Ilo Ilo – Anthony Chen (2014)

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If spoiled brats become spoiled from too much love in real life, it’s the exact opposite at the movies. They are damn near unwatchable even in their most passive portrayals and very few of the Veruca Salts and Junior Healys of the world waste time with passivity. But Ilo Ilo bears witness to the emotional emergence of a spoiled brat, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), who has only ever cared about two things in his life to this point, his grandfather and his Tamagochi. After exasperating his mother almost to the breaking point, the Lim family hires a Filipino nanny, Theresa (Angeli Bayani), to shoulder the load of selfishness and troublemaking that is weighing down the already stressed out family.

Theresa has taken the job in Singapore to send money back to her family in Ilo Ilo, a province in the Philippines, but runs head first into the reinforced wall of Jiale’s stubbornness and resentment at having to be handled by a stranger. The film is set during the Asian financial crisis in the late 90s, and the fear and helplessness that Jiale’s parents face as their lives shift under foot is familiar but takes away from the more interesting story of how Jiale softens in a particular way to the undeserved support Theresa provides his coming of age. Watching his face process these feelings makes you think that Koh is either a great actor for his age, or that he’s spoiled brat in real life. Either way, he’s a standout.

Winter in the Blood – Alex and Andrew Smith (2014)

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The story for Winter in the Blood is taken from James Welch’s novel of the same name which won him some acclaim when it was published in the mid-70s. It is both an intense, personal journey of a man trying to find a place in the world that has given him nothing but pain, and a sweeping microcosm of the modern struggle Native Americans face to find a place in a world taken from them inch by inch and mile by mile. But what sounds like a powerful film on paper falls apart in execution from page to screen.

I hesitate to use the word “adapted” because the Smith Brothers and their co-writer Ken White have not really adapted this into another art form as much as they have tried to film it as a moving book. As a film, it plays like a series of sketches taken from the novel. Voice over and music by the Heartless Bastards are attempted as storyteller’s glue, but it doesn’t adhere. Each scene feels so artlessly slapped together in random order that it’s difficult to engage head on — and if any story needs to be engaged head on, it’s certainly the story of America’s original sin. There are worthwhile scenes, and the mood is occasionally affecting, but it doesn’t come together as singular piece overall and that’s too much to overlook.

Copenhagen – Mark Raso (2014)

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Characters don’t have to be sympathetic for art to be good. They don’t even have to be likable. History is littered with the despicable and despised. To empathize with a character is far more important. But in Mark Raso’s Copenhagen there is nothing empathetic, sympathetic or likable about William, a 28-year-old American backpacking in Denmark after the death of his father.

William is played by Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones’ Renly Baratheon). In Copenhagen he explores the same bottomless pit of contemptibility as Joffrey Baratheon as he searches Copenhagen for his grandfather to deliver an angry letter that his father wrote him but never mailed. While searching, he runs into Effy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen), a beautiful young girl who helps him navigate the Danish geography and language barrier.

As the two search, they fall for each other. Deep. There is just one small catch. She’s younger. Much younger. Like, 14 (about to turn 15!). You’ll remember above, where I said William was 28, though he doesn’t.

It’s nearly impossible to buy Hansen as a 14-year-old though. She is 19 and looks it. It doesn’t make William any less terrible, but the film is about him growing up and coming to terms with the fact that having a terrible family doesn’t mean you have to be terrible too. Raso gets stuck in indie trope hell though, and can’t find his way out. Hansen is the film’s only redeemable quality; it’s a shame that she is wasted on this pointless search.

30 years of raiding Barry Manilow’s wardrobe

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Saturday…March 24, 1984. Shermer High School, Shermer, Illinois 60062. Dear Mr. Vernon…we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was that we did wrong. What we did was wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write this essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us…in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athelete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning.

