Religion

Top Posts of 2016

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10. Keanu!!!, in which I review the Key and Peele film.

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9. How Should I Spend My Lottery Winnings, in which I make plans for a couple million bucks

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8. The DO’s and DON’T’s of Action Flicks, in which I compare and contrast the original Jack Reacher film with Skyfall

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7. How to Spot a Racist, a post that is even more important today than it was when I wrote it in 2013

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6. The Greatest Depictions of Single-Minded Emotion, a continuously popular blog

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5. VOTER’S GUIDE: California Propositions and Measures, a helpful voting tool

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4. Back Story, the story of my debilitating back injury and the miracle that went with it

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3. Ghostbusters (2016): A Superfan’s Perspective, my thoughts on the reboot

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2. Going Long: Reviews for “Kill Me Now” and “Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie,” reviews of a couple of independent films made by popular Youtube artists

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1. Predator versus “Predator,” my take on female teacher sexual scandals

 

 

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VOTER’S GUIDE – DONALD J. TRUMP

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NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this are purely my own.  I simply want to expound upon my political thoughts regarding this year’s election, and I hope that there’s someone out there that finds this of interest.

If you’d like to read about the third party candidates, go here.  If you’d like to hear my thoughts on the Democratic candidate, go here.  If you’re interested in knowing more about California’s propositions and measures, go here.

But for now, let’s take a closer look at the Republican candidate, shall we?

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Interestingly enough, Donald J. Trump is also a protest vote. I said earlier this year that Trump voters aren’t that much different than Sanders voters. They are both mainly made up by working class people who think that their jobs are threatened. But whereas Bernie’s people wanted to compete with highly educated immigrants by reforming higher education in this country, Trump supporters are mainly concerned with competing with immigrants for lower paying, more unskilled labor. The biggest difference between them is where they focus their rage.

Bernie Sanders supporters were indignant at a system that they feel has let them down. Education costs being one of the biggest issues, they were also worried about rising health costs, disappearing social security, and social injustices and inequality. They are angry at the government for letting them down, and interestingly enough given the age of their beloved candidate, the older generation’s excess.

Donald Trump supporters are also mad at the government, particularly the current administration, but they are also angry at the people that threaten “the American way of life.” This is where the worry sets in, because a lot of what they say regarding this subject is either racist or sounds an awful like it is. The really worrisome aspect of this is that what they are saying has been empowered by the candidate himself.

Donald Trump’s temperament is a huge problem. He’s obsessed with getting into silly flame wars on Twitter and making cheap jokes about D-list celebrities. Probably because he himself is basically a D-list celebrity. He’s the guy you cast when you want cameo of a rich guy in your movie, but if it’s more than a couple of lines, you better call Christopher McDonald or Craig Kilborn.

It’s important to understand how Donald Trump sees the world. He is a deal maker, a business man. He sees things in a transaction-oriented manner. What can I get from you to make this worth it for me? When we went to war in Iraq, he thought it was a smart investment, because we could take their oil reserves. We don’t need to protect Japan and South Korea, because they should just get their own nuclear weapons and protect themselves. Theoretically, this works in the business realm, although it is often said that Trump doesn’t like to follow through on his arrangements, refusing to pay for services rendered and shortchanging his wives in their prenup agreements. How well would quid pro quo at best or the art of welching on the deal at worst serve the U.S. in foreign relations? It would probably destabilize Asia and gain us the reputation of being colonial war criminals.

As to domestic affairs, Trump is a guy who says he will close the loopholes that he benefited from as a “smart” businessman, but he hasn’t proposed any policy that would do so. Instead, he has promised to eliminate the “death tax,” which would personally benefit his estate. If you aren’t familiar with what the estate tax is, it’s basically when a person with a lot of money dies and their money is given away in the will, the recipient pays a percentage of their inheritance (ie income). He also wants to put a moratorium on financial regulations, cutting corporate taxes, and slashing the top rate on personal income taxes. This is a bill of goods sold to the Republican Party over the years as a way to generate jobs and stimulate the economy, which it would do if the 1% were interested in spreading their wealth. What we’ve seen over the last few decades, however, is that the gap between the wealthy and the working class has only widened, that more money is being horded at the top, and that despite all of the evidence, blue collar workers will vote against their best interests as long as they buy the rhetoric that the sagging economy is actually being caused by “those libtard socialists in Washington.”

