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Archive for December, 2008

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

–Look at you. You used to be so cocky. You were going to go out and conquer the world. You once called me “a warped, frustrated, old man!” What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk crawling in here on your hands and knees and begging for help. No securities, no stocks, no bonds. Nothin’ but a miserable little $500 equity in a life insurance policy. You’re worth more dead than alive.

 

It’s a Wonderful Life has the reputation for being one of the most sappy, sentimental Christmas movies ever made. For my lifetime, it’s been the Christmas movie – the one everyone always thinks of. On its first release, though, it was not admired by either critics or audiences. Its position as the best-loved Christmas classic emerged because the viewing rights were allowed to expire into the public domain and for many, many years it would be all over the television every holiday season. It became a part of many Americans’ Christmas traditions, much as decorating a tree, wrapping presents or sending Christmas cards. Why was it so unpopular in its own time and do we still embrace it so freely today?

There was an early episode of Friends many years ago where the character of Phoebe walks in on the other characters crying while watching Old Yeller. She was puzzled about their tears as she’d never seen the proper ending. It turned out that her mother had censored the end of all sad movies for her children. Phoebe turns to watching all of the endings she had been cheated out of, and depresses herself. She is told to watch It’s a Wonderful Life to cheer herself up. Ultimately, she decides that the movie is too sad to watch and turns it off before ever getting to the happy ending. While Phoebe ends up cheating herself, she hits an important point: It’s a Wonderful Life holds a lot of sadness within it. It’s a dark story before George Bailey goes through the looking glass to see the scary alternate world where he never existed.

Bruce Springsteen once asked, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?” Langston Hughes wrote about the frustrated power of a dream deferred. That is what I see when I look at George Bailey – a man who has his dreams thwarted time and again in life. It’s at the heart of cruel Mr. Potter’s taunt that I quoted above. George has the potential to be somebody and make a name or fortune for himself. He has the intelligence, the imagination and the energy. Every time that he gets the opportunity to do something for himself, though, he makes the choice not to for the good of someone else. His entire life, he sacrifices his tightly-held, most cherished and personal dreams for the sake of someone else’s happiness. Before he decides to take a plunge off a bridge, things were falling down around his ears. All of his sacrifices seemed to be worthless as he was facing scandal and jail, meaning that he had failed at the only things that made giving up his dreams bearable – perpetuating his father’s legacy of humanitarianism and being a good husband and father.

It’s for this reason that Potter’s taunt hits home. This man who has put everyone else before himself in every other way that he could, now decides that the only way he can save his family from ruin is to kill himself so they’ll have his life insurance. This is a dark business indeed.

It’s a Wonderful Life was James Stewart’s first film after he returned from serving in World War II. He was drawn to this story, I think, not only because of the uplifting ending but also because of its portrait of the courage and heroism of an ordinary life and its commentary on the nature of sacrifice. I think, perhaps for similar reasons, audiences of the time found the material too dark and depressing. The world knew, perhaps a little too well, the nature of sacrifice in the mid-1940s.

In watching the life of George Bailey, I see my parents who worked tirelessly to see that I had all of the advantages they were never offered. I see teachers who barely earn a living to ensure that the next generation will be able to hold jobs and think for themselves. I see people going about their daily existences, quietly doing their parts, their only rewards the hope of making the world a better place. In celebrating George Bailey’s wonderful life, we celebrate them all. The greatest acts of heroism don’t have to be big, dramatic gestures. They are common acts of kindness given without concern for personal happiness.

It seems significant, doesn’t it, that the movie that is challenging It’s a Wonderful Life’s claim to most beloved Christmas movie is A Christmas Story. I dearly enjoy watching the antics of Ralphie and family every year, but what does it say about us as a society? Ralphie’s biggest problem is making sure he gets what he wants for Christmas. Do younger generations still understand the messages of It’s a Wonderful Life? Do we understand the nature of sacrifice and unselfish giving or are we all too obsessed with making sure we get our Red Ryder BB guns in our hot little hands? Every year when I watch It’s a Wonderful Life, I try to ask myself honestly how much of a positive impact I’ve had on the people around me. Every year, I answer with shame, not as much as I could. Long live George Bailey and It’s a Wonderful Life and may they always remind us that at the heart of Christmas is sacrifice and not Santa.

