Friday, December 30, 2011

What's Your Favorite Scary Movie?

Well, we've come once again to the end of another year and I've had a lot more time to reflect on things this week than in years past thanks to a combination of having no distractions and absolutely nothing to do.  I'm starting to wonder where my friends have all gone.  No one is around, because they all have better places to be and so here I am, spending the week leading up to New Year's with no one but my cats to keep me company.  If there was ever a time I felt more like an old maid, I cannot remember it.  I have enjoyed playing with my Christmas presents, particularly the new Zelda game.  I am so close to beating that.  I also got a new vacuum, which is amazing compared to my ratty old carpets haven't looked this nice in years.  I'm not sure if I should be excited about cleaning my carpets though...I don't think its normal.  Anyway, today as I was watching a film I'm quite happy to now own on Blu-ray, I got to thinking about late post-Christmas December and certain things that have become traditions based on years past.  There's one tradition that started back in 1996 when a film was released in late December that would have usually come out in the summer or in the "dump months" of January or Feburary and it got me doing it for years to come...watching horror films before New Year's Eve.  That little film was a Little Engine that Could in terms of movies...fighting the uphill battle that was being a horror film in the 90s (when horror was really in the pits) and coming out at a time when family films and dramas were dominating the release dates leading up to Christmas.  And yet it took the country by storm as word of mouth spread until it was the number one movie in America...and to think I might have skipped it entirely if that word of mouth hadn't reached my ears.  It ended up being one of the best times I ever had at the movies and was probably the last horror film to really scare me in the theaters.  So let's listen to the sounds of terror as we examine Wes Craven's ultimate masterpiece, Scream.

"What's your favorite scary movie?" the voice on the phone asks Casey Becker moments before her parents come home and find her and her boyfriend Steve brutally murdered.  The killings rock the town of Woodsboro, California to it's core as the sleepy village has only once before been hit by such a tragedy...the murder of Maureen Prescott a year before.  Maureen's daughter, Sidney, hasn't dealt well with the loss of her mother and the new killings are suddenly bringing all those old feelings of terror back to her.  To make matters worse, the killer of Casey and Steve seems to have turned his sights on young Sidney and her friends and seems to want to make her the star of this sick situation that seems to have come right out of the horror movies.  Even more frightening is the prospect that the killer had something to do with Sidney's mother's death, and that he could be someone she knows.  So as the body count rises and the killer closes in on Sidney, she has to make a choice as to whether she is going to succumb and become a victim or to fight back and become a survivor.

If you strip Scream down to it's bare essentials, it reads just like the score of slasher films that came out of the 70s and 80s and doesn't do much to set itself apart from those.  However, it was one of the first horror films that not only used the cliches we are so familiar with in horror films, but kept us aware that it knew these rules and cliches existed.  The famous opening scene with Drew Barrymore as the helpless and hapless Casey begins very much like it could be reality, with Casey and the killer discussing real movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th rather than just generically talking about unspecific horror moments or making up fake titles.  This tells us that "this is really happening, in your world" and when Casey makes the horrible mistakes that all horror movie victims seem to make that end up getting her is not because the writing dictates that she must...but because the killer (who is VERY aware of horror rules and conventions) leads her down a path that traps her and forces her to fall back on those fatal avenues.  Likewise, it is the killer's careful construction and planning that turns the finale house party into a bloodbath where no one can escape and anyone could be next.  People who only focus on the cliches of Scream really miss the point because they aren't looking at how the killer toys with and traps his targets into the cliches and they then cannot escape the inevitable.  Afterall, it isn't as though someone hears a strange noise and goes to investigate alone...rather, someone goes to get a beer (something very natural at a party) and while she is isolated from the remaining guests, she is dispatched.  That could (and sometimes does) really happen.  The performances in Scream are also a contributing factor in making the film credible and realistic because the actors are so convincing.  Neve Campbell has made a career of being Sidney Prescott because she gives Sidney a soul and a uniqueness that feels grounded in reality rather than playing her like some character from a movie.  Rose McGowran, Skeet Ulrich, Jamie Kennedy, and Matthew Lillard also hold their own as the memorable and unique individuals that make up Sidney's friends.  David Arquette and Courtney Cox play the obligatory adult characters who are also involved and no one could ever say that they didn't do their parts as Dewey Riley and Gale Weathers respectively.  There is a reason these actors keep getting asked to revive their characters in the sequels...because they are good and the characters are good.  I don't know if horror in America would still be alive and kicking if Scream hadn't given it a much needed shot in the arm (or...if someone else had made a similar movie...I don't know if horror would have gone in the same direction) but thank god it did.  From that moment on, you could always count on a horror film or two to be released on December...and you could also count on a few more than usual showing up on tv leading up to New Year's.  That is the stuff traditions are made of, my friends.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 25: Fitting in With Family

In my experience, I've found that those people who have close families and who participate in family traditions tend to be the happiest at the holidays.  That may be a gross generalization, but then again it may be true.  I know, from personal experience, that my family enjoys Christmas much more when we are together and are repeating the traditions that we have participated in over time.  This can be a blessing and a curse for people who are just beginning to join a family who has been entrenched in their own holiday traditions and plans so long, because it makes the newcomers feel like outsiders.  As you might imagine, the final film to be covered today is about this very subject and I am so pleased to conclude this year's 25 days of Christmas movies with it.  It is a film about the importance of family, but also about learning to welcome outsiders into a close knit family.  Now, without futher ado, let's celebrate Christmas by visiting with The Family Stone.

Meredith Morton is a successful Manhattan executive who is somewhat uptight and conservative.  This is in strict contrast to her boyfriend Everett Stone, who comes from a very liberal and eccentric family and who is constantly trying to get her to lighten up.  This Christmas, Everett is taking Meredith home to meet his family so that he can propose with the family ring but his younger sister Amy, who has already met Meredith, has already taken to bad-mouthing her to the family.  When Meredith arrives, she already has two strikes against her and, because she feels like an outsider, she decides to stay at the local Inn which is another strike against her.  Meredith asks her sister Julie to come to visit as well to help her cope, and Everett finds himself oddly drawn to her.  After a disastrous dinner discussion on nature vs. nurture and sexual orientation sends Meredith packing, Everett's brother Ben finds her and comforts her at a local bar...beginning an attraction between the two of them.  It appears that there are going to be plenty of surprises this Christmas wt the Stone household, and it may test the strength and resolve of the family.

The Family Stone is one of those great comic dramas that feels sincere and thus gives genuine laughs and dramatic highs and lows.  It really feels as though you are peeking through a window at a unique and tightly-knit family and how they react to someone who they feel is a usurper.  It is always a hard thing to accept new people in a family, and the members of the Stone family all have their own way of dealing with it.  Sybil, the mother (played by Diane Keaton), puts on a mask of friendliness while constantly attempting to be sure that Everett (Dermot Mulroney)  is making the right decision (and also is hiding the fact that she knows that cancer is about to kill her).  Kelly Stone (Craig T. Nelson), the father, takes a more quiet and restrained approach because Sybil is the real leader of the pack, but his influence is felt in all the corners of the family.  Amy (Rachel McAdams) reacts with open hostility to Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) in a way that only a younger sibling can, and is the most resistant to change because it scares her.  The differing reactions and levels of resistance are nuanced and do indeed feel real, which is why I enjoyed the film so much.  And what better season to have this kind of new introduction, than at Christmas time when family is key?  It is a wonderful story that steps outside of the normal template of "family is important" and is a great film to watch on Christmas Day to remind us that just because someone isn't a part of our family, that doesn't mean that they cannot be.  And thus, I conclude the Third Annual 25 Days of Christmas Movies and I wish all of you a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.  I hope that you all have a magical yuletide experience and that you are surrounded by those that love you.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 24: An Understated Humbug (Archive Post)

 I woke up with a ulcer flare up today, so I'm not in the best of moods today...which is a shame because today is our Christmas Day since Dad and I are driving home from PA tomorrow morning so that we get back to his place at a decent hour.  However, I will not be revealing my gifts here today (because that just doesn't go with the whole Christmas tradition) and will reveal the loot tomorrow so that I'm not getting ahead of anyone.  Anyway, since I am in a little bit of pain and have no idea what to write about today, I decided to pull up an archive post of a film from last year I really enjoyed watching and hope you will enjoy reading about it let's travel back in time a year to last Christmas...five, four, three, two, one:

Another snow day today which means we have only one calamity day left before we have to start making them up...and tomorrow is our last day of school before break and a lot of non-educational activities along with early releases from several schools in the district.  So if we have a delay...we'll be there for like no time at all.  And just think, if we hadn't had our block schedule this week I could have gotten all my classes quizzed and done for Xmas.  Now, if we have school tomorrow, I will have to play catch up with two classes with a lot less time than usual...especially if there's a delay.  I'm so glad I didn't start Act III of Caesar yesterday with my classes, otherwise I'd be real behind in January with half of them.  Its enough to drive you insane I think.  On the upside, I got the class list for our school's variety show done and can get that hung up on the walls tomorrow if we're in school.  Anyway, its got me feeling a little Scrooged right now, something I don't want to feel the day before break starts.  I'm sure it will all work out, but until it does its gonna be stressful.  Speaking of Scrooge, I watched a real classic of Christmas today and one of the highest rated adaptations of Dickens' novella which features George C. Scott as that mean old mizer Ebeneezer Scrooge.  Let's look at the 1984 television film A Christmas Carol.

