National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation


Norman Rockwell or Norman Bates?

Norman Rockwell or Norman Bates?

(1989) Holiday Comedy (Warner Brothers) Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, Randy Quaid, Miriam Flynn, Cody Burger, Ellen Hamilton Latzen, William Hickey, Nicholas Guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Brian Doyle-Murray, Mae Questel, Natalia Nogulich, Nicolette Scorsese. Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechnik

hollynquill-2013

We all have our ideas of what an ideal Christmas is – snow on the ground or fun in the sun. Most of our ideals however involve being surrounded by family. There’s nothing quite like a traditional family Christmas.

Clark Griswold (Chase) believes that with all his heart. He has become reasonably successful and provides well for his wife Ellen (D’Angelo), his daughter Audrey (Lewis) and his son Rusty (Galecki – yes that one). His gift to the family is a swimming pool and although the ground is too hard to start digging, he needs to put the deposit down for it before Christmas. He’s counting on his bonus at work to pay that bonus but it is late in arriving.

Clark is planning on having all the grandparents at his place this year – his own parents Clark Sr. (Randolph) and Nora (Ladd) as well as Ellen’s mom (Roberts) and dad (Marshall). Naturally the two sets of parents take to ceaseless bickering.

Add to the mix the unexpected arrival of cousin Eddie (Quaid) and his family in a dilapidated RV which it turns out the family is living in after Eddie lost his job and was forced to sell the family home. Clark offers to buy cousin Eddie’s Christmas presents this year which Eddie gratefully expects. With senile Aunt Bethany (Questel) and crotchety Uncle Lewis (Hickey), things descend into utter chaos.

With nothing going right, Clark loses it a little bit – all right, he loses it a lot, especially when he finds out that his bonus isn’t what he thought it was going to be. Power grids will be overloaded, sleds will fly as will flaming Santas and sewage will explode before Christmas comes to town.

The third movie in the Vacation franchise broke with formula a little bit. For one thing, the Griswolds weren’t fish out of water in some unfamiliar place – they were in their home base which was being invaded by others. Legendary director John Hughes wrote the screenplay based on his own short story which had been published in National Lampoon (the first movie in the franchise was also based on a short story in National Lampoon). Quite frankly this wasn’t his shining hour.

And yet it was a cut above the odious National Lampoon’s European Vacation. There are some terrifically funny moments (like Clark’s sled ride from hell) but not enough of them. However the funny moments are so hilarious it kind of makes up for it. There’s also a heartwarming element that’s present in most of the other Vacations but more so here than in any of the others.

There are those that consider this a “classic” Christmas movie. I wouldn’t quite go that far but it certainly is one of the more popular ones from the 80s. By this point in his career I was finding Chase less funny than he had been during his SNL days (and I think most people agree) and certainly less funny than he’d been in Caddyshack. Still while the Griswolds weren’t particularly subversive, they did strike a chord with the American public and for many people of a certain generation this is required Yuletide viewing. To each their own.

WHY RENT THIS: When it’s funny, it’s funny.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It’s not funny often enough.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some rude humor and sexuality, more than a bit of bad language and comic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be Mae Questel’s final film. She is best known as the voice of Betty Boop.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition comes in a Christmas tin with a Santa hat, coasters, an “I Survived a Griswold Family Christmas” button and a plastic cup. While no longer available in stores, you might try picking one up on E-Bay or Amazon. Otherwise you’ll just have to make do with the standard Blu-Ray or DVD which have the same features as this more expensive edition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $71.3M on a $25M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Christmas With the Kranks

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: More of The Holly and The Quill!

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Enough Said


Seinfeld meets the Sopranos.

Seinfeld meets the Sopranos.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Toni Collette, Catherine Keener, Ben Falcone, Tracey Fairaway, Michaela Watkins, Phillip Brock, Chris Smith, Jessica St. Clair, Lennie Loftin, Tavi Gevinson, Nick Williams, Ivy Strohmaier, Alina Adams, Amy Landecker, Natasha Sky Lipson, Eve Hewson, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes. Directed by Nicole Holofcener

The way Hollywood tells it, the only people who fall in love are young and beautiful. They have the issues of young people, the problems that are part and parcel with just starting out in your life. I guess that actually makes some sense; after all when you’re young you’re supposed to be falling in love.

But that doesn’t mean that the middle aged and the elderly don’t fall in love as well. Into the former category belongs Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) who is an L.A. masseuse who is a divorced mother of one. She lugs her massage table up flights of stairs and dreads the day her daughter Ellen (Fairaway) leaves for college, all the way to New York. Her nest is looking empty indeed.

At a party she meets Albert (Gandolfini), also a single dad who is going through much the same thing she is. At first, he’s not the kind of guy she’d be attracted to normally. He is, as Gilbert Iglesias might put it, a bit fluffy. Still, he has a sweet personality and a good sense of humor. She agrees to go out on a date with him and it goes surprisingly well. Pretty soon they’re doing more than just going out.

