Pensées #10: Christmas Challenge (2019)

I love Christmas and I love Christmas movies. Though there are only a handful of Christmas films that I consider great, binge-watching more than my share of Holiday flicks is my favorite way to anticipate December 25th. Last year, I attempted to watch 25 Christmas movies from the beginning of November to Christmas Day, and, despite a late push, I fell short by 4 films, eagerly awaiting this new holiday season in order to try again. Same mission: 55 days to watch 25 Christmas movies. This time, I am confident I will succeed. Like last year, I hope to have a good mix of classics like Elf, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, etc. with a host of new movies that I haven’t seen yet. Films like Holiday Affair, Joyeux Noel, and We’re No Angels are on the top of my yet-to-see list.  Netflix has really found a niche in lightweight holiday entertainment and a fair percentage of the movies I watched for the first time last year were on their streaming service. That will likely be the case this year as well. I got a quick start this year, watching both The Nightmare Before Christmas and Netflix’s latest Holiday in the Wild yesterday. That’s 2 down, 23 to go.

#1: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Image result for the nightmare before christmas1993, Directed by Henry Selick

(9-Great Film)

I opened with this film last year. Availability is partly the reason but it’s also obviously appropriate for both Halloween and Christmas. For people like me who like to start Christmas season entirely too early, the Nightmare Before Christmas is perfect for transitioning. It’s also just a wonderful movie. Technically stunning, if you’ve watched it enough times, you might find it interesting to really absorb the visuals frame by frame to consider what exactly the filmmakers had to do to achieve just that one shot. Then consider the seamless movement of the figures. Then the indelible soundtrack. Finally, the story. Jack Skeleton (voiced by Danny Elfman when singing and Chris Sarandon otherwise) reigns over Halloweentown, suffocated by his peers’ admiration and respect. He’s bored with his position in life. Having something close to a midlife crisis, he discovers a world outside Halloweentown which includes Christmastown, leaving Jack instantly smitten. Jack decides he wants to try his hand at being Santa which results in Christmas turmoil before he realizes to appreciate who he is and to be himself.

#2: Holiday in the Wild

Image result for holiday in the wild

2019, Directed by Ernie Barbarash

(5-Okay Film)

This lowkey romantic drama stars Kristin Davis as Kate Conrad, devoted mother, and socialite wife to a successful businessman, Drew, who asks for a divorce not long after their son departs for college. Left reeling, Kate travels to Zambia where she meets the handsome Derek (Lowe), a local pilot, and the two fall for each other over the course of her extended holiday as she, a former veterinarian, connects with the wildlife, specifically an elephant she helps rescue. I would say the film is way more passionate about animals and wildlife than it is about Christmas. That’s not a criticism. It’s simply that Holiday in the Wild didn’t make much of an impression on me as a Christmas film. It’s a perfectly pleasant but unspectacular hour-an-a-half. About what you would expect. I did like how low maintenance it was, eschewing the trumped-up drama of most films of its ilk.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

The Glass Key (1942, Directed by Stuart Heisler) English 7

Starring Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy, Joseph Calleia, William Bendix, Bonita Granville

Image result for the glass key 1942

(7-Very Good Film)

Gripping. Enticing. Cool.

Early adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel featuring Donlevy as Paul Madvig, a big-time crook and political organizer, and Alan Ladd as his right-hand man and best friend, Beaumont. Their small empire runs into trouble when Paul alienates another powerful crook, Nick Varna, at the same time falling in love with a politician’s daughter named Janet (Veronica Lake), who happens to be the sister of a man he’s thought to have killed. It’s up to Beaumont to clean up the mess, and untangle the mystery, as he fights off the growing attraction between himself and his best friend’s girlfriend. Slick noir, with excellent supporting turns from Joseph Calleia and William Bendix. Ladd and Lake are justifiably a classic screen couple. Their smoldering makes the all too neat ending not only passable but completely satisfying.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(773)

Happy Death Day (2017, Directed by Christopher B. Landon) English 6

Starring Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Phil Vu, Charles Aitken, Rachel Matthews

Image result for happy death day

(6-Good Film)

Silly. Entertaining. Derivative.

By its own implied admission, Happy Death Day borrows/steals heavily from the Bill Murray classic, Groundhog Day. That’s not a problem though since the premise (an unexplained time loop that causes its selfish protagonist to repeat the same day) is so good, it could go in a dozen possible directions. Here, reworked for the horror genre, a college sorority girl named Tree is stuck on Monday, September 18th, which happens to be her birthday. Repeating your birthday wouldn’t seem so bad, if not for the brutal serial killer murdering her at the end of every loop. I enjoy a good slasher-whodunit, and Happy Death Day delivers on that count, although it’s more funny than scary. Suffers from downright silliness at times, but is engaging enough to be passable entertainment.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(749)

The Vikings (1958, Directed by Richard Fleischer) English 8

Starring Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, Janet Leigh, Ernest Borgnine, Frank Thring, James Donald, Alexander Knox, Orson Welles (narrator)

Image result for the vikings 1958

(8-Exceptional Film)

Spectacular. Exciting. Engrossing.

