Thursday, December 7, 2023

Arthur Christmas (Revisit)


Like a lot of people, when the Christmas season rolls around, we have a long list of holiday themed movies that we want to visit with. This year is the 40th Anniversary of "A Christmas Story", a film I saw in theaters when it opened, and I predicted that it would become a holiday perennial. I made the same prediction about this movie twelve years ago. I don't know how it is at your house, but I can say for sure that we have not missed seeing "Arthur Christmas" in the last decade. This year we got to experience it again on the big screen.  

This Aardman Studios film feels like a computed animated version of one of their stop motion movies. It has an off kilter sensibility, endearing characters, and a plot that is not at all unfamiliar but still comes with a great number of surprises. Very few other holiday efforts in the last few years have managed to pull off the level of excellence in story, humor and heart that "Arthur Christmas" has managed. I want to give a shout out to the voice cast at this point. When I wrote about this on the original post, I simply said it was a cast populate with English actors, the kind of voices and accents that we Americans find charming. So I was charmed by James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Hugh Laurie, Robbie Coltrane, Andy Serkis and many more. 

Ultimately, this is a family movie because it is about a family. It just so happens that the family it focuses on is the Claus family. The current Santa is reluctant to retire, although he is beginning to resemble Joe Biden as a leader of his people, you know, forgetful, passing work off to the underlings, slightly bumbling. Steve, the heir apparent is competent at the technical parts of the job, but he seems out of his depths when it comes to the children and the spirit of the holiday. Arthur is the eager beaver, bull in the china closet. He enthusiastically embraces Christmas, but he is just as likely as not to break something on his way to trying to do the right thing. Grand Santa, resents having to have retired and wants to show off that the old ways were better than the new. So there is plenty of family drama here, but it is leavened with the droll antics of the elves who populate the North Poll and allow the Santas to accomplish their jobs.

The goal of any good Christmas movie is to warm your heart and put you in the spirit of the season. "Arthur Christmas" does that with a fun story and some brilliant comic moments, while still having a solid dramatic core. When a game piece from a board game can provoke a tear in your eye, you know that you have been in good hands. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2023



This is a late post, I left for an extended trip right after this and I am only now circling back to write about the film. Ridley Scott has usually been a reliable indicator for me that I should be seeing a film, but there have been some that just did not interest me to begin with (Exodus Gods and Kings and The Counselor come to mind as films I deliberately skipped). I am a bit of a history buff so the subject was strong enough to pull me in alone but with Scott navigating and Phoenix starring, I was relatively confident I'd be OK. 

As a longtime movie goer, I know not to get my history from a Hollywood production. Nevertheless, I suspect that a biopic is likely to have some major points about the subjects life correct and I have to admit that my knowledge of Napoleon extended only so far as his reign as Emperor and his final downfall and exile. The sketch of his rise to power in the revolutionary era was interesting, and I assume it was not too fictionalized, since it did not seem to effect any of the personal story plotlines we did get.

The relationship with Josephine was certainly dramatized, but the key events of their life together, the circumstances in which she was living, his position at the time, their wedding and the reasons for the end of that union were all presented in a matter of fact manner. Where I can certainly see the divergence for dramatic purpose is in the sexual encounters between them and the status and power games they played with one another. Whether she was his one true love is a issue of drama rather tahn history, so I was willing to enjoy the story as it was set out.

The order of the battle sequences and the politics involved seem to be accurate, although the battles themselves have almost certainly been enhanced for cinematic purposes. The clever strategy used in taking the fort at Toulon is depicted as a well shot cinematic battle, not necessarily the way things really took place. The Battle at Austerlitz is similarly enhanced I'm sure to make it a visual spectacle for the big screen. The tumultuous retreat and the artillery use to break the ice under the feet of the withdrawing forces, is beautifully and horrifyingly rendered for the film.