We all know the story...a greedy and cold old man, who makes no secret his dislike of Christmas, is visited by his deceased business partner and three ghosts who show him the true meaning of Christmas.  Its a touching, humorous, frightening, and sincere look at the human spirit and one that is so well-written that it comes as no surprise that it has been adapted so much and so often.  I mean, if you turn on your television at Christmas at any random time you're very likely to find some of the more common adaptations and sometimes even one or two that you've never heard of.  But this one is different because, despite its limitations in effects for being a television production, it features wonderful performances from its cast...particularly from Scott as Scrooge.  Scott plays all the lines and beats that we are familiar with from our Scrooges, but Scott plays him with a fair amount of inner amusement at the hardships of others and with an understatement commonly seen in his acting.  This is a Scrooge who is just as frightening to people when he speaks calmly and softly as he is in the rare times that he raises his voice.  He delivers much of Scrooge's lines dry and with mild sarcasm rather than loud BAHs and grumps.  This makes his Scrooge more of a real person and less of a caricature of a mean old grump.  This also makes Scrooge seem more contemptible at the start and more believably changed at the end than most.  The film also follows the book very faithfully and is sure to delight literature purists.  See it this Christmas...its on instant watch on Netflix if you have it.

Friday, December 23, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 23: The Nativity...with a Twist

There are so many reasons to celebrate Christmas.  Spending time with family, giving and getting gifts, thinking about what we're thankful for...and of course celebrating the birth of Christ.  As many are aware, Christmas is meant to commemorate the date of Jesus's birth in the manger to Mary and Joseph (as it is told in the Bible)...and as fewer know it was set for the 25th of December in order to overshadow the already existing pagan holiday of Yule (which is where we get our Christmas tree and wreath traditions).  However, despite the commercialization of the holiday and the focus on giving and getting gifts, many circles still find the time to memorialize the birth of Jesus (regardless of whether or not it was actually on December 25th) by staging plays and pagents about the Nativity.  In merry old England, the schools even get in on the act by staging annual Nativity plays; which brings us to today's film.  It is the story of a teacher who is trying to produce the best darn Nativity play ever, though it may just blow up in his face in the process.  However, don't let me spoil the surprises here...why don't we all head down the road to the primary school and watch Nativity!

Paul Maddens, a former drama school graduate, is a frustrated teacher working in an under-performing primary school in Coventry, England called St. Bernadette's.   Every year they compete with Oakmoor private school in the staging of their annual Nativity Play.  Oakmoor always puts on a much better show than St. Bernadette's, largely due to their director Gordon Shakespeare, who is also an old drama school alum and had worked closely with Paul and Paul's ex-girlfriend Jennifer Lore.  This year, despite his objections and having failed in his first and only attempt at staging a Nativity play several years back, the principal of St. Bernadette's, Mrs. Bevans, appoints Paul to be this year's director.  To add insult to injury, Mrs. Bevans appoints her nephew, Desmond Poppy, to be his production assistant in the hopes of inspiring Poppy to grow up.  Shortly after writing his script, Paul has a run in with Shakespeare (who is posturing madly about this year's play) and Paul, in a desperate attempt to save face, mentions that not only is he back in touch with his ex, but she is now a Hollywood producer who is coming to film St. Bernatette's Nativity play.  Mr. Poppy overhears and spreads the word to the other teachers and the community.  Now, with everyone thinking that the Nativity play is going to become famous, Paul must keep the lie going by producing the best show possible and trying to convince someone from Hollywood to actually come to see and film the play. With the performance date racing toward them and the problems of the show mounting, Paul begins to wonder if he will still be employed when all the excrement hits the fan.

It's not often I get to view a new holiday-themed film that is entertaining.  I usually find that today's Christmas films are obnoxious and/or cloying, but Nativity! really surprised me.  It was witty, suspenseful, hilarious, and had surprisingly good original music for Paul's Nativity play.  Not being familiar with the British custom of doing Nativity plays in school (here that is not acceptable due to the separation of church and state), I was surprised to see how seriously they took it and also how common place religion and school seemed to be.  I'm not against the separation, mind you, but it was refreshing to see a school environment that was able to meld education and religious topics seamlessly and naturally together.  The enthusiasm of the community it producing the play was also a nice touch, though the enthusiasm was a bit misplaced given that many of them felt that the children should be paid to be filmed by Hollywood.  The music was very charming and I found myself humming the songs once the film was over.  Also of note are the two performances of Martin Freeman as Paul and Marc Wootton as Mr. Poppy who appear as a very natural and charming odd couple.  Freeman is always a class-act as the straight man, and Wootton acts as a perfect foil to him.  I know that many people do not enjoy British humor, but if you can get into it I really think you will find Nativity! to be an enjoyable and uplifting experience for your holiday film enjoyment.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 22: Trapped at the Airport

Well, today was nice and low key.  I woke up, had a leisurely breakfast, did some chores, did some errands, and now I'm just running out the clock until I have to leave for Dad's house to get ready for the final holiday exodus to PA to visit Mommom and Uncle Mike.  It's rather nice to have nothing to do before the holidays, because it gives you time to think and contemplate the holidays.  I gotta say though, I do love that Dad is driving to PA and not me.  Holiday travel is something that just drives me batty when I have to be the one in the driver's seat.  I would much rather relinquish my command and save myself the headaches.  However, it does put me in mind of those who will be flying into forbidding climates this season and how many people can get trapped at the airport due to flight cancellations.  This brings me to today's film, which I just watched for the first time last night and which made me cringe with pain at how awful holiday flight can be.  So let's get in line and find out what happens to the Unaccompanied Minors.

It is Christmas Eve and all the flights going in and out of Hoover International Airport have been canceled due to a huge blizzard that is raging outside.  This inconveniences several people including the passengers who are waiting to depart for Christmas destinations, Oliver Porter (head of passenger relations) who is taking his first vacation in years and has to cancel, and several unaccompanied minors who are flying to meet various family members for the holidays.  At first the children are confined to a dungeon-like room for UMs (unaccompanied minors) but five of them, Donna, Spencer, Grace, Beef, and Charlie, escape for various reasons.  After Donna steals a motorized cart, Beef makes the emergency equipment room his own personal playground, Grace abuses the sky lounge, and Spencer racks up a food tab he cannot pay...all the kids are taken back to the UM room to stay as punishment while all the other (well-behaved) children are moved over to the hotel lodge down the road.  Knowing that his sister is alone and expecting Santa Claus to show up, Spencer bands the remaining UMs together and together they set off on an adventure to find the hotel and give Spencer's sister a real Christmas.  However, Oliver and Zach Van Bourke (UM guardian for the airport) are on their tails every step of the way to try to keep them confined.  It is now a battle of wills to see who will succeed.

Sigh...this is another routine holiday comedy that incorporates slapstick violence and a kids vs. adults situation into a basic "trapped in the middle of holiday travel" plot.  It's not very clever nor are the characters fact, the character of Oliver only exists to make these rather spoiled and rotten kids look better by comparison.  These are some really awful kids too...they are whiny, insubordinate, and have this tremendous sense of entitlement that really annoys me.  So, I guess you could say they are perfect representations of children nowadays...unlikable and rude.  True, they do eventually learn to work together and do unselfish things, but they could have taught themselves those lessons without being complete asses to authority figures who are simply doing their jobs and trying to keep something like 50-60 kids in line who are unsupervised and antsy at the thought of having to spend Christmas somewhere other than with family and friends.  Perhaps it is just the teacher in me, but I found myself siding with the adults almost everytime.  Only toward the end, when Oliver really goes too far in trying to punish these children for what they've done, did I change my mind.  For the most part, I just wanted to give all of them a good, hard smack.  Kids will get a kick out of this film though, and I suppose that is who it is made for.  However, I will not be sitting through this film again in the near future.  Its too much like working with my students.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 21: A Die Hard Double Feature (Archive Post)

 I don't have much headspace today for an original post, so I'm breaking out another archive post for you guys.  I will add that I'm happy to say that Christmas in WV was a success and I received a great many things I wanted...I am also happy to report that my gifts were well liked and at least one illicited a squeal of glee.  I had a really FAT day yesterday too...I mean I ate so much food that I went over my calorie count by something like 1000 calories.  However, I am happy to report that I am back on the wagon today and that it was a one time incident in celebration of the holiday (I think its ok to overeat one or two days at Christmas).  Anyway, today I decided to post some archives of two posts on my favorite holiday action flicks.  So sit back and re-experience Die Hard and Die Hard 2.

