Films

One of my favorite Christmas movies is “The Bishop’s Wife.” It’s the story of an Episcopal bishop named Henry Brougham who’s trying desperately hard to raise money for a new cathedral, and he prays to God for guidance. God sends an angel named Dudley to him, played by none other than Cary Grant. The guidance that Dudley brings is not how to fund the cathedral, but how to help the good bishop pay attention to his wife Julia and their daughter and to help meet the real needs of the community.

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wonderfullifeIt’s a Wonderful Life” holds a special place in my heart. It’s one of the rare Christmas films that I watch every Christmas, often on Christmas Eve in between church services (although, if I’m tired, “A Christmas Story” gets popped in to the BlueRay player so I can stay awake).

George Bailey, played wonderfully by Jimmy Stewart, begins the movie in serious trouble.  Or at least we’re told that by the angels in heaven (on what appears to be a heavenly intercom).  Clarence, an Angel Second Class, is assigned to help George out as he seriously contemplates suicide on Christmas Eve.  But before he can intervene, Clarence (and we movie-watchers) need George’s backstory.

George spent his whole life in Bedford Falls.  We see him save his brother, Harry, from the icy waters of the local river even though it cost him the hearing in one ear.  We watch as he helps Mr. Gower, the local pharmacist, realize he put poison in a prescription accidentally.

George has given his life to Bedford Falls and his family’s business, the Building and Loan.  All the while Mr. Potter—the bad guy and local banker who owns everything except the Building and Loan—tries to ruin both George’s dad and the business.  All George wants is to leave home and explore the world.  After his father’s sudden death, he gets roped in to running the business, and he falls in love with Mary, who has known she would marry George from an early age. Just as they are about to leave on their honeymoon, the market crashes and there’s a run on the bank. People want their cash.  George and Mary forego their trip abroad in order to save the Building and Loan.

It all comes down to a Christmas Eve when forgetful Uncle Billy, who has worked at the business forever, accidentally wraps a substantial cash deposit in a newspaper and inadvertently hands it over to Mr. Potter.  Potter is too evil to even consider handing it back.  Oh yeah, there’s a bank examiner there to check the B&L’s books. George—on one of the happiest days of his life, his brother has just received the Congressional Medal of Honor—sees his life floating away. He’s angry with Mary and their four kids. He storms off, gets into a crash and nearly commits suicide by jumping from the bridge. But it’s Clarence who jumps and George saves him.

George with Clarence’s help sees what life would be like if he had never been around. It’s quite heartbreaking to see, but it leads to a wonderful finale.

I knew this film would get my highest rating before I watched it again. I’m even more sure of it now.

5stars

 

If you’ve never seen this film, you absolutely must.  A Christmas classic forever!

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MuppetWith 50 some version out there, I was bound to see more than one version of Dickens’ classic. “The Muppet Christmas Carol” hadn’t been in my original list, but I needed to improvise due to big screen films I wanted to see that didn’t come to Boston.  So a friend gave us her copy of this great film, and we sat down and watched it as a family again (we saw it once before).

You know the players, Scrooge (played expertly by Michael Caine), Bob Cratchit (Kermit), and others.  The Great Gonzo tells the story by playing Dickens’ himself, and in typical Muppet fashion there are songs interspersed throughout the film that move the plot and give out some great laughs as well.  Like Waldorf and Statler both coming back as Marley (and Marley’s brother) who were partners with Scrooge and sing “We’re Marley and Marley” which we’ve been repeating for the past few days.

This is easily the most accessible version of A Christmas Carol I’ve seen (I’ve not seen Mr. Magoo or the recent Jim Carey version (still on tap)).  It blends the seriousness of the story—Scrooge is just really bad and the townspeople sing about how bad he is—with the joy brought about through the Muppets.  It follows the story pretty closely, Scrooge’s apprenticeship with “Fozziewig,” the three ghosts, his nephew, Fred and all the rest.  And his transformation is truly wonderful to behold.

This toe-tapping, joyful film hits it out of the park:

5stars

 

A real treat on the true meaning of Christmas.  If you haven’t seen this version, you really should!

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loveactually“Love Actually” won the distinct honor of being the top vote getter in my reader poll.  I had never seen it, and frankly didn’t remember even seeing the trailer. But so many folks told me it was their favorite film and I just had to see it.

The story takes place in London near Christmas and begins with a voiceover from Hugh Grant (later we learn he’s the Prime Minister) about the arrivals gate at Heathrow. He says that unlike the stories we hear about, love is the main thing here. Between moms and daughters and new couples and old couples and everything in between.  “If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”

And so it goes. This film is one of those multi-faceted story-lines that interweave with one another from time to time. There is the single Prime Minister (recently elected) who shows up at No. 10 Downing only to fall for a new house worker there. Or his sister, Karen (played by Emma Thompson) who is entering the middle age of her life and her husband, Harry,  looks to inject a bit more love into it with a lovely new necklace for Christmas, or so she wrongly thinks. It’s actually for a co-worker of his whose quite flirtatious.

