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The Muppet Christmas Carol, 3 December 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This time we got our very own Muppet version of the Dickens' classic about the ole skinflint, his miserable view of the Christmas season, and how he gets a good talking to by three ghosts that visit him during the night/early morn before Christmas Day. Michael Caine makes Ebenezer Scrooge his own, hitting all the right notes from how he begins as a grouchy, ill moneylender gradually eroded of his negativity when facing his past as a child neglected, gaining affection upon meeting his former fiancé at his old employer, seeing how he is viewed by his nephew, nephew's friends and family and Cratchet's family, and facing the potential of his own demise. As far as the Muppets go, all the favorites are here and accounted for: Gonzo as the "narrator, Charles Dickens" with Rizzo, the rat, as his companion, Kermit as Bob Cratchet, Miss Piggy as Kermit's wife, Statler and Waldorf as "the Marleys", Dr. Bunsen and Beaker as street charity merchants, Fozzy as Fezziewig (named Fozziwig for the adaptation), with the likes of Animal, Swedish chef, and Rolf appearing in bit parts as Scrooge journeys from one time of his life to another. The lavish production design of the city and some excellent camera-work following different walks throughout London as Scrooge makes his way to his place of business to his home (and then the ghosts carrying him from one era of his life to another) are definite highlights, while the heavily criticized Williams' songs weren't that bad to me I didn't exactly consider them the success of the film. Caine does have his own led song at the end when he is converted from the crippling rot of seasonal angst to joyfully celebratory charitable delight…he does show that transition from beginning to end as only a seasoned pro could. It is fun to see Kermit as Cratchet although the Tiny Tim part of the story that typically guarantees Niagara Falls for some reason just seems lacking this go-around. Piggy reacting to Scrooge on Christmas Day while he's trying to tell Kermit about his raise is one of my favorite scenes, although I thought Gonzo and Rizzo steal every moment they're on screen, (which are far more than I had anticipated) and are one of the main reasons to seek this out during the Holiday season. Another highlight: a younger Statler and Waldorf mocking Fozziewig from an upper floor balcony at his company party during the trip to Christmas Present. Caine wisely doesn't camp it up with the Muppets as Scrooge, deciding to play the character straight. A London filled with Muppets in a Dickens Christmas Carol, especially at the beginning and end with Scrooge first grim and glum then later blissful and bright makes the world a better place. I recommend this adaptation for early December viewing, as kind of a starter for the more serious and dramatic versions later in the month. Gonzo and Rizzo following along with us during Scrooge's trips keeps the tone light and slapstick alive; they certainly add some fun to the proceedings.

Captain America: The Origin, 3 December 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Sadly there have been few animated series on the beloved Captain America superhero, but this one survives so its value is considerable even if comic book action brought to screen was in its infancy and hadn't quite been mastered to show full body movement besides the mouth, eyes, and various momentary acts. The camera moves about a canvas as if viewing stills that talk and blink. That said, the Marvel animation is iconic, especially when returning to the Rogers' story, his birth as the cap'n with the scientist who helped to create him dying before the formula could be used to build an army like him, and the mission of the Red Skull to take out certain military personnel on a kill list. Also included in the first episode is Bucky, Captain's Robin-like sidekick, helping to take out enemy agents like Sando, a supposed clairvoyant, and his accomplice who do stage acts. Captain America and Bucky will have their work cut out for them as the Red Skull is an evasive villain.

The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D, 3 December 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I did like the ongoing message on the importance of dreams and the kids are sincere, but this is critically injured by the 3-D capture process, with only the aesthetic otherworldly sci-fi background offering a pleasing-to-the-eye backdrop for the action. Cayden Boyd is full of imagination and a diary he carries offers two distinct characters, superheroes Lavagirl (Taylor Dooley) and Sharkboy (Taylor Lautner) which schoolteacher George Lopez discounts as he feels the boy should make the effort to embrace reality and make real friends. There is a bully played by Jacob Divich who makes Boyd's life miserable. A make- believe mission sparked by Boyd's dreams manifests itself with Lavagirl and Sharkboy show up in his classroom needing his help to save their universe from a serious threat... Mr Electric and Minus, both resembling Boyd's supposed greatest nemeses in the teacher that wants him to invest in the real world and the bullying kid who keeps trying to grab the diary and destroy it. Mr Electric wants to use his light plug terriers to shock and maim when he isn't swinging his own cord- plug bolt-shockers in his attempts to put an end to the dreams of Boyd and his made-up heroes. Soon Divich is revealed to be using Boyd's diary to warp the dreams and make things especially difficult. The power of imagination and what dreams can create isn't totally lost on me in this film but the animation of the live action is distractingly impeded by lousy capture process undermining what visual splendor exists in the starry and planetary space occupying the background. David Arquette and Kristen Davis are Boyd's parents...they have this weird scene with a tornado towards the end which involves Sharkboy and Lavagirl rescuing them. Even Lopez's daughter is imagined as a ice princess who has a crystal needed to help defeat Mr Electric. The film emphasizes the troubles of Lavagirl dealing with hot lava, Sharkboy trying to contain his anger, and Boyd summoning the ability to daydream so he can lend a hand to the heroes. A lot of heart in the direction can't compensate for ill-advised decision to shoot using a process that doesn't translate well to the smaller screen without special glasses.

