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The Money Pit (1986)

It’s hard to hate on Tom Hanks, which sometimes makes it hard to hate on Tom Hanks’s characters. Like many of the people he plays, Walter Fielding is a capable, agreeable everyman who erupts into a maniacal laugh-cry when he’s pushed to the extreme. You can easily sympathize with a guy who’s been duped into a purchasing a money pit and now has to deal with the walls of his house caving in on him. At the same time, Walter’s a tax lawyer for famous musicians, so you’d think he’d be a little more circumspect about spending $200,000 on a too-good-to-be-true New York mansion. He and his girlfriend, Anna (Shelley Long), buy the house with nary an inspection and then are shocked when it starts to crumble.

Adopting sensible home buying practices is not the point though, and instead the movie gives a nod to those who know the pain of purchasing a lemon. My house is literally sinking into the backyard, and I fear the pipes will crease and burst or the whole structure will just split in half soon. Like others who have experienced some housing disaster, I can readily identify with Walter and Anna as things go from terrible to catastrophic. Then again, the anxiety and helplessness of dealing with decaying foundations and oozing sewage doesn’t have the same bite in fictional comedy as it does in real life.

Walter and Anna’s money pit isn’t going to stay that way for long, after all. They need to get the place up to code at the very least because they have nowhere to go now that they’ve been kicked out of their previous home. Granted, that city flat belonged to Anna’s ex-husband, Max (Alexander Godunov), who also happens to be the conductor for the orchestra for which she plays. The couple rush to find something affordable and settle on the deceptive fixer-upper owned by an actual Nazi and his wife. The smart thing is to not make deals with Nazis, and that’s really the root of the problem as I see it.

The story nevertheless tries to win you back to Walter and Anna’s side with some truly outrageous disasters. Everything inch of their house conspires to do them in, though I attribute that to bad karma from its previous owners. There aren’t enough fingers to count how many things go wrong before the night is out. The front door falls off, the bed sinks into the floor, the faucets belch sludge, a raccoon attacks from the dumbwaiter, and it just gets worse. Not only is the house self-destructing from the inside out, the contractors hired to fix the problems don’t have the greatest handle on things. It’s the kind of never-ending wreckage I’m accustomed to seeing from wacky Hong Kong comedies, and in fact, it would make a great Lunar New Year film, so someone get on that.

The carousel of destruction is dizzying though, and after a few spins, it all looks the same. The cracks in Walter and Anna’s home are reflected in their faltering relationship, and Anna starts to reconsider the life she had with Max. She finds that a man with a roof over his head and a functioning shower is rather attractive, and I don’t disagree. None of this character drama hides the fact, however, that the theme of the film is “things that break.” The bulk of the humor relies on money pit chaos, and I feel the flaming kitchen wires or Walter/Hanks’s maniacal laugh-cry is a signal to put an end to things.

“The Heart is So Willing” by Stephen Bishop:

Released: 1986
Prod: Kathleen Kennedy, Art Levinson, Frank Marshall
Dir: Richard Benjamin
Writer: David Giler, Lowell Ganz
Cast: Tom Hanks, Shelley Long, Alexander Godunov, Maureen Stapleton, Joe Mantegna, Philip Bosco,
Time: 91 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

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The Little Hours (2017)

The Little Hours is a crass, sweary film that aspires to mortal sin but that barely registers as a venial transgression. Still, I might say a few Hail Marys just to be safe. Set in bucolic 14th century Garfagnana in central Italy but with dialogue in the modern vernacular, the irreverent story about sex-starved, stir-crazy nuns is inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron. Alessandra (Alison Brie), Ginevra (Kate Micucci), and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) reside in a countryside convent led by Mother Marea (Molly Shannon) and Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), and the three younger sisters at least aren’t aching for the cloistered life. The arrival of Massetto (Dave Franco), a new gardener and handyman who pretends to be deaf-mute, opens them up to a brave new world of sex, drugs, and more sex.

The film sounds riotous but, in truth, doesn’t seem sure about the story it wants to tell beyond making a vague statement about randy religious. Crude jokes are by themselves not a story though. Once you get over cursing nuns, which isn’t hard if you’ve met certain nuns, The Little Hours turns into a clubby Catholic cosplay, albeit with great scenery. It’s as if the idea was conceived and filmed by real-life couples Plaza and writer-director Jeff Baena and Brie and Franco after a long weekend bender.

Occasionally the film punches at the Church’s hypocrisy and failings and leaves a mark. Fred Armisen has both the best part and performance as the wry bishop who arrives to clean things up. He, incidentally, is the most sincere and upright character in the film. Surveying the convent’s physical and moral disrepair, he chides one of the nuns, blasting her about how the place “looks like a barn in Filicaia,” even threatening to brand their home “Little Filicaia.” As he recounts their litany of sins, which include mischief in the heart, abusive language, living in pleasure, loving the world, filthy conversation, not being baptized, eating blood, he sounds not so much disgusted as he does disappointed. You know better and you should aspire for better, his tone implies.

