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31Christmas2

miracleon34thIt’s sad, and I know it. I never watched “Miracle on 34th Street” before this year. I had seen a couple of minutes as I walked in and out of the family room in my childhood home (my dad loved watching old movies). I remember vaguely the courtroom with Santa in his chair, but that’s it.

And, yes Virginia, I’ve missed out. This is a fabulous film.

“Miracle” opens with Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Day parade with Doris Walker, the producer of the parade, being faced with a drunk fake Santa. She’s given this information by a delightful old man who himself could be Santa, and she quickly pulls him into action, placing him on the float.  Her daughter Susan (played by a young Natalie Wood), is excited when she sees this new Santa and tells her mom as much. As do many others, and soon this man becomes the Macy’s Santa in the store.

That’s when we learn his name: Kris Kringle. Yep. He’s the big man himself. Well, the store reps think nothing of it, until he starts sending people to other stores to find the items they want. “You know Gimbels has exactly what you’re looking for; Macy’s doesn’t carry it.” This almost gets him fired (because why would you send people to your competitors?).

Yet it endears patrons to Macy’s, and when Mr. Macy hears, he can’t believe the brilliance behind it. Kris, of course, was just being honest. It’s brilliant.

Kris comes to live with Doris’ next door neighbor and love interest Fred during the holiday season as he has a spare bed. Soon, however, Kris’ eccentricity begins to show, and Doris—and avowed disbeliever—feels that he’s taking the Santa thing too far. Susan, however, knows he’s really Santa.

The plot moves us to Kris’ meeting with doctors and ultimately a court case trying to prove he’s really Santa. It’s truly wonderful.

It shouldn’t be surprising then that I give it my highest rating:

5stars

 

This movie really zeroes in on the true meaning of Christmas, the sharing of joy with all the world and not being overcome by materialism.

Next up: 8 Women.

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31Christmas2

prancerPrancer,” a 1989 “family” Christmas film, was chosen by my readers. I’d never viewed it, but figured if my readers wanted me to, there must be something redeeming about it.

I was wrong.

“Prancer” is set in a Mid-west town that has clearly seen better days. The town public works team is putting up its annual Christmas displays—including a Santa in sleigh with the requisite reindeer. As they hoist Santa up, the third reindeer drops and breaks leaving a gap. Jessica, an elementary aged girl, sees this happen and asks the workers if they intend to fix the broken Prancer. (She’s memorized their names probably by learning the “Rudolph” song opening.)

They don’t. The hole remains, and the third reindeer is missing.

And within the next day or so an actual reindeer appears in the afternoon and Jessica sees it.  Later that evening and after dark, Jessica is out driving with her dad and happens upon the deer in the middle of the road.  Its leg has a wound from a bullet (it is hunting season, you know). Dad pulls out the shotgun in his pick-up truck, Jessica cries to make him stop, and the deer disappears.

Jessica is convinced its Prancer due to the fallen fake reindeer.

Jessica’s mom has recently died, times are really tough. Her dad is nasty to her and just trying to make ends meet. Jess is shown as the girl who sings too loud and has only one real friend. All this is supposed to endear her to us, but I just had to wonder why dad couldn’t be a bit more loving or if one of the other adults could have noticed Jessica and reached out a bit since it had to be tough to lose a parent.  Nope.

Of course, she nurse Prancer back to health, and she writes a letter to Santa to set up a rendezvous point on December 23. The fake town Santa takes the letter to the town paper and the editor runs the letter and the Polaroid of Prancer the next day. There’s some other plot twists, but nothing surprising or interesting.

The yelling from dad and a very odd (and a little scary) neighborhood woman made me not want to show this to my kids (never mind the plot device of having a dead mother). It’s not really that much of a “family” film in my book.

So, while the town does rally around Jessica some after the editorial appears, this film just doesn’t get to a redeeming point.  I’m giving it:

2stars

 

I’ll never watch this one again. And given the fact that not even Netflix is carrying this movie anymore (I had to check it out from a local library), I doubt you will either.