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The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

–Jack, please, I’m only an elected official here, I can’t make decisions by myself!

 

Tim Burton once watched Halloween decorations being unceremoniously removed in order to make room for Christmas ornaments. The contrast between the two holidays caught his fancy and he wrote a poem about it called “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” The poem eventually made its way into this stop-motion animation classic directed by Henry Selick since Burton was busy making a Batman movie. This fall The Nightmare Before Christmas made its Blu-Ray debut which ended up on High Def Digest’s list of best Blu-Rays of 2008 this week.

The story concerns Jack Skellington, the King of Halloweentown, who is bored with his traditional job of organizing Halloween and scaring people every year. The day after Halloween the other inhabitants of Halloweentown are already planning next year’s festivities…after all there are only 364 days before the big event! Jack is ready for a break with the routine and during a walk stumbles across a special wood where the trees have doors decorated with symbols for different holidays. Intrigued by this strange place, Jack opens the door bearing a picture of a Christmas tree.

He stumbles into Christmastown where everyone is helping Santa prefer for Christmas Eve. Jack is enchanted by snow, decorations, stockings, presents, carols, and most of all Santa Claus. He snatches up souvenirs to share with his friends and makes his way back to Halloweentown lit up with new inspiration. He decides that he’d rather do Santa’s job this year and sells the idea to most of the other townfolk. Of course, the ghoulish fun of this movie is that neither Jack nor his friends truly understand Christmas the way the rest of the world does. Their combination of Halloween and Christmas is imaginative, creepy and humorous.

This movie is such a visual treat. There are so many details that add to the joy we find in Halloweentown and this new transfer highlights them beautifully. I love the subplot with Jack’s friend Sally who constantly poisons Dr. Finkelstein. He knows she’s going to do it and she knows he knows she’s going to do it, yet she still finds ways of tricking him into taking poison.

This movie has more depth to it than traditional animation. Witnessing Jack, dressed as “Sandy Claws”, attempting to provide Christmas cheer and presents for kids is a bittersweet journey. He doesn’t understand “proper” Christmas gifts, and the people below don’t understand why their Christmas presents are so scary (and in some cases actually attack). Everything Jack is doing is out of the goodness of his heart, the very real desire to make people happy, which makes his reception as Santa heart-breaking, almost tragic.

I do think the plot feels stretched a little too thin, but overall I love the imagination on display here. I can’t wait to see Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. It should be quite the gothic treat. Until then, this movie as well as The Corpse Bride provide delights of their own.

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The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

–My great aunt Jennifer ate a whole box of candy every day of her life. She lived to be 102, and when she had been dead three days, she looked better than you do now.

 

I’m in love with good dialogue, snappy banter and snarky one-liners. The Man Who Came to Dinner possesses more than its fair share. I could fill my whole review with nothing but wonderful lines from the film. There has been a more recent version of the material starring Nathan Lane, I believe, but I don’t know if I could ever bring myself to watch it. This is my favorite Christmas movie to watch when I’m in the mood for funny not sentimental, and, oh my, it is funny.

Monty Woolley plays Sheridan Whiteside, an enormously popular radio star famous for his treacle sweet show. In real life, Whiteside has a monstrously huge ego and a trenchant knack with insults. Bette Davis plays Maggie Cutler, his personal assistant. Whiteside gets invited to a small town in Ohio to speak at a woman’s club. While walking up his hostess’s icy front porch steps, he slips and breaks his leg. This causes pandemonium on a huge scale. The Stanleys, whose house has been taken over by their unwelcome house guest, are relegated to using the back staircase, having their meals in their rooms and dealing with the multitudes of telegrams, phone calls and wacky get well presents that people send to their ailing celebrity. There are messages from Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham and Eleanor Roosevelt. There are penguins and an octopus to contend with. Who wouldn’t feel a bit overwhelmed?

