Saturday, December 24, 2011

Die Hard (1988) (Movie Review)

     When it comes to the action movie genera, there always seems to be that special triumph that sets the gold standard for a generation to aspire from. “Raiders of the Lost Arc” set the high bar for the 80’s, “The Matrix” set the bar for the early 2000’s and “The Dark Knight” set the standard for the two-thousand-teens. For todays review, we’re looking back at 1988’s “Die Hard”, which was the action/adventure movie phenomenon that set the high bar for the 90’s, and subsequently inspired countless imitators along the way. No joke, "Die Hard" was one of those special cases in which an original idea had just about everything fit beautifully into place, and while several others would attempt to replicate the same formula, they just couldn’t capture the same magic. Over time, the premise of this movie has been referred to as the “Die Hard” action movie formula. It’s just such an easy concept to recreate, with the only real change to each film being the setting. Before I go any further, I should note that I’ve had an interesting relationship with this film over the years. The first time I ever saw “Die Hard” was after I graduated high school, and by that time, I had become all too familiar with the film’s formula. Thus, upon my first initial viewing, I didn’t care much for the film at all. Then everything changed on one magical December night, when I looked at “Die Hard” as more then just an action movie classic, it is in fact also … a Christmas classic! 

    Perhaps I should back up for a moment, lay out the plot, and then discuss all the fine details. The best way to describe this film is … imagine a disaster movie like 1974’s “The Towering Inferno”, but with an action hero like “Rambo” at the center of the cause. It’s Christmas eve, and a New York cop named John McClane is taking a trip to LA to visit his wife, who he’s been apart from for six months. He reunites with her at work, which just happens to be at the base of a giant skyscraper, and things are very heated between the two. The heat then reaches critical mass when the whole building is over-run by a group of terrorists, who soon hold the occupant’s hostage. John alone evades capture, and the venture is on, with our hero trapped in this massive skyscraper, and the only hope for his wife and the other hostages to escape the clutches of this sinister group of villains. This is the winning formula that made “Die Hard” such a smashing success, just have one lone hero in a larger than life setting, while battling waves of armed villains. Like I said in the into, I was very familiar with this film’s premise, and had already been exposed to several other action movies that recreated the “Die Hard” formula. These films for me included “Speed”, “Cliffhanger”, “Under Siege”, “Snakes on a Plane”, an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” titled “Starship Mine” and even an episode of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” titled “Hostage Crises”. My very first exposure to this kind of concept was as a child watching a little family flick called “3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain”. That film involved terrorists taking over a theme park, capturing the people inside, and lone hero’s within aiming to free the hostages. The setting was obviously different, but it was still the same concept, although, that was definitely the pre-school version of “Die Hard”.

     As such, I wasn’t initially on board with “Die Hard”, as the premise was all too familiar, but over time, it’s only gotten better, and on each viewing, I notice something else that elevates this above any of the previously mentioned action flicks. I’ll talk about the Christmas elements of the film in a moment, but for now I want to single out the three main stars that make this film a smashing success. The first is the resourceful, wise-cracking and all-around heroic cop. The second is the suave, yet ruthless terrorist leader, and the third is the building itself. What a perfect location to set an exciting cat and mouse game of this size. The lift shafts, heating ducts and shattered glass become the setting for a catalog of violent confrontations, high-adrenaline stunts and huge explosions. It’s really one of those special cases when the setting becomes a character in of itself, and through the course of the film, the audience is treated to see it all gradually come undone around our principle characters. Part of the appeal really is watching this building slowly get demolished from the inside out. As one would expect, the film did earn four Oscar nominations for best visual effects, best sound design, best sound editing, and best film editing. The movies set-up also makes it difficult to single out an individual fight scene, when the whole movie plays out like one big action sequence. There’s also a great variety of gun play, and relentless, white knuckled, close corridor fighting. Yes, the action gets intense and brutal, but there’s also this healthy sense of fun that goes along with it. The movie never takes itself too seriously, and just invites the audience to go for an all-out roller-coaster ride. 