Next up: “A Miracle on 34th Street.”

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31Christmas2

kranks_01I approached “Christmas with the Kranks” with a bit of loathing. It got enough votes to break into my readers’ top 10, but I had no interest to see this film when it came out and none now.

The title was the only thing I knew. When I saw Tim Allen appear as Luther Krank I was pleasantly surprised. And then Jamie Lee Curtis appeared as his wife Nora. I settled in thinking that this might be a bit better than I had expected.

Our tale begins with Luther and Nora’s only daughter heading off to Peru with the Peace Corps. just after Thanksgiving. Nora is heartbroken.  She can’t even begin to think how she will make it through the holidays—her favorite time of year—without her only child. In the next couple of days she heads into a funk.

Luther hits a funk himself upon realizing they had spent over $6000 the year before on Christmas. So he hatches a plan. What if they leave dreary Chicago and head off to the Caribbean for a 10 day cruise and skip Christmas entirely? He points out that it would be only half the cost.  Nora agrees, albeit a bit reluctantly.

Christmas with the KranksSo they begin putting this plan into action. This means no meaningless gifts for co-workers and asking them to do the same. It means no $90 Christmas Trees from the boy scouts (although might they have considered a small donation?).

And it means no Frosty on the roof to the ire of the rest of the neighborhood whose first place finish in the local decorations contest will be in jeopardy.

The neighborhood holds sway.  Once they hear of the Kranks’ desire to “skip Christmas,” they begin laying in on them. Luther holds his own for the most part. Nora begins to crumble.

The neighbors become a bit antagonistic, including the one across the street who is Luther’s nemesis, and who allows a local newspaper to get on his roof to snap a picture of the unlit house of the Kranks. Dan Aykroyd and Cheech Marin join in as well.  As does the local priest, adding a level of guilt when the Kranks aren’t at the mall to buy Christmas presents but to get a tan.

What surprised me most was the antagonism thrown at the Kranks for not buying presents, as if there wasn’t a greater sin.  Yes, they could have done more for charity — they cut all donations at Christmas too — but not being materialistic and getting out of control seemed like a good thing to me. Surely not buying cheap perfume from Wal*Mart would be a positive (but alas, someone complains and shows it’s a disappointment).

The film leads to a somewhat surprising end which clearly shows the true meaning of Christmas in my eyes.  A meal where those invited can’t come and so invitations fly out to whomever also has a biblical ring (I don’t want to say more than this).  However, when the plot turns to Christmas Eve and the priest makes another appearance, I had to laugh. No clergy person is ever free on Christmas Eve!

“Christmas with the Kranks” pleasantly surprised me.  The humor wasn’t crude, and the message rang true.  I’m giving it:

4stars

 

I’ll be more than happy to watch this one again in the years to come.

Next in the dvd player: “Prancer.”

 

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31Christmas2

meet-me-in-st-louisMeet Me in St. Louis” was the 2nd highest vote getter from my readers.  With Judy Garland starring, I expected a bit of singing in that wonderful alto (technically contra-alto) voice of hers. And she certainly did that in this period musical.

Our story is of a wealthy St. Louis family in the time just before the 1904 World’s Fair. We meet the Smiths, a family with four daughters ranging in a age (the youngest, Tootie, is elementary age).  The oldest, Rose, awaits a phone call one evening from a young man attending Yale, and Esther (Judy Garland) tries to help her sister be free for the phone call by having the dinner hour changed.

Dad, Alonzo Smith, isn’t happy.  And, in fact, he’s quite a pill throughout the film. This story, told throughout the seasons, focuses on the family life, and Esther’s budding romance with the boy next door—John Truett, who has just moved in.  After the potential love interests get established in the summer, the tale jumps forward to late October.  Tootie gets hurt while partaking in some questionable Halloween activities and blames it on John Truett. Esther heads over to confront John, only to find out later he was trying to protect young Tootie.