Here’s why some people will vote for Trump despite the fact that … well, that’s he’s Donald Trump. Wedge issues. If you believe that abortion is immoral, then you have a stake in who is appointed to The Supreme Court. If you think that there’s a threat to your Second Amendment rights, then you have a stake in who is appointed to The Supreme Court. If you hate Hillary Clinton, think she personally murdered a bunch of people and has a tattoo on the back of her neck that says “666,” then you think that God can’t possibly work miracles as long as a Democrat is in the office, so we have to show the world how much we love Jesus by sucking it up and electing anyone that the holy Republican Party chooses from their pool of saintly, God-fearing vessels of Christ!

Wow. That got pretty twisted. Sorry about that.

1) You don’t have to worry about Roe V. Wade, because you already re-elected Bush to fill those Supreme Court slots with anti-abortion advocates, remember? Problem solved!

2) No one is trying to take your guns, and even if they were, you would shoot those commies long before they could, right? Problem solved!

3) Are you nucking futs?!?

Donald Trump is not the droid you’re looking for.

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Back Story

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Behold, a Christmas miracle!

 

The Accident

In the summer of 2005, I thought my license was suspended.  It wasn’t, and I don’t remember why I thought it was.  Honestly, it’s not all that important.  The essential thing for you to know is I was riding my bike to and from work every day.

I was working at the new, fancy mall, and ten lanes of traffic were between me and the place I wanted to eat lunch.  I enjoyed my meal, spending a little extra for a collectible cup I could use at home, and then I started back to my retail gig.

The light turned green, but there was a long line of cars waiting to make a right-hand turn.  I made the foolish decision of waving them past before I embarked across the ten lanes once again.  Still green, I stood up on the bike, put down my head, and peddled hard.  When I had picked up steam, I looked up in time to watch the light go from yellow to red.  I was flying past the median by then and had no choice but to try and clear the intersection.  I did okay.  Even though I suddenly found myself in an unwanted game of Frogger, I made it across eight and a half lanes before it happened.

The mind is a funny thing.  As the car came toward me, time froze, and my brain said to me, “Well, I guess I’m not immortal after all.”  And then action!  And bang!  I’m off the bike now, flying onto the hood of the car.  I see the look of shock and horror on the driver’s and passenger’s faces through their windshield.  Time freezes again, and I think, “That wasn’t so bad.  Maybe I’ll just be a cripple the rest of my life.”  They slam on the brakes, and I’m flung off the car.  I see the pavement blurry beneath my outstretched hands when time freezes a third and final time.  My mind says, “Now, this is going to hurt.”

I gathered myself off the road and picked up the bicycle I had borrowed from my roommate.  I remember being worried it might be damaged but thinking it was okay even if I couldn’t make it move by pushing it.  The car bumper had hit my hip and bent the bike.

Realizing I had dropped my take-home cup, I turned to fetch it.  Even in my state of shock, I decided better of venturing into traffic when I saw passing cars flattening the cup beneath their speeding wheels.

“Should we call an ambulance?” the driver of the car asked.

“No,” I said.  “You couldn’t have been going that fast.  Like – what?  Five or ten miles per hour.”

“It was fast enough for you to break the windshield.”

“I broke the. . .?”   I search my body for an injury, finding blood streaming down from my elbow.  “Oh.  Huh.  I guess, yeah, probably call the ambulance then.”

I was starting to get dizzy by then.  The world was pulsing in my head, and my vision was getting hazy around the edges.  One of my friends from high school came running up.

“Dave!” Sarah Johnson cried.  “I saw someone had hit a bicyclist.  I can’t believe it was you!  Are you okay?  Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Could you go to my work and tell them I’m going to be late back from lunch?”

The initial injury was nothing more than a bruise stretching across my entire right side, a pain in my lower back, and a limp that lasted a few days.  I got some X-rays, and they didn’t show any major damage.

I took the only sick day I had from my job for a stretch of five years.  I’m dedicated, a workaholic afraid of being homeless if I don’t sweat my butt off and have near-perfect attendance for my employer.

That bit will be important later.

 

The Army Cot

At the time of the accident, I bounced back fast.  I was young (twenty-four years old), and though I had always had a sore back, the accident only made things marginally worse.  Yeah, I was seeing a chiropractor about lumbar and neck pains, but it was a manageable inconvenience.

Until 2011, which was when I introduced my girlfriend to my family.

Stella and I took a trip to Florida, where she met my father and spent time with my sister and nephew, and then we traveled to Ohio to stay with my mom in Buckeye country.  Stella shared a bed with my mother, and I slept on an old Army cot.  It was awkward, but I was actually excited about the cot.  I’d loved sleeping on one back in my Scouting days, but my eagerness only lasted one night.

