holidays

The 50+ Films of Christmas (Part 9)

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 We're No Angels

We’re No Angels

Imagine that The Three Stooges were lowlife criminals and quite a bit smarter. Now replace Moe with Humphrey Bogart (“Casablanca,” “The African Queen”), Larry with Peter Ustinov (“Spartacus,” “Death on the Nile”), and Curly with Aldo Ray (“The Green Berets,” “Pat and Mike”). Okay, that’s not easy to imagine; I realize that. But it might pique your curiosity enough to check into this little gem.

The three gentlemen are escaped cons on Devil’s Island. They want off the island to live a free life in Paris, so they’re looking for easy money. That lands them on the roof of a struggling shopkeeper and his family, and that changes their plans. Slightly.

Using their enterprising criminal minds, they descend from the roof like angels and begin performing little Christmas miracles for the family. Their hi-jinks and shenanigans are a lot of fun to watch, dark though they might be, and the chemistry between these three is fantastic.

The film is based on the play “My Three Angels” by Samuel and Bella Spewack, which was based on the French play “La Cuisine Des Anges” by Albert Husson. The film feels like a filmed play, and for the most part it works well. However, sometimes in the theater unwieldy exposition flies whereas it does not in the movies. This movie starts off with quite a lot of clumsy exposition, including the line, “Don’t you know, me, dad? It’s me. Your daughter.” And if you don’t know that these guys are criminals at the very start, don’t worry. They will tell you over and over again.

This is a light Christmas tale with a dark underbelly, and it’s a real treat for classic movie fans.

8/10

8.5 Arthur Christmas

Arthur Christmas

Are you looking for an animated Christmas film with a twist of Monty Python flavor? “Arthur Christmas” features the voice talent of some Britain’s biggest talents and has a dark streak that runs right through it.

Arthur (James McAvoy, “X-Men: First Class,” “The Last King of Scotland”) is the youngest son of Santa (Jim Broadbent, “Moulin Rouge,” “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince”). His older brother Steve (Hugh Laurie, “House M.D.,” “Stuart Little”) is the next one in line, and his grandfather (Bill Nighy, “Shawn of the Dead,” “Love Actually”) is the former Santa. Of course that makes his mother (Imelda Staunton, “Vera Drake,” “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”) Mrs. Santa.

Steve is all about the future with his tech-based approach to the logistics of Christmas with just one Santa and about a billion kids. Grandsanta is still clinging on to the classics, real reindeer and lead based paint. Santa is caught up in the glory of being the top man and isn’t ready to relegate his throne quite yet, even though he’s become forgetful. Meanwhile, Arthur thinks the most important part about Christmas is that every child gets a present from Santa. When one gift goes undelivered, the race is on to get it under the tree, and everyone has their own motive.

This is a rare animated film that delivers on the promise of creating a satisfying story for both children and adults equally. The humor that is aimed at the children works with the big kids, and the adult humor is neither inappropriate or juvenile. Every note hits its mark with perfect pitch.

“Arthur Christmas” delivers., and everyone gets a gift from Santa.

8.5/10

8.5 Elf

Elf

Buddy the “elf” (Will Ferrell, Anchorman,” “Step Brothers”) is the first human to ever be at the North Pole. In fact, he was accidentally picked up from an orphanage by Santa (Edward Asner, “Up,” “Mary Tyler Moore”) and adopted by an older elf that never found time for kids of his own (Bob Newhart, “Newhart,” “The Bob Newhart Show”). When he discovers the secret that he isn’t just a very, very tall elf, he makes a journey through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, through the sea of swirly twirly gum drops, and then through the Lincoln Tunnel to meet his real father (James Caan, “The Godfather,” “Misery”), his wife (Mary Steenburgen, “Step Brothers,” “Back to the Future III”), and his young son.

Of course Buddy knows nothing of the world outside of the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” inspire North Pole. He doesn’t know it makes him seem odd when he eats spaghetti with syrup, makes toys out of furniture, or beats up the Gimble’s Santa for impersonating the real Santa. And he can’t understand why his dad keeps calling the police every time he shows up.

Buddy meets a girl (Zooey Deschanel, “Yes Man,” “New Girl”), falls in love, and tries to work his way through the walls she’s put up with a wide-eyed innocence only Will Ferrell could deliver.

This is a sweet movie about a very kind and compassionate man who is seeking a place where he feels he can belong. It’s about family. It’s about love. And it’s about finding the Christmas spirit in a world that is not as gentle as Santa’s workshop.

Who wouldn’t want to take a sleigh ride brought to you by the director of “Iron Man,” Jon Favreau?

8.5/10

10 It's a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life

This film has become a Christmas staple for two reasons:

1) It bombed at the box office, drove the studio out of business, put its famed director out of a job, and eventually became public domain property, thus was free to be broadcast on television every Christmas for free.

2) It is a perfect movie.

Frank Capra is one of Hollywood’s greatest directors.  He is responsible for dozens of classics like “It Happened One Night,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.”  James “Jimmy” Stewart is one of the biggest stars of the silver screen, turning in a lifetime of great work in films like “The Philadelphia Story,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and “Rear Window.”  These two together had already created “You Can’t Take It With You” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to great success, and while Stewart was reluctant to return to films so soon after returning from serving in the war, he trusted Capra.

What they got for their final collaboration was powerful.  The shot of George Bailey (Stewart’s character) sitting at the bar, weeping, and begging God for a miracle was so rich with real emotional turmoil that Capra blew up the image to make it a closer cut.  This is a movie about the ultimate “every man” and how much of an impact he is capable of making.

