Frozen (2013, Directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck) English 6

Voices of Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Alan Tudyk, Santino Fontana

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(6-Good Film)

Strong. Bright. Satisfying.

Before Tangled was released in 2010, Dinsye bigshot Ed Catmull said it would be the last Disney princess film. Tangled was a huge success, and four years later comes Frozen, with two princesses for the price of one. Anna (Bell) feels shut off from her sister Elsa (Menzel) after the death of their parents. On Elsa’s coronation day, Anna, as well as the rest of the kingdom, learn the secret she was concealing when she turns the land into a frozen tundra and runs away. Anna sets off to find her with the help of her new companions: courageous Kristoff, his reindeer Sven, and the loyal snowman Olaf. Frozen was a colossal success, and it’s easy to see why. It has all the hallmarks of a Disney classic. It fails to rank for me with the cream of Disney’s crop, however, falling somewhere in the middle of the studio’s canon. Mainly, I feel there’s a huge gulf between the classic work of Alan Menken with the various brilliant songwriters on old Disney films during the Renaissance, and the soundtrack to Frozen, as popular as it is. There are plenty of catchy tunes, but they’re just not on the level of, say, The Little Mermaid, or Beauty and the Beast. The story lacks a strong villain in my eyes, and though the female empowerment elements prove a nice message, films like Mulan and The Princess and the Frog covered similar territory with more compelling endings.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-




Christmas Challenge Film #3: Home Alone (1990, Directed by Chris Columbus)

John Hughes was a genius  of comedy writing. I’ll just list his credits: National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), Mr. Mom (1983), Sixteen Candles (1984), Breakfast Club (1985), Weird Science (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), Uncle Buck (1989), Christmas Vacation (1989, which I’ll probably watch before this challenge is through), and Maid in Manhattan (2002) among other films. He was amazingly prolific. Look at the years those films released. Deviating from my plan to start my Christmas Challenge with movies I hadn’t seen, or at least hadn’t seen in a long time, I watched one of his films I didn’t include in that list: Home Alone. Written and produced by Hughes, Home Alone was the biggest success of his career, and, like all of his work, funny, creative, and emotional; also a tremendously powerful piece of nostalgia for me. It’s probably one of a first handful of movies I’ve seen in my life. A wonderful film, so when I saw it flash across the Netflix popular tag, I realized its been a few years since I last saw it, thus I felt compelled to watch.

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Kevin McCallister (child superstar, Macauley Culkin) is kind of a brat. He’s supposed to be anyways, though I’ve always taken his side in that long introductory scene. He seems fine. It’s his massive family that seem rotten. They’re all gathered together (aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, mother, father, bed-wetting cousins), preparing to go off to Paris, France the next morning, where they’ll spend their Christmas. Kevin wishes he had no family, and tells his mother so after fighting with his bullying older brother, Buzz. She sends him to bed in the attic to cool off. The next morning, an electrical outage keeps the alarm clocks from working, and the McCallisters oversleep. In the madhouse scramble to get dressed and get over to the airport in time for the flight, the McCallisters forget about bratty Kevin, asleep in the attic. He wakes up to an empty house and believes that his wish has come true. No family, and a big, beautiful house all to himself for Christmas. It promises to be a barrel laughs until he figures out a couples of robbers, Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern), plan to steal from every house on the block, including his. Seeing as all the neighbors are out of town, Kevin decides that it’s up to him to protect his house, and booby traps the joint leading to the pretty well-known, spectacular final thirty minutes.

Hughes was big on mixing laughter with tears, and gave all his comedies a sense of pathos that was as memorable as the jokes. In Home Alone, he gives us Kevin’s mother (Catherine O’Hara) desperately trying to make it home to her son and a subplot with Kevin’s elderly neighbor who’s been estranged from his son. The laughs, meanwhile, come fast and easy. Kevin is a precocious, remarkably resourceful kid, and it’s fun to see him outsmart the adults, especially Pesci and Stern’s dimwitted but menacing robbers. Pesci is one of those performers who can pretty much make anything he says funny. Maybe it’s his voice. He amuses me.

Macauley Culkin was one of the most famous kid stars of all time. He did other films, but he’ll always be remembered for slapping his hands to his face and screaming in Home Alone; a gift and a curse, I’m sure. He’s really good, a natural, carrying a film and selling the outlandish idea of an 8-year-old being smarter than adults.

Technically speaking, Home Alone’s not much to write about. It’s an inspired idea delivered straight and told plainly, like all of Hughes’ films, even ones like this that he didn’t direct. John Williams’ score mixed with the exciting soundtrack that includes the Drifter’s version of White Christmas is a major component of Home Alone’s success. Some critics harp on the film’s implausibility. Seems like a waste, since the premise is clearly absurd and the film is worth suspending disbelief. It’s fun. I might end up watching it again before Christmas is over.