Paddington (2014)
Paddington, 3 December 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Paddington, the beloved Michael Bond bear known by generations in children's books, made his welcome CGI live action debut with this delightfully spirited hoot, hopping on a boat hidden after leaving "darkest Peru" for London after an explorer visited him and his aunt/uncle in the jungle, making quite an impression on them. Once in London he encounters risk analyst and his family who aren't as much astounded by a talking bear as concerned about his need of a refuge. Meanwhile a taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) eyes Paddington for her natural museum. While the attention to detail and quirky direction warrant comparison to Wes Anderson, the treat of this film is how London is used as an aesthetic backdrop for Paddington's adventures. And the CGI work for the bear and the marvelous voicework of Ben Whishaw enhance the whole experience. Marmalade is ever present, as is the explorer's hat with the sandwich Paddington never gets to eat because of those pesky pigeons. Paddington's bond with the Browns (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Madeleine Harris, and Samuel Joslin) despite unfortunately flooding from a bathroom mishap and a fire in their kitchen caused by Kidman trying to snatch him tightens as the bear wins their hearts. Sweet tone never wavers despite Kidman's dark character, cleverly tied to the explorer who met Paddington's family years ago. The subway scenes (including a dazzler involving Paddington chasing down a pickpocket) are exciting, visually arresting, and amusing, especially an escalator which Paddington is confounded by. The antiquities shop, with Jim Broadbent and that amazing train inside, is a big wow. Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon offer fun voicework as Paddington's aunt and uncle, besieged in the jungle by an earthquake. Julie Walters is a treat as eccentric housekeeper for the Browns who offers her opinions from time to time and comes in handy when the family must rescue Paddington from Kidman. Peter Capaldi as the nosy next door neighbor who sides with Kidman to rid the apartments of the bear steals the film when he is on screen. The inventive set pieces involving the Smiths residence inescapably call to mind Anderson's oeuvre but are all the same striking. Recommended family film for the holidays.

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How to Be Single, 3 December 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Admittedly, this New York dramedy isn't really my cup of tea (it has to escape just being some Sex and the City clone), but some of it was in Christmas so I took a chance on it. That and Dakota Johnson is nice eye candy I don't mind ogling for a running time. She has a part with more meat on the bones compared to "Fifty Shades" and with a bit more personality. Dakota has a character struggling to live the single life while finding herself "sucked in 'dick-sand'", becoming so consumed with that relationship with *the one* having time to just be "guy free" escapes her train of thought. Alternating subplots include a gal desperately seeking out a suitable guy to marry (Alison Brie) and the relationship-phobic bartender who finds that he desires her (Anders Holm), a night party animal who often wakes up in the apartments of guys she doesn't remember having sex with (Rebel Wilson), and Dakota's doctor sister (Leslie Mann, who I think is really good) wanting to have a baby instead always just delivering them. I mentioned Christmas, but this is really a relationship chick flick that covers probably a year in Dakota's New York life as she tries to get over her true first love (Nicholas Braun) while meeting a widower (Damon Wayans, Jr.) with a cute daughter she might have a possible future with. Meanwhile Dakota sleeps periodically with Holm while trying to figure things out. Rebel loves to get drunk, dance the night away with lots and lots of guys, and have a wild time; she does become Dakota's best friend (and quite an influence when arriving to work as a paralegal at a firm Rebel is employed). Mann is attending a shindig hosted by Dakota's firm where the receptionist (a witty charmer played by Jake Lacy) eyes her and comes over to talk to her; they hit it off but Mann feels too old for him and hasn't been in a meaningful relationship (like ever) feeling her job gets in the way of the potential for love. Mann is also pregnant but Lacy is okay with that, so into her he doesn't back away from a partnership but wants to take it to the next level. Dakota goes through men over and over, complains and weeps to Mann, and can't seem to shake Braun who continues to reemerge in her life despite his engagement to another woman.

