The 50+ Films of Christmas (Part 4)

The 50+ Films of Christmas

Follow me as I watch 50+ of the best (and worst) holiday films! I will blog mini-reviews as I go and then rank them when I’m done watching them all.

4.5 Christmas with the Kranks

Christmas with the Kranks

Tim Allen was on a posivite run with holiday classics with “The Santa Clause” series, so Hollywood decided to try to cast him in a movie that was a cross between “Christmas Vacation” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” This time, the Clark Griswold archetype wants to take a vacation that *isn’t* Christmas.

Truly, if you decide to skip Christmas this year, there will be repercussions. Your family will assume you’re being cheap, and your friends simply won’t understand. Unless you are someone who does not observe the holiday for religious reasons, people will shake their heads at you for making such a bold choice. BUT the world in which this movie takes place is a veritable Whoville where Christmas turns the observant into caricatures straight out of The Twilight Zone. They creep in on The Kranks like a zombie horde and demand Frosty is put on the roof where he belongs!

It’s the first two thirds of this film that doesn’t work, because I think most of us side with Tim Allen’s character and see Jamie Lee Curtis’s character as someone who really needs the gift of a break from the holiday. Dan Aykroyd, Cheech Marin, Jake Busey, M. Emmet Walsh, and the rest of the neighbors seem like unsympathetic characters, In the end, we’re supposed to believe that Allen was motivated by self-interest, but it really seems like everyone else was being selfish and wasn’t listening to his needs.

The last third is better. After a total boycott of the holiday, they receive word that their daughter is coming home after all, and they scramble to create the Christmas they had spent the rest of the film avoiding. There are some sweet moments here and there, and it’s always fun to watch Tim Allen do slapstick.

Overall, this is an uneven film with a shoe-horned message. The premise could have worked if the reactions were a bit more believable, but if you’ve already seen all of the films this one is trying to be, then you could give it a go. Just don’t judge The Kranks too harshly. It’s Christmas.

4.5/10

5 How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2002)

Some movies are made for children and are basically not watchable by adults. While the Chuck Jones may be a bit dry for a modern audience brought up on television geared for the ADD generation, Ron Howard’s interpretation is a fever dream of SpongeBob laughing incessantly and quick cuts of grown ups making peek a boo faces at babies.

The problem for me is that I don’t like the way Whoville celebrates Christmas. It’s crass and commercial and celebrates maxing out enough credit cards to put you in debt forever. I get that this is the point of the movie. The Grinch steals the material goods, and the Whovians still manage to find the Christmas spirit. So in a way, The Grinch is the hero, but I can’t relate to him at all in this movie. The film has basically turned the famous green grump into a raving homeless person that barks at the moon. He’s mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, beyond the point where I can believe he’ll be alright when the movie fades to black.

I guess we’re supposed to view the situation through the eyes of Cindy Lou Who. She is, after all, the only one that sees the holiday and the Grinch for what they truly are. This is a film for children, after all, so it makes sense that the window would be a child.

There are some positives from a mature film viewer’s perspective. The make-up and special effects are excellent, and there are some inventive approaches that are totally Dr. Seussical (ie the Christmas light machine gun).

Overall this movie is a miss, and that’s a shame. Jim Carrey’s abilities far outreach what he’s asked to do here. If both he and the movie were reeled in a bit, this could have been a much stronger experience.

5/10

7 Fred Claus

Fred Claus

“Sometimes I feel like my brother is Santa.” The words of Frank Stallone, who has to fight both Rocky and Rambo in order to get out of his brother’s shadow. He is consoled by both Roger Clinton and Stephen Baldwin, the latter whom has to remind himself that the newcomer to the Siblings Anonymous group is “not Alec.”

When you’re brother is a saint – and especially when he’s Saint Nicholas – you have a lot of catching up to do if you don’t want to be labeled the “naughty” son. Fred (Vince Vaughn) grew up with his mother (Kathy Bates) constantly comparing him to Nicholas (Paul Giamati), and while he promised he would be the best big brother in the world, he’s come to realize that he’d better start looking out for himself.

