Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Out of all the TMBC critics, it was probably easiest for me to figure out which classic Christmas movie I was reviewing. After all, a casual glance around my apartment and the various Snoopy dolls, Peanuts action figures and books littered amongst everything else reveals a casual obsession with all things Peanuts. So, it only makes sense for me to review the way-ahead-of-it's-time, still-relevant, still-heartwarming A Charlie Brown Christmas.....which was almost never made.
The familiar plot revolves mostly around Charlie Brown and his disillusion with the holiday season, which has become completely commercialized, and has distorted the true meaning of Christmas. To add to his holiday burden, he is picked to direct the Christmas pageant. Ignoring bossy Lucy's wishes for a large aluminum tree, he picks a small, pathetic tree that gets him laughed at by all the other kids.....except for Linus, who answers Charlie Brown's request for insight into the true meaning of Christmas with his iconic reading from Luke. When he is at the depths of his depair, having collapsed the tree with a single ornament from Snoopy's prize-winning decoration of his doghouse, Charlie Brown is joined by the other kids, whom Linus helped realize that they were too hard on Charlie Brown, and who promptly prop up and fix the pathetic tree with more decorations from Snoopy's doghouse. The special ends with the gang singing "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing."
Wait, that's all there is to the story? The above recounting and some little sketches comprise all of A Charlie Brown Christmas , which prompted shock and awe from studio executives upon it's proposal. First of all, the score was jazz. Jazz in a children's cartoon. Second of all, there was no laugh track. That was completely unthinkable at the time for a cartoon. Thirdly, with the exception of the boy voicing Charlie Brown and a few others, the voice actors were novices. Most of them couldn't even comprehend their lines, and read them off phonetically. This led to the familiar off-kilter phrasing rhythm in Peanuts cartoons from then on. Finally, the religious undertones in the special made execs squirm. Charles Schultz held the line on this point, with the rationale that "if we don't tell people what the true meaning of Christmas is, who will?" When screened for executives, they thought it was going to be a disaster, a total flop. Taking all the elements above, and adding the rushed, choppy animation, it seemed that A Charlie Brown Christmas was over before it began. But it aired, became a critical and ratings hit, and the rest is history.
One of the reasons the special is so good is that Shultz's vision is intact. Character depiction is accurate (Snoopy and Lucy are grade A jerks, all the way....), and the special has an organic feel unmatched by the later Peanuts christmas special. It's not hard to see why it's the second-longest running TV Xmas special, beaten only by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which debuted a year earlier. I give this enduring classic a 17, and wish you all a Merry Christmas!

Memorable Lines:

"Pig-Pen, you're the only person I know who can raise a cloud of dust in a snowstorm!"

"Get the biggest aluminum tree you can find, Charlie Brown, maybe painted pink."

"Rats. Nobody sent me a Christmas card today. I almost wish there weren't a holiday season. I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?"

Friday, December 22, 2006

Miracle on 34th St.

As much as I respect his opinion, I must disagree with Dr. Worm. Nobody does it better than the Muppets, you say? Au contraire, Mahatma. “Does it best” is covered by James Stewert, but Jimmy had his day in the sun with Wicked Little Critta’s review of It’s a Wonderful Life, so I’ll leave that alone. Doing it second best is Edmund Gwenn, as the saintly Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th St. Turn in your beards and hats, Salvation Army; this guy blows all you fake Santas away.

Miracle on 34th St. is the very first movie I remember seeing when I was a kid, and is probably the actual first movie I ever saw. My first memory of it was when I was 5 years old, watching it with my 9-year-old sister on Thanksgiving night. There were probably earlier incidents of me watching it, but they are lost to the mists of time. But every year at Thanksgiving (the official start of the Christmas season in my mind), my sister and I watch this movie. Needless to say, this is a yearly tradition that has only been broken by events such as marriage and terrible illness.

The story starts off with a man strolling down the Manhattan streets on Thanksgiving morning, an old man with a long white beard (Edmund Gwenn). He comes to where the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is gearing up for to get going, and sees Macy’s Santa Claus having some trouble with the whip. When the man goes to help him, he notices that Santa is drunk, and the man is outraged. Finding the organizer of the parade, Doris (Maureen O’Hara), he is asked by her to stand in for Santa, to which he reluctantly agrees. The next day, he’s hired as the regular Santa for the toy department of Macy’s, the one where the kids line up to sit on his knee and tell him what they want for Christmas. Wackiness ensues when it’s revealed that he thinks he’s the real Santa Claus. His name, by the way, is Kris Kringle. When asked what is real name is, he matter-of-factly states, “that is my real name.” What’s more, he starts telling the parents of the kids he sees to shop at stores other than Macy’s. Mr. Macy loves it, because many customers have expressed gratitude to Macy’s for putting good-will ahead of commercialism. But a devious amateur psychologist plots to have Kris institutionalized for his “delusion,” but he turns to his lawyer roommate, Fred Gaily (John Payne), to get him out of the nuthouse. Fred takes a very unorthodox stance for Kris’s defense, however: he tries to legally prove that Kris is in fact Santa Claus. Also, there is Doris’s level-headed daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. Kris opens up a world for her that she didn’t even know existed.