We were brainwashed…

It’s such a strange and disorienting feeling when a touchstone of being young and frustrated turns a landmark age as John Hughs’s The Breakfast Club does today (or by the date it takes place on anyway; its release date was in February).

The film belongs strongly to the 80s — it might be the signature film of the 80s, in fact — but throughout the years has become timeless as generations since have picked up on its keen observations and well drawn characters. They are detailed to enough to be specific and alive, yet broad enough for everyone to have someone in the film to latch onto. Everyone has an in. It’s the basket case for me, though I can certainly see things from Brian and Andy’s perspectives as well.

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The film came out when I was still 3 years old, yet feels attuned to how I felt at 16 when I finally saw it years later. As much as they are a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal, none of them are. It’s all fear and stupidity. That’s all being a teenager is about, it just comes out in different ways. It sounds cliche and overly reductive to say it like that, but the best themes in film are always the simplest themes. It’s all a matter of dramatic (or comedic) degree after that.

Whether he actually knew he was writing about fear or not, Hughes destroyed it when he wrote the script (the first draft allegedly over one weekend — read it here, it’s a very good read and has more insight into the characters). He’d written and directed entertaining movies before (as he did after) but never made anything as powerful, perceptive, funny or universal.

There is a line in the original draft of the screenplay when Bender is hiding under the table and sticks his head up Claire’s (Cathy, early) skirt that sort of reminds of me Hughes writing this script:

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Raw, unrepeatable power is the perfect notion of this film. It’s lightning, caught.

Though as lightning does when it strikes, it leaves the ground marred. I’ve always considered the ending of the film (mostly Allison cleaning up and hooking up with Andy, while Brain is forever alone) to be a black mark on the film. I’m hardly alone in that though, of course. The issue stems from this: Hughes has the princess clean the basket case up and pairs her off with the jock. That just didn’t work for me on any level when I was younger. I considered it cinematic theft by the criminally insane misfit, John Hughes.

But I’m older now. The film is 30, I’m 33. I’m an adult, sort of, and I see the ending different — or at least I feel it less. I’m not as attached to the film itself or the characters as I am to the idea of myself being young and frustrated by adults and this film reflecting that so well. The more true ending would have been the five reverting to their social roles come Monday morning, but in a strange way Hughes might have written the most teenage ending to the film possible, because, really, what does a teenager do better than making a mistake at the worst moment?

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Christmas Crazy: Christmas on Mars – Wayne Coyne (…of The Flaming Lips) (2008)

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There may be no more odd person ever to be set upon this planet than Wayne Coyne. It’s the genuine strangeness of a brain that fires its synapses in a different manner all together. It’s only a brain as strange as his that could claim credit to this kind of output, for Christmas on Mars is nothing but a series of strangeness.

It’s Christmas Eve on the newly colonized Mars and everything is going wrong for the colonists. Their oxygen and gravity generators are failing and it’s leaving everyone on edge as the colony’s first baby is due. In the oxygen deprived basecamp, Bethlehem 2055, people start having visions of the baby’s horribly wrong future — in the most horrible vision, the baby is born only to be left to be crushed to death by an oncoming marching band… who all have vaginas instead of heads, or, as Adam Goldberg’s psychiatrist puts it: “this vaginal-headed marching band from hell”. The colonist who has this vision, the man who was set to play Santa Claus later that night, promptly commits suicide by rushing out of the air lock.

Into the mix lands a Martian, played by Coyne. He says nothing, he just observes and wanders as the station’s crew slowly lose their sense of hope for their futures.

With it’s mix of 50s atomic age camp and oddball Flaming Lips style, it’s somewhat of a surprise that Christmas on Mars turns out to be something of a sincere nativity play, albeit an atheist interpretation of it. There is nothing traditional about it, but you wouldn’t want there to be. It’s not a film that was made for reverence or silence. It was made to celebrate to, and talk over, and to get drunk with friends to, which is basically how all Christmas movies should be anyway.