Another woman at his work place, Sarah, is encourage to pursue her obvious love for the creative director named Karl.  Sarah finally musters up the courage and goes for it.  After they go out, we learn she has a brother who is mentally ill and constantly calls her, and she always answers the phone, killing any possible relationship with Karl.

And so it goes.  There’s the recent widower who attempts to help his step-son discover true love for the first time.  And the couple who meet working as porn body doubles together (yeah, I’m glad I didn’t watch this with a parishioner).  Also the 50-something rocker who gives the films its featured song (a butchered remake of a hit for Christmas). And a newly married couple with the best man who seems to have eyes for the groom (or so we think).  Also the writer who finds a love oversees.  I’m sure I’m missing one or two of the stories.

I liked the premise, thought it could have done without some of the nudity, and certainly there were too many plots to follow.  Yes, love actually shows up in the strangest of places, and yes, it’s not a Christmas film obsessed with stuff.  But I wanted more meaning at times other than just a couple hooking up.  Maybe I expect too much.

So, actually, I give this film my middle of the road rating:

3stars

 

I can see why so many love it.  I won’t be joining them though. Once was enough for me.

 

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shop“The Shop Around the Corner” is destined to be a family favorite.  I knew this going in having seen the modern take “You’ve Got Mail” over a hundred time with my wife Melissa. (Seriously, it’s her favorite film of all time.) And then I found out Jimmy Stewart starred in it, and I was sold.

Stewart plays bachelor Alfred Kralik who is the best salesman at the Matuschek and Company in Budapest and owned by Hugo Matuschek.  Alfred is Hugo’s confidant and has excellent advice.  Enter Klara, who has previously worked as a salesperson and desperately wants a job.  She sells a cigarette music box to a woman and convinces Hugo to both hire her and buy a huge supply of the boxes.

Along the way we learn Alfred is having a pen pal romance with a woman he’s never met. He’s deeply in love.  And he’s antagonistic with Klara who seems to be making inroads with the boss, and rubs Alfred the wrong way.

Of course Klara’s the mysterious pen pal.  Alfred doesn’t learn this until the day he’s fired (as he’s fallen out with Hugo, he gets more and more frustrated until finally Hugo lets him go) when he’s supposed to meet his pen pal in a cafe.  When he realizes it’s Klara from the shop around the corner, well, he has to come to terms with his mixed emotions.  He both loves her—the part of her that sent the wonderful letters—and loathes her—the part that was in competition with him at work.

Alfred comes back to work soon after—Hugo realizes he made a huge mistake in firing him—and Alfred softens toward Klara.  He woos here all along while keeping the pen pal writing up and not letting on that he’s really the mysterious friend.

The action all takes place during the lead up to Christmas, and the final scenes take place on Christmas Eve.  There is some talk of love and connection and reconciliation, although more could have been done with that.

I’m giving it 3 Bethlehem Stars (it could have done more with the Christmas themes), while also recognizing that it’ll be one I watch again and again.

3stars

 

 

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frozen“Frozen”—the new animated film from Disney—didn’t make it on my original list of films to watch.  I didn’t see any of the three recent releases, however, and felt like I needed to see one film on the big screen (two of the three never made it in wide release nearby, and the other failed at the box office so left before I could see it).  So, it’s technically not a “Christmas” film although it is a winter film, and is destined to be holiday classic.

The film is based on Hans Christian Anderson’s tale “The Snow Queen” and tells the story of two princess sisters, Anna and Elsa. Elsa, the older, possess the ability to freeze the things she touches or to create snow and ice out of thin air. Elsa and Anna play one night, making a snowman and sledding around, but Elsa loses her balance and “zaps” Anna with a freeze to the head, knocking her out.  Her parents rush in and make their way off to some distant helpers who bring Anna back around.  However, they are warned, if Elsa had hit her sister’s heart instead of her head, they wouldn’t be able to save he as easily. (Yes, kids, this is called “foreshadowing.”)

Their parents lock Elsa up—and lock up the gates to the kingdom—trying to help her control her feelings so she doesn’t freeze everything she touches. It gets worse as she gets older, and we see Anna longing to see Elsa again because they used to have so much fun together.  They eventually become teens, and mom and dad head off for a long trip over the water. This is Disney, of course, so the kids are orphaned.

frozen2Which gets us to the main plot of the story, Elsa is to be crowned queen.  The gates to the kingdom have to be opened.  With people flooding in, Anna meets the man of her dreams—a bloke named Hans who is number 13 in line for his kingdom—who asks for her hand. Elsa, after being crowned, refuses to give her blessing and in the action that follows allows her anger to get the better of her creating winter in the dead of summer.  Elsa flees, and Anna pursues figuring Elsa would never hurt her, giving control of the kingdom to Hans.

Along the way Anna meets Kristoff and his reindeer Sven, and they run into Olaf, a snowman.

I hate spoilers, so I’m not going to say anything else.  Disney surprises in this film, which is great.

Even though no Christmas tree or manger was in sight, this one gets:

4stars

You should see this one in the theater if you have the chance this Christmas season.  And I suspect it will be a Christmas favorite for years to come, and I know it will be in our house.

