Category Archives: Family

Christmas Double Bill: It’s a Wonderful Life & Die Hard…

its a wonderful life 2

On the face of it, the festive classic It’s A Wonderful Life couldn’t be more different to action masterpiece Die Hard. The former has become an enduring part of the holiday season in the US and UK, while internet debate still rages about whether Die Hard is actually a Christmas movie at all.

These days we regard the Christmas Movie as a genre all of its own, but it is a relatively new invention. Check out any list of top Christmas films, and almost every popular choice – i.e. movies modern audiences still watch today – was made after World War II.

It’s a Wonderful Life stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a nice guy who finds himself standing on a bridge on Christmas Eve, contemplating suicide. He has sacrificed his dreams for the good of his family, friends and community, but circumstances have led him to the brink of ruin. Thankfully, the heavens are listening to the prayers of his loved ones and dispatch an angel, Clarence (Henry Travers) to show George that he really has a wonderful life. Clarence shows George what life would be like if he was never born, and what a positive impact he has had on everyone around him.

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National Treasure 2: (2007) Nicolas Cage & The Franchise of Unlikely Situations…

I was so underwhelmed by the idea of the “National Treasure” movies that when I finally saw “Book of Secrets”, I didn’t even know it was the sequel.

But – I thoroughly enjoyed it. It got a pretty cheerless reception from snootier critics, and I’m surprised – it’s decent, unthreatening family fun. Drawing together elements of the Indiana Jones and the Da Vinci Code, plus a little bit of the abortive Lara Croft series, it actually reminds me more of another Disney caper, “One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing”. Both films show a cheerful recklessness in piling up improbable situations, although on balance, “Book of Secrets” is probably more far fetched.

A prologue takes us back to the night of April 14th, 1865 – the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts enter a pub and approach reputed cryptologist Thomas Gates to decipher a code in Booth’s diary. Gates quickly realizes the code reveals the location of a lost city of gold.

Booth nips off to assassinate Lincoln; in the subsequent pandemonium, Gates is shot – before he dies, he tears the page out of the diary and dumps it in the fire. One of the conspirators retrieves a fragment, and Gates dies, leaving his distraught son with a suitably cryptic message; “The debt that all men pay…”

Skip forward 140 years, and Gates’ great-great grandson Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) is presenting the tale at a conference, only to be interrupted by sinister antiques dealer Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris), who presents the shred of rescued paper as evidence that Thomas Gates was in fact a co-conspirator in the president’s assassination.

If this all sounds a bit dull so far, don’t worry – it’ll get started soon, and won’t let up for another ninety minutes or so.

Ben Gates and his father Patrick (Jon Voight) are suitably distraught about their ancestor’s public de-trousering, and seek out the scrap of paper to look for vital clues. With the help of Ben’s irritating tech whizz sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha), a man so nerdish he thinks writing books about conspiracy theories is a sure-fire way to pick up chicks, and Ben’s ex Abigail (Diane Krueger), they track down the missing piece.

Luckily, Thomas Gates’ skills in cryptology run in the family, and Ben is soon able to spot the cipher and crack it – and before you know it, the gang are off on a globetrotting adventure (well, USA, Paris & London-trotting adventure) to clear Thomas’ name and locate the city of gold. Naturally, the dastardly Mitch is in pursuit…

What follows is ludicrous in the extreme, but somehow more fun because of it. Ben Gates is a man so good at solving puzzles that he can pretty much do it on the fly, and then he’s off on a plane to find the next piece of the puzzle – which tend to be hidden in rather inaccessible places (the Queen’s office in Buckingham Palace; the Oval Office in the White House, for example.)

These obstacles are navigated with remarkable ease, and the curse of the modern day blockbuster – the ill-defined use of a “Computer”. Riley’s Apple laptop is a catch-all solution for almost any problem, as well as providing some useful exposition.

The computer is modern cinema’s standard deus ex machina – an old fashioned example might be: “The hero is stranded on a plane that is about to crash into a mountain. He looks under his seat and finds a parachute, and leaps to safety.”

The modern day equivalent might be: “The hero is stranded on a plane that is about to crash into a mountain. He looks under his seat and finds a laptop, and uses it to hack into the plane’s onboard computer, and steer the plane to safety virtually.”