I woke up and could barely stand.  I took another look at the cot and saw it was higher in the middle than it was at the head and feet.  Something about sleeping that way made my back go from annoying to a mess.

 

The New Job

Despite more visits to chiropractors, physical therapy, the orthopedic doctor, and even amateur Youtube hypnosis, things just got worse.  They eventually got so bad I had a few scary periods where my back made getting out of bed and walking nearly impossible.  Suddenly, I’m taking all of my sick time for three years in a row.  I even had to be taken out of the store one night in a wheelchair.

I told my orthopedic doctor the pain was reverberating throughout my body, including to my chest.  I have a history of heart palpitations, so I was instructed to follow up on that symptom with my primary care physician.  I ended up in a hospital for a couple of days after my EKG readings made it look like I was having a serious heart attack.

Look, that’s a whole other story.  The take-away was the hospital bed was terrible for my back, and I was off work yet again.

Recently, I was asked to take on a new role at my job.  I would be managing the external warehouse.  It was in my best interest, but I was reluctant.  They asked me about my hesitation, and I told them it was my back.  The job would be physically demanding, and the irony is the day they called to ask me, I had actually called-out because of my back.

A couple of days before, I had attended a beautiful wedding at Disneyland and hurt myself dancing to Sir Mix-A-Lot.  It was a regular “Baby Got Back Pain.”

This time, I was worse than ever and quickly declining from there.  I couldn’t bend down without holding myself up.  My right leg was twisted to the side.  My right hip was jutting upward.  My right shoulder was slumping a full two inches lower than my left.  My left thigh was numb.  I would have sharp pains in my right buttocks and down the leg.

I didn’t see a way to change any of this.  When people would ask me how my back was doing, which they were doing with a greater frequency than ever, I’d shrug and say, “It’s just my back.  It’s screwed up.”

I was scared.  I figured this was how it would be for me from then on.  I’d already sought help, and nothing worked.  I was just going to get worse and worse until I eventually die.

While everyone I talked to, including my new boss, had showed concern, none of them were deterred by my back issues.  The head of logistics, however, was deeply disturbed.  He began to question my abilities, referring to the physical aspects of the job I had brought up as my own concerns on multiple occasions.  He was right, but it didn’t make my situation any less precarious.  He told me to go and observe the business needs and then make the decision whether I thought I could live up to his expectations.

At this point, the machine was already in motion.  I would be taking over the warehouse in a matter of days.  Someone else would be doing the job I was vacating.  I didn’t see any good options.  This was a no-win for me.  It meant I’d either be agreeing to perform tasks I had already said I couldn’t do, absolving everyone else of guilt when I inevitably got hurt even worse, or I’d be demonstrating the fact I was becoming physically incapable of doing even the job I was leaving.

 

Broken

Stella had to help me get dressed.  Doing my job was becoming more and more difficult.  Even getting to work was hard.  Not one for saying things of a religious nature, Stella said to me, “Maybe this is God’s way of telling you something.”

I thought I knew what He’d be telling me.

The day before I was to take on my new role, I couldn’t get out of bed.  I called out and texted my new boss, letting her know I would be at the warehouse on Wednesday, “even if I have to crawl.”

Tuesday was my appointment to see my orthopedic.  It was my third or fourth visit with them, and I expected to simply get another prescription for physical therapy.  When they saw me come in this time, their shock was evident.  They gave me an X-ray, and the results were the same as always.  The bones are fine.  But this time, the doctor decided I needed an MRI.  He gave me a note for work, saying I would need to take three weeks off.

I went to work on Wednesday.  I did my best.  It was fifty degrees, and during that first hour, as I limped like a zombie behind my boss, I sweat through my hair.  And then I had a total emotional breakdown.  My worst fear: I would become so physically disabled by my back I could no longer earn a living, was coming true.

Of course, a lot of my worry was totally in my mind.  Despite the terrible timing, I could take a medical leave.  I didn’t want to let anyone down.  I wanted to do what was best for the company.  My back was forcing me to change.  I had to realize my health was supposed to come first.

I filed the paperwork and followed my doctor’s orders.  Things were bad.  I was in excruciating pain.  I’d lie in bed, getting up three times a day to use the bathroom.  My sciatic nerve would cause me more pain than I’ve ever felt each time I got up.  I’d shake, sob, and just want to return to bed, where I was trapped like a turtle on my back.