       John McTernan directs the film, and is just in peak form. In general, he’s one of my all-time favorite action movie directors, and put his stamp of quality on some of my favorite films including “Predator” and “The Hunt for Red October”. Now, let’s finally talk about Bruce Willis in the leading role of our hero John McClane, because no matter how you slice it, this is one of the all-time greatest action movie heroes. Most action heroes of this time were like polished, unstoppable, living supper men who could just walk through fire and never get burned. John McClane by contrast feels more grounded, he looks like he could be your dad, he’s relatable, he feels pain, and is just a plan good guy who putts his life on the line to protect and save as many lives as he can, even if that means putting himself though heavy injuries and danger. One of the films daring decisions was to deprive our hero of his shoes, which added another layer of tension to the situation as he’s forced to traverse all the rubble and shattered glass with his bare feet. Make no mistake, John McClane takes a serious beating in this film, but he still keeps pushing himself and pushing himself, just to save innocent lives. This was definitely the big break out role for Bruce Willis, as prior to this film, viewers mostly associated him as a smirking private-eye on the TV series “Moonlighting”. Bonnie Bedelia plays John’s wife Holly (yeah, like Christmas Holly), and she actually makes for a good role model in her own right. She proves that a female lead can play the part of damsel, yet still be very strong, and dominate, even in the face of her captives.  

     However, despite the rich cast of hero’s, my absolute favorite is the main villain himself … Hans Gruber, played by the late great Alan Rickman. I’ve always viewed Alan Rickman as one of the most charismatic villain actors to ever live, and this is the performance that stands in the Hollywood hall of fame as one of the absolute greatest. He’s suave, charming, laid back, yet extremely ruthless and unsympathetic. He’s also a villain who’s self-aware, as he knows he’s just a common robber, but wants to be viewed as someone of class and high stature. So, he puts on a show, dresses up, is well versed and postures like he’s a brilliant mastermind with greater ambitions then the situation would suggest. The back and forth between he and John McClain is one of the greatest hero/ villain relationships I’ve ever seen. The two don’t even meet face to face until the very end, and the majority of their conflict is conveyed through conversation on walkie talkie’s, yet it’s still extremely engaging. Just watching these two one up each other with their own distinct mannerisms and witty comebacks is highly entertaining, as well as brilliant film-making. Earlier in the movie, John kills a terrorist who just happens to have an older brother named Karl, who’s need for vengeance propels him to become an effective B villain in the picture. While Hans runs the show, Karl is the one who has the most physical confrontations with our hero, which are equally thrilling to watch. In most cases, a lead antagonist feels more complete with a good B villain at his side, so this is a perfect paring of bad guys.    
      Now lets finally talk about this films status as a Christmas movie classic, because this is where I really fell in love with “Die Hard”. Let me start by saying that countless other action movies have also taken place during the holiday season, including some of the “Lethal Weapons” films, “Batman Returns”, “First Blood”, “Iron Man 3”, “The Poseidon Adventure”, “Highlander 4”, and even the sequel “Die Hard 2: Die Harder” are all set around Christmas, but none of them have ever been branded as classic holiday films the same way “Die Hard” has. So, why is that, what makes “Die Hard” worthy to be ranked on just about every list of greatest Christmas classics? 
Obviously, from beginning to end the film is set on Christmas eve, and the characters are always making some kind of joking reference to the fact. There’s no shortage of quotable lines like “Christmas is the time for miracles”, “If this is your idea for Christmas, I’ve got to be here for New Year’s”, and a goon on the com references “Twas the Night Before Christmas”. My absolute favorite is when our hero leaves the body of a bad guy with a note saying “I have a machine gun now … Ho, Ho, Ho!” The film also knows how to keep Christmas decorations in plain sight throughout the film, including lit-up trees framed in doorways, decorative wrapping tape, and every desk or office room has some kind of decoration like a lit-up snowman, plastic Santa or mini-Christmas tree. One of my favorite little details is that near the end of the film, several office rooms are destroyed and as a result, lots of desk paper is falling from the building, which is meant to resemble snow fall. The film also makes great use of holiday tunes, including “Let it Snow”, a Christmas rap song, and there’s select action moments when popular Christmas tempos like “Jingle Bells” are woven into the action music. Michael Kamen composed the music, and while he supplies us with a riveting action score, I absolute love his composition of classical music, most especially his rendition of Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy”. Seriously, when that music kicks in, it’s officially a Christmas movie in my book.

