Tag Archives: Ted Demme

Yuletide Yarns: Nate’s Top Ten Christmas Films

Tis the season to check out Christmas in cinema! There’s a whole ton of festive films out there revolving around this time of year, ten of which I’ve picked out here as my cherished favourites! Oh and keep one thing in mind: A Christmas movie is a subjective thing and each individual is allowed to have whatever the hell they want in their Yuletide canon without a bunch of blockheads screaming “That’s not a Christmas movie” to the winds. Home Alone is a Christmas movie to many and perhaps to some The Mummy or Top Gun are also Christmas movies too for whatever personal reason or memory they hold dear. Anything you damn well please can be your “Christmas movie” and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Got it? Good! Enjoy my list 😉

10. John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games

An underrated one, to say the least. Pulpy, nihilistic and packed with ironically nasty energy substituting for holiday cheer, I love this ultra violent heist/revenge flick to bits. Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron and an off-the-chain Gary Sinise are various degenerate characters involved in a casino robbery and the ensuing aftermath, murder, betrayal and tough talk. They’re all having a blast and there’s great supporting work from Danny Trejo, Donal Logue, Isaac Hayes, James Frain, a scene stealing Clarence Williams III plus the late great Fennis Farina.

9. Bob Clark’s Black Christmas

A Christmas slasher yay!! This predates John Carpenter’s Halloween as the original genre prototype and is just such a fun, spooky old stalker flick with healthy doses of camp, plenty of creaky atmospheric portent and one of the freakiest villains the genre has to offer based on his voice alone. It’s Christmas break for a house of sorority girls in small town Ontario, which should mean rest, relaxation and good times. A deeply disturbed prank calling serial killer has other ideas though, tormenting them with perverse phone-calls and eventually outright hunting them through the drafty halls of the manor. Starring the beautiful, classy Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, John Saxon, Margot Kidder and Nick Mancuso as the killer’s terrifying phone voice, this is a holiday classic for me, it practically fills up your living room with atmosphere when you put it on.

8. Joe Dante’s Gremlins

This is one of those ones that kind of works at Halloween too because it’s so gooey and horror-centric, but the quaint small town Christmas vibe is so pleasant and wonderful, right from the joyous opening titles set to Phil Spector’s ‘Christmas.’ One young man’s Christmas present goes haywire when cryptozoological Mogwai Gizmo and his clan get right out of control and cause a bigger holiday riot than Boxing Day at the mall. It’s like a Christmas party gone ballistic in the best, most mischievous ways and the fun lies in seeing these little green monsters terrorize, blow off steam and run around town destroying everything in their wake.

7. Renny Harlin’s Die Hard 2

I know what you’re thinking, but I actually prefer this rambunctious sequel over the iconic first Die Hard film. Switching up the action from a skyscraper to hectic, bustling and heavily snowed in LAX on Christmas Eve is just such a cozier, more festive setting, not to mention ripe for so much action, villainy and comedic bits. Way more characters, tons of cool cameos, a blinding snowstorm to create atmosphere and so many gorgeous explosions.

6. Robert Zemeckis’s The Polar Express

What a majestic film. People rip on this for being way too elaborate and hectic when compared to the simple, direct timbre of its source children’s book, but I love how far they took it. It’s a thrillingly cinematic, highly immersive rollercoaster ride to the North Pole packed with Carols, stunning motion capture animation, Tom Hanks in like four different roles *including* Santa, breathtaking swoops over northern landscapes and a genuine sense of wonder.

5. Ted Demme’s The Ref

Christmas ain’t always a loving, cherished time of year as you’ll see in this acidic, cynical and jet black comedy of family dysfunction, misanthropy and petty crime. Denis Leary is one pissed off cat burglar who hides out from the law with a couple played by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis who are basically the most unhappily married, hateful pair of grinches you could find in white suburbia. It’s a brilliantly satirical sendup of Christmas in the Midwest with terrific, off the wall performances from the three leads, a wicked sharp script and hilarious supporting work from J.K. Simmons, Christine Baranski, BD Wong and Raymond J. Barry.