I sent Stella a few dark texts, informing her I couldn’t live like this anymore.  I’d never contemplated suicide before, but this was pain I could no longer endure.

 

The Turning Point

The day I had my MRI was a turning point.  I decided that morning my bed was a death sentence.  I would do whatever I could to remain sitting as much as possible, and I would not lay flat if I could help it.  Stella made me a make-shift Posturepedic bed on the couch, and we found the one chair in the house I could somewhat comfortably sit in.

We’d gone through so many chairs over the years, trying to make me comfortable.  We’d even replaced the mattress.  This had been a battle.

Getting to the appointment proved to be difficult, I ended up in a wheelchair after struggling in agony through the parking garage, across the street, through the lobby, up the elevator, and down most of the long corridor.  The things I had taken for granted as a young man were now impossible.  Not one to give up, it was becoming a growing habit nonetheless.

I was told my results wouldn’t be ready until Monday since it was a Friday, but not long after I got home, my orthopedic doctor called.  It was his day off, and he was out of town.  He had seen the MRI and wanted to know if I was okay.  He told me to go to the emergency room if I couldn’t make it to my appointment on Tuesday.  He told me he could see me on Sunday night, even with his office closed, because he would be back in town then.

I’d had a lot of people tell me to get a second opinion, to do anything I could to avoid surgery.  I have heard the horror stories about people who had worse problems after their surgery.

The orthopedic surgeon who had always prescribed me physical therapy and suggested I see a chiropractor, told me there was only one option: surgery

I had a severe hemorrhaged disk, seventy-five percent of which was pinching the nerve in my spine solidly against the bone.  He said it was fortuitous the nerve had found a way around the obstruction, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to walk at all.  I would have just fallen down like a rag doll.  He’d need to remove the obstruction surgically, but afterwards, my back would be as good as new.

The advice for a second opinion – the terrible stories – everything crossed my mind, but they couldn’t dismiss the relief I felt.  I saw an end to my suffering.

You see, this issue with my back had grown steadily worse.  It made me feel old and weak.  It made me wonder if that thought which popped into my head as the car was hitting me – I would “be a cripple the rest of my life” – was true.  It made me seriously consider whether my life was worth living if it was going to continue down this road.  How could I ever act again?  How could I tell my stories?  How could I make a living?  How could I do anything if I couldn’t even get off my back?

Dr. Finkenberg’s prognosis brought me back to life.

 

Surgery

I was thinking about how I could best describe the sensation in each leg in writing, when I awoke in a total state of disorientation.  It gradually came back to me.  The last thing I could remember, I was on a gurney in the operating room, staring up at the faces of the people who were going to work on me.  I had been wondering how I was going to get on the operating table, and now here I was, in the recovery room.  I’d already had my surgery.

I’ll never know how they got me on that table.  I am not a small man.

The sciatic pain in my right leg was totally gone.  My foot no longer bent to an angle, and my knee could lay straight without an electric twang bending it back.  I was already walking more upright, even if the wound from my incision was going to take time to heal.  My body, which had contorted to accommodate my sore back, had to readapt, and my left thigh still buzzed with numb tension.  The nurses suggest that last one could be permanent nerve damage, but it wasn’t.

It’s amazing a procedure as savage as carving into my spinal column could be an outpatient visit, but I got to go home that evening, only about eight hours after I arrived.

I left with some nausea, a bottle of Percocet, and – thanks to my ready susceptibility to the Florence Nightingale Effect – a crush on about a half dozen nurses.  I also left with new hope, long term goals, and a short-term mission.

 

Unbroken

I think of one of my favorite authors, Laura Hillenbrand.  I adore everything she’s written, and my absolute favorite – even more than Unbroken and Seabiscuit – is the story she wrote about her own struggle.

Laura suffers from a very rare form of vertigo which can make her bedridden for months at a time, and she has overcome a lot to get where she has.

In Unbroken, Louis Zamperini is shot down over the ocean and spends 47 days adrift on a life raft.  In Hillenbrand’s book, the struggle of being stranded at sea is riveting and is given an extended, thorough retelling in a way no other author could have written it.  She absolutely brought it to life, and you can almost smell the salt air and feel the sharks bumping against the bottom of the raft.  Her strength lies in being able to describe a moment in minutia, bringing us with her into the events of history with unflinching, visceral observation, and I truly believe the long periods of sensory deprivation she faces due to her illness is some of what informs her incredible writing.