"Yippie Kay Yay, Motherfucker!" - Those of the immortal words of Detective John of action's premiere characters and the star of the surprise hit of 1988, Die Hard.  Most people probably don't think of Die Hard as being too Christmassy, what with the explosions and blood squibs blasting out our surround sound speakers, but the film and its first sequel both take place on Christmas Eve...allowing the film to transcend preconceptions of what can happen in a Christmas movie, or what a Christmas movie can actually be.  Families all over the USA have written to movie magazines when polled on their favorite holiday films, and have said that Die Hard is one that they watch every December, sometimes even on Christmas Eve.  You may be scratching your heads and wondering why, but honestly few violent action films have ever truly been as FUN as Die Hard manages to be, and I think that is the reason for it becoming a holiday mainstay (besides its Christmas Eve setting).  This fun is due to director John McTiernan's handling of the material.  Yes its violent and yes its upsetting that terrorists would hold a bunch of people hostage on Christmas Eve (Alan Rickman's Hans has some truly cold and heartless moments) but at the same time, he has McClaine cracking wise, winning against insurmountable odds, and has cast several very amusing secondary characters such as Arguyle (De'voreaux White), Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) and Holly McClaine (Bonnie Bedelia) that we are rooting for in the process.  McTiernan once said that the film was so dark that he wanted to be sure to put the joy back into it, the fun if you will.  This is why you hear the Ode to Joy in the score periodically.  Needless to say, this is one of the best action films of contemporary times and its one I always see every December.

Its time for another holiday sequel to follow this wonderful original, and it of course features our favorite everyman action hero John McClaine.  Yes friends, tonight I'm viewing Die Hard 2 which truly does, though you may not believe it, take place on Christmas Eve.  Yes, yes, I know that this film is yet another example of a sequel that simply repeats the formula of its predecessor almost to the letter...terrorists in an isolated area in total control vs. John McClaine on Christmas Eve with some fat headed obstinate cops thrown in for good measure...oh and Reginald VelJohnson, Bonnie Bedelia, and William Atherton reprise their roles as well.  Talk about convenience right?  Its almost too perfect...the kind of perfect that only the movies can do.  There are a lot of people who really hate Die Hard 2 because it merely repeats its formula and does little that is new or different...they also hate how the writers manage to conveniently reunite characters from the last film in ways that would never happen in reality (so they say).  Oh, and they think the airport control plot is much too complicated to be realistic.  I think these people are missing the big picture the same way that people missed the big picture with Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (oddly enough, also from Fox).  Audiences wanted more of the same...and then when they got it, they criticized it for being the same.  Frankly, I think that while part 2 shares a great deal of common factors with part 1, it offers enough new suspenseful situations for us to be involved in to make me enjoy the film as a popcorn action film.  I think its fun and plausible (aside from the icicle death in the 3rd act...which I'm sure is possible, but my mind wants to reject it anyway) and a fair enough diversion as a sophomore sequel.  Sure the 3rd and 4th films are better, but you could do a lot worse as far as action films are concerned (Van Dahme or Segal anyone?).  Bruce Willis can just about carry any film anyway. (Watch for Robert 'T1000' Patrick as one of the terrorists in a gun battle)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 20:'s me Agnes here were are in the home stretch.  Only five more days until Christmas Day and for me that also means only five more days of Christmas movies until its time to hang up my tinsel for another year.  This year has been more fun than the previous years for me because I have gotten to experience so many more new films that I have never seen before, and so I hope it has also been as rewarding for you to read.  Today I am falling back on my small cache of Christmas horror films again mostly because, in an hour, I will be without internet for 24 hours.  You see, I am headed to my brother-in-law's family cabin this morning to spend a bit of early Christmas with mom, sis, Ross, and nephew and will be there till tomorrow.  It's out in the boonies and there is no cell phone nor internet service there.  So I'm a little pressed for time to meet today's deadline.  So I'm reaching into the dusty bin of my memory to throw something into today's box fairly quickly...forgive me if it's not up to my usual standards.  Anyhoo, this film is a remake of one I have covered twice before in my 25 Days posts and I suppose it was inevitable that it would eventually be covered here.  It is the story of the importance of being home for the holidays...even if you have to kill to make it happen.  So, without further ado...let me wish you a Black Christmas (2006).

Billy Lenz is an unappreciated child who's mother is embarrassed by him because he was born with yellow skin.  Mrs. Lenz falls in love with another man and kills Billy's father and locks Billy in the attic.  This is not without it's problems, however, as the new husband is impotent...forcing Mrs. Lenz to rape Billy so she can conceive a daughter, Agnes.  Several years later, when Agnes is about 9, Billy escapes from the attic and disfigures Agnes before brutally murdering his mother.  Then he makes Christmas cookies from her flesh before he is caught and put in an institution.  Flashing forward to 2006, the old Lenz house has been converted into a sorority house where every Christmas Eve the girls perform a morbid memorial ritual where they open a gift for "Billy", who they remember as if he were simply a ghost story or urban legend.  This Christmas Eve, however, Billy has decided to escape and come home for the holidays.  So as the girls begin falling victim to the killer one by one, the survivors must band together and try to survive.

You know something...if the Black Christmas remake had transpired in the order in which I have summarized it (and without the stupid incest angle which adds nothing to the plot) it might have been a more entertaining movie.  Instead, the film opens with a poorly handled redo of the original's garment bag murder and then begins in the present with bickering girls and red herrings galore.  Only when the girls open Billy's present do we get to see the gory backstory...for 20 whole minutes...and then come back to the story where Billy is escaping and yet we have seen people already being murdered and so it couldn't be Billy and....see, it's just a pacing mess.  The film makes it very clear that Billy is the killer and then it throws unnecessary and unconvincing red herrings at us, such as Eve, the creepy homely girl with a glass eye who could be Agnes but isn't, and a cheating boyfriend who really has no motive but the music and film angles tell us otherwise...and it just doesn't work.  Then in the finale, when a twist is revealed, it's much too late and feels more like the creators trying to have their cake and eat it too.  The flashbacks to Billy's first spree are excellent...but could have been shorter and much more focused on Billy's abuse and final snap, instead of wandering around with infidelity and incest.  The characters are also abysmal with none of the girls demonstrating anything resembling a unique personality.  We don't even know which girl is going to be our final girl until the end when we still don't care about her or the girls who have died already.  Normally I would say this is a nice switch, because too often you know who the survivor is just but watching the first lineup, but here it would have shown some thought to character and individuality.  I suppose it could be seen as a satire on conformity within sororities...but it's much too clumsy and unaware of itself to be that.  If I could sum up the remake of Black Christmas, I would say it is a horror film with five bad ideas for every good one...and there are good ideas at work here.  I just wish there had been more of them.

Monday, December 19, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 19: A Nutty Little Ballet (Archive Post)

What follows is a repeat post from 2009...largely because I have nothing new planned for this evening.  I did, however, rewatch the film below last night so I guess you could say I have done my viewing work.

"As promised, I plan to discuss Tchaikovsky's  "The Nutcracker"...but wait, I can't discuss it yet...I haven't even gone to the theater to see it yet.  It doesn't actually start until later tonight when the dancers and sets are ready for places.  What is this madness?????  Actually, for those of you who might not be aware, The Nutcracker ballet has been adapted to film numerous times in both theatrical and television versions and if you know me (since I am a movie lover) you know that I've definitely seen at least one of them.  In fact I'm going to be discussing a version called Nutcracker: The Motion Picture which was released theatrically in 1986.  This production was very much a filmed version of a stage production which was produced by the Pacific Northwest Ballet of Seattle, Washington in 1983 and was so popular that it was decided that the production would ban entertaining movie.  This version differs greatly from other versions as it omits the Sugar Plum Fairy (who has an entire dance written for her) and The Kingdom of Sweets and replaces them instead with a harem run by a sultan who resembles Uncle Drosselmeyer greatly.  Also notable was that the production's sets and costumes were designed by Maurice Sendak (author and illustrator of "Where the Wild Things Are") and its staging stays much truer to E.T.A. Hoffman's original fairy tale (which was much darker and ominous). Also interesting was that the production was staged with two Claras.  One who represented Clara as an actual child, and another who was meant to be 'Dream Clara' and would dance and be a part of Clara's dream world.  Clara also seems to share a strange love/fear relationship with Drosselmeyer which adds another aspect of depth to the proceedings, especially when the Drosselmeyer sultan shows a desire to compete with the Nutcracker Prince for Clara's affections and nearly causes their demise at the end of the film as they freefall away from each other...causing Clara to awaken in her bed as the curtain falls.

It is a sumptuous and lively production and will always be one of my favorites to see every year, even though one cannot watch it on DVD as yet.  You can, however, see it here on  I haven't seen the Columbus production since I was small, so I can't say if it will move me the same way this one does...but regardless, there's nothing like seeing The Nutcracker live on stage at Christmas...but with this version, you get pretty close."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 18: How Santa Makes it All Happen

Today was a pretty good and productive day.  I left around 8:15 to make sure I made it to the church on time...oh wow, didn't plan that pun.  Seriously though, I had to make sure I was at the Methodist church by 8:30 so we could be ready to perform our Christmas cantata there...and then again at my church at 10:45 to do it again there.  Thus ended my last comittment before Christmas, and so I celebrated by going to a movie.  Then afterward I finally bought my grandmother's gift and concluded my shopping season.  But back to the movie...there are several that I've been meaning to see for quite a while and today I finally got a chance to see a film I'd been putting off for several weekends.  It was animated by the same studio who produced the Wallace and Gromit claytoons and, lucky for me, it was a Christmas movie too.  I think this is actually the first time that I've posted a newly released film in my lineup, so this is kinda cool for me.  Anyhoo, have you ever wondered how Santa gets all of his work done?  I mean, many films have explained it away by citing magical reasons, but even for the most believing of audience members has a bit of a problem with this logic leap...thus giving us part of what makes today's movie a fantastic experience.  However, let's not get ahead of ourselves...we need to summarize first.  So let's hop over to the North Pole and visit Arthur Christmas.

