a small village when Papa (played by Om Puri) spies an old restaurant that is for sale. The rest of the family cautions him not to buy the place as it directly across from a Michelin star restaurant run by Madame Mallory (played by Helen Mirren). Undeterred and stubborn, Papa presses ahead, knowing he has a secret weapon in Hassan's cooking talents. 

Initially, Madame Mallory is unimpressed with the new restaurant across the way, worried that the loud music coming from there will drive her customers away. Determined to keep them from opening, she looks to sabotage their opening, but ignites a rivalry with Papa instead as he gives as good as he gets from her. Meanwhile, Hassan has struck up a flirtatious friendship with one of Madame's cooks, Marguerite (played by Charlotte Le Bon), who gives Hassan a set of French cookbooks to study. To try and make peace between the two restaurants, Hassan prepares a dish and brings it to Madame Mallory to try. After sampling it, she dismisses it and throws the rest away, but is secretly worried as it was anything but bad. 

This all takes a turn when three unknown men vandalize and fire bomb the Indian restaurant which results in Hassan being injured. Upon discovering one of her cooks was involved and feeling responsible, Madame Mallory decides to call a truce to her feud with the other restaurant. She even goes so far as personally scrubbing the graffiti that was spray painted on the outer gate of their restaurant. It's here that the film takes a decided left turn as the two sides slowly become friends with one another and Hassan approaches Madame Mallory to learn more about French cooking. 

Helen Mirren is fantastic as always as Madame Mallory, taking her character above what could have been a stern stick in the mud and making her a three dimensional character. The real star though is Manish Dayal's performance as Hassan. He creates such a wonderful and endearing character who only wants to help and look out for what's best for his family, even if the personal journey he is on may run counter to that. You can see the turmoil this causes for Hassan and is perfectly realized by Dayal. 

The film is filled with warmth, humor and a lot of heart. It's beautifully directed by Lasse Hallstrom, with wonderful shots of both the French countryside and the exquisite dishes that come out of both kitchens (fair warning, don't watch this on an empty stomach). It's a fantastic film and one that I highly recommend.