The main feature of this film is that you don’t know if Kris is actually Santa Claus, or if he’s just deluded. Not even at the end do you really have a definitive answer. Everything in the movie could just be coincidence, and Kris could just be an unaware catalyst to huge events. Maybe there really is no Santa Claus, as all the adults in the movie save Kris believe. On the other hand, maybe there is, and everything that Kris was saying was true. It could go either way. The great thing about this movie is its ambiguity. It doesn’t try to make you believe one thing or another; it allows you the space to make up your own mind.

My mother suggests that a belief in Santa Claus is essential to children, because it is that same belief that allows us to believe in God. Belief in something that we can’t see and have no evidence of is a very important trait, and if children can learn it early on, all the better. There is not a shred of evidence in Miracle on 34th St. that Kris really is Santa Claus, and never does the movie say definitively whether it’s one way or the other. So it’s up to you, the viewer, to decide; not only for the purposes of watching the movie, but in real life, too. Is there, or is there not, a Santa Claus?


Iconic lines:
“Christmas isn’t just a day; it’s a frame of mind.”
“Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to.”

22 Rating: 16

Particle Man

Thursday, December 21, 2006

It's a Wonderful Life

Initial reaction: "Life really IS wonderful."
I can't begin to express my happiness in reviewing one of my favorite movies of all time. It's a Wonderful Life spans approximately 30 years in the life of its main character, George Bailey. The film opens in an involving and touching way, carrying the audience through George's hometown of Bedford Falls to overhear numerous prayers being offered up to God on George's behalf. Something has gone terribly wrong in George Bailey's life, and we witness his loved ones, young and old, expressing their concern for him. Who is this man that everyone cares about so much? What's going on?
The prayers in a mumbled chorus travel up to heaven where God and his angels decide an intervention is warranted. This scene is charming. Granted, it consists of pulsating stars and constellations discussing George's problem as though it has just come on the daily news, but it doesn't have to be convincing or cool-looking. That's not the point at all. The point is to show us that the prayers are heard, and help is on the way.
They appoint a second-class angel, Clarence Oddbody, to help George. Most other angels earn their wings by completing missions, but poor Clarence hasn't done this yet, and, as he puts it, "'s been over 200 years and people are starting to talk." With the promise that if he helps George he will receive his wings, he then gets a view into the life of George Bailey.
George is a wonderful, likeable, all-American guy. As you can imagine, director Frank Capra's choice of James Stewart for this role was probably the best he ever made. He was brought up by kind-hearted, hardworking parents who raised him and his younger brother, Harry, in Bedford Falls. George's father, Peter Bailey, runs the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan which basically allows him to grant loans to the more underprivileged members of the community so they can buy decent homes for their families. A noble pursuit, and he's clearly not in it for the money. George admires his dad, but from the time he's young he itches to get out of the stifling Bedford Falls, see the world, and become a famous architect, designing skyscrapers, air fields, etc. High hopes.
But of course, George is unlucky. George's father dies right before George is supposed to leave for college, and, as a result, his family's beloved business is threatened by the town tycoon, Mr. Potter. George realizes he must give up his dream to save his father's. He ends up living a life of sacrifice. Whether it be family, friends, or just well-meaning citizens down on their luck, George comes through for them. He still has a small, burning flame within him that gives him hope that someday he'll do something really big. But in reality, he ends up just helping people in their average, ordinary lives as he carries on in his own.
Things go fairly well for George. At least, he can't complain too much. He has a beautiful wife, four adorable kids, a decent house, and some high-quality family and friends. But it's hard to get through life without at least one big shocker. George's comes when an $8,000 deposit for the Building and Loan is misplaced en route to the bank. It's the beginning of the worst day of George's life. He faces bankruptcy and prison, and suddenly all of the sacrifices he's made all of his life compile into the realization that he's nothing: he's worth more dead than alive.
Enter Clarence Oddbody, AS2 (Angel Second Class). Clarence intervenes, and when George shares his realization to Clarence in a drunken stupor, Clarence allows George to see what life would be like if he'd never been born.
George stumbles around his hometown, or what he thought was his hometown, and receives shock upon shock of how different things are. I won't give too much away, but his night is filled with eye-opening situations and heartbreaking realizations. He is nearly crazed with confusion and grief, and it's quite a ride for the audience as well.
As affecting as the film is in these respects, it's incredibly heartwarming. Since most of the people in the world that would potentially watch the film are average people, most of us can identify with George's situation. Potential overlooked, opportunities lost. But the joy of it comes with the fact that we all contribute to this world. Each of us has an effect on those around us, some much more than we realize. The final scenes of the movie are some of the happiest I've ever seen. And it's not a superficial kind of happy. It's deeper, the kind that fills your soul and makes living seem that much more worthwhile.
This is a role that James Stewart was born to play. Donna Reed, who plays his wife, Mary, is beautiful, sweet, and sincere. She seems to embody the heart of the film. Also notable are Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter, Henry Travers as Clarence, and Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy. But to be honest, the entire cast was exceptional. They all contributed fantastically to the plot.