Maggie takes Whiteside’s convalescence as an opportunity to fall in love with the editor of the local newspaper. She decides to leave Whiteside’s employ which upsets him greatly. It’s not his great affection for her (which he does possess but hides) that fuels his anxiety, but his selfish distaste for change. His spoiled desire to ensure that she stays with him drives the rest of the film. He enlists the help of old friends played by Reginald Gardiner, Ann Sheridan and Jimmy Durante for his crooked little schemes. He also meddles in the lives of the two Stanley children, encouraging them to take actions that their father disapproves of. He also vaguely tries to solve the mystery of Mr. Stanley’s odd sister who he describes as being “out of the Hound of the Baskervilles.”

All of the actors are in good form. Bette Davis seems to enjoy playing a character who is a nice woman but no pushover. Monty Woolley has never been funnier or more acerbic. Jimmy Durante is delightful as are Mary Wickes, as Nurse Preen, and Grant Mitchell as Mr. Stanley. Billy Burke plays Mrs. Stanley as Mrs. Topper’s long-lost sister. Ann Sheridan sinks her teeth into the part of Lorraine Sheldon, a catty, gold-digging actress always on the lookout for a good part.

To me, this is one of the funniest movies ever made. It has just enough Christmas sweetness to balance its tart tongue and keep the tone from tipping over into bitterness. If you want to remember witty insults to sling at someone, this is prime source material. Despite it all though, it is a Christmas movie and its characters never go too far. If you’ve never seen this one, enjoy and I envy you experiencing it for the first time.

 

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Joyeux Noel

Joyeux Noel (2005)

–I heard last night about your wife. If you like, I can get a letter through to her.

–Why would you do that? If you got caught…

–One letter won’t stop us winning the war. And anyhow, when we’ll have taken Paris and it’s over you can invite us for a drink in Rue Vavin.

–You don’t have to invade Paris to drop round for a drink.

 

Truth is stranger than fiction. On Christmas Eve of 1914, along the trenches of the front, German, French and British troops had a truce. It was a spontaneous motion that broke out at several places along the lines without being universal. This movie explores that extraordinary event which deserves to be remembered every Christmas.

We view events from three sides: the Germans, the French and the Scots. From the beginning, we see how children were as the line from South Pacific goes, “very carefully taught” to hate. A little child of each nation stands at the front of a classroom and recites a speech telling him how much he should hate the Germans or the English. We see the declaration of war and then we are plunged into the events of that fateful December.

The German troops have been given Christmas trees and after they hear the Scots singing and playing the bagpipes, they place their trees along the top of their trench. One of the German soldiers is a former opera singer and he begins to sing “Stille Nacht.” The Scots enjoy this and begin accompanying him with their bagpipes. This leads to “Adeste Fideles” and eventually the commanders of the troops parlay and agree to lay down arms for the night.

This story sounds like it comes straight from the Hollywood Dream Factory, but is based upon historical events. I did a workshop on using Reader’s Theatre a month ago, and the script I chose was based upon actual letters soldiers had sent home describing their experience. It is truly one of the most moving stories I’ve ever heard and is brought to life beautifully in this film. The actors speak in the appropriate languages, so we hear English, French and German. This adds a wonderful air of authenticity to the story. All three sides are equally represented in story time as well.

The German tenor wants to be reunited with his girlfriend. The French commander desperately wants to hear from his wife who is pregnant. The Scottish chaplain has accompanied the boys from his village to the front and does his best to keep them whole body and soul.

Alas, after Christmas the war continued. I was shocked to learn that all of the men involved were punished for fraternizing with the enemy. It makes a morbid sense, I suppose. You can hardly fight a war when your soldiers are out playing football with the enemy. Once you’ve bonded with someone, shared pictures of family and loved ones, eaten and drank and sang together, you probably have trouble remembering why you’re supposed to be killing each other. Still, the movie ends on a hopeful note that implies that the lessons learned were not wiped out by the brutality of others.

Even if you don’t like foreign films, you should try this one. It will warm your heart better than any hot chocolate. I dare you not to get chills listening to the Scots playing “Aud Lang Syne” when telling the other soldiers goodbye.

