A Christmas Tale (2008)

achristmastaleposterThe initial inclination for seeing Arnaud Desplechin’s sprawling family drama was the presence of the estimable Catherine Deneuve. And she’s truly wonderful giving a shining, nuanced performance that makes the audience respect her, sympathize with her, and even dislike her a little bit. But the same goes for her entire family. The best word to describe them is messy. Dysfunctional is too sterile. Messy fits what they are. If you think your family is bad around the holidays, the Vuillards have a lot of their own issues to cull through.

The inciting incident sends a shock wave through their already crumbling family unit. Their matriarch has been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer and must make the difficult decision of whether or not to risk treatment or go without. But Deneuve carries herself with that same quietly assured beauty that she’s had even since the days of Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In this capacity, she makes A Christmas Tale, far from a tearful, sobfest. She’s strong, distant, and you might even venture to say fearless.

And because of her strength, this story is not only about her own plight – it’s easy to downplay it because she is so resilient – but it frames the rest of the interconnecting relationships. It began when her first son passed away. The children who followed included Elizabeth (Anne Cosigny) who became the oldest and grew up to be a successful playwright. Junon’s middle child Henri (Mathieu Amalric) can best be described as the black sheep while the youngest, Ivan, was caught in the midst of the familial turmoil.

Because the issues go back at least five years before Junon gets her life-altering news. It was five years ago that Elizabeth paid Henri’s way out of an extended prison sentence (for a reason that is never explained) with the stipulation that she never has to see her brother again. Not at family gatherings, not for anything. And she gets her way for a time.

But with Junon’s news she and her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) realize this is a crucial time to get their family back together because, above all, their matriarch needs a donor and due to her unique genetic makeup, a family member is her best bet.

Underlying these overt issues are numerous tensions that go beyond sibling grudges and sickness. Elizabeth’s own relationships have been fraught with unhappiness and her son Paul has been struggling through a bout of depression. Ivan and his wife (Chiarra Mastroianni) are seemingly happy with two young boys of her own. But old secrets about unrequited love get dredged up and Sylvia is looking for answers of her own. Although it’s a side note, it’s striking that Chiarra Mastroianni is Deneuve’s real-life daughter and in her eyes, I see the spitting image of her father, the icon, Marcello Mastroianni.

There’s also a lot of truth and honesty buried within A Christma Tale and in most competitions, it would win for the most melancholy of yuletide offerings. However, it’s important to note that its darkness is balanced out with romance, comedy, and a decent dose of apathy as well.

Still, the most troubling thing about A Christmas Tale is not the fact that it is extremely transparent, but the reality that the themes of Christmas have no bearing on its plot. We leave these characters different than they were before but whether they are better for it is up for debate.

The sentimentality of a It’s Wonderful Life crescendo would be overdone and fake in this context but some sort of reevaluation still seems necessary. Because without faith in anything — faith in their family is ludicrous — their world looks utterly hopeless. The two little grandsons wait in front of the nativity staying up to get a glimpse at Jesus (perhaps mistaken for Santa Claus) and their father calmly states they should go to bed because he’s never existed anyways. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with holding such beliefs.

Even the fact that Junon and her grown son Henri attend midnight mass is an interesting development. But during this season emblematic of hope and joy, it seems like the Vuillard’s can have very little of either one. Henri can be his mother’s savior for a time by extending her life for 1.7 years or whatever the probabilities suggest. But then what?

It’s this reason and not the family drama that ultimately makes A Christmas Tale a downer holiday story. Its denouement feels rather like a dead end more than fresh beginnings. Because Nietzche and coin flips are not the most satisfying ways to decipher the incomprehensibility of life – especially with death looming large during the holidays.

But that’s only one man’s opinion. That’s not to downplay all that is candid about this film in any way. If you are intrigued by the interpersonal relationships and entanglements of a family  — may be a lot like yours and mine — this film is an elightening exposé.