Rating: 18

It's a Wonderful Life is a beautiful movie that warms the heart and guides its audience into a joyful Christmas spirit. It's well-done and meaningful with an excellent cast. For me, it's just not Christmas without hearing the story of George Bailey.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

White Christmas

Do you have that nice warm fuzzy feeling? If you do then you must be watching Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.
White Christmas was released in 1954 and stars Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. Set in the years following World War II, it tells the story of two old army acquaintances who team up in show business and become successful Broadway producers. In fact, Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Kaye) are so wrapped up in their careers that they never can find time to meet any women and settle down. But after receiving a tip from an old army buddy, they go to see the Haynes sisters’ act. After the act, Betty Haynes (Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Ellen) meet the great Wallace and Davis and no one’s life is ever the same.
After a very brief period of excitement and confusion, all four end up in a snowless Vermont, just weeks before Christmas. They arrive at the Pine Tree Inn, where the Haynes sisters are scheduled to perform for the holidays. Wallace and Davis soon learn that this inn is owned by their former commanding officer, General Tom Waverly. After learning of the “Old Man’s” troubles, they team up with the girls to give him the greatest Christmas present ever.
I love this movie. It’s tied (with The Muppet Christmas Carol) for the title of my favorite Christmas movie. I love musicals (and I’ve been in quite a few), so this movie naturally speaks to me. Everything about it is wonderful. The songs are magnificent and so are the singers (though Ms. Ellen did not actually sing for the film). Whether they are singing of the fun they will have in snowy Vermont or the cruel nature of the thing we call love, I cannot recall a single musical moment I didn’t enjoy.
This production also contains awesome dancing! The dancing is so great that I can even forget the fact that Ms. Ellen was not able to vocally perform. (I can also forget my extreme jealousy of her and her size -1 waist, but I digress). The movie is filled with such energetic dancing that you can’t help but watch and wish you could do that too.
But my favorite part of the movie is the characters, from Bob Wallace to Gen. Waverly’s nosy maid. They aren’t in the least bit fake; at no point did I look at the film and think, “Gee, those people are acting well.” Instead, I thought, “Wow, those people really care about the general.” That’s extremely rare to find in a movie. I may just be jaded, but I can’t fully express how refreshing it was to not see one person overact.
I would like to get one thing off my chest, however. I know there are some out there who don’t feel that this movie qualifies as a Christmas movie. While I respect everyone’s right to their own opinion, in this case they are wrong. The Christmas season is defined by the selflessness and the generosity that the spirit of giving engenders in everyone. This is clearly shown in White Christmas. Wallace and Davis have so much admiration for their former commanding officer that they incur the cost of bringing their entire show up to Vermont to attract business, and also arrange an amazing surprise for the general in the process. After all, Christmas is the time when we think of those we care about and what would make them happy instead of ourselves. OK, my rant is done now. Back to the review.
As I said before, I love this movie. I have only good memories of sitting with my dad and watching it at Christmastime, both of us singing along. While that fact probably increases my love of the movie, it would still be a great movie even without that. That’s definitely an honor: to be able to take away all good memories associated with a film and still end up loving it, simply because it’s a great film. This shows the caliber of film that White Christmas is and why it deserves a 22. That’s right! I gave a movie a 22! I would like to thank Santa for bringing me such a wonderful Christmas present every year.

PLEASE NOTE: Today, 7/10/08, I was having a conversation with our own Dr. Worm about whether our ratings are based on enjoyment of the film or if it is good or not. With this conversation in mind I would like to give a slight amendment to this post. While I definitely enjoyed this movie to the 22 level, I feel I must give it a second rating for the goodness of the film. White Christmas receives a very respectable 10 in that area.

