Saturday, July 31, 2010

Christmas in July: Joyeux Noel (2005)

Based on true events but heavily fictionalized for maximum sentimentality, Christian Carion's Joyeux Noel (which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar despite approximately a third of its dialogue being in English) makes some powerful points about the futility of warfare but undermines its own effectiveness by hammering them over and over again to the point where they become tiresome. It goes from graceful to cloying in the space of a few minutes, and unfortunately stays there for the rest of its running time.

It's honorable that Carion wanted to commemorate what's known as the "Christmas truce" of 1914, in which German, French and British troops on the front lines of World War I voluntarily laid down their arms to honor Christmas together. Carion focuses on one particular group of soldiers, all fictional characters, and grounds the story in a few personalities, including a German opera singer, a Scottish priest, a Jewish German commander and a French lieutenant. The singer's wife, also an opera star, gets permission to join him at the front to entertain the troops, and the music brings the various factions together to share wine, chocolate and a soccer game, and to bury their dead without fear of being shot at. It's a nice string of events that highlights the similarities among the men, after Carion effectively demonstrates how bloody the warfare is.

But then he lingers on every moment of the aftermath, as soldiers struggle with returning to combat, and superior officers discover what happened and issue reprisals. It's a good 30-40 minutes of underlining every obvious point repeatedly, and the goodwill Carion built up earlier kind of deflates. The acting is still solid and mostly understated, and the message is an important one. It's admirable that Carion decided to tell a different kind of war story, even if he made up all the details for dramatic effect. He just doesn't know when to back off and trust that his message will come across without hand-holding.

The True Meaning of Christmas: It brings even mortal enemies together.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Christmas in July: Scrooged (1988)

Scrooged is an entertaining but clearly conflicted film, bouncing between Tim Burton-style goth darkness and standard 1980s Hollywood comedy gloss, between Bill Murray's bone-dry sarcasm and Christmas-movie sentiment. It's a retelling of A Christmas Carol that's deeply skeptical of the messages behind A Christmas Carol, which nevertheless gives in to them by the end. It doesn't entirely work, but thanks to Murray and a strong supporting cast, it's clever and weird enough to qualify as an original take on the material, and its concessions to Christmas cheer don't feel too forced.

Murray's Scrooge figure is TV executive Frank Cross, who puts on absurd programs (Robert Goulet's Cajun Christmas!) that look like they belong on the station in Weird Al Yankovic's UHF. He's ruthless and insensitive but kind of a fun guy, and not nearly as dour or depressing as Scrooge typically is. Unlike Scrooge, Frank gets visited by his ghosts throughout the day on Christmas Eve, and has time in between visitations to interact with his co-workers and, of course, his long-lost love, played by the 1980s' smilingest actress, Karen Allen. His ghosts are belligerent and goofy, played with slapstick verve by David Johansen and Carol Kane. And since one of Frank's ridiculous TV productions is a live staging of A Christmas Carol, he's completely aware of all their machinations. That he falls for them anyway is one of the movie's sticking points.

Still, even when Frank is giving the requisite speech about love and togetherness, Murray tinges it with bitterness and a manic sense of desperation. There's a happy ending, sure, but it's not as clear and upbeat as the typical Christmas Carol ending, even if Frank gets the girl that Scrooge never does. His journey is more about rekindling that romance than it is about feeling sympathy for the less fortunate, although he learns to give his working-class secretary (Alfre Woodard) a raise and manages to help her Tiny Tim-esque son. As nice as that is, though, the movie throws in an extra Bob Cratchit figure via Bobcat Goldthwait's fired junior executive, and he's just as unhinged as Frank is by the end (much of the climax involves his wielding a shotgun).

So the movie is a little mixed up, but it's still full of dry wit and willing to go to some dark places (the Danny Elfman score and the fantasy sequences definitely put me in mind of early Burton, even though actual director Richard Donner is much more square and straightforward). It tells a story that really doesn't need to be told again, and makes it feel mostly fresh and fun.

The True Meaning of Christmas: It's more important than ratings.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Christmas in July: Santa With Muscles (1996)

Did Santa With Muscles make me reconsider my assertion of only a few days ago that Jingle All the Way is the worst Christmas movie ever made? No, but I can see why it inspires such derision, has a permanent place on IMDb's Bottom 100, and has never been released on DVD (if you want to torture yourself, you can see the whole thing on YouTube, like I did). Santa With Muscles is a more blatantly "bad" movie than Jingle All the Way, a good candidate for mockery on something like Mystery Science Theater 3000 or while sitting around with family members slightly tipsy on eggnog. But the fact that it's so cartoonishly stupid is what makes it less offensive than Jingle All the Way, which is trying in earnest to be some sort of family classic and just missing the mark spectacularly.