It’s this very idea of imperfection that would have made for a better film. Who is the Church for if not degraded sinners in need of forgiveness? Granted, fornicating nuns (I can’t believe I just wrote that) take this to the extreme, but the characters aren’t simply base, God-hating heathens. Even self-declared witch Fernanda feels of the faith, unbothered by life in the convent as she goes about prayers and chores with obedience. That’s more than can be said about Ginerva, a busybody who snoops around and reports to Mother Marea about all the splinters in others’ eyes but doesn’t notice that big, fat beam in her own. Alessandra’s character comes closest to the kind of introspection that the story is capable of but that it doesn’t actually care to achieve. Condemned by her father to a life of embroidery at the convent, she longs for something more fulfilling, and who can blame her when she finds Massetto? Brie gives her character real heartbreak, deeply felt perhaps because her emotions were framed in nun’s habit. Too often though, the film’s reverts to the lowest common denominator, focusing in on jokes about said fornicating nuns and debates over traditional sodomy.

Released: 2017
Prod: Elizabeth Destro, Aubrey Plaza
Dir: Jeff Baena
Writer: Jeff Baena
Cast: Alison Brie, Dave Franco, Kate Micucci, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Jemima Kirke, Nick Offerman, Lauren Weedman
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

Many a film, television show, and book has been deemed “great,” and some have even earned that qualifier. My greatest of the greats would include Great Expectations, The Great Train Robbery (2013), Great Performances, The Great British Bake-Off, of course. The Great Muppet Caper? Not so great. Plain old Muppet Caper would have sufficed because while this is a pleasant film, it’s never as zany or clever or joyful as my favorite Muppet adventure, The Muppets. No qualifier needed.

Instead, the movie is like a TV special for kids who just want a silly heist or those who still get the nearly forty-year-old pop culture references. It’s a fun romp and keeps your attention with plenty of songs and scene changes, but the story moves almost too quickly. In making sure the caper ticks along, the writers seem to have forgotten the heart of the Muppet franchise – its characters.

When twins Kermit and Fozzie and their friend Gonzo, all journalists at The Daily Chronicle, fail to report on a major jewel theft, they try to save their jobs by going directly to London to investigate. However, Kermit mistakes receptionist Miss Piggy for the victim, designer Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg), and doesn’t realize what he’s done until after they’ve gone on a date and she is framed for a second theft. The reporters, along with their new Muppet friends at the Happiness Hotel, must thwart a third heist of the Fabulous Baseball Diamond at Mallory Gallery in order to save Miss Piggy from prison.

The city adds some visual flair, and Kermit and the gang take a memorable bike ride through Battersea Park. I would have liked to have seen more of London, a complement to the otherwise boxed-in set pieces. The movie features a few jazzier numbers that harken back to studio classics, several of which include Miss Piggy. Besides starring in her own Esther Williams water fantasia, she gets to sing and dance her little piggy heart out with a chorus line of men in tails and top hats. The songs, however, are not particularly memorable.

It’s easier to forgive bland songwriting than it is scriptwriting, and the Muppets are in need of personality. Sure, they are cute and clever and take every opportunity to break the fourth wall, but I felt like most of the Muppets could have been easily swapped out with any similarly furry, kid-friendly franchise, The Great Paw Patrol Caper, perhaps. Okay, maybe not, but among the non-humans, only Kermit and Miss Piggy really come into their own. Kermit’s eagerness to do good and Miss Piggy’s vanity and insecurity make it easier than ever to identify with a frog and an oinker, but the others seem to be there to serve up jokes and plot points. Having seen just two Muppet movies, and thereby forfeiting my 80s-kid card, I thought Caper hewed closer to the lackluster Muppets Most Wanted, a tightly plotted film but one that sprints by on cameos.

“Hey a Movie!” by Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo:

“Happiness Hotel” by the Muppets:

“Steppin’ Out with a Star” by Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo:

“Night Life” by Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem:

“The First Time It Happens” by Kermit and Miss Piggy:

“Couldn’t We Ride” by the Muppets:

“Piggy’s Fantasy”:

“Finale: Hey a Movie!” by the Muppets:

Released: 1981
Prod: David Lazer, Frank Oz
Dir: Jim Henson
Writer: Jerry Juhl, Tom Pachett, Jack Rose, Jay Tarses
Cast: Diana Rigg, Charles Grodin, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire
Time: 97 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

After years of neglecting this Christmas classic, I finally found time to enjoy the movie the way it was meant to be enjoyed – alone and nursing bowls of mac and cheese and popcorn. I was pretty disappointed, however, to find that Miracle on 34th Street was about as festive as my holiday snack, and I’m still working out why a film so tedious remains beloved by so many. The plot relies heavily on a court case and a tangle of psychiatric evaluations, none of which scream Christmas fun. It’s not exactly the family-friendly entertainment I was led to believe, and I want my money, or at least my two hours, back.

I’ll also take the 1994 adaptation because while that remake is not on my annual Christmas must-see list, it at least has touches of great tenderness and joy. I still remember Santa signing with the deaf girl and little Susan’s surprise when she tugs his beard. Also there’s dreamy, dreamy Dylan McDermott. None of the characters in the original have the same emotional pull even though the two stories are similar.

