There’s no better way to start off the Christmas season than this holiday classic, now celebrating its 25th anniversary and so popular that Turner Classic Movies runs it for 24 hours each year. Millions of fans can recite its lines from memory and some are so passionate they visit the Christmas Story house and attend the Christmas Story conference. Some even buy leg lamps or the action figures.
I think there are two reasons for the movie’s enduring appeal. First, it perfectly evokes the experience of childhood. Today’s kids may not drink Ovaltine or wait for their decoder rings, but they still have to deal with bullies and they still wish for gifts their parents think are too dangerous. But more than that, this is the perfect antidote to all those stories of Christmas perfection on one hand and dysfunction on the other. I love the way this family responds when everything goes wrong. They laugh. And you know that in the future, this Christmas is the one they will always remember.
Parents should know that this movie includes some mild sexual references. A character offers money to a girl to do some non-specific things for him and looks at pictures of women in lingerie. There are also humorous references to bad language including a child having his mouth washed out with soap for swearing.
I have an idea for a movie comedy. A writer-director has a couple of huge hits and so all the Hollywood studio hacks descend on him adoringly. “Give us your ideas,” they tell him, “Anything at all! We’ll make a deal.” So, just to get them to stop pestering him and perhaps also to make a payment on his new boat, he tosses out whatever pops into his head or pulls out some ideas he scribbled in a notebook back when he was in college and they write a big check and then they make the movies.
I promise, that would be a lot funnier than the result of one of those ideas, which is what we have in the latest from Will Ferrell and Judd Apatow. This one would have to sit in the oven for a couple more hours to be considered half-baked. Despite the success of “Superbad” and “Knocked Up,” every movie about a childish boy-man who occasionally bawls “I love you man!” to his best friend is not entertaining.
As Will Ferrell gets older, the characters he plays get mentally younger. Here he is a 40-year-old man who lives with his mother and acts like he is 5. When his mother gets married to a man who also has a 40-year-old son living at home (John C. Reilly) the two of them instantly hate each other, then become devoted friends. It’s like “The Brady Bunch” crossed with “My Fair Brady” and a little bit of “Breaking Bonaduce.” Except not as good. Ferrell and director Adam McKay founded the acclaimed “Funny or Die” website. On this movie, I vote “die.”
Buddy movies generally work best when the characters have distinct personalities that create contrast and conflict. They don’t have to be likable but they do have to have some reason to get us on their side. But here the two emotionally and intellectually childish step brothers are so similar and so unappealing that we may not root for the (actual) child bullies who taunt and torture them but we can certainly see their point.
The Pevensie children are back in London and contemporary life seems pale and uninvolving compared to their adventures in the magical land of Narnia. As they wait for the Tube, a wall opens up and just as happened when they went through the wardrobe, they stand before the entryway to Narnia again. This time, they know immediately where they are. What they don’t know is when they are. Everything is different. “I don’t remember any ruins in Narnia,” one says. Lucy (Georgie Henley) confidently approaches a bear, introducing herself as though she was inviting him to tea. But he growls and charges. “I don’t think he could talk at all,” she says with surprise. “If treated like a wild animal long enough, that’s what you become,” explains Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage in heavy gnomish make-up). “You may find Narnia a more savage place than you remember.”
“Everything you know is about to change,” says one character and that serves as a warning and a prediction that applies to all of the great adventures before the Pevensies — the battle for Narnia, the challenges of growing up, and the struggles of leadership, faith, and principle.
As the Pevensies explore, they find that 1300 years have passed in Narnia since they helped Aslan the lion (voice of Liam Neeson) defeat the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) and end the tyranny of Narnia’s perpetual winter. It is summer, but there is no peace and prosperity in Narnia. The nearby Telmarines have done their best to wipe out all of Narnia. Those creatures who are left are in hiding, without a leader. Aslan, who seemed the answer to all questions in their first visit may have been glimpsed by Lucy, but the others are not willing to believe her. And they meet up with Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), the rightful heir to the throne of the Telemarines, usurped by his evil uncle. Wary of each other at first, Caspian and the Pevensies join forces to battle for the freedom of the Narnians.
Like the first film, this is a grand and visually stunning epic with thrilling battle scenes and powerful themes. This one has more violence but also more humor, especially from the most welcome new character, a mouse with the heart of a lion and the voice of Eddie Izzard. Like the book, one of the less compelling of the seven-volume series, it is not as involving as the first. Barnes has a nice screen presence (though his accent sounds like he is trying out for a road show version of “West Side Story” as one of the Sharks). The pacing is strong, the effects are superb, and the battles are exciting. The themes are presented with a subtlety that encourages thoughtful consideration, with a range of possible interpretations.
Don’t let the PG rating fool you. This is a long, intense, violent epic with the deaths of both good guys and bad guys, and it is not suitable for young children. The earlier film had some difficult and troubling material, including the shearing and apparent death of Aslan and the emotional corruption of one of the Pevensie children by the White Witch. But this one has a childbirth scene (with the mother in evident distress) and a retreat from battle that involves the loss of Narnians that is the fault of one of the Pevensies. The disturbing material may be darker than the first for some viewers.
Nasty, twisted, pulpy, and brutally violent, “Wanted” is like a cross between Kill Bill, The Matrix, and The Terminator. Angelina Jolie, smokey-eyed and a little bit leaner, plays the assassin who grabs cubicle galley slave Wesley (“Atonement’s” James McAvoy) when he is picking up a prescription for anti-anxiety pills just as a lot of gunfire is about to start wrecking havoc on the pharmacy aisles.
It turns out that our Wesley, who has been inwardly stewing and outwardly doing nothing as he is hounded by his supervisor and cuckolded by his best friend, is, in the grand tradition of heroes from King Arthur to Luke Skywalker to Neo to Harry Potter, the chosen one who must discover his hidden powers. The woman’s name is Fox (“Is that a call sign? Like Maverick in “Top Gun?” he asks) and she takes him to a secret citadel where textiles are woven and assassins are trained. Wesley learns to use guns, knives, and fists. He is often critically injured, but fortunately they have some nifty little healing tanks and a soak or two puts him back on his feet and learning how to shoot around objects and race along the top of the El train. He understands that learning how to do something that makes full use of his unique talents is the only way to know who he truly is.
And the director knows enough to get that part out of the way quickly and get to the good stuff, some low-down and nastily twisted action that includes some bullet-cam shots of bodies that are about to be hit very, very hard. Russian director Timur Bekmambetov of the very successful “Night Watch” movies knows how to make violence stylish without becoming overly stylized, nudging the pulpiest elements into myth.
James McAvoy shows himself as able at nerd-into-action-hero as he was at faun (“The Chronicles of Narnia”) and tragic romance (“Atonement”), and Jolie seems delighted to shake off the beatific Madonna role she has played on- and off-screen most recently. She moves like a panther, bringing an ecstatic grace to a ducking move on top of the El train just before it gets to a tunnel. Morgan Freeman is all gravelly exposition and Common has marvelous screen presence as members of The Fraternity. The plot twists are less successful onscreen than on the page and the violence goes over the top but by that time the fanboys will be so satisfied (did I mention that there’s a scene with Jolie getting out of the tub and showing off her tattoos?) that they might not mind, especially with the hint of a sequel.