The film begins with a collage of voices in prayer, asking for God to please help poor George out in his time of need.  We are introduced to the wingless angel, Clarence (Henry Travers, “The Bells of St. Mary,” “The Invisible Man”), who will be trying to earn his wings by helping George.  As Clarence learns about his client, we see the life of George unfold.

George Bailey is a man with large dreams.  He wants to build skyscrapers and see the world.  He wants to shake the dust of the crummy little town of Bedford Falls off of his shoes.  He wants to be important.  But complications with his family, community responsibilities, a local love interest (Donna Reed, “From Here to Eternity,” “The Donna Reed Show”), and a miserly old man (Lionell Barrymore, “Key Largo,” “Captain Courageous”) have kept him from every realizing his dreams.  All through the years – the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II – George has raised up a family, run his buildings and loan, and fought Old Man Potter.  But due to a financial disaster he had no control over, his life is falling apart.  And that’s when George Bailey wishes he had never been born.

It has moments of melodrama and moments of saccharine sweetness, but they both work perfectly well in the context of this heart-warming tale of drama, comedy, and thrills.

A neat little piece of trivia: Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer is the boy that gets jilted by George and Mary at the school dance and opens up the dance floor.  This isn’t the only Christmas classic he makes a cameo appearance in.  He’s also the freckled-faced older brother of The Haynes Sisters in “White Christmas.”

10/10

8.5 Home Alone

Home Alone

This movie is one of the top grossing comedies of all time, which easily makes it writer John Hughes’s most successful film.  This is the guy behind the Brat Pack films, “Christmas Vacation,” and the updated “Miracle on 34th Street.”  To a lot of people, this fact was a mystery to some people back when the movie came out in 1990, but never to me.

“Home Alone” centers around an actor that may possibly be the biggest child star since Shirley Temple, Macaulay Culkin (“My Girl,” “Uncle Buck”).  He is accidentally left home alone by his parents (Catherine O’Hara, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Surviving Christmas,” “Best in Show” and John Heard, “Big,” “Awakenings”).  He has to survive on his own and defend his house from two deranged thieves (Joe Pesci, “Goodfellas,” “Lethal Weapon 2” and Daniel Stern, “City Slickers,” “The Wonder Years”).

There are essentially two different movies here.  The first is about a boy that learns to act like an adult when the family he wishes weren’t there aren’t.  He does all his own shopping, seeks a toothbrush that’s approved by the American Dental Association, applies aftershave, and then runs around the house screaming from the pain of applying aftershave.  Then there’s the second film.  The one where the boy uses his childish ingenuity to clobber, burn, tar and feather, and maim the bad guys.

The real reason that this movie works so well is Culkin.  He’s sweet, cute, clever, has great delivery, and is believable even when he’s using words he’s probably too young to use.

What’s not to love?  The film has heart and it has very violent slapstick.

8.5/10

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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

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

The War on Christmas

“Christmas is really for the kids.”

I’m sure you’ve heard that too at some point in your life.  Well, what does it mean?  It’s obvious, right?  Kids get the presents, believe in Santa Claus, get excited about toy trains and decorated trees and television specials.

Adults are more jaded, and our traditions revolve around food, beverage, and quite often action/horror movies.

That’s the reason for the season!

No mention of Christ’s birth that supposedly represent the healing, transformative power of Christmas.  Not even the pagan rituals are mentioned.  Nope, the true magic of Christmas is in a jolly, old elf and another elf on the shelf that keeps your kids MORE behaved than normal.

You see, Christmas already has lost almost all of it’s religious meaning, which is a fact that gets Christian red in the face when they watch their favorite political pundit rage on tv.

But that’s just the hype, people.  That’s a corporate machine with a very different agenda than you believe.  (Bill O’Reilly for example sayed Christianity was “not a religion.”  Truly a man who understands Christmas and should be rewarded with the purchase of “Killing Christ” for everyone on your nice list this year!)

NOW TRANSITIONING TO SATIRE.

Let’s address the white elephant gift in the room.  Let’s clearly define the War on Cristmas.

The real enemy of the holiday are not the atheists.  They LOVE the holiday, even if some of them call it Xmas.

And it’s not the Jews.  Nope, they love to go to the movies on Christmas, and that’s a sacred tradition in America.

It’s the poor.

What the hell are they thinking?  Some of them are even vowing to control their spending this year and not rack up a debt that will have them paying credit payments until next Christmas!  As the song goes, “Do they know it’s Christmas afterall?”  (Of course the limosine liberals responsible for that song think the cure for showing them it is Christmas afterall is to “Feed the world.”  Can you imagine anything MORE Communist/anti-Christmas than that?!)

And who are the victims of this genocide?  Who suffers?  Well, that’s easy, isn’t it?  Why, it’s the most descriminated group of people in the 21st Century, that’s who!  Rich, white Conservatives.

How can the Wal*Mart (a verified person, my friend) afford to give each of his children a sports car with a big bow on it (as the commercials suggest is the best gift to give) if these lazy poor people don’t get off their frost-bitten butts and slug it out over the last Cabbage Patch kid?  Have they no shame!

So please poor folks. . .  Go listen to some truly Christian Christmas carols (like “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” – all owned by corporation peoples), let your Grinch heart grow, and fill your sleigh with crap your kids will forget about by New Year’s.

Afterall, Christmas is all about the kids!