Napoleon was certainly a lot more complex than the military leader presented in this film. Joaquin Phoenix seems physically right for the role, but his understated voice and occasional mumbling do not seem to engender those qualities that made Napoleon a favorite of the French citizenry.  Vanessa Kirby is an alluring Josephine, and a good match for Phoenix, although the portrayal of her as a wanton woman, unsatisfied with her physical relationship with the Emperor seems a little overdone. I have heard criticism of the film from some sources but I found it a reasonable presentation of an important historical figure. It may not have the fidelity to the truth that some other biopics have, but I found it very watchable. Some people might be bored, but I thought the film brought the characters to life enough for me to relate to them a bit.       

Friday, November 24, 2023

The Marvels


This will not be seen as one of the top tier MCU films, and it may not even be mid-level MCU, but at worst it is near the top of the bottom tier of these films and as such it still offers some entertainment value. I am seeing this two weeks after the disastrous opening weekend, and a week after the movie crashed with a 78% decline in admissions. I was obviously not motivated enough by publicity, the characters or a story line, to make it an essential film. I had always planned on seeing it but it was going to wait, the only reason I went today is that someone else was choosing the movie. I am not disappointed that I waited, but I was also not disappointed in the film, it is fine.

One of the reasons for hesitating is that the film leans heavily into some of the MCU Streaming series that I have not seen or that I only can recall vaguely. Monica Rambeau is a character that started out in the original "Captain Marvel" film from 2019, and then evolved in the streaming service show "WandaVision". I seem to recall that there was an event in the show that might have transferred powers to her, but I only saw that show one time, and it was three years ago, and frankly, that plot seemed superfluous to the rest of the series. As for Ms. Marvel, the other series that contributes a character to this movie, I have not seen any of it. The most I saw of  Kamala Khan before today was in the trailer for this film, and she seemed like a breath of fresh air about to arrive in the strum and dang of the Marvel Films. 

The exposition in this film to bring we unenlightened viewers into the story, is not very artistic and it is quite truncated. However, it was clear enough to explain who the good guys were, who the bad guys were and a little bit about heir powers. Nick Fury shows up, and I think there is another TV series that features his character that would fill in some blank spots and maybe help make all of this a little more coherent. As it is, I shrugged my shoulders and went along for the ride, and tried not to worry too much about all that I was not privy to, and instead focus on what I was seeing in this story. I appreciated that the movie was a lot shorter than many of the recent films in this series have been, but that sometimes means that the obstacles the heroes face are unclear, their powers seem inconsistent, and the solutions seem to be a bit more ex machina than I would like. 

There are some elements of the movie that are entertaining, but are completely artificial and seem to be bizarre to begin with. The Skrull are now living on another planet that is being threatened by a Kree faction. How they got there, what connection Carol Danvers had with their presence in that location, and what Nick Fury is supposed to be doing about it all is never answered. We get a reference to quantum entanglements, which appears to be the tool the brain trust behind this movies, is going to use as a crutch to justify whatever new plotline they can come up with. The sequence on the planet Aladna, feels like a lost segment from "Flash", the 1980 comic book misfire, beloved by many but stupid beyond reason. 

Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel, steals the film as far as I am concerned. Her gee whiz adulation of Carol Danvers Captain Marvel is funny and will be something all the comic book geeks in the audience should appreciate. Her hysterical reactions to some of the events in the movie provoke enough laughter to keep the story fairly light. Teyonah Parris as Monica Rambeau was fine, although her tense relationship with Danvers is a bit forced and noting comes from it except a brief moment of tacked on drama. Brie Larson continues to be the sardonic hero, Captain Marvel, who has powers that surpass all other characters in the MCU, although she gets tossed around by secondary guard characters without much difficulty, so how is that possible? 

If you are looking for consistency in plot quality, you will not find it here. If you want the MCU to expand and the Avengers to be a central part of that expansion, you will only get a small fraction of what you are looking for. If you want a little entertainment, strung together around some impressive effects that signify things that you will not understand or care about, well now you will get your ten bucks worth of investment. "The Marvels" is not all it could be, but at least it is not "the Eternals", and for that you can be grateful. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2023



If you remember seeing "Grindhouse", the two film collaboration between Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, you will probably also remember that there were trailers between the two films. The fake trailers included two that were subsequently turned into actual films; "Hobo with a Shotgun" and "Machete". We now have a third film based on those fake trailers, "Thanksgiving" is also directed by Eli Roth, who made the fake trailer for a film titled "Thanksgiving" for the 2007 Grindhouse project. Not to disparage the other films, but "Thanksgiving" turns out to be the best of the bunch, at least until "Don't" or "Werewolf Women of the S.S." get made.