Anyway, this movie is bad enough that it doesn't need comparisons. Just check out the unbelievably convoluted plot set-up: Hulk Hogan plays an ultra-rich creator of nutritional supplements who's also a total jerk with no sympathy for others. While he's out in his giant SUV playing paintball, he ends up with a cop on his tail because he's driving recklessly. Instead of stopping and getting a ticket that he could easily pay with his millions of dollars, he leads the cops on a high-speed chase and then ditches his car to hide out in a mall. Wait, there's more! To avoid being spotted by the cops (he's wearing military fatigues and looks like Hulk Hogan), he grabs a Santa suit and puts it on as a disguise. The cops spot him anyway, and while they're chasing him, he falls down a garbage chute, hits his head and gets amnesia (of course). An unscrupulous elf working at the mall finds his wallet with a bunch of money and credit cards, so he decides to take advantage of the Hulkster's addled state by telling him that he actually is Santa Claus. After foiling some robbers at the mall, Santa Hulk decides to protect the orphanage whose donations they were trying to steal.

Follow that? Amazingly, that's not even the main plot of the movie -- that's just how we get to the plot, which is really about a goofy evil industrialist (Ed Begley Jr.) who wants to destroy the orphanage (which only houses three kids) to get at the precious minerals directly underneath it. Santa Hulk defends the little orphans (one of whom is played by a young Mila Kunis) and defeats the bad guy and his henchmen (who all have different "scientist" personas for no apparent reason). Christmas is saved, I guess.

Really, not much commentary is needed beyond that insane plot summary to understand how bizarrely awful this movie is. Hogan is, of course, a terrible actor, and his conversion from callous millionaire to lover of orphans doesn't come across in any way. The characters, especially the villain and his henchman, would probably be more suited to a Saturday morning cartoon, and even Hogan's wrestling moves in the action sequences look pretty weak. But on the other hand it's so completely nonsensical that I couldn't help but be sort of amused by it. The director has somehow also made three other awful-sounding Christmas movies (including a direct-to-DVD movie about Richie Rich's Christmas, one about a cute dog at Christmas, and an upcoming one about a postal worker who answers Santa's mail), along with a bunch of obscure horror movies, and that mix of different genres of badness successfully encapsulates the occasionally entertaining failure that is Santa With Muscles.

The True Meaning of Christmas: Leave the orphans alone.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Christmas in July: Santa's Slay (2005)

The horror in Santa's Slay is so cartoonish that it barely qualifies as a horror movie at all, and the presence of professional wrestler Bill Goldberg as the evil Santa pretty much guarantees the movie will be an exercise in camp. Luckily, writer-director David Steiman (Brett Ratner's former assistant, with his ex-boss on board as producer) understands this, and he drenches the movie in self-awareness and mockery. It's certainly not the most sophisticated humor, and the writing isn't clever enough to make up for the overall dopiness of the concept. But the extremely brief (less than 80 minutes) movie is a breeze to watch because it doesn't have a single moment of taking itself seriously.

Steiman sets the tone right away in an opening scene that is the embodiment of a producer calling in favors: James Caan, Fran Drescher, Chris Kattan and Rebecca Gayheart have brief cameos as members of an obnoxious wealthy family who become the first victims of the homicidal Santa, who has apparently been released from a thousand-year-old curse. See, in this world Santa is actually the son of Satan, and he used to commemorate Christmas every year with a day of slaughter, until an angel tricked him into agreeing to spend a thousand years bringing the world joy instead of death. Now those years are up, and Santa is ready once again to go on a Christmas killing spree.

Which he naturally decides to do in a small freezing town in Canada, where the actual stars of the movie (including Robert Culp in his second-to-last onscreen appearance and Lost's Emilie de Ravin) are minding their own business. Culp's quirky grandpa knows the truth about Santa, though, and he educates his grandson and his grandson's girlfriend in how to defeat the one-liner-spouting psychopath. It's all pretty much as over-the-top as it can be, including a big showdown between Santa and grandpa that involves curling. There's a "reindeer" that looks like some sort of mutant yak, exploding Christmas presents, and the requisite scene in a strip club to fill the nudity quotient. But everyone clearly knows how silly it all is, and the actors play up the ridiculousness accordingly. There's even a little animated sequence about Santa's origin that uses stop-motion animation à la old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials. Santa's Slay never quite lives up to the giddy promise of that first scene, but for a movie starring a pro wrestler as Santa on a killing spree, it's about as entertaining as you could hope for.

