Category Archives: 12 Films of Christmas

12 Films of Christmas #1: A Christmas Story

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A Christmas Story (1983)

A lot of people have attempted to define Christmas over the years, but if you ask a child it’s all about Santa Claus and presents. We can tell our kids it’s about more than that. It’s about the giving, not the receiving, but they’ll never buy it. They may pay us lip-service thinking that by saying the right thing Santa will bring them more presents, but we know how they truly feel. And really, it’s no big deal because as they get older they’ll find new ways to look at Christmas and come around to the family and giving aspects of the holiday. While they’re kids though, lets let them be kids.

Everyone probably can recall that one Christmas gift they really wanted above all others. Hopefully, many did eventually get that, though I have a feeling most of those girls asking Santa for a pony went wanting on Christmas Day (I’d ask for a dog and never get it, but by then I was kind of wise to the whole Santa thing; I did get a turtle though). I have one, and for me it was a Super Nintendo. The SNES was released in 1991 and some of my cousins and friends received one from Santa that year. I did not, so come Christmas ’92 I was really itching for one and felt Santa was my only hope. When Christmas came, I snuck up early in the morning to scope out the loot. I was actually pretty happy with the toys I received, but there was no SNES. I returned to bed partially defeated, but truly looking on the bright side. When it was finally an acceptable hour to get up, I returned to the tree and tore into my gifts with my sister. When my parents got up, my dad made a remark about how he was surprised I wasn’t playing with a certain gift. Then he started looking around, and gestured towards the kitchen table which was probably six feet away from where the tree was setup. Tucked between the table leg and wall was my Super Nintendo, and I was overjoyed.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s practically the same experience Ralphie enjoys at the end of A Christmas Story when he finds his coveted Red Ryder BB Gun tucked behind a desk after thinking Santa had forgot the one gift he wanted most. It’s a charming tale about want, which sounds shallow on the surface, but after spending some 80 minutes with Ralphie throughout the picture we come to feel he deserves it and we’re all rooting for him to get that air rifle, even if it means he might shoot his eye out.

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The Parker Family

Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) is like most kids. He has the same problems as anyone like school work, bullies, and looking after his kid-brother Randy (Ian Petrella). The film is narrated by Jean Shepherd as adult Ralphie, and was written by him as well, and the whole story is essentially one long flashback. Ralphie’s mother (Melinda Dillon) is his main obstacle towards getting what he wants as she deems a BB gun as too dangerous, uttering the film’s famous line “You’ll shoot your eye out,” upon hearing of her son’s desire. Ralphie’s dad, often referred to as the Old Man and played by Darren McGavin, seems indifferent to the plights of the family, unless the kids are acting up. He’s more consumed with his paper, fighting a never ending battle with the furnace, and his hick neighbors pack of hound dogs that seem only interested in harassing him, and no one else.

A lot of subplots carry the picture as we move towards Christmas. There’s the famous scene at the flagpole where Ralphie’s friends settle a debate over whether or not a tongue can stick to metal in the cold. There’s the Old Man’s “major award” that starts a cold war of sorts in the Parker household. A mall Santa steals a scene, and Ralphie’s potty mouth takes center stage for a memorable scene as well and we all learn about which soap tastes the best. Ralphie is often on the receiving end of some minor misfortune in many of these scenes, which only helps to make him feel more sympathetic. The film never strays too far towards this masochistic persona by making the viewer feel almost depressed for the poor kid, it mostly just reminds us of what it was like growing up.

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Not all gifts are winners.

The film is loaded with humor. Some of it is subtle and worked into the dialogue, some of it is ironic, and some of it is gag reliant. Ralphie’s daydreams are appropriately corny since they’re coming from the mind of a child and provide for the most obvious scenes of comedy in the film. The previously mentioned major award, a novelty lamp resembling a woman’s leg in a cocktail dress, is so well-known these days that you can walk into a store and buy one. McGavin is especially funny in his role as the Old Man, often having big reactions when he’s angered and perfectly capturing what it means to be a parent around the holidays. Sometimes all you can do is shake your head. Dillon is equally as effective as Mrs. Parker. She so captures that classic image of a mother without feeling too cliche. When she screams “Ralphie” it really sounds like she’s been shouting it his whole life at her own son.

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It’s hard to pick a favorite scene in this one, and when Ralphie tries his luck with Santa is certainly in the running for best scene in the picture.

The film does a great job of giving Ralphie small victories along the way, making the payoff at the end feel especially effective and joyous. It’s a film that succeeds because it so understands how it felt to be a child around Christmas. It’s relatable for children watching it today, and gives adults a chance to look back on those years when we were a little like Ralphie. You only get a few years to really be a kid invested in the whole Santa Claus concept, since most have the fable spoiled before they leave elementary school. It’s nice to get a little taste of that each time I view A Christmas Story. It’s why I consider it my favorite Christmas film of all time.

If you’re looking to catch A Christmas Story this year then I have good news, as it will be airing on television when this post goes live on Christmas Day. Hopefully you enjoyed reading this feature, though I admit I hope most are reading this final entry after Christmas, though I suppose it could be bathroom material on Christmas Day just fine. I hope everyone is spending Christmas Day with friends and family and Merry Christmas from The Nostalgia Spot!