4. Tim Burton’s Batman Returns

Christmas goes Gothic in my favourite of the initial four Burton/Schumacher Batman films. This is a seriously gorgeous gem of a film with Keaton at his moody best as Batman, Danny Devito creeping’ it up tons as the freaky weirdo Penguin, Christopher Walken embodying corporate evil like no other and Michelle Pfeiffer as the most absolutely sexy, dangerous, funny and commanding take on Catwoman ever. The film takes place over the holiday season in a Gotham highly reminiscent of bustling New York, all austere wintry edifices and decked out super malls.

3. Tim Burton/Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas

A double edged sword that works wonders as both Christmas and Halloween film, this is just a classic, iconic festive singalong with the OG beautiful Burton/Selick stop-motion animation and a wonderful host of vocal/singing performances from Chris Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara, Glen Shadix, Paul Reubens and Danny Elfman.

2. Harold Ramis’s The Ice Harvest

Another counterintuitive one, this is an icy, sardonic black crime comedy about a mob lawyer (John Cusack), his untrustworthy associate (Billy Bob Thornton), a slinky stripper (Connie Nielsen) and a big city gangster (Randy Quaid). They’re all neck deep in an underworld embezzlement scheme on Christmas Eve, out to kill, deceive, screw over and get rich by the time midnight rolls around. I love this film, it’s a Yuletide noir with healthy doses of deadpan comedy, a mournful rumination on what it means to be a family member around this time of year and how morality plays into a life of crime. Plus positively everyone steals the show including the lovable Oliver Platt as Cusack’s drunken buddy.

1. Robert Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol

The number of Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carols film adaptations is near infinity but for me this one tops them all. Dazzling motion capture animation gives larger than life vitality to the classic story of Scrooge, his three ghosts and Victorian London. Jim Carrey outdoes himself playing the old dude and *all three* spectres while the cast is filled with beloved performers like Gary Oldman, Robin Wright, Colin Firth, Fionnula Flanagan, Cary Elwes and the late great Bob Hoskins in multiple roles. Zemeckis’s sure hand with this dynamic style of animation gives the film an impressive aura of sweeping visual movement and immersion, the performances capturing the essence of each actor in various modes while the colour, carols and rousing action make this the best produced version of this story I’ve ever seen, I watch it once a year without fail.

-Nate Hill

Ted Demme’s Life

Ted Demme’s Life is a hard one to classify or box into genres, which may have been why it didn’t do all that great at the box office and subsequently slipped through the cracks, a result that often befalls ambitious, unique films that people aren’t ready to surrender to. Part comedy, part tragedy, all drama infused with just a bit of whimsy, it’s a brilliant piece and one of the most underrated outings from both of it’s high profile stars, Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. It seems fitting that the two lively, cartoonish cowboys of comedy should share the screen, and it’s lucky they got such a wicked script. In the roaring twenties, Murphy is smooth talking petty thief Ray, Lawrence is hapless, hot blooded bank teller Claude, and the pair couldn’t be more suited or dysfunctional towards each other. Brought together for an ill fated moonshine run bankrolled by a nasty NYC Gangster (Rick James), things go wrong in the most auspicious of places a black man could find himself during that time: Mississippi. Framed for the murder of a local conman (Clarence Williams III) by a psychotic, corrupt Sheriff (Ned Vaughn), they’re given life in prison by the judge, and this is where their peculiar adventure really begins. Put under the supervision of a violent but oddly sympathetic corrections officer played awesomely by Nick Cassavetes, the two wrongfully convicted, hard-luck fellows spend their entire adult life and most of the twentieth century incarcerated… and that’s the film. Squabbling year by year, making a whole host of friends out of their fellow convicts and never losing their sense of humour, it’s the one of the strangest narratives I’ve seen, and somehow works wonders in keeping us glued to the screen. Supporting the two leads is a legendary ensemble including Ned Beatty as warm hearted superintendent, Anthony Anderson, Bernie Mac, Bokeem Woodbine, Barry Shabaka Henley, Heavy D, Don Harvey, Noah Emmerich, Obba Babatundé, Sanaa Latham, R. Lee Ermey and more. Murphy and Lawrence have never been better, shining through Rick Baker’s wicked old age makeup in the latter portion of the film, and letting the organic outrage and frustration towards their situation pepper the many instances of humour, accenting everything with their friendship, which is the core element really. The film’s title, simple as it, has a few meanings, at least for me. Life as in ‘life in prison’, in it’s most literal and outright sense. Life as in ‘well tough shit, that’s life and it ain’t always pretty,’ another reality shared with us by the story. But really it’s something more oblique, the closest form of explanation I can give being ‘life happens.’ There’s no real social issues explored here, no heavy handed agenda (had the film been released in this day and age, that would have almost certainly been a different story), no real message, we just see these events befall the two men. They roll with each new development, they adapt and adjust, they learn, they live. In a medium that’s always being plumbed and mined for deeper meanings, subtext and allegories, it’s nice to see a picture that serves up the human condition without all those lofty bells and whistles. Their story is random, awkward, unpredictable, never short on irony, seldom fair, often tragic, and ever forward moving. That’s Life.