     Actually, aside from all the decorations and music, there is a genuine “feel good” nature to the movie that really puts me in the holiday spirit. Like many Christmas classics, “Die Hard”, through its own simplicity is a redemption story. All three of our main leads (not including the villain) start in a grey area, and it’s through the experience that they discover the errors of their ways, and all emerge as better people by the end. I already touched on the films fun factor, but it also has just enough of a heart at the center too. John’s wife being a hostage gives the film some emotional stakes, as well as a great payoff with the two coming back together after rough marriage times. So that’s all good, but for me, the real soul of the movie comes in the form of another police officer named Sgt. Al Powell, who stays in communication with John on the outside through the majority of the situation. At first, they just relay information to one another, but over time, the Sargent becomes Johns emotional life-line that supports him through all the may-ham and injuries. Even though the two never meet face to face until the very end, I absolutely love how their friendship develops over the course of the situation. They even go so far as to share their personal failures, regrets and mistakes with one another, and likewise encourage each other to move forward. The final scene in which the two men finally meet is one of those genuinely heartwarming moments that just gets to me every time I watch this film. It’s really these elements of heart, combined with the films fun factor that make it one of the best feel-good action movies I’ve ever experienced. That’s the real magic, which beyond the decorations and soundtrack make this a Christmas movie in my eyes.  

     Now I hate to spoil certain events, but I still have to comment on my favorite scene of the movie, in which John rescues all the hostages from the rooftop before it explodes. This is about as perfect and thrilling as action sequences get. While John succeeds in getting the hostages off the roof, the FBI mistake him for a terrorist, and open fire on him. So now our hero is pinned down, and that bomb is about to go off. So, in one of the most death-defying stunts ever put to film, John ties a fire hose around is waist and leaps to safety just before the roof is blown sky high. It takes my breath away every time I watch it, and it’s arguably one of the favorite explosions I’ve seen in an action movie. At last, John has his final confrontation with Hans, and we get one of my favorite little 80’s action movie details that I really miss. Hans has a good chuckle before he aims to kill John … then our hero starts laughing too … then our villain tries to laugh harder … and then they both just laugh together before they make their finishing move. It’s a subtle charm that gives a lot of character to both hero and villain, and I really miss seeing things like that in my action movies. My only problem with the ending is during the epilogue, the villain Karl seemingly comes back to life in an effort to gun down our heroes, only to be shot by Sgt. Al Powell. I get that it’s supposed to complete the Sgt’s arc, but couldn’t we have done it with a villain that we didn’t see die already. I mean that guy was hung by the neck with a steel chain, left there for several minutes, and was still there when the roof blew up, so seeing him comeback even for a second just pushed the limits of plausibility for me.          