In the midst of this, Dad comes with news. He tells the family that he is moving them all to New York for his job. It’s all about money and moving up and how much better New York would be. He sort of just announces this, with apparently no conversation with his wife whatsoever. The girls are all devastated, especially Esther. Who, when she went back to apologize with John, has her first kiss.

Which brings us to Christmas. It took awhile to set us up and get to this point, so some—like me—may question how this is a “Christmas film.” The center of the plot here is on the Christmas Eve dance and who’s going with whom and all that. Esther is going with John, of course, although at the very end he can’t make it because he didn’t get to the cleaner’s in enough time to get his tux. Esther’s grandfather swoops in to take her since they move in a just a few days.  While there, John appears for the last dance.

In the afterglow of the dance, John proposes, Esther accepts and wonders how they’l make it work since her family is moving. Once finally home Esther encounters a crying Tootie who cannot believe they are leaving St. Louis, and Esther sings the famous “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” (which is probably how this film gets the holiday tag).

Dad has second thoughts on Christmas Eve as he sees his daughters so distraught, and finally declares that he’s staying.

While set in 1903/4, you can understand a bit of the patriarchal stuff. On the other hand, it grates quite a bit. His change of heart does help redeem this movie some—I just wish his demeanor might have as well.  He never really apologizes—that would be seen as too soft, probably—and that does impact my feeling about this classic.

Given all this, I have to give it:

3stars

 

More could have been done to show the deeper meaning of apology and forgiveness from Dad. Musicals aren’t really my thing, but this is a solid movie none the less. I won’t feel my life is incomplete if I never watch it again, but some of my readers may disagree (it was the second highest vote getter). And Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself” is worth it alone.

Next to be viewed: “Christmas with the Kranks.”

 

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31Christmas2

ChristmasVacaChristmas Vacation” stands as a Christmas favorite. It’s played on TV frequently over this season. I’ve seen the edited version a couple of times so knew what to expect; that expectation, of course, is with Chevy Chase I know I’ll get a few laughs.

And I did. Clark Griswold, our hero, banks on getting his Christmas bonus so he can put in a pool for his family. He’s presented as the consummate family man in a dysfunctional family. He’s supposedly Everyman, getting stuck by the man, trying to make a go of it in the midst of crazy relatives, etc. etc.

And we laugh to see all his follies and foibles.  The thousands of Christmas lights stapled on the house. The in-laws and their quirks. Cousin Eddy, played by Randy Quaid, drives us all batty. And we laugh some more.

But that’s it really. I cannot imagine you haven’t seen this film, but if you haven’t it is exactly what you’d expect. A comedy that deals in slap-stick but goes no further. Yes, Clark is a family man and he attempts to help others (see Eddy and his family), but he also overly frustrated and it’s primarily about materialism (see family pool).

If you’re having a Blue Christmas and needing to laugh at sometimes crude humor, this is the film for you. If you ‘re looking for a comedy that shows the true meaning of Christmas—or at least gets closer to the mark—you should check out “Nativity!

So, “Christmas Vacation” (a film chosen by my readers, get’s my lowest rating. It has little to add to the true meaning of Christmas.

star

Next in the docket: “Meet Me in St. Louis”

 

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31Christmas2

arthurChristmasI have to admit “Arthur Christmas” splashed onto the scene a couple of years ago and left before I had even noticed. I love Aardman Animations—I have ever since my wife discovered “Wallace and Gromit.” So when my son and I sat down to watch this film I was delightfully surprised to see that Aardman created “Arthur Christmas.”

We open with a child named Gwen writing a letter to Santa. She has big questions and is a budding physicist to boot.  How can Santa get around the entire world so quickly without incinerating the reindeer and sleigh? How big is that sack of presents? How come she hasn’t seen his house or the elves when she zooms in on the North Pole on Google Maps?Finally she gets to her wish for Christmas: a new pink bike. She draws a picture of the Big Man with flames licking up from his back.