It is December 24th, 2011 and Santa is putting the finishing touches on this year's mission.  However, it is not just Santa who works to make Christmas happen for every kid in the world, it is also his army of highly trained and specialized elves who come along for the ride in the S-1, a flying spaceship-like craft that hovers over the Earth with a reflective stealth surface that makes it look like the sky.  The S-1 positions itself over cities and the elves and Santa drop down and drop presents in homes across the city in a mass invasion that takes only minutes to complete.  The whole operation, however, is not run by Santa but by Santa's heavily organized and intelligent son Steve, who hopes to become the new Santa at the end of this Christmas.  Also in the family is Grand-Santa, the current Santa's father who thinks things should be done the old-fashioned way with a sled, reindeer, and going down the chimney.  And then there is Arthur, who is something of a spaz and a klutz who works in Letters and no one expects much of.  Arthur, however, seems to be the only one in the family who thinks about the children as evidenced by his careful replies to children who write to Santa Claus.  So when a present is not delivered and it looks as though one child will be left behind this Christmas, it is Arthur who decides that something should be done to prevent this travesty from happening.  So while Steve ignores the problem as an expected margin of error and Santa goes to bed in order to ignore the problem, Arthur, Grand-Santa, and a wrapping elf named Bryony head off in the outdated sleigh to deliver the gift.  Will Arthur succeed or will this end up exposing the existence of Santa and destroying Christmas?

This was a film that I really wasn't looking forward to at all from the teasers, which just seemed annoying and lacked the wit usually associated with Aardman Productions.  However, when it began raking in the positive reviews at Thanksgiving, my interest was piqued.  As is often the case, the trailers were not representative of the finished product.  I was enchanted by this tale of a Christmas that was in danger of being ruined for one little girl and by it's characters, particularly Arthur and Bryony who were delightfully positive and yet adorably spastic.  I also enjoyed their portrayal of Santa and his family.  In most stories about Santa, regardless of whether or not he is the protagonist or a secondary character, he is portrayed as perfect and without faults...but here the real Santa, his top son next in line, and his retired father are all portrayed as selfish and flawed which makes their individual journeys so unique and also keeps us emotionally invested.  It ends up making the whole film more complex and fun to watch as a result.  I actually found myself talking back to the film due to the revelations of the plot and interactions between the characters because I was so invested.  It really was a fantastic experience and I look forward to see it again next Christmas (as I intend to buy it and put it in my regular rotation) and I recommend that all of you go and see it before it leaves theaters this holiday season.  Take your family, it's worth it.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 17: Holiday Shopping Hell

I ventured out to get my last gifts for this season and yeck...remind me not to wait so long to finish up next year.  It was bedlam, with cars and people all over the place, in places they shouldn't be.  I nearly hit three or four pedestrians who stepped out in front of me at the last minute at Target and then couldn't help bumping into a few people while I perused the racks a JCPennys.  I'm sure it was much rougher on other people, one does have to consider that I only had two gifts to buy today and they must have had dozens.  Though, after today I can safely say that I am not going to enter any store until well after Christmas and I would like to add that there is a reason I do most of my shopping online.  This experience forms the basis for choosing today's film which feels like a greatest (or worst, depending on how you think about it) hits of last minute shopping at Christmas with a healthy helping of physical comedy thrown in to put it over the top.  If anyone has ever had to go to a store on Christmas Eve or tried to nab a hot product or toy on Black Friday, you can probably see some of your own experiences in this film as well as a few of the horror stories you might have only heard about.  However, I don't want to dissect the movie here and let's jump right in and experience the madness of Jingle All The Way.

Howard Langston is a hard-working Dad who often forgets that he is a father.  His job demands his attention be spread to many different areas and given to many different people and it happens so much that he often sacrifices the two people he doesn't feel he needs to impress, his wife Liz and his son Jamie.  However, when Howard misses one too many of Jamie's events during this holiday season, his wife and son make it very clear that he has very few chances left to convince them that he wants to be a good father and husband.  Jamie offers Howard his final chance to impress him by telling him that he wants a Turbo Man action figure and Howard promises that he will get one.  Liz is thankful that Howard is being attentive and then asks him if he got the toy.  Howard is confused and knows he has not purchased the toy, but he lies and assures her he has.  She is relieved, considering that it is "the" toy to own this holiday season and, since tomorrow is Christmas Eve, they should be impossible to find.  This starts Howard on a day-long adventure where he is attempts to find the elusive Turbo Man, and is thwarted in each attempt by either his fellow shoppers or an equally resourceful mailman named Myron.  What then transpires are a series of misadventures that will test Howard's resolve and his love for his son.

Jingle All The Way is one of those films that is a really novel idea inspired by real events that is undermined by overt slapstick humor and an unrealistic finale.  It's a real shame too because it could be a much more enduring classic in the vein of Home Alone.  Ironically enough, it is the popularity of the former that inspired so many of the slapsticky, stunt heavy films that followed that didn't nearly resonate as well with the populous.  There's some good stuff here though, particularly the satire of the madness of the holiday shopping season.  It veers toward the surreal and grotesque of course, with store clerks gleefully egging these people on and laughing in Arnold Schwarzenegger's face, who plays Howard.  There is also the comic timing of Schwarzenegger, who proves again that he really can make us laugh.  I enjoy just about everything in this movie aside from the jerry-rigged slapstick which feels like an afterthough.  Yes, the scenes in the stores should be violent, but they should be violent in a way that makes us afraid for our protagonist's safety rather than humorous...which would fit the satirical element of the film much better.  Afterall, the writer wrote the film to comment on the people who had been trampled trying to get Cabbage Patch Dolls and Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers for their kids and making the violence in the stores cartoony robs the satire of its strength.  Although, if someone REALLY wanted to satirize the shopping season, they ought to make the protagonist one of the store clerks who has to fend off the hordes of rude and thoughtless shoppers that force them to be at work earlier in the day and later in the day every year because they HAVE to get the doorbusters.  Having the protagonist be a rather poor example of a father doesn't really give the audience a very sympathetic character to follow...because all the crap he goes through is only happening because he wasn't more aware of his family life to begin with.  I am being a little hard on the film right now, I admit, because it is a suspenseful and amusing (if not as hilarious as thinks it is) little romp that reminds us why we all should try to get our shopping done as early as possible so as to avoid "the horror...the horror!"

Friday, December 16, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 16: Evil at Christmas

As you guys know from reading my past years posts on Christmas movies that I am a big fan of Christmas horror films.  I find it perverse and macabre to mix the the white purity of snow and the joy of Christmas with the suspense and gore of the horror film.  It just tickles me...and I also get amused at the people who get bent out of shape over it when a filmmaker decides to make a Christmas horror movie.  Its as if horror can only happen outside of the month of December...which simply isn't the case given the suicide rate and the crime rate around the holidays.  On that note, I bring you yet another dose of Christmas horror that shows the first ever psychotic Santa Claus.  Years before Silent Night, Deadly Night, another nut in a red suit stalked the snowy streets looking for fresh victims and did so with more altruistic motives.  It has been largely forgotten though, because of having no real distribute and little press.  It finally resurfaced on DVD in 2000 from Troma Entertainment, who specialize in sleazy and gory entertainment, and fans of it rejoiced.  Is it worth the fandom it has garnered or is it simply a piece of trash?  Let's find out as we ring in the holiday season with Christmas Evil.

The film begins on Christmas Eve in 1947 in a quiet suburban home.  Little Harry Stadling is convinced that Santa Claus is real and his belief is renewed each year when his father comes down the chimney and places gifts under the tree while his mother has them all watch quietly from the stairs.  Harry is enchanted and loves this tradition until he is irrevocably traumatized when he witnesses "Santa" sexually groping his mother beside their Christmas Tree.  From that moment on, Harry punishes himself for seeing the act and also makes it his mission to become the new Santa, a better Santa.  As part of this mission, he begins working at a toy factory and tries to convince them to work harder at making better quality toys.  This fails and he finds himself becoming a pushover for his coworkers.  One of them even gets him to take his night shift so he can go off and drink.  Harry's only joy is watching the neighborhood kids and checking them off on his Naughty or Nice list.  After being pushed around too long Harry finally snaps and begins to actually think he is Santa and that he must rid the world of shoddy toys and naughty people.  First he steals toys from work and gives them to a children's hospital, then he leaves a bag of dirt for a naughty boy near his home.  Finally, he kills three parishioners of a church because they make fun of him as they exit services.  Thus begins a chilling night that only Harry's brother Phil seems to know how to end.