Now if Particle Man doesn’t mind, I’m going to borrow his iconic lines segment.

Iconic Lines:
Phil: My dear partner, when what’s left of you gets to what’s left to be gotten, what’s left won’t be worth getting, whatever it is you got left.

General Waverly: I got along very well in the army with out you.
Emma (the maid): It took 15,000 men to take my place!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Muppet Family Christmas & The Muppet Christmas Carol

Nobody does it better.

Sure, that song was technically written for the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, but only because that film came out two years before the first full-length Muppet movie: The Muppet Movie. If you were to ask Carly Simon today, I'd bet she'd agree that the Muppets, indeed, do it better.

Take A Muppet Family Christmas, for example. First airing in 1987, this made-for-TV special only needs an hour to beat the pants off of rival Christmas specials. You want laughs? It's got that. Observe, for example, the Muppet newscaster being showered with barometers after reading the line, "Barometers are falling everywhere." You want songs? It's got both original (the excellent "Pass It On" with Kermit, Robin, and the Fraggles) and traditional (a Muppet medley of about ten different Christmas songs closes out the film). You want a warmed heart? Observe Big Bird completely reroute the Swedish Chef's attempt to cook him (as the biggest Christmas turkey ever) with some kind words and a thoughtful gift. Their subsequent duet--"Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire"--will make you both hoot with laughter and mist up with sentimentality. It's Big Bird and the Swedish Chef--a guy in a bird suit and a puppet--and somehow they manage a more touching scene than umpteen other Christmas movies do.

The plot is incidental, but here it is anyway: Fozzie brings the entire Muppet gang back to his mom's place for Christmas, inadvertently ruining not only her vacation plans but also those of Fraggle Rock's Doc (a human), who had rented her house in the hopes of having a quiet Christmas to himself. As chaos ensues at Mrs. Bear's house, Kermit anxiously awaits the arrival of the tardy Miss Piggy, who seems to be caught in a blizzard.

But the plot really is incidental. You watch this because it makes you laugh, because it makes you cry, because it warms the cockles of your heart--and because it's the only Muppet movie to feature characters from all four of the major Muppet franchises: The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Muppet Babies, and Fraggle Rock.

But believe it or not, this masterpiece of Christmas theater is outdone by a later film: The Muppet Christmas Carol, first viewable in movie theaters in December of 1992.

The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppet movie after the death of Muppets creator Jim Henson in 1990, but it doesn't miss a beat. Directed by Jim's son Brian, it maintains all the charm of Jim's productions while including subtle hints toward the directions Brian would eventually take the Muppet franchise, such as the more prominent role of Rizzo the Rat.

The Muppet Christmas Carol faithfully follows the plot of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Michael Caine plays Ebenezer Scrooge (unfortunately for Sam the Eagle, as this was a role Sam was born to play). Caine is the only human in a prominent role; the rest of the cast is filled out by Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchit, Robin as Tiny Tim, Statler and Waldorf as Jacob Marley (who, to accommodate the pair, is split into brothers Jacob and Robert Marley), and Gonzo--turning in his finest performance--portrays Charles Dickens, the narrator.

The plot is precisely the plot you expect. Scrooge is a jerk until he's visited by the ghosts of Marley and the past/present/future, after which he's the nicest fellow you can imagine. To their credit, the Muppets don't do much to update this classic plot.

So why is The Muppet Christmas Carol such a triumph? Well, there's the inimitable Muppet charm and humor, which is a big part of it. There are several excellent songs, notably "One More Sleep 'Til Christmas" and "It Feels Like Christmas." But above and beyond this, the Muppets are all perfectly cast for the parts they play: Kermit, unassuming and hard-working, is the quintessential Bob Cratchit. Robin, the one Muppet consistently guilty of too much sentimentality, is heart-warming and sympathetic as the sickly Tiny Tim. And, as previously mentioned, Gonzo turns out a surprisingly good performance as a know-it-all Charles Dickens.

In fact, the hands-down worst scene of this film--Scrooge's old girlfriend singing "When Love is Gone" to the 20-year-old Ebenezer--also happens to be the one scene where no Muppets are present. When Muppets reappear at the close of this scene, it's a welcome respite.

There are plenty of good Christmas movies, as the rest of TMBC will point out later this week, but you simply cannot go wrong with A Muppet Family Christmas or The Muppet Christmas Carol, which come in, respectively, as an 11 and a 13.

It's a Wonderful Muppet Family White Christmas on 34th Street, Charlie Brown!