Laura Hillenbrand inspires me, and I was determined to take a page from her book during the time I would spend recovering.

My back stole my thirties, but I also feel like it has given me a future.  The experiences I have gotten from this will help me write my stories with more depth, and the eight-week medical leave I had to close out 2016 literally gave me the time I needed to finally finish Home Street.  It’s time to start the next chapter of my life.

All of this. . .

This was just my backstory.

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Light in a Dark Universe: A Spiritual Question

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Look up into the night’s sky, and you might see one of the other planets in our solar system blinking back at you.  But what you are actually seeing is the sun’s light reflecting off the surface of a heavenly body, much like how the moon’s light is merely a reflection and how the shadow of the earth cuts into that brightness.

Without a sun, planets live in darkness, with one exception.  Earth is the only planet (that we know of) that generates its own light.

Think about that for a minute and ask yourself a couple of questions.

Do I do a good job of reflecting God’s light or do I let the world darken it out in shadow?  And do I generate my own light?

The Faith of the Centurion

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”

Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.

Matthew 8:5-13

The Greek word that the Roman centurion uses in this passage to describe the sick man – pais – is the same word used in ancient Greek to refer to a same-gender partner.

This is the actual Biblical example that Kim Davis should have been taught in Sunday school.

And as to whether Jesus felt people were born gay? Just keep reading to Matthew 19:10-12.

The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

The 50+ Films of Christmas (Part 7)

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.

8.5 A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story

American humorist Jean Shepherd, who spent many years spinning semi-autobiographical yarns on the radio and in books, wove several of his stories into this tale of Christmas Americana. The result is one of the most beloved holiday films.

I could write endlessly of bee bee guns that shoot out eyes and the glowing light of sexuality that burns in the front window and the hillbilly neighbor’s dogs and tongues on flagpoles and the f dash dash dash word, but that would make this review seem more like a love letter to the movie. That would be unprofessional. I might as well be writing these words while wearing a set of pink bunny pajamas with long floppy ears and a cotton tail.

This movie has been nostalgia typified for a handful of generations. There are those who were adults in the 1980s that knew what a decoder ring was. There are those who were children in the 1980s that viewed Christmas through their parents’ experience and could see their reflection of their own. And then there have been those who have come after, who see that those stories Mr. Shepherd told about his own life are both frozen in time and alive in our own.

If you’re an adult and want to see Christmas as a kid again, “A Christmas Story” is a great way to go.

8.5/10

9 Die Hard

Die Hard

“Die Hard” is the manual for how to create a compelling action movie.

First, you get the cool, quick witted hero. Someone like John McClain (Bruce Willis). You put him into a situation where he has personal interests in stake. In this case, it’s his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and kids and the opportunity to save his marriage – and his wife’s life.

Now you need a great bad guy. Someone you really love to hate. Someone like Alan Rickman will do, and if you can make him a racist, perhaps install overtones of neo-Nazism, that will work best. Give him a sinister plan, like a terror plot to hijack the building where John McClain’s wife is having her company Christmas party.

You need some great henchmen, and Die Hard starts off with twelve really good ones. There’s the Aryan twins, the obnoxious hacker, a bunch of guys with machine guns (ho-ho-ho), and everyone’s favorite 80’s stuntman (Al Leong).

Now, if you’re making this movie in the 1980’s, you’ll need more than just Al Leong. You’ll want the coked up business guy, a journalist a-hole (no one better than William Atherton for that part), and if you can find a way to work in Mary Ellen Trainor (“Lethal Weapon,” “Scrooged,” “Romancing the Stone,” “Ghostbusters II”), then you’re really cooking with grease.

You’ll need a sidekick. He could be the hero’s driver and played for laughs. Or he could be the only one that believes in the hero and played for heart (Reginald VelJohnson).

Create a series of plausible scenarios. Use physics as a guiding principle for how things will react in your world. Hobble your main character with some kind of injury that makes the audience worry even more as the third act draws near. And make it one man against a small army.

Oh, and if it can be on Christmas Eve, and you can work in as many references to the holiday, you might end up with a movie as good as “Die Hard.”

9/10

6 A Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppet Christmas Carol

There was a time directly after Jim Henson’s death when the future of The Muppets was in peril. Mr. Henson realized that in order for the creations he and his workshop had come up with to continue in perpetuity after his demise, he would have to entrust the characters to a studio that could continue the legacy. A studio like Walt Disney.