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12 Films of Christmas #2: Elf

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Elf (2003)

It’s pretty hard to come into an established industry with something new and find success.  And when it comes to holiday films and television specials, it seems like it’s especially hard. Sure, sometimes you get a Prep & Landing that really surprises, but mostly you get Shrek the Halls…

Jon Favreau is mostly known these days for directing the Iron Man films. In 2003, people may have mostly known him for his short-stint on the sitcom Friends when he played the boyfriend of Courtney Cox who wanted to be an ultimate fighting champion. He certainly wasn’t known for holiday films, but who knew he was about to preside over one of the best?

Elf, in some ways, follows one of my favorite Christmas formulas by adding to the legend of Santa Claus. It doesn’t add much, but gives us another look at how Santa goes about his business. It definitely gives us a peek at elf life. We learn their dietary habits, toy output, and that they actually make those toys that show up in department stores themselves (though I don’t know if we’re supposed to assume that all Etch-A-Sketch toys are made by elves). Mostly though, it tells the story of one elf:  Buddy. The twist is that Buddy is not actually an elf, but a human adopted by elves after he snuck into Santa’s sack one Christmas while Santa was visiting an orphanage.

Before getting to the meat of the story, I must say I definitely approve of the decision to model the elves and the North Pole after the look both have in Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Even the decor is that pale violet color that everything seemed to be cast in for that famous Christmas special. As a kid, it always annoyed me there was so little continuity between Christmas specials, even ones produced by Rankin/Bass. If I had seen this film as a six-year old I would have been even more delighted than I am as an adult.

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Ferrell is at his best when Favreau just lets him go nuts in a scene.

Now Buddy (Will Ferrell), is oblivious to the fact that he’s an elf even though he’s a lot bigger than his peers and can’t keep up with them in the toy-making field. It bums him out, and when he overhears the head elf (A Christmas Story’s Peter Billingsly) speaking with another about how Buddy will probably never realizes he’s human, he goes running to Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) to find out if it’s true. Upon doing so, he decides to set out to find his real father, who impregnated his biological mother unknowingly and has since passed away. All of the elves, including Santa (Ed Asner) wish him well, but Santa also has a revelation to reveal: Buddy’s dad is on the naughty list!

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I’m digging the Rudolph inspired look of the film.

If you have not guessed by now, Elf is a pretty silly movie. After Buddy leaves the North Pole, it becomes a fish-out-of-water tale as he journeys to New York City to find his dad. Turns out his dad is the head of a children’s book publishing firm, and right away we see how he values profits above doing the right thing when he approves a book with no ending for publishing. Walter Hobbs (James Caan) is naturally shocked to find out he has a son he never knew about, and wants nothing to do with an adult who thinks he’s a Christmas elf. He also has a wife, Emily (Mary Steenburgen), and a young son, Michael (Daniel Tay), who are equally dubious. Emily is the most receptive of Buddy, though Michael is more in-line with his dad in thinking the guy is nuts. Buddy also winds up in a department store where he meets Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), and mistakes her for someone into elf culture since she has to dress-up as one for work.

Buddy has a hard time adjusting to life in New York and makes things difficult for those around him. He gradually gets people to come around to him, starting with Michael, then Jovie, and eventually even his old man. There’s of course a big blow-up scene between him and his father that has to be resolved before Buddy can then help Santa save Christmas. It’s all rather conventional, but the film always straddles the line between cheese and just plain good fun, and one gets the impression it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

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Given her get-up, it’s not hard to see why Buddy gets a little excited when he sees Jovie.

Will Ferrell is very charismatic as Buddy. He’s annoying, as most characters played by Ferrell are, but still charming due to his child-like and honest persona. I know many people who dislike Ferrell but are charmed by his Buddy character. Maybe it’s the Christmas factor, I’m not sure, but Buddy seems to be his most-liked role. Asner’s gruff take on Santa Claus works really well in the film’s climax. He feels authentic, even when spouting nonsense about needing more Christmas spirit to get his sleigh off the ground. He’s so matter-of-fact about it that it helps the audience to buy-into what the film is selling. Caan is prickly as Hobbs, but understandably so given what his character has to deal with. He possesses some Scrooge-like qualities in the sense that he’s a workaholic who clearly doesn’t spend enough time with his family (as illustrated by Michael’s lack of respect for him). He has to come around to Buddy, and see the importance of family. He does so in semi-believable way, but considering this film exists mostly for laughs, he doesn’t need to go through a Scrooge-like transformation that unfolds over entire acts.

Elf works so exceptionally well because it’s just a joyful film. There’s plenty of humor, and enough heart to give it purpose and provide that emotional pay-off most expect of a Christmas movie. It’s a movie that I return to every year, and every time I watch it I wonder to myself if this is my favorite Christmas movie. So few are able to handle comedy and sentimentality as deftly as Elf does. The Santa Clause has some laughs, but becomes cloyingly sweet at the end. Bad Santa is plenty hilarious, but doesn’t have really much of an emotional payoff. The Miracle on 34th Street has some chuckle-worthy moments, but is hardly a comedy. Elf is able to be both, which makes it the rare modern Christmas movie that is contention for being one of the best.


12 Films of Christmas #3: Miracle on 34th Street

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Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

When it comes to the eternal struggle over Christmas, as depicted on South Park, between Jesus and Santa Claus, I always side with Claus. Christmas may have originated with the Pagans before being appropriated by the Christians, but it’s Santa Claus that has made it the most popular holiday in the USA, if not the world. I’m on record as being one who appreciates a good Santa movie, one that adds to the character’s lore and mystique. The Santa Clause, featured towards the back-end of this list, is a modern film that does a pretty good job of making Santa more fleshed out and believable. It owes a lot to Miracle on 34th Street.