So Fred grows up to become a fast talking hustler that repossess your Christmas gifts when you miss someone misses a payment. He reasons with the neighborhood kid that Santa’s a spotlight hog, and he gets himself arrested for getting into a brawl with the Salvation Army bell ringers. For Fred, the blessing of eternal youth his brother earned the family is a curse to scrape and struggle forever.

Meanwhile, the elves and their workshop are under the scrutiny of an efficiency inspector (Kevin Spacey) that’s already shut down the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Santa, who has just agreed to give Fred a temporary job, is on a three strikes warning.

From here, the story is pretty much what you would expect. There are some fun moments here and there,Ludacris as a deejay elf that keeps playing the same song over and over (a situation anyone in retail is sure to relate to), a brooding love brimming between a three foot elf (John Michael Higgins) and a normal sized “helper” (Elizabeth Banks), and a family intervention where Fred’s girlfriend (Rachel Weisz) finds herself in the middle of family drama in Santa’s village.

Let me get to the point. This movie seems like the kind that works better on paper than it does in practice, and that would certainly be the case had the cast and direction not been properly aligned. David Dobkin, who had previously directed Vaughn in “Wedding Crashers,” handled this one the right way. He must have had the confidence that if he let Vaughn chatter and let the competent actors around him (mostly Oscar winners) play things straight, he’d have some good stuff that could appeal to both children and adults.

It must be a Christmas miracle, because Fred Claus gets the job done, both literally and figuratively.

7/10

8.5 Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

George Seaton and his team pull off a hat trick with this one.

Imagine for a moment that I have come to pitch a film to you. I tell you it follows employees at Macy’s. Then I say it will explore mental health issues. Finally, I explain that it will also be a courtroom drama. Oh, and it’s about Santa Claus and the miracle of Christmas. You’d probably think I was nuts, right? Well, “Miracle on 34th Street” is that movie, and it’s wonderful.

Doris (Maureen O’Hara) is a single mother. She’s also in charge of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and runs the toy department at the biggest store in New York. She’s a liberated woman that doesn’t have time for fairy tales, and she’s brought up her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) the same way.

Fred (John Payne) is a bachelor that has taken an interest in Susan in order to get her mother’s attention. He’s also a well-respected attorney. He doesn’t see the harm in a bit of imagination, and in fact, he’s trying to help both Susan and Doris to exercise a bit of fantasy.

Along comes Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), Macy’s new Santa Claus. Only, he thinks he’s the real Santa, and maybe, just maybe. . . nah! Kris is a gentle old man that makes it his duty in life to make people believe in miracles, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s pulled off a few already. By telling mothers where they can get their gifts at Gimble’s, a rival department store, Kris has ushered in a whole new philosophy in retail. Both Macy’s and Gimble’s suddenly decide that *they* want to be the store that cares about its customers.

Things are going along just fine until Kris runs up against the store psychiatrist and finds himself committed to Bellevue. And that is what sets off the court case where Fred must convince the judge (Gene Lockhart) – and his political adviser (William Frawley) – that Kris actually is who he says he is, the real Santa Claus.

This is truly a Christmas classic and should be in your stocking every year.

9/10

9 A Charlie Brown Christmas

A Charlie Brown Christmas

This is one that is better than I remembered. The shortest movie on the list, it is a rare gem that has become both iconic and beloved.

This year is the 60th Birthday of The Peanuts, and next Christmas will be the 50th for this television special. As a kid, I recall thinking this movie was brand new, and that’s part of why it works so well. It still feels fresh even though Violet and Shermy are characters that lost panels to the old block head long ago, and Patty lived through the sixties and became a hippy. This is from a time before Woodstock, both the festival and the bird.

There is no real story to speak of here, other than Charlie Brown is tired of commercialism in Christmas and has forgotten the true meaning of the holiday. The plot unravels like a tableau of morning editions from the funny pages, and honestly, that’s why this movie is so charming. This was the first time Charles “Sparky” Schwartz was able to bring to life the Psychiatrist booth and doghouse that readers had grown to love over a decade of strips. This film is funny and random, but it still manages to bring peace and value.

Charlie Brown’s tree may not look like much, but it is the bare bones of the holiday spirit.

9/10

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