Christmas Evil is one of those films with a lot of good ideas and not a very good whole.  I loved the idea of a crazed man thinking that he really is Santa and dispatching of 'naughty' people, but that was not mined enough.  One thing the film does right is that it spends most of it's time developing Harry as sympathetic and misunderstood so that we can understand how his problem finally reaches this peak.  But it spends virtually no time setting up the other characters, Phil in particular, that have to be affected by Harry's antics.  The supporting cast are mainly jerks or Harry's family (who are very good people) and this hurts the film.  Also, the killing only happens twice so it's hard to feel really frightened when Harry is around.  Add to the fact that Harry does some really wonderful things dressed in the suit and you come away from the film confused about how you should feel.  Are we supposed to root for him for ridding us of assholes at Christmas, or are we supposed to be horrified that he is killing people dressed in a Santa suit?  I'm guessing its the former, rather than the latter, in which case the filmmakers shouldn't have structured the narrative around the murders the way they did.  Indeed, the film seems to just jump around randomly once the killings start and by the time the ending occurs, we aren't really sure who is who.  I won't be adding Christmas Evil to my regular rotation despite the artful handling of the sympathetic protagonist, I just think Silent Night, Deadly Night is scarrier and better.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 15: Misundrerstandings at Christmas

Ooofah!  Yesterday was the longest school day I've had since the spring musical and frankly, I think its too early in the year yet for me to be that busy.  I held the second round of auditions for our annual talent show last night and had a whopping 27 acts to auditions before the night was over, which kept me at the school till 6pm.  I was glad to have such a fantastic turn out, considering that over the two days we had 35 acts try out which is a record for as long as I've been here.  The disappointing thing was that I had to cut nearly 12 acts for time's sake and because some of them simply didn't impress as much as other acts.  I know there were a lot of disappointed kids today but hopefully this year's show will be one of our best ever due to the sheer number of excellent kids who did try out.  I suppose disappointment is part of the holidays just as much as happiness is, because for every child or adult who gets a Christmas wish there are several who do not.  That makes for a fitting transition into today's film because it is about disappointment and not getting what you want for Christmas...however it is also realizing that you got what you didn't realize you needed.  It is a film about romance and laughing at life's bum-raps, but also one about appreciating family and togetherness at the holidays.  It is also notable for being one of the films that launched Sandra Bullock into stardom.  So let's take a ride on the rocky train of love and find out what happened While You Were Sleeping.

Lucy Moderatz is a lonely token collector for the Chicago Transit Authority who is constantly working for other people who have families to spend holidays with.  Lucy has no family to speak of and so her boss and co-workers see it as fair to depend on her to cover for them when they cannot work.  As it is approaching Christmas, Lucy is again asked to cancel her plans so that she can come in to work on Christmas Day and she is dreading it.  The only bright spot of her day is a single business man who stops at her counter everyday to drop off a token and ride to work.  She slowly develops a strong crush on him and finds herself looking forward to their brief exchanges each day (though they never speak or interact aside from money changing hands).  On Christmas Day, the man shows up and gets mugged on the platform and then pushed onto the tracks where he is struck unconscious.  Lucy dives in after him and saves him from being run over by the train, then she rides along with him to the hospital.  They won't let her in to see him but a nurse overhears her musing to herself that she wanted to marry him and thinks that Lucy is his fiancee.  When the family of the man, Peter Callahan, shows up they are told that she is his fiancee and they immediately make an effort to make her feel wanted and welcome in their family.  Amused and charmed by their eccentric and loving antics, Lucy allows herself to keep up the illusion while Peter stays in a coma because she realizes how much she has needed a family to be a part of.  Complications arise, however, when Peter's brother Jack questions the validity of her story...and when Lucy finds herself falling for Jack.

While You Were Sleeping is one of those comedies, like Shakespeare, whose plot rests solely on the conceit that someone could clear up all the misunderstandings and misconceptions if they simply explained the truth.  If you can't buy the reason why they can't, then the plot quickly crumbles into unbelievability and the audience loses interest.  Luckily, Bullock makes Lucy so likable and sweet that we are rooting for her not to reveal the truth about her connection to Peter...and the added element of a weak-hearted grandmother in the clan helps keep her guilt from letting her fess up.  It sails along on it's plot concept effortlessly and with a buoyancy that almost makes you wish it would never end.  The actors playing the Callahans are also a delight, combining annoying and endearing qualities into their characters that make them a wonderful family and one whom anyone would feel honored to be a part of.  This isn't just a film about a woman falling in love with a man, it's about a woman falling in love with a family and wanting to be a part of it...discoving what was really missing from her life.  That, my friends, is a great reason to watch this film at Christmas.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 14: The Best Christmas Carol (or so they say)

Yesterday was a real bear for me.  You guys know that I lost my carefully written blog on The Nutcracker and had to rewrite it quickly and haphazardly.  But you don't know that I was at work late because I had to oversee our talent show auditions from 3-5 (a whole 45 minutes of which I spent waiting for the partners of a particular group who was auditioning, only to find at 5 that they could not make it) and then a choir cantata rehearsal from 6-8:45 (Wayyyyyyyy longer than it should have been) so by the time I got home I was weary and yet not yet ready to go to bed.  In fact, when I finally went to bed an hour later I still wasn't ready to sleep yet and thus spent much of the night tossing and turning.  So this morning I woke up tired and grumpy, not the best way to start the downhill side of the week before break.  But today has been somewhat easy and relaxing, due to showing a film in my English classes and my assumption that even if tonight's round of auditions and rehearsals runs just as long it won't be any worse (especially since we now have only two more days till Christmas Vacation).  I really didn't even want to write this blog today, but since I finished a film I'd been wanting to cover in this blog since the first of the month I figured I should stay on schedule.  Last night I received, from Netflix, one of the best-reviewed and best-loved versions of Dickens' immortal Christmas classic.  I wanted to see what all the fuss was about and I figured that you can never have too many versions of "A Christmas Carol" in 25 Days of Christmas Movies.  So without further ado, let us take in the Alastair Sim version of Scrooge (aka A Christmas Carol in the UK).

(I'll skip the summary for you)

This was a very good film and, unlike many versions of Carol, manages to keep a simple and subtle look and feel to it that keeps it modest.  Alastair Sim makes an excellent Ebeneezer Scrooge and shows a truly nuanced and well-tiered change from unbearable miser into lovable 'born again' Christmas lover.  Also nice are the additional details worked into the flashbacks in the Christmas Past segment where we see much more of Scrooge's rise to power and how it could almost be compared to the backroom dealings of the mafia.  He meets the Devil (metaphorically) in the form of a new business partner named Mr. Jorkin and this is the man who helps shape him into the insufferable grump who we begin the tale with.  We also are treated to a scene of Scrooge watching his sister die in childbirth and making him promise to take care of Fred, his nephew, for her.  Christmas Present is fairly standard, as is Christmas Future...though there are a few additional bits at the beginning which set up Tiny Tim and the remainder of Cratchet's family before Scrooge is introduced to them by Christmas Present.  This film is also notable for being one of the first adaptations to retain the book's original ending where Scrooge had Christmas dinner with his nephew and surprised Bob Cratchet the next day (a first and I think the only time until Zemeciks' version that retained this ending).  Overall, I enjoyed it and could see why it is considered a classic...however I'm not sure if I agree that it is the best one out of all of them.  There are so many good points from all the adaptations that to say this one, with it's low-rent effects and hammy 50s acting from all but Sim, is the best seems more like nostalgia talking than actual aesthetic appreciation.  Still, there are worse films you could find playing on TV at Christmas and this is certainly a wonderful old-school Christmas film that everyone can enjoy.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 13: More Nuts to Crack

I'm aggravated...I typed a full two paragraphs for this blog entry today and then it was all erased when I tried to save it and was informed that I had been somehow logged off from another location.  So here I am starting over again and in a way, that kinda makes sense for this post.  In 1986, a film version of one of the most popular Christmas ballets was made and released theatrically to lackluster reviews and poor box office performance.  It took 7 years for another producer to take the bold step of adapting the ballet for film again so, like this blog, it became a do-over.  So without further ado, let's take a second chance on The Nutcracker.

It is Christmas eve and the household is bustling with activity.  The servants have locked the main ballroom off from the rest of the house and are busily putting directions on the walls, on the tree, and preparing for the big annual Christmas party that evening.  Marie and Fritz, the children of the house, are all a-tizzy trying to get a glimpse of the room before the guests arrive.  Finally, the party begins and the house is filled with music, dancing, and liveliness.  The fun increases when Uncle Drosselmeier and his Nephew arrive and begin passing out toys.  Fritz is given a toy horse to ride on and Marie is given a fancy, hand-carved Nutcracker.  The Nutcracker begins getting more attention than Fritz's horse so Fritz destroys it out of spite.  After fixing it with a handkerchief, Drosselmeier places the toy into a little toy bed to rest and the children are sent off to bed.  Unable to sleep, Marie creeps downstairs where she finds the Christmas tree and the presents under seige by mice!  To add insult to injury, Marie begins to shrink down to mouse size and finds herself terrorized by the mice.  Luckily, her Nutcracker comes to life and fights for her honor.  Once he is victorious, he takes her on a magical journey to the kingdom of sweets to meet the Sugar Plum Fairy.

While the first theatrical Nutcracker film focused on the popular Pacific Northwest Ballet, this version was based on George Balanchine's famed New York City production that has be come a yearly tradition for many.  The producers must have felt that using the basis of an already popular production was a sure fire win for them...sadly that is not the case.  The '86 version's shortcomings aside, it was miles more entertaining than this version.  One of the problems with turning the Balanchine version into a film is that you take it, warts and all.  This production was choreographed a little easier so that more children could take part and play the pivotal roles, such as the Nutcracker and Marie.  This means that the dancing isn't nearly as spectacular as we expect for a film production, where money is no object and so the best talent can be brought in.  It seems a shame too, when other productions are much more challenging and feature more show stopping moves.  The production design is also without much style or uniqueness and seems less like a film and more like a stage production that has been filmed, taking some of the pop out of visuals that no doubt looked fantastic on stage.  There's no distinctiveness to it and it seems almost generic.  I'll admit that for the first time since I was very young, I fell asleep during this ballet and that is not a good sign.  The '86 production is much more distinctive and lively and makes for a better film, and it's a pity that it is not available on DVD and this one is.  Ah well, at least this dull version can do one can encourage people to go and see a live production on stage.