Miracle on 34th Street is the original “Do you believe in Santa Claus?” movie and is perfect for those children who are just starting to question the existence of the jolly old elf. It’s also heart-warming and delightful for adults as the film never fails to make me want to believe in Santa Claus once again.

Miracle on 34th Street was released in 1947 during the very festive month of June. Despite the odd timing, the film was warmly received by critics and movie-goers and Miracle on 34th Street is one of the most celebrated Christmas films of all time. Set in New York City, the film follows Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) and her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood), two people with little time for sentimentality or flights of fancy. Doris is a divorcee, very straight-laced and career oriented and serves as an event director with Macy’s. Her daughter is her spitting image and the two are really a couple of humbugs around the holidays. Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) comes into their lives when he notices the man set to play Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is intoxicated, and insists he be replaced. Since he fits the image of Santa, Doris appoints Kris. He does such a marvelous job that Macy’s hires him as their official Santa to meet children in their 34th Street department store which brings him into frequent contact with Susan. He finds her to be a kind child, but kind of sad and joyless and makes it his mission to convince her that he is, in fact, the real Santa Claus.

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Gwenn and Wood possess natural on screen chemistry.

Throughout the film we’re treated to scenes between Gwenn and Wood where Wood begins to question all she knows, and all her mother has told her. And as an audience, we’re kept in the dark for the most part as to whether or not Kris really is Santa Claus. Doris is not really interested in hearing about Kris’s exploits, but her suitor Fred (John Payne) becomes one of Kris’s biggest supporters and seems willing to believe that he’s Santa, because he has no reason not to and sees no harm in it.

Kris ends up being a revelation for Macy’s. Even as he tells customers to shop at rival Gimbel’s if Macy’s doesn’t have what they’re looking for or is charging too much. The store manager appears ready to terminate him over the flap, but customers respond with increased loyalty towards Macy’s as a result prompting the store to keep Kris on staff. Meanwhile, Kris is given a task by young Susan to prove he’s the real Santa. He needs to bring her for Christmas a family and a new life by giving her a house. Kris is reluctant to promise her this, as even if he truly is Santa Claus, such a task is impossible, but he reluctantly agrees. Kris and Fred end up forming a duo, in which each will work on the mother and daughter to make them more open to the Christmas spirit.

Concerned by Kris’s proclamations of being Santa, Doris has him psychologically examined and the examination upsets Kris. The psychiatrist finds him to be harmless, but begins spreading his opinion that Kris is mentally ill around the store, which enrages Kris further. Kris foolishly gives the shrink, Sawyer (Porter Hall), a bop on the head with his cane which Sawyer exaggerates into a full-blown assault, getting Kris arrested as a result and faced with being institutionalized over his claims that he’s Santa Claus.

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The courtroom scenes contain some of the best writing and most humor in the picture.

The climactic scenes for the film occur in a courthouse, where Fred represents Kris and is forced to prove that he’s Santa Claus, or force the court to prove that he is not. There’s a lot of fun scenes that take place during the trial, and there’s a warmth added to the picture when the store director for Macy’s voices his belief in Kringle on the stand. Through a sort of trick, Fred is able to convince the judge that the federal government recognizes the existence of Santa Claus by virtue of the fact that the post office accepts letters to Santa, which is enough to get Kris off.

The film concludes in typical Christmas fashion, with everything working out for the best and we’re left to wonder if Kris really is Santa Claus. It’s a satisfying wonder though, which captures the essence of the Santa Claus character and whether or not he is believed in.

The film was famously remade in 1994, with Sir Richard Attenborough in the lead role and support from Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, and Mara Wilson as Susan. The film changes things up be inserting some villainous characters out to topple Kris, bringing back the character he got fired from playing Santa at the film’s beginning in a scheme to get Kris arrested. It’s a bit cartoonish when compared to the original, but I do like that Kris is given more motivation to strike a man (he accuses Kris of being a pedophile) than what was present in the original. The film ups the difficulty factor for Kris by having Susan request not only a house, but a dad and a baby brother as well. The final scene also opts to use the “In God We Trust” statement on US currency as a way to prove the federal government can acknowledge the existence of a being that no one can prove exists.

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The 1994 remake has its good and bad points, but this scene maybe my favorite scene across both films.

The re-make is often derided by those who love the original, as remakes almost always are. I think it works as a modern adaptation. There’s some things I like about it and some I don’t. There’s a little more character development given to smaller roles, and we get a better sense of what the judge has to wrestle with when presented with this case. There’s also a nice communal spirit that’s driven home about the picture, which is present in the original, but to a lesser degree. One change I do like is to one of the best scenes in the original film when Susan witnesses Kris speak Dutch to a young girl. In the remake, the girl is deaf instead and Susan watches Kris sign with her. The scene is just set-up so well, and Attenborough and the young actress playing the deaf child are so expressive and warm that it’s a real heart-melter of a scene.

Whether you watch the original or the 1994 remake, you’re bound to find one of the most sentimental and warm-hearted Christmas films made. Both Gwenn and Attenborough bring amazing authenticity to the character of Kris Kringle, so much so that I don’t know who did it better. I wish Gwenn had the benefit of color for his version as this is a film that is so warm it begs to be scene in color. Miracle on 34th Street, no matter the version, stands as the best Santa Claus movie made, and its use of mystery and cleverness is likely not to be topped by another.