After the success of "Halloween" back in 1978, there were dozens of films that took holiday themes to the slasher market. "Friday the 13th", "April Fool's Day", "My Bloody Valentine", and many more. Roth's trailer for "Thanksgiving" is a parody and salute to those types of films. The full film does a great job of following that inspiration by repeating many of the tropes from those films. There is a foundational event that prompts a revenge scheme, we get a masked killer, the deaths are often played out as holiday related events, and there is macabre humor in just about all of it. 

This film is very satisfying to those who enjoy a dark humored look at American Traditions and horror films. The opening section includes a scene that reminds us of real world horrors associate with Black Friday sales at department stores. Unruly crowds are pretty darn scary without throwing in the gore, but why skip the gore when you are doing a parody like this, Eli Roth doesn't. He lays it on thick with his frequent use of skin being removed from the body by accidental means. Shopping carts and restaurant freezers are not benign objects in this movie. There are plenty of decapitations, stabbings, strangling's and assorted other mayhem to keep all of the gore-hounds engaged, but it is all delivered with a large tongue inserted into a cheek. When a severed body is displayed next to a 50% off sign, you know that this is not meant to be taken seriously. 

With one major plot exception, the film plays out the crimes with a pretty straightforward fidelity to law enforcement investigation. There has to however, be a point at which logic gets defied, and the results show up to start the third act. The creation of a mythical character, John Carver, as the avatar of the killer almost works. Like the Baby masks in "Happy Death Day", this allows for suspicions to be cast on a variety of supporting characters and it adds the requisite mystery to the plot. There are a few moments that brush up against the torture porn that Roth has been known for, but I think it mostly stays this side of being prurient.

There are not a lot of holiday films that feature Thanksgiving as their central premise. It's nice to have one more to add to the list, and especially one as self aware and entertaining as this one is. So fill your plate, over indulge and forget leaving room for dessert, the main course will fill you up and as the tagline says, "There will be no Leftovers". 

Thursday, November 16, 2023

KAMAD Throwback Thursdays 1975: Bite the Bullet

Throwback Thursday #TBT

Throwback Thursday on the KAMAD site will be a regular occurrence in the next year. As a motivational project, to make sure I am working on something, even in a week where I don't see a new film in a theater, I am going to post on movies from 1975. Along with 1984, this is one of my favorite years for movies and it is full of bittersweet memories as well. 1975 was my Senior Year in High School and my Freshman Year in College. The greatest film of the last 60 years came out in 1975, as well as dozens of great and not so great cinematic endeavors. Most of the films in this weekly series will have been seen in a theater in 1975, but there are several that I only caught up with later. I hope you all enjoy.

Bite the Bullet

I have been extremely busy the last couple of weeks, including travel. This is a repost of two entries on a 1975 film that I love, but did not have time to watch again fore the project. 

Next time someone tells you everything is available on line, try to get them to find the original trailer for this movie. I looked all over the place and could not find it.

[As you can see above, this has changed since the original post]

That doesn't mean that it doesn't exist, but I suspect that may be the case.

Sometimes, you have to make due with what you have. I have this movie on a DVD that goes from a letterbox format for the credits to a pan and scan version for the rest of the film. This is really too bad because a lot of the pleasure in this movie are the vistas and wide-screen images of the contestants in this horse race. The scanning seems to take some of the grandeur and a lot of the energy out of the story, (at least as I remembered it.)

I saw this movie at the Chinese theater, on the big screen. Of course at the time there was only one screen at the Chinese Theater. There are actually quite a few westerns on my list, which is a little surprising since the 70's were supposed to be the death of the western. It so happens that this particular Western stars my favorite film actor Gene Hackman. I looked over his filmography, and for a guy who got started in the business in the late 60's, he has actually made a lot of Western Films. Earlier this week, we came across Zandy's Bride, which I had nearly forgotten and came out a year earlier. Gene Hackman was a big star at this point, he was cast as the leading man a couple of years earlier in "The Poseidon Adventure" but he has always been a character actor to me. When he plays a part, he is the charater he is playing not the star. In "Bite the Bullet" he is the first lead but really just one of a dozen characters that make up the story.