The True Meaning of Christmas: Even Santa hates it.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Christmas in July: All I Want for Christmas (1991)

Once again I worry that all this Christmas sentiment has slightly melted my heart, because All I Want for Christmas is another somewhat sappy holiday movie that I found mostly charming if entirely forgettable. It's thoroughly predictable from start to finish, but it has some really nice performances and a fairly light touch when it comes both to holiday sap and silly comedy, and the characters actually seem to genuinely like each other rather than just profess their love for the sake of the plot. This isn't some forgotten masterpiece, but like Nothing Like the Holidays, it's the kind of movie you could catch on TV in December and then unexpectedly watch all the way through.

A great deal of the charm comes from a very young Thora Birch as one of two kids (the other is played by a young Ethan Embry) who scheme to get their divorced parents back together on Christmas Eve. Birch made a big splash with serious roles about a decade later in American Beauty and Ghost World, and then basically descended into direct-to-video and TV-movie hell after that. But for someone whose image is still largely cemented in playing angsty teenagers, she's actually quite a revelation here as a cute and precocious kid who's never annoying or fake. Embry is good too, although his performance is a little more smarmy, and he has to deal with both the scheme to reunite the parents and a budding romance with a slightly older girl.

Harley Jane Kozak and Jamey Sheridan make less of an impact as the parents, but they still do a good job of making both the bickering and the reconciliation seem natural (I also appreciated that the movie didn't stigmatize divorce, just illustrate that these two particular people should reunite). And the regal Lauren Bacall shines in her few scenes as the grandmother who wishes her daughter would dump her current loser boyfriend (Kevin Nealon, in the least nuanced part) and get back with her upstanding ex-husband. It's pretty much just The Parent Trap at Christmas (and without identical twins), but it has a genuine humanity to it that overcomes many of the cliches. Either that, or Christmas movies have addled my brain.

The True Meaning of Christmas: Again, it's all about family togetherness.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Christmas in July: Mixed Nuts (1994)

Between Mixed Nuts and Jingle All the Way, Rita Wilson has appeared in some of the worst that Christmas movies have to offer, although Mixed Nuts is not as bad as Jingle All the Way, and it's bad for completely different reasons. It's not a by-the-numbers Christmas placeholder, but a dark and idiosyncratic comedy that's clearly going for quirky and edgy but ends up coming off as irritating and mean-spirited. Based on a French movie that I haven't seen, Mixed Nuts takes place on Christmas Eve at a suicide hotline in Southern California, where a motley crew of slightly unhinged people has gathered to bicker and whine and generally grate on the audience's nerves for 90 minutes.

Steve Martin is the least annoying as the main character, the flustered owner of the struggling suicide hotline. He just wants to be a good person and help others, and circumstances continually conspire to keep him down. Pretty much everyone else in the movie made me want to call a suicide hotline myself, including Wilson in a horrendous performance as Martin's needy, needling love interest, with whom he has no chemistry. The great Madeline Kahn somehow has a scene in which she raps while stuck in an elevator; Adam Sandler shows up in a small part doing all of his least endearing Adam Sandler-y things (songs composed via baby talk, generally acting like a toddler); Liev Schreiber plays a mopey drag queen; and other random famous people (Rob Reiner, Garry Shandling) show up briefly because director Nora Ephron has clout.

Ephron just clearly does not have the talent for darkness, though, and her attempts at black comedy are hopelessly misguided, and generally invalidated by moments of nauseating sentiment immediately following. The movie is tonally a mess, and the actors seem completely lost as to whether to play for pathos or misanthropy. In the end, it all just collapses in a heap and gives up entirely, re-creating the nativity scene for no reason other than that it's a Christmas movie. Add in the wall-to-wall oppressive Christmas music (including several awful modernized remakes), and you have one of the biggest holiday misfires around.

The True Meaning of Christmas: It's slightly preferable to suicide.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Christmas in July: Jingle All the Way (1996)

There are tons of cynical, lazy Christmas movies churned out every year by Hollywood (and at least double that many if you include TV movies), and most of them are completely forgotten by the time they reach DVD. They have nothing to add to the overall holiday tradition, and little in the way of fans or supporters. I didn't really consider writing about movies like Four Christmases or Christmas With the Kranks for this project because I don't think anyone, even the people who made them, cares about them. Jingle All the Way falls into that same category in that it's completely cynical, practically machine-crafted and unpleasant to watch. But it's become a sort of camp classic by being awful in so many more ways, thanks mostly to sticking Arnold Schwarzenegger as the star of a lazy Christmas cash-in. Those other movies are just a waste of your time; Jingle All the Way may be the worst Christmas movie ever made.