 


12 Films of Christmas #4: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

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National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned how Home Alone director Chris Columbus was booted off of another Christmas flick due to conflicts with the star and that landing on Home Alone was a pretty good Christmas rebound. Unfortunately, the film he was dismissed from was one of the few this blog thinks is a superior Christmas movie:  National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Now to be fair, it’s said that Columbus left this film due to disagreements with lead actor Chevy Chase. We all know that’s lingo for fired, basically, as the studio wasn’t going to side with a director of his stature over Clark W. Griswold. Even if, rumor has it, that Chase was a pain in the ass to work with going back to his days on Saturday Night Live.

Chase is very much the star here as most of the scenes revolve around him. When he’s not around the house, we very rarely get a look at what the rest of the Griswold family is up to. Essentially, we experience virtually everything through Clark, which isn’t unlike the previous Vacation films that came before it. It’s one reason why producer and writer John Hughes didn’t have any interest in directing the film as he viewed it as an outlet for Chase and little else.

Which is kind of a shame because, whatever your thoughts on Chevy Chase happen to be, the film works because Chase is so convincing as Clark Griswold. Unlike the previous Vacation movies, this one keeps the Griswolds at home as Clark is hell-bent on having the perfect family Christmas. He invites his parents and in-laws to stay on holiday at their home and carefully orchestrates everything from the tree to the decorations and probably even the menu. Of course, this being a Vacation film, nothing goes the way Clark plans. He forgets a saw when they set out for a tree, he can’t get his elaborate lights display to work properly, he spends a day locked in the attic, his cousin-in-law Eddie shows up, and worst of all, he doesn’t get a Christmas bonus thanks to his cheap boss, Frank Shirley (Brian Doyle Murray).

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Clark and Ellen are back for this third installment in the Vacation series.

Everything that goes wrong for Clark does so for a reason; to make the audience laugh. Some of the gags are painfully awkward, like when Clark gets caught flirting with a lingerie clerk by son Rusty (Johnny Galecki) or when engaging in a dangerous game of road rage in the opening scene. Others are spectacles of physical comedy with Clark taking a pretty good beating at times by falling off the roof or crashing his sleigh into Wal-Mart. Most of the gags hit home, and the film does a good job of raising the laugh factor as the film goes on. The best is definitely reserved for Christmas Eve, when basically everything blows up in Clark’s face. Some of the bits are a little less interesting, like the sledding sequence which feels like a time filler, or Clark’s day-dreaming of a swimming pool.

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The film opens with a pretty neat little animation of Santa having a hard time making a delivery to the Griswold family.

As was the case with the first film, Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) is a scene stealer as Clark’s hick cousin-in-law. Eddie has little comprehension of how he’s perceived by others and is devoid of shame. He has no problem emptying his chemical toilet in the middle of the street while swigging a beer in his bathrobe. He’s also pretty selfish, though not maliciously so, which makes him hard to resent. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why Clark wants nothing to do with him even if he is well-meaning, as he is at the film’s climax.

And that climax really is a work of Christmas comedy gold. Everyone has Christmas horror stories, but hopefully not like this. And when Clark finds out he’s been enrolled in the Jelly of the Month Club (“It’s the gift that keeps on giving the whole year ’round”) and goes on his rant he creates one of the most quotable moments of any Christmas film. It’s almost a shame that there’s some filler between that scene and Eddie’s “gift” as the momentum the film built up to that point is stellar. The film ends some-what abruptly, but I suppose that’s a good thing as we don’t need to see the family open burnt presents and try to pick up the pieces following the trashing of the house on Christmas Eve.

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“Merry Christmas! Shitter was full!”

There’s a lot of fine role-players in this film. Both Rusty and wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) play the patient, straight-role to Chase while daughter Audrey (Juliette Lewis) is more combative with her father, but not in an over-the-top sense that steals any scenes or derails the film. Doris Roberts and E.G. Marshall are excellent as Ellen’s parents who always point out what Clark gets wrong and not what he gets right. Nicholas Guest and Julia-Louise Dreyfus are scene-stealers as Clark’s neighbors, who put up with his crap for most of the film until the damn runneth over. They’re portrayed as snotty yuppy types and we’re supposed to root against them, even though they never do anything wrong or even mean. In that, the film is sort of mean-spirited in how it treats them, but I laugh at their misfortune anyways.

Christmas Vacation is, simply put, the perfect Christmas comedy. It spreads the laughs around throughout the brisk 97 minute runtime and does a good job of relying on each supporting actor in equal measures, while putting a rather large load onto the shoulders of Chevy Chase. And at this point, Chase has the Clark Griswold character nailed and it’s hard to separate the actor from the character as a result. This one is definitely worthy of annual viewing, just make sure to catch it on a premium network or home media format as the edited one that airs on Freeform is a disaster.


12 Films of Christmas #5: Home Alone

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Home Alone (1990)

Yesterday we looked at a film that shone a spotlight on how one man can make a difference in the many lives he comes in contact with. Today, we’re looking at a film where an eight-year old boy comes to realize he doesn’t need anyone to make it in this world. Of course we’re talking about Home Alone: the family comedy without the family. Home Alone was released in 1990 to much success. While hardly a critical darling, it raked in the money as kids everywhere lined up to see Kevin McCallister take on two bumbling bandits and show that kids do indeed rule. The film also made a household name out of Macaulay Culken who would have a short reign in the public spotlight before puberty uncomfortably ruined all of that.