Monday, December 12, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 12: An 80s Visit to Toyland

Before baking this weekend I decided to hunt around on my Netflix instant queue for something Christmassy to get me in the mood and lo and behold, I found a TV remake of Babes in Toyland that was made in the 1980s.  Intrigued by this, and surprised that Drew Barrymore was in it, I decided to watch it and about films that are different!  But this isn't where I usually evaluate movies, this is where I introduce them.  So imagine a film that begins in present day Cincinnati, Ohio during the Christmas season that then transports it's main character to toyland to interact with the Mother Goose characters we met in the Disney version.  Its a little strange, a little fun, and a little bad and so I decided to share it here today in order to show just how different remakes can be.  So without further ado I give you Babes in Toyland.

Lisa Piper is an 11-year-old girl from Cincinnati, Ohio who has been forced to grow up very quickly due to her mother being single and having to help out around the house with her big sister Mary, who works at a local toy store to help make ends meet.  Lisa doesn't have much use for Christmas and toys, preferring more practical things like a new blender for the kitchen and time off for her mother.  One night, when Lisa's mother is stuck in a snow storm, Lisa rushes to the toy store to warn Mary and Jack, the boy who Mary likes, that the blizzard is coming and they rush off.  A bad twist of fate sends Lisa down a hill where she hits a tree and suddenly finds herself descending into Toyland, a colorful village populated by toys and nursery rhyme characters.  Lisa immediatly becomes a nuisance to Mr. Barnaby, the town villain, who is trying to marry Mary Contrary to get her property, much to the dismay of Jack Be Nimble who loves her.  Lisa tells Barnaby where he can stick it and so Barnaby, now unable to manipulate Mary into marrying him, sets into motion an evil plan to capture all of Toyland.  It is then up to Lisa, Mary, Jack, and Georgie Porgie to save the day so that Toyland can have its toys ready for Christmas.  If they don't succeed, it may be the end of Christmas for everyone.

This loose adaptation of the original operetta bears little resemblance to the original work and indeed, only includes two songs from that.  The rest of the songs were written by Leslie Bricusse, who also worked on Scrooge.  It is a strange franken-production that calls to mind more similarities with The Wizard of Oz than it does with Toyland.  I almost wonder if the producers weren't trying to remake Oz and simply couldn't get permission (since at the time, Disney was making Return to Oz) and so they did Toyland instead.  The celebrity cast really surprised me as well, as I was expecting to only recognize Barrymore...imagine my surprise when Eileen Brennan (Clue), Richard Mulligan ("The Golden Girls" and "Empty Nest") and Keanu Reeves showed up as leads...who sing!  Yes friends, Keanu sings (at least according to all the sources I one was listed as having been dubbed for this film) and that alone was worth sitting through it.  I really enjoyed the first part of this film, which was set in Cincy and looked like it was made with a decent sized budget...but once we got to Toyland I found my attention waning and the similarities between it and Oz grew too frequent to keep me from being distracted.  That isn't to say that this isn't's certainly a better all around experience than the Disney one I wrote about last week and at least it has the definate Christmas connection, but it's not the best thing you'll ever watch.  If you do watch it, do so on Hulu or Netflix where it can be streamed not pay.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 11: Hard Times at the Holidays

So I worked myself hard yesterday baking enough cookies for several boxes of assortments for all my co workers.  I made a box for everyone in the department and my two math friends, and the leftovers I popped into a platter for the school secretaries.  I suddenly feel both thoughtful and generous, and I suppose that is what Christmas is all about.  Thinking of others and giving...and I suppose it doesn't hurt that giving away all my cookies removes the temptation for eating them since I'm watching my figure now (and getting excellent results I might add!).  Back to the baking...I spent 5 hours on my feet mixing and measuring and taking things out of the oven and at the end of it I was so tired I was passing out before 10 last night, which is unheard of for me on a Saturday night.  And as I sat there, falling asleep contentedly after a heavy day of cooking and preparing for the last week of school, I started thinking of people who aren't as lucky as myself and others in the middle-class bracket.  There are people out there who are struggling to just keep their financial lives together let alone afford to buy gifts.  And I thought of a film I just watched a few nights ago that I feel fits those late night ponderings of mine nicely.  It is the story of a woman who cannot muster any Christmas spirit simply because her life has gotten so bad this year that she cannot focus on it and an angel who tries to win her back by showing her what could be worse.  It was a well-reviewed but largely unseen live action film from the Mouse House in the 80s, and I am pleased to revisit it here for you.  So lets go and experience One Magic Christmas.

Ginny Granger is the mother of two and wife to Jack Granger, a dreamer and a factory worker.  They are solidly in the middle of working/lower class and things seem to keep getting worse.  Jack has been out of work since June, the family has to move out of their house (which is company owned) by January 1st, and Ginny is forced to work at a local grocery store (a job she hates and which keeps her from her kids) in order to make ends meet.  Stress is added to her plate by her children, who keep asking if Santa is coming this year and manage to keep breaking things in the house, and Jack, who wants to take out a loan for a bike shop.  Ginny sees all of this as foolish and loses her temper quite often, feeling bad about it afterward but not understanding why her family doesn't understand why they simply cannot be frivolous at this time.  One night, Abbie, Ginny's daughter, goes out to mail a letter to Santa asking him to make things better for her mother.  As she drops it in, an angel named Gideon takes it back and tells her that she must get her mother to mail it in order to make her mother better.  This is easier said than done, though, since Ginny simply refuses to indulge Abby's belief in Santa and Christmas.  Gideon, realizing matters are dire, begins to set in motion events that will test Ginny's beliefs and her strength.

Wow, this may have been the most depressing Christmas I ever saw.  You get to witness the demise of a family's finances and security on Christmas Eve and you are treated to some doozies of worst case scenarios.  It's a wonder someone watching it doesn't start hating Christmas as much as Ginny does.  However, that is sort of the see people at their lowest so that we can see the holiday persevere and bring them back up from the dumps.  Very much like It's a Wonderful Life, an angel comes to intervene in a person's life to bring them back into loving Christmas...and he can't show the positives of the holiday, no of course not, he has to bring the protagonist to her worst so that she can see what COULD be missing rather than what is.  I won't ruin the surprises, and there are many, but I will say that this angel does way worse things to Ginny than Clarence did to George in It's a Wonderful Life.  Oh, special mention should be given to Mary Steenburgen, who plays Ginny to subtle perfection.  She isn't the average Scrooge at all.  We see her bounce back and forth between tempers and remorse for hurting her loved ones.  It all seems so real and true to life that I began to forget I was watching an actress in a part and really believed I was seeing a working class mother at the end of her rope.  She hates the holiday and hates herself for being impatient with her was one of the most subtly nuanced performances I've ever seen.  Harry Dean Stanton is also good as the angel Gideon who isn't all smiles and sunshine like Clarence Oddbody, but rather he is melancholy and genuinely sad by Ginny's lack of faith.  It is a nice change from the usual overly-happy and "rah rah...CHRISTMAS!" as these characters tend to be.  I'm not sure if One Magic Christmas is going to be your cup of tea given the very dark factor of it, but it is certainly different from what else you will see during the holiday season and will definitely make you thankful for what you have.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 10: Pageants and Problems

Last night I got to do something I don't often get to do in my little town...I got out to see a play.  Our community theater decided to do one of my favorite short plays which is based on one of my favorite children's books regarding the Christmas season.  Several of my theater kids were in it too, and they were all fabulous...which made me so proud.  Watching them in the play reminded me of how that book used to be a family tradition.  My mother always read it with her elementary school kids and would talk about their reactions, and one year I was even in the play as a major character.  This was a part of Christmas and a part of childhood...and it wasn't until yesterday that I remembered that there was also a movie based on this popular book and I thought, wouldn't that be perfect for for my blog this year?  So here it is, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

The Herdmans are the worst kids in town.  They fight, bully, smoke cigars (even the girls) and cuss their teachers. Every one of them is a terror and they make life unbearable for kid and child alike all over the town.  In fact, the only place where one can feel safe from them is at church, which is what Charlie Bradley says when being asked what he likes about Sunday School.  This upsets his teacher, but not his mother Grace who completely understands since Leroy Herdman made Charlie black and blue last year in school.  Soon afterward, Mrs. Armstrong...the unofficial leader of everything Christmas related...ends up with a broken leg and all of her duties have to be passed off to other women, including the unwanted annual Christmas Pageant.  The honor ends up falling to Grace, who not only insists that her children and her husband participate but who also insists that this will be their best Christmas Pageant ever.  That is, until Charlie makes a big blunder.  When Leroy Herdman steals his lunch dessert for the umpteeth time, Charlie brags that he gets all the dessert he wants at Sunday School.  Guess who shows up at Church next week just in time to hear about the Christmas Pageant?  Suddenly, Grace is having to deal with the usual Pageant problems while also trying to herd the Herdmans who take over the show in a matter of minutes.  Will this be the best Christmas Pageant ever or will it be an unmitigated disaster?