     Now without going into a full-on review, I want to lightly touch on the 1990 sequel “Die Hard 2”. This was an interesting case in which I actually saw the sequel before the first movie, and initially I liked it more then the original. 
That opinion has obviously changed over the years, as the first film is clearly superior, but I still have a great deal of fondness reserved for “Die Hard 2”, and I think it’s a better sequel then most people give it credit for. The action this time is set at an airport, which is a great location change, as it trades the high levels of the building with more spacious grounds to cover. This also allows more variety to the action, like a snow-mobile chase, and fights on the wings of an airplane. Once again, the movie is set on Christmas eve, making it another action holiday hybrid, even utilizing the same Christmas music. However, it’s all done without the same magic or even the heart of its predecessor. Truthfully, I would have liked this film more if it was set on New Years, which would have been a perfect follow-up to the closing statement of the first film. The one good thing here is that it’s set in a snowy environment, which gives the film a distinct winter atmosphere over the first film. In 1995, there was a third movie titled “Die Hard: With a Vengeance”, which broke out from the confined location of a single area, and didn’t take place around Christmas time. I don’t have as much to say about that one, but it was also perfectly passable. While more “Die Hard” sequels would emerge in the 2000’s with both positive and negative results, it’s these first three that are looked back on as the classic “Die Hard” trilogy, and all around one of the most successful action movie franchises.     

    In the end, I’m obviously aware that “Die Hard” is first and for most an action movie that can be watched during any season, but I just find myself enjoying it the most around Christmas time. It’s just an awesome offset from what I usually watch during the season, and it still somehow leaves me with the same warm feels like any classic Christmas special. I’m thankfully not the only one who thinks so, as just about every best Christmas movie list feature “Die Hard” ranked highly among all the other holiday classics. Also … this is a true story … once during my lunch break at work, a co-worker next to me asked, do you know any good Christmas movies, to which I simply responded with “Die Hard”, and everyone in the lunch room broke into applause. Even my manager, who was also on lunch pointed to me and said … “now that’s a guy who knows his Christmas movies”. In other words, call “Die Hard” a Christmas classic and you’ll be cheered on like a hero. Now, I truthfully can’t say that “Die Hard” is one of my absolute favorite movies, but it certainly has a special place among the rankings of both action and Christmas movies that I love to watch. If you haven’t seen this movie, and maybe feel your too familiar with the film’s formula already, I still highly recommend watching the action movie classic that started it all. It was a break out picture for its time, and still remains one of the best that the action genera has to offer.

I give “Die Hard” 4 ½ stars out of 5.      

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Top 10 Christmas Villains

Aw Christmas, the most peaceful, joyous, and loving time of year … what an ideal occasion to talk about villains. “Ha, Ha”. All joking aside, some of the most famous holiday characters are either evil do-ers trying to end the holiday, or grumpy misers who just don’t understand the meaning of the season. Weather they reform or just remain bad is all on the table, but my one condition is that I won’t be including any Christmas Horror movie villains … in other words, no “Krampus” or “Gremlins” here, although I was very tempted to include the ladder. With all that said, lets take a look at my favorite holiday characters who are most deserving of a lump of coal.

#10 King Winterbolt from “Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July

Rankin Bass’s holiday specials have featured some of the most famous animated Christmas villains ever, including The Abominable Snow Monster of the North, Burgermeister Meisterburger, Ben Haramed, Professor Hinkle, Winter Warlock, Kubla Kraus and of course The Miser Brothers … who both came very close to making my countdown. However, if I had to single-out one personal favorite for my countdown, it would have to be King Winterbolt without question. He’s an evil snow sorcerer who creates blizzards, snowstorms and is voiced by the late Paul Frees ... I’m sure he was casted just for the irony of his last name. Aside from his malevolent presence, he’s also got all the good stuff, or bad stuff, like snow dragons, a genie of the Ice Scepter, flying ice snakes, and a diabolical plot that’s got more layers then an onion. I think the writers may have enjoyed their vileness creation a little too much, because he gets more screen time, backstory and motivated plot then any other character in the film. Keep in mind, this is a special packed with iconic Christmas characters like Santa Clause, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red Noised Reindeer, and even Jack Frost … and yet it’s the villain who somehow steels the whole show.   