This rather lazy involvement of computers reached its peak relatively early, when Jeff Goldblum used his Apple laptop to hack into a flying saucer and download a virus in “Independence Day” – I know Macs are pretty versatile, but — really?

Another irritation how easily characters pop up either side of the Atlantic; one moment, Mitch is on his mobile under the Statue of Liberty; the next, he appears outside Buckingham Palace in what – I may need to see this a second time – appears to be the same scene.

Perhaps they could have borrowed the “red lines” from the Indiana Jones movies – the characters get on a plane or boat, and the line does the traveling for them, linking point to point across the map until the line approaches it’s final destination; the camera moves in, and the next scene begins.

It’s an effective and atmospheric approach that conveys a long journey without having to show Indy eating small meals out of a plastic tray, waiting for the stewardess to pass with her trolley so he can visit the toilet, trying to sleep sitting up, that kind of stuff.

Also, in a lighthearted caper such as this, it would be good to see a more cartoony performance from Ed Harris – we get a few tight lipped sneers here and there, but he’s far too civilized to be a dastardly bad guy in this. We know he can do cartoony well – think back to his feral nutjob Blair Sullivan in “Just Cause”.

Here, his Mitch Wilkinson, with his standard issue goons to do most of the clobbering and shooting for him, even has a bland motive – he doesn’t want to find the lost city of gold so he can steal it; he just wants to go down in history as the man who discovered it.

On the plus side, the plot barely pauses for breath long enough for you to feel bad about how daft this all is, and the standout action sequence is a surprisingly effective car chase through the narrow streets of London. It looks a little like something from “Ronin” or one of the “Bourne” films.

At least, I was finding it pretty effective until I saw the red post box. Until that point, I thought the London scenes were shot on location (they may well have been) – but then I realized we were basically being shown a list of all the things an American tourist might want to see when visiting London – Buckingham Palace, Big Ben – check, check.

Then I started to wonder if the chase sequence might actually be filmed on a backlot in Hollywood, and the set designer never made it as far as the souvenir shop at Heathrow Airport. Here’s St Paul’s, here’s a black taxi cab, there’s a red double decker bus – I was wondering if we might see a Beefeater or Pearly King diving out of the way of the oncoming vehicles.

And it is very American, this film – Nicolas Cage is remarkably restrained, and certainly more engaging than he’s been for most of the past decade. But his one trademark outburst of shouty over-acting basically involves him ripping the piss out of the English accent, yelling things like “Bangers and Mash” at policemen in an exaggerated accent that makes Dick Van Dyke’s Chimney Sweep sound spot on.

Despite all the annoyances, I kept on enjoying it right through to the end. Along the way, we pick up Harvey Keitel as a benign FBI agent, and Helen Mirren as Ben’s mum, and it kept being fun right through to the extended and rather undynamic, Indy-esque finale in the City of Gold itself.

One thing that keeps it going is it’s stars. The script is hardly a classic, but everyone involved clearly seems to be committed, and when you get Cage, Harris, Voight, Mirren & Keitel all in one movie and enjoying themselves, these old pros can make any old tat fly.

More enjoyable and coherent than the Lara Croft flicks; less self-important than the Da Vinci Code, Book of Secrets – and presumably it’s prequel – are good old fashioned family fun, destined for that pre-Queen’s speech slot on a Christmas Day near you soon.

Where The Wild Things Are (2009) – What it’s like to be a Kid…

Like many of you I’m sure, Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are is part of my childhood wallpaper – peel back the layers stuck to the inside of my skull, beneath the old horror movie posters and Italia ’90 stickers, and there, somewhere, will be those indelible, strangely peaceful monsters of Sendak’s original book.

I know I never owned a copy, but I recall it being one of the books being fought over in the reading corner at School when I was little – it was the book equivalent of the James Bond Aston Martin toy car with the ejector seat and the missiles. Then when I went to work at a Primary school years later, it was always Where The Wild Things Are the kids were scrapping over….

I’d heard about a film adaptation, which I quickly forgot about, thinking the usual pessimistic thoughts about how much of a mess they were likely to make of another childhood classic. It’s been over a month since I watched Spike Jonze’s effort, and it’s such a curious, affecting piece it won’t quite go away – I’ve been straining to think of another “kid’s” film it resembles, but it’s pretty hard. In some ways, I think the film it resembles the most is the animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ beloved The Snowman.