(8-Exceptional Film)

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


20: Omaha Beach

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

I’m blown away that Saving Private Ryan did not win the Academy Award for Best Picture in ’98, and shocked that it lost to Shakespeare in Love of all things, a cute film that doesn’t even begin to measure up to Spielberg’s World War II masterpiece. As I continue my list of favorite film scenes, I’m bringing up the Omaha Beach scene from the latter. It stands out as the best in the film, a technical tour de force to this day; a wholly realistic immersive sequence. The scene is really around forty minutes long, essentially the film’s opener if you discount the graveyard framing device (which I find unnecessary), and around a fourth of the entire film’s runtime. There are a few things I notice, when watching it, that strike me as brilliant filmmaking. First, Spielberg shoots in tight close-up or obscured wide shot for most of the beach sequence. You can never get a proper bearing for where anything or anyone is, and the tension that creates is exacerbated by Spielberg never showing the enemy. It’s just chaos and violence. There are a couple of other details that might be clichéd now, but were really fresh the first time I saw the film, and still work effectively. One is the water and blood hitting the camera. I’ve seen this a few times since, but I’m not sure I’d ever seen it before Saving Private Ryan. A nice touch that creates a kind of guerrilla filmmaking feel that belies the massive Hollywood studio undertaking that Saving Private Ryan actually is.  The other memorable detail is the slow-motion, sound distorted portion of the scene where Captain Miller is traumatized.  Truly just a crafty way to show the protagonist struggling with the overwhelming experience.

-Walter Howard-

Monkey Business (1952, Directed by Howard Hawks) English 5

Starring Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Charles Coburn, Marilyn Monroe, Hugh Marlowe

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(5-Okay Film)

Star-studded. Free-wheeling. Unsuccessful.

Monkey Business is an earnest attempt at recreating the screwball style of comedy which was popular in the late ’30s, early ’40s, but had already gone out of style long before 1952, when this film was released. Starring Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Charles Coburn, and Marilyn Monroe, you couldn’t find a better cast. Directed by Howard Hawks, who made a couple of the finest screwball comedies in His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby, Monkey Business doesn’t quite work. The zany antics and energy that were so wonderful and amusing in Bringing Up Baby strike me as juvenile here. Perhaps that’s a strange complaint to make about a film in which the characters take a formula that causes them to revert back to their youth. At the comedy’s center is a lovely, loving marriage between Grant and Roger’s characters, and this works, but the stakes aren’t high enough; there’s not a serious enough threat to their inevitable happiness. Too bad.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


High Spirits (1988, Directed by Neil Jordan) English 5

Starring Peter O’Toole, Steve Guttenberg, Daryl Hannah, Liam Neeson, Beverly D’Angelo, Jennifer Tilly, Peter Gallagher

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(5-Okay Film)

Goofy. Riotous. Inconsistent.

High Spirits has the ingredients for a really good comedy. Peter O’Toole plays owner, Peter Plunkett, who sees his shabby, secluded hotel in Ireland going to pieces, and quickly devises a scheme to pick business up. He’ll pass his hotel off as a haunted resort, and appeal to the paranormal enthusiasts, but as the first wave of tourists roll in, he discovers that the place might actually be haunted. One of the main problems of the film is star, Darryl Hannah, as Mary, a lovely ghost who is saved by one of the tourists, Jack (Guttenberg), and subsequently gushed over. She’s playing an Irish lady, which means she does an Irish accent (which is notoriously difficult to do). Hannah’s accent work is distracting and mars many of her scenes, key scenes at that. Jack and Mary’s romance is meant to be one of the main charms of the film, and it doesn’t come off thanks to that accent. O’Toole on the other hand proves once again to be a fantastic comedic actor. Unfortunately, he’s not in this film more. Overall, there’s much to enjoy. High Spirits is silly fun, but something as small as a main character’s accent really did hamper the entire picture.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


The Invitation (2015, Directed by Karyn Kusama) English 8

Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, Emayatzy CorinealdiLindsay Burdge, Toby Huss, John Carroll Lynch

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Slow-Burn. Gripping. Unhinged.

   Dinner parties can be dreadfully awkward affairs. This film is the dinner party from hell. Will (Marshall-Green) is surprised one day with an invitation from his ex-wife, Eden, played by Tammy Blanchard (they tragically lost a son), and her new husband, David (Huisman). Will arrives, greeted by his old friends, but quickly comes to suspect that something strange is going on. In classic mystery-thriller fashion, no one’s suspicious but him. The hosts, Eden and David, are acting really odd, one friend, Choi, hasn’t shown up even though he said he would, plus, there’s two unexplained strangers as guests, and why did David lock all of the doors? Excellent psychological thriller smartly done. You know that something is going to happen, you’re certain it won’t be any good, but director, Kusama, builds the suspense to a fever pitch, and the resulting climax is well-worth the wait. Plays off of the anxiety of someone who is antisocial having to interact with a large group of people. You could also point out its relationship to Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel wherein a group of people at a dinner party are unable to leave a dining room, and react to the growing madness. Terrific finale, strong acting from a terrifying premise.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Interlude (1957, Directed by Douglas Sirk) English 6

Starring June Allyson, Rossano Brazzi, Marianne Koch, Jane Wyatt, Keith Andes, Françoise Rosay

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(6-Good Film)

Opulent. Superficial. Slight.

A timid American woman, Helen Banning (Allyson), moves to Germany for a new job. She reconnects with an old friend, Dr. Dwyer (Andes), who offers her marriage and security for life. It’s a good offer, she knows, but she’s recently met a moody symphony conductor, Antonio Fischer (Brazzi), and can’t help but be drawn to him, though he’s a married man. Rich, lush color bring out the passion in this melodrama, which curious enough seems under-cooked, or too restrained, at least until the climax. The film’s director, Sirk, is an auteur, and as such, each and every picture he made deserves to be seen. Interlude just happens to be one of his more modest efforts. It lacks the undercurrent themes, subtext, or sly tone of his greatest works.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-