The 50+ Films of Christmas (Part 8)

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 Love Actually

Love Actually

This movie features an all-star cast in a film that claims that love actually is all around, using arrivals at the Heathrow Airport as the primary evidence of this claim. Thus, we enter into the stories of several people who would wind up in that same airport three months after Christmas and see where they were for three weeks leading up to the holiday.

There is an aging rocker who is trying to revitalize his career (Bill Nighy, “Shawn of the Dead,” “Arthur Christmas”), who finds that the more his manager’s plan works, the further he grows from his manager. There’s the new prime minister (Hugh Grant, “About a Boy,” “Notting Hill”), who finds himself attracted to a member of his staff that closely resembles Monica Lewinski in the “chubby” commentary she attracts and also in dress (blue jacket is red, black beret is white). A father (Liam Neeson, “Taken,” “Schindler’s List”) has lost his wife and finds himself teaching his step-son how to court his first love. A writer (Colin Firth, “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “The King’s Speech”) finds an attraction that transcends language when he is saddled with a foreign assistant who can speak no English. A lonely American (Laura Linney, “The Truman Show,” “Mystic River”) has to decide between caring for her mental patient brother or pursuing a relationship with a co-worker. Then there’s the British loser in love that decides he can score in America with his accent and decides to go and find out. There’s also the best man (Andrew Lincoln, “The Walking Dead”) that has fallen in love with the bride (Keira Knightley, “Pride and Prejudice,” “The Pirates of the Caribbean”) but doesn’t know how to tell his best friend the groom (Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”). Adding to the list is the naked body double couple that films the same sex scene for three full weeks (Martin Freeman, “The Hobbit,” “Sherlock;” Joanna Page, “From Hell”). And finally there’s the husband (Alan Rickman, the Harry Potter series, “Die Hard”) that is cheating on his wife (Emma Thompson, “Saving Mr. Banks,” “Wit,” “Sense and Sensibility”) with his gold-digging secretary.

Add to that long list a thread of political intrigue with a smarmy cowboy US President (Billy Bob Thornton, “Bad Santa,” “Sling Blade”) and the mysterious jewelry salesman that appears right when one of our characters needs him (Rowen Atkinson, “Mr. Bean,” “Blackaddar”).

Okay. Take a deep breath. Now that the introductions are out of the way, I will attempt to give you my assessment.

Basically, “Love Actually” is a fairly shallow look at what love actually means. The kind of love observed on this particular day at Heathrow Airport is the kind that flourishes in the first few weeks – you know, when lust is a primary component still – and that’s all. In this film, enduring love is rewarded with death (as in the case of the Liam Neeson story) or with infidelity (as in the case of the Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson story). There is one other enduring love story, but it’s purely platonic and mostly one-sided (the Bill Nighy story). The rest of the movie is about new love, and that would be okay if it wasn’t so cynical. You can’t have love if you care for an ailing family member. If it’s “love” that you feel, then why not go behind your best friend’s back and confess it to his wife? I mean, it’s Christmas, right? And why go after British girls when American girls are such giant slags that they’ll throw a foursome at the first Brit they see? This film had the freedom – and the cast – to truly explore the theme it proposes, but in the end there are only three halfway decent *love* stories.

The comical, clumsy courtship of Freeman and Page is a great short film buried in the two plus hours surrounding it. Colin Firth’s earnest yearning is intriguing but under nourished. And Hugh Grant’s battle within over what to do with that darned intern is playful and flirty but also overwrought with silly political commentary.

Overall, this is film has enough great actors in it that it is watchable. It almost even tricks you into thinking your watching a story with substance. But deep down, “Love Actually” is hard to find in this film.

6.5/10

6.5 Home for the Holidays

Home for the Holidays

“When you go home do you ever look around and say, ‘Who are these people? Where do I even come from?'”

Bill Clinton is in office. Gay is a bad, shameful word. And everything is changing.