Sendak’s original tale tells of a young boy called Max, who gets into so much mischief that he is sent to bed without any dinner. In his imagination, he sets off on an adventure across the sea to a strange forested land, where he encounters the wild things, a tribe of huge fierce monsters. Max proves himself to be the wildest thing of all and becomes their king, and after the “wild rumpus”, he soon becomes lonely and heads back home to the comforts of his family life.

One of the most impressive things about Jonze’s adaptation is that he hasn’t tried to pad out such a slim story into a massive feature length adventure – rather, he uses the original tale to inform a realistic portrayal of a lonely young boy who’s imagination sometimes gets the better of him.

The Wild Thing Max, played by newcomer Max Records, is initially caught in a scene of such alarming anger and vitality it’s a bit of a shock – dressed in the book’s famous wolf costume and followed by Jonze’s handheld camera, he chases and wrestles the family dog which such ferocious abandon there’s no doubt who the wild thing is here.

These early scenes of Max’s childhood are among the most effective of the film. Max is not an abused or neglected kid – it’s just he’s a bit lonely. His older sister is off out with her friends all the time, and his single mother (played warmly by Catherine Keener) loves him dearly, but has now reached the point when she now wants some new male attention in her life.

Some purists may be upset that the book’s transmogrification of Max’s bedroom into a jungle has been missed out, because it would certainly be within the realms of today’s special effects, but it doesn’t make too much of a difference.

Once Max’s journey has begun, he’s off across the sea and winds up in a wintry woodland, not unlike one he might find at the bottom of his garden – into his imagination, and Max is limited by what he already knows. Apart from the woods, the strange land is bordered by cliffs and beaches that recall the forlorn shoreline of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland.

Max encounters the Wild Things, huge lumbering creatures in the midst of smashing up their nests, led by the impetuous Carol, who is in a fury because his girlfriend-thing KW has left. Max tries to join in, and soon finds himself surrounded by a pack of looming, hungry-looking creatures threatening to eat him. Max is able to convince them he is actually a king, and after the “wild rumpus”, tries to bring order and harmony to the desolate group of monsters.

The creatures themselves are wonderful – I was initially put off by their “American” voices, but the vocal actors really bring the performances to the fore and do a brilliant job of voicing each creature’s foibles and insecurities. The creatures themselves are a seamless blend of CGI and animatronic suits designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. So often these days I find myself dragged out of a story by how fake the special effects look – Where The Wild Things Are is one of a few examples I can thing of where the effects look exactly right.

There is not much plot to speak of – the drama of the story is whether Max can really unite this band of fierce, lonely creatures into a loving group, and whether he can do it without getting eaten in the meantime. Because the creatures are figments of his imagination, the rhythms of their relationships has the same uneasy shifting of tantrums, boisterousness and shifting alliances of the playground…except this time, Max’s playmates are eight foot tall monsters who eat each other to settle disagreements.

There is an early scene which shows what can happen to Kings of the Wild Things who displease their subjects – it’s a brief, chilling moment, and again Jonze uses it wisely. While this is Max’s imagination, Jonze knows imaginations are deep and dark places, and sometimes people who immerse themselves fully into a fantasy world don’t always come back.

Where The Wild Things Are is a peculiar, moving and haunting film; I don’t think it is suitable for really young children, who may find it too slow or just plain frightening. Older kids, particularly those old enough to be allowed out to play on their own, should relate to it’s themes well.

If not, then the film is left to us grown ups – those of us with the knowledge that no matter how well we were brought up, there were moments when being a kid was a bewildering and lonely place. A beautiful film.

Alice In Wonderland (2010) – Alice in Wonderless-Land…

Is it wrong to criticise a film adaptation of a children’s book for being watered down for kids? Probably, so I’d better justify myself before I lash into Tim Burton’s lavish, hollow, loveless and curiously wonderless CGI fest.

I studied Children’s Literature as a module on my degree course, and just as anyone studying Film (as I also did) will inevitably run up against “Citizen Kane” as a kind of film making 101, it’s almost impossible to study Children’s Lit without reading, analysing and appreciating “Alice in Wonderland” and it’s sequel, “Through the Looking Glass”, and their influence on Children’s books and popular culture.

