Film Review: Trading Places (1983)

Also known as: Black or White (working title)
Release Date: June 7th, 1983 (limited)
Directed by: John Landis
Written by: Timothy Harris, Herschel Weingrod
Music by: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche, Jamie Lee Curtis, Denholm Elliot, Paul Gleason, Kristin Holby, Bo Diddley, Jim Belushi, Al Franken, Tom Davis, Frank Oz, Giancarlo Esposito

Cinema Group Ventures, Paramount Pictures, 116 Minutes

Review:

“I had the most absurd nightmare. I was poor and no one liked me. I lost my job, I lost my house, Penelope hated me, and it was all because of this terrible, awful negro!” – Louis Winthorpe III

Since I watched The Blues Brothers a week ago, I wanted to revisit this movie, as well. I’ve been on a John Landis comedy kick, as of late.

Like The Blues Brothers, this was one of my favorite comedies, as a kid, because it featured two comedic actors I loved and still do.

While these aren’t my favorite roles for either Dan Aykroyd or Eddie Murphy, they’re still iconic and the guys had tremendous chemistry. So much so, I had always whished for a sequel to this. I kind of hoped it would happen after this film’s villains had cameos in Coming to America, which saw them potentially get their lives back.

Speaking of the villains, played by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, they were superb and charismatic for being total pieces of shit. They contributed just as much to the greatness of this picture as the two leads.

However, I also have to give a lot of credit to Denholm Elliot and Jamie Lee Curtis. The two of them rounded out the group of protagonists and formed a solid team alongside Aykroyd and Murphy, as they fought to take down the two rich bastards that were going to completely destroy them.

The story sees a commodities broker have his life ruined by his two bosses over a one dollar bet. That bet sees someone from the furthest end of the social hierarchy take his place to see if he can overcome his environment and succeed at the level that a man born into privilege could.

Essentially, Aykroyd and Murphy play switcheroo but neither are aware of why. Once they find out, they decide to work together to teach the villains a hard lesson. In the end, they outwit them at their own game and walk away with their fortune, leaving them broke.

The film does a pretty amusing job of analyzing “nature versus nurture”. While it’s not a wholly original idea and has similarities to the classic The Prince and the Pauper story, it at least makes the switching of lives involuntary and with that, creates some solid comedic moments.

Even though this isn’t specifically a Christmas movie, it takes place over the holiday, as well as New Year’s, and it’s a film I like to watch around that time of year.

Trading Places has held up really well and it feels kind of timeless even though it is very ’80s. It’s story transcends that, though, and the leads really took this thing to an iconic level, making it one of the best comedies of its time.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: other John Landis comedies, as well as other films with Dan Aykroyd or Eddie Murphy.

Film Review: Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)

Release Date: November 15th, 1992 (Century City premiere)
Directed by: Chris Columbus
Written by: John Hughes 
Music by: John Williams
Cast: Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, John Heard, Catherine O’Hara, Devin Ratray, Gerry Bamman, Hillary Wolf, Kieran Culkin, Tim Curry, Brenda Fricker, Eddie Bracken, Dana Ivey, Rob Schneider, Ally Sheedy (cameo), Donald Trump (cameo), Bob Eubanks (cameo), Rip Taylor (cameo), Jaye P. Morgan (cameo), Jimmie Walker (cameo)

Hughes Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox, 120 Minutes

Review:

“Hey. You guys give up? Have you had enough pain?” – Kevin McCallister

As I said in my review of the first Home Alone, I hadn’t seen that movie in-full in years. Well, I hadn’t seen this one since it came out. I’ve seen scenes on television over the years but I felt like a full watch was grossly overdue.

So while this isn’t as great as the original and while I don’t think that it was necessary, it’s still really endearing and a fun, holiday movie.

All the important cast members are back but if I’m being honest, it would’ve been nice just getting a cameo from Roberts Blossom after he saved Kevin and reunited with his estranged son in the first film.

That being said, it’s kind of unbelievable that Kevin would’ve been left behind by his family once again but you’ve got to kind of suspend disbelief and just go with it. I mean, it’s also unbelievable that this kid could live and survive in New York City on his own and that while there he’d run into the same burglars from the first film but I digress. This isn’t the type of story where you should be really thinking that hard.

My only real gripe about this film is that it’s too long. I don’t know why they had to go for a full two hours, as the just over ninety minute running time of the first movie was perfect. But I guess Kevin is in a much larger environment and that provided John Hughes the luxury of writing more gags.