The Vikings seems influenced more by comic strips and pulp novels than actual history but that’s certainly not a complaint; not from me. Set around the 9th century, a group of plundering Vikings, led by Ragnar (Borgnine), and his handsome but vain son, Einar (Douglas), prepare to invade England. Tony Curtis plays Eric, a slave with a mysterious but powerful origin, and Janet Leigh plays English princess, Morgana, the object of the male leads’ desire. Beautifully, vibrantly photographed by Jack Cardiff, The Vikings is a spirited adventure film with many surprises and a corny but appealing romance. Douglas and Borgnine relish their scene-chewing roles, while Curtis and Leigh ground the picture and have great chemistry.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(743)

Fire and Ice (1983, Directed by Ralph Bakshi) English 7

Voices of Susan Tyrell, Maggie Roswell, William Ostrander

(7-Very Good Film)

Entertaining. Vivid. Cool.

Adult animated fantasy in the vein of a lot of other great cheesy ’80s epics like Conan the Barbarian (1982), Excalibur (1981), and The Beastmaster (1982). The story is barebones. Two kingdoms-one of fire and one of ice-duke it out for supremacy; fire kingdom is content to live in harmony but ice wants everything. A stray warrior, a princess from the fire kingdom, and a mysterious man known as Darkwolf battle to stop the evil ice lord from taking over the land. This film has some truly spectacular animated sequences and action scenes.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(728)

Without a Clue (1988, Directed by Thom Eberhardt) English 6

Starring Michael Caine, Ben Kingsley, Paul Freeman, Jeffrey Jones, Lysette Anthony, Pat Keen

Image result for without a clue

(6-Good Film)

Amusing. Intriguing. Forgettable.

What if instead of the eminent Sherlock Holmes, it was the humble Dr. John Watson who was the genius? Without a Clue takes this intriguing idea and becomes a moderately successful film. Michael Caine plays Holmes, or rather Reginald Kincaid, a third-rate actor hired by John Watson (Ben Kingsley) so that the Doctor can hide behind his creation in order to solve crimes in the shadows. The big case, some counterfeiting scheme, isn’t as fun as the premise or the two stars; Kingsley as the straight man and Caine as the buffoon. 

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(725)

Pensées #9: Troll 2 is the Worst

How often do people reach for superlatives? It was the best, the greatest, the most, etc. In many cases, it seems the easiest method to make a point. The same goes for the reverse hyperbole: the worst film of all-time. Whatever movie a person’s seen recently that wasn’t good gets described as the worst film of all-time. I’ve heard people say Titanic is, “the worst film of all-time.” It’s not. Even if you don’t like it, Titanic is nowhere near the worst film of all-time. I’ve seen a large number of very bad films. I’m just as curious about bad films as I am about good films. I try to watch one movie a week that’s said to be terrible. Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Room, Leonard Part 6, I’ve seen them. Because of this, I feel very confident in asserting that Troll 2 (1990) stands below them all. Troll 2 is the worst film of all-time.

Image result for troll 2

Unlike The Room, its closest rival, Troll 2 has a plot. The Room is a ponderous travesty. It’s profoundly terrible. You know how after watching a great movie, you can’t stop thinking about it? The Room is so bad, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Troll 2, on the other hand, has all the ingredients of a normal film- plot, structure, villains, a climax, a protagonist- but they’re all handled so poorly, the people involved are so talentless, that Troll 2 becomes special in its own way.

Directed by Italian filmmaker, Claudio Fragasso, the man behind Monster Dog with Alice Cooper, who supposedly had a very limited grasp of English, Troll 2 isn’t even a real sequel. Hoping to drift off of “the success” of 1986’s Troll (a film which itself sits at 26% on Rotten Tomatoes), producers decided to call this film about goblins, Troll 2, starring Michael Stephenson as a boy, named Joshua, dragged to the sinister town of Nilbog (Goblin spelled backwards). His parents don’t notice all the odd things going on in this town, nor does his sister, Holly. The only aid Joshua gets is from his dead grandfather, who comes back sporadically (never explained why he can’t just stay and help). Here are my three favorite scenes:

  1. The Dinner Scene- Devoid of logic, and therefore any suspense, this is a hilarious catastrophe of filmmaking. The ghost of Joshua’s grandfather tells him not to let his family eat the green food that they didn’t make, or else they’ll die. No explanation for why the grandfather can’t speak to the other members of the family. To help, he freezes everyone but Joshua for thirty seconds (no explanation for why he has this ability and why it only lasts thirty seconds). The face Joshua makes when seeing his family frozen is priceless. I can’t think of anything that’s made me laugh as hard, and you’ll see the characters that are supposed to be frozen blink. Then you have the fact that he wastes most of the “thirty seconds” (it’s clearly way longer than thirty seconds). At the scenes conclusion, we get a bit of acting from the father, and well…

2. Oh My God!-I’m not even going to try and explain this scene. It was already horrible, but Darren Ewing’s line reading is notorious. His underacting versus the other two actors just chewing up the scenery is a wonder to behold.