At the same party Eva met Marianne (Keener), a poet who she contracted as a client initially. Marianne is in the same boat in many ways as Eva is; a college-age daughter getting ready to leave for the Parsons School of Design. Marianne, like Eva, is divorced but in Marianne’s case she doesn’t have very many pleasant things to say about her ex. He’s a slob, not very good at sex on those occasions Marianne would give in to his whining and give him some. He’s contentious, petulant and neurotic. It doesn’t take too long before Eva figures out that Marianne’s ex is her current beau. However, this is a golden opportunity to find out more about this guy from someone who knows everything there is to know about him so she keeps quiet about her new relationships to both Albert and Marianne. That’s never a good idea.

Holofcener has directed some pretty cool films up to now including Please Give, Friends with Money and Lovely and Amazing. She has a good sense of making her characters realistic and grounded. Sure Eva can be a little bit flighty and sure, Marianne is a bit of a bitch and absolutely Albert is a lazy disorganized slob (by his own admission) but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting characters and more importantly – they aren’t defined by their personality quirks as so many other indie characters are. It’s nice to see so well-rounded personalities in a movie.

Louis-Dreyfus, familiar to most from her stint as Elaine on the legendary Seinfeld show, is still a beauty although it is tempered by her age now. Like many women on just either side of 50, there is a fragility to her body that she hasn’t taken the best care of over the years. She also is quick to smile and quick to frown – she doesn’t have the energy to hide her feelings.

Gandolfini in his last leading role (he played supporting roles in two more films that will see release in the coming months) reaffirms what a treasure he was as an actor. He is the center of the film in many ways – the victim of Eva’s mistrust and untruthfulness and it is he whose heart gets broken. While Albert’s weight excess is a central point of the film (he is relentless chided about it by both Marianne and Eva) for me it’s not THE central point.

There are a couple of subplots that seemed unnecessary – the movie really is at its best when it focuses on the relationship between Albert and Eva. I also have to say it is one of those movie that Gene Siskel used to pull his hair over – those conflicts that could be easily resolved by a line of dialogue (“I think your ex is one of my friends”). Then again, I think it’s only human nature to want to find out as much as you can about the person you’re falling for so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that someone in that situation would see the situation as a golden opportunity rather than as a disaster in the making.

These are damaged human beings. They’ve given the heart to someone only to find it wasn’t the right someone. They’re both lonely and afraid and that’s pretty much how all of us go into relationships. I am fortunate in that I haven’t been divorced but I can imagine how much harder it would be to find love once you’ve been burned by it already.

REASONS TO GO: Gandolfini gives you the warm fuzzies. Really good cast allowed to be really good.  Well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: One of those situations that could easily be resolved with a sentence or two. Strays dangerously close to formula.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations, a bit of bad language, partial nudity and comic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Toby Huss, who plays Eva’s ex, also played a man who dated Elaine (also played by Louis-Dreyfus) on the Seinfeld show.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Year of the Dog

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Extra Man

New Releases for the Week of September 27, 2013


Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2

(Columbia) Starring the voices of Bill Hader, Anna Faris, James Caan, Will Forte, Andy Samberg, Benjamin Bratt, Terry Crews, Neil Patrick Harris. Directed by Cody Cameron and Chris Pearn

Flint Lockwood returns to Swallow Falls to find that his machine which converted rain into food has begun to evolve. Now the food is alive and in short order will be breaking out and making its way to the mainland. Flint and his crew of intrepid explorers must shut down the machine for good or the world will face an apopcornlypse of epic proporridgetions.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for mild rude humor)

Baggage Claim

(Fox Searchlight) Paula Patton, Derek Luke, Taye Diggs, Boris Kodjoe.  A beautiful flight attendant is less than thrilled at the prospect of her younger sister’s wedding. Competitive to a fault, she determines that she is going to be engaged by the wedding date 30 days away and she’ll use all her connections to land Mr. Right.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and some language)

Don Jon

(Relativity) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza. Jon has the good life Southie style; he’s got a great ride, a wicked cool pad, all the women he can handle, a family that would die for him and buddies that would kill for him. He’s also got a computer where he can watch porn night and day. Who could want anything more? Then when he meets the right girl, he discovers that there’s one part of his equation that she can’t tolerate.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and brief strong language) 

Enough Said

(Fox Searchlight) Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette. Dreading her daughter’s impending departure for college, a single mom develops a romance with a sweet and charming single dad likewise facing an empty nest. At the same time, a friendship with one of her clients grows and as it does, her friend constantly rags about her ex-husband to the point where it begins to affect her new romantic relationship until she discovers the truth about her friend’s ex.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for crude and sexual content, comic violence, language and partial nudity)