Whereas the live Muppet Theater show at Disneyland is the perfect example of what this new collaboration could be, Jim had a major part to play in that attraction. However, subsequent to Disney taking full control of The Muppets, there was a period where the classic formula was set aside. It was only natural, after all, since that formula was very driven by Henson, Oz, and the gang and their distinct sense of humor. Without them as the driving force – and coming off of a declining franchise of theatrical releases – the Disney executives were tasked with reinvention.

That reinvention came in the form of overlaying The Muppets onto classic public domain literature. Treasure Island and A Christmas Carol. By the time the studio had figured out how to do an original Muppet story (the excellent “Muppets from Space”), the audience had all but forgotten about the clan of crazy puppets.

Luckily, the internet kept the characters alive long enough for modern stars that grew up loving The Muppets (director James Bobin, actors like Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Tina Fey, and Ricky Gervais) to revitalize the dying franchise with nostalgia for the best material.

Okay, that subjective history lesson aside, “The Muppet Christmas Carol” is a pleasant and utilitarian retelling of the Dickens classic. While it is not the best Muppet story – or the best version of “The Christmas Carol” – there’s some nice work here. Michael Caine is quite good as Ebenezer. The puppet work is endlessly clever. And if you’re a fan of Rizzo, this is his most important part.

There are some problems too. Some of the characters work well (Waldorf and Statler are perfectly cast), and some of them are definitely forced puzzle pieces (Miss Piggy being the worst offender).

If you’re a huge fan of The Muppets, this is a fun holiday movie. But may I suggest you stagger this one with the other Muppet Christmases? There are quite a few.

6/10

8.5 The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Henry Selick’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a love letter to those who sometimes feel isolated. That’s the ultimate origin and what drew many of the key players into giving some of their best work.

Tim Burton had gone back again and again to draw storyboards for a poem he had written. He was inspired by the classic television special, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” so when it came time to produce the film for Disney, he sought out a director with experience in stop-go-animation.

Henry Selick, who would go on to create “James and the Giant Peach” and “Caroline,” had created some shorts that showed great promise. He was given the great task of helming the film.

Danny Elfman had done some great instrumental music for films and television, including “Batman” and “Beetlejuice” for Burton. However, he hadn’t yet tapped into the type of songwriting he had done in Oingo Boingo. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” would be a chance to create music for a full musical. He was so eagerly involved that he ended up voicing the singing parts for several parts, including Jack Skellington.

The material itself came from Burton’s childhood memories. He felt isolated, but when Halloween or Christmas came around, things felt magical. In the film, Jack Skellington has lost his zeal for his own holiday, Halloween, but finds himself drawn to the light and mysterious Christmasland. Not yet seeing what makes him special, Jack does everything he can to adopt the magic of Christmas. Unfortunately, these two holidays don’t and shouldn’t feel the same.

Selick and Elfman felt they could understand Jack, and that was very advantageous for the cult audience that can too.

“The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a treasure of a holiday film that manages to do what Jack could not, find the proper mix of both Halloween and Christmas that would please the world.

8.5/10

7.5 The Bells of St. Mary's

The Bells of St. Mary’s

Though not technically a Christmas film, this school house drama has become a holiday staple for classic film lovers the world over. There are, after all, two scenes during Christmas and a reference to the spirit of the holiday in one of the closing speeches.

Bing Crosby (“White Christmas,” “Holiday Inn”) plays Father O’Malley, a priest with a straw hat and swagger. Ingrid Bergman (“Casablanca”) is Sister Benedict, the head nun that teaches compassion and discipline to the students. Henry Travers (“It’s a Wonderful Life”) is Horace Bogardus, a venture capitalist that has his mind set on tearing down the school to make a parking lot. Sister Benedict, however, has her mind – and prayers – set on Bogardus donating the building to the school.

Many of the best moments and scenes in this film seem improvised, which is a very uncommon thing for movies during this period. My favorite scene, in fact, is the reenactment of the nativity by a group of first graders. For about five minutes, the movie becomes a Little Rascals title of the highest caliber.

The plot is fairly melodramatic (and the ending ever so), but in many ways it takes the back seat to tableau of kindness and compassionate tutoring.

The greatest strength of this film is that the crooner and the beauty have incredible chemistry together, but it never becomes inappropriate. It’s a pleasant story of the Christian compassion that makes up the spirit of Christmas.

Honestly, this one is worth watching just to watch Sweden’s greatest Hollywood starlet dressed as nun teaching a boy how to box.

7.5/10

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