Home Alone is a Chris Columbus directed picture that feels like a John Hughes directed one. That’s because Hughes produced it. And it’s probably thanks to Hughes that John Freaking Williams was brought on to score the picture. That’s a factoid that always marvels me, this little picture aimed at children had a Williams score. Even though Home Alone manages to elevate itself out of similar, but lesser films, like Problem Child it probably didn’t pitch any better, so for Williams to sign-on to do it just boggles my mind. And to make it even more incredible, Williams wasn’t even the first choice!

Home Alone was also Columbus’s second attempt at directing a major Christmas production. He was originally supposed to direct National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but he apparently didn’t get along with Chevy Chase. Home Alone feels like a decent consolation prize for dealing with Chevy. The film is very much a comedy, relying heavily on physical comedy and the uncomfortable situations Kevin puts the adults around him into.

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I don’t know if there’s a studio in America that would even try to get away with a scene like this in 2016.

The premise of the film is pretty ridiculous. Kevin’s family, including several members of his extended family, are all going to Paris for Christmas and he, being the black sheep of the clan, gets left behind. I don’t think we ever find out what Kevin’s parents do for work, but the fact that it’s his dad paying for everyone to go to Paris makes it seem pretty laughable that he seems upset with Kevin for using his new fish hooks to make Christmas ornaments. I don’t think a package of three cost as much as a dollar in 1990. Anyway, a power outage and a mad dash to the airport, plus a nosey neighbor, all contribute to Kevin being left home alone. The local police, and Kevin’s own youthful imagination, even make it impossible for anyone to confirm that he’s all right when his mom calls from Paris. This is definitely one of those films that would partially break with cell phones introduced.

Meanwhile, Kevin basically thinks he made his family disappear. He goes on with life, pretty happy at first doing what probably most kids would do. He eats ice cream for dinner, watches R rated films (Angels with Filthy Souls), and goes through his older brother’s room. Eventually, he starts trying to be more responsible as he realizes he actually has to do things now, they don’t just happen. When some burglars start nosing around (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern as Harry and Marv) is when Kevin starts to get scared, and actually miss his family. He even seeks out a local Santa about getting his family back, in a scene that is sort of touching, especially if you try to put yourself in the Santa character’s shoes.

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Oh yeah, that’s the one.

The proverbial money shot is obviously the climax in which the Wet Bandits storm Kevin’s house full off booby traps. As far as physical comedy goes, the entire sequence is actually pretty spectacular. It’s easy to forget how hilarious it all was upon the first viewing since this is a film most people reading this have probably viewed a hundred times by now. In particular, the blow torch scene is genius. Some may scoff at an actor like Pesci reducing himself to such a role, but his facial expressions are gold. Stern is arguably just as good as the more aloof of the two bandits.

The film also takes time to highlight the Christmas holiday, and Christmas naturally has a way of making things all better in the end. Home Alone is a terrific ride, even if it’s a bit formulaic and gag-reliant. It was a magic that really couldn’t be duplicated. While several sequels have been made (only one featuring the main cast of the original), none have come close to harnessing whatever it is that made the original feel so refreshing. It’s the type of film that can’t be duplicated, which means a remake is coming to theaters in 2021.


12 Films of Christmas #6: It’s A Wonderful Life

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It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

I’m going to follow-up perhaps the raunchiest Christmas movie with one of the sappiest on record. Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life is about as well known as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, at this point. It’s certainly the most adapted, or parodied, Christmas plots other than A Christmas Carol. Beavis and Butt-Head even have their own take on it! Now I’m not one for corn, or sentimentality, when it comes to Christmas films, but I have my moments. And if I’m going to feature one of the classics on this list it might as well be It’s A Wonderful Life.

The story of how It’s A Wonderful Life became a Christmas institution is probably pretty well known. To recap, the film was a dud when it was first released and studios viewed it as a sign that director Frank Capra was losing his touch. The film would eventually fall into the public domain and Ted Turner, of all people, gave it a second life when he started featuring it on his cable channels at Christmas time. Now it’s one of those event viewings on television during the Christmas season and always gets a premium time-slot.

Where It’s A Wonderful Life sets itself apart is in showing how bleak and depressing one man’s life can become. It’s a story about unfulfilled dreams and ambition. George Bailey (James Stewart) is a dreamer. He’s going to grow up and do all of these wonderful things, but along the way he’s constantly challenged to do the right thing and sacrifice his own goals in the process. He can never enlist in the armed forces because he lost hearing in one ear when  he saved his kid brother from drowning. It’s his brother Harry (Todd Karns) who becomes the decorated Navy pilot instead. He wants to get out and see the world and desperately doesn’t want to end up like his father running an old Building and Loan. When his dad passes away suddenly, it’s George to the rescue who takes over the family business. Even a run on that same Building and Loan screws up his honeymoon as George has to use his own cash he received for getting married to cover all of the withdrawals and forego his honeymoon.

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A man at the end of his rope.

That’s not to say that George’s life is a waste, it’s just easy to see how one person could feel like fate is dumping on him. He does get the girl, Mary (Donna Reed), and as a local business man is able to establish Bailey Park, an area of affordable housing in contrast to the slums managed by his rival, Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore). He and Mary have three children, and George seems to be a rather well-liked individual, a borderline local celebrity.

