Elf (2003)

220px-Elf_movie“The best way to spread Christmas Cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”

Elf is truly a Christmas miracle. It’s a relatively modern Christmas classic (a bit over 12 years old) that holds its own in a season usually dominated by old perennial favorites. Yet, again and again, it constantly excites, mesmerizes, and bedazzles in more ways than one.

Will Ferrell is the major treasure of Elf because, without his child-like wonderment and sincerity, this film could go downhill all too quickly. Buddy walks into female locker rooms, walks around New York in an Elf suit eating discarded gum, and calls his grown-up father “daddy” in a musical serenade, after all. But to his credit, Ferrell goes for it wholeheartedly completely engulfing himself in a magical realm that bewitches every other character who decides to join him. Everyone else walks in abject reality, but Buddy like Elwood P. Dowd (Harvey) or Dudley the angel (The Bishop’s Wife) exist outside of that and when they rub up against everyone else, they leave everyone, including the audience, changed.

From the outset, Elf comes right out of a storybook as Papa Elf (the venerable Bob Newhart) recounts how a human and his adopted son saved Christmas. Of course, it starts out as a sorry tale, because truth be told Buddy cannot figure out what his purpose in life is. What is he good at? What are his talents? For all the other elves it’s obvious: they make toys.

But when Buddy finally learns of his secret past he leaves his papa behind in a tearful goodbye, gains some sage advice from Santa (the equally venerable Ed Asner), and heads off on an iceberg to find his real father in the Big Apple.

There must be a catch, and there is a small one, Buddy’s father Walter Hobbes (James Caan) is on the naughty list. In fact, he’s a real Scrooge working slavishly day after day as a children’s book publisher. But you see Buddy doesn’t see people for their faults and that’s the secret of Ferrell’s success because his innocence and irrepressible will towards his fellow man is contagious. New York might be a culture shock and Hobbes as well as his young boy Michael are not too thrilled with Buddy’s arrival, but that’s because he’s so foreign – so nice. Ultimately, he becomes the best thing to happen in their life.

In truth, Buddy goes transforming New York systematically whether it’s the Hobbes’ home, Gimbel’s Department Store, or wherever his feet take him. And of course he finds love in his world-wearied coworker Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) and saves Christmas, but that’s nothing unexpected. It’s not the results, but how we get there that counts – all those quotable moments in between.

Too often I feel bludgeoned to death by all the new takes on the Christmas season annually jostling for my affection. But the beauty of Elf is that it pays its respects to the past, thereby solidifying its own timelessness in the present. It doesn’t have to be the next big thing, but it is something that I would gladly sit down and watch annually, because of its spirit and seasonal charm. We get nods to A Christmas Story and Ralphie, an homage to George Bailey on the Bedford Fall bridge, and even Miracle on 34th Street (Buddy working at the rival Gimbels).

The music never steals the show but it does accent some sequences nicely including the voices of Louis Prima, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and so on. Each character fits well in director Jon Favreau’s narrative. The manager (Faizon Love) is a crack-up. The hired Santa (Artie Lange) is a thug. Peter Dinklage is an angry elf. James Caan is grumpy and cynical. Zooey Deschanel is pretty and cynical. Ed Asner is an endearing grouch. Bob Newhart has his usual stuttering charm. And Ferrell wraps it all up nicely with a pretty bow. Although it does completely sidestep the origins of the Christmas holiday, Elf does what it set out to do very well. It exudes Christmas spirit unabashedly.

“Christmas spirit is about believing, not seeing.” – Ed Asner as Santa

4/5 Stars

El Dorado (1966)