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Lethal Weapon (1987)

–Do you really wanna jump? Do you wanna? Well, that’s fine with me. Come on, I wanna do it, I wanna do it.

 

Well, it’s Monday again, and time once more for the next on my list of anti-Christmas classics. I mean movies that are set at Christmas time but are distinctly different from traditional holiday fare. Today’s film is the first Lethal Weapon which opens with “Jingle Bell Rock” and closes with “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Lethal Weapon is one of the prototypes of the buddy film that favorite standby of cop movies. The first in a series of four Richard Donner helmed films, this movie is the best in the franchise, and despite its extremely violent nature does contain some Christmas themes.

The picture starts with a bang, literally. A half-dressed young woman, who is very high on drugs, throws herself off a building and lands on a car. Her case is investigated by Murtaugh and Riggs. Murtaugh played by Danny Glover is a hard-working Sergeant who just turned fifty years old. He has a warm, stable family life with a wife and three kids. Riggs played by Mel Gibson is in his mid-30s and recently lost his wife of 11 years in a car accident. He seemingly has no family, no kids, no friends other than his dog. When the movie begins we see Riggs at a drug bust. He gets taken hostage by one of the drug dealers, and begs the other cops to shoot his captor regardless of what happens to him. In fact, he even taunts the drug dealer to shoot him and when no one does anything he takes matters into his own hands, disarms the perpetrator and nearly kills him in retaliation.

The department psychologist is convinced that Riggs is suicidal and possibly psychotic. Others in the department think that Riggs is faking it all. He is transferred from Vice to Homicide and partnered with a very unhappy Murtaugh. One reason that the first Lethal Weapon movie works so much better than the other four is that it is edgier. Riggs is genuinely in pain, and we see his private grief escalate to the point where he nearly blows his brains out. He is truly unpredictable which gives the movie a palpable electricity. In later films he becomes much more sane and domesticated, but there is a dangerous side to his character here that you don’t feel in Lethal Weapon 3 or 4.

The partnership in the first movie is very exciting as well. In later films, Murtaugh and Riggs bicker like an old married couple, but here they still have rough edges. When they verbally spar, they draw metaphorical blood. Murtaugh is a decent man, someone that the audience inherently respects, yet he doesn’t treat Riggs very well in the early scenes of the film. He constantly complains about having to work with him, chastises him for everything he does and questions his dedication to his job. It’s when Riggs finally calls Murtaugh on his less than hospitable behavior that they finally start to bond, culminating in Riggs coming home to meet Murtaugh’s family.

Riggs, at the beginning of the film, is clearly in the throes of clinical depression. He manages to stay on the living side of his suicidal tendencies, but he tells Murtaugh that the only thing that keeps him going is the job. If he had continued along that path, I think there is little doubt that the department psychologist would have been proven correct. He would have exploded in a spectacular manner because he was drifting. Murtaugh and family provide anchors, or roots if you will, for this grief-stricken man. He is suddenly given the gift of friendship, of belonging and family, and of the world’s lousiest Christmas turkey. By being accepted by not only Murtaugh, but his whole family, Riggs is made to feel human again and not like a ghost living in the past. Hmm, that sounds pretty Christmas like to me.

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The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

–The main trouble is there are too many people who don’t know where they’re going and they want to get there too fast!

 

My family has had a tradition that we’ve followed nearly every year since I was about 14. On Christmas Eve, usually after Mom has put the turkey in the oven, we all settle in to watch The Bishop’s Wife. My dad frequently complains about the number of times we’ve seen this movie, but if pushed he will admit that he still likes many things about it. It is the movie I associate the most with Christmas, and despite how much I love Denzel Washington no remake need apply.

The Bishop’s Wife has three great stars: Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young. It also has some of the best character actors working in the business at the time: Monty Woolley, James Gleason, Elsa Lanchester and Gladys Cooper. The movie is light-hearted and quite funny at times, but also has a message that could stand more emphasis.