3. The Corn Scene-Seduction by corn. No one thinks of corn as erotic, and I doubt anyone ever will. In this scene, the Goblin witch seduces a dumb teen by rubbing corn against her leg, culminating with an excessive amount of popcorn when they start kissing. Inexplicable scene really. Honestly, can’t imagine what the filmmakers thought they were going for here, and I love that the actress playing the witch goes for Oscar gold. She really gives it her all.

Troll 2 is extremely funny and amassed a sizable cult following. The film’s star produced a successful documentary titled Best Worst Movie, dedicated to Troll 2. There are many movies made, designed to be inane like Sharknado or Piranha 3D, but they can’t compare, for me, to Troll 2 in which every actor and filmmaker gives their all, and it still sucks. Just like certain intangible things have to come together for a movie to be great, I think it takes a kind of magic for everything to go this wrong. Best worst movie, indeed.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

Café Society (2016, Directed by Woody Allen) English 6

Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carrell, Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Corey Stoll, Parker Posey, Ken Stott

(6-Good Film)

Solid. Unsurprising. Enjoyable.

Familiar Woody Allen themes of infidelity and disenchantment color his newest film about a young Jewish man, Bobby (Eisenberg) who tries to strike up a life for himself in 1930s Hollywood. Things grow complicated as he falls for the secretary, Vonnie (Stewart), of his rich Uncle, Phil (Carrell) not knowing that the two are having an affair. Shades of The Apartment (1960) throughout the picture. Solid tragicomedy, middle of the road Allen film.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(720)

Cat’s Don’t Dance (1997, Directed by Mark Dindal) English 7

Voices of Scott Bakula, Jasmine Guy, Ashley Peldon, Don Knotts, John Rhys-Davies, Betty Lou Gerson, Hal Holbrook, George Kennedy, Kathy Najimi, René Auberjonois

Image result for cats don't dance

(7-Very Good Film)

Smart. Creative. Lively.

Warner Bros. has a great history of animation, but by the time this film came out, Disney had a monopoly on the animated film industry; in America, I mean. As a result, Cats Don’t Dance, a film that has much more in common with those classic Looney Tunes shorts than it does with the massive hit movies Disney was rolling out, suffered at the box office and not many people have seen it. That’s a shame because it’s a quality picture; lots of ideas, talented voice cast, and a handful of nice songs written by Randy Newman. It follows Danny, a cat from small-town Indiana, who moves out to Hollywood during its golden age (1930s) to follow his dream of starring in movies. Once there, however, he finds that animals are only ever given menial roles (no doubt inspired by the black experience in Hollywood), and that stars aren’t like the characters they portray on screen (there’s a fantastic Shirley Temple inspired villain named Darla Dimple). Sharp comedy and lively animation to go along with a good premise, even if they missed a chance at making a truly special satire.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(719)

 

Pensées #8: People in Movies Don’t Know How to Drive

Still, after 90 plus years of cinema, actors remain unconvincing behind the wheel. They barely watch the road, or they turn the wheel incessantly, or they talk over their shoulders which would sprain any actual driver’s neck. I can forgive classic Hollywood bad movie driving. The actors would climb in a car set in front of a screen that projected their surroundings later. One example: To Catch a Thief (1955).

 

Keep in mind, this is by Alfred Hitchcock, one of cinema’s great masters. Keep in mind also, I’m not pointing to the old fashioned special effects, which are still rather effective. I’m looking at Grace Kelly’s simulation of driving. She, at least, keeps her eyes on the road convincingly, but she’s turning the wheel every other beat, which has become the standard for fake film driving. Why? Are actors afraid that if they don’t turn the wheel enough, we won’t buy into the illusion? Nobody turns the wheel that much when driving.

The thing is fake driving on film is still pretty bad more often than not. It’s not juts an old fashioned thing. Sixty years later, you still have plenty examples of poor driving.

No, it’s not that dire. It’s just amazing to me that director’s don’t point this out. It’s become a pet peeve of mine. Any time there’s driving in a film, I’m watching the technique.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-