Nothing Like the Holidays (2009)

Movie – I would like to start by confessing: I have never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle of 34th Street, or White Christmas. I know many are wondering how this is possible. Sure I’ve caught bits a pieces here and there throughout my life, but I have never sat down to watch any of these three Christmas movies. That being said, I still feel there are great holiday movies other than these three classics. Some of my more recent holiday classic staples include: Elf, Love Actually, The Family Stone, and Nothing Like the Holidays. The first three are more known than the latter.

Nothing Like the Holidays is set in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood and tells the story of a normal dysfunctional family going through tough times all around. There are the parents, Anna and Edy who seem to be drifting apart; one son, Jesse who just finished a tour of military service and does not want to take over the family business; a daughter, Roxanna scared to tell her family she is not a Hollywood star; and a another son, Mauricio who is having marital issues. All of them are coming together for the holidays and bringing their problems with them to share.

As I mentioned before, the movie was filmed in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. It does a good job of showcasing some of the neighborhood and some of Chicago’s landmarks. The story is a little cheesy and at times tries too hard to convey emotion. It does a good job of keeping you entertained with the supporting characters and small family issues like the removing of a tree after drinking. Don’t try using power tools while intoxicated kids! Nothing Like the Holidays is a great movie for those looking to change up their holiday movie experience and see another side of Christmas in Chicago.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Series 1 (2013)

TV Series – The Honorable Miss Fisher is the James Bond of lady private investigators—she’s got the fancy car, the sumptuous home, the gorgeous wardrobe, and the slick pearl-handled pistol.  Based on a series by author Kerry Greenwood and set in 1920s in Melbourne, Australia, this series features lush flapper-era costumes, gorgeous period sets, and intriguing historical details.  Stories in this series cover the gamut of Australian society and straddle social classes, dealing with such disparate topics as clandestine back-alley abortion providers and high-society charity functions.

Despite the historical setting, however, Phryne feels very much like a modern character.  She is the head of her own odd household which includes her butler (named, appropriately, Mr. Butler), her companion Dot, surrogate daughter Jane, and various other lovers and lost souls she collects. Fans of series like Bones and X-Files will appreciate the romantic chemistry between Phryne and Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, a dashing and sardonic policeman with whom she often collaborates.  Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries will especially appeal to fans of the wide variety of BBC detective shows, such as Inspector Morse and Murdoch Mysteries.  We also own series 2 and 3 of this one, as well as the novels the series is based on, so feel free to make an afternoon of it!

Unfinished Business (2015)

Movie – The best way to describe Unfinished Business is as a raunchy comedy with family life lessons. Vaughn is a businessman that has just quit his job and ventured out to start his own business to rival his old company. The only way to do that is by landing a big client and beating out his former company.

Throughout the adventure he is joined by the fresh out of water Mike Pancake (Dave Franco) and an old school businessman Timothy McWinters (Tom Wilkinson). Both characters, along with other well-known actors (mainly Nick Frost), lend some laughs and make the movie enjoyable. There is family drama back at home Vaughn is dealing with in his character’s way, which gives the movie that family life lesson feel. This is intermixed with some over the top raunchy comedic scenes not suitable for all ages.

I feel I was taken in two very different directions. On the one hand I found the raunchiness funny. Franco and Wilkinson characters were well played and made the movie funny. But then the family drama put the lead character into perspective and displays him as a family man trying to provide for his family by any means needed. This movie is not for everyone. Fans of Vaughn from Swingers and Made will not enjoy this. However someone looking for those “guy humor” laughs mixed with a warm your heart feeling may want to see this.

Interstellar (2014)

Movie – Heavy in physics, theoretical and practical, Interstellar is slow moving, with lulls that may drive some viewers away. It is just shy of three hours making some of the scenes long and hard to bear. Interstellar, however, does a good job at keeping viewers interested through an absorbing story, enveloping screen shots, wonderfully original score, and of course, sarcastic robots.
The story is one of plight and extinction. If Coop (McConaughey), cannot find an alternate planet for the remaining population of Earth everything will end. Food is scare and crops consist of corn, nothing else. I don’t think I could eat only corn for the rest of my life. Even then, the corn will soon die out too. The only way to survive is to travel through a wormhole to find an alternate earth-like planet.
A little wonky on what happens when you enter a black hole; die hard physicists may not like this part. But since no one has ever been inside a black hole, I feel Nolan can do as he likes. I enjoyed McConaughey, as well as the small part Matt Damon had, and loved the robots. This one is for fans of slow moving engrossing storylines, deep space travel, and unbreakable bounds. Those who are looking for alien life and futuristic worlds will have to look elsewhere.

Children of the Corn (1984)

Movie – When I think of horror movies, I picture monsters, deformed killers out for revenge (Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers…), and those awful moments where you know somebody’s going to jump and freak the living daylights out of you.  Of course, there’s the occasional demonic force taking over a doll, a child, or a loving mother too.  Yet I feel the film Children of the Corn is in a category all its own.

A nice young couple finds themselves lost and stranded in a rural, seemingly abandoned town.  But then they hit a child with their car, who they appear to have killed.  Of course.  However, as it happens they are not responsible for his death. And as it goes in horror films, they find it necessary to load the body in their car and find the nearest policeman to explain what happened.  (This is reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, where picking up a terrified suicidal stranger ends up backfiring big time).  The couple soon discovers that they are being hunted by the only residents of the town–children.  As they uncover the mystery of what happened to all the adults, the couple must fight to survive the worst road trip of their lives.  Creepy and filled with evil children, this cult classic is one everyone should watch at least once.

