The 50+ Films of Christmas (Part 5)

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.

6.5 Black Nativity

Black Nativity

I almost didn’t watch this one. The title makes it sound like a lame Saturday Night Live sketch. But then I took a peek at the cast – Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Nas, Mary J. Blige, and Tyrese Gibson – and I realized I was probably missing something.

A contemporary adaptation of Langston Hughes’s play, this story follows a streetwise Baltimore kid named after the famed poet. His single mother has had a rough time, and because of an impending eviction, Langston is sent to live with his estranged grandparents. Trapped between wanting to help his mother at any cost (even criminal) and wanting to learn about these mysterious grandparents, the reverend and his wife, Langston goes on a dark journey toward discovery.

And speaking of discovery, Jacob Latimore gave a performance here that is good enough to qualify as star-making.

This is an inspirational musical that isn’t afraid to give a faith-based name to redemption. It celebrates the Harlem roots of the original production. But it is powerful enough to transcend religion and ethnicity.

6.5/10

8.5 Disney's A Christmas Carol

Disney’s A Christmas Carol

I love this story. It is the most repeated Christmas tale, rivaling even the nativity, and there’s good reason for it. It is a ghost story, it is a tale of redemption where the before and after are clear and where the transformation is believable, and it makes you feel good in the end, even if you’re a Scrooge yourself.

This version is at once extremely faithful to the material and also inventively visual in the telling. The key here is Robert Zemeckis and his cast. Zemeckis, of course, is the genius behind “Back to the Future” (along with Bob Gale), “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” “Castaway,” and a bunch of other classics. And despite all the credit James Cameron and “Avatar” got, Zemeckis is also responsible for the modernization of 3D with the help of two other animated films, “Monster House” and his other holiday classic, “Polar Express.” Zemeckis adapted the script, pulling dialogue and narration directly from the Charles Dickens story, and he decided that all of his invention would not stray from the original story. On the contrary, every marvel in this film is merely taking the beats of Scrooge’s incredible journey to the absolute hilt.

The cast is led by Jim Carrey, who plays Ebenezer and all three ghosts. This performance goes beyond merely recording dialogue. Carrey is fully motion-captured and no matter how much the animators have changed his appearance for the various roles, what is on the screen is pure Jim Carrey. It’s in his mouth, his eyes, his mannerisms. Carrey absolutely shows how great of an actor he is capable of being. This without taking away the aspects of Jim that we’ve grown to love. He gets silly (especially as the Spirit of Christmas Past but also in some slapstick moments with Scrooge), and he does an enormous amount of character work, drawing fully three-dimensional beings that will stick with you long after the movie is over.

There have been a lot of versions of “A Christmas Carol.” It’s been Mickey Moused and Fred Flintstoned and Muppeted. Scrooge has been portrayed by Patrick Stewart, George C. Scott, Alastair Sim, and countless others. I truly appreciate any good telling of the story, but as far as faithful versions go, this is my favorite.

8.5/10

7 Nativity 2 - Danger in the Manger

Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger!

Dr. Who fans know David Tennant as The Tenth Doctor (or the eleventh, depending on the what theory you prescribe to evidently). In this movie, he plays identical twins Donald and Roderick Patterson. The former is a primary school teacher, and the latter is a world renowned composer. They don’t really get on these days.

Donald has been given the task of taking over a class that has been handled/mishandled by a classroom aid that only has the job because his aunt is head teacher. Mr. Poppy (Marc Wooton, “Frequently Asked Questions about Time Travel,” “Arthur Christmas”) is a man-child that runs the class the way Ralf Wiggum might. Instead of Maths or Literacy, Poppy has the kids auditioning “American Idol” style for a chance to sing in the Song for Christmas competition.

Patterson is a reluctant aid in preparations for the performance and has to be kidnapped for the wacky trip to Wales, where he faces off against his brother, another stuffy teacher (Gordon Shakespeare, played by Jason Watkins, “Tomorrow Never Dies,” “The Golden Compass”), and his own lack of faith.

As the children come across a donkey, follow a star, and find the manger, you will either shrug your shoulders and say it’s all madness or go along for the mad-cap ride. For me, the children are the film, and the adults are merely there to move the plot along and give us an entry point. This is a film where the grown up actors play off of the children, and if that doesn’t sound like something you’d be into, skip it. But if you love kids, you’ll probably be able to get into things, just like Mr. Patterson.

The only real quibble I have with this movie is the music. The vocals are tinny and hiss and don’t sound like they were recorded professionally, and while the music is very good, the lyrics are a bit lacking. If they had gotten a better songwriter and a better engineering staff, this Christmas musical would have been something we could sing along to.

Overall, this is a surprisingly good movie with enough laughs and adorable moments to be well worth your time. Unless you hate children.

7/10

7.5 Fanny and Alexander

Fanny and Alexander

Perhaps this is all a dream? Perhaps it is theater? Maybe we’re all just puppets? When Christmas is childhood, what does it mean to those who are approaching the end?

This is Christmas film is by far the most decorated by The Academy Awards (1984; Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and was also nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay). It is also considered Ingmar Bergman’s last film, although he did work for television and did some writing theatrically after this. It is clear that the master filmmaker is looking back on his own life and has created some strange poetry from his reflections.

We get a glimpse into the lives of The Ekdahls as they celebrate a Victorian Christmas and are haunted by the Ghosts of Hamlet. This is not your average holiday film, as we leave Christmas behind and are met with death, the devil, and God himself (or was that just a puppet?). We see a former beauty of the stage muse over childhood and old age and those short years in between that seemed to mean so much at the time. There is the current beauty, who has put her family in danger as she seeks out love and happiness. And then there is the beauty to be, who is forced to grow up alongside her brother, Alexander.

This film evokes a deep sense of nostalgia while creating haunting imagery that will stick with you long after the three hour journey has drawn to conclusion, and the major themes of Bergman’s works are all here aglow, like the candles on an evergreen, like the flames of an upturned lamp.

7.5/10

8 White Christmas

White Christmas

It’s the 60th anniversary of “White Christmas,” but even when it was new, it was calling toward yesteryear. You see, nostalgia is built right into this film.

While Silent Night may have been the song for the Great World War, no holiday song meant more to the men who fought WW II than White Christmas. Almost a full decade after our boys came home from those historic battles, almost ten years of trying to assimilate to home life later, Bing Crosby was back to pay tribute to their struggles.

The story is quite simple. Two old army buddies, played by Crosby and Danny Kaye, are a star club act. Kaye wants more time for himself and has gotten it into his head that the way to get it is to make sure Crosby gets hitched. The crooner thinks there’s some sense in the comic’s logic, but he doesn’t know if he’s quite ready yet.

Enter Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen, struggling, singing sisters that we the audience see as the perfect fit for BOTH men. They’re Vermont bound, to do a show in the snow. Only, there isn’t snow, and the ski lodge that as it turns out happens to be run by the boys’ beloved general, seems doomed for financial destitute. That is, of course, unless the boys can put on a sensational show, and to do that, they’ll have to find love in the process.

It’s an upbeat Christmas tale chock-full of Irving Berlin’s masterworks, and even the music reaches back for days long past. There’s the number where they long for Minstrel shows, the one that decries modern “choreography” for ruining the good old days of dance, and the show stopper that has Crosby and Kaye wishing they were back in the Army. There’s even a line thrown in when a young boy sings in his prepubescent voice and Bing wistfully says, “Oh, those were the days.”

If you’re looking for a classic Christmas from days far-flung, you can’t go wrong with “White Christmas.”

8/10

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