Wednesday, December 25, 2013

My Top Ten Christmas Movies

 Not a definitive list by any means - just a personal one.  Six of the ten
titles are from the 1980s so that should tell you enough right there.

10) Home Alone (1990)  The first of three John Hughes films to make my list.  Starring a charismatic Maculay Caulkin as a suburban kid accidentally left behind when his family departs for France.  During the course of the film he learns to value his family, redeem a random old man, and protect his home from two hapless robbers played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.   

9) Charlie Brown Christmas Special (1966)  Everyone gets bummed about the holidays and who better than to channel our rage than through the perpetual sad sack Charlie Brown? With a little help from his friends including  Linus as his conscience and Lucy with her tough love - where can one go wrong? Meanwhile Snoopy's antics add a refreshing anarchy to the proceedings.  Who can go wrong with friends like that?  And the music of Vince Guaraldi.  Charlie Brown Lives!

8) Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) Although technically not a Christmas film since it takes place during Thanksgiving, the pairing of John Candy and Steve Martin warrants this one to have "holiday" film classic status.  With Martin as a humorless yuppie and Candy as his earthy, but erstwhile travel companion Del Griffith, both characters become friends and change each other for the better. The honesty in both performances makes the emotional payoff believable at the end. 

7) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)  Emotional coming of age narrative set in turn of the century Brooklyn.  Told mostly from idealistic daughter's perspective, the film follows the an Irish-American family struggle's with poverty and their father's alcoholism.  Although not a Christmas film per se, a significant portion takes place during the holiday.  Elia Kazan's debut film.

6) National Lampoons Christmas Vacation (1989)  The third John Hughes film to make the list.  Chevy Chase returns as the well meaning, but hapless family man, Clark Griswald.  This time around he wants to have the ultimate family Christmas.  Hughes takes common Christmastime rituals like getting a tree, putting up Christmas lights, shopping for family, dealing with pushy in-laws and uninvited guests, and living up to the ghost of past Christmases with the right balance of sarcasm of sentimentality. Randy Quaid's reprisal of "Cousin" Eddie takes the comedy to another level and prevents Chevy Chase from becoming too tiresome.

5) Die Hard (1988)  Set during a Christmas Eve in a L.A. highrise as East German terrorists attempt to steal millions from a wealthy Japanese conglomerate.  Standing in their way is street smart New York cop - John McClane.  With methodical determination he outwits the Eurotrash terrorists at every turn.  All the ingredients are here: a sense of humor, excellent action, a compelling villain, and a new everyman action hero.  

4) Gremlins (1984)  A b-movie homage disguised as a Christmas film.  Something about the 80s zeitgeist makes Gremlins a must see with it's subversive homage to Reagan's America.  Directed by Joe Dante and produced by Stephen Spielberg - every shot has that Spielbergian vibe. Gremlin's is partly creature feature, family drama, and satire all rolled into one.  

3) Scrooged (1989) - As years go by the irreverence and sheer zaniness of Scrooged grows more endearing with me.  Bill Murray plays a bitter TV executive who berates his employees and drives everyone else in his life away.  Then he is visited by three ghosts . . .  you know the rest of the story.  The cameos range from Miles Davis to Jamie Farr.  The screenwriters keep the cynicism coming.  Hard to imagine anyone except Bill Murray pulling this one off - it's like his own twisted version of George Bailey.

2) A Christmas Story (1983) - Once upon time TBS did not air this movie 24/7.  As a result, it's impact has diluted.  Nevertheless, for the first 20 viewings one cannot resist this piece of Americana capturing the Midwest in the 1940s.  The true hero is the narrator Jean Shepard, a legendary radio broadcaster known for his hipster persona on New York's legendary AM station WOR, who for years captivated night owls with his stories about growing up in Indiana.

1) It's a Wonderful Life (1946) Frank Capra's classic can at turns annoy with its broad sentimentality and blind faith in humanity. It can also inspire viewers with the basic decency of George Bailey.  I'll credit the acting starting with Jimmy Stewart, who's respect and dedication to the story has reverberated through the decades.  That goes for the entire ensemble cast who magically captured a distinct moment in American history. 

That's the list.  See you next year!!!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ender's Game: Love Thy Enemy **1/2

The long awaited adaptation of Orson Scott Card's classic Sci-Fi novel Ender's Game is generally well made, engaging, and consistently grim (in a good way).  The film stars Asa Butterfield (from Hugo Cabaret) as the child prodigy Ender Wiggin; a military genius recruited to defend earth from buglike space invaders. Unlike most alien invasion pictures, which emphasize special effects and action, Ender's Game dwells more on characterization - allowing the film to at least touch upon moral and philosophical issues.

Set possibly a 100 years into the future after Earth has successfully repulsed an alien invasion, the story follows a group of children training to stop the next one.  The world government forces parents to give up their "gifted" children for military training.  Ender's two older siblings, Peter and Valentine (who both play a stronger role in the novel) represent conflicting sides of his personality: intelligent aggression and informed compassion.  Ender's mentor, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), sees Ender as humanity's last hope - exuding a creepy moral ambiguity in his performance.

A bit of inspired dialogue from the film got me thinking.  Colonel Graff wants to mold Ender into another Julius Caesar or Napoleon.  However, as pointed out to the Colonel, Caesar was killed by his own friends and Napoleon ended up in exile.  Generally, movies portray military heroes as larger than life egotists obsessed with their image in the history books - Patton being the glaring example.  But Ender's Game tries to answer the question of what makes a "great" general?  From my humble amount of reading of history, there a multitude of complex factors and talents appropriate for their time period:

Dwight Eisenhower: First rate conflict resolver and manager. 

Napoleon: Observers described as otherworldly and detached during battle.  

U.S. Grant: Stoic determination

Robert E. Lee: Aristocratic, risk taker, and endeared himself to history despite his less than noble cause.

George Washington: A gentleman who could win friends and influence others.

The list goes on and on. Ender Wiggin, like Grant, is a reluctant warrior.  He's really, really good at combat and strategy, but takes little joy in it.  Barely into adolescence Ender must defeat an enemy no one understands - another important allegory here?

The special effects are exceptional and avoid being too flashy.  As I said, this is a somewhat bleak movie for PG-13 audience, because of the issues it raises.  The adults using the children for their own purposes is another recurring theme in need of more development.  Or is the primary theme about the necessity of preparing for war?  The script tends to meander around those sticky quandaries.

Unfortunately, there's a pacing problem throughout. Some sequences go on too long, while others go by way too fast. The build up to the climax falls a bit flat.

I would recommend this movie as slightly above average Sci-Fi.  If you like it - definitely check out the novel.