It's alarming how blatantly jaded this movie is about Christmas, but not in a satirical or skeptical way. The filmmakers just take it as a given that Christmas is about nothing more than frenzied consumerism, that the measure of how good a man is as a husband and father is his ability to track down the right presents for his family members. Although there are nods to lessons about slowing down and spending more time with family, and even a tiny bit of selflessness, at heart the movie's message is: If you don't get your kid that hot action figure he wants, you are a failure as a human being. And since that's the driving moral force behind the actions of the main characters, the entire movie is a dispiriting journey with reprehensible people.

It's made even worse by the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role as the suburban workaholic dad who forgot to get his son the action figure he wants and must hunt one down on Christmas Eve. You can practically smell the desperation coming off of Schwarzenegger in each scene as he strains himself to create some approximation of humor and empathy. Had this movie starred, say, Tim Allen or Jim Belushi (who shows up in a supporting role as a department-store Santa moving stolen goods), it might have remained among the ranks of the forgettable. But Schwarzenegger's mind-bogglingly awful performance puts Jingle All the Way at a whole other level, as he imbues such innocuous lines as "Who told you you could eat my cookies?" with such weird alien forcefulness that they become existential cries in the dark. Not to mention the fact that he looks ready to snap for the entire film, and you keep waiting for him to break out a machine gun and slaughter everyone in sight.

That would probably have made for a better movie, but the filmmakers contrive an action climax for Schwarzenegger anyway, in which he ends up donning the costume of his son's favorite superhero (the star of a Power Rangers-like TV show) and battling a crazed mailman played by Sinbad during a holiday parade. It takes the movie from unbelievable into some bizarre alternate universe, thanks not only to the insane flying stunts but also to the fact that Schwarzenegger's kid (played by annoying Jake Lloyd of The Phantom Menace) doesn't recognize his dad in the superhero outfit even though he speaks like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Jingle All the Way presents some sort of twisted consumerist dystopia and calls it holiday cheer, and tries to sell an emotionless slab of muscle as a loving Midwestern dad. It's misguided in so many ways that it's kind of amazing, and while every moment of it is painful to watch, I doubt I'll ever forget the experience.

The True Meaning of Christmas: You better get that fucking toy.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Christmas in July: Don't Open Till Christmas (1984)

Now this is the kind of cheap, shitty horror movie I sort of expected from surprisingly decent Christmas horror entries Black Christmas and Christmas Evil. While those movies offered a level of inventiveness, character development and attention to detail that elevated them above their gimmicky premises, Don't Open Till Christmas does everything possible to live down to its limited budget and exploitative concept. It's poorly acted, lazily written, edited as if by gardening shears and suffused with an overwhelming air of sleaze. In short, it's a typical '80s quickie slasher movie.

The premise here finds a killer stalking the streets of London just before Christmas, killing various people dressed in Santa outfits. Now, you'd think that if a psychopath was wandering around killing anyone dressed like Santa, people would stop wearing Santa outfits, but that's clearly not the case here, and the killer has no shortage of idiots in Santa costumes to murder in various gruesome ways. We also follow a pair of detectives investigating the crime and a few survivors who were witness to the Santa-cides. Naturally, everyone is a suspect.

There's no effort made at narrative coherence or character consistency, and the pacing is choppy and sometimes confusing (often scenes seem to end at random with abrupt cuts to new locations). The movie actually has a credit for "additional scenes written and directed by" someone other than the credited writer or director, and apparently the original director (who also stars as one of the cops) walked away from the movie before it was finished. So the slapdash structure is partly due to outside circumstances, but that doesn't make it any more entertaining to watch.

The filmmakers provide distractions via lots of really fake-looking gore and a generous helping of nudity, but it's all rote and not particularly creative (other than an infamous scene in which the killer slices off a Santa's penis while he's at a urinal). The "twist" ending is laughable and completely obvious, and none of the violence has any impact. It's enough to give senseless mayhem at Christmastime a bad name.

The True Meaning of Christmas: Be careful when you go out in that Santa outfit.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Christmas in July: The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)

The Bells of St. Mary's is another movie strongly associated with the holiday season that actually has very little to do with Christmas. It was released in December of 1945, and it does have one memorable sequence that focuses on Christmas, and that seems to have been enough to bestow "holiday classic" status upon it. The warm, uplifting tone of the film probably helps, as does its story of a priest and a nun running an underdog New York City parochial school. It feels like a film for families to watch while gathered together for the holidays, and its easygoing pace and episodic structure make it not too taxing if you've had a bit too much Christmas dinner.