Christmas Crazy: Mon Oncle Antoine – Claude Jutra (1971)

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I’ve always found that the best kind of art is the coy kind, the kind that sneaks the seriousness in through the back door. The way Kurt Cobain used to hide the serious lyrics in a mishmash of nonsense and contradiction, or the way Bergman and Ozu could deal with death and broken dreams while still bringing the fart jokes. Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine is of that same mold, ostensibly a charming, somewhat sentimental tale of a rural Christmas from the point of view of Benoit, who at fifteen is trying to figure out his place in the cycle between his childish behaviors and his adult feelings.

The film is set in the 1940s, in a rural Quebec mining town that seems to revolve around the general store owned by Benoit’s foster family, uncle Antoine and aunt Cecile. It’s the kind of store where you buy your baby food, your wedding veil and, eventually, your coffin. In the early winter morning, everyone comes out in the cold to see the unveiling of the Christmas display in the window, but is really just a reason to get together and have a few drinks and gossip. To Benoit’s eyes — and to his foster cousin Carmen’s eyes — it’s a stuffy, vaguely oppressive environment, but the isolation of the town, where horse and sleigh are still legitimate means of transportation, leaves them bemused rather than moody and sullen until one of the miner’s children dies and Benoit and Antoine make the trip as undertakers.

It’s the first trip of the kind for Benoit, the first test of his adulthood. Will the adult overtake the child, or will the child remain? Though the film is 40 years old, it somehow becomes more relevant as the idea of delayed adulthood grips us. Jutra’s Christmas setting and balance social politics and wry comedy — mostly at the expense of the hapless townsfolk — is the perfect setup for this question. More subtly the question is also asked of Carmen, who has new feelings of her own to contend with while Benoit braves the snow to take a peek at death.

Christmas Crazy: Mixed Nuts – Norah Ephron (1994)

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As we edge ever closer Christmas and New Years and to the promise of completely failing on our newly needed diets, we discover that it is apparently both Christmas Craaaazy and Rita Wilson week here at OW Labs.

Wilson is given a somewhat more meaty role in Mixed Nuts than she was in yesterday’s film, Jingle All the Way. Here she plays Catherine, the mousy love interest to Steve Martin’s socially inept Philip. The pair work together at a suicide hotline in this Norah and Delia Ephron-penned take on the 90s LA Christmas experience and burgeoning middle-age love. The film is so hardcore 90s that it features Jon Stewart and Parker Posey as a pair of rollerblading yuppies whose run-ins with Philip set the plot in motion at several points. It’s not as classic a yuppie duo as Julia Louis Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest as the yuppies in Christmas Vacation, but it works for what it is.

Philip, of course, has no idea that Catherine is in love with him. He is in love with another woman who doesn’t really seem to like him all that much despite the fact that they’re engaged.  On top of that, he’s been lying about their ensuing eviction which will force the closure of the hotline and put Catherine out of a job.

Plot-wise, the film is a dead fish that just sits there on the screen staring back at you with lifeless eyes. The film’s comedy set pieces and gags — like Madeleine Kahn’s impromptu rap song in a broken elevator, and Schreiber (his first time in drag!) and Martin dancing through the apartment — are another story though, and that’s only to be expected when you fill out your cast with Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, Adam Sandler, Liev Schreiber, Gary Shandling and Robert Klein. The film doesn’t have the consistent rat-tat-tat pace to it like earlier Martin comedies, but there are more than a few gems to comb the beach for.

Mixed Nuts is a curious Christmas film in the sense that it only vaguely qualifies as a Christmas film. It’s more of an ode to the comic farces of the 30s with some nods to screwball comedies thrown in, but aside from using a Christmas tree as a prop to transport a dead body, this story could take place at any time of the year. Part of that stems from the fact that LA just doesn’t feel like Christmas. Coming from the Northeast, Orlando feels the same way at Christmas. It’s the palm trees and not being able to see your breath. Ephron highlights that, setting palm trees in spotlights behind Christmas trees and having snowmen rollerblade through Venice Beach. It’s disorienting set against the traditional It’s a Wonderful Life/White Christmas ideal that the movies give us, but that’s the reality for half of the country anyway.

