Into the movies…Christmas time at the theater

The movie theater in Boulder, CO was packed on Christmas Day.  There were families with children lined up for Annie, teens headed to see Night at the Museum or Hunger Games and we were packed in tight to see Into the Woods.

Chris Pine in Into The Woods

There were some nice moments in the film. The costumes were great and the leads were committed and even those not known for their singing prowess (hello, Emily Blunt!), performed wonderfully.  Meryl Streep was exceptional.  Without her emotional-nuanced performance, Into The Woods would have been another over-long remake of a Broadway musical.  But I think Steven McElroy (NY Times) got it right–it was the comedic song “Agony” performed by the big ham, Chris Pine, that lifted the film right when it was sagging.

In a film with Big Themes–Parenting is a learned Skill, Poverty isn’t for the Dim-witted, Wishes Granted can come with Complications–there could’ve been more humor and less dark forest musings.  Chris Pine‘s Prince and Anna Kendrick‘s Cinderella brighten the film with vivid moments.  The brother princes trying to outdo each other in the self-pity department and the freeze-frame on the castle stairs are highlights of the film.  I also enjoyed the duet with Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife cross-cut with her Baker, played by James Corden as they sing “You Are Not Alone”.

Christine Baranski is a delight as the Stepmother and the young man who plays Jack, Daniel Huttlestone, is wonderful.  It’s great to see Tracey Ullman, even in a bit part. Interesting to note that Emily Blunt was pregnant during the filming.  Ironic, as her character is desperate to have a child.

Rob Marshall probably had a hard time trying to decide which of the songs to eliminate from the musical.  The film would’ve been better served if most of the Little Red Riding Hood scenes had been trimmed. The bland Lilla Crawford would’ve had nearly the same character arc; going from gob-stuffing young girl to wolf-skin-wearing tough girl, w/o her dream sequence.  There was more emotional-weight to the shortened scenes of Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) with the Witch and her prince.  And with far less screen time.

I’m glad that some of the darker moments were resurrected from the Brothers Grimm fairy tales (who needs to stand when you’re a princess and blindness as a retribution).  The grisly nature of the deaths and being blinded are down-played by those scenes happening off-camera and by the astonished tone taken by the Narrator voiced by the Baker.  Into The Woods is a dark film but it’s not too scary for younger viewers, esp. those who are already familiar with the musical.

When the paths are lost in the woods, the energy of the story is also lost.  The blaming song brings the pace back up but then the messy demise of the Witch seems anti-climatic. If there’d been a stronger ending, I’d say the film was great.  Instead, it’s a good film with some wonderful performances and some catchy tunes.  I expect it to win a few Golden Globes.

Rating: 3 drinks from a golden goblet (out of 5)

Bechdel Rating: Passes, the princesses find their own strengths and one even rejects her prince. I love that the actor’s roles are listed as Rapunzel’s Prince and Cinderella’s Prince!

Do you prefer your Christmas spirit…on the rocks?

I like all of my holidays with a glass of good cheer! And yes, I enjoy my Ho Ho Ho with a little Ha Ha Ha.

Bad Santa-Billy Bob Thornton and Lauren Graham

Not everyone one likes their Christmas entertainment to be syrupy-sweet or full of good tidings. Sometimes, you just want a side of snide with your Christmas cocoa.  A shot of whiskey, neat, to wash away the slog of Christmas carols on repeat at the Mall…

One of my favorite Christmas films,The Ref (Ted Demme, 1994is only Christmas in that it’s setting is a snowy holiday night in suburbia. A thief kidnaps a bickering couple preparing to host their Saint Lucia dinner.  I’m generally not a fan of dysfunctional families but when the couple is played by the brilliant Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis and the inept burglar is Dennis Leary in peak caustic form…hilarity ensues.

Dennis Leary in “The Ref”

The Ref has a big heart hidden under all that snark.  Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff, 2003) is bad to the bone.  Here we have Billy Bob Thornton as an alcoholic thief set on robbing a department store.  Dressed in a Santa suit with a sidekick, a bickering elf (Tony Cox), Billy Bob mistreats children and has an affair with a woman with a Santa fetish. Cast against-type, Lauren Graham is hilarious. This is not a film for the kiddos and I recommend the director’s cut.  Bad Santa is crass but it’s a bracing antidote to the holiday treacle and it was successful enough to spawn a sequel, which is in the works.

I’m also a fan of Scrooged  (Richard Donner, 1988). How can you not love watching Bill Murray get clobbered with a toaster-to-the-face by the delightful Carol Kane?  Yes, it’s a remake of A Christmas Carol but it’s a great subversive look at the crass commercialization of Christmas with a little redemption at the end.

For those of you venturing to the movie theaters, there is quite the Holiday Buffet this year. There are orphans, penguins, sex (Horrible Bosses 2), sleaze (Nightcrawler), biblical tales and sequels.  You can go Wild, or be Unbroken, take a gamble or visit a museumI look forward to seeing Into The Woods. It looks like a fun one to share with friends and family.   I’ll save the darker films for those long months of winter when there are no festivities.  For now, I’d rather see something set in a fantasy world that doesn’t involve death and destruction and “where everything will come to a happy end.”

Christmas nostalgia

Some people get in the holiday spirit by decorating a tree, polishing the menorah or baking something from an old family recipe…I pull out the movies!

The Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

For me, nothing says Christmas like the old stop-motion animated cartoons from the early 70’s. The Little Drummer Boy (1968), The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) come to mind. Even though I couldn’t remember the title of one of my favorite cartoons from childhood, I could hum the theme “Put One Foot In Front of the Other” — finally I had to go find the DVD at the store.  It’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town.  There’s a charm and simplicity to these Rankin/Bass Productions. They’re endearing.  There’s catchy songs and they feature a hero’s journey….sometimes all the way to the Island of Misfit Toys!  All of them are about the outsider; the individual that doesn’t fit in, who triumphs over adversity.  Though there’s an up-lifting moral, the characters must face the villians.  There seemed to be little worry about “scaring the kids” with The Abominable Snowman or the Heat Miser.  Of course, everything turns out alright in the end!  Bad guys lose their teeth or are forced to stay in their own realms and the hero saves the day.

The Heat Miser Song — The Year Without Santa Claus, 1974

Heat Miser from The Year Without Santa Claus

Watching them again as an adult, I was struck by how many similarities there are between these older cartoon specials that aired on television and some of our popular animated films of today.  There are super-star vocal talents featured (Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney), quirky side-kicks and musical interludes that were popular when the cartoons aired (like that little ditty from Frozen!).  Would children used to faster pacing and slicker animation still enjoy these simple stop-motion features?  I don’t know but I hope some parents will pull out the Holiday Classics and share them with their kids!

2014 Cinema worth celebrating!

Tis the season…when many movie aficionados are preparing their “Top 10 Best Movies” of the year.  Rather than make a list, I just want to share some cinema love and shine the light on a few worthy films that may have been missed in the deluge of blockbusters and sequels.  For what is “best” after all?  Movies are like wine.  Your experience will not be my experience.  I can no more tell you that this Merlot is the Best, than I can say that this Rom-Com is the Best–but I can share some of my cinematic highlights of the year and we can clink our glasses and toast to the joy of movies!

cropped-cropped-20130722_161041-1-e13752949715881.jpg

Here’s to all the local film houses that feature art-house films and stirring (and challenging) documentaries and fabulous foreign films.  For without these places, run by dedicated (and generally, underpaid) staff, there would be very little access to some of the best cinema.  A big “Hip Hip Hurray” for all the film programmers at those small independent film houses and at film festivals all over the world.  You are the champions of the independent filmmaker. You endure hours of mind-numbing, eye-searing bad films to discover the gems of cinematic wonder that must be nourished, promoted and shared.

Here’s to you, fellow film lovers, who seek out the obscure, the retrospectives, the art films and the latest from our film auteurs like Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Jim Jarmusch  and upcoming talents like Gillian Robespierre and Justin Simien. Together, we revel in each film restoration and together we celebrate our cinema history. Thank you for making it a point to see these treasures in the old movie palaces, single screen local movie houses and/or libraries, art galleries and yes, even pubs!  You keep cinema alive by voting for it with your hard-earned dollar.  Thank you for crowd-funded films and new modes of film distribution that are making access to film easier and ensuring that filmmakers have new platforms to explore.

Some of my top film experiences this year include seeing the wonderful Skeleton Twins at SFIFF with director and stars in attendance, getting to witness the standing ovations at MVFF for some compelling documentaries (Capturing Grace, Gardeners of Eden) and discovering the fabulous animated Miss Todd and meeting the hilarious and talented,  Suzanne Heintz of Playing House at Women + Film Voices Film Festival.  There I also got to see Obvious Child and was blown away by the performance of Jenny Slate directed by Gillian Robespierre.

Telluride Film Festival

I finally made it to the Telluride Film Festival and that was my cinematic highlight of the year!  I loved everything: the people attending, the quality of the programming, the comradery, and the beauty of the setting.  I felt I could literally and metaphorically touch the stars.  There were so many famous filmmakers within arms reach and being in the mountains–with the starry sky like a sparkly velvet scarf above–was a heady and transformative experience!

My vote for the most fun at the cinemas this year would be with Guardians of the Galaxy — a fun 70’s soundtrack, great characters featuring a story with both heart and  action-packed thrills.  The Lego Movie was particularly fun for me because the person I went with enjoyed it so much, he couldn’t stop laughing.  It was also great to see a preview screening of The Imitation Game with the hundreds of staff and crew at Telluride, and then meander into the charming town discussing it’s merits with other film buffs over a late-night whiskey.

A highlight of my film festival career was programming and producing my first film festival, Front Range Film Festival here in Colorado.  It was amazing to be on stage with director Andrew Mudge of Forgotten Kingdom, and have someone in the audience in this little town of Longmont, CO say that he was FROM Lesotho, Africa.  The audience was charmed when I invited him onstage so he could compliment the director on his accuracy at portraying the culture there.

Front Range Film Festival

Front Range Film Festival

Two of my favorite films of this year would make a great double feature: Finding Vivian Maier and Ida.  I previewed them in January for the Boulder International Film Festival and it seems like sooooo long ago. Both feature amazing photography; Vivian Maier’s photos of people in 1950-60’s Chicago and the beautiful black and white cinematography of Ida. Compelling stories about amazing women, both films have received awards on the festival circuit but they deserve a larger audience.

Obvious Child was just nominated for a well-deserved Spirit Award; I hope more people will see this darkly comic, honest portrait of a woman.  It’s a film with someone making the choice to end a pregnancy without making that the focus of the movie.  There were so many gems this year: The Lunchbox, Love is Strange, Only Lovers Left Alive…I enjoyed reading about films other critics felt didn’t get their due: Top 10 Catch-up. There were also lots of films I didn’t get to see yet but that I know I’ll love.  I’m not a film snob but I do love all the wealth of amazing “Oscar-caliber” films that get released around this time of year.  I’m looking forward to Mr Turner, The National Gallery, the last installment of The Hobbit and even Horrible Bosses 2.  So many films, so little time..and so many reasons to be GRATEFUL!