This film features a 700 mile horse race across deserts, over mountains and through forests. There are gunfights, action, dramatic twists and a sense of history as things go on. Hackman and James Coburn play two of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders a few years after the Spanish-American War. The modern is mixed with the old west at a time when the world was in fact changing. Ben Johnson basically repeats his role as the last of a dying breed from the Last Picture Show. Candice Bergen is the female lead in a pretty solid part for a woman in a movie like this. This same month she was starring in "the Wind and the Lion", so it was pretty clear she was Box Office at this moment in time. There are other familiar faces as well, but I want to take special note that this was the period of time that Jan-Michael Vincent was ascending and he was very promising in the movie. It is a shame that drugs and alcohol sidelined a guy who could easily have taken over a lot of leading man roles in the next few years.

Opening the movie is a prologue that introduces several character, including the wealthy owner of the favored horse and the newspaper people that are sponsoring the race. It was a little odd that there was so much time devoted to those story arcs and that they basically disappear from the movie. The only thing I felt was unsatisfying about the film was the last ten minutes of the race. The result was fine, but there is no resolution for some characters and it feels like an epilogue would have been appropriate. I recall that the film got a very fine review from the LA times when it opened; probably Charles Champlian wrote the review, he was the main critic at the Times in those days. This movie seems largely forgotten now, which is too bad because it is a good action film with some realistic situations and characters. It runs off the track a bit in the last act, but that can be forgiven pretty easily.


This is an update to a post I did nearly two years ago on one of the Original Movie A Day Project Films. I have long wanted to see Bite the Bullet in it's original widescreen form, but it has not been available. The version in the original post was a pan and scan DVD that I acquired for a very modest price. You can find my original comments here. "Bite the Bullet" was a big scale Western at a time that such movies were dying out. It features a brutal 700 mile horse race across deserts and mountains and plains. It is perfect for a director to compose shots that will fill that screen with those vistas and also show the characters in relevant space. A month ago I read a review of a Blu Ray release of Bite the Bullet and went in search of it. It turns out that the film was not being mass marketed but was a specialty release with only 3000 copies being produced. None of them was available at any of my local retail outlets so off to the internet I flew. I could buy a new copy on Amazon for $36 plus shipping. I found a used copy on ebay for thirty and went for it. I am happy to say that it was worth the investment. I still think the last few minutes of the movie are underdeveloped, but the rest of the film looks spectacular.

There is an early shot of two trains passing each other in a railroad yard that would cut out one of the trains in the pan and scan version. Since the character we are following would need to stay in the frame, a severely cropped for television version leaves out a side of the picture. Here one gets a greater sense of the enormous changes that are taking place in the world at this time because of the trains passing each other in what might charitably be called a small town. Later shots of the railway also cut out the whole train in the shots, but here we get to see it as it moves across a bridge or travels though a forest. These are mostly little points in the movie, the real use of the widescreen comes in the horse race scenes, especially those set in some wide desert vistas. In the current widescreen Blu ray, we can see shots that include several of the contestants in the race at once, although they are clearly a great distance from one another. The empty spaces between them emphasize the desolate nature of the environment. In some later scenes, the layout of the territory in a chase and prison break makes more sense because of the way we can view it. There is a scene in which Gene Hackman's character chases down Jan Michael Vincent and lays into him for the negligent way he has treated his horse, it has more drama and excitement in it with the space not being as condensed as in the pan and scan version.