3.5/5 Stars

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)

220px-happened5avenueThe fact that Miracle on 34th Street and this film came out the same year seems to suggest that there was something special in the air of New York City that year. It was a magical place, specifically during the Christmas season with Santa Claus going on trial and winning, while tramps helped reform millionaires. Admittedly, It Happened on Fifth Avenue is one of those films that could easily come under fire for its implausible plot, its unabashed sentiment, and any number of other things.

But if you have any amount of Christmas cheer at all, it’s overwhelmingly difficult not to enjoy this cheering story for what it offers up in the areas of heartwarming comedy and holiday spirit. There’s even a bit of misty-eyed sentimentality that’s sure to weaken the callous heart that’s ready to be melted.

And the story finds its roots in some very real issues. One is the housing crisis following the end of World War II with GIs flooding back into the country with families to raise and no jobs and no homes to be had. The situation further aggravated by the wage gap. The rich just seem to get richer, buying up all the land and resources in town,  namely the notorious John O’Connor — the second richest man in the world by latest figures shouted by passing tour guides on sightseeing buses. Ironically, in such an environment the panhandling community is especially strong and foremost among their ranks is sophisticated tramp Aloyisius McKeever (Victor Moore).

He migrates as the crow flies to Winter palaces and Summer getaways belonging to those in the affluent sectors of society. He has set up a bit of a revolving timeshare but you could say it only goes one way. None of his benefactors seem to know they are being so charitable and Mr. MeKeever does his best not to draw attention to himself. Letting himself in through fence boards, sneaking down through manhole covers, and setting up an elaborate trigger system to turn off all lights at the moments notice. In this way, he manages to live a rather comfortable life undetected in the boarded up estate of the aforementioned magnate John O’Connor.

Although he’s a rather peculiar character, a conniver and a bit of an opportunist, it should not go unsaid that he does have a conscience — a moral code if you will — that makes him increasingly compelling. Aside from his quirky ways, Aloysius McKeever is quite generous even if it involves someone else’s capital. Soon his great home that he is “borrowing” is filled with a few GIs and families including the drifting Jim Bullock (Don DeFore) who was thrown out of his apartment after Mr. O’Connor bought the land. Now with a place to gather himself, Jim has the seed of an idea — retrofitting old army barracks into track housing for returning GIs. The only problem is they need real estate, real estate being snapped up by the one in the same John O’Connor. You’ve probably gotten tired of hearing his name by now.

All of this would be unrelated if it weren’t for a girl who ran away from finishing school, Trudy O’Connor (Gail Storm). Her last name says it all already, and when she flees to seek asylum at her father’s  winter estate, she’s surprised to find it occupied. It makes for a funny scenario but rapidly she settles into the community and simultaneously falls in love with Jim.

At this juncture, Trudy asks her father for perhaps the biggest favor of her life — that he would play it her way — masquerading as another vagrant so that he can meet her love and not sway him to marry Trudy with the imminent promise of great wealth. And that’s the next enjoyment of the film, watching stuffy old Mr. O’Connor forced to be a guest in his own home, bossed around by Aloysius. But he’s not the only one out of sorts, Trudy’s mother (Ann Harding) also comes to live with them as a cook and this creates yet another complicating layer of wistful romance.

In the process, everyone learns something. There is a newfound appreciation for people and life. What it means to make an honest day’s wages. What it means to live for more than money. What it means to truly love someone so much that you don’t want to live a day without them. Even what it means to live in a caring community that looks to bless each other and share resources in such a way that no one is in need. I would even wager a bet that this is less socialism and more of what the early Christians talked about in Acts.

The film is blessed by some lovable, wonderfully comic performances from a couple great Hollywood actors, most notably Victor Moore and Charles Ruggles who highlight the storyline’s oddities. Meanwhile, some of the younger stars have winning charm that would translate into several solid careers in the growing medium of television. For some ready made feel-good Christmas magic, look no further than 5th Avenue.