In a World

(Roadside Attractions) Lake Bell, Rob Corddry, Fred Melamed, Geena Davis. A young woman working as a vocal coach secretly yearns to follow in her father’s footstep and become the best voice-over actor in Hollywood. When a huge break comes her way unexpectedly, she runs smack into a wall of sexism, egotism, pride and dysfunction.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Metallica: Through the Never

(Picturehouse) Dane DeHaan, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett. As Metallica, perhaps the most respected and beloved metal band on Earth are performing one of their epic concerts, a roadie is sent on a quest to retrieve an object that the band desperately needs for their show. As he makes his way through the city, he discovers that the landscape has become a surreal reflection of the band’s music.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: IMAX 3D (opening in Standard format October 4)

Genre: Concert Film/Fantasy

Rating: R (for some violent content and language)

Rush

(Universal) Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara. The rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda in the 1970s was legendary, one which is still talked about by racing fans even today. But beyond the public perception was a private story that few other than those who knew the two men ever knew – until now. Oscar-winning director Ron Howard is at the helm for this high octane drama.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Biographical Sports Drama

Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use)

Planes


The rain in Planes falls mainly o the...well, er, planes.

The rain in Planes falls mainly o the…well, er, planes.

(2013) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Dane Cook, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, Cedric the Entertainer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Cleese, Carlos Alazraqui, Priyanka Chopra, Gabriel Iglesias, Stacy Keach, Brent Musburger, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Roger Craig Smith, Sinbad, Colin Cowherd, John Ratzenberger, Emerson Tenney, Kari Wahgren. Directed by Klay Hall

The latest Disney animated feature is a spin-off from the animated world of anthropomorphic Cars although it takes place above that world. Welcome to the shiny aerial world of Planes.

Dusty Crophopper (Cook) is a crop-duster, a single-engine plane who was built for the specific purpose of spreading pesticides and manure on crops (mostly corn, which is apparently the source of fuel in the world of Planes). Dusty want more out of life – “I’ve flown thousands of miles and never gone anywhere” he complains.

What he really wants is to be a racer, and the Wings Across the Globe race is the perfect outlet for him. With the support of his friends Chug (Garrett) and Dottie (Hatcher), Dusty trains relentlessly and even though he gets a lot of skepticism and negativity thrown his way, he perseveres. He gets into the race where he is befriended by Bulldog (Cleese), a obsequious Spitfire, Ishani (Chopra) a lovely Indian and the would-be ladies man El Chupicabra (Alazraqui).

Not everyone wants to succeed. Ripslinger (Smith) is gunning for his historic fourth consecutive win i the race and nothing and nobody will get in his way, particularly a crop-duster with delusions of grandeur. As it turns out, Ripslinger will go to any and all lengths to nail down that win and if it means that some planes must crash and burn, well….

Although this is based on a Pixar movie, this actually isn’t a Pixar film, even though John Lasseter co-wrote and produced it. No, it was animated by the wizards at DisneyToons, their direct-to-video arm and that was the intention for this as well. However, the stars aligned nicely for Planes – a planned King of the Elves feature shut down and somebody noticed the merchandising potential of the new characters, thus it was added to the theatrical release schedule a bit late in the game.

Quite frankly, I expected direct-to-video quality and I was somewhat surprised when I found this comparable to Pixar’s work in Cars and its sequel. There are a lot of clever little asides (such as the plane-looking rock formations near Propwash Junction where Dusty, Chug and Dottie reside. There are also air traffic controllers at Kennedy Airport who talk with JFK-esque accents, and German planes drinking fuel from beer steins.

There also isn’t much in the way of story and characterization which cobble elements from …well nearly every animated feature of the last 20 years. Skipper (Keach), a crotchety old war hero, is a dead ringer for Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson, El Chupicabra makes a nice Puss in Boots (albeit not quite as cute) and Dusty could easily be the title character from Turbo. In fact, most of the characters are pretty bland, generic characters you’ve met before in other movies. As for the plot, well, this isn’t the first movie that tells us that it’s okay to dream big because if we want something bad enough and have the support of our friends, we can accomplish anything.

I did like the overall charm of the movie and I will venture to say that if you compare this to most direct-to-video fare this is miles and miles ahead of those. Frankly, this deserved the theatrical release it got – it certainly isn’t as bad as some of the other animated features out there that were always intended to hit the theaters (I’m looking at you, Planet 51. Hop and Astro Boy).

REASONS TO GO: Maintains the goofy charm of Cars. Clever in places.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs the gamut of animated feature clichés. No really memorable characters.

FAMILY VALUES:  Suitable for everyone – there’s a bit of semi-rude humor and a couple of action scenes that might scare the kids a little but nothing I wouldn’t feel comfortable sending an 3-year-old to.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bravo and Echo, two Air Force jets who Dusty runs into during his around the globe race, are voiced by Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards who played fighter pilots in Top Gun; their flight helmets are identical to those worn by the actors in their live action roles.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Race

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Riddick