The plotting is a little scattered, as Bing Crosby's Father O'Malley (previously the main character of 1944 Best Picture winner Going My Way, which I haven't seen) arrives at St. Mary's and finds himself at odds with the head nun there, Ingrid Bergman's Sister Benedict. Although he's warned that the previous priest left in a wheelchair, O'Malley only mildly clashes with Sister Benedict, and really all of the movie's conflicts could best be characterized as mild. The closest thing to a main plot thread is the effort by the curmudgeonly industrialist next door to buy St. Mary's and turn it into a parking lot, but even he is portrayed less as evil than as simply hard-working, and the resolution to the story is remarkably easy and low-key. There's also a female student whose mother is heavily hinted to be a prostitute, but it's vague enough for plausible deniability, and either way it too turns out remarkably well given the circumstances.

Not a whole lot happens, then, but director Leo McCarey shoehorns in numerous opportunities for Crosby to sing, and Bergman is lovely as the wise, earthy Sister Benedict. A late-breaking plot development hinges on keeping vital medical info from Sister Benedict in a twist that struck me as a little melodramatic, but it too ends up resolved in a simple, anticlimactic way. I got a little tired of this meandering, overly sweet film as it headed past two hours, but the performances and some of the small comedic touches (including an impossibly cute Christmas pageant improvised by child actors) keep it from being a waste of time.

The True Meaning of Christmas: Let the kids decide.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Christmas in July: Christmas on Mars (2008)

My interest in the music of The Flaming Lips pretty much begins and ends with the Beavis & Butt-head segment making fun of their video for "She Don't Use Jelly," but I was sort of charmed by this ramshackle avant-garde film about isolated crew members on a Martian space station celebrating Christmas while pondering existential questions about the meaning of space travel. It was cobbled together by the band and a handful of friends (recognizable faces Fred Armisen and Adam Goldberg show up in small parts) over the course of several years, and has an obvious handmade quality that is endearing in its low-budget way (much of the space station's equipment is clearly made out of household appliances and toys).

And although the movie starts out with some random psychedelic imagery that makes it seem like it's going to be more of a music video than a narrative, there's more of a plot than I was expecting. The Lips' Steven Drozd plays the main character, who's tortured by visions of disaster on the space station and is pinning all his hopes on the birth of some sort of artificially conceived baby within an isolation chamber (in a warped take on the nativity story). He's also trying to put on a Christmas pageant for his fellow astronauts, but the guy playing Santa kills himself by running out of an airlock, and his replacement is a mysterious all-powerful alien played by Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, who also directed the movie.

It's totally weird and often confusing, of course, but it's also pretty funny at times, and the movie owes as much to Ed Wood as it does to the more frequently cited influences of 2001 and Solaris. The station's commander, a hilarious caricature of a Southern military leader, provides the best jokes, but Goldberg and Armisen also offer little bits of humor in their small roles. And Coyne has something kind of sweet and a little profound to say about the power of Santa Claus as a symbol of hope and the best of humanity, as well as about the dangers of human hubris in exploring space. A lot of this movie is clunky and pretentious and weird for the sake of being weird, but underneath the artsiness is a surprising amount of entertainment value.

The True Meaning of Christmas: It provides hope in dark times.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Christmas in July: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

There are essentially two kinds of adaptations of A Christmas Carol: There are the versions that try hard to stick to the original story and take the material seriously, to get at the genuine emotion and social commentary inherent in Charles Dickens' novel. I've watched two of those versions this month, and Robert Zemeckis' recent motion-capture adaptation is another. But the second kind is far more common now that the story is so ubiquitous: Those are the versions that use the familiarity of the source material to riff on the story's themes, and mash-up other elements of pop culture with Dickens' well-known story beats. Every TV show that puts its characters through a version of the story falls in that category, as do most adaptations these days, since it's difficult to tell this story with a straight face anymore (something Zemeckis found out the hard way).

The Muppet Christmas Carol is definitely in that latter category, although it exhibits surprising fidelity to Dickens, both in its attempts to take Scrooge seriously and in its liberal use of the author's original prose. Still, this version's Scrooge (Michael Caine, lending plenty of gravitas to the production) is fairly toothless, and the movie is more interested in humorous bits with Gonzo, Kermit, Miss Piggy, etc. than in telling a serious story. That's fine, though, since the Muppet characters are quite amusing, and the light tone fits them perfectly. Muppet weirdo Gonzo gets the most screen time as "Charles Dickens," serving as a sort of Greek chorus (along with Rizzo the rat) and delivering a good chunk of actual Dickens narration. Kermit and Miss Piggy have small roles for such important Muppets, but Kermit does get a spotlight song as Bob Cratchit, at least.