Christmas Craaaazy: Jingle All the Way – Brian Levant (1996)

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It seems to be generally accepted that most Christmas films, Die Hard aside, are only ironically enjoyed. Most of that enjoyment comes from growing up with the limited selection of Christmas-themed movies. I grew up with the likes of Home Alone (the first and second) and A Muppet Christmas Carol, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Scrooged, A Christmas Story, and I was just on the late side of the scale for The Santa Clause. I love these movies, all of them, unashamedly in the cases where shame is actually warranted.

If The Santa Clause came just before my switch to moody, miserable teenager, Jingle All the Way came just after it. I have no fond memories of it. I’ve seen it, but probably not in 15 years. This was a lame Christmas movie for the lamestain generation after mine. But could I, too, enjoy it in some way if I applied myself?

Released at the same time that the country was undergoing a deep and uncontrollable Tickle Me Elmo mood swingJingle sees Arnold Schwarzenegger as a typical American dad (suspension of disbelief engaged…) who missed out on his son Jamie’s (Young Anakin Skywalker Jake Lloyd) karate purple belt ceremony. To make up for being a shit father, he decides to buy the kid a TurboMan action figure, a toy that he was already supposed to have bought weeks ago on his wife’s (Rita Wilson) instruction. Meanwhile, a super-grabby neighbor played by Phil Hartman makes a play for the neglected Rita Wilson, as Arnie and mailman Sinbad run around town trying to track down the universally sold out toy.

It’s a bad film, of course it is. So is The Santa Clause. So is Home Alone. I’d remembered it in scraps as an awful, safe, Disneyfied cornball triumph story, but re-watching it, it’s a lot saucier than I remembered.

The film basically starts off with a series of Phil Hartman dick jokes, and moves forward with crazy post office employee jokes (that was a thing in the 90s, remember?), Unabomber and mailbomb jokes, Rodney King jokes, a drunken reindeer, more midget jokes than an 80s WWF fight card, drinking away the pain of a life ruined by bad fathers, an entire chase scene that ends in a pedophile gag setpiece in a ball pit, as well as Young Anakin Skywalker hitting the sauce (he must have seen into his own yippie-destroyed future).

While the film ends in a typical flurry of Hollywood family fluff (aside from Phil Hartman trying to force himself on Rita Wilson and getting El Kabonged with a mug of Egg Nog), those are all jokes at a subterranean Christmas spirit level that I can get firmly behind.

Throw in a seriously impressive set of cameos from Martin Mull, Richard Moll (Bull from Night Court), Yeardley Smith (Lisa Simpson), Laraine Newman, Harvey Korman, Chris Parnell, Danny Woodburn (Mickey from Seinfeld), Paul Wight (aka The Big Show) and Curtis Armstrong (Booger from Revenge of the Nerds), and I found that, yeah, I can actually enjoy this movie. Not wholeheartedly, fully accepting of the WAH-WAAH-WAAAH jokes like I can with The Santa Clause, but it’s enough to work on some level. Enough to make me a Christmastime poseur anyway.

In Your Queue: Cutie and the Assassin (“Cutie and the Boxer”, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”)

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Cutie and the Boxer – Zachary Heinzerling (2013)