-Nate Hill

BEAUTIFUL GIRLS – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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There is something about turning 30 that makes one re-evaluate their life. It is that time when you are forced to grow up, find direction, settle down, and become an adult. Beautiful Girls (1996) concerns a group of men faced with this dilemma. They have been living in the past and recent events have forced them to confront it head on. This is also the late director, Ted Demme’s best film in an all-too brief career. As he said in an interview at the time of the film’s release, “I don’t think there are too many movies about turning 30, or just about to turn 30. Those issues are whether to get married or not, whether to have kids or not, am I happy in my job, do I need to find another job, am I unsettled with myself. You’re not a teen anymore, and you don’t want to admit you’re an adult either.”

Willie (Timothy Hutton) returns to his small, Northeastern hometown for his ten-year high school reunion, hook up with buddies, and get his life in order. His mom has recently died (leaving his younger brother and father in a deep funk) and all of his friends are having relationship problems. Willie strikes up a friendship with a young girl named Marty (Natalie Portman) who has moved in next door. She is a character out of J.D. Salinger short story – wise beyond her years. Marty sets the tone for the rest of the women in the story. They are all intelligent and end up suffering with men who don’t appreciate what they have right in front of them.

Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg was living in Boston, waiting to see if Disney would use his script for Con Air (1997). “It was the worst winter ever in this small hometown. Snow plows were coming by, and I was just tired of writing these movies with people getting shot and killed. So I said, ‘There is more action going on in my hometown with my friends dealing with the fact that they can’t deal with turning 30 or with commitment’ – all that became Beautiful Girls.” The resulting screenplay turned out to be quite autobiographical, with Willie being Rosenberg’s surrogate.

The friendship between Willie and Marty pushes the boundaries of what is comfortable in a comfort movie but it never goes beyond it. Rosenberg’s screenplay is smart enough to be self-aware of this and even addresses it in a scene between Willie and his friend Mo (Noah Emmerich). Fortunately, the film narrowly avoids letting things get too uncomfortable and therefore taking us out of the captivating spell established by the movie. It also avoids clichés like the beautiful Andrea (Uma Thurman) having sex with one of the guys. Instead, she rebuffs them all because she is loyal to her boyfriend who, makes her martinis listens to Van Morrison and reads the newspaper with her on Sunday mornings – simple pleasures. She is not a perfect ideal, just on another level than these guys.

Rosenberg’s script is also able to juggle the various subplots without resorting to cliché resolutions. Tommy (Matt Dillon) is cheating on his girlfriend Sharon (Mira Sorvino) with his high school sweetheart (Lauren Holly). When he gets beat up by her husband (Sam Robards) and his buddies you anticipate Willie, Paul (Michael Rapaport) and Mo to mobilize and kick some ass but at the last second they stop because the man’s child will see her father get beaten up. This stops Mo who also has kids.

