Films

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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polarexpressI discovered the book The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg during my time in seminary. I loved the wonderful pictures and the fabulous story about this boy who meets Santa Claus. In fact, I liked it so much I used it as a sermon illustration about believing when I had to preach but not during the 12 Days of Christmas. I used it on the first Sunday after Easter, often called “Low Sunday” by those in the know because church attendance is dismal. We always read the story of”doubting Thomas” and associate clergy —or seminarians in my case—get to preach.

So with this history in mind, I really looked forward to finally seeing this animated film of the story  released in 2004. (Our son was born that December when it first came out, so there was no way we were going to see it in the theater.) Tom Hanks give voice to nearly all the major characters—the boy as an adult, the train conductor (who looks a bit like him), the Father (ditto), the Hobo, Scrooge and Santa himself.

Before I get to the plot, I have to say this: I found the animation jarring from time to time as the characters appeared a tad too stiff.  Not quite real, and certainly not to the level of many animated films today (nor at that time). I never really got fully immersed into the film because of this, even though I really love most animated movies.

As is almost always true, the book is better than the movie. In this version the boy hero is not a believer in Santa Claus. He nearly doesn’t board the Polar Express (my daughter watching with me said, “Do you think he’ll get on?” “If not, it’ll be a short movie,” I replied).  When he gets on, he shows kindness, especially to a girl who boarded before him, and especially to a boy named Billy who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.  The protagonist pulls the emergency stop mechanism so Billy, who is also wavering in his own belief of Santa, can board.

Billy goes off on his own to a different part of the train, choosing not to sit with the other children already on the Express.  After refreshments are served, the hero girl brings him a cup of hot chocolate.  As the boy of the story comes to them, he hears Billy begin singing a song including the line, “I guess that Santa’s busy / Cause he’s never come around, I think of him / When Christmas comes to town.”  Billy appears to be a very interesting character and so much more could have been developed with him.

There’s a lot of action in the middle of the movie that adds little — if you make a 100 minute film out of a picture book you need to do something, but the ghost hobo created too much confusion. And while it plays out exactly like the book—the boy eventually gets the first gift of Christmas—my kids shouted out that Billy should have gotten it instead since he certainly was poorer.  At one point the Big Man himself stops in front of Billy to chat. Billy mentions meeting new friends on the Express and Santa replies that friendship is one of the best gifts of all.  But Billy could have actually used a couple of real gifts in addition to friendship (although we do see him get his gift from Santa when he arrives back at his house).

There is certainly materialism present in this film—especially from a “know-it-all” kid on board—but the hero boy and the girl and Billy seem to get the real meaning of Christmas.  The hero girl reminded all of the children that Christmas is about giving and spending times with friends and family (and then gifts).

Our hero does end up believing in Santa, that is the theme of the movie after all. But it lacks a little something on the true meaning of Christmas—peace for all and sharing God’s gifts with those in need.  So I give it:

3stars

 

It could have been so much more meaningful, but an opportunity was lost.  We may see this film again, but it won’t be on the top of our Christmas Movie pile in the years to come.

Next Film in the Queue: Joyeux Noël.

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the-bishops-wifeI first heard about “The Bishop’s Wife” during a sermon a friend gave one Advent. Paul said how it was his favorite Christmas film and how he and his wife watched it each year.  He also said something like, “And if you’re going to have an angel show up to answer your prayers, wouldn’t you want him to look just like Cary Grant?”

I was instantly hooked, and Melissa and I watched it that year. We hoped it would be one of those films we watch every year, like “A Christmas Story” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” That thought got away from me, and my Advent/Christmas season always got busy. I haven’t watched it since that first time, nearly 8 years ago.

This 1947 Christmas Classic centers on Henry Broughman—played by David Niven—the new Episcopal bishop who wants to build a glorious cathedral. Loretta Young is Julia Broughman, the Bishop’s wife, who has seen the life she enjoyed while her husband had been a parish priest slowly fade away. Cary Grant is the angel Dudley who appears as the answer to both the Bishop’s and Julia’s prayers.

Dudley’s arrival is marked by a host of sudden miraculous events including Christmas shopping being done in a matter of a few hours, wine not running out nor causing inebriation, and, my favorite, people being able to ice skate like pros. It’s just heavenly.

But the bishop is not having much of it. While Dudley is explained away as the bishop’s new assistant, the bishop himself feels more and more confined as he tries to raise funds.  His interactions with a wealthy widow named Mrs. Hamilton make the hairs on this priest’s neck rise, especially when she reminds Bishop Henry that she got him elected in order to get her way when they built the new cathedral.  And how hard could it be to make the statue of St. George look like her late husband also named George?  Surely people have no idea what the saint actually looked like.

In the midst of a day out with Julia, Dudley, in response to a comment about how hard things had become,  remarked: “Everything will be alright if only people would act like human beings.”  Wherever Dudley goes he brings joy and happiness.  Grant lights up the screen and he carries this wonderful film. But I can’t help but wonder if there is too much attention paid to the good Bishop’s wife by Dudley.  This is the one thing that bothered me in watching this film again.  Were Dudley’s affections and attention over the line? Was he too much of a player?  I’ll let you decide.

I won’t spoil how the film ends because I bet many of you haven’t seen it (although I might steal some of the imagery from the sermon the bishop gives). In terms of Bethlehem stars, if the film shows an understanding of the true meaning of Christmas about peace and joy and not material goods, I have to give it …

4stars

If Dudley hadn’t been too friendly this would have garnered 5 Bethlehem Stars.  I bet some of my Episcopal friends might take issue with me; the number of films showing Episcopal clergy are few and far between.  In any event, this should be a classic Christmas film that brings joy to many, and if you haven’t seen it, you really should this Christmas season.

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