Greetings, TMBC fans!
In anticipation of the wonderful Christmas holiday, we are celebrating with a tribute to our favorite Christmas movies! This Tuesday through Saturday, December 19th through 23rd, each member of TMBC will review his or her most beloved Christmas film. Assuming everything goes as planned. ;)
Enjoy the reviews, and Merry Christmas to all!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Girl meets boy. Boy and girl fall in love. Wackiness ensues.
Hello, my friends, and welcome to my review of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which was released in 2002 as a small and fairly unknown independent feature and slowly but surely became a smash hit. But why? What did this movie have that others did not?
Before I saw it, it seemed like your everyday chick flick to me. However, after recommendations from a number of people (and the fact that it was playing for a dollar at the theater down the street from my school) I finally gave in and went to see it. I was shocked Yes, it does have some of the mechanics of a regular chick flick, but the annoying ones, thankfully, weren’t there.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding tells the story of a woman named Toula (Nia Vardalos). Being a Greek single woman over the age of 25 has prematurely turned her into an old maid, according to her family’s standards. However, she feels that there is much more available to her than just her family. As she begins to expand her life, non-Greek Ian Miller, played by John Corbett, enters the scene and turns everything upside-down. Once you get to know these characters and the rest of the wonderful ensemble cast, you know you’re in for a treat.
But why was it better than your run-of-the-mill chick flick? First of all, the two individuals who formed the main couple were not stupid. They didn’t go into this relationship thinking that their significant other was going to be perfect. They also didn’t go in under false pretenses and then end up having to come clean months later. There was a significant part of the film that I thought—drawing on my past experience with chick flicks—would present the conflict for the rest of the movie, and I was floored when it did not.
Second, it was not as unrealistic as many other chick flicks are. Sure, every girl dreams that the perfect guy is going to come along and sweep her off her feet, and we see that happening in movies all the time. However, in real life, it does not happen that often. I am exceedingly grateful to this movie for showing a somewhat more realistic version of dating and being in love than what we typically see. Granted, there were still remnants of that Hollywood-ever-after aspect, but just the right amount.
But that’s not all. My Big Fat Greek Wedding was also extremely well-written, well-cast, well-everything. The characters were quite entertaining; it seemed like every character had something that set them apart from the background. There were very few “cardboard” people propped into the movie just to fill up space. I think another reason that I loved the characters in this movie was because they were really my family, though on a much grander scale. (Of course, if this film were to star my family it would have to be called My Big Fat Irish Catholic Wedding. However, after my father saw it, he told me that it pretty much described his meeting my mother’s family. I found this hilarious!)
It was so refreshing to find no unrealistic obstacles in this movie. I don’t know if anybody thought of this before, but I imagine the pitch went something like this:
Sleazy agent A: Imagine every chick flick you have ever seen.
Sleazy agent B: Okay.
Sleazy agent A: Now take away the improbable romance, the lying, and the stupidity.
Sleazy Agent B: Wait! But then you are left with nothing! That is not what America wants and Hollywood will never make it.

It’s like a seagull listening for a pulse in your foot. The agents are doing what they know, but are looking for the pulse in the wrong place. Fortunately, the makers of My Big Fat Greek Wedding ignored the squawking agents, moved their collective ear right up to America’s carotid artery, and found the way to pull at our heart strings. Thank you! Here, take an 18!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Initial Reaction: "I feel so used."

The documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? begins on a bitter note: It shows us a long line of EV1 (electric) cars in a funeral procession--for their own funeral. At this point, I felt like the filmmakers were just being a bit dramatic. A funeral? For a car? Doesn't seem necessary. Even a little over-the-top. Then I found out that this "funeral" wasn't just staged for the dramatic effect of this documentary; it was actually held by a large number of EV1 owners, and for the obvious reason: their cars had been killed. What better way to mourn the loss of something you love?

Who Killed the Electric Car? Is a fascinating documentary about this story. The people that took part in it were many, and from various camps: car company employees, developers of the electric car, EV drivers, environmentalists, government officials, oil company executives, etc. All of these were involved in the car's rise and fall, and all play a significant role in its story. Turns out that the electric car was being built and sold by car dealers in California in the mid 90s. I was (once again) struck by the fact that people can be very misinformed very easily. As an example, I spent my early years growing up in the 80s and 90s, and I was never aware that electric cars are not only possible (which shouldn't be very surprising in the first place; I mean, look at everything that can run on electricity), but that they had been marketed. And driven. And liked. How did I never know about this? Isn't this a part of my generation's heritage? Regardless of the numerous benefits and (modestly) rising popularity, eventually, there were zero electric cars left on the road. Why? Whose fault is it? How on earth would a car that is better for the environment, drives well, and is easy to maintain NOT stay on the market?