Most of the picture takes place in the form of a flashback. It’s being viewed by two angels, one of which is Clarence (Henry Travers), who is to be George’s guardian angel. This also makes It’s A Wonderful Life the rare secular film to find its way onto my television at this time of year. See Clarence is an angel who has yet to earn his wings. If he can save George, he’s promised them. And when things take a turn for the worse, and Potter is in position to seize the Building and Loan, George is ready to take his own life by jumping off a bridge. To prevent that from happening, Clarence jumps instead and George springs to the rescue. In order to convince George he has a life worth living, Clarence decides to show George what the world would be like had he never been born.

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“Merry Christmas, movie house!”

You probably know the rest. Naturally, everyone George knows seems to be worse off, or even dead. George has an epiphany and is back home in time for Christmas. And lets not forget, this is a list of films about Christmas. Visually speaking, George running through the streets of Bedford Falls in the falling snow screaming “Merry Christmas!” to everything and every one he sees is about as timeless as it gets. A film that spends a great deal of time focusing on the depressing parts of one man’s life turns into a rather feel-good movie in the end that sits dead-center in one’s throat.

Being an old film, it naturally doesn’t possess the visual charms of modern pictures. There are colorized versions out there but they’re kind of unnatural looking. Stewart makes George a very compassionate character. We don’t always have to love him as a viewer, but it’s always easy to get inside his head. And since he seems to be harmed most by just doing what’s right, it makes him easy to root for. Stewart is particularly effecting during a scene where he has to beg Potter for money that his uncle lost, right after telling Potter off earlier in the day when he tried to hire him away from the Building and Loan. It’s an uncomfortable scene, and George is doing something we wish he wasn’t, but we admire him for having the capacity to do it.

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“OMG IT’S CHRISTMAS!!”

There are of course some aspects of the film that could have been improved. It’s a bit long, coming in at 130 minutes and if you watch it on television with full commercials it becomes quite a chore. There’s plenty of scenes that could have been shortened for time, but this was Capra’s baby and likely no one was telling him how to cut his film. I also wish there was some closure in regards to Potter, who actually ends the film by enriching himself on George’s money that his uncle lost. I’m not saying they had to go full Saturday Night Live and set a mob on Potter, but a nice heart attack or even a public shaming would have been sweet. Since George is featured in almost every scene in the film, there’s not a lot of time spent on character development for the supporting cast. I feel like the Mary character is only just touched upon as she settles in as a maternal archetype more than anything. At the film’s conclusion it almost feels like a quiz to see which faces can be recalled from earlier in the film. I don’t need to know everyone’s life story, but it feels like at least a few of those faces could have been fleshed out. Though if it made the picture any longer then I’m fine with things the way they are!

 


12 Films of Christmas #7: Bad Santa

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Bad Santa (2003)

I’m not sure if it has become obvious or not at this point, but I definitely prefer the atypical Christmas films. So many are overly corny, overflowing with sentimentality that often renders the viewer immune to it by the film’s climax. Or at least, that’s how it works for me.

It should come as no surprise then that I think rather highly of Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa, a black comedy that centers on a chain smoking, alcoholic, butt-sex craving crook that also happens to play Santa around the holidays. Billy Bob Thornton stars as Willie, who together with his partner Marcus (Tony Cox), pose as Santa and his elf every year at a popular department store with the sole aim of ripping it off come Christmas. The cast is pretty star-studded for a comedy, featuring the late John Ritter, the also late Bernie Mac, Lauren Tom, and Cloris Leachman. Ritter and Mac are particularly hilarious in their small, but central roles (Ritter’s facial expressions in one scene alone are particularly memorable) as store manager and security, respectively. Lauren Graham, not really known for comedy, is also effective in the role of Sue, a character drawn to Willie on account of a Santa fetish who seems oblivious or unconcerned about Willie’s vices.

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Thornton really does a good job of looking like a real piece of shit in almost every scene he’s in.

The supporting cast is great, but Thornton is the real star as Willie. He’s a pretty terrible human being, but has a tiny shred of decency in him which makes him likable in spite of his shortcomings. His banter with Cox, a lot of which feels improvised, is a one-liner’s delight as the two trade insults at various parts of the film. Thornton really shines though when he’s opposite child actor Brett Kelly, who plays a dim-witted but well-meaning kid who lets Willie shack up with him and his senile grandma (Leachman) while his dad is in prison and mom in heaven. Willie never even asks the kid for his name (he finds out when the kid hands him his report card in search of praise that his name is Thurman Merman), but their unlikely friendship gives the film a touch of heart as Willie finds himself looking out for the kid, even though he doesn’t want to. A lot of the scenes featuring the two actors were never intended for the film. After the producers got a look at the initial cut, they requested Zwigoff shoot some additional scenes that make Willie at least somewhat likable, fearing audiences just wouldn’t care about the character. Normally, meddling produces are a bad thing in my book, but some of the film’s funniest scenes were shot and added following this directive. For that reason, I suggest viewing the theatrical cut first before checking out Zwigoff’s cut (if you have the Blu Ray release, Badder Santa, both are included).

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Some of the film’s funniest lines were reserved for Tony Cox’s, Marcus.

