Christmas Stories: Elf (2003)

Em took yesterday and today off so we could get ready for Christmas. I really hadn’t realized that Christmas was only a week away. Luckily, we’re pretty well set up. All our presents are coming in from Amazon, most of the decorations are up and we’ve got our tree. We just need to wrap presents, decorate the tree and make the food for when the parents come. While putting lights on the tree today, we turned on Elf, which is one of my two favorite Christmas movies from the last 10 years (the other is Love Actually).

I first saw Elf in college and it really helped me get in the holiday spirit thanks to Will Ferrell’s infectious naivete and joy with all things Christmas. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, it’s got Zooey Deschanel singing my favorite Christmas song of all time “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” so that helped. Christmas time during college was always a bit weird for me, you’re trying to get in the spirit and have a good time with holiday parties and what not, but then you’ve got all these exams looming over you and travel plans back home. One of my favorite parties every year was the post-exam Christmas party. Everyone, even the most intense students, seemed to just cut loose and have a good time at that one.

So, I was really glad when I saw Elf and it got me in the spirit. The story follows Ferrell, as Buddy the elf, but he’s not really an elf. He was an orphan who, as a baby, crawled into Santa’s sack and stowed away to the North Pole. Now, he’s 30 and discovers that he’s not actually an elf and wants to meet his dad James Caan (his mom passed away). So, Buddy heads to New York City and finds his dad married (to Mary Steenburgen) with a kid. Ed Asner plays Santa and Bob Newhart plays Buddy’s adoptive dad Papa Elf. Buddy explores NYC, meets his jerk dad who thinks he’s crazy and becomes part of dad’s family. He also falls for Zooey and they start dating. It’s all very festive and sweet. I know a lot of people are probably sick of Ferrell’s man-child routine (Step Brothers, Old School, Talladega Nights, Semi-Pro, pretty much everything he’s done, really), but it really serves this movie because he’s not playing it with any meanness or irony (like there is in Fred Claus). Buddy really is one of the happiest, nicest people you’ll ever see on screen.

I give a lot of the credit for this goodness to director Jon Favreau. The first 10-20 minutes takes places in the North Pole. There’s just such a great, fantastical consistency to the place. It feels classic and up-to-date at the same time. The difference in size between Buddy and the elves is really well done and outside, you’re treated to several claymation-like characters. Even the snowflakes look big and cut-out and fun. It’s little touches like that that really impressed me about Elf and gave me a lot of hope back when Favreau was announced as the Iron Man director and everyone was freaking out. I actually like this movie so much that it’s not filed away with all the other Christmas DVDs, it’s in the binder with the rest of my pre-moving collection (which quickly filled up once I started working 15 minutes away from a Best Buy). So there you have it, my thoughts on one of my favorite Christmas movies.

NYC & LA Movie Marathon: 7 Movies From Both Cities

I watch a LOT of movies. More so than usual since I’m unemployed/work from home. Netflix really has become my closest friend which is both sad and technologically impressive. Anyway, I like to watch movies or shows while I work on freelance, which means I’m not always giving them 100% of my attention, but enough to do a series of mini-reviews. I’ve been trying to figure out some thematic similarities between the movies I’ve been watching (like the otherwise unrelated Dr. Horrible and Angel of Death from the other day). It wasn’t until I was watching Last Action Hero today which takes place in both New York City and Los Angeles that I realized that a big chunk of the movies I’ve watched recently are set in one or the other. So, what the hell? Even though they’re mostly unrelated, here’s a look at seven movies I’ve watched in the last few weeks set in these places. Hit the jump for the incredibly entertaining reviews.

First up, New York, both because it’s a place I’m semi-familiar with and it contains the movie I watched first.

F/X (1986)
As long time United Monkees know, I watched F/X 2 a little over a year ago and had a great time with it. It was a fun little action movie that didn’t seem to take itself too seriously and had fun with the concept. The original is a bit more straightforward and intense that I was expecting, with Cocktail’s Bryan Brown taking on an assignment from the government to make it look like a mobster (Jerry Orbach) gets killed so he can testify. Turns out he gets double crossed and things go downhill from there. Brian Dennehy still stars as the one guy trying to help Brown’s character and the two team-up to take out the bad guys and win the day, using plenty of Brown’s special effects tricks. It’s a cool movie, but definitely not as fun as the sequel.

RIGHTEOUS KILL (2008)
Not only do Righteous Kill and F/X share a common setting in the form of NYC, but they also share something in the form of awesome actor Brian Dennehy. In this case he plays lieutenant to Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. This review absolutely contains SPOILERS, so if you don’t want the movie ruined, skip to The Muppets Take Manhattan. Anyway, the whole plot of this movie revolves around De Niro’s seeming confession to being this killer of guys who fall through the cracks of the criminal justice system. We even have video footage of him confessing. But, it turns out that the video is Pacino making him read his (Pacino’s) diary. See, throughout the movie, they’re only referred to by their nicknames, so when De Niro reads a real name, we don’t actually know who it is. I found the twist to be a fairly interesting one that would probably make sense on further viewings (less High Tension and more Usual Suspects). Personally I liked watching these two veterans working together in a fairly tight script that brings in the talents of 50 Cent, Dennehy, John Leguizamo, Donnie Wahlberg and Carla Gugino. Definitely worth the NetBox watch in my opinion.