The funniest bits come courtesy of bitter hecklers Statler and Waldorf, who serve as Jacob Marley and his heretofore unmentioned brother Robert, and of course Gonzo himself, who is as much the star of the movie as Caine is. And the way that Caine plays Scrooge completely straight, if a bit watered down, allows the Muppets to be as zany as they want to be without undermining the simple lessons of the story. This version is mainly for kids, but it doesn't shy away from Scrooge facing down his own grave or learning how happy people might be when he dies. The bland songs are the only part of the movie that fall flat, but they're more forgettable than bad. Telling this story over again might not be the best use of the Muppets, but they mostly make it worth sitting through one more time.

The True Meaning of Christmas: Just be a nice person.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Christmas in July: Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

It's strange how important Christmas is to the plot of entertaining romantic comedy Christmas in Connecticut and yet how superfluous it seems to the characters. The entire story hinges on the idea that decorated war hero Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) is to spend Christmas at the home of magazine columnist and housekeeping expert Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck); the soundtrack is full of Christmas music; and there are wreaths and Christmas trees everywhere in the background. Yet none of the movie's sentiments have anything to do with Christmas, and the actual traditions of the holiday are almost completely ignored. Someone offhandedly says "Merry Christmas" on the day in question, and that's about it.

That's fine, though, because it means that there aren't any sappy holiday messages, and the movie remains focused on the romantic roundabouts of its main characters. Christmas, however, is the reason that Elizabeth is frantically trying to fabricate a life she doesn't actually have, because although she presents herself in print as an uber-housewife with a husband, a baby and a farm in Connecticut, she's actually a modern single gal in New York City, and gets all the fabulous recipes in her columns from the restaurant down the street. When her blowhard publisher decides that it would be good PR for her to host this decorated veteran for Christmas, she suddenly has to produce everything she's been writing about.

Of course she falls in love with the war veteran, of course her ruse is eventually found out, and of course everything turns out fine in the end. It's the kind of strained high concept that could easily be recycled today for a remake starring Reese Witherspoon or Kate Hudson (and was in fact remade as a TV movie in 1992 starring Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson and directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger - !!!). But Stanwyck keeps things grounded, perfectly balancing her professional cool and her attraction to Jones, who is honestly kind of a boring square-jawed nothing. Most of the comedy comes from Sydney Greenstreet as the flustered magazine publisher and S.Z. Sakall as the Eastern European chef who actually cooks all of Elizabeth's meals, and while the whole thing is obviously contrived, it's executed in a relaxed fashion that doesn't demand shrill farce at every turn.

A flightier actress might have been overwhelmed by the silly concept, but Stanwyck is consistently earthy and real, and her Elizabeth never lets herself get pushed around for the sake of love or career. It all ends on a perfectly nice and predictable note, but without ever forcing itself on the audience. If only Christmas was more like that.

The True Meaning of Christmas: Just be true to yourself.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Christmas in July: Babes in Toyland (1961)

Like the 1934 Laurel & Hardy version, Disney's 1961 remake of Babes in Toyland has become a beloved Christmas classic despite having almost nothing to do with Christmas. Its connection to the holiday season is a little stronger than its predecessor's, but it's still mostly interested in being a surreal and sometimes creepy fairy tale about a nasty old guy who wants to marry a fresh-faced young nursery-rhyme character. Here that young character is Mary Quite Contrary (Mouseketeer Annette Funicello), rather than Little Bo Peep as in the original (Bo Peep is still here, as a little girl and Mary's sister), but the old guy is still Silas Barnaby, and still oddly uses the threat of foreclosure as his primary motivator to snare his bride.

Most of the rest of the plot is different, and the characters Laurel & Hardy played in the original aren't even in this version, although Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon obviously channel the classic comedy duo in their portrayal of Barnaby's clueless henchmen. Even with all the changes, what remains the same is the complete insane nonsense of the story, which careens from one plot point to another seemingly at random. The characters wander into the Forest of No Return, and then are seen at the end of the movie having returned from there with no trouble! They risk everything to find Little Bo Peep's sheep, and then never mention them again! They are enlisted by the Toymaker to work overtime to get toys ready for Christmas (note tenuous Christmas connection), destroy the toys in battle and then never make more! If you care even slightly about the plot, you will get a serious headache.