3.5/5 Stars

Remember the Night (1940)

remember_the_night_posterI find that many of the best Christmas movies aren’t really about Christmas at all — at least not in the conventional sense that we’re so used to. Not trees or presents or lights or even holiday sentiment although those might all be there.

The films that start to tease out the true meaning and impact of the Christmas season start by looking at people and their relationships with one another. Because, truth be told, we so often get distracted by the bright colors and shiny objects that get in our way.

That’s actually part of what Remember the Night is about. Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is a woman who has a penchant for stealing jewelry. She’s not a kleptomaniac or wrong in the head, she’s just a poor, unspectacular woman with nothing to show for in life. She lives in a hotel. And so the minute she’s apprehended and prosecuted in the courtroom you would assume that it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

Except this is a romantic film starring the likes of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck working from a script from Preston Sturges and under the guidance of Mitchel Leisen. So obviously that tips us off that love is in the air. Especially during the Christmas season, love is all around us — peace on earth and goodwill towards men.

Except when Lee’s trial is postponed by the astute district attorney on the other side of the table, it looks like she’s in for an abysmal holiday. She has no money, no place to go, and she’ll be spending her time behind bars (with a Christmas dinner of course). But John Sargent goes through a change of heart and his heart is fairly big when you get to know him. He ends up getting Lee out of jail for Christmas dinner as recompense and goes a step further still by inviting to take her back to her family home. They both hail from rural Indiana.

In this leg of the film, on the road, they begin to warm to each other. A certain amount of empathy sets in as they must flee pell-mell from some small town law enforcement after unlawfully milking a cow on private property. However, John also stands by his new companion when she returns to her childhood home — a place she ran away from at an early age — she’s not welcomed back.

And while it doesn’t tell the story of Christmas overtly, it’s at this point that Remeber the Night begins to make sense. Hence the title. At least in my mind. Because what night would you remember? The logical progression of thought would be the first Christmas — the moment where the biblical narrative notes that there was no room for the child in the inn and so he was forced to be housed in a lowly manger on that silent night.

If you look at John’s mother and aunt played so lovingly and nurturing by Beulah Bondi and Elizabeth Patterson, you get the sense that they were probably aware of that event. However, how they act is also a natural outpouring of their hospitable natures. They welcome Lee into their home, they welcome her like family, they go so far out of their way to make her comfortable. Certainly, this is only a backdrop for the broader more sentimental focal point of the film which we were expecting. The accused and the prosecutor begin falling in love, but they still have to return to the courtroom when their holiday is over.

But that’s what wonderful films do. They work above and beyond their plotline being displayed at face value. Sturges was always a spectacular screenwriter even before becoming a director and here he develops a tale that comes off less frenetic than many of his later works, but it’s also imbued with a great amount of feeling. But credit also goes to Leisen for tailoring the script to his leads.

And as it’s set during the holidays, that makes it into a timely movie for the Christmas season (and New Years). Because the bottom line is that it’s about love, but not just in the romantic sense. Love of family. Love of your fellow man (and woman). Love of other people so much so that you are willing to sacrifice and take on the penalty for your actions, deserved or not. If we strip down the impact of Christmas to its core elements that’s essentially what it is about as well. So remember this movie during the holidays and remember that night if you’re so inclined.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

4/5 Stars

A Christmas Carol (1951)

Scrooge_–_1951_UK_film_posterOftentimes during the holidays, we are quick to label someone a “Scrooge,” almost jokingly because it’s a moniker that’s somehow lost a great deal of its magnitude with overuse and the passage of time. However, if we look at this film, so wonderfully anchored by Alastair Sim, and even Charles Dickens original work from which it is derivative, we would adopt a much wider definition of the word “Scrooge.”