Arthur2We next zoom in on the North Pole only to discover Santa’s hidden operation center deep under the snow at the Pole. As our filed of view travels down a hallway, we see the rogues gallery of Santas past.  We start with Saint Nicholas, and then many others until the current one is displayed with no end date on the small plaque on the frame.  And we meet Arthur Christmas— in charge of letters for Santa. He reads the letter from this young girl with delight and loves the crayon drawing, posting it to his bulletin board.  As the camera pulls back, we see stacks and stacks of letters that Arthur has replied to. He finds delight in each one.

And then we learn how Santa does it. He has thousands of elves and a hi-tech center run by Steve Christmas—and we learn that Steve and Arthur are both sons of Santa. Steve is the heir apparent, and has the logistics down cold, with an emphasis on cold.  It’s all about numbers and getting everything executed with precision.

Except they miss one present accidentally (I’ll let you see the particulars of why), and it’s Arthur who wants to return the gift so the young child in question—it turns out to be Gwen—gets the gift she asked for from Santa and isn’t left in the dust.

Arthur’s dedication to Gwen and bringing her joy sealed it for me. If you haven’t seen this one, you really should.  I give it:

4stars

Next film: “Christmas Vacation.”

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31Christmas2

nativity!“Nativity!” — a British Christmas film released in 2009—received a number of votes from my readers, although I don’t know if many of them had actually seen it! It stars Martin Freeman (he plays Watson in the BBC’s new “Sherlock” series and Bilbo in “The Hobbit”) as Mr. Paul Maddens, a former actor turned primary school teacher tasked with producing the school’s annual Nativity play. The students of St. Bernadette’s, a Roman Catholic school, never seem to amount to much, especially when compared to upscale Oakmore where Maddens’ longtime rival, Gordon Shakespeare, teaches theater.

In addition to directing and writing the play, Maddens receives the gift of a new aide, a Mr. Poppy who is more child than adult (and will either entertain you or drive you batty).  As Poppy and Maddens go off to buy a Christmas tree for their production, they run in to Shakespeare. As they interact, Maddens lies to his nemesis telling him that their one-time friend (and Maddens’ ex-girlfriend) Jennifer Lore, now a Hollywood executive producer, will be coming to see and film the production.

Poppy believes him, and tells the head teacher (his aunt). And the lie grows and grows before Paul can put a stop to it. Media coverage follows, a celebration with the Mayor and much more.  Kids pull out all the stops in order to get a part so they can make it to Hollywood.

Scene-from-Nativity-2009-001In the background through flashbacks, we learn more about Paul’s relationship with Jennifer.  They shared a special joy for Christmas.  We see scenes of them frolicking in the snow, enjoying each other’s company. They even name their dog “Cracker” in honor of the British Christmas traditional firecrackers.  Through these scenes we realize he still loves her.

And this is really a romantic comedy in disguise.  The production — and yes, you do get to see it at the end and it’s fabulous — tells the story of Mary and Joseph falling in love too with some really catchy tunes.

As a British film the American hyper-consumerism was nowhere to be found, which was truly refreshing. Christmas truly was about family and meals and caring for others.  While the kids—and their parents—obsess about being discovered by Hollywood, their true desire is to bring joy to Mr. Maddens. With all that in mind, I have to give this great film:

4stars

If you can find it—and you can rent it at Amazon—you really should see it! A very good Christmas film that will bring you joy and warm your heart.

 

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Kids Near Nelson Mandela's Home

Kids Near Nelson Mandela’s Home

I’ve traveled to South Africa twice—once in conjunction with a 11 week summer mission to Swaziland in 1992 and then for a Habitat for Humanity Jimmy Carter Work Project with the National Council of Churches in 2002. South Africa has a special place in my heart, so I was saddened to learn yesterday of Nelson Mandela’s death.

He fought tirelessly for equality and justice. I cannot fathom how the years in prison didn’t make him hardened, except maybe faith in God and a trust that eventually justice would be realized.

As part of my trip in 2002, our group began in Johannesburg. We toured many areas and visited churches and HIV homes. We also went to Soweto.  I wrote reflections of our trip for the NCC website, and below is one I did just after our time in Soweto. We eventually traveled to Durban for our blitz build on a site that had once been owned by black South Africans, had been seized during the apartheid and had been reclaimed by Habitat for affordable housing.