Despite the new, grandiose setting, though, the film is really formulaic and just tries to repeat the main beats of the first movie. That doesn’t wreck it though, it just makes it a slightly inferior but still a pretty good copy of the masterpiece it’s trying to emulate.

I really liked the cast additions of Tim Curry and Rob Schneider in this one, though. They added a lot to the movie and their interactions with Kevin and then his parents were pretty good.

It was also great seeing Kevin put the burglars through the gauntlet once again and while this sequence isn’t as iconic as the original, it still provided some great slapstick comedic moments and I love seeing Culkin, Pesci and Stern play off of each other in these scenes.

All in all, the first film is perfect but this is a worthwhile sequel that doesn’t diminish the greatness of the original while giving you a few more hours to spend with these characters you love.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: its predecessor and other John Hughes holiday movies.

Film Review: Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)

Release Date: November 27th, 1985
Directed by: Jeannot Szwarc
Written by: David Newman, Leslie Newman
Music by: Henry Mancini, Leslie Bricusse
Cast: Dudley Moore, John Lithgow, David Huddleston, Judy Cornwell, Burgess Meredith, Carrie Kei Heim, Christian Fitzpatrick, Jeffrey Kramer, Christopher Ryan

Calash Corporation, GGG, Major Studio Partners, TriStar Pictures, 107 Minutes

Review:

“Now, all those within the sound of my voice, and all those on this Earth everywhere know that henceforth you will be called Santa Claus.” – Ancient Elf

I actually wrote about this movie in an old article titled How Dudley Moore Ruined My Childhood – A Christmas Story. In that article I outlined the plot of this movie from memory but I was kind of off, as I hadn’t seen the film since 1985.

Anyway, seeing this now, it’s a much better movie than I remembered and I kind of enjoyed it in spite of my complaints in the previous article and how it destroyed Santa Claus for my seven year-old brain.

This is a movie with really odd pacing and plot structure where the first act seems like it takes up the first full hour of this 107 minute movie. But I do really like the first act, which shows the fantastical origin of Santa Claus. It’s so well shot and orchestrated that the picture feels otherworldly but incredibly magical and soothing.

David Huddleston was perfectly cast as Santa and his wife and the elves were also great, especially Dudley Moore and Burgess Meredith. We also get to see Christopher Ryan in a small role as an elf, which I thought was really cool. He’s best known, at least to me, as Mike from The Young Ones and as different Sontaran commanders from Doctor Who.

After the first hour or so, we are introduced to the film’s villain B.Z., played by the great John Lithgow. As a kid, I always loved this character and sort of saw him as the Lex Luthor of Christmas. I guess I remembered his role and his presence in the film being bigger than it actually was but that’s probably because Lithgow was so solid that it left a big impression on me.

There are also two little kids in the movie but they’re kind of annoying and overly happy all the time. But I guess you need kids in a Santa movie and they’re supposed to be the narrative stand-ins for the kids in the audience, imagining themselves hanging out with Santa and the elves.

The film looks really dated though and I remember thinking that it looked older than a 1985 movie in 1985. Also, the special effects aren’t great but the matte painting work and sets kind of make up for that.

The story isn’t great either but trying to see it through the eyes of a kid, it’s fine.

In the end, this is a weird but comforting movie. I feel like it’s been lost to time and mostly forgotten but I still think that people would like it if they gave it a chance.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: other family Christmas classics.

Film Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Also known as: The Greatest Gift (working title), Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (complete title)
Release Date: December 20th, 1946 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra
Based on: The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Smith
Music by: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Ward Bond, Frank Faylen, Gloria Grahame

Liberty Films, 130 Minutes, 118 Minutes (DVD cut)

Review:

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” – Clarence

Maybe I’m a jerk for never having seen this motion picture in its entirety until now. I had seen all of the iconic scenes over the years and thought that I knew the film well enough but I was wrong. This wasn’t some lame, old-timey, feel good, cookie cutter Christmas movie. This is, in fact, a f’n masterpiece and I have to consider it one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Christmas movie of all-time.

I think that I had just heard the hype for decades and I imagined that it would be impossible to live up to it. I had also seen the important bits and heard so many people talk about it my entire life that I almost felt like I didn’t need to experience it. But this year, I thought that giving it a shot was long overdue and since I love both James Stewart and Donna Reed, I hit “play” on my HBO Max app.