Surely it is the archetypal Christmas tale and one of the most widely adapted works. Off the top of my head, I can think of versions from 1938, ’51, ’70, ’84, and 2009, not to mention countless retellings by Disney, Mr. Magoo, the Muppets, and Bill Murray no less.

We all know at least a little of the legend of Ebenezer Scrooge, and we can come up with a rough composite of what he must be like. He’s money-grubbing, has no spirit, and hates Christmas. If you say any of this you would be, in fact, most heartily correct, but there’s so much more to his character and his story. It’s far more universal than perhaps I would even give it credit for.

The narrative is beautifully elongated with the device of the three specters represented by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future respectively. Of course, it takes the apparition of his long-deceased partner Jacob Marley to scare Ebenezer out of the status quo — out of exactly the kind of person we assume him to be. But the key is he wasn’t always about the “humbugs” and lack of charity towards the poor and needy.

We learn about his story more in depth by the illumination of the first ghost. Scrooge began, a relatively humble young man, but his sister Fan had great affection for him, and he found a young woman named Anne, who loved him in spite of his lowly status. Money did not define their happiness — in fact, they were happier without it. But the way of the world back then was, and still is now, the pursuit of happiness by way of money. In a sense, although Scrooge greatly admired his generous employer Fezziwig, he became scared by the ways of the world. Once joining forces with another ambitious gentleman Jacob Marley, the two of them pressed their advantages when necessary and expanded their assets exponentially. The sweet, savory call of money quickly seduced them and as a result hardened their hearts. You see in the moments where Scrooge loses his sister and breaks off his engagement, that they are so emotionally charged even in the present. He hasn’t quite found a way to alleviate the pain because not even money can satiate that hurt.

The ghost of Christmas present shows him the inside of the humble Cratchit home, bringing to mind his previous comments about prisons and workhouses — as one of their foremost supporters. But the Cratchits, and specifically young Tiny Tim give a humanity to the common man like he has never seen before. He realizes that he has failed miserably in doing one of the most basic things — loving his fellow man and taking care of the widows and orphans. Scrooge still clings to the most poisonous belief that he is too far gone and he cannot be redeemed. That’s why what the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows him scares him the most. The pictures he sees ahead of him are haunting and all too real, but it makes his opportunity at a second chance all the sweeter.

In truth, when Scrooge wakes up from his dream-filled slumber he’s giddy almost to the point of insanity, but Alastair Sim is so brilliant to play his part that way. His character change is so radical because his paradigm has been completely overturned. It shows in how he interacts with his world whether it’s his housekeeper, a lad on the street, his nephew, or even the long-suffering Bob Cratchit. Ebenezer Scrooge represents the hope of Christmas when mankind begins living for their fellow man instead of all the fortunes in the world that will only grow old and dusty. Thus, before calling someone “a Scrooge,” it is best to take note of what you’re saying and then get the whole story. People are a lot more complex than we often give them credit for. That becomes obvious even in this streamlined Christmas classic of only 86 minutes.

4/5 Stars

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Cary_and_the_Bishop's_Wife_posterAlthough its theology probably isn’t sound, rather like It’s a Wonderful Life, The Bishop’s Wife nevertheless utilizes its central plotting device wonderfully.

Imagine if on a whim an angel came to your rescue, and then imagine that the angel is named Dudley and looks and acts like none other than Cary Grant. In this case, the person in need is a distraught Bishop named Henry Brougham (David Niven). He is right in the middle of a major undertaking to build a new cathedral, and his primary benefactor Mrs. Hamilton (Gladys Cooper) is being a thorn in his side. The building project has consumed all his time and efforts, causing him to neglect his radiant wife Julia (Loretta Young), their little daughter Debbie, and the people from their old parish.