I give thanks for the life of Nelson Mandela, for all he did to respect the dignity of every human being. His life will live on in the many children of South Africa, those who will lead us forward into greater respect and acceptance of others.

My thoughts from that day over 11 years ago….

We headed out of town after a tour of downtown Johannesburg.  A few miles out, our bus stopped on the side of the road above a shantytown – a hodge-podge collection of one-room homes made by the poorest of the poor. The houses were made of wood, tin, plastic and many other materials. We were entering into Soweto, the large black township in South Africa just outside of Johannesburg.

Soweto was home to Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. They didn’t live in this shantytown but in small homes further up in Soweto. Soweto is home to over four million black South Africans. It makes up half of the population of Johannesburg.

I looked down at the homes that were no bigger than my bedroom. Upwards of twenty people share that living space. There were too many homes to count. I could see a single water faucet from our vantage point and I wondered how many families used it.

We continued our bus tour, passing by open markets; Freedom Square, where the ANC held gatherings, a group of children playing soccer, many people walking on the side of the road. We stopped at the Hector Peterson Memorial which commemorates a 12-year-old student shot by the police in 1976. He had joined other students in a peaceful demonstration against the use of Afrikaans as the institutional language at the school. A picture of his contorted, bloody body being carried by another student became a symbol of the injustice experienced by the blacks and gave rise to the anti-apartheid movement.

We stopped on a street to see the home of Winnie and Nelson Mandela – a small four-room house where Winnie lived during much of the time Nelson Mandela was in prison. A block further down on the same street sits the home of Desmond Tutu. As we looked on this street where two Nobel Prize winners had lived children gathered for us to take a picture of them near Mandela’s house.

I look at the faces of the children in my camera viewfinder wondering if any of them will be a Nobel Prize winner. Or the children I saw at the shantytown. Or the ones I saw playing soccer. Will one of them be the next Nelson or Desmond? Will they rise above the poverty, the injustice, the crime to make this world a better place?

How can they accomplish this unless someone gives them hope? How can they unless a mother or a grandfather or a pastor or someone else tells them that they can make a difference? How can they unless someone believes in them?

I snap my pictures of the children, wave my goodbyes and say a prayer. And even though the Habitat for Humanity build is in Durban I pray that the work we do might provide enough hope for even one child to want to make the world a more peaceful place.

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31Christmas2

christmascarolEveryone knows the story of Dickens’ A Christmas Carolalthough I’m not sure many have read the tale directly. (It’s a free download for Kindle from Amazon.) But we know it so well because of its many stage and film versions. There are some 22 film versions and at least another 25 small screen versions.  Among them are classics — Mr. Magoo, anyone? — and some modern riffs — “Scrooged.”  But the 1951 British adaptation “Scrooge” (or “A Christmas Carol” here in the US) with Alastair Sim is the true Granddaddy of them all.

I’d never seen this version. And while it holds fairly close to the short story, it opens with a scene at an early financial market and as he leaves the building he is approached by a man who owes him money. He begs for more time to repay the loan. “Did I ask for more time in paying you initially?” bellows Scrooge, and we see his well-known character immediately. This Scrooge is harsh.

He next goes for a meal, and asks a waiter for a bit more bread with his soup. When he finds out it’ll cost him extra, he waves the waiter away, “No more bread!”

After his arrival at Scrooge and Marley, he is greeted by two men asking for donations for the poor. “Are there no prisons?” he asks. The men are shocked, and finally ask him what they can put him down for. “Nothing!” “You wis to remain anonymous?” “I wish to be left alone!”

We meet Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s faithful employee, and his nephew, Fred.  It is Christmas Eve, and Scrooge is just awful. He goes home, muttering “Humbug!” a few dozen times. Enter Marley’s ghost.

