61 Days of Halloween- It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown (United Features Syndicate)

It’s true that it would be hard to twist the philosophies and beliefs held by any character in the Peanuts gang such that you could call it a horror film. Although I must say waiting annually for a benevolent being only you believe in, having your friends mock you for it, and not seeing it is horrific; It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown cannot be classified as a horror film.

What it is, is a Halloween staple. What are holidays without traditions and for the triad of celebrations near the close of every year these specials are markers and mandatory viewing for each? There are plenty of reasons why.

Firstly, aside from encompassing much of what we already know and love about the holiday it adds some things to the mix and gives food for thought. Linus’s aforementioned obsession with The Great Pumpkin is the perfect illustration of a child’s elevation of the day.

What’s more despite its being loosey goosey with its pace and plot, its whimsy seemingly belying its 25-minute running time there is still a protagonist’s journey. Linus is subject to ridicule, manages to bring one person over to his side temporarily only to see him defeated in the end.

Yet there is still a humanity to it. Lucy, of all people, sets her alarm for midnight sees he’s not in bed and salvages him from sleeping all night in the freezing pumpkin patch.

The voice casting early on in these specials is great and remained so through the years for Charlie Brown specials came for years and years but the likes of Peter Robbins (Charlie) and the scene-stealing Christopher Shea (Linus) had to be replaced frequently as did the other kids.

Of course, you also have Vince Guaraldi’s music. A testament to his lasting impact is that you hear the first few notes of that theme and even without visual aids you know that’s the Peanuts.

It starts with a wonderful dialogue-free sequence where Linus and Lucy pick a pumpkin but it also folds in Snoopy’s plot line, which is typically no more than comic relief, so neatly. In the end he too has a journey, as many kids do, of wild imagination on All Hallows’ Eve.

There is a sequence of animation that has to it a touch of Disney-like surrealism and the whole thing has a much more refined and well-crafted feeling than the more emotionally involving Christmas special.

Yes, this short little film is a Halloween tradition of mine and I could go on talking about it but the bottom line is that it is the best kind of tradition, which is one that you don’t feel is an imposition but rather one that you relish.

10/10

Review- The Art of Getting By

Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts in The Art of Getting By (Fox Searchlight)

When I first saw a trailer for The Art of Getting By my initial reaction was that Freddie Highmore is back with a vengeance. This film, and the previously reviewed Toast, definitely bear that out. Highmore does some pretty difficult work in this film as he’s asked to make a character likable who is not very likable at a distance and who a lesser actor may make detestable.

However, the film establishes his philosophy on life and why he approaches it the way he does right off the bat through voice-over. The voice-over is used sparingly afterward but the “We’re going to die, so what’s the point?” attitude is not hard to wrap one’s head around it’s just that he takes it to an extreme level. However, I have no qualms with it because part of cinema is about living vicariously through others.

Of course, what does snap him out of that in part is a girl played by Emma Roberts. Hers is a task that’s also not very easy because in this film she plays perhaps the most enigmatic female lead I’ve seen since Emily Blunt in Wild Target. I believe I have cracked her as her behavior does seem strange and I think a lot of her subconscious motivation is that she really is a carbon copy of her mother but she fears admitting it and thus a lot of the irrational behavior you’ll see form her is explained.

While George (Highmore) is getting to know and like Sally (Roberts) the tension at home starts to bubble to the surface and he also is forced to come to grips with his slacking off at school and either make his work up or he’ll be expelled. Slowly and perceptibly he starts to change and the straw breaks the camel’s back you know he’ll make it up. A lot of the unexpected comes in his relationship.

What this film does well is that it manages intertwine several uncertain outcomes towards the end such that your focus isn’t entirely on one so even though things, to an extent, work out as expected there’s still that tension about which will be resolved when and how. One thing it keeps you waiting on is to see his one art project. It should also be noted that due to Sally’s enigmatic nature what she does at the end is by no means a sure thing.

While much of what you need resolved to have what can typically be considered a full filmic experience does get resolved there are a few things that are left open to interpretation. This openness was something I realized afterward where some events were viewed differently by myself and a friend.

For the most part this film does a fine job of carving out its universe and establishing who these people are and how their world functions. What never did jibe was the drinking. The leads are portraying high school seniors, eighteen-year-olds, yet they seem to be able to get alcohol by simply buying it (18 obviously being underage in New York City). This isn’t a prudish complaint, kids drink, if that factors in the story; fine. However, something as incongruous as getting served in a bar is something that cannot go unmentioned in the dialogue.