Director Henry Koster crafts a whimsical and rather sentimental film much in the same mold as Harvey (1950) which came three years later. This time Dudley is the character who exists outside of worldly convention. He is constantly kind, always patient, never hurries, and is always helpful to everyone in need be it blind man or bishop. In truth, everyone adores him, because after all, he is an angel. Everyone, that is, except Henry who needs him most. Henry unwittingly asked for help and now he has an angel in his midst, but Dudley will not allow that to be revealed to anyone else. It’s an unnecessary detail, and besides, he has much more pressing matters like attending to Julia and assisting Henry with his work. To her, he is purely a radically pleasant and good-hearted individual. With such positives, there hardly needs to be any explanation, only wonderment.

He takes Julia through the old town she used to live in happily with Henry. They meet old friends like the blustering Professor Wutheridge (Monty Wooley), who Dudley also happens to give inspiration to. He makes little Debbie a ringer in a snowball fight, and he and Julia are joined by a chipper taxi driver (James Gleason) in an ice skating adventure. Even a check in on the humble cathedral at St. Vincent’s leads to an angelic rehearsal by the local boy’s choir. Meanwhile, Henry is absent attending to other matters.

Of course, he is as bitter and distressed as ever by his plight — his attention still skewed in the wrong directions. Even when Dudley goes to grumpy old Mrs. Hamilton and totally redeems her perspective in order to feed the hungry, Henry hardly seems pleased. His artifice, his tower is now even farther from being completed.

The final scenes of Bishop’s Wife are key because it’s in these moments where we see the change in Henry. Cary Grant might seem obviously miscast for this role, and in truth, it was originally supposed to go to Niven who was to play opposite the equally angelic Teresa Wright. But Grant’s debonair side is important for this final act because it makes sense when he makes a pass at Julia. It fits his screen persona as the suave bachelor, angel or not. You can debate whether he was actually in love with the beautiful mortal, or if he was just doing it to get a rise out of Henry. Whichever way you see it, for the first time Henry is driven to fight for his wife out of love and because of the human emotion that still pulses through his veins. Finally, he drops the peripheral and looks at what is central, his family and friends. Dudley, or Cary Grant, takes one final approving look and walks off in the snow. His work here is done. Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards men.

4/5 Stars

“We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. Its his birthday we’re celebrating. Don’t let us ever forget that. Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shinning gifts that make peace on earth.”

~ Final Message given by Henry (David Niven)

Elf (2003)

220px-Elf_movie“The best way to spread Christmas Cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”

Elf is truly a Christmas miracle. It’s a relatively modern Christmas classic (a bit over 12 years old) that holds its own in a season usually dominated by old perennial favorites. Yet, again and again, it constantly excites, mesmerizes, and bedazzles in more ways than one.

Will Ferrell is the major treasure of Elf because, without his child-like wonderment and sincerity, this film could go downhill all too quickly. Buddy walks into female locker rooms, walks around New York in an Elf suit eating discarded gum, and calls his grown-up father “daddy” in a musical serenade, after all. But to his credit, Ferrell goes for it wholeheartedly completely engulfing himself in a magical realm that bewitches every other character who decides to join him. Everyone else walks in abject reality, but Buddy like Elwood P. Dowd (Harvey) or Dudley the angel (The Bishop’s Wife) exist outside of that and when they rub up against everyone else, they leave everyone, including the audience, changed.

From the outset, Elf comes right out of a storybook as Papa Elf (the venerable Bob Newhart) recounts how a human and his adopted son saved Christmas. Of course, it starts out as a sorry tale, because truth be told Buddy cannot figure out what his purpose in life is. What is he good at? What are his talents? For all the other elves it’s obvious: they make toys.

But when Buddy finally learns of his secret past he leaves his papa behind in a tearful goodbye, gains some sage advice from Santa (the equally venerable Ed Asner), and heads off on an iceberg to find his real father in the Big Apple.