The film never loses site of what it sets out to do, or forgets that its title is Bad Santa. While Willie does find some redemption in the film’s climax, he remains strongly a bad human being for the film’s duration driving the black comedy at its most vulgar. This isn’t a film for everyone, but if you like your comedy un-PC and need a break from the sappy Christmas films and TV specials, then Bad Santa has what you need. The sequel, just released this year, is more of the same. Given that over a dozen years elapsed between films, this feels right as I personally enjoyed catching up with these characters after all of the elapsed time, however improbable the plot seemed. If you’re on the fence this year about seeing Bad Santa 2, I can safely recommend it under the caveat that if you liked the first one then you’ll probably find plenty to laugh at with the sequel. Although it should go without saying, the original is the better of the two.


12 Films of Christmas #8: The Nightmare Before Christmas

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The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Is it a Christmas movie? Is it a Halloween movie? Can a film be both? That seems to be the big question surrounding Tim Burton’s multi-holiday classic The Nightmare Before Christmas. Released on Disney’s Touchstone label (because the company was too scared to be directly associated with the film at first) around Halloween 1993, The Nightmare Before Christmas has been content to be accepted by both holidays, but lets not kid ourselves, it’s a Christmas movie.

It’s right there in the title! The Nightmare Before Christmas! The tale about how the fictional residents of Halloweentown usurped the Christmas holiday from Santa Claus for their very own. It’s a Christmas movie that looks like a halloween one, and it’s been charming audiences for decades now through its unique visual style and stop-motion animation. And that animation, even that screams “Christmas” thanks to holiday classics synonymous with the genre like Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The Henry Selick directed picture (which can’t be said enough since so many still mistakenly attribute the film’s direction to Tim Burton) leans heavy on its visual and theatrical elements so much that I can’t help but wonder if it was traditionally animated if it would have the same impact.

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The one and only, Jack the Pumpkin King!

The stop-motion style proves ideal in crafting a character such as Jack Skellington, the spindly skeleton suffering a severe case of seasonal depression, or midlife crisis if that’s possible for someone undead. His movements aren’t always fluid, but still seem appropriate given how we can practically see his various joints. Some creative liberties were taken with his head-sculpt which is soft, and round as opposed to resembling an actual skull. Some of the denizens of Halloweentown are rather unremarkable to behold, but all fit into the film’s visual style.

The film is a unique and visual treat, and the very Burton voice cast (featuring frequent collaborators like Paul Reubens, Catherine O’Hara, and Danny Elfman) is more than up for the challenge of bringing these characters to like. The film’s score, provided by Elfman, is fantastic and manages to capture the feeling of both Halloween and Christmas all in one. The broadway styled bits are where the film falters slightly, and what holds it back from being ranked alongside some of the Disney films from the same decade. Still, The Nightmare Before Christmas has its share of memorable tunes and can easily be sung along to.

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Everyone’s favorite trick or treaters. Or least favorite since they are little punks.

I did a full review of this film a few years ago, which is why this entry has chosen to focus on what makes the film unique among other Christmas films. Don’t fret too much over which holiday the film best aligns itself with, just use that as an excuse to watch the film around both holidays. It’s always worked in my household.


12 films of Christmas #9: Gremlins

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Gremlins (1984)

It’s hard not to take some pity on parents at Christmas time who feel pressured into getting their kid some must-have toy as a present, often to be left by Santa Claus. My own children are not yet old enough to where I have to concern myself with such, but I know a day will come when I’ll find myself lined up outside a department store four hours before opening in hopes of scoring the latest holiday fad.

Gremlins isn’t quite a film about getting some hard to find toy, like Jingle All The Way, but it does feature a father looking for something unique for his son Billy. Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Paxton) thought he found such a present for his teenaged son when he stumbled into a little shop in Chinatown and bought a gremlin. Gizmo (voiced by Howie Mandel) was his name, and though the shop keeper was reluctant to sell him to anyone (Peltzer makes a deal with the guy’s grandson), Gizmo seems from all angles to be an easy to manage and perfect pet. And he is! He’s a living stuffed animal. He purrs like a cat when happy, is capable of simple speech, yet lacks even the playful aggression of the most well-behaved dogs and cats.

Gremlins is a horror film, the rare Christmas horror film, so naturally things aren’t what they seem with Gizmo. He came with three important rules that the Peltzers were to heed:  don’t expose him to sunlight; don’t get him wet; and don’t feed him after midnight. The midnight one also confused me, as on a military clock midnight is 00:00:00 so every second post midnight can be considered after midnight. My guess, is that Gizmo isn’t to be fed between midnight and dawn. Anyways, the rules seem simple enough, but naturally Billy is unable to follow them. When his friend accidentally gets Gizmo wet, they’re shocked to see Gizmo “sprout” six additional and equally adorable gremlins. These gremlins prove to look rather cute, but do not possess Gizmo’s gentle nature. They’re more mischievous, and in the case of the alpha of the group Stripe, may even be evil.

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Gizmo is almost sickeningly adorable.

Billy (Zach Galligan), like most teens, has other problems to concern himself with. He has a job at a local bank where a regular has it out for his dog, Barney, and wants to see him put down. He’s also courting a neighborhood girl, Kate (Phoebe Cates), who seems to have a strong dislike for Christmas for some reason. In other words, he can’t watch the gremlins all of the time, and that eventually gets him and every one in town in a whole mess of trouble. It turns out, when gremlins eat after midnight they go into a cocoon and emerge as larger, scalier, more dangerous versions. Stripe and his minions are intelligent, so they find a way to get Billy to feed them and then go on a rampage. Properties are destroyed and people die. Suddenly the movie about the cute, furry, little gremlin is full of carnage and mayhem.