Cutie loves Bullie. Bullie loves liquor. Typical. But nothing is really that easy or straight forward in this sober documentary about the artist couple, Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. In its telling, it’s about the art — Ushio’s boxing art and cardboard motorcycle sculptures, and Noriko’s Cutie graphic stories —  but really, its another love story, but a little bit more complicated than most love stories. Cutie and Bullie are Noriko’s creation, one that is loosely based on her own struggles with falling in love with Ushio. Ushio is a dominating presence, both in their marriage and in their art lives and it’s easy to see how much better off she might have been if she had fallen for anyone but Ushio, but sometimes life doesn’t let you make that decision. It just happens and leaves you paint splattered. Heinzerling is mostly hands off, letting the story unfold at a natural pace as Noriko struggles to find her artistic voice and Ushio struggles to get someone to pay him for his so the couple can keep the lights on. They are a dynamic pair, both as opposites and as artists, one you root for without quite understanding how or why it all works, but it does.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind – George Clooney (2002)

After producer Arnon Milchan outed himself as an Israeli spy last week, I made a joke about how he could start up a club with Chuck Barris, the creator of The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show and, as he claims, a CIA assassin. This joke immediately got me thinking about Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the 2002 biopic of Barris written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by George Clooney. It was a slick directorial debut for Clooney, who must have taken copious notes from David O. Russell and director of photography Newton Thomas Segal while he was working on Three Kings. Segal joined him as DP on Confessions as well, bringing his bag of photographic tricks along with him. If nothing else, it’s a very pretty film to look at. Much too pretty and slick for Kaufman’s tastes it turns out, and the writer eventually disowned the film. But the film is more than a pretty thing to look at. Whether you believe Barris’s claims or not, it makes for a great story with a high body count and Clooney and Sam Rockwell (and Rutger Hauer of course) really brought out the best, adding a cockeyed layer of black humor that settles down the more ridiculous elements of the producer-hitman story. It’s damn funny, and a great film whether Kaufman wants to admit it or not.

Ranking the Best Thanksgiving Movies

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Well hello there. I bet you thought this post was going to be a list. So did I. But it turns out that, cinematically speaking, Thanksgiving is about as useful as arbor day. There is just no money in it. No one else celebrates Thanksgiving (or they celebrate their own version of it which has nothing to do with us), so there is no worldwide box office to be had.

I tend to have film traditions throughout the year. Start of summer is Jaws, 4th of July is 1776, Christmas is Fanny & Alexander (always the long version) — all topical films for the given holiday. But for Thanksgiving, my tradition is The Godfather I and II, neither of which have a Thanksgiving scene. It’s just not a compelling holiday.

It’s not that I didn’t try to make a list. I just couldn’t get past number four without moving into movies that I didn’t really like, like The Scent of a Woman or Son in Law. And I admit, too, that I have a small blindspot, having not seen Alice’s Restaurant or The House of Yes, and probably a few classic studio system films, but it still proved a difficult list.

It went like this:

1) Planes, Trains and Automobiles
2) Pieces of April
3) The Ice Storm
4) Home for the Holidays
5) And… yeah… um… uh… Hoo-ha!

After that, you have to start dissecting films to get the Thanksgiving-y goodness out of them.

Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, maybe the best film ever made to feature Thanksgiving, is bookended by two holiday dinner parties that show the progress (or lack thereof) of Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her extended family (Diane Weist, Woody Allen, Michael Caine, Barbra Hershey, etc). The film’s two Thanksgiving scenes give it a regression to the mean quality and shows what a poor yardstick that calendar events are to measure your life progress by (though it’s a mighty good film yardstick).

Judd Apatow’s Funny People actually features a kind of heartwarming Thanksgiving scene, where George (Adam Sandler) shows up for an orphans’ Thanksgiving with Ira (Seth Rogan) and his roommates (Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman). The film goes very seriously off of the rails in its second half, but this scene, where George talks about sitting around the table with his friends when he was younger and has his whole life in from of him, lights up what is a very good first half.

But my favorite Thanksgiving scene ever doesn’t come from a film, it comes from the Best Show Ever to be on the Idiot Box, The West Wing. President Bartlet (Martin Sheen), worried about killing his guests with undercooked oyster stuffing, decides to consult the Butterball hotline (FYI: 1-800-BUTTERBALL) and hilarity ensues.

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