There must be a catch, and there is a small one, Buddy’s father Walter Hobbes (James Caan) is on the naughty list. In fact, he’s a real Scrooge working slavishly day after day as a children’s book publisher. But you see Buddy doesn’t see people for their faults and that’s the secret of Ferrell’s success because his innocence and irrepressible will towards his fellow man is contagious. New York might be a culture shock and Hobbes as well as his young boy Michael are not too thrilled with Buddy’s arrival, but that’s because he’s so foreign – so nice. Ultimately, he becomes the best thing to happen in their life.

In truth, Buddy goes transforming New York systematically whether it’s the Hobbes’ home, Gimbel’s Department Store, or wherever his feet take him. And of course he finds love in his world-wearied coworker Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) and saves Christmas, but that’s nothing unexpected. It’s not the results, but how we get there that counts – all those quotable moments in between.

Too often I feel bludgeoned to death by all the new takes on the Christmas season annually jostling for my affection. But the beauty of Elf is that it pays its respects to the past, thereby solidifying its own timelessness in the present. It doesn’t have to be the next big thing, but it is something that I would gladly sit down and watch annually, because of its spirit and seasonal charm. We get nods to A Christmas Story and Ralphie, an homage to George Bailey on the Bedford Fall bridge, and even Miracle on 34th Street (Buddy working at the rival Gimbels).

The music never steals the show but it does accent some sequences nicely including the voices of Louis Prima, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and so on. Each character fits well in director Jon Favreau’s narrative. The manager (Faizon Love) is a crack-up. The hired Santa (Artie Lange) is a thug. Peter Dinklage is an angry elf. James Caan is grumpy and cynical. Zooey Deschanel is pretty and cynical. Ed Asner is an endearing grouch. Bob Newhart has his usual stuttering charm. And Ferrell wraps it all up nicely with a pretty bow. Although it does completely sidestep the origins of the Christmas holiday, Elf does what it set out to do very well. It exudes Christmas spirit unabashedly.

“Christmas spirit is about believing, not seeing.” – Ed Asner as Santa

4/5 Stars

Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

5632c-wonderfullife4Every time I go through the emotional, romantic, heart-warming and at times uncomfortable roller coaster that is It’s a Wonderful Life, something new always seems to stick out to me.

It is always impressive for a film of this length that so much is packed into it. Within minutes we are fully enveloped in this story, and every sequence gives further insight into these characters. There is hardly ever a wasted moment because there is significance in each scene. Pointing us to the nature of George Bailey.

Furthermore, it is easy to forget the darkness that this film submerges itself in because it reaches such a jubilant crescendo. However, this is a story that covers the years including The Great Depression and World War II. Its protagonist sinks into a state of wretchedness complete with angry outbursts, negative feelings, and drunkenness. George Bailey loses all hope and his perspective is so completely distorted. For all intent and purposes, his life looks like it’s over, and it takes a frightening alternate reality to shake him out of his disillusionment. Put in this framework, it makes sense why it was a commercial flop when you juxtapose it with the big winner that year The Best Years of Our Lives. They both deal with post-war reality, but with very different lenses.

That’s the benefit of hindsight and a new context since we do not usually see It’s a Wonderful Life as a gloomy post-war tale, but a more positive parable that is universal in its impact. The first part of this story feels a bit like a Job story of hardship, and the second act is reminiscent to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but that’s the simplest of observations. There is a lot more to be parsed through.

The romance of George and Mary is what many of us aspire to and it causes us to really empathize with their young love that weathers the good and bad breaks they receive. It’s the fairy tale love story we want, with the rock hard reality we are used to in our own lives. Some favorite moments in their life together would be the splash they make during the Charleston dance off, singing Buffalo Gals together, smooching on the telephone together, sharing a makeshift honeymoon together, and embracing after George gets his new perspective on life.

There are a fair number of close-ups utilized in this film, but they are usually used at crucial points in the narrative, and they tell us a great deal about both George and Mary.