Even if you ignore the plot, though, there is some seriously weird shit going on. After Mary, her fiancee Tom Piper and her young siblings volunteer to help the Toymaker with his labors, they sing a nice paean to child labor. Tom also sings a song to Mary about how she's just like a doll for him to keep as his wife. Mary sings a number about her inability to do math as a psychedelic chorus of Annette Funicellos dances around her. Mother Goose carries around a flamboyantly gay goose named Sylvester. All the fresh-faced Disney sunniness just makes it even odder. But the songs are catchy, Funicello is charming and very pretty, and the colors on the sets and costumes are vibrant. It's fun to watch, as long as you don't stop for even a second to wonder what the heck is going on.

The True Meaning of Christmas: It's all about mass production.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Christmas in July: The Santa Clause (1994)

Is there a blander comic actor than Tim Allen? Though he spent eight seasons defining his persona on Home Improvement and has worked steadily (if generally with a lower and lower profile) in movies since then, Allen has never exhibited much in the way of charisma or a distinctive identity. He's that guy you say hello to every day in the office and yet can't remember his name even after several years. I suppose that makes him perfect to play the American everydad in The Santa Clause, but it also means that the movie has a big personality vacuum at its center, and since Allen is in pretty much every scene, that ends up being quite a drag.

Allen's Scott Calvin is your typical movie divorced dad, more focused on his job than on his young son, although at least he's portrayed with more sympathy than a lot of cinematic fathers. He does his best to provide a nice Christmas for his son, and his ex-wife is the one who commits the terrible movie sin of hinting to her son that there might not be a Santa Claus. Scott, too, is a little shaky on the existence of Santa until he encounters the real thing on top of his roof on Christmas Eve and accidentally startles Santa into falling off the roof to his death.

A family film based on the death of Santa Claus? Yep, but it's glossed over as nonthreateningly as possible (Santa literally disappears into thin air), and the movie's real focus is on Scott's inadvertent recruitment as the new Santa. The potential for awkward comedy in his transformation into a bearded, fat, white-haired man is pretty much squandered, and the movie is full of discarded plot elements, including Scott's job and something like a year of time between two Christmases, which passes unnoticed in one or two scenes. Beyond the dodgy pacing, the movie runs through some stock lessons about keeping a childhood sense of wonder (Judge Reinhold as Scott's ex's new husband is the movie's avatar of humbug, in yet another case of psychiatry versus Christmas faith).

Like Santa Claus: The Movie, The Santa Clause comes up with an involved Santa mythology, and part of it involves the fact that elves look like children despite being thousands of years old. This means casting child actors instead of little people, and leads to one extremely icky moment in which a girl elf flirts with Scott. Tim Allen flirting with 10-year-old girl? Not something that should ever be in a movie. Mostly, though, the mythology is half-assed in service of things like reindeer fart jokes and sappy lessons. Supposedly, the role of Scott Calvin was originally written for Bill Murray, and even a sloppy, forgettable script like this might have worked with Murray as the lead. With Allen, though, it's just flavorless Christmas mush.

The True Meaning of Christmas: Don't stop believing.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Christmas in July: Christmas Evil (1980)

In the pantheon of Christmas horror movies, Christmas Evil (known originally as You Better Watch Out) seems to occupy a significantly lower place than Black Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night, and I wasn't expecting much out of it other than some low-budget gore and maybe a little bit of camp. Imagine my surprise, then, when what I saw wasn't some lame slasher movie but a surprisingly gritty psychological thriller, with a great lead performance by Brandon Maggart. Yes, this is a movie about a guy who takes his love for Christmas so seriously that he eventually dresses up in a Santa suit and kills people who don't properly appreciate the spirit of Christmas. But it's also a serious, slow-building study of insanity, a movie much less concerned with titillating violence than with the peculiar childhood traumas that can scar people for life.

In Harry's case, that's having the Santa Claus myth shattered when at a young age he witnesses his mom doing more than just kissing Santa Claus, who is of course really Harry's dad in a Santa suit. Instead of growing up and accepting reality, Harry becomes a single-minded Christmas fanatic, spying on the kids in his neighborhood, keeping elaborate logs of their naughty and nice behavior, filling his home with Christmas decorations and working in a toy factory where he constantly complains about the shoddy craftsmanship. Most of the movie is a chronicle of Harry's descent into madness, as little slights against Christmas chip away at his sanity. In its portrait of an unhinged loner losing his grip on reality, set in a scuzzy urban landscape, Christmas Evil has more than a little in common with Taxi Driver (seriously).

And when Harry finally snaps and puts on his homemade Santa suit, he spends as much time spreading his manic version of holiday joy as he does meting out yuletide violence. What Harry really wants is to be Santa Claus and to be appreciated. When children smile at him, he smiles back and gives them toys. He only stabs people with Christmas decorations when they don't appreciate the value of his generosity. Maggart perfectly conveys Harry's mix of joy and madness, and even as Harry gets crazier and crazier, there's a sadness in Maggart's eyes that feels real. The movie ends on a bizarre note suggesting that Harry may actually be Santa Claus, but in a weird way he's the perfect guy for the job.