Lewis Carroll‘s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, to give it it’s full title, always struck me as a rather callous and chilly piece of work, where a stubborn and argumentative young girl spends her journey getting involved in nonsense disagreements with Wonderland’s array of fantastical creatures.

Unlke C S Lewis‘ Narnia, or Tolkien’s Middle Earth, there is no real detailed topography for Wonderland, and to me it came to resemble more of a literary desert island, where a bunch of quarrelsome and combustible castaways from the distant shores of Heraldry (The Gryphon) or Nursery Rhyme (Humpty Dumpty) washed up together, doomed to have the same conversations over and over again for eternity.

Which in some respects, has come true – quickly typing “Alice in Wonderland” into IMDb returns no less than twenty four matches, ranging from 1903 to 2011. Most conspicuous in that list is Disney’s 1951 adaptation, the version perhaps most responsible for many people’s perception of the story.

The Disney-fied version re-imagined Alice as a beautiful, blond haired, princess-like character, very different from the scowling, sour-faced Alice of Tenniel’s indelible illustrations, which are so integral to the “feel” of the original books. His interpretation of Carroll’s creatures were of a forlorn, grouchy and threadbare menagerie, not a bunch of cuddly cartoon characters.

Also, I suspect, the source material of “Alice in Wonderland”, and the myth behind it – the little girl who inspired the story, and the exact nature of the relationship between her and the author, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, are perhaps of more interest to grown ups these days.

There are countless books on the subject, and enough debate to keep scholars going for another few centuries at least – did Dodgson harbour pedophile tendencies towards his young muse, or are we viewing a Victorian ideal of innocence and beauty, where pre-pubescent girls were idolised, through our suspicious 21st century filter?

So onto Tim Burton‘s extravagant version. Surely, if any director could harness the creepy, timeless nature of this oft-told tale, Burton could?

Perhaps the Tim Burton of the Nineties could – the Tim Burton of Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood, and Sleepy Hollow could.

Tim Burton has been one of the most visionary and influential (not to say successful) directors of the past quarter century. His input on popular culture is so strong that even my girlfriend, who normally describes movies as “that film with that guy in” can identify the visual motifs of a “Tim Burton movie”.

So the perfect guy for the material, right? Wrong…

Burton’s popular appeal has been so great that audiences have been prepared to overlook his fairly frequent duds, so it’s easy to forget that the past decade or so for Burton has been pretty much a string of high profile stinkers.

What went wrong? We know Burton can handle the big budget blockbuster – his twisted gothic visuals were about the only reason to watch “Batman” and “Batman Returns”, so why did his remake of “Planet of the Apes” turn into such an embarrassing farce?

We know Burton can “do” Roald Dahl – his “James and the Giant Peach” was quite wonderful, so why did his “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” explode all over our screens in such a demented, disorganised, gaudy splat?

And as for the vastly overblown and overrated “Sweeney Todd”, is it possible such a dreary, painful experience could come from the same man who gave us “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”?

Tim Burton’s “Alice” is a sequel to “Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”. We meet a grown up Alice (Mia Wasikowska) as she is traveling to a posh garden party with her mother. There she receives a proposal of marriage from a rather unappealing ginger haired toff. Luckily, a white rabbit appears on the scene, and she runs after it, and then takes a tumble down a rabbit-hole underneath a rather Burton-esque tree…

So far, so familiar, but on arrival in Wonderland, it seems she’s been here before, although doesn’t remember. The creatures she meets – including Tweedledum & Tweedledee, the Cheshire Cat, the March Hare, and of course, Johnny Depp’s headlining role, the Mad Hatter – have been waiting for her to return.

It seems Wonderland has fallen under the rule of the Red Queen, and it has been foretold that she would return and defeat the Jabberwocky on the “Frabjous Day”, free Wonderland from the Red Queen’s despotic grip, and return the benevolent White Queen to power.

I sat down to watch this version with very little knowledge of what to expect – I’d seen no trailers, read no reviews – and one of my pre-viewing complaints about “Alice in Wonderland” as suitable material for a film was that it actually has very little in the way of plot.