Holly Hunter (“The Incredibles,” “The Piano”) plays a woman who is falling apart. She lost her job, made out with her sixty-something boss, and just as she’s getting on the plane, her teen daughter (Claire Danes, “The Family Stone,” “My So Called Life”) tells her she’s going to have sex with her boyfriend. Her aging parents (played beautifully by Anne Bancroft, “The Graduate,” “The Miracle Worker” and Charles Durning, “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “The Sting”) are playing host to the family for Thanksgiving. When the brother (Robert Downey Jr., “Iron Man,” “Chaplin”) shows up with a man (Dylan McDermott, “In the Line of Fire,” “The Practice”) that isn’t his longtime boyfriend, Hunter worries that her brother has given up “the one.” The holiday isn’t complete until the dotty aunt (Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s daughter, “Doctor Zhivago”) and the conservative sister (Cynthia Stevenson, “The Player,” “Jennifer’s Body”) and her husband (Steve Guttenberg, “Three Men and a Baby,” “Diner”) join in the festivities – and the insanity.

Jodie Foster directs this textured, realistic picture of a family searching for the point in life, love, and family. Perhaps the point isn’t something we can point to, some video of a moment that we shared. Perhaps life is in the moments that we didn’t think amounted to a picture at the time, the moments that we have recorded in our minds and think back on with great fondness.

“Home for the Holidays” is not technically a Christmas movie, since it takes place on Thanksgiving, but it certainly is an excellent primer to get you in the mood to spend those hectic, stressful, and so so important moments with your family.

6.5/10

5 Batman Returns

Batman Returns

A Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer, “Scarface,” “What Lies Beneath”) that was a secretary until her boss shoved her out the window. After that she eats birds, bathes herself with her tongue, can do acrobatics without training, and has nine lives. Not metaphorically. She literally has nine lives.

A Penguin (Danny DeVito, “L.A. Confidential,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) that was raised in the sewers by birds and lunatic circus performers. He spew black bile and bites people’s noses until they bleed, but he’s still the best candidate Gotham City has for mayor. Also, while living in the sewers, he built a floating rubber ducky scissor-lift.

A Batman (Michael Keaton, “Beetlejuice,” “Birdman”) that has a suit that can stop bullets but not a sewing machine needle. He straight up murders at least two henchman (one he deliberately sets on fire with the Batmobile’s jet engine, the other he straps a bomb to), but he won’t kill the boss.

A venture capitalist (Christopher Walken, “Deer Hunter,” “Catch Me If You Can”) that pollutes the river with toxic waste, murders partners and assistants, and who wants to steal Gotham’s power. He creates Catwoman and the Penguin and drives their evil plans.

An evil plan, by the way, that requires a recall and election, for the Penguin to pilot a coin operated kiddy ride, and bombs to be strapped on the backs of an army of penguins. But don’t think this movie is just visual gags for the kiddies. The Penguin tells Catwoman that she’s “just the pussy” he’s looking for and tells the penguin army that there’s gender equality when everyone’s “erogenous zones are blown sky high.”

This is Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns.”

There have been many versions of my favorite superhero. In cinema alone, there were the 1940’s serials, the 1960’s campy show and movie, Burton’s dark original, the nipple-raising Joel Schumacher sequels, and Nolan’s gritty trilogy. In the comics, there have been seventy five years of different Batman stories. My problem with this film isn’t that it’s *not* Batman, *not* Catwoman, and *not* the Penguin. It’s that I don’t care for *this* Batman, *this* Catwoman, and *this* Penguin.

This period in Tim Burton’s career was his best. It was a period when visual effects were still more practical than digital. Burton’s worlds just more artistic and magical when they were cobbled together with miniatures, puppets, and props. These aspects in the film are quite good. The march of the Penguin is somehow romantic. The world of Gotham explodes with character. And quite simply, this is the best Catwoman costume we’ve seen. If only Burton had drawn inspiration from the best comics and less from the Adam West series, we could have had a truly great film.