This documentary goes in depth about all of the pieces to the puzzle. Who Killed the Electric Car? takes us through the EV's story, and investigates all of the suspects in the killing. Not to mention the fact that it also makes the audience sickeningly aware of what we do to our environment every day without even thinking twice. It begins by telling us the development of the electric car, and getting the experts to tell us why this car is so much better than those running on gasoline. We hear from a number of EV1 owners who loved their cars more than any other car they'd owned. One woman was not only an EV1 owner, but also worked for GM as a salesperson when these cars were being sold. She was present at the beginning of the electric car movement, pushed hard to see further development, and eventually lost her job as well as her car. And we get even further into this ugly mess: talking to the "higher-ups" of car companies, specifically GM, about why the electric car wasn't popular. We even hear from the California Air Resources Board which ends up joining the huge force against these vehicles. The documentary was fairly even-handed, getting information from both sides, as well as showing and demonstrating the numbers and hidden facts. As any good documentary should do.

Overall, a well-done documentary. As I remember, all of our questions were answered by the end. A great eye-opener, very informative, and interesting to watch, even for the person who doesn't get a thrill from cars. I was heartily ashamed of myself that I hadn't a clue about these things before, but the film ends on a positive note that this is not the end, and that there are still things we can do. I recommend watching deleted scenes as well, as they continued to inform. More than anything, I'll tell you to just go watch it and judge for yourself.

Rating: 15

A good documentary, but, it's a documentary. It rates high for factual representation and presenting both sides. But it doesn't get a superb rating because, in general, documentaries don't do it for me.
For more information about the electric car movement, go to: There are options now. Toyota makes a hybrid, the Prius, which is gaining in popularity (And gets 42 mpg!), and has also recently has come out with a plug-in hybrid. Car manufacturers need to know that there is a demand for these vehicles, and the consumer is the only one who can tell them so. Welcome to responsibility: stop killing things.

Iconic lines:

"I've never seen a manufacturer so cannibalistic about its own product."

"GM will make a car that runs on pig sh*t, if there's a demand."

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

There are really two ways a movie can be good: It can be technically excellent, or it can be enjoyable.

Certain movies are technically excellent--the characters are deep, the dialogue is sharp, the cinematography is stunning, etc--but the movies themselves aren't particularly enjoyable. Citizen Kane and Brokeback Mountain, to pick an old and a new, are two movies that fall into this category.

Other movies may not be so sharp--there are small plot holes, the characters are unrealistic, the direction is lackadaisical--but they still manage to be enjoyable. The Princess Bride and School of Rock are two movies that, for me, fall into this subset.

And upon seeing Little Miss Sunshine, I'm happy to announce its admission to the second camp, though unfortunately I cannot allow it into the first.

I'll get into this, but let me first give you the nuts and bolts of the film. Little Miss Sunshine is essentially a movie about characters, and there are six characters you have to keep track of:

1. Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), the father of the family. Richard is a well-meaning enough father, but he's obsessed with a 9-steps-to-success program that he created and is now trying to make into a book, and his tendency to view everything through the 9-step lens leads him to make some questionable parenting choices.

2. Sheryl Hoover (Toni Collette), the mother of the family. Sheryl doesn't really have a glaring flaw, unless you count her smoking habit. She, like most stock mother figures, is the voice of reason--concerned only with keeping the family happy and together.

3. Dwayne Hoover (Paul Dano), the teenage son. Dwayne's like a lot of teenagers: he's moody, he's isolated, he's a bit selfish. Unlike most teenagers, however, Dwayne has taken a vow of silence. He's decided not to make a peep until he gets into flight school, and apparently he's already kept this vow for over a year at the time the movie begins.

4. Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin), the seven-year-old daughter. Olive is cute as button and obsessed with beauty pageants. When she gets invited to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, the whole family (after some squabbles) load up into the family's VW bus and trek from Arizona to L.A. for the pageant. This journey is the narrative framework for the film.

5. Grandpa Edwin Hoover (Alan Arkin), the grandfather (duh). Grandpa is a kindly old man who loves his family (especially Olive) very much, but he also snorts cocaine, curses every fifth word, and advises Dwayne to "f*ck a lot of women" while he's young. So he's a bit of a mixed bag.

6. And then there's Frank (Steve Carell), Sheryl's brother and the nation's foremost expert on Marcel Proust. At the start of the movie, Frank is in the hospital, having attempted to commit suicide after his boyfriend/grad student left him to be with America's number-two expert on Proust.