Linda Woolverton’s sequel idea solves this problem by introducing this rather formulaic quest-style plot, but in doing so, robs Alice with any meaningful (or meaningless) discussions with the characters as she races from A to B to fulfill her destiny. Without the conversations that are so familiar, it reduces these timeless icons of children’s literature to mere sidekicks on Alice’s journey.

Some come off better than others. Stephen Fry’s Cheshire Cat is beautifully realised in CGI, floating serenely around Alice and other characters before disappearing, smile last, as you would expect.

Helena Bonham-Carter’s Red Queen is confusing, as she is a combination of the Red Queen from “Through the Looking Glass” (She has chess piece soldiers), and the Queen of Hearts from “Wonderland” (Screaming “Off with his head!” every couple of seconds, etc.)

She is also one of the film’s most striking creations, as Bonham-Carter’s head has been digitally enlarged and popped back onto a tiny body, presumably to reflect the Queen’s inflated ego. Performance-wise, she seems to borrow far too much from Miranda Richardson’s Queenie from “Blackadder II”, but without her childish, spiteful sense of fun.

Little Britain’s Matt Lucas also gets some peculiar, hall-of-mirrors-style facial distortions from the effects department’s box of tricks – while the chunky twins run a little bit like Super Mario, in that telltale computer animated way, it’s queasily obvious that Mr Lucas’ real chubby face is peering out from under there.

The March Hare, voiced by Paul Whitehouse, is irritatingly Jar Jar Binks like, and the usually demented Crispin Glover is under used and strangely buttoned down as the Knave of Hearts, the Red Queen’s right hand man.

Ann Hathaway has some fun as the White Queen, a monarch so saintly she has taken a vow of non-violence, which leads her to almost lose her lunch when she sees violence on the battleground.

Then there is the Jabberwocky, and Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter.

Tenniel’s original illustration of the Jabberwocky is so wonderfully evocative, so why hasn’t Tim Burton and his team used it in the creation of their Jabberwocky? It’s right there, that’s what the Jabberwocky looks like, you’ve got the tools, why not give everyone what they want to see – the Jabberwocky!

Instead, they’ve plumped for a standard issue, CGI dragon type thing, which looks like it was pinched from Peter Jackson‘s Recycle Bin.

Also, in trying to pad out the wafer thin plot, they’ve also given some shape and form to two other creatures from the Jabberwocky poem, the Bandersnatch and the Jub Jub Bird – two creatures that stirred the imagination by the sheer lack of how they were described originally. But here, the Bandersnatch is turned into a gigantic, snarling tasmanian devil-like creature, and the Jub Jub bird is – well, like a big angry bird.

And there’s Johnny Depp. Everyone loves Johnny Depp. Tim Burton DEFINITELY loves Johnny Depp…

After Depp’s peculiar and mannered take on Willy Wonka in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, here he attempts to reinvent another popular character from Children’s Literature, the Mad Hatter.

Here, though, the role is padded out, presumably to give such a headlining act as Depp a larger percentage of screen time. It doesn’t work.

The Mad Hatter is now a quirky, gap toothed, frizzy haired basketcase, with back story (he once made hats for the White Queen, before he went a bit…mad), who is also a bit bi-polar. He veers between a stammering, absent-minded, English-accented fool during his quiet moments, to a glowering avenger with a rough Scottish brogue when getting ready for a fight.

It simply doesn’t make any sense, and Depp milks it for all it’s worth, and it’s such an infruriatingly schticky performance it’s virtually impossible to feel any warmth for the character. Depp is a wonderful actor at times, but when he feels the need to turn the bizarre-o-meter all the way up, it gets old very quickly.

There are a few moments of fun to be had – there was something very Python-esque about the Red Queen’s group of toadies trying to suck up to her by wearing false large noses, ears, chins etc. to make her feel she was normal; and I loved the squirmy, photo-real look of the Frog Footman twitching around as the Queen accused him of stealing the tarts – this film does with frogs what “Chocolate Factory” did for squirrels.

In all, though, this is two hours of joyless, wonderless noise and charmless images. Perhaps fifteen years ago, Burton would have had the energy to put his own spin on the material, but these days he seems listless and content to rely on peculiar CGI effects to compensate for his exhausted imagination. I’m sure the kids will enjoy it, though…


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