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is always best experienced in its original written form where you can supply all the reactions and sarcasms in your own mind that make you laugh the most.  When it gets dramatized you have actors making performance choices that either match what you always imagined, or don't.  I suppose this is true of any book, but with comedy it's particularly dangerous.  It somewhat like hearing the same joke again.  If you don't hear it exactly right, it won't make you laugh the same way.  Such is the case with this film.  It is good, because the source is good, but it doesn't quite reach greatness due to that constant comparison to how you first reacted to the source.  Many parts still are riotous, however...such as the pageant rehearsals and Mrs. Armstrong's conversations with Grace over the phone.  Also, the performance of Loretta Swit (best known as Hot Lips Houlihan from M.A.S.H.) is an excellent mix of sweetness and sarcasm and is perfect for the role of Grace.  Overall, it is a cute and short little telemovie that is always fun to watch, especially as we get nearer to Christmas because...despite being heavily rooted in satire and is a film that really contemplates the true meaning of Christmas and what it means to everyone.  I think that's worth more than a few poorly timed punchlines.

Friday, December 9, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 9: An "Animated" Carol (oh the puns!)

Today is probably one of the strangest schedules that we've had yet at school this year, due to an assembly that had to be held in the auditorium.  Whenever the auditorium must be used and the whole school is attending, it means that the school is split into two groups.  Then one group goes to the assembly while the others go to their classes and then they switch off.  I lucked out today, because the assembly took place during 5th period (which is my planning period on Friday), so I had no students to be responsible for nor did I have to hold an hour period with those students.  I did, however, get affected by the modified schedule in the morning...where our first four periods suddenly became 15 minutes each.  That's just enough time to take role, tell the kids what to expect on Monday, and then watch them scurry out as the bell rings.  Thankfully, the day has passed quickly and without much annoyance and everywhere you can see people getting psyched up for Christmas (which means, teachers are more lethargic from exhaustion and students are squirrelly knowing that break and presents are within a week's grasp).  A week from today I will be one period away from Christmas freedom, and I couldn't be more excited.  Speaking of Christmas, I have another "Carol" for you today, this one the most recent of the versions available...having just been released in 2009.  It tells the same familiar story of Scrooge while also adding in a special visual flair that could not have been achieved before now.  Without futher delay, let's dive into Robert Zemeckis' motion-captured A Christmas Carol.  (I'll do you a favor and skip the summary)

We all know the story of Scrooge and how his life is saved by the timely intervention of three spirits on Christmas Eve.  His story has never been as fast-paced and action-packed however.  Zemeckis and company have taken Dickens' book and translated it almost perfectly to the screen, even keeping elements that are often cut Christmas Present's urchins, Want and Ignorence.  However, in addition to those wonderful literary elements, we are treated to a great deal of action sequences where Scrooge is whisked around from here to there and violently tossed about in order to fully utilize the visual capabilities of the motion-capture animation medium.  Where Scrooge might be gently transported to the past in previous versions, now he is dragged and thrown by Christmas Past (in this version, a candle and flame) into the different time periods.  What used to be a somber tour with Christmas-Yet-To-Come, is now a riotous chase through London as Scrooge is nearly killed several times by a demonic horse-drawn herse.  These moments tend to be a little jarring for one expecting a more sublte film experience like the Alastar Sim or George C. Scott versions and I can see why.  It does not feel like a classy film for these reasons, or at least what we think a classy film should be, which is a shame because it turns off people who would have really loved how close to the source the film was.  However, to punish the film for making potentially dull scenes exciting is not fair in my eyes which is why I've taken to liking this Carol and include it as one of my favorite versions due to it's dark visual style and adherence to the source.  It is the version I have always wanted to see and missteps only in that it moves a little too fast between scenes, making me wish the brisk 90 minutes was closer to 120.  Kids will love this Carol and visually it is the best looking of the versions so you can't go wrong if you add it to your family Christmas lineup.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 8: TOYLAND!!!!

One of my fondests memories from childhood at Christmas was imagining what Santa's workshop looked like.  I remember feeling like I got a pretty good look at it in Santa Claus: The Movie, but I still couldn't be sure.  Afterall, that film portrayed it as a workshop that simply made old-fashioned where did those Ghostbusters that Santa got me come from?  Certainly he doesn't go to Toys R' US or the Mall, that would just spoil the mystique.  I asked my mother and she said that Santa went to Toyland for that stuff, because that's where toys really come from.  This was good enough for my blind faith and I went on believing in a Toyland for several years you can imagine my delight when as a young child I came across this Disney film from 1961.  It had music, bright colors, wild dances, a massive battle, and it prominantly featured Toyland...and it was just how I pictured it.  Now imagine my surprise in finding that this film is listed among others on a full on list of Christmas movies...I never knew it had anything to do with Christmas.  So without further ado, let's take a trip to Mother Goose Village and watch Babes in Toyland.

All the citizens of Mother Goose Village are very excited today because, after what seems like much too long, Tom Piper and Mary Contrary are finally getting married.  To mark the occasion, a celebration is given to the happy couple and features, among other celebrities, Little Boy Blue, Simple Simon, Bo Peep and her Sheep, and Jack-Be-Nimble.  The only person who doesn't attend is Barnaby, the Crooked Man who lived in a Crooked House.  Barnaby is jealous and enraged at Tom for stealing Mary and her generous inheritence away from him, so he arranges for Tom to be kidnapped and thrown into the sea.  Then, after ensuring that Bo Peep's sheep are stolen and taken into The Forest of No Return and Mary cannot make any money off of them, Barnaby makes his offer of marriage to Mary.  Bo Peep, Boy Blue, and Willie Winkie, seeing how distraught Mary is, venture into the Forest of No Return to find them.  Mary and Tom, who are reunited by gypsies, then must set out to find them and rescue them from the forest...which turns out to be the outer border of Toyland.  A great chase ensues to see who will come back from the forest intact...our cheerful leads or the evil Barnaby.

Surprise, Babes in Toyland really has nothing to do with Christmas aside from a winter finale and references to Christmas when the children are helping the Toymaker in his workshop in scenic Toyland.  Otherwise, this film makes me think more of Spring and Summer than anything else with it's bright floral colors and references to the warm ocean and lemonade.  Still, considering that Toyland acts a a huge production floor for Santa and the toy shops of the world, I suppose I can count it by a very thin margin.  As for the film itself, it is a decent if cloying adaptation of Glen MacDonough's famous operetta, with new lyrics by George Burns.  Performances by the veteren cast are fine, with Ray Bolger and Ed Wynn carrying much of the weight as Barnaby and the Toymaker respectively, but the young protagonists, especially Mickey Mouse Club Favorite Annette, are rather bland and lifeless.  Annette especially seems to have only two expressions, mild surprise and dreamy wistfulness.  Her voice and look fits the part, but paired with actors who are much more willing to give into the silliness of the piece, she tends to look emotionless and lifeless.  I can't really recommend this film as one that adults, as well as kids, will enjoy...but I can say that if you have little ones in the house they will certainly enjoy this colorful musical.  You grown ups, however, will probably just need to grin and bear it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 7: This is Halloween (The First Archive Post)

Ok, this isn't really an archive post so much as a repeat of a film from two years ago.  Before I leap in, can I once again reiterate how stressful the month of December can be?  Try this on for size, in a week where I lost sixth period to a sophomore field trip to the vocational school and Friday morning is sacrificed for an assembly, the Good Lord decreed that we needed another interruption this week to keep things exciting.  So there was a non-emergency lockdown for a half an hour at the tail end of 3rd period today (eating up the last 7 minutes of 3rd and taking 23 minutes of 5th), when I have one of my rowdy bunches.  Keeping 27 kids in a dark room away from a door and being able to tell them nothing about the situation (because I honestly didn't and still don't know why we were on lockdown) is like trying to herd cats.  They were up, down, quiet and loud and overall annoying.  The only thing that made it bearable was the fact that I had finished my lesson for today and I do not have a 5th period because I am assigned to hall duty, so I didn't really lose any momentum in class unlike other teachers who had to then rush through the remainder of 5th period in order to cover everything.  Thank heaven for small favors.  It did put me in the mood for Christmas though, because Christmas means two whole weeks of not having any professional cares or worries.  It's nice to get a break from the daily grind, which is what a highly important Christmas figure gets in the film I am revisiting today.  Of course, unlike my break which I am craving, his break is forced on him by the star of the film who desperately wants to understand and be a part of Christmas, but doesn't quite get the difference between it and other holidays.  So without further ado, I bring you one of the best "dark" Christmas films, The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The film begins at the end of October 31st where all the citizens of Halloween Town are celebrating yet another successful years of scares, spooks, and spills...well all the citizens except their Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington.  Jack has slowly grown bored of the Halloween shtick and longs for something more to fill his lonely heart, but he isn't sure what.  He walks through the forest late that night and on into the next morning and is surprised to come across a clearing with strange trees, each with a door corrosponsing to what we know as holidays.  There is a door shaped like a Jack-o-lantern, a heart shaped door, a four leaf clover door, a firework shaped door, and even an egg shaped door.  Jack ignores these other doors and focuses in on the most festive and colorful one, which is shaped like a fully trimmed Christmas tree.  Jack opens the door and finds himself whisked into Christmas Town, a snowy wonderland populated by elves and run by Santa Claus.  Jack is amazed at the bright and cheery world where no ghouls or goblins ever appear to ruin the joy of the eternal Christmas within and he finds himself growing light with joy himself.  Obsessed with recapturing the feeling he feels in Christmas Town, Jack returns to Halloween Town on a mission to recreate the magic.  He finds himself stumped however by not understanding what it all means and finally decides that to really 'get' Christmas, he must take it over and run it himself.  He orders "Sandy Claws" (as they call him) kidnapped and then sets about "Making Christmas" with all the other ghouls of Halloween Town.  Only one citizen, Sally, can forsee that Jack's Christmas is going to be a disaster and with Jack distracted by the preparations and Santa held captive by the evil Oogie-Boogie, it looks like this may be the last Christmas ever.