#9 Pitch from “Rise of the Guardians

I didn’t feel right including Oogie Boogie on this countdown, as I’ve always viewed him as a Halloween villain first, so here’s a different kind of Boogie Man to compensate. The villain Pitch is about as evil and creepy as holiday villains get. The design is really good, and voice actor Jude Law is terrific in the role. While the character himself admittedly feels like a jumble of other popular villains rolled into one, he certainly has just enough original marks to stand out. His encounters with our hero’s do lead to some exciting action scenes, and some stylishly dark imagery that you’d normally never see in a Christmas film. I certainly don’t think the movie ever went too dark or too scary, it’s at just the right level where it will excite kids, without ruining the fun holiday experience.

#8 The Mouse King from “The Nutcracker Prince” (1990)

The Nutcracker was a common Christmas tale read to me by my parents during the holiday season, and as such, the Mouse King always stood out to me as a memorable Christmas villain in his own right. My favorite portrayal of him was in the 1990 animated movie “The Nutcracker Prince”. His design was very Don Bluth-esk, and didn’t quiet resemble his book illustration … this version just has one head as opposed to several. Never the less, he was menacing, deadly, and this was the version of The Nutcracker I watched the most frequently as a kid. The highlight comes near the climax, in which the Mouse King is near death, yet still clinging to life in an effort to do-away with Clara. The animation on the Mouse King during this confrontation is the stuff of nightmares for little kids, which made him all the more memorable.  

#7 King Herod from “The Nativity Story

Of all the bad men to be associated with the holiday, King Herod is perhaps the most nefarious of all, as he aimed to kill Jesus Christ himself while just a baby in a manger. It’s CiarĂ¡n Hinds portrayal of Herod from the 2006 movie “The Nativity Story” that always comes to mind first when I think of him, and he gives the role his usual stamp of both menace and class. He was everything cruel, heartless, and the most dangerous villain to nearly end the holiday season itself from ever taking shape. 

#6 Evil Robot Santa from “Futurama

In this shows odd-ball setting of the future, Christmas is a time when families and friends are brought together, not through peace or love, but because there’s a crazy, laser gun shooting robot Santa who’s determined that everyone’s holiday is a real “BLAST”. However, the boy from the past named Fry is feeling nostalgia for the original spirit of Christmas and is determined to go out and get his girlfriend Leela a present … even if that means battling an evil robot Santa in the process. It’s a hilarious concept with no shortage of funny quirks, like how a mistletoe is no match for robot Santa’s toe-missile. John Goodman is fantastic as the evil Santa robot, and it’s pretty surreal hearing him as the voice of a villain, as opposed to all the nicer cartoon characters he usually voices

#5 Scut Farkus from “A Christmas Story

Enter a generic, a yellow eyed, school bully, who despite his basic character status … somehow leaves a memorable impression, and just owns every scene he’s in. Yeah, he’s as one-note a bully character as they get, and yet he’s a strong addition to the film. He’s all for show, and has no real guts of his own, but man does he love spotlighting himself as the ultimate tough guy on the block. One little detail that always stuck out is that Scut Farkus sinister theme music is lifted right from Disney’s “Peter and the Wolf” cartoon. Seriously, watch that short and tell me it’s not the wolfs exact music score, and heck, even Scut Farkus’s introduction scene mirrors how the wolf was introduced in that short.

#4 Forte from “Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas

Voiced by the distinguished Tim Curry ... need to say any more than that? I mean … it’s Tim Curry as an over the top cartoon villain, and he livens up everything. You could have the most passive, one dimensional character in the world, and he’ll still make the performance a lot of fun to watch. I especially love the design of this guy, as he’s basically a giant pipe organ with a scary face. The animation on the character is great, and while he’s obviously CGI in a 2D setting, the effects are still cutting edge for the time. In fact, he just looks like something that should be CGI, and it’s also cool to have a villain that’s just towering over our heroes. While the motivations are by the numbers, and really don’t make any logical sense, he still has an engaging presence, and steels every scene. It really is Tim Curry who redeems this otherwise shallow character, just by acting so deliciously over the top.