If you want some Burton this Christmas, I’d recommend that instead of watching “Batman Returns” that you watch “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” I mean, *this* Catwoman is basically just Sally anyway.

6/10

7 Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

“I am going to prove that Santa Claus exists and that you are him.”

While the original film did a fantastic job of fulfilling that promise, the remake, which celebrates its twenty year anniversary this year, had a slightly different focus.

When you find out that John Hughes (“Christmas Vacation,” “Home Alone,” the Brat Pack films) was the producer and writer for the remake, it should come as no surprise that the scope the film takes is much more family centered than the original.

In the original film, the mother rightfully keeps her child out of the courtroom drama. In the remake, those scenes become much more about what the child bares witness to. The good news is that Mara Wilson (“Matilda,” “Mrs. Doubtfire”) does an exemplary job filling the larger role. The bad news is that the movie loses some of the realism that made the courtroom and psychological drama a textured and compelling thing.

The role of Santa Claus was played by Richard Attenborough (“The Great Escape”), who was very recognizable to audiences at the time due to his role in “Jurassic Park.” He plays the role with a jolly vigor, but some of the ambiguity regarding his sanity is missing. This, again, is due to the change in focus, since the stakes don’t feel as largely against him.

Elizabeth Perkins (“The Flintstones,” “Big”) is just as powerful a female role model in this film, but this time she seems higher ranked in the department store. Dylan McDermott (“Home for the Holidays,” “The Practice”) is just as slick an attorney, but he doesn’t always seem to think his propositions or proposals through. He, just like the film, has faith that everything will turn out okay in the end.

This version of the film may literally fill every street in New York with people who care about the verdict, but in the end, it is the personal belief of the family that is of importance. Unsurprisingly, the argument made in court is weaker than in the original, but the final scene, the one that involves Kris Kringle building faith with Susan and her mother, actually works better.

Overall, I would say that this is a good film, and if you value the belief of the individual over the masses, you might even think it’s great.

7/10

6 Holiday Inn

Holiday Inn

With “Holiday Inn” in 1942 and “White Christmas” in 1954, Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby are a dynamic Christmas duo. Both films are loaded with great music, but the latter is filled with nostalgia for the former.

This begins with the song that won “Holiday Inn” the Oscar, “White Christmas,” which takes on a slightly different meaning in this film. This movie has a few patriotic moments, but it’s not really about the war. It’s about the pleasures and freedoms Americans were fighting the war for.

The story is pretty simple. Bing Crosby (“The Bells of St. Mary”) and Fred Astaire (“Top Hat,” “Swing Time”) are competing for the same girl. Bing thinks he can win her with singing – and an inn in the country – and Fred thinks he can win her with dancing – and the promise of fame and fortune. Bing has given up the fast life of performance for the “lazy” life on the farm. Unfortunately, work on the farm isn’t as easy as singing, so he’s cooked up a scheme to turn the place into an inn that only operates on holidays. Every holiday, he puts on a big show for the guests and writes an original song for each. This attracts a new talent, Marjorie Reynolds (“The Life of Riley,” “The Time of Their Lives”), the girl caught in the middle.

Bing is my favorite crooner, and no one in the world can dance like Fred Astaire. Their chemistry together is pretty good, but it’s not dynamite. What is explosive is the July Fourth dance by Astaire. It’s one of my favorite dance routines in any film.

I do have to say that a segment of this film is usually edited out due to controversial material. However, the scenes leading up to it and following it are so relevant to the plot that they are never removed, and they prove to be hard to watch for a modern day audience. On Lincoln’s birthday, there is a blackface routine. We see some actors in blackface and there is a lot of talk about the routine. It’s used as a way of hiding Reynolds’s appearance, but her line about how she had hoped her hopes of looking pretty for the show were now dashed as Crosby spreads the black make-up on her face is rather distasteful.

Of course, “White Christmas” paid tribute to nostalgia for minstrel theatre too, but that time, they left out the blackface.

6/10

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