Despite a few unfortunate enigmas in the storytelling I believe that this film effectively created a narrative of the modern slacker and how he is snapped out of it and finds things to live for. The larger (or smaller) the world grows the more we can feel isolated at times so an occasional reminder about what makes it worth it is welcome.

7/10

Review- X-Men: First Class

Caleb Landry Jones, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy and Lucas Till in X-Men: First Class (20th Century Fox/Marvel)

I believe, when grading or reviewing a film, that taking a film for what it is and not comparing it something its not or not trying to be is of paramount importance. Thus, I will look at films from not just a genre perspective but also within the confines of subgenre and in some cases franchise. This clearly applies to X-Men: First Class.

It’s an action film, it’s a superhero film but moreover it’s a film in the X-Men series. I will state in the interest of full disclosure that I am a fan of the X-Men and it’s mainly through other interpretations be they the TV series I was hooked on as a kid or the films that came later.

I will here echo sentiments uttered quite astutely by my friend Joey Esposito because they are true and have bearing on any interpretation of this film. Those thoughts being that the connection many can feel to the X-Men are usually for either of two reasons: first, the mutants all feel outcast and most people at one point feel like outsiders, some more poignantly or persistently than others- this instantly adds to the appeal of the characters. However, perhaps the most intriguing dynamic in this universe is the dichotomy between Xavier and Magneto who have two diametrically opposite views on how to deal with this struggle and better yet anyone can see the logic in both approaches.

While I liked the previous installments in varying degrees, save for Wolverine, these truths and this philosophy was always hinted at and alluded to but never became central to the narrative. The films were engaging, flashy and fun, in short good entertainment that lacked that little something extra that made it necessary or desirable to revisit the film two or three times or more.

I have already seen X-Men: First Class twice because it not only gets everything I was talking about but delivers on it in spades. Never are you left wondering as the geriatric lady of infamy in the 80s advertising campaign said: “Where’s the beef?” Instantly the characters of this tale are built we see the circumstances that set Magneto on his course, likewise with Charles Xavier.

The films opening scenes are absolutely hypnotic and quickly establish suspense. The drama of the situation aided by Kevin Bacon who gives a wonderful and memorable turn in his first villainous role in some time confronts a Young Karl, played with utmost brilliance by Bill Milner, a young actor I’ve long contended is the best of his age group and he keeps proving me right. He is pushed and traumatized beyond his breaking point and it crystallizes his view of humanity. Meanwhile, Charles (Laurence Belcher) also gets a perfect introduction, not without its own bit of suspense, and we see him exhibit his nurturing, befriending nature.

Very quickly, dramatically and effectively the film establishes its characters before it really sets the story in motion, It’s a gripping start and I responded emotionally immediately which is rare. Like a few of the X-Men films it has memorable scenes with its lead characters in younger incarnations such as Cayden Boyd as Young Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand or Troye Sivan as Young Logan in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. What this film does is deliver on the promise that those early scenes show, in fact, there is a string of absolutely outstanding scenes that kick-off this film in tremendous style and the scenes end perfectly, carry great tension and importance are numerous in this film.

The success of this film hinges greatly on the strength of its script and it is simply put outstanding. The dialogue most of the time is sharp and concise and even though it wanders into typical superhero banter on occasion it is always purposeful and almost never wasted. Furthermore it communicates the philosophies of its characters, which needs to hit home, very well.

The characters are also made more interesting by the fact that they too have things at stake aside from the stakes of the plot. Not to knock that either. It’s hard to up the ante more than this film does but we’re not just seeing a spectacle because the characters are personally invested in their mission with different motives and that just makes it work that much better.

A few cast members were already singled out but a few more deserve mention. What wasn’t discussed in Kevin Bacon’s bit prior is that he, like a few other actors, was asked to speak a few lines in languages which are not his own and it just makes the experience that much more real and immediate. Having English as a substitute for foreign languages in a film is a slippery slope and I’m loving that people are trending towards using the foreign idioms themselves.

Clearly a lot of the kudos acting-wise need to go to Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, who play the two principal characters. They are the ones that intrigue us most and who bear most of the burden and knock it out of the park. While this role isn’t a showcase of her considerable talent as Winter’s Bone did Jennifer Lawrence does very well playing Mystique and each of the initial assemblage of mutants played by Nicholas Hoult, Edi Gathegi, Caleb Landry Jones, Zoë Kravitz and Lucas Till each have their moments to contribute.

The bottom line is that this is the best cinematic representation of who the X-Men to date are and why they are loved. The story is engaging and exciting but equal in intrigue are the characters. Add to that brilliant handling of how Xavier and Magneto whom are initially friends but just can’t see eye-to-eye philosophically and you have an absolutely dynamite film.

10/10