#3 Hans Gruber from “Die Hard

I’ve always viewed Alan Rickman as one of the most charismatic villain actors to ever live, and this is the performance that stands in the Hollywood hall of fame as one of the absolute greatest. He’s suave, charming, laid back, yet extremely ruthless and unsympathetic. He’s also a villain who’s self-aware, as he knows he’s just a common robber, but wants to be viewed as someone of class and high stature. So, he puts on a show, dresses up, is well versed and postures like he’s a brilliant mastermind with greater ambitions then the situation would suggest. The back and forth between he and John McClain is one of the greatest hero/ villain relationships I’ve ever seen. The two don’t even meet face to face until the very end, and the majority of their conflict is conveyed through conversation on walkie talkie’s, yet it’s still extremely engaging. Just watching these two one up each other with their own distinct mannerisms and witty comebacks is highly entertaining, as well as brilliant film-making.

#2 Scrooge from “A Christmas Carol

No matter which version you go by, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the most enduring and downright heartwarming redemption tails of all time. This grumpy old miser just couldn’t get into the spirit of the holiday and made sure that everyone was just as miserable as her was. Through some serious soul searching from his past, present and future he was finally able to let the warmth of the holiday touch his soul, and everyone turned out better for it. It’s such a timeless tail, with a rich message and he remains both a famous literary character and one of the all-time greatest Christmas villains. He could have easily been number one, but … of course there’s one other I haven’t mentioned yet

Before I reveal my #1 favorite, here are some Honorable Mentions … 

Mr. Potter from "It's a Wonderful Life

Harry and Marv from "Home Alone

The Miser Brothers from "The Year Without Santa Claus

Toy Santa from "Santa Clause 2

Granville Sawyer from "Miracle on 34th Street"

#1. The Grinch from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas

He was as cuddly as a cactus, as charming as an eel, and the biggest monster that would stop at nothing to ruin everyone’s favorite holiday, just for the sake of being nasty. Of course, he reaches an epiphany in the end and realizes just how wrong he was in judging the holiday and those who celebrate it. Seeing this miserable creature open up to the light of Christmas is simply one of the warmest feel good moments I’ve ever seen any character go through. Just like Scrooge, the Grinch has had his share of film portrayals, and for the sake of this countdown, things don’t get any better than the original classic voiced by the Frankenstein monster himself Boris Karloff. Although, I do still admittedly have some fondness for Jim Carry in the role. Either way, he’s one of the all-time greatest holiday characters, and absolutely my favorite Christmas villain.    

The End

Saturday, December 17, 2011

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) (Movie Review)

     Today’s review begins with the origin of the “National Lampoon” magazines”. National Lampoon was an American hummer magazine sensation that started back in the 1970’s, with each containing several different running comedy sketches (like the Sunday newspaper comics) and would often be advertised with absurd taglines like “If you don’t read this magazine, we’ll kill this dog”. So, there was obviously a lot of dark comedy involved. This magazine was so popular, and successful that it spawned various spin-offs ranging from radio shows, too live theater productions, and several different film adaptions’ over the years including “National Lampoons Animal House”, “National Lampoons Van Wilder” and “National Lampoons Gold Digger”. My absolute favorite by far is the 1983 comedy masterpiece “National Lampoons Vacation”. This road trip comedy starring Chevy Chase was simply comedic gold, and personally one of my all-time favorite comedies. To this day it’s still regarded as one of the greatest that the genera has to offer, and with a hit film of this magnitude, sequels were unavoidable. Following the film’s success were three direct sequels, two spin-off sequels, and a reboot film. These sequels ranged from mediocre, to just plain laugh-free, and didn’t even come close to capturing either the charm or hummer of the first. That is however with the exception of the third installment, which may not have surpassed the original, but escaped it’s long shadow and is regarded as a comedy classic in its own right. 1989’s “National Lampoons Christmas Vacation” really is one of those rare sequels that can stand on its own, and doesn’t even require viewing the first film to enjoy it.

