Saturday, December 25, 2004

My Favorite Christmas Movies

There are a lot of Christmas movies out there, especially if you include the T.V. movies. I looked at over 400 titles before deciding on my favorites, listed below in order of preference (my own):

1. Groundhog Day. This is not your classic Christmas movie. In fact, there's no Christmas in it since it takes place in February. But it's got snow and "the true meaning of Christmas" (you'll find this phrase in every Christmas movie database). It's one of my favorite movies of all times, as Bill Murray relives the same day, over and over, until he gets it right.

2. It's a Wonderful Life. I don't believe It's a Wonderful Life came out as a Christmas movie, and I also believe it was a financial failure when it first hit, failing to find its audience. Well, it has an audience now. Be careful when you watch the rerun on T.V., though, as the versions are severely truncated. The full-length version has a lengthy courtship between Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, which, while the sequence doesn't help much with the plot, it sets up his character very nicely and takes the time to do it right. The film was made in 1946, right after World War II ended, and shows a different view of wartime, the kind of scenery the rest of us had to endure while our brothers went off to war. The "Scrooge" in the story takes advantage when Jimmy's uncle misplaces $8,000 of the bank's money. The ending is definitely kleenex-worthy.

3. White Christmas. Nothing speaks to Christmas like this 1954 movie with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as an entertainment duo who try to save their military commander's dignity while finding True Love. Great, great songs.

4. Scrooge. The version I recommend is the old 1950's one with Alastair Sim as Ebeneezer. You can't have Christmas without Dickens.

5. A Winter Solstice. This was an early Xena: Warrior Princess episode. Since you can't really have Christmas (Jesus Christ came a few hundred years later), we have a "winter solstice" where the plot contrives early versions of Santa, gift-giving, a Christmas tree, and, yes, "the true meaning of Christmas." Uproariously funny and a superb example of why Xena is a cult favorite.

6. Bad Santa. Bad boy Santa discovers the "true meaning of Christmas" only when he leaves the elf and helps the weird eight-year-old boy deal with life's problems.

Honorable Mention goes to:

7. The Bishop's Wife (1947). A superb cast with Cary Grant and David Niven. I always thought these two could switch roles and the movie would work as well.

8. A Charlie Brown Christmas, or actually, all the Charlie Brown Christmas specials. Someone took a chance when they first put these together that kids and adults alike would love a slightly avant-garde view of Charlie Brown's world. Mix in Vince Garaldi's brilliant music for a wonderful treasure.

9. The Lion in Winter. Eleanor of Aquitaine gets loose from the Tower just once a year, for Christmas. While every family may have its ups and downs, none are quite like these.

10. Love Actually. This is a 2003 movie featuring one of the best casts you'll ever see in a modern movie. Several vignettes work well to show us the good and sad of Christmas holidays for several families.

11. The Simpsons Christmas Special. My favorite part: Bart gets a tattoo, but Marge spends all the Christmas money having it removed.

Bad Christmas movies - Ohmigosh, this list could be quite long, especially with all the T.V. drivel out there. But be sure to count among them:
The Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley: The Case of the Christmas Caper
Jim Carrey's Grinch
The Nightmare Before Christmas - great (dead) characters with a verrrrry sloooooow plot
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). 'Nuff said.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Odds and Ends

There's a long list of movies I want to see, and haven't seen yet; the rest of my life has been taken up way too much of my time lately.

In the meantime, it's the season of year end movie review lists: "Best of," "Worst of," and all that. I notice that the East Bay Express has an interesting series of articles from their busy band of critics. The Express doesn't stop with a list -- they have dueling lists and big arguments.

Film reviewers are a dime a dozen. There are critics I trust to give every genre a fair shake. Roger Ebert comes to mind -- I don't always agree with him, but he always gives me something to ponder. Mick LaSalle is interesting reading. There are other critics who seem more interested in making snooty statements that boil down to "my taste is better than Everyman's taste, nyah, nyah." I heard enough of that in junior high, thanks.

There are some movies I haven't seen this year that I'm sorry I missed in the theater. Eventually I'll get around to The Terminal, for instance; I may yet catch Being Julia on a big screen. Seeing films on my laptop screen just isn't the same.

In the meantime -- Christmas movies? Linda, we've already disagreed about Bad Santa. My favorite Christmas film is Edward Scissorhands. With all the improbable business, it still carried a sense of wonder that I associate with the best of the season. Can you suggest a favorite Christmas movie, Linda? Anyone out there in the peanut gallery want to nominate their own Best Christmas Movie?

Monday, December 06, 2004

Alexander - a Stone's throw from perfection

It would be easy to slam Alexander on so many counts. Every actor has a different accent -- in fact, at one point, I fully expected a young Tony Curtis to enter, saying "Yondah lies da castle of my faddah." The politics read like a soap opera. But I don't want to slide into easy slams.

Instead, let's look at "Alexander" from the standpoint of what Oliver Stone was trying to achieve. I'm not reading his notes at this point, but it's fairly easy to guess what his goals were. (1) Show Alexander the bisexual; (2) Alexander is the product of a dysfunctional family which fueled his rise to power; (3) His attempts to meld all the world's tribes into one were noble but misunderstood.

Number One is dealt with poorly. We see the furtive glances, an occasional hug, but not one kiss with Jared Leto, who played a pretty but not wimpy boyfriend.

The dysfunctional family theme is the soap opera. Angelina Jolie, his mother, and a aging and career-on-hold Val Kilmer, his kingly father, literally fight their way through scenes together. Mother is a queen without power, reduced to plotting through her son to achieve anything at all. (Pity her son is gone exploring and plundering through his entire adult life.) Father is the icon Alexander cannot equal, or please. Unfortunately, director Stone doesn't explain to us exactly how this drama creates a king who pushes on against incredible odds to conquer the entire known world.

Alexander's efforts to bring his conquered into an equality with his fellow Macedonians and Greeks were met with derision in this tale, and to press forward with this theme, he marries a Persian queen. It seems ludicrous that Stone finds the time to include a drawn-out seduction scene on their wedding night, yet can't include a single kiss from his alledged lover.

The fight scenes are incredibly detailed and are one good reason to watch this film. Stone employs a blurring effect, an effect which may irritate some, but I found it an interesting way of showing us what war may truly be like -- quick, stutter-step, dangerous and frightening moments. In these fight scenes, we catch a glimpse of what may have made Alexander a superior leader: a knowledge of his men, the ability to praise them for their heroic traits and spur them on in spite of years spent away from home.

But these are fleeting glimpses. Mostly we see not the giant we know as Alexander, but rather a smallish man who is not particularly skillful at managing his people, a general who is out of touch with his army. This is not the Alexander who lights up the history books. While it would be easy to pick on the clownish parts of this film, the worst part of this movie is that we never get to know why this Alexander overcomes his weaknesses to conquer the world.

Thumbs down for "Alexander."