The first key moment comes during a freeze frame of grown up George with hands outstretched giving us our first look at the man we will be following from there on out. The next big moment occurs when George learns that Potter will gain control and the Building and Loan will be disbanded if he leaves. He realizes in an instant that he must give up his plans. Then, he waits excitedly for Harry with Uncle Billy and it is a happy moment, but George learns his younger brother might have another job. The camera follows his worried face as he goes to follow his new sister-in-law. Never thinking of himself, he realizes that Harry has a chance for better things and that leaves George still working the Building and Loan.

After their tiff, the scene where George and Mary are talking on the phone with Sam Wainwright is a solidifying moment in their relationship. There are so many underlying emotions and unspoken feelings that they are having trouble figuring out and reconciling. And yet there is that violent epiphany when their eyes link. The tears and anger are quickly traded for passionate kisses reflecting the often complicated facts of romance.

One of the final close-ups that hits home occurs when the now non-existent George stumbles away from the front door of his mother, who now has no concept of him. There is sweat on his brow (maybe from the 90 degree summer heatwave) and desperate bewilderment in his eyes. This is the lowest point he could have imagined. His own mother does not know who he is. His wife has grown old and lonely in an existence of exile. Stewart’s face is so expressive and earnest suggesting that George knows just how important human companionship is. Humanity was made to be in fellowship with each other. Lack of money means very little in comparison to our friendships and family ties. This is essentially what George finally comprehends and what Clarence reminds him. George understandably lost sight of his wife and his children and his friends. They were a gift not to be taken lightly.

Aside from these close-ups, it is also evident that a great deal of  effort was put into creating this world from the characters and their back stories to the town itself which was constructed on the RKO lot. Everything from the building facades, to stray dogs, and snow make the drama more atmospheric. It’s one of those films that reveals the beauty of using real props inhabited by seemingly real people. That’s why I sometimes am disillusioned by CGI. Although it can allow us to create amazing spectacles, oftentimes it creates a world that feels altogether fake and alien. It’s not relatable and it lacks the humanity that makes up our existence each and every day. In other words, it has very little of what makes It’s a Wonderful Life so compelling to me.

Perhaps there are more impressive or greater films, but there are few with greater heart and there is something to be said for that.

5/5 Stars

Review: Miracle of 34th Street (1947)

703c5-miracleon34thChristmas movies do not get much better than this. What a concept! Here’s a film about a man who really is Kris Kringle aka Santa Claus. He gets picked up by Macy’s department store to be their Santa Claus, and he winds up facing a hearing to decide whether he is legitimate or not. His pet project is to make an unsentimental little girl (Natalie Wood), and her practical mother (Maureen O’Hara) believe in him. He finds an ally in a young lawyer (John Payne) who believes in his holiday cheer and is also smitten with the girl’s mother.

Some people would undoubtedly say it’s a bunch a hogwash to make a movie about such a topic. Maybe it is only holiday tripe, but I find it is very hard to refute this “Miracle” of a Christmas classic. The characters portrayed are so spot on and heartfelt it is so easy to get pulled into their story. At the same time, it’s difficult not to like a film where department stores help each other, the hustle and bustle is toned down, and for once mankind has faith in each other for awhile.

As an audience, we gravitate towards Edmund Gwen because he represents the Santa we all wish to know. He is kind, thoughtful, generous, and above all a magical gift giver. Maureen O’Hara goes through a character progression that mirrors that of her daughter, except it is perhaps a little more poignant in her case due to her maturity. It would seemingly be easy to dislike her and yet thanks to O’Hara we cannot help but feel for her. She is also extremely beautiful, even in black and white. Although young, Wood proves to be a memorable little girl in this one, and she was just getting started. Payne is a good addition in his own right — a highly underrated actor.

The film is rounded out by a wonderful array of characters in the Macy’s store like magnate R.H. Macy (Harry Atrim), well-meaning Mr. Shellhammer (Philip Tonge) and friendly young janitor Alfred (Alvin Greeman). Shoppers such as the one and only Thelma Ritter in an early role, and civil servants like Judge Harper  (Gene Lockhart) round out New York’s population with generally decent people who we can relate to. The one exception is Dr. Sawyer (Porter Hall), the company psychologist, and greatest villain of the film, who is the antithesis of Kris and his Christmas spirit.