The special effects are quite something seeing that the film came out in 1951. Scrooge’s travels with the Ghost of Christmas Past expand quite a bit, and are a bit different from the book. We see him at his beloved sister Fran’s deathbed; she dies in childbirth  (which is why he dislikes Fred so very much). We meet his fiancee Alice who works with the poor (another departure) and announces that Scrooge has changed too much.  We watch as Marley dies and he tries to tell Scrooge that he was wrong about life.

In his interactions with the Ghost of Christmas Present, the story of Christ comes in briefly. The spirit mentions how the birth of Jesus makes an impact on how people are treated.

You know the story, so I will only say this: Scrooge awakens to the knocking of his house maid Mrs. Dilber, and he is unbelievably giddy. She is freaked out. As he dances around exuding joy and laughter, she is so terrified she ultimately screams out. After his transformation on Christmas Day is shown, the film ends with a scene in the late spring of good ol’ Ebenezer still changed, still transformed, helping others and finding deep meaning in life.

How can this get anything other than:

5stars

 

If you haven’t seen this classic, you really should!

Next Up: Nativity!

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31Christmas2

 

joyeuxnoelThe only thing I knew about the film “Joyeux Noël” was the premise: In 1914, during the height of World War 1, informal ceasefires were declared along the front on Christmas Eve. Germans, French and English soldiers wanted time to bury their respective dead who lay scattered in No-Man’s Land. Once they met in the middle, the enemy became human and they shared in the celebration of Christ’s Nativity. The film is based on a compilation of true events although I suspect some of the scenes might be embellishments.

This powerful film opens with elementary aged boys in France, Germany and Scotland standing in front of their classes reciting national poems. They declare their hatred of the enemy and their loyalty to their respective countries. We next see a young man working in a small church alongside a priest in Scotland. The young man’s brother comes rushing in, excited to declare that war has broken out and that something exciting would truly happen to them.

An opera singer named Anna Sörensen is giving a performance in Germany and her partner, Nikolaus Sprink, is about to come on stage to sing with her. They are interrupted by a German soldier announcing the War by reading a statement from the Kaiser. Finally (some weeks or months later), we meet French Lieutenant Audebert getting ready to lead his men into the German trenches in order to gain the upper hand just before Christmas.

German tenor Nikolaus Sprink

German tenor Nikolaus Sprink

The director of this French film (with subtitles for the French and German, while also including some English), Christian Carion, does a fantastic job of making the men human. Audebert looks lovingly at a photo of he and his wife—who we learn was pregnant before he left and has probably had the baby, but she lives in occupied territory—before he leads the charge against the Germans. The Scottish priest, a Roman Catholic, named Palmer travels to the front to be with the young men of his parish. Sprink wants desperately to be back with Sörensen, and gets a break to see her on Christmas Eve when he travels from the front into the nearby German occupied territory of France in order to give a concert for high ranking military leaders.

But Sprink cannot stay away from his comrades on Christmas Eve, and Sörensen refuses to stay behind. They both return to the front.  The French order a man to case where the German machine gunners lie, and as he crawls across the empty land between the trenches. While he’s doing this, Sprink begins singing “O Come All Ye Faithful,” which all the men hear.  Fr. Palmer begins playing his bagpipe as accompaniment, and Sprink stops momentarily. As he looks at his fellow German soldiers and sees uncertainty, but he begins singing again all the more loudly. As he finishes that song, cheers of appreciation come from the Allied forces.

Ultimately, the tenor comes out from the trench carrying a small Christmas tree—the Germans had sent hundreds of small trees up to the front in order to boost morale. Scots and French soldiers contemplate shooting, but all are held at bay. The  officers from all three sides ultimately come out, and declare a truce for Christmas Eve.

What follows is truly miraculous. I won’t spoil anything else for you.

This film was a real treasure.  I am glad to give it my highest rating:

5stars

I know this will become a film I watch every year.  Finally, a note: This is rated PG-13 for adult themes, war scenes (nothing gory) and one brief sexual scene. It’s not for younger kids simply because of those things.

In the queue: The 1951 version of  “Scrooge.”

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