This was one of the first times I remember seeing the death of a horse from exhaustion being visualized in such a dramatic way. John Wayne's horse in True Grit gives up the ghost when he is trying to get Maddie Ross back to the trading post. Here, we see all of the horses perspiring and covered in foaming sweat. Their legs are shaky and the riders are either tender and cautious or reckless and indifferent. As the animals are falling in the sand or rolling down a hillside, the broad view makes us much more aware of how difficult the race really would be. I am very satisfied with the quality of the picture and the extra price was worth it to me. One more comment about the movie that is unrelated to it's presentation. Hackman has a great piece of dialogue about the charge at San Juan Hill that his character was supposed to be a part of. It sounds at first like it is going to be a sucker punch slam at the Spanish American War and Teddy Roosevelt. Instead it reminds me,and I hope you, of why Theodore Roosevelt was in fact one of our greatest leaders. After having his glasses shot off and his arm nicked, Roosevelt rallies the Rough Riders to storm the hill. Hackman's character says that they didn't follow out of a desire for victory, or to promote freedom. They went willingly with Roosevelt into the rain of death from above because they would have been ashamed not to. If it's not a true story, it feels like one.

Monday, November 13, 2023

The Killer


As always, If I see a film in a theater, you will read about it here. I noticed several comments on-line that castigate this film as boring or even dreadful. I was very surprised at that evaluation because my experience was far from that. I enjoyed the heck out of the film, it has a slight throwback style that may not be satisfying to adrenaline junkies, but hits the spot with those of us who are interested in plot and character. Which may seem a bit strange because we know very little about the main character of this film, not even his real name, but in the long run, that is the point.

There are plenty of films about paid assassins out there. Most of them are focused on the job at hand or the intrigue behind the murder in the first place. This film essentially does not give a damn about those well worn paths, instead, it focuses on logistics and the kind of character that is needed to be a success in this business. Michael Fassbinder is playing a guy doing his level best to remain faceless and anonymous. We get to see the level of detail that he puts into his work. The meticulous set up and clean up of his job takes the first twenty minutes of the film, and when the job goes wrong, we see what discipline it takes to get away clean.  The movie reminded me early on of the Charles Bronson 70s classic "The Mechanic". In that film, we have a dialogue free opening ten minutes, and it is an excellent primer on how to tell a story visually. "The Killer" does not remain silent in the opening section, the main character is providing a voiceover to his actions. Most of the time he is explaining the principle behind his craft, not the details of it's execution, we see those being played out. 

There are action sequences but they usually come after a slow build up to the scene. For instance, there is a truly brutal fight scene that entails significant jeopardy to the main character, but first we see the stalking of the target. That process involves a lot of sitting in the car, waiting for other characters to act, and then a tentative approach to the subject. When the fireworks start, they are pretty elaborate with frequent changes in who is dominating the combat, and consequences for most of the physical actions. While lacking the perspective that we might have for John McClane, we can still feel the brutality and notice some of the aftereffects. That makes this movie feel a lot more authentic than some of the action cartoons that pass themselves off as drama in cinema's these days. 

I wonder if the reason that some of the people who are not reacting positively to the film comes from the fact that they watched this on Netflix rather than seeing it in a theater. As always, the theatrical experience forces you into a relationship with the film that is substantially different than the one you will have in your own home. The passage of time feels different and more immediate. The absence of ambient noise or side conversations press us into focusing on what is on the screen in a different way. The score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is propulsive without being in your face. The story transitions are smooth and fun to watch as the character makes his way from Europe, to the Dominican Republic, to the U.S. , and there is a running joke about the aliases he uses that some parts of the audience might miss but they got a chuckle out of me each time. 

Up front, the Killer himself talks about how dull his profession can be, because it involves so much waiting and watching. He goes to great lengths to avoid having to improvise. Sure it's fun when some character can Macguyver up a bomb with kitchen chemicals and a microwave, but that would be an anathema to our protagonist, who sticks to the plan, fights only the designated fights, and sees empathy as a weakness. The character has no story arc it is true, the fascination comes from watching how sticking to his foundational process works. It forces him to make choices that other screenwriters would have found a conventional way out of.  While we are spared having to watch him disassemble a body for disposal, we know he is doing it because that is what is called for. 

