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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


7.5 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.


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.”


Star Wars: An Even Newer Hope

So we’ve all been paying attention to the Star Wars news, and it’s been rather exciting.  I don’t want to talk too much about it all in this post.  I would just like to create a dream list of 10 directors and pontificate possible plots for each.

Let’s go!

First, the SURE THING and my take on it.

J.J. Abrams – We’ve already heard Mr. Abrams will be helming the next SW movie, and we’ve heard about what the next two films will focus on.  I personally hope J.J. takes us on the Boba Fett adventure.
JJ AbramsBoba Fett

And now, my WISHLIST!! (In no particular order.)

1. Joss Whedon – The other movie will focus on Han Solo, and I think Mr. Whedon would best serve this one.  I’d like to see an Indy style opener that shows us Chewie’s escape from the salt mines before a new buddy epic brings these two rogues together.  And I’d like to meet some other unique characters for Joss to flesh out.  As far as Han, I wish Heath Ledger were still alive to play the part, but Ryan Reynolds, Joseph Gordon Levitt, or Nathan Fillian would serve.
Joss WhedonHan and Chewie

2. Sam Raimi – Could you imagine a Sam Raimi vision of the Dark Side?  It would put the scary back into what has become emo.  Unless he taps his Spiderman 3 joo-joo, which I can only imagine was done to spite an uncooperative studio.  I’d like to see a Vader/Emperor rise of the Empire story.  Nothing origin inducing.  Just a cool, dark story told in that period.
Sam RaimiDarth Vader and Emperor Palpatine

3. Kenneth Branagh – Those of us who played Knights of the Old Republic know the potential of a story told an even longer time ago in a galaxy far a way.  Branagh is the master of Shakespearean wit and whimsy on film, and this era would feel ancient and yet verile in his hands.  And, Ken, please give us some HK-47!
Keneth BranaghHK-47

4. Tim Burton – I know this might come as a shock to some of you.  I’ve not always been so kind to Burton, but he has made two of my favorite movies (“Big Fish” and “Ed Wood”).  And I also liked a couple others quite a bit (“Beetlejuice” and “Mars Attacks”).  I just think he’s lost his passion of late, and I feel like a good script doesn’t matter much to him.  It’s often style without substance, but I think a Star Wars movie might be the challenge he needs to push himself further.  And let’s be honest, though we’ve seen enough Burton/Carter/Depp collaborations, we’d all like to see one with lightsabers and Dagobah swamps!  I have no clue what their movie should be about, but I’d kill to see Johnny Depp banter with Yoda!

5. Gore Verbinski – His “Pirates” movies started off light and fun and got dark and plodding.  I’d love to see the style and charm of the first brought to Star Wars, and the style of the others would be a great fit for the scenes with the baddies.  I think Gore would be ideal with a prequel era tale that let’s us see less of Jar Jar type antics and more of pod racers, droids, clones, and Darth Maul.
Gore VerbinskiDarth Maul

6. Jon Favreau – His Iron Man movies were phenomenal, and “Zathura” showed he’s handy with ship-in-the-bottle space epics.  I’d like to see him expand that vision and shower us with a Droids adventure.  Please redeem C3PO’s legacy, and show us the heroism of R2D2.
Jon Favreau

7. Frank Oz – Yoda himself. His library of directed films shows you how capable he is. “The Dark Crystal,” “Indian in the Cupboard,” “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” and one of my top ten favorite films, “Little Shop of Horrors.” The man can create a believable universe with a universe of possibilities. Dude made Kermit ride a bike, he can make Darth Vader cool again! I see a self contained story here. One that takes a young Padawan adventurer on a quest through familiar and new locations. An added bonus if he or she is trying to be light sided but finds that they are an unwitting tool for evil!