David Niven plays Bishop Brougham. He’s not been a bishop for very long, and feels an obligation to live up to the enormous responsibility. He is working quite hard to raise funds to build a cathedral, but hasn’t quite succeeded. While doing so, he is also let his life, including his wife and child as well as his parishioners, drift away from him. One day when he feels particularly frustrated with his life he prays for help and receives it in the form of Dudley (Grant), an angel. Dudley passes himself off as the bishop’s new assistant, but comments that he’s having trouble figuring out what exactly Brougham needs help with the most – because Brougham, himself, is conflicted.

Dudley charms everyone he meets from Julia, the bishop’s wife, to the cook and maid, to Professor Wutheridge, to Mrs. Hamilton. He substitutes for Brougham wherever he can’t be which turns out to be with his wife and child. Eventually, the bishop begins to grow jealous and resentful but ultimately realizes that his priorities had been in the wrong place.

There are many delightful scenes in this movie: Dudley decorating a Christmas tree, Dudley, Julia and Sebastian iceskating in the park, Professor Wutheridge’s constantly refilling bottle, the boy’s choir, the Bishop getting stuck to a chair. Monty Woolley and James Gleason are as delightful as ever and steal every scene that Cary Grant is not in. Cary, as Michael Caine once called him, was a shameless scene thief, so he holds his own with these two old pros.

As I mentioned earlier, I love the message of this movie. Dudley points out to the bishop about the grand cathedral that it’s a glorious building but that huge roof could feed so many littler roofs. Ouch, but so true. Brougham has to question why he’s really struggling so hard to build the cathedral. Is it for the glory of God or is it for the glory of his own reputation? There are so many lessons to be learned here. Often the things that we strive so hard for are not really the things we value the most, which are neglected in the meantime. How often do we come up with a wonderful new scheme that will be such a good thing, and in the end realize that by concentrating so much on the new mechanism we have lost track of the very necessary thing we were trying to do in the first place. Oh, so many lessons to remember wrapped up in a warm, funny, charming movie. It also contains one of the loveliest Christmas sermons I’ve ever heard. I hope my dad is ready to watch The Bishop’s Wife again this Christmas Eve.

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The Polar Express

The Polar Express (2004)

–Seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.

Dedicated to Timmy who believes

 

I was too old to appreciate Chris Van Allsburg’s book when it came out in the mid-80s, and I’m really too old now to be the proper audience for this delightful animated tale. I’m an adult peering into the mystical land of childhood, trying to remember how it felt in order to recapture the wonder of the age. It’s sad how rarely we feel that awe and wonder in all of our experience and wisdom. This movie catches at that spark hidden deep within us that still longs to hear the bell of childish joy of living still ring.

Another big plus for youngsters, including the Timmy of my dedication, is the incorporation of a train. Many children go through a stage where they are enthralled by trains. J. K. Rowling remembered that feeling when she created the Hogwarts Express. Many of my friends and colleagues have mentioned their children and grandchildren’s love for trains. They’re magical – to a childish imagination those tracks go off to meet the horizon and like Tolkein’s road that leads ever on and on, they can take you anywhere.

The movie does feel like it stretched its source material a little thin for its 99 minutes, but I doubt children even notice. The premise is fascinating. A little boy who is starting to doubt the existence of Santa Claus hears a train stop outside his house on Christmas Eve. To his surprise, he is invited to take a trip on the Polar Express to visit the big man himself. That’s essentially the plot with various shenanigans involving tickets and ghosts thrown in for good measure.

Tom Hanks, who does the voices for the main character as well as for the Father, Conductor, Hobo, Scrooge and Santa Claus, is the standout here. Nona Gaye does the voice of the little girl our hero meets and makes friends with. She is filled with Christmas spirit and seems to believe almost effortlessly in the magic of the season, yet in years to come we learn that she too, gradually, stops being able to hear the bell ring. What a sad comment on growing up.

My favorite parts involve the hobo. Maybe I’m spoiled by reading too much Dickens, but it hardly seems like a proper Christmas story with no ghost, so I was always pleased to see the hobo make an appearance. The adventure across the ice and up the mountain was quite thrilling.

Was the little boy dreaming or did he really go to the North Pole? The answer to that question lies in the viewer’s heart. Can you hear the ringing of the bell?

 

 

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