I think the film understands the formula and tweaks here and there with it; it being set in NYC kind of cries aloud "Nora Ephron" with a 2016 spin on relationship drama through its dialogue and millennial casting. Centering on women mostly—through their perspective—will undoubtedly be of interest to that demographic, but for others maybe not so much. Dakota is an engaging presence, but I think Mann holds her own. Rebel fans will enjoy her, I guess, but I am not all that big a fan…she's a voracious maneater always looking for the next possibly self destructing joy. Brie, as the obsessive single looking to bag herself the right guy, is a bit over the top, close to near psychotic (one such guy she makes his lunch and has photos taken of their first three weeks which folds out out of a wallet, stretching several feet it seems!) as relationships seem to defy her. The drama makes its case that the single life can be both a blessing and a curse, and maybe something in between.

The Iron Giant, 2 December 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Before The Incredibles and MI: Ghost Protocol, Brad Bird directed this delightful animated feature for Warner Bros about a kid who bonds with a giant robot he finds in the woods outside of his home town. The giant robot seems to be from outer space, feeds on metal, and will not shoot unless provoked or defending itself. And the robot seems to have artificial intelligence that allows it to evolve, learn, and feel. Insidious government agent (voiced by Christopher MacDonald; who better, right?) sets his sights on the robot and wants the military to obliterate it, convincing military general (John Mahoney of Frasier fame) to assist in firing upon it, which puts the boy, Hogard (voiced by Eli Marienthal), in jeopardy. Hogard's harried, single mother is voiced by Jennifer Aniston and the Iron Giant is beautifully voiced by Vin Diesel. Harry Connick, Jr. voices junk metal artist, Dean, who also bonds with Hogard and provides refuge for the Iron Giant at his junkyard. The Iron Giant is a feast for the eyes of fans of comic book robots from the old school. Terrific animation in a very Ray Bradbury-esque small town, including some damn strong storytelling revolving around a boy and a robot that find a friendship full of wonder and awe, caught the attention of critics; this was just a sample of Bird's gifts. The disembodied robot hand following Hogard around in his house while MacDonald's Kent Mansley finds him suspicious and tries to snoop on his activities is a knockout! Best scene could be when Hogard first meets the giant as he rips into power lines and metal structures for nourishment. Also dazzling is a scene involving train tracks as Hogard pleads with the giant to repair it as a locomotive approaches. The way Bird lights the Iron Giant as distantly sinister only to convince us of how harmless he looks and acts when up close speaks about how we should wait before assuming something is dangerous until the evidence presents itself. The ending which has various body parts trying to find themselves in a return to a whole and the Iron Giant sacrificing itself for Hogard makes the heart sing. A special treat. Just wonderful. Cloris Leachman, James Gammon, and M. Emmet Walsh also contribute voices to members of the town.

Summer School, 2 December 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Spirited, fun-loving gym coach (Mark Harmon, never more charming or high energy) is saddled with high school kids stuck in summer school due to terrible grades in English, needing to get them to pass a test at the end so he can reach tenure. While the vice principal (a well cast stick-in-the-mud Robin Thomas) doubts Harmon can do it, the kids, through bribing (Harmon agrees to grant them favors if they will allow him to teach them English!), start to actually study and learn progressively. Meanwhile Harmon continues to ask fellow teacher Kirstie Alley (never more yummy) out on a date, unimpeded by her constant rejection towards him.

An electric cast of familiar faces in young roles, a splendid sunny coastal setting, sense of humor that aims to please, breezy direction that makes the most of the formula plot, and some delightful homages to the slasher films of the 80s (this was around '87 as slasher films were riding the high soon to wane in the next few years) really keep the film appealing. It is a cult comedy that is anchored (and boosted) by Harmon's winning personality (he is mostly known as a dramatic actor with more effort toward intensity and sincerity which makes this character a welcome change of pace for him) with memorable duo of horror make-up aficionados, Chainsaw and Dave (Dean Cameron and Gary Riley, quite a pair), leaving a zany impression.