8. Steven Spielberg – One can dream, right? And as long as he’s truly autonomous, he’ll handle the material with ease. In other words, Steven, don’t let George influence you too much here. I’d love to see a cross between “Jurassic Park” and “Minority Report.” Pack it with interesting characters, a gripping adventure, and a moral quandary of some sort, and we’ve got a hit! I’d personally like to see a Shadows of the Empire era story from Steven. One that brings back Harrison, Mark, Carrie, and Billy Dee to push along the dramatic narrative but focuses on their kids for the action.
Old Luke Skywalker

9. Lawrence Kasdan – I know that Disney has asked the writer of “Empire Strikes Back,” “Return of the Jedi,” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to come on board as a consultant, but come on! Thanks to the focus on George Lucas with Star Wars and both Lucas and Spielberg for Indiana Jones, this man is one of the most underrated talents in Hollywood. It always kills me when people forget to give credit to Mr. Kasdan and Irvin Kershner. In my opinion, it’s time for Lawrence to shine! He proved he can handle an epic action flick with “Silverado,” and he certainly doesn’t lack from other directing credits. Dude even wrote the “Shadows of the Empire” video game! If Disney is serious about yearly installments, he is the obvious choice to direct one of these exploits! I would not presume to tell Lawrence what to write or how, but I will say this. This is Harrison Ford and Lawrence Kasdan’s chance to finally wrap up Han’s story the way they wanted to in Jedi!
Lawrence KasdanLuke, Leia, and Han

This last spot will be a hard one to fill. There are so many great names I could drop here. Robert Zemeckis, Peter Jackson, Brad Bird, Christopher Nolan, Guillermo del Toro, David Fincher, Robert Rodriguez, James Cameron, or Kathryn Bigelow. Heck! Even Ron Howard, Mel Gibson, Spike Lee, or Clint Eastwood!! Each of these directors would make such an interesting work of art from the world George Lucas big banged. And that’s kind of the point. The possibilities are endless!!

But I’d like to go out with a dark horse. A perfect storm that simply will never happen.

10. Martin Scorsese – I mean, I guess it could happen. He is an extremely commercial filmmaker, and he did make “Hugo” for the kids. But I don’t want a movie for the kids. I want a Jabba the Hut gangster flick that shows us the seedy underbelly of the Hut empire. I want to see the bloody racketeering, the intimidation, the Rancor pit gambling, and the hit list in action. I want to see Count Dooku wake up with a tauntaun head in his bed. I want to see DeNiro as a Mon Calamari and Daniel Day Lewis as a Rodian teamed up to control the supply of cilona-extract death sticks in the Bakura system. I want to see Joe Pesci beat down a Twi’lek stripper. Let’s make it happen, Disney!!


    Okay. Now it’s your turn! Who would you like to see with the reigns of Star Wars? And what would you like to see them come to the table with? Even if it’s someone I mentioned here, I’d love to hear your thoughts!!

Star Wars


Twinkies – An Obituary

Maybe it’s because I never expected Jimmy Stewart to be immortal.  I never held the belief that The Three Stooges would live forever anywhere other than the silver screen.  Truly, I have never felt a public loss in such a personal way.

What will folks joke will survive the apocalypse beside the cockroach?

That squishy golden sponge, the sugary rush of cream, and a sweet synthetic aroma.  Is this experience lost to the ages?  Will it only live on in my heart?

What will they call young, muscular gay men?  What about Asians that are “white on the inside?”

The Twinkie culture has bled all over me, influencing my favorite cinema.  From the Twinkie analogy in Ghostbusters to Bob-oh’s favorite dish in “Weird Al” Yankovic’s masterpiece UHF.  There are references to the tasty treat in Deer Hunter, Die Hard, Iron Giant, and Wall-E.  But now I will only truly be able to appreciate Woody Harrelson’s fruitless search in Zombieland.

What will be my deep-fried standard at the county fair?  Will I never taste a Twinkie wiener sandwich?

Goodbye, Ho-Ho.  So long, Ding Dong.  Cheerio, Cup Cake.  Adieu, Suzy Q.  Ciao, Zinger.  Bye-bye, Fruit and Pudding Pie.  Adios, Donette.  Godspeed, Banana Dream.  Au revoir, Honey Buns.  Toodle-oo, Yodel and Funny Bone and Ring Ding and Devil Dog.  Sayonara, Wonder Bread and Nature’s Pride.  I will mourn the whole Hostess family, from the vanished Christmas fruitcake to the morning coffee now divorced from my Dunkin Stix. 

What will courts now call a sugar-high influenced murder spree defense?

I pray that someone will rescue us all and resurrect our dear friend back to the world of the living.  (Perhaps Disney?)  But for now I must postpone it no longer. . .Image

Rest in peace, dear Twinkie.  We didn’t love you enough.