Watching this film as a child, my eldest brother assured me I wouldn’t be scared because instead of monsters, the villains of this film are children.  Because I was also a child, there was nothing to fear.  Luckily, it was actually the vast fields of corn where the children hunted their prey that really freaked me out.  I shivered in fear at the thought of being lost in an endless maze of tall corn stalks, with no hope of escape.

If you want a good scare this Halloween without the special effects and CGI monsters, check out this film, and be forever terrified of corn mazes, and possibly children.

House of Cards, Season 1 (2013)

House-of-Cards-Poster1TV Series – Francis J. Underwood, or Frank, has done all he can to ensure that Garrett Walker will be the 45th President of the United States. In return for doing his part, Frank only asks for what he deserves: to be made Secretary of State. Things take a startling turn when those in power whom Frank believed he could persuade, manipulate and control decide to give his position to someone else.

Frank is not content treated so poorly, nor is he willing to remain House Majority Whip forever. Instead, with his wife, Claire, he begins to plot a fitting revenge. A scheme worthy of Shakespearean play and, in many ways, quite similar.

To achieve their own joint (and personal) goals, they will use the President, the Vice President, the Chief of Staff, the Chief of Police, Senators, Representatives, Governors, Ambassadors, billionaires, photographers and reporters as pawns. All the while both of them know they can’t really rely on or confide in those around them.

And if they can’t trust anyone, can they even trust each other?

The acting throughout is consistently excellent. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright do a brilliant job of playing the lead characters. Superbly written and darkly entertaining, House of Cards Season 1 (as well as Season 2 and Season 3) is well worth a watch. Or, in my case, a very frequent re-watch.

Penny Dreadful (2014)

Penny DreadfulTV Series – Sir Malcolm Murray’s daughter Mina has disappeared, probably in connection with whatever terrible thing killed her husband Jonathan Harker. He and his daughter’s best friend, Miss Vanessa Ives, are collecting a team of people to help them bring her home, including Sembene, Malcom’s African servant; Ethan Chandler, an American gunslinger; and Dr. Viktor Frankenstein, an anatomist who’s desperate enough for money he’s willing to ask no questions. But everyone has their own secrets to keep, and the monster hiding Mina is more dangerous than they supposed.

Penny Dreadful is a terrific mash-up of Victorian horror – the old stories, not the Universal monster movies based on them. It’s not for everyone; airing originally on Showtime, there are lots of opportunities for blood, violence, nudity, and swarms of spiders. But for a horror fan, this is a wonderful treat: cleverly written, complex, and fascinating. Vanessa Ives is the role Eva Green has been waiting to play, and she does it to perfection.

Inequality for All (2013)

inequalityMovie –This is the award winning 2013 documentary about the widening income gap and its devastating impact on the American economy.  It features Robert Reich, an American political economist, professor, author, and political commentator.  Time magazine named him one of the Ten Best Cabinet Members of the Century, and the Wall Street Journal placed him sixth on its list of the “Most Influential Business Thinkers.”  Inequality for All is both an interesting history of the life of Rhodes Scholar Robert Reich, and a penetrating explanation of the erosion of the middle class in America.  The film is an intimate portrait of a man whose lifelong goal remains protecting those who are unable to protect themselves. It describes the historical events that have led to massive consolidation of wealth by a precious few and why this threatens the viability of the American workforce and the foundation of democracy itself. Dr. Reich is funny, engaging, critical, realistic, and humane in his moral message about the current crisis of the U.S. income gap and the growth of poverty in the United States. Reich has published 14 books, including Reason, Supercapitalism, and the best selling Beyond Outrage. The film is well researched and valid and throws a very bright light on why ordinary people can barely make ends meet. Reich is currently Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

The Hundred Foot Journey (2014)

The_Hundred_Foot_Journey_(film)_posterMovie – The Hundred Foot Journey is a wonderful movie about rivalry, family, love and self-discovery. In the midst of political unrest, the Kadam family’s restaurant is set on fire resulting in the death of their matriarch and chef and loss of their family business. The father and his children flee India for Europe and by chance they settle in a small village in France. The oldest son Hassan learned much about cooking from his mother, so the family decides to open a restaurant. It is located directly across the street from an exclusive haute cuisine restaurant owned by Madame Mallory, who is obsessed with earning another Michelin star for fine dining. As you can imagine, Madame is none too pleased with her new neighbors’ eatery complete with a garish Taj Mahal facade and blasting Bollywood music. To further complicate things there is a growing romance between Kadam and Madame’s sous chef, Marguerite.  Totally delightful and guaranteed to stimulate your culinary senses.  We also have the book by Richard C. Morais, The Hundred Foot Journey, that the move is based on.

Groundhog Day (1993)

groundhogMovie – After last year’s extended winter freeze I’m skeptical that the famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, will have mercy and cast no shadow on February 2nd. Regardless of prognostications I can make the most of inclement weather by enjoying an old favorite, Groundhog Day, which was filmed not so far away in Woodstock, Illinois.

Woodstock annually celebrates the holiday and their brush with movie-making fame. Past festivities have included the director/writer Harold Ramis as well as other cast and crew. (Ramis is featured in And here’s the kicker : conversations with 21 top humor writers on their craft by Mike Sacks. Punxsutawney Pennsylvania celebrations, which the film depicts, have also garnered participation from the film’s celebrities and boast crowds of 20,000+.

This film about a self-centered news announcer stranded in small-town limbo appears to be an ordinary comedy, filled with Ramis and Murray’s witty brand of humor; but like other classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life, it contains deeper themes that resonate with many people. For example, the importance of community and connecting with others, especially during bleak days, appears in both classics. How one uses the time one is given is also a shared theme. So is the idea of receiving a second chance to learn life lessons.This film resonates with so many filmgoers that it has made numerous top movie lists and was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress. Despite the weather outside being dreadful, this film has inspired folks around Woodstock to emerge from their homes and celebrate.