Pack these six divergent personalities into a van for two days--some of them against their will--and you've got the makings of your standard, boilerplate family vacation comedy. If you've seen any of the National Lampoon's Vacation movies starring Chevy Chase--or even last summer's RV with Robin Williams--you have a basic idea of how this works: The dysfunctional family piles into a largish vehicle en route to some supposed Valhalla, buoyed largely by dad's hopeless optimism. The dysfunctional family runs into a number of (usually comical) problems. Dad frets as his kids seem ready to disown him, with his wife considering the option as well. And then, finally, the family overcomes adversity, bonds together, and everyone learns a valuable lesson.

Little Miss Sunshine follows this formula almost to the letter, which one might expect to lead to a tepid family-friendly comedy. But Little Miss Sunshine manages to escape its seemingly preordained mediocrity, and it does so in three ways:

1. The strength of the characters. Just in reading the character descriptions above, you can tell this isn't your typical family vacation movie. A crack addict grandpa? A suicidal gay uncle? A mute teenage son? The adult themes earn it an R rating, but they also lift the characters beyond stereotype. The characters all have their flaws, their strengths, and are real in a way characters in these movies usually aren't. They aren't completely real, mind you, but they're realer than the characters you've come to expect in these films.

2. The strength of the acting. Each of the six principals is excellent, but Steve Carell and Paul Dano get singled out for special praise. Steve Carell is understatedly brilliant, completely capturing morose-but-coping without a shred of overacting. And Paul Dano's raw emotion during the scene where he finally does speak (come on, you knew it had to happen) was enough to bring a tear to the eye of even this hard-hearted movie critic.

3. Olive. Her story is ostensibly the central one, since it is her beauty pageant that gets the whole family into the van in the first place. And Olive is the one character in the movie that you can really get behind one hundred percent, as her childish innocence has not yet been corrupted by the selfishness of her family. And ten-year-old Abigail Breslin (the little girl from Signs) plays seven-year-old Olive perfectly, managing to be entirely sweet and cute without ever becoming sickening.

To be sure, there are problems. A lot of the comically unpleasant situations that the family gets itself into are a bit contrived, as is often the case in such movies. And the final-act redemption happens far too abruptly; they characters are so deplorable at the beginning and so valorous at the end, it's almost as though they're different people.

On the whole, however, Little Miss Sunshine manages to produce more smiles than furrowed brows. How much more? Enough to earn it a 10.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Fountain (a guest review by Number Three)

This is a valuable film. What gives it its value is the pure artistic emotion. I don’t have to fully agree with an artist to enjoy his craft if the underlying message is reasonable to my timid ears. And Aronofsky gives us both a message worth listening to (if slightly misguided and incomplete) and art that simply must be absorbed by anyone who dares to call himself a connoisseur of film. Aronofsky is a modern day Kubrick with about 500 percent more relevance.

Many movie geeks have been waiting years for The Fountain to hit the screen. Aronofsky was first put on the map with his psychological and eccentric thriller Pi and it was followed up by the brilliant yet provocative Requiem for a Dream. That got him enough bragging rights to rope in Brad Pitt for the lead role in The Fountain, but Pitt split and the budget took a hit. So what we have now is a $35 million masterpiece with one of the better young actors working today, Hugh Jackman, along with Aronofsky’s wife Rachel Weisz and veteran actress Ellen Burstyn, who could make a burp fascinating. Weisz manages well and Burstyn makes her short appearance well worth it, but Jackman deserves best actor this year. He came to the nation’s attention in his roles in the silly/dark Van Helsing and as Wolverine in the X-Men movies, and has only now begun acting in more mature roles as in The Fountain and The Prestige.

Ok, what is The Fountain about? Ultimately, it’s about how we as humans deal with death, and additionally, how we should deal with death. Let me just tell you his message right off the bat: some of us can get so caught up in avoiding death that we miss our opportunity to live with the time that we have, and our quest for immortality may only destroy our humanity. There…isn’t that nice? Yes, it really is. And the message comes through quite powerfully. To me, a filmmaker that can say something relevant and true to our culture and do it in an artistic and original way is worth their weight in gold.

There is a husband and a wife, Tom and Izzi (Jackman and Weisz). They love each other deeply. Izzi is dying of cancer. Tom is a neurosurgeon and is trying desperately to find a cure for his wife’s tumor. But he is so madly driven in this quest that he is missing time with Izzi, who is content to die and burdened by her husband’s foolish quest. The foolishness of the quest is not its impossibility, but its untimeliness. That’s a point that his boss (Burstyn) tries to knock into his head unsuccessfully when she first tells him to go spend time with his wife instead of in the testing labs and second goes to visit his wife herself. From this previous description, it should be no surprise to you that these moments afford many opportunities to flail one’s acting chops, and they all do it potently. In retrospect, the prideful Pitt could have never made himself vulnerable in the way that Jackman does here. Pitt is a good actor and a very entertaining one, but he is too in love with himself to take a role like this.