In addition to the clever plotting, Rosenberg’s script also features a lot of funny, memorable dialogue. Tommy chastises Paul for getting his on again-off again girlfriend, Jan (Martha Plimpton) a brown-colored diamond when he tells him, “Buddy, you been eating retard sandwiches.” There is also great throwaway dialogue like Stinky (Pruitt Taylor Vince) with his proprietor lingo, “We got apps!” or the often-used word “crease” to convey frustration at something, like when Tommy asks, “What’s got him creased?”

b2All of the guys in Beautiful Girls are essentially the same person. Willie is just finding his luck, Paul just lost his luck as the film begins, Tommy loses it over the course of the movie, and Mo has already found and achieved it with his family. Demme does not waste an opportunity to subtly illustrate his point. In one scene, he frames all three guys together: Paul (lost luck) is driving with Willie (finding luck) and Mo (achieved luck) along for the ride. The women counterpoint their men in this cycle: Tracy (Annabeth Gish) for Willie, Jan for Paul, Sharon for Tommy, and Sarah (Anne Bobby) for Mo.

The women in the film are smarter than the guys and make them (and us) feel like they are lucky that their behavior is even tolerated much less loved despite all of their failings. This is epitomized in Gina (Rosie O’Donnell)’s famous monologue where she chastises Tommy and Willie for obsessing over the women in Penthouse magazine. She tells them, “If you had an ounce of self-esteem, of self-worth, of self-confidence, you would realize that as trite as it may sound, beauty is truly skin-deep.” Gina speaks for the women in the film when she reminds the men to forget the airbrushed ideal of women that we see in magazines and movies. They do not exist or are unattainable to any normal guy.

To counter her argument, later on in the movie, Paul delivers a monologue defending men’s idealization for the impossibly perfect image of women. “She can make you feel high full of the single greatest commodity known to man – promise. Promise of a better day. Promise of a greater hope. Promise of a new tomorrow.” It is a rare, articulate moment for Paul, suggesting that he may be more than some lunkhead who drives a snowplow. He may actually be a romantic. It is nice to see a film that is obviously told from a man’s point of view trying to show both sides of the argument.

The women in the film are not treated like excess baggage. They all have a soul and a brain which is rare for a film written and directed by men. There is a tendency to make them perfect or marginalized with their problems defining them. This is not the case with Beautiful Girls. This is reversed and it is the problems that define the men.

Ted Demme assembled a fantastic cast of independent character actors for his movie: Michael Rapaport, Max Perlich, Pruitt Taylor Vince and Mira Sorvino to name only a few. They all work so well together and their friendships are believable because of the preparation the director made them do. He had the entire cast come to Minneapolis and live together for two to three weeks so that they could bond. One only has to watch a scene like Andrea’s first appearance in Stinky’s bar as Willie and his friends try desperately to impress her that the two week bonding session paid off. There is an ease and casual nature between everyone that is authentic.

The setting is a character unto itself. Demme has set his film in a charming east coast hamlet that is filled with little diners and bars that look so inviting that you want to go there, you want to be there. It all looks so comforting, so inviting and this is so hard to achieve properly in any film. He commented in an interview that he “wanted to make it look like it’s Anytown USA, primarily East Coast. And I also wanted it to feel like a real working class town.” To this end, Demme drew inspiration from Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978). “The first third of the film is really an amazing buddy movie with those five actors. You could tell they were best friends, but they all had stuff amongst them that was personal to each one of them.” Demme wanted to make Beautiful Girls more than just a buddy movie. When he read Rosenberg’s screenplay he told him, “‘You know, we really need to take this to another level.’ If I was ever going to make a buddy movie, which I never thought I would, I wanted to make sure it had some real depth to it.”

b3The film does not wrap everything up nice and neatly. Paul and Jan’s subplot is not resolved in the sense that we don’t know if they settle their differences and get back together. Tommy and Sharon will probably get back together but it is not spelled out. Instead, as the closing credits appear we are left to imagine what happens to the characters. It is Paul’s parting comments to Willie as he is about to go back to New York City, “Come and see us any time, Will. We’ll be right here where you left us. Nothing changes in the Ridge but the seasons.” This is also a message to the viewer as well. Come back and see Beautiful Girls again. The film’s world and its characters are comforting and making you want to revisit them again and again.