     The first ingredient for this film’s success was breaking away from the set formula of the series, and keeping the family at home instead of another road trip. Plus, making it Christmas themed was another key ingredient that helped give the movie its own identity separate from the first. Based on his short story in National Lampoon Magazine titled “Christmas ’59”, this film goes for both laughs, and genuine holiday charms. Once again, we focus on the Griswold family, with Chevy Chase reprising his iconic role as Clark Griswold, and Beverly D’ Angelo returning for a third time as the wife Ellen Griswold. As usual, Clark wants to treat his family to the best holiday vacation possible, but what he didn’t count on was all the rest of the family coming over to share the holiday. With the house getting more overstuffed with grandparents, relatives and the especially dopy cousin Eddie, things get out of control, and it’s one hilarious disaster after another. Can Clark keep his cool or will the stress finally break him down? The kids Rusty and Audrey are back and played by different actors as usual, but this time they’re ages are switched. In every other film, the brother Rusty is the oldest but in this movie it’s the sister Audrey who’s the oldest. That never made any sense to me, but I do have some fondness for the two child actors, as they both went on to other noteworthy films and TV projects.

      Chevy Chase is just as charismatic and funny as ever, and it’s probably one of his most unforgettable performances. Truthfully, I always looked at “National Lampoons Christmas Vacation” as his last great comedy, as his rain as comedic titan quietly died in the 90’s. Still, this was a great cap to his 80’s winning streak. He’s such a filthy jerk who can stoop as low as too flirt with other women, and he loses his temper with everyone around him, yet at the same time he’s such a likable father character who wants nothing more than to treat his family to a great holiday celebration. It takes talent to make a character of this nature flow through the different emotions and personalities, which is why this remains such a shining performance in Chevy Chase’s career. Next to our charismatic lead, it’s this visiting family that’s at the center of all the films comedy, and their all memorable in their own quirky ways. We have two groups of arguing grandparents, a lovable niece named Ruby Sue, the delightfully absent-minded Aunt Bethany, the enjoyably grouchy Uncle Lewis, and best of all is the goofy Cousin Eddie, played again by the one and only Randy Quaid. Eddie has a metal plate in his head, and while he goes around smiling and having fun, he’s completely oblivious to how annoying he is to everyone else. He’s such a lovable dufus, short on brains, but has a big heart, and it makes him an innocent buffoon. My favorite Cousin Eddie moment is when he empties his toilet full of crap from his RV into a sewer full of gas, he then casually looks over at a neighbor and says “Merry Christmas, my shitter was full”. That cracks me up every time, and its sense become a classic holiday line.

      Now sense this is the only Vacation film to take place at home, we never hear the classic “Holiday Road” theme song from the other movies. In its place is a terrific new “Christmas Vacation” theme song, which always puts me in the proper mood for the season. The opening credits set to this song are also paired with a fun little animated sequence of Santa trying desperately to drop off presents at their home, but we see the Griswold curse can even have an effect on the Claus himself, as he just can’t get a break and stumbles into one goofy blunder after another. 

Another musical highlight is a daydream sequence in which Clark imagines his Christmas bones going to the construction of a swimming pool in his back yard. The scene is set to Bing Crosby’s “Maliki Liki Maka”, and features Clark’s secret dream girl sneaking into his subconscious. While the girls bathing-suit strip scene is censured for PG-13 viewings, this is still a highlight and leads to a very funny payoff. I especially love this short little montage of downtown Chicago mixed to the song “Hey Santa Clause”, as we see bands in the street, people shopping, decorations and the editing paired with the cinematography is fantastic. There are also several running jokes throughout the film, with my favorite centering around this grouchy married couple living next door. They’re the worst neighbors you could possibly have, and their so much fun to hate as a result. Every time something bad happens to them, due to an accident form the Griswold home, you cheer about it! 