Gremlins is not directed by Steven Spielberg, it’s directed by Joe Dante, but it was produced by him and has that Spielberg feel most of his films possessed in the 1980s. There’s a lot of humor in how events unfold, but Gremlins doesn’t shy away from the horror elements. Obviously, this is what makes the film really stand-out amongst other Christmas films. And since the film centers around a Christmas gift, I think it more obviously can be considered a Christmas film as opposed to Die Hard. The film has a lot of charm and a lot of that comes from the wonderful puppets that bring the gremlins to life. Whether they’re fuzzy and cute, or scaley and sinister, they look great and possess a ton of personality. Stripe is borderline likable because he’s so expressive, even if he is clearly homicidal. Gizmo almost looks believable in the sense that he looks like a living creature. Certain features of his puppet make it obvious that he’s not, but he still possesses a lot of charm as well. The film also strikes a satirical tone at many points. The setting is appropriate for any garden variety classic Christmas film prior to the shift in tone and some of the gags and deaths are obvious throwbacks to classic era thrillers. In that respect, it has a lot in common with the Indiana Jones franchise.

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Stripe and his murderous band of carolers.

Gremlins also has the distinction of being one of the last PG films to feature such obvious death and violence. It’s credited with being one of the main drivers for the creation of the PG-13 rating, and it’s not hard to see why. Gizmo was obviously very attractive to younger viewers who likely begged their parents for a doll of the character. Many parents, upon viewing the film or even taking their kids to see it, may have regretted it afterwards. I honestly can’t recall how old I was when I first saw it, but I don’t remember it being a scarring experience, though it wouldn’t surprise me if my sister said otherwise. Gremlins 2 would follow a few years later and feature a much lighter tone in comparison. By doing so though, it lost a lot of what made the original so special. If you want to watch a film that has some of that Christmas spirit in it, but not the corn of so many Christmas movies, you could do a lot worse than Gremlins.


12 Films of Christmas #10: Scrooged

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Scrooged (1988)

All right, so I’ve commented on my disdain for A Christmas Carol adaptations, and yet here we are at entry number 10 and I’m already writing about a second such adaptation. There will be no more, but it does seem crazy. That’s because I can’t separate my dislike of A Christmas Carol from my love of Bill Murray.

I may sound like an elitist teen with this one, but I loved Bill Murray before it was cool, damnit! I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a fondness for the guy. I’m too young to have grown up with him on Saturday Night Live and I experienced Caddyshack well after its release. If I had to guess, the first movie I saw with Murray must have been Ghostbusters, which I assume is true for most men my age. Peter Venkman was my favorite character in that movie, but I don’t know if that was because of the character or if it was simply because that was my favorite Ghostbuster from The Real Ghostbusters animated series, which I was exposed to before the film. Either way, I probably would have liked Venkman the most because that’s really what the film is going for. I would love Murray in just about any role he played to the point where it seems impossible to conceive that there are people who don’t like Bill Murray. Everyone must love Bill Murray!

All that being said, Scrooged does test my love of Murray. There are moments in Scrooged where Murray is as unlikable as he could possibly be. He’s essentially playing Ebenezer Scrooge in this film, even if his character goes by another name (Frank), so we’re not supposed to like him, but Murray’s approach to the character is just so abrasive at times it makes me hate the man. He changes on a dime, will get real loud for no reason, and it’s pretty incredible that anyone is still around by the time the picture concludes to embrace him during his redemption arc. I’m also left to wonder if his character just went back to being an asshole on Boxing Day, it honestly wouldn’t surprise me.

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Few product placements scream “Eighties!” louder than a can of Tab.

Richard Donner directed this one and it seems his goal was to really take the Scrooge character and modernize him. Not only did this mean giving Scrooge a reason to exist in 1980’s society, but making him appropriately hateable in a world where horrible people are routinely featured on television. To do so, the character of Frank Cross really had to be amplified to ridiculous levels to make him seem despicable enough. The film spends so much time on him that it really has little room for the Cratchit character, Frank’s secretary Grace (Alfre Woodard). The ending sequence where Frank comes to embody the spirit of the season is also just as over the top as Frank’s scenes of misery. The presentation is so uneven and jarring that it’s hard to take at face value.

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Johansen apparently landed this role through his friendship with Murray. Does that mean Murray is a fan of the New York Dolls?

Despite all of that, Scrooged is made worthwhile through its humor and special effects. Even though Murray’s portrayal of Frank is hard to like, it doesn’t mean it isn’t funny. It’s dark humor, which helps elevate the film above the usual Christmas fair. Other comedies have improved on this approach, but it doesn’t render Scrooged dated. The visual effects have also held up really well. They’re mostly practical effects, with the makeup for Frank’s old boss Lew Hayward (John Forsythe), playing the Jacob Marley character, being the best. David Johansen is a scene-stealer as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Karen Allen is her usual sweet, likable self as Claire, Frank’s old love.

If you want to read more about Scrooged, I did a full write-up on the film a few years ago. Feel free to peruse it and see if I contradicted myself in some way or if my opinion has changed at all. We only have one Bill Murray Christmas movie, and we must treasure it, warts and all.


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