While hubby is trying to be a hero, Izzi is writing a novel, “The Fountain,” which is the story of a conquistador (also Jackman) who is on a quest for the queen (also Weisz) to find the tree of life as told in the Genesis account. These scenes are interspersed throughout the movie, and the transitions and connection points with the main story thread are the delightful things that make Aronofsky such a unique filmmaker. This book becomes the wife’s outlet for reaching her husband as she hands him the unfinished book and asks him to write the last chapter himself.

Meanwhile, there is a man who appears to be Tom (Jackman) who is traveling in space with a tree inside a transparent bubble thing. And anybody who thinks you need to spend $200 million to make something look astoundingly cool doesn’t know what they’re talking about. These are visually breathtaking scenes. Tom is being sustained on his long journey by the bark of this tree, and he frequently has visions and memories of Izzi when she was dying from the past. Is this the real Tom in the future or the last chapter of the book that Tom is writing? I think the latter is more likely as do others, but this will be debated.

What we finally have is a story of a man and a wife with past and future intersecting. We have a unique filmmaker at his best with a message that is relevant and agreeable and helpful. It’s not perfect, but well worth seeing.

Number Three’s Score:
Mouthspeak (impact of dialog): +8
Watchfeel (impact of visuals): +16
Mouthfeel (overall watchability): +12

Number Three

Friday, December 01, 2006


At the beginning: “Oh God, this isn’t one of those highly experimental student films with no plot or dialog, is it?” At the end: “What’s for dinner?”

Gotta tell ya, Junebug didn’t make much of an impact. At the start of it (after my student film fear was assuaged), I thought it played to stereotypes too much. The city folk were thinking “let’s exploit those country bumpkins and hold them up for ridicule by pretending we’re really their friends.” The country bumpkins were of course thinking “yoo shur doo got purtee legs.” That’s a direct quote from the movie, by the way. As the movie went on, stereotypes gave way to deeply complex people, and a few touches the movie added I really appreciated, but overall, it was a forgettable experience.

George (Alessandro Nivola) and Madeline (Embeth Davidtz) are art dealers in Chicago, and when the movie opens (on the characters), they see each other from across a room, and there is an instant connection. A week later they are married. The hitch comes when they have to go to North Carolina to court an artist to come to their company, right near where George’s family lives. Madeline has never met them, and is excited to. Within the Johnstons, the family dynamics are so bizarre and so outside my understanding that the family was completely inaccessible to me. The pregnant daughter-in-law of the family Ashley (Amy Adams) is very different from the rest of them; bubbly, friendly, and painfully extroverted. As the movie goes on, you see that she is also strong, loving, selfless, sincere, and strawberry-sweet. Adams deserved her Oscar nomination for this role, but it was a very bright spot amidst a pretty mediocre film.

Johnny, Ashley’s husband and George’s younger brother (Ben McKenzie), is a complex (if distasteful) character. He says but little, never smiles, is very disconnected from everything, and is ridiculously unhappy. He is still living with his parents despite the fact that he’s married, and finds more contentment at his minimum-wage job than he does with his wife and future baby. And even so, he cares for Ashley. When he sees that a documentary about meerkats (Ashley’s favorite animal) is on TV, he scrambles to videotape it, is unable to find an adequate tape, swears horribly with Ashley’s baby shower going on upstairs, and when Ashley comes down to find out what’s going on, he angrily blames the incident on her, without telling her his intentions. And then, when he has to write a report about Huckleberry Finn for his GED test, Madeline volunteers to help him, but he ruins it by getting angry at her and then trying to make a pass at her. What is this guy doing?

Despite Adams’ great and winning performance, Junebug is a little too boring, standard, and unexciting to be worthwhile. There is only one twist (I won’t reveal it here), but it doesn’t shock the system like the rest of the movie requires; it just saddens it. The one credit I do give the movie is its treatment of small-town Christians, which is not the typical Hollywood treatment. They present them as very kind-hearted, loving individuals, who gather together without much fanfare but with a lot of love. They’re not bigoted, homophobic, or intolerant, which is how movies usually paint them. Most of the Christians I know aren’t these things either, and it’s great to see them presented in a slightly more realistic light.

Iconic lines:
“Where would I be if I was a screwdriver?”

22 Rating: -4

Particle Man