THE MUPPETS TAKES MANHATTAN (1984)
I must admit, I’m not a huge Muppets fan. That’s not to say I don’t like them, I just don’t have the history with them that a lot of people my age seem to. My only childhood memory of them is from Muppet Babies. After that? The video they did with Weezer. So, it was kind of on a whim that I watched The Muppets Take Manhattan on NetBox and I had a great time with it. The story follows Kermit and the Muppet gang who are fresh out of college (seems like that would make a great movie premise itself) and taking their show to New York to get it on Broadway. After several failed attempts to get the show made, Kermit kind of blows up at his friends who all decide he would be better off if they told him they got other jobs and moved away. This leaves Kermit in NYC, working in a diner and still trying to get the show made. He, of course, succeeds eventually, only to get in an accident that leaves him with amnesia and taking a job as an ad exec, Mad Men-style. I had a ridiculous amount of fun watching this flick and trying to figure out if I’d ever been to the parts of the city Kermit was walking around (I’m guessing so, though the place has changed quite a bit in 25 years). I also really enjoyed the flashback that spawned Muppet Babies. It made a lot of things make sense. Now, I’ve got to check out the rest of the movies.

KRUSH GROOVE (1985)
Holy crap, I loved this movie. I just watched it today (well, yesterday at this point in the early morning) and had so much fun with it. See, it’s a fictionalized history of Def Jam records back in the 80s, but starring a ton of their artists like Run-DMC, the Fat Boys, LL Cool J, Kurtis Blow, Rick Rubin, Sheila E., the Beastie Boys and New Edition among others. I only really started exploring hip hop within the last five or six years, but that exploration has heavily included Run-DMC and the Beasties. I also had a couple Fat Boys tapes back when I was a kid (I’m guessing around the time they got huge, musically speaking, because I vaguely recognized a track or two in the movie from those tapes). That combined with my fairly recent viewing of VH1’s 2009 Hip Hop Honors which focused on Def Jam really made this movie interesting for me. There’s a lot going on in a fairly limited amount of time, but I feel like the director did a good job of balancing the main storyline of Run-DMC thinking of jumping form the Krush Groove label and the B-story of the Fat Boys trying to make it big. If you’re interested in early hip hop at all, this is a must-watch flick. I was also surprised to find out that director Michael Shultz also directed past UM reviewed movie Car Wash and a few movies I didn’t get around to reviewing like the epic Last Dragon (SO awesome) and Cooley High (surprisingly depressing).

New York To LA and Back

LAST ACTION HERO (1993)
The movie that inspired this entire entry starts off with a kid in NYC who loves Arnold Schwarzenegger movies getting sucked into movie-LA and eventually bringing the fictional Jack Slater back into the real world. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but I really loved this movie. I remember watching it with my grandparents back around the time it came out on video and thinking it was kind of dumb. But, see, now I’ve seen most of the movies it tries to spoof and had a much better time with it (I’m guessing my grandparents also thought it was dumb, but I bet they never said anything). The kid calls out all kinds of late-80s, early-90s action movie cliches, trying to convince Slater that he’s living in a movie. What I like is that all aspects of the story are interesting and I guess the credit for that goes to world renowned scriptwriter William Goldman (whose book of scripts including Butch & Sundance, Misery, Marathon Man & The Princess Bride is sitting mostly unread on my shelf) who came in and did a rewrite after Arnold insisted on it. Credit should also be given to Die Hard and Predator director John McTiernan who did a great job of mixing the comic and action elements. Sure, the kid’s acting can be a bit thin at times and maybe over-the-top, but I think it works, especially (maybe only) if you’re a fan of these kinds of movies. Oh, it also features a cartoon cat voiced by Danny Devito, how can you go wrong?!

Now On To LA

SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO (1991)
After watching several movies about cops getting new partners (Dragnet, The Rookie, Lethal Weapon (the latter two soon to be reviewed on their own), it’s funny how similar they end up. This one has dandy Dolph Lundgren and Brandon Lee teaming up to take down crime in LA’s Little Tokyo. Soon enough, something minor leads them to something huge and our heroes have to put a stop to it. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to this one, but I still enjoyed the weird aesthetic of it. See, Lundgren loves Asian culture, while Lee only knows martial arts because his mom made him take lessons and otherwise doesn’t care. When I was a kid I always got this one confused with Big Trouble In Little China. That doesn’t really mean anything, I guess. On another note, Wayne’s World’s Tia Carrere also stars in this movie. On another nother note, the director Mark L. Lester also directed the more-fun Class of 1999 and Commando.

ALIEN NATION (1988)
Hey, guess what? I’ve had a surprising amount of luck watching movies lately. Case in point? Alien Nation. I added a few sci-fi movies including this one a while ago and decided to give this one a shot. I remember seeing the TV series randomly syndicated when I was a kid watching late-night TV but had never seen the movie, which stars James Caan and Chicago Hope’s Mandy Patinkin. Kind of like V, Alien Nation is based around an alien race that is welcomed to earth and begins to be integrated into society, though basic stereotypes still exist. These aliens were bread to be slaves though. Like with Showdown, this movies focuses on cop Caan being saddled with Newcomer (that’s what they call the aliens) Patinkin. As the two learn about each other, they find out about a much bigger plot to addict the Newcomers to drugs and have to put a stop to it. I really liked James Caan in this flick. I guess I haven’t seen him in too many things, but I liked his every man approach. I haven’t seen a ton of his movies, but this made me want to do so. It also made me add the TV series to my Netflix queue, though I was it was on instant watch. I don’t have incredibly high hopes because it got canceled after one season, but it did spawn a number of TV movies. Anyone familiar with them?

So, that ends my cinematic tour of NYC and LA, though I’m sure I’ll see another movie or two set in one of those places before the end of the week. I’ve enjoyed my brief stay and wish I would have taken more pictures, but what are you gonna do?