This was a long, great story that covers the entirety of a man’s life. In that regard, it reminded me of another masterpiece, Citizen Kane. However, this has a very different tone and it showcases a great man, feeling down and out, nearly committing suicide, as he witnesses what life would have been like for others, had he not existed and touched them over the years.

It’s a film with a real lesson in it and I think it truly applies to everyone regardless of their situation. We’ve all had really bad strings of luck and most have probably thought really bad thoughts about their own mortality at one point or another. This film kind of centers you and makes you realize that there is much more at stake than our own singular lives.

This works so damn well too because James Stewart is one of the greatest actors that ever walked the Earth. I also have to give a lot of credit to Donna Reed, as well as Lionel Barrymore. But ultimately, I think that the real creative and driving force behind this film was its great director, Frank Capra. And after seeing this, this is possibly my favorite Capra picture. I’ll need to revisit more to be sure, however.

The lesson I learned in watching this, which I’ve learned before but I have a thick skull, is that you should never assume you know something unless you’ve fully experienced it. Maybe I thought the world had spoiled the movie for me but honestly, even knowing the end result didn’t diminish the impact that this film had on me after finally seeing it in its entirety without interruption.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: other classic family Christmas movies from way back in the day.

Film Review: Home Alone (1990)

Release Date: November 10th, 1990 (Chicago premiere)
Directed by: Chris Columbus
Written by: John Hughes 
Music by: John Williams
Cast: Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, John Heard, Catherine O’Hara, Roberts Blossom, Angela Goethals, Devin Ratray, Gerry Bamman, Hillary Wolf, John Candy, Larry Hankin, Kristin Minter, Kieran Culkin, Billie Bird, Bill Erwin

Hughes Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox, 103 Minutes

Review:

“Down here you big horse’s ass, come and get me before I call the police.” – Kevin McCallister

I’m just going to come out and say it immediately, this is a perfect film: a true masterpiece.

I hadn’t seen this in-full in a few decades, actually, but I was quickly reminded as to why I loved this movie so much, as a middle school-aged kid back in 1990.

The film has that special John Hughes charm but it’s turned up to eleven. I think that had a lot to do with Chris Columbus’ direction and his ability to seemingly magnify Hughes’ effect into something magical, charming and so heartwarming that it’s impossible not to love.

The cast is perfect from top-to-bottom, which is difficult with big ensemble pieces. However, most of the scenes feature the trio of Macaulay Culkin, in his first starring role, as well as great actors regardless of genre, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.

These three main players had immense chemistry and they looked like they enjoyed the hell out of making this movie. I’m sure they had no idea that this would blossom into a cultural phenomenon but it did and their great work paid off, immensely.

What surprised me most about this was how much heart it really had. It’s a film with soul and while I picked up on that as a kid, I see it much differently now, as an adult that has lived a much fuller life. In that time, I’ve lost several people close to me and had a deeper understanding of family that you don’t fully grasp as a child.

Home Alone really does hit you in the feels in a really profound way and I guess I can understand why my mom cried every time she saw it. I just thought she was weird but I was also a little shit obsessed with Nintendo, comics and G.I. Joe.

It’s actually kind of hard to review a perfect film. I can’t really pick anything apart or point out negatives because there aren’t any.

So I guess that’s it.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: its direct sequel and other John Hughes holiday movies.

Film Review: Christmas Evil (1980)

Also known as: You Better Watch Out (original title), Terror In Toyland (Germany)
Release Date: November, 1980 (Pittsburgh premiere)
Directed by: Lewis Jackson
Written by: Lewis Jackson
Music by: Joel Harris, Julia Heyward, Don Christensen
Cast: Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn, Dianne Hull, Andy Fendwick, Patricia Richardson, Mark Margolis

Edward R. Pressman Productions, Pan American Pictures, 100 Minutes, 95 Minutes (rerelease)

Review:

“But now I want you to remember to stay good boys and girls. Respect your mothers and fathers and do what they tell you. Obey your teachers and learn a whooooole lot! Now if you do this, I’ll make sure you get good presents from me eeeevery year. Ha ha ha… but if you’re bad boys and girls, your name goes in the ‘Bad Boys & Girls’ book, and I’ll bring you something… horrible.” – Harry “Santa”

I had never heard of this film until Joe Bob Briggs featured it recently on The Last Drive-In. For me, that’s odd, as I’ve delved deep into the bottom of the barrels of horror history, especially in regards to the ’70s and ’80s. However, this was lost to time, as it never really got a proper release due to problems with the production.