But the cast is filled with faces those who grew up with television and movies in the 80s and 90s know: Patrick Labyorteaux (Little House on the Prairie; Heathers; Ghoulies III: JAG) as football player needing to lift his grades to make the team, Courtney Thorne-Smith (Melrose Place; Ally McBeal) as teenage surfer infatuated with Harmon, Kelly Jo Minter (after this she was in both The Lost Boys and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5) as dyslexic student trying to get her driver's license, Ken Olandt (April Fool's Day was right before this and he also starred in Leprechaun a few years later) as underage stripper who sleeps during summer class, Shawnee Smith (Saw; Who's Harry Crumb?) as pregnant teenager Labyorteaux takes a shine to, Richard Steven Horvitz as allergy-plagued dork who is burdened with being the black sheep in terms of not passing class (he has made a career as a voice artist), foxy foreign exchange student Fabiana Udenio who eventually strips to bikini and is an object of lust for the horror film geeks to drool over, and hulking Duane Davis who goes to the bathroom on the first day and returns the last to take the test (and passes with the highest grade!).

Memorable scenes include the cast frightening a sub for Harmon with a splatter scene right out of a Freddy movie (the make-up effects are epic!), Harmon losing his girlfriend to a Hawaii trip as he must stay behind in order to remain employed, fireworks setting Harmon's couch on fire during a party at his house, Harmon's early teaching methods (which included field trips to an amusement park and the library), the summer school ending exams which had all the students rushing to just finish them, and the driver's exams where Cameron and Minter have their share of problems. Harmon and Alley have good chemistry, and his efforts finally pay off at the end...and how Harmon tries to disable Courtney's crush on him comes with some complications. Harmon's simply infectious, and NCIS fans might want to take a look at this to see a more laid-back and easy-breezy personality quite different from the rock of Gibraltar he inhabits on the long-time military action show.

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The Man Who Came to Dinner, 1 December 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Christmas holidays hoot based on classic play (a monster hit of the time) has Monty Woolly as blustery, opinionated radio personality, quite popular and in demand, who feigns a leg injury so he can stay put in the well-to-do digs of an Ohio businessman, becoming the overwhelming presence that dominates the household, even ordering around the servants to do his bidding! Bette Davis loved the play so much that she took a less glam role as the busy secretary who makes sure Woolly meets his obligations and eventually falls in love with the town newspaper man wanting a major story from her larger-than-life employer. That Woolly inspires the businessman's kids to follow their hearts--one to marry a union organizer making his life difficult and another to pursue life as a photographer--reinforces the misery the house patriarch endures.

This good-natured romp has plenty of characters and a cast that is a knockout. Ann Sheridan as an elegant diva infatuated with a stuttering millionaire often poked fun of by Monty, Richard Travis as the hunky newspaper man Davis eyes, Jimmy Durante exploding on screen as a skirt-chaser Hollywood comedian with a penchant for popping the bottoms of the ladies when he isn't whisking them off their feet (a feminist's worst nightmare), Billie Burke as the lady of the house totally a fangirl of Woolly as he causes her family and life to turn upside down and inside out, Reginald Gardiner as thespian and playwright who stops by to greet old friend Woolly and do Davis a favor by imitating Sheridan's desired catch in a hilarious phone conversation, Mary Wickes as put-upon nurse Woolly bosses around something fierce, and beleaguered Grant Mitchell as the man of the house at his wit's end with the overpowering Woolly.

Included are such highlights as Sheridan fooled by Gardiner with the aforementioned conversation, Sheridan and the mummy sarcophagus, Durante attacking a piano without even looking at the keys while singing about whether or not he should stay or go, Durante lifting Wickes off her feet and promising to make her holiday all the better (!), Davis and Gardiner plotting against Woolly after Woolly initiated the whole Sheridan situation to free his secretary from Travis, the constant arrival of items including animals like penguins and octopus from fans of Woolly to him at Mitchell's doorstep, the creepy sister of Mitchell whose secret (has to do with giving mother "40 whacks") is soon realized by Woolly after talks between the two and a picture of herself younger, and Woolly's first day in the home where he basically commandeers the place as if all his own with Mitchell nearly blowing his top. It might be nearly two hours, but the plot is so active and cast so good (and the script is just rich with barbs, sharp wit, and dialogue that gives the cast characters with plenty of the bones to leave lasting impressions) it goes by surprisingly fast. A great treat to kick off the Christmas season. Woolly kills it in the title role, while Davis plays off him well even if he wasn't her choice for the film. The calls from famous folks like Eleanor Roosevelt and the idea that Winston Churchill is sending Woolly presents absurdly builds his reputation amusingly throughout.

