A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story

“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”

There have been a lot of Christmas movies over the years, but few that have really stood the test of time to be remembered long after they come out, and even fewer that are as fun to watch as A Christmas Story. Directed by Bob Clark (Porky’s) and starring Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, and Darren McGavin, this might just be the perfect Christmas movie. It’s wholesome and nostalgic without being sappy or boring. It’s witty and hilarious and these things seem to get better as the movie ages. And it’s uplifting without being preachy or puritanical. I didn’t watch a lot of movies growing up and I still don’t watch a lot of television, so I’m somewhat ashamed to say that I didn’t discover this movie until just a few years ago. I’m glad I did, though. This movie is a joy to watch, and it’s become one that really rings in Christmas for my family.

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This is Spinal Tap

This is Spinal Tap

“It’s such a fine line between stupid and, uh… clever.”

The concept of satire has been lost along the way of modern movie production. The American Heritage Dictionary defines satire as: “A literary work in which human foolishness or vice is attacked through irony, derision, or wit.” Most work marketed as satire today is instead simply parody, which imitates for comedic effect rather than use wit for social commentary. This is Spinal Tap, directed by Rob Reiner (Stand By Me, The Princess Bride) and starring Christopher Guest and Michael McKean, is a satire of the rock music scene of the late 70s and early 80s that uses parody as well as wit and derision to showcase how ridiculous it is. It’s produced as a documentary about a fictional band, and followed that formula so well that some viewers commented that they loved the movie, but wished it would have covered a more popular band. This mockumentary style has produced many films over the years, from Best in Show to Borat to What We Do in the Shadows, but my favorite remains This is Spinal Tap. It’s hilarious, memorable, extremely quotable, and earns its place as the greatest rock and roll comedy of all time.

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Office Space

Office Space

“Michael, I did nothing. I did absolutely nothing, and it was everything that I thought it could be.”

Whether you’ve seen it or not, if you work in an office, you know Office Space. Even today, eighteen years after its release, mentions of TPS reports or pieces of flair bring laughs to office workers. Written and directed by Mike Judge (Idiocracy, Silicon Valley) and starring Ron Livingston and Jennifer Aniston, this movie captured the monotony and pointlessness that had defined office jobs for decades. And perhaps unexpectedly, this movie had a profound impact on office culture for years to come. I won’t argue that it’s brilliant; but its portrayal of office life and the frustration of office workers in the 90s is spot on. It’s also very funny.

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Breakfast at Tiffany's

“It’s better to look at the sky than live there. Such an empty place; so vague. Just a country where the thunder goes and things disappear.”

Have you ever seen something that seemed to say one thing at first glance, but upon further inspection actually says the exact opposite? I think Breakfast at Tiffany’s fits that pattern. Directed by Blake Edwards (The Party, The Pink Panther) and starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard, this film is often lifted up as a fun example of 60s style and culture—particularly Hepburn’s character Holly Golightly. But dig a little deeper and there’s a darkness just underneath the surface that takes a hard look at the cultural revolution of the 60s—why it existed and where it was going. This is fun to watch whether you understand the cultural context or not, but understanding it opens up a whole new plane of understanding for the film.

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The Breakfast Club

The Breakfast Club

“You see us as you want to see us: in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.”

There are teen movies that are simply about teenagers, and there are teen movies that define universal teenage experiences. The Breakfast Club, directing by John Hughes (Home Alone, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and starring a host of 80s teen stars, is one of the latter. This movie not only defines and portrays universal teenage experiences, but it shows teenagers discovering that many of the things they thought were unique to them are, in fact, shared amongst all of them. Admittedly, this movie will probably not be mind-blowing for anyone over 30; but younger folks, especially those in high school and college, may walk away with some new insight into life. It shows that, no matter who you are, there are no good guys or bad guys in life—there are only people with different experiences, different outlooks, with probably a lot more in common with you than you think, and anyone can choose to be good or bad no matter where they are in life.

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The Blues Brothers

The Blues Brothers

“It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

The Blues Brothers (the band) was an interesting phenomenon. Blues music was waning in popularity and was listened to mostly by music enthusiasts. Through a mixture of great music and comedy, they brought blues music back into the mainstream for a brief moment and made it cool again. The Blues Brothers (the movie), directed by John Landis (Coming to America, Animal House) and starring Dan Akroyd and John Belushi, captures some of that magic as well as the music. Yes, it’s ridiculous and over-the-top; but the cameos and musical performances are amazingly fun and entertaining, and the comedy is pretty great too. I can’t say it’s brilliant, but I still have a blast every time I watch it. There have been movies that have tried to be The Blues Brothers, but there’s really no other movie quite like it.

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The Graduate

The Graduate

“It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”

(I typically keep reviews spoiler-free, but this one will have some discussion of the ending.)

I’ve always considered the 60s to be one of the weakest decades of cinema. There are some gems, to be sure, but the carefree, whimsical spirit in most of the movies of that era just didn’t connect with me. That’s a shame, as the cultural revolution in the 60s is actually a fascinating thing—I really wish there were more movies about that. Well, The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols (Closer, The Birdcage) and starring Dustin Hoffman, is the movie the 60s needed. No movie summed up the revolution’s conflict—and its consequences—so eloquently as this movie. Even if you don’t dig into the symbolism, it’s a very competent comedy in its own right, with smart writing, a killer soundtrack, and just the right amount of drama hiding under the surface.

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Secretary

Secretary

“Who’s to say that love needs to be soft and gentle?”

BDSM used to be a pretty taboo topic—until the godawful Fifty Shades of Grey exploited it as an artless debacle. But back in 2002, it was a pretty foreign topic in cinema, often used as a raunchy joke if it appeared at all. Secretary, directed by Steven Shainberg (Rupture, Hit Me) and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, could have been either a sermonizing condemnation of the subject matter or a gratuitous exploitation of it; but the way the movie respects the relationship it portrays elevates this from the drivel that usually surrounds the topic. And with great writing and great performances from both leads, this is a fascinating portrait of how a real relationship with BDSM aspects could develop.

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Sideways

sideways

“Half my life is over and I have nothing to show for it. Nothing. I’m a thumbprint on the window of a skyscraper. I’m a smudge of excrement on a tissue surging out to sea with a million tons of raw sewage.”

There are two types of jerks in this world: those overwhelmed by a crippling lack of self-esteem, and those overwhelmed by a crippling excess of it. Sideways, directed by Alexander Payne (The Descendants, About Schmidt) and starring Thomas Haden Church and the criminally underrated Paul Giamatti, shows a small road trip with one of each type. The movie is subtle, deep, and complex, although not necessarily hard to follow. There are also a lot of smart wine metaphors and tidbits—so much so that this movie actually boosted the sales of Pinot Noir and hurt the sales of Merlot the year it came out. It’s also a great comedy-drama that I thoroughly enjoyed.

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Hot Fuzz

Hot Fuzz

“Let’s just say that we won’t be short of Chunky Monkey for the next month!”

We’ve had cop movies, and we’ve had funny cop movies, but I can’t think of another quirky British parody of a cop movie, let alone one that’s so hilarious as this one. Hot Fuzz, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, is at once familiar territory, parodying famous cop movies, and also delightfully different, set in a small British town in the country. The combination makes for one of the best parodies I’ve ever seen, and it’s a very good comedy in its own right as well. The Wright-Pegg team matured a lot since Shaun of the Dead, and the brilliance and execution of this movie mark a point when both truly hit their stride.

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