    I’ll admit that some of the jokes get old and repetitive ... particularly Clarks ongoing efforts to get 25’000 Christmas lights strung up to the house. There’s also a needlessly long scene on the highway in which Clark gets into a scuffle with a lumber truck, and some jerks on the road. Thankfully for every joke that doesn’t work, there’s at least 30 others that hit bulls-eyes. I love this one scene with Clark ridding an out of control sled that’s moving too fast for its own good. 

Then there’s this fun little sequence in which Clark gets himself locked in his own attic, which offers a terrific layout of select little events. The scene starts with loads of goofy slapstick, then as the scene continues, he discovers old family Christmas videos of him when he was a child. His home videos are amusingly branded as Christmas ’59”, which was the name of the magazine short this movie was based on. The whole scene is matched to the song “That Spirit of Christmas”, and as you watch him view his old videos, it becomes a genuinely touching little scene. That’s really the beauty of this film, as it certainly has all those classic slap stick jokes involving people tripping and falling, but it also gives us more. Unlike most other goofy holiday comedies, this film is very detailed with little things you don’t often think about but always recognize, and they add a layer of charm to the film. There’s the father reading “Twas the Night before Christmas” to the family on Christmas eve, the grandparents sleeping on the sofa, and people just mindlessly watching other classic holiday movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Speaking of which, there's a funny little call back to It’s a Wonderful Life” when Clark "fixes" a broken post on a stair set. There are some other relatively subtle scenes that also add a lot of charm to the experience. I like seeing Clark have a sweet little conversation with his adorable niece, and there’s also a very nice bounding scene between Clark and his father, which is nothing too preachy, just simple and touching. It’s really these little details that go a long way, and really make this feel like a genuine holiday special. Another little touch that I really love is how the movie makes transitions with a calendar that’s built into a little playhouse, and every time we start a new day with the Griswold’s, we cut to this calendar house to see just what day of the month it is.      

     The absolute highlight of the film is when we get to the third and final act, which is set entirely on Christmas eve. For lack of better words, this is when all Hell breaks loose for the family, and all of the movies funniest sequences fall side by side, one right after the other, and truthfully, this is one of my favorite comedy climaxes I’ve ever seen. It all starts slow and simple at first, with a poorly cooked meal, and sick pets. Then things gradually begin to escalate, as a cat gets loose and starts spending it’s nine lives. The Christmas tree is set to flames, a squirrel goes running throughout the house with the dog chasing him, cousin Eddie kidnaps Clarks cruel boss, a SWAT team is laying siege outside, Clark goes completely nuts delivering the greatest breakdown monologue in the history of cinema, and it’s all happening in one night! I mean sweet spirit of Christmas … can this get any more entertaining?! All the holiday hi-jinks of this finale are also balanced out with more subtle moments, which last just long enough for the audience to catch their breath before the next big laugh. 

    Overall, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” still remains to this day one of my absolute favorite movies to watch around the holiday season. Personally, I think it’s the absolute best Christmas comedy, and one that continues to make me laugh to this day. 

I’ll admit that it has a lot of slow moments in the first act, but once the film gets into its groove, it really finds a place among the best of the series. Even if it’s not quite as good as the original “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, it still has its own appeal, and has two functional legs to stand on its own apart from the first movie. In fact, this film even has its own separate sequel titled “Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddies Island Adventure”, and isn’t that interesting ... a third movie sequel gets its own second installment. “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” is even a contender in our pop-culture with the first film, as people still quote lines, dress as the characters, and reenact favorite scenes. Even though this movie doesn’t contain the same touching qualities of other Yuletide classics, it’s still risen above its initial cult following, and has earned the right to be labeled one of the great classic Christmas movies for the modern age.  It’s funny, detailed and captures every wholesome little Christmas moment you could experience with a family during the holiday season. It’s a good one to watch while wrapping up Christmas presents, and it deserves to be seen once a year around this time.

I give “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” ... 4 ½ stars out of 5. 

Have a Merry Christmas Vacation Everyone!