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Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, 29 November 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Le Mans" came at a time when McQueen's career couldn't be higher. He was dying to make a motor racing picture but arriving for the Le Mans, Frankenheimmer was making "Grand Prix" with James Garner. Undeterred McQueen worked elsewhere but no reasonable script, long production woes, race car disasters, his own conflicts with directors, and budget problems caused a great deal of angst and anxiety, as the star actor saw writers, studio execs, and directors at odds with his vision. McQueen didn't want a romantic or melodramatic plot to get in the way of his passion, so a script built around what he wanted fell by the wayside. Included are audio thoughts and recollections from the man himself, details by racecar drivers, his ex wife, those involved in the film, and his son which coincides with behind the scenes footage of "Le Mans" making for quite an extraordinary experience if you are fascinated with McQueen. His cheating with other women, including wrecking the car while out with an actress starring in "Le Mans", his being on Manson's death list (he was supposed to be at the Sharon Tate home as buddy Jay Sebring asked him to come by the night of the Tate-Lobianco murders!), letters typed and signature signed by him read aloud during key moments in the doc, and the loving portrait of racing and how he tried to beautify it make this a must-see. Only problem: some of McQueen's captioned words and the explanation of chapters for the film are way too small.

Down and Out in Beverly Hills, 25 November 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A gruffy bum (Nick Nolte), looking for his "mongrel who abandoned him", decides to end it all by leaping into the swimming pool of privileged hanger businessman (Richard Dreyfuss) to drown himself. Dreyfuss rescues Nolte and invites him to stay at his posh Beverly Hills home *for a while*. Nolte gets cleaned up, new clothes, freedom to raid the fridge, swim in the pool, lounge around, and offer advice if approached in the right ways. As much a reflection on what it means to be really happy instead of just rich than just a comedy about two worlds colliding (homeless and hungry opposite affluent and with plenty); Down and Out is wise in how it unfurls Nolte as more than he first appears…he isn't some growly, gloomy, repugnant, and foul vagabond with few redeeming qualities. This doesn't stigmatize the homeless but recognize them as human beings who aren't just street bodies covered in grime and stink. Nolte seems to have experienced a great many things before descending into bumdom…he plays the piano, can recite Shakespeare, bring about orgasm through massage therapy, offer books on revolutionary Cuba to encourage radical new views, advise a homosexual to come out to his parents when videotape vignettes made by him aren't enough, and seduce an anorexic through lovemaking to eat again.

He bewitched Dreyfuss, who has long debated why he is so well-to-do while others aren't so fortunate, Bette Midler, who tries every kind of guru and self-help guide to overcome her insecurities and dissatisfactions (her twenty-year marriage has come to a bored place), Evan Richards, who wants to come to his parents (Dreyfuss and Midler) but doesn't know how, Tracy Nelson, a psyche major with boyfriend issues and "skinny illness", and Elizabeth Peña (may she rest in peace), a maid servicing Dreyfuss in more ways than just cleaning the dishes and serving the meals, who he offers books on "viva revolution". Most importantly, the family dog, Matisse (Mike, the dog) becomes quite enamored with the new guest staying in the visitor's cabana. Little Richard, as a neighbor feeling slighted by the police who bring tons of reinforcements to the Dreyfuss house when Matisse presses the security alarm and fail to even get to his own property in any reasonable manner when there had been potential break-ins, lends a fun supporting part.

Eventually Nolte begins to wear out his welcome on Dreyfuss, and when the daughter and maid become sexual conquests there's a final chase back into the pool where he doesn't try to rescue him from drowning as much as finish him off! Potential Chinese clients could be buying Dreyfuss' hangers…but will Nolte spoil things? And how will Dreyfuss feel about his son and band coming to the finale's party dressed in drag and makeup? Nolte cleans up well, has a sage presence about him that charms everyone he meets, becomes someone to be quite chummy with, and isn't afraid to get involved the lives of the Dreyfuss family in order to better their emotional situations. Despite having an abundance, Nolte is there to have them look within themselves to realize what they're missing. While I can imagine some will have a hard time sympathizing with a family so well off considering the struggle that exists in a world not their own, the treat is how this bum off the street awakens in them reasons to examine who they really are: there is a novelty to the premise that does ring true. What a cast, too! Midler as the wife trying to find inner peace, Dreyfuss hoping to give back instead of always benefiting from prosperity, and Nolte getting some much needed niceties that have eluded him and his kind. Highlights to me has Dreyfuss meeting some of Nolte's gang, Nolte encouraging Matisse to eat his dog food, Midler's massage giving her the first orgasm in nine years (it isn't presented as sexy as much as enthusiastic), Dreyfuss' vehicular mishap involving the police, and how the family just can't seem to shake him off, especially when he mentions he should just leave. If just as a comedy that asks us to look beyond the surface to see what lies underneath, Down and Out hits the target impressively. It doesn't hurt that the cast absolutely kills it.

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