It’s only become known in the last few years or so but I’m glad that it did see the light of day and I mostly enjoyed it, even if it’s a bit slow and feels somewhat derivative (not its fault).

Although, this did beat the other, more famous killer Santa movies by a few years. Sadly, just about no one got to see it and the Silent Night, Deadly Night films would go on to steal its thunder and the venom of the do-gooder public that hated that a killer Santa movie could even exist.

What’s notable about this film is that it has a few recognizable people in it such as Jeffrey DeMunn, who would become most famous for playing Dale on The Walking Dead and being in just about everything Frank Darabont has touched, as well as Patricia Richardson, the mom from Home Improvement, and Mark Margolis, who has been in dozens of films but is probably best known for playing Hector Salamanca in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.

This is a pretty dark and brooding movie and it almost plays like a black comedy at times. I’m not sure if that was the director’s intent but scenes like the one where Harry a.k.a. Santa talks to kids about being good has an underlying fucked up humorousness about it. Also, the ending, which has apparently divided audiences, also exudes the same sort of vibes.

For the record, I liked the ending and while many saw it as weird and confusing, I saw it as something that was happening from the character’s psychotic point-of-view. I guess some people took the fantastical final moment too literally.

This is decently shot and it looks fine. There’s nothing special about the cinematography or general visuals of the picture but it also doesn’t need that. It looks just as good as other slasher-y type flicks of its era.

My only real gripe about the film is its pacing but there’s still enough here to keep its head above water.

Rating: 5.75/10
Pairs well with: other Christmas horror films, specifically slashers.

Film Review: Deadly Games (1989)

Also known as: 36.15 code Père Noël (original French title), Game Over, Dial Code Santa Claus
Release Date: March 18th, 1989 (France – Laon Film Festival of Youth and Children’s Films)
Directed by: René Manzor
Written by: René Manzor
Music by: Jean-Félix Lalanne
Cast: Alain Lalanne, Louis Ducreux, Brigitte Fossey, Stéphane Legros, Patrick Floersheim, François-Éric Gendron

L.M. Productions, Deal, Garance,, 87 Minutes

Review:

If you already thought that French movies were weird, this one will only solidify that assessment.

Man, this is some seriously bonkers shit but at the same time, I really liked it for the most part, as it featured a Home Alone-esque plot, written and shot before Home Alone, actually, which sees a kid have to protect himself and his diabetic, nearly blind grandfather from a home invader. All the while, this kid uses gadgets and traps to try and evade this sinister Christmas intruder.

Now there are some major differences from Home Alone. For one, this is really fucking dark and definitely not a kids’ movie despite premiering at a film festival for children’s flicks. Also, this isn’t about a goofy duo of holiday burglars, the invader in this film is a derelict hobo with a Santa obsession that murders those in his way and sets off to a country mansion to play a deadly game with a young boy.

The movie is strange in that French way that’s hard to describe but it’s something I notice in a lot of French horror and it has to do with the storytelling and its lack of any sort of logic. You see the kid get the psycho Santa killer in a real pickle, multiple times, but for some nonsensical reason, he doesn’t finish him off. One example of this is when he and his grandpa are in the car and the killer Santa is in front of them. The grandpa tells the kid to essentially “Gun it!” and the kid goes, “I can’t he’s in front of the car!” Yeah, no shit French kid, that’s why you run him the fuck down! Watch more American movies!

Also, somehow it seems like the killer Santa knows the house better than the kid that lives in it and he can only appear in certain places at certain moments if he has the power of teleportation.

Maybe I’m being an asshole and nitpicking but multiple things like that happen in the film and then the kid is super clever but then an idiot too, as he’s always leaving himself open for the killer to get to him. This makes me think that maybe French people just aren’t logical, tactical thinkers which may explain a lot.

What I love most about this movie is how imaginative it is. The house is simply fucking cool and impressive. The sets are great and the hidden toy room is just someplace you want to see in real life, even as an adult.

Overall, this is a strange ass movie that will leave you scratching your head a lot. However, it’s also incredibly unique and definitely a very different experience than any other movie I’ve ever seen, which at this point, has been thousands.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: other weird, nonsensical French horror, I guess.