The True Meaning of Christmas: You better appreciate it, or Santa will fuck you up.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Christmas in July: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

I'm not sure how long it had been since the last time I saw this movie, but it definitely was a number of years ago. Christmas Vacation is the kind of thing that I probably watched bits and pieces of multiple times while in middle school and maybe high school as well, and it had a place as a vague fond memory. But movies like that, where you remember the feeling of goodwill more than any specifics, often fail to hold up, and I worried that looking at Christmas Vacation now I'd find it lacking, a dumb comedy that amused my (only slightly) less sophisticated younger self.

But no, this is a genuinely funny, highly entertaining movie that completely holds up. I've been greatly enjoying Chevy Chase's little comeback on Community, and this movie reminds me once again of what a fantastic physical comedian he is. Chase's best moments as hapless dad Clark Griswold come almost entirely in dialogue-free bits, sometimes whole set pieces (his struggles to avoid killing himself while stringing up Christmas lights on the roof of his house) and sometimes just little touches (the way his fingers stick to everything after he's been covered in sap from the gigantic Griswold family Christmas tree). Chase gives a marvelous performance in a movie that's sentimental but bleak, shot through with writer John Hughes' trademark bittersweet view of the American suburbs.

And because this movie doesn't feature the Griswolds going anywhere, unlike the other Vacation movies, Hughes is really able to play up the suburban claustrophobia, the tyranny of Christmas bonuses and in-laws and home add-ons, and the way that the ambition for the perfect suburban life is both stifling and rewarding. Mostly, though, we just watch Clark get beaten down for 90 minutes until he can't take it anymore, and then get a tiny ray of hope that is enough to sustain him. Chase makes whitebread Clark with his dopey old-fashioned ideas about Christmas into a hero of sorts, a sympathetic and lovable character even while he's acting like a buffoon.

Not everything works, of course - director Jeremiah S. Chechik has a tendency to overemphasize certain jokes (do we really need a "boing!" sound effect when Clark realizes he forgot to bring a saw to cut down the Christmas tree?), and some of the bits are recycled from past Vacation movies (Clark once again fantasizes about a mysterious beautiful woman). But overall this is a joy to watch, a great Christmas movie with just the right balance of cynicism and sentiment.

The True Meaning of Christmas: It's the American dream.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Christmas in July: Holiday Affair (1949)

Although you can see just about all of its plot developments coming from the first few frames, the low-key romantic comedy Holiday Affair is mostly charming in its efforts, thanks to a winning lead performance from Janet Leigh and a resistance to overselling the romantic rivalry between an idealistic department-store clerk (Robert Mitchum) and a practical but dull lawyer (Wendell Corey). The two compete for the affections of Leigh's war widow, and there's never any question that she's going to end up with the hopeless romantic rather than the sensible bore. But that bore is never portrayed as a bad guy or subject to comic derision, and rather than condescend to her constantly as so many rom-com heroes of classical Hollywood do, Mitchum's Steve treats Leigh's Connie with respect and honesty, and they start out as friends, not as comical opposites.

That means the movie is less about wacky misunderstandings and more about the challenges of romance for a single mother of a 6-year-old boy, and it deals frankly with the difficulty of moving on when a spouse is killed suddenly. Steve says plainly that his romantic rival is not so much Corey's Carl as it is Connie's dead husband, whom she clings to and is reminded of constantly via her son. The grandparents who come to Connie's home for Christmas are not her own parents, but rather the parents of her late husband. It's a rather heavy subject for a movie that's mostly about two people who meet cute and predictably fall in love.

Anyway, it's also Christmas, although the season is mostly just a plot device to get Connie (an undercover comparison shopper) and Steve in the same place under heightened stress (holiday shopping), and to give Steve a reason to bond with Connie's alternately endearing and annoying son. But like its take on romance, the movie's approach to the holidays is remarkably clear-eyed and unsentimental: Connie's son doesn't even bother to believe in Santa Claus, but he understands and appreciates the love and care that goes into all the presents he gets from his mom (and her two suitors). There's togetherness, and Christmas dinner, but director Don Hartman plays it as just everyday stuff, and that tone carries the movie. There are still plenty of corny moments, and the story still wraps up exactly as you imagine it will; it just does so a little more gracefully than expected.

The True Meaning of Christmas: It's a time for reflection and hope.