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noangelsI had never even heard of “We’re No Angels” prior to looking for Christmas Films online, and it kept turning up in my searches. It’s a 1955 comedy starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray who escape from the prison on Devil’s Island, a penal colony off the coast of French Guiana.  Their escape happens at Christmas time, and they hope to steal money from an unsuspecting family in the civilian area of the island (a fabrication). So they pose as workers and soon find a store clerk willing to hire them.

They claim they can fix the roof which is in need of repairs, but of course they intend to use their vantage point to case the place so they can get cash and new clothes and finally leave the island.  But the family running the store—the beautiful daughter Amelie and parents Felix and Isabelle—prove much too kind and completely broke  so the crooks can’t bring themselves to harming them in anyway.  It’s Christmas Eve, and the crooks are given a wonderful meal and the joy of the season by the family.

WereNoAngels2Enter the villains, Andre Tochard and his son Paul. Tochard owns the place, and is a distant cousin of the family.  It’s all about the money for him, and he can’t wait to get his hands on the books to see how things are going, even though it’s Christmas Eve.  The family wasn’t expecting them for a few days, so they have to rush around to get rooms ready for these two, and as we go along the three crooks see they have found their targets.  Andre and Paul don’t care at all for the family—although Paul is to marry Amelie—and Bogart and pals want to help make the family’s situation better in any way they can.

It’s a comedy to be sure, and I laughed quite a few times. Bogart is spot on, and the plot is great.  And through it the message of Christmas does come in to play—the crooks can’t take money from the poor and kind family, but they’ll attempt to do so from the wealthy Tochards. There’s a focus on the feasting and being together.  And no, the crooks aren’t really angels—or maybe they are—I’ll let you decide at the end.

I’m giving this one:

4stars

 

More of the message of Christmas came through than I expected!  If you haven’t seen this Christmas Classic, you really should!

 

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elfElf” maintains a huge following of watchers year after.  And what’s not to love in this Christmas comedy with Will Ferrell?

For the uninitiated, Ferrell plays “Buddy” an orphan who as a baby accidentally made his way into Santa’s sack of gifts and journeyed back to the North Pole. Upon his discovery, the elves convince Santa to keep him, and he gets adopted by one of the elves.

However, as he grows Buddy’s triple the size of the usual elf. Finally while an adult, he overhears on elf telling another that he’s really from New York, and he’s <gasp> a human.  So Buddy—never really proficient in toy making anyway—heads off to New York to find himself and his father, a Walter Hobbs, who just happens to be on Santa’s naughty list for being—well—a jerk.

Buddy exudes an innocence that makes the viewer fear that New York will chew him up and spit him out. And it nearly does. He finds his dad who works at the Empire State Building, only to find that dear old dad thought Buddy had to be a singing “Santagram” due to his elf get-up.  When Buddy mentions his birth mother—and the name clearly rings a bell to Walter who is now married to someone else—Walter calls security and tosses Buddy onto the street.

Buddy lands over at Gimbels only to be taken as an employee (in an obvious riff on “Miracle on 34th Street”). Once there he learns that Santa is coming the next day, and he cannot contain his excitement.  He works wonders over night, and the “North Pole” area is transformed into a winter wonderland. Except when the fake Santa arrives, Buddy goes a little crazy and things go south fast.

He keeps pursuing Walter and eventually a DNA test is done to prove Buddy is not connected to Walter. Much to Walter’s surprise, Buddy is his son.

Buddy eventually moves in with Walter and his new wife and child, although Walter wants nothing to do with it whatsoever.  I won’t say much else in case you are one of the handful of people who have never seen this film, but I will say this: It gets high marks from me.

“Elf” while certainly a comedy hits home on what’s most important at Christmas and I’m giving it:

4stars

 

You should make time to watch this one if you never have, or enjoy it again!

Next up: “We’re No Angels”

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8Women8 Women” had the possibility of becoming a favorite film for me. It’s a French film (my wife is a French teacher), it’s a murder mystery (I love mysteries) and it’s set at Christmas (how it made the list).  All that potential, and none of it came to be.

This film tells the story of a murdered husband/dad/brother.  8 women associated with him — wife, daughters, maid, sister, mother and two others—get snowed in at Christmastide. One of them kills him. They all had a motive.  The film explores why.

As we go along, layers are peeled off exposing a more and more bizarre plot. Daughter #1 returns home from university pregnant. The dead guy is having an affair with the maid (and a few others, we find out). And all of the women break out into a campy song at some point in the movie (every 10-15 minutes).  There really wasn’t any rhyme or reason to this and it truly bewildered me.

As the movie went along, it became clearer that it wasn’t a Christmas film at all, but a film that takes place around the Christmas holiday. And a bad film at that. Once it jumped the shark for me (in a scene not worth recounting for you), I turned it off.

So this one gets a 31 Christmas Film first: a DNF.  (Did Not Finish, for those who don’t know that language from track events). Really, don’t bother at all. This was way worse than “Prancer,” which in comparison seems like the best Christmas movie ever.

I hope this is the only film like this in my watching. And let’s hope tomorrow’s film “Elf” can make all this horrible film watching float away.

In the queue: “Elf.”

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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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