There are at least two times in the film when we could expect a screenwriter to try and inch the character away from his own manifesto, but the authors of the graphic novel that the film is based on, and the screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, stay true to their character. The detachment the lead feels from his job, is aty odds with the relationship that powers the majority of the film. As a wounded subject, we might expect there to be emotional justification for his actions. The story never makes a point of his emotions in the murders he commits after the failed original mission. He simply puts his professional face on for a personal retribution that maybe lacks the satisfying punch that most revenge films seek, but nevertheless gets the job done. His confrontation with the Tilda Swinton character is a perfect example of how his professionalism can be seen as dull, but we also get to see it is the reason he is efficient. Director David Fincher allows stories to unfold in their own time. "Zodiac" and "Gone Girl" show us dramatic moments as they might play out, without the theatrics if an edited, rock score propelled sequence. If you are looking for a "Goodfellas" moment, there isn't one. There is just the cool, mannered and meticulous pathology of the Killer and his director.  

Saturday, November 11, 2023

The Holdovers


There seems to be a long line of movies about students and teachers at elite boarding schools. From "Goodbye Mr. Chips" to the "Harry Potter" series, something about the confines of elite education seems to fascinate us. Often the stories focus on the conflicts between rich entitled students and their poorer scholarship counterparts. Sometimes it is the ennui that privilege seems to inflict on the rich kids, which an inspirational teacher tries to overcome. Often, the ethical standards of the institution present a conflict with a student's sense of right and wrong, and the story tries to resolve that. "The Holdovers" joins that deep genealogy of academic settings and personal angst.

If you watch the trailer, you will get the premise immediately. Like young Scrooge in the Dicken's story, a student gets left at school during the holidays. In this case it is a student who seems to be thriving in his classes, although struggling with his peers. Newcomer Dominic Sessa plays Angus, a bright but but petulant kid who has been thrown out of three other elite schools and is on the brink of being removed from Barton Academy, the setting of the film in New England.   The teacher who ends up having to watch over the students during the holidays is history instructor Paul Hunham, played by the great Paul Giamatti. Giamatti has been largely engaged in television wok for the last few years, and I am unfamiliar with the shows he has been spending time on. I welcome him back to the big screen because he is a welcome presence as a dramatic actor with a gift for reaching the humor in even deep drama. That is exactly what he is doing here, and I think his performance will be one that is recognized by the end of the year honors that will soon be upon us. Mr. Hunham is an acerbic curmudgeon, who can see the faults in others and is not blind to the ones in himself. 

Both of the main characters eventually get left together with the occasional influence of a third character, Mary Lamb, the cafeteria manager of the school played by  Da'Vine Joy Randolph from "Only Murders in the Building". The film is set in 1970 and Mary worked at the school chiefly to allow her son to attend, but is now a grieving mother who lost her child to the Vietnam War. So you have a disaffected student, a bitter teacher and a depressed mother, stuck at the school together for a two week period. Maybe it sounds like there will be a lot of well worn plot points as these three people manage to bond and help one another through this period, you would be right in assuming that. You would be wrong though in thinking that the film will be trite as a consequence. It is really much cleverer than the set up. Each of the three characters reveal histories that give us insight into their conditions. The plot does not play out in the obvious ways that have been set down for it, and there is enough humor in the characters to keep us from wallowing in their tragedies.

In our modern film era, filled with superheroes, paid assassins, and horror premises that sound more interesting than they are, it is such a joy to have an adult drama to take in with an audience. We cab see a lot of what is coming in the story, but not everything. We have seen these kinds of characters before, but they are well played and still engaging. And the time period of the film reflects the characters and the emotional tone of the story, no anachronisms here. This is not a post modern twist on "The Dead Poets Society", it is instead a counterpart story. Characters, like people in the real world, gain insight into others and as a consequence into themselves as well. I think that is a universal concept that can be told in a movie on a repeated basis, as long as the characters are interesting, and here they are.

Alexander Payne has made some excellent films in the last twenty years or so. "Sideways" is a jewel, "Nebraska" was excellent, and "the Descendants" while not my favorite, was widely respected and worth your effort. His previous film "Downsizing" was an apparent misfire, the word of mouth on it was so bad that I never bothered to see it. "The Holdovers" seems to be a return to form and for my point of view, one of the best films of the year.