5a6c7-eldorado3 El Dorado is less of a remaking of Howard Hawk’s previous western production Rio Bravo and more of a reworking of it. This time the town drunk is sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum), who got his heart broke by a girl. The kid is Alan Bourdillion Traherne (James Caan) also known as Mississippi. He can be found with a shot up old hat on his head and a sawed off blunderbuss for a gun. It’s not his weapon of choice anyway. Then, there’s old reliable Bull Harris (Arthur Hunnicut), who holds down the fort and looks after the sheriff when he’s laid up. As the main love interest, there’s Maudie (Charlene Holt), a resident of El Dorado since her childhood days.
As always the man who calls the shots is Cole Thorton (John Wayne), an old war buddy of J.P.s. He has one of the fastest draws around but also has a surprisingly soft spot for doing good. He befriends the younger Mississippi and comes to the aid of J.P when he could have joined the other side.
Thorton rejects the offer of local villain Bart Jason (Ed Asner), but a threatened local ranch family wishes to take no chances. When it is all said and done Thorton receives a bullet in the back that causes him problems afterward.
Now lethal hired gun Nelson McLeod (Christopher George) has taken up Jason’s offer, and they ride into the town. One of their first meetings takes place in the old church and it ends in the arrest of Jason for his part in the whole affair. Another shootout takes place that night and now the formerly drunk sheriff also gets nicked in the leg.
Maudie is fearful of the thugs milling around her place and when Thorton and Mississippi go over to investigate they get ambushed because Cole has physical ailments of his own. They get Cole back but not without giving up their own prisoner. With one of the McDonald’s kidnapped a quick plan is devised and the final showdown begins. Our ragtag crew gets the job done, but J.P. and Cole make quite the pair. They look more like crippled old men than hardened gunfighters, both hobbling down the street with a crutch.

I must admit I am partial to Hawk’s original Rio Bravo and I have yet to see Rio Lobo, but I did really enjoy these characters. Wayne and Mitchum seem to play against type because at times they are quite comical. Mitchum is not a tough P.I. or ruthless villain, but a town drunk! Wayne can hardly shoot a gun at times and he even gets taken. That’s unheard of. It’s as if they softened with old age, but I don’t mind, because the interactions between those two, Mississippi, Bull, and Maudie are a lot of fun. Even the antagonist McCleod is a man with a sense of honor and good fun. Some great moments include Mississippi’s miracle concoction and numerous bars of soap being brought to the dirty sheriff when he finally takes a bath! The initial introduction of the two leads is priceless too. They both were smitten with the same girl.

Howard Hawks really knew how to make westerns not simply about guns and shootouts, but colorful characters who oftentimes seem more content kicking it back in the jail than in smelling out trouble. He proved it again with El Dorado.

4/5 Stars
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long
Singing a song, 
In search of El Dorado

UP (2009)

This Pixar film, starring Ed Asner and Jordan Nagai, follows a retired gentleman, who keeps his promise to his deceased wife by traveling to South America. Carl Frederickson met the love of his life in Ellie, and they got married. However,  pretty soon they were in their later years and Ellie died. Carl wants to keep his promise, and so he heads to South American in his balloon-propelled house. Along the way, he has an energetic boy named Russell thrust upon him. Over time they become friends as Russell tries to help Carl so he can earn a Wilderness Explorer badge. Russell befriends a talking dog named Dug and a giant bird called Kevin, while Mr. Frederisckson accepts their company begrudgingly. But they do run into trouble, and so they have to rally in order to save Kevin from his captors. Although this story seems sad at first, it quickly becomes heartwarming with the addition of Russell. He helps to breathe new life into Mr. Frederickson, and more importantly, they form a relational bond. This is probably the best Pixar film since Finding Nemo.

It always strikes me how wonderfully unassuming this film is. If you told me that a film about an old man traveling to South America in a balloon-propelled house would be this gripping, funny, and heartwarming, I certainly would not believe you. But time after time UP is a joy to watch.

It has one of the moving opening sequences in recent memory, and it does it with pithiness. This is the first sign that this is something special. Each and every time I always find the score so whimsical, and it seems to fit so perfectly with the concept. Another marvel of this film is Russell, the spunky Asian-American kid in pursuit of his assisting the elderly badge. He is a hilarious little boy with a lot to say, and he says it with such expression and energy, which really shows through the Pixar animation. A shout-out must also be given to Kevin and Dug because Russell is the standout, but the film would not be the same without this pair of quirky creatures.

Most importantly, the younger generation learns from the older generation, and in turn, I think Carl learns valuable lessons from his young companion. It is very important to never forget our past, but perhaps more important is making something of our future and living in the present. It is a new type of buddy film that reminds us that friendship, as well as adventure, are out there, we just need to go and find it.

5/5 Stars