I've known a lot of people who didn't take to the movie, which isn't surprising. A truly discriminating viewer will notice plot holes here and there.  They might also wonder why the leader of Halloween Town is such an emotional sap rather than being someone fearsome and ghoulish, and they also might be put off by the techniques of stop-motion animation. Whatever the reasons, these people just don't care for this movie. I'm not going to tell them they're wrong...that will be as silly as someone trying to convince me why I shouldn't like it as much as I do. I would like to say that I'm not one of those emo kids who brought it, I liked it way back when I was 9 and it was new. It was something a little different and a little dark, which was nice next to all the bright and happy animated musicals that the Mouse House was producing at that point. Oh yes, this dark little fairy tale is definitely a musical...with wonderfully clever tunes written by (and in several instances) sung by Danny Elfman. The story, I think, is rather ingenious. It first invents the idea that every holiday inhabits its own world where its preparations take place for an entire year, and we are first shown Halloween Town, where everything is dark and spooky and it is run by Jack Skellington...and then we are shown it's antithesis in Christmas Town...where he becomes enamored with the secular trappings of the treasured winter holiday. It is a sweet and sour fairy tale that appeals to many ages, and it still popular today...rightfully so...due to it's excellent design, grand performances, and expert direction by Henry Selick.  Watch it again, or for the first time this Christmas and giggle as holidays collide.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 6: Appreciating the Little Things

If there is any theme that filmmakers love exploiting at Christmas, it is the theme of sudden realizations that one's life is empty, incomplete, or better than one gives it credit for.  Reevaluating one's life is the 'it' thing to do at Christmas in fiction, and thematically it makes perfect sense.  What other time of the year (besides Thanksgiving) is fully dedicated to encouraging family gatherings, giving and being thankful, and sharing love?  Also, since it is the end of a year and close to the start of a new one, it fits with resolutions for the next year as well (The Clean Slate effect as I like to call it).  Many many films are about appreciating life and making the 'right' choices regarding it.  If Kevin McCallister hadn't realized that he both needs and loves his family, Home Alone loses it's point.  If George Baily doesn't realize that his life is necessary to the survival of other people's lives, It's a Wonderful Life is merely a public service announcement for suicide and if Scrooge doesn't realize that his life is riddled with mistakes, then A Christmas Carol cannot effectively be dramatic.  Such is the case with a Nicolas Cage film from 2000 that explored such ideas as not realizing that one's life is empty and that a better life is possible if one makes important sacrifices...and of course, all centered around the holiday season.  So let's examine an alternate reality as we visit with The Family Man.

Jack Campbell, a single and wealthy Wall Street hot shot, thinks that he has it all.  He is in the midst of putting together a billion dollar merger and has ordered an emergency meeting on Christmas day to ensure its success and he has no wishes to give up his life for love, family, or any of those sorts of mundane things. In his office on Christmas Eve, he is surprised to hear that his former girlfriend, Kate, tried to call him after many years. After reminiscing a bit, he walks into a convenience store where a lottery contestant, Cash, barges in saying that he has a winning ticket. The store clerk believes that Cash is lying and refuses to give him his winnings. Cash pulls out a gun and is about to shoot the clerk before Jack offers to buy the ticket from him, thus averting disaster. He and Cash settle their business deal outside and he arrogantly offers to help Cash before going to sleep in his penthouse.  When Jack awakens on Christmas Day he is shocked to find that he is living in suburban New Jersey, married to Kate, and the father of two.  Confused and bewildered, Jack rushes into New York City to find out what has gone wrong and finds that none of his work colleagues or friends recognize him.  Running into Cash on the street (who is driving Jack's Ferrari), Cash explains that Jack is experiencing an alternate reality meant to teach him a lesson.  Forced now to deal with family pressures and sell tires, Jack finds himself failing miserably at the job of husband and father...and yet, he comes to love and enjoy it.  Will Jack decide that this is the life he wants to keep or will he choose to go back to the life he originally had?

The Family Man has the seeds of many famous and not so famous story ideas wrapped up inside of it.  One one hand, it is very much like It's a Wonderful Life because it is about a man who experiences an alternate life to help him put his own life in perspective.  On another, it is like A Christmas Carol because it is about a man who is selfish who is shown how to be a nicer and kinder man during the Christmas season.  Either way, it is an oft-used story device where someone who isn't living 'correctly' is show how to do so through supernatural intervention.  It isn't wholly original, but it does include a few very interesting wrinkles.  For instance, in those other stories, people who had existed have disappeared or been destroyed because of the decisions a character has or is about to make.  In The Family Man, Jack holds the life of his children in his hands because if he goes back to his old life, he eliminates them from ever existing.  That's a lot of responsibility for a man.  Also, it also poses the question that, if Jack decides to go back and fix these issues, is there any guarentee that Kate will still be interested?  These elements make The Family Man a little more memorable and original than other variations on the same theme...but it doesn't elevate it to greatness either.  It is simply a nice, enjoyable but ultimately forgettable film.  I still enjoy watching it, but if you're going for a 'lesson learned at Christmas' theme...there are better places to look.

Monday, December 5, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 5: It's a Wonderful Life...Again...

There are few Christmas movies out there that are true staples of the year, and personally I always feel that until they are watched, it is not yet Christmas.  Those include A Christmas Story, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, and It's a Wonderful Life.  Regarding the latter, I cannot think of a single film that is more associated with classic Christmas entertainment than that one film.  I personally cannot open a single present until James Stewart has made me weep like a woman when he realizes how important his life really is.  It probably comes as a shock to you then, that It's a Wonderful Life was something of a flop during it's release.  Reviewers called it overly sentimental and trite and audiences didn't exactly show up in droves to see it, letting it finish 6th during release.  For many years, It's a Wonderful Life simply disappeared from public consciousness and was largely forgotten.  During it's absence from popular culture, television executives at ABC and Marlo Thomas (of TV's "That Girl") decided to resurrect it for the small screen in a colorized and true to the original TV remake.  The project was very personal to Thomas and gave her an opportunity to give the film a more feminist swing, while also exploring more of the back stories of the people of Bedford Falls.  The result was a ratings success that was aired and re-aired on television for years until the original film found new life and success on the airwaves.  The question is, does the film hold up or was it simply a case of people thinking it's good because they aren't familiar with the original?  Let's find out as we find out that It Happened One Christmas.

Mary Bailey has had a very intense roller coaster of a life.  She has always cared about what happens to other people before looking after herself, which has caused many of the hardships in her life.  When she was young, she saved her brother Harry from drowning and in doing so rendered herself deaf in one ear.  She planned to go off to see the world when she graduated and then had to take over the Building and Loan Business when her father passes away so that it won't be closed.  She gave up her honeymoon money to keep the business open when the Great Depression struck and she allowed herself to live in poverty in order to fix up an old house that her husband George loved.  It all is constantly getting to Mary but she manages to rise above it until the one Christmas Eve that a payment to the bank examiner goes missing and the town's evil landowner, Mr. Potter, seizes the opportunity to finally shut Mary down.  Mary realizes that with her life insurance and no money, she is worth more dead than she is alive.  So Mary heads to the bridge on the edge of town with plans to hurl herself into the river and commit suicide.  Luckily for her, her guardian angel Clara is there to try to convince her not to.  Mary is then taken on a magical journey to let her decide whether her life actually means something or if she should simply not exist.

It Happened One Christmas is the kind of remake, like Psycho and The Omen, that changes very little in an effort to hold on to the elements that made the original a classic (with the only irony being that It's a Wonderful Life) was never considered a classic until after this.  It repeats scenes and dialogue down to the letter and punctuation and only reverses the gender of George and Mary and changed Clarence the angel into Clara.  Other small changes include more details in the section regarding when the boys go to war and the hyphenating of Mary's last name to include both her maiden and her married name (an anachronism for the time period).  The story is still a good one, however, and the film's only shortcoming is the inevitable comparisons to the original, especially since it is nearly word-for-word identical.  Naturally, anyone wanting to experience this story for the first time should always begin with the James Stewart original, but this one offers plenty to enjoy as well including good performances by great actors and a similar but different experience of a familiar tale.  And, if you're a complete Scrooge about any remake of It's a Wonderful Life, you can at least appreciate this film for bringing it back into the public consciousness so that it could become a classic instead of the forgotten gem it seemed destined to become.