My hope is that this one never pales, never loses its cheer, and maintains its timelessness for many Christmases to come. Until the next Macy’s Thanksgiving parade comes along have yourself a merry little Christmas and remember all psychologists are not evil jerks looking to ruin the holidays!

5/5 Stars

White Christmas (1954)

58e88-white_chrismas_filmMany times I feel like a broken record (this time playing a Christmas tune), but White Christmas is one of those classics that I never get tired of. It is so ingrained, so integral to my childhood memories, that I have difficulty analyzing it or finding fault.

Wonderful, visceral films stop being something that must be thought about and simply become an all out experience. That’s what White Christmas is for me. A full blown Christmas experience courtesy of Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney Vera-Ellen, Dean Jagger, director Michael Curtiz and of course Irving Berlin.

I mean this as a compliment, but at a basic level, I always thought of White Christmas as a Christmas-like version of Singin’ in the Rain. We have a talented and dashing leading man in Crosby (Bing Crosby) and his mischievous and hilarious partner in crime (Danny Kaye). They are never better than during their parody of the sister’s act (It’s a priceless gem of a moment). Although, there is constant chemistry throughout the film thanks to the bickering and back and forth between two buddies.  Similarly to Singin’ in the Rain, you also have big spectacles, lavish sets, great songs, dancing, and constant quotability. It brings out the most reluctant of crooners and even the guys with two left feet. But what about the story?

White Christmas follows those two war buddies as they make it big as a boffo double act. Along the way, they help out a pair of sisters as well as their washed-up former commander General Waverly (Dean Jagger), who owns an inn in snow-less Vermont. Although, it’s lacking in business,  it’s the perfect locale for matchmaking, acts of kindness, and misunderstandings courtesy of local innkeeper and resident eavesdropper Emma (Mary Wickes). But what we end up receiving is a joyous romance with plenty of Christmas cheer and sentiment to go around.


Bing Crosby’s pipes are as good as ever (“Count Your Blessings”) and Danny Kaye can make his voice crack like no other. Vera-Ella has a talented pair of legs and Rosemary Clooney can carry a tune in her own right opposite Crosby. Whether it’s “Snow,” “Sisters,” or the eponymous track, there’s so much to offer. Weather any slow sections and you will be rewarded thanks to the even-handed direction of Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), paired with the ever memorable compositions of Irving Berlin. Now go spend the holidays with your kith and kin. Vermont must be nice this time of year, all that snow.

4/5 Stars

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

416cc-christmasinconnecticutElizabeth Lane  is the perfect cook, hostess, wife and mother who is the talk of the town thanks to her daily column in a reputable publication. Anecdotes from her quaint lifestyle out on a Connecticut farm have everyone from war vets (Dennis Morgan) and publishing magnates (Sydney Greenstreet) fawning over her cooking. She’s a chef extraordinaire. Except she doesn’t actually exist, or rather not in that incarnation. Instead the persona is the creation of New York columnist Elizabeth Lane who lives in an apartment with very little culinary ability of her own. That’s why things get complicated when a young sailor followed by the old publisher want to meet her and share Christmas on her farm. She knows Mr. Alexander Yardley is a stickler for the truth and so she rushes to pull off a masquerade to keep her job. It’s a harebrained scenario involving the farm of a beau and her kindly chef pal Felix (S.Z. Sakall) who covers for her lack of cooking ability. For a while it works and romance is in the air, but as you would expect things get a little complicated. Everything ends up hunky dunky in the end. If you’re feeling a Christmas comedy with screwball elements, you’ve come to the right place. Stanwyck is always great and Sakall invariably steals the show at times.

3.5/5 Stars