The multi-Oscar-winning 1947 film also follows skeptical Susan (Natalie Wood), her reality-based mother, Doris (Maureen O’Hara), and Doris’s suitor, lawyer and neighbor Fred (John Payne). Doris’s last-minute hiring of Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) to replace drunk Santa at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade proves to be a fortuitous move. He looks the part and converses in a language kids understand, Dutch in one case, but more importantly, he gives helpful shopping tips to parents. Sometimes that means directing them to Macy’s competitor, Gimbels, a tactic that unwittingly earns Macy’s greater goodwill and customer loyalty.

Of the two main conflicts, Susan’s wavering disbelief strikes a merrier tune. Wood easily won me over with her hopefulness and measured cynicism. While she might give Santa a mean side-eye, she has a child’s vulnerability, an inclination towards wonder and magic. That’s what I want out of a Christmas movie, but it’s something the adults in her orbit fail to convey. Payne is indistinguishable from the other suited white men, and I was turned off by Fred’s initial admission that he was using Susan to get close to her mother. That’s creepy and very un-Dylan-McDermott-like, even if he does encourage Susan to believe in Santa. Doris, meanwhile, doesn’t give a damn what your criticisms are so long as you keep your ideas about fake old men away from her daughter. In the 1994 version, Elizabeth Perkins shows off this character’s frosty side too, but it seems motivated by some deep hurt, as if sticking to what is real and tangible will keep her from experiencing the rest of life’s disappointment. O’Hara’s interpretation is less forgiving; Doris just doesn’t believe.

Miracle is about more than a little girl who meets Santa Claus though, and the story takes a long, dull turn when it becomes a debate over Kris Kringle’s sanity. Doris insists he go in for a psychological examination when he lists his reindeer as his next of kin, a good show of humor if you ask me. A disgruntled doctor’s report, however, results in a court hearing over Kris’s mental state. I’m not saying that existential questions have no place in a Christmas movie, and actually the holidays are a great time to ponder deeply, but the story dries up when it moves too far away from Susan and her youthful enthusiasm.

Um, *spoiler alert*. “Susan believes” clip:

Released: 1947
Dir: George Seaton
Writer: George Seaton
Cast: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood, Porter Hall, William Frawley, Jerome Cowan, Philip Tonge, Harry Antrim
Time: 96 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Having never seen a version of Miracle on 34th Street, I figured now, when I’m in my late 30s, would be the perfect time to catch up. I still believe in Santa Claus, or at least the spirit of Santa anyway, and that’s more than six-year-old Susan (Mara Wilson) can say. She thinks we’re just a bunch of gullible fools, and she’s not impressed when her mother, Dorey (Elizabeth Perkins), the head of events for a large department store, hires a very realistic Santa (Richard Attenborough) for the holiday season. Despite his efforts and those of Dorey’s boyfriend, Bryan (Dylan McDermot), she just can’t seem to get in a Christmas mood.

I can see where Susan is headed, and it’s straight for the Hallmark Channel. She’s going to grow up into one of those women who hates Christmas because of a traumatic childhood, only to rediscover its joys after a hot guy enters her life. Mara Wilson, the cutest girl onscreen in the 90s, has a soulful sadness to her in this film, and Susan looks like a girl who’s been having an existential crisis for some time. She worries that Cole’s, the department store where her mother works, is going to be bought out and turned into a junk store, and when Bryan starts asking her about getting presents from Santa, she gives him a hard stare that says, don’t talk to me like a six year old.

I love little Susan and pint-sized Mara. Susan wants to believe in Santa so badly, but her cool, practical mother just won’t have it. Dorey even puts her relationship with Bryan on the line by insisting he stop encouraging such fanciful thinking. But Bryan is a dreamboat and all-around good guy and does what he can to give Susan a more magical Christmas experience, including a visit to Santa where her skepticism starts to fade. She concedes that the Cole’s Santa does look like the real deal and is bewitched by his beard and costume, but she really starts reconsidering when she spies Santa sharing a touching exchange with a deaf girl.

The movie is far less holly and jolly than I expected, and it seems more like a film for cynical adults than it is for bouncy kids. It doesn’t have the energy of Home Alone or the adventure of Arthur’s Christmas. Some will surely be bored by aspects of the plot, like when a competing store schemes to kidnap Santa and turn a profit. This results in the arrest and trial of Kris Kringle, and his release depends on a legal argument about the abstract concept of belief. If I was a kid, I’d much rather watch A Christmas Carol, any of them.

Miracle on 34th Street has its appeal though, and it’s thanks to the actors who really inhabit their roles. To this day, I think of Attenborough when I think of Santa Claus. McDermott is the perfect boyfriend and the perfect complement to Perkins. The movie is as much about Dorey as it is about Susan. The latter knows what she wants – a childhood filled with family and wonder. It turns out that Dorey wants that too; she just doesn’t realize it yet.

Released: 1994
Prod: John Hughes, William Ryan, William S. Beasley
Dir: Les Mayfield
Writer: George Seaton, John Hughes
Cast: Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, Mara Wilson, J.T. Walsh, Simon Jones, James Remar, Jane Leeves, William Windom, Robert Prosky, Joss Ackland
Time: 114 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018