It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

Not Rated, 130 minutes, Drama

Starring: James StewartDonna ReedLionel BarrymoreHenry Travers

The other half of our aforementioned Christmas double feature contained perhaps the most inescapable Christmas movie in American culture: It’s A Wonderful Life. A true necessity of the season, this film is one of the most widely viewed, longest lasting, sentimental powerhouses to ever be committed to cellulose.

George Bailey. Good ol’ George. It’s Christmas Eve and George isn’t doing so well. A host of angels look down upon him as they review his life, discussing how best to help him. George (Stewart) grows from a good boy into a good man, but his time on Earth comes with its frustrations. He never gets to travel and he never gets to go to college, but still George persists by doing the right thing no matter what.

After a large sum of cash goes missing from the savings and loan he manages and a warrant is written for his arrest, George falls apart and decides to kill himself. It’s due to the intervention by the angel Clarence (Travers) that George stops himself. After confessing his dissatisfaction with life to Clarance, George goes back into town only to discover the nightmare the world has become without him in it.

I’m guessing you’ve already seen this movie a few times before. There’s probably a split between viewers who either like it or don’t see what’s so special. It’s to the latter crowd that I ask where they had their lobotomies done. I hold this movie in the highest regard. As a fan of movies, I’ve seen thousands upon thousands and I have yet to find a single film that surpasses this shinning example. This is the greatest movie of all time and I daresay that is a fact and not just my opinion. You may not feel that way as the film starts, but the magic contained within will certainly change your mind by the end. This is a story designed to make anyone feel better about themselves and that is why it is the greatest movie. I might as well stop blogging here because this is truly it.

Yeah, but I’m not gonna. This movie might be the greatest, but it also has perhaps the largest chunk of setup in cinematic history. It literally goes over George’s life with a fine-toothed comb, much as with Charles Kane, but the results are astronomically better. Every element explored is vital is making George feel like a personal friend, neighbor, and important to the lives of everyone around him. He is the epitome of a good guy: flawed and human; resilient and weary; moral and thankfully not sappy.

It’s amazing to watch someone like George, even if he is fictional. Everyone around him actually gives a care about his well-being. It’s enough to make a guy jealous. While he’s obviously affected by his situation, George takes most every negative thing that comes his way and spins it into something good. That alone is enough to make him admirable and it’s all the more devastating to watch as he falls apart and his life turns inside out.

If you’ve somehow never seen this movie, it’s time that you do. If you somehow do not like this movie, I suggest you reevaluate your apathy level. If you don’t own this, buy it. If it’s playing at a theater near you, go out to see it. This is one film guaranteed to give your life at least a little bit of hope.

Rating: The Greatest Movie of All Time.

Watch: There isn’t any better film in existence. Period.
Don’t watch: Didn’t you just read the last line?


How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

Not Rated, 26 minutes, Crime

Starring: Boris Karloff

At one point in time someone got the brilliant idea to animate the successful and adored Dr. Seuss books. Unfortunately that time was full of tie dye and poor life choices. The animated specials slid out of the ’70s like a hot ashtray full of mud. They’re rough and I feel like they do a real disservice to the books they’re based on. And quite honestly I don’t think they’re the worth the prices they charge for the blasted things.

However, there is one short that has retained a lasting presence: How the Grinch Stole Christmas! No, not Carey, but Karloff. It’s a simple tale of a grumpy… er, Grinch who hates the noise and clamber a nearby village makes during Christmas. Deciding to steal the entire holiday, he burglarizes everything in sight. But when he returns home, he begins to have second thoughts.

I’m sure a good number of people are familiar with this, as they have been for several of the movies I’ve reviewed this Christmas season. Unlike the other animated Dr. Seuss shorts I’ve seen, I think this one is on the more entertaining end of the spectrum. Still, it somehow takes a half hour and makes it seemingly last an eternity. I really don’t understand that part…

The real holding power comes more from the performer rather than the performance. I feel the show is hindered by it’s lack of action and heavy use of recycled animation segments, but who doesn’t love Karloff’s unique voice? At an elderly age, the man still had screen presence even though his performance was only sound. He is the real reason I keep coming back. And come back I do. Every Christmas Eve I plunk down in front of the TV to watch and listen while I wrap my last minute gifts.

Rating: Watch it.

Watch: Because you know you’re going to anyway.
Don’t watch: Dang hippies.

A Christmas Story (1983)

PG, 94 minutes, Comedy

Starring: Peter BillingsleyDarren McGavinMelinda DillonJean Shepherd

I haven’t had cable in a decade. This always sends someone into a fit whenever I say I haven’t seen shows like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. Maybe I’ll get to them someday, but I just don’t feel the need to bother to wade through a sea of commercial-ridden channels just so I can watch another Golden Girls rerun. So as such I have no idea if TNT or TBS or whoever that once was still has four-day marathons of Randy laying there like a slug (it was his only defense).

A Christmas Story became a tradition for me at a young age thanks to that old TV station marathon. I think my dad liked it, so at some point during the Christmas season, after school had been put on holiday hold and the house became covered in Department 56 ceramic, that old bear of a Zenith television glowed with the reflection of the hopes of one child and yet every child.

In case you haven’t seen it, the story goes a little something like this: Ralphie (Billingsley) sets his eye on a BB gun and begins to plot every possible way to convince those around him that it’s a good idea. Unfortunately every adult he talks to warns him that he’ll shoot his eye out. As Christmas draws closer, Ralphie becomes desperate, focusing on his coiled-steel goal and surviving the hustle of the season.

I haven’t seen every Christmas movie out there, but I get the impression that this is where the season’s commercialism hit cinematic media. Off the top of my head I’m having a hard time coming up with a movie produced before 1983 where an actual product was the focus of the story. I don’t know. There’s probably something out there, but a childish yearning for the Christmas present of the year has been felt for generations. It makes this movie very relatable.

To add interest there are multiple subplots and tons of characters that Ralphie runs into. From bullies on the street and smart aleck classmates to radio programs of the day and Ralphie’s own detailed subconscious, this film works to not only detail the era but to capture the essence of childhood as well. And it works well. No computer graphics needed here, folks. Just a classic Victorian home and the oldest still-mobile Oldsmobile you can find and you’re sent back to a time before technology ruled the Earth and the worst things to happen were really just little things.

I suppose I can’t write about this without mentioning the dang lamp. In its own right that stupid thing has not only become an icon, but also a kitschy marketing ploy so the official producer of the official replica lamp can make an official quick buck. As an element to the story, I enjoy it, but just as the Old Man once did, I think it’s time to lay it to rest and focus on other aspects of perfectly good story… so of course they put it into the sequel…

A Christmas Story is simple in context, yet detailed in approach. It brings back a sense of nostalgia, not necessarily from the ’50s, but from our own childhood frenzied glee. This movie is silly, but so were we all as excitement caused us leap from bed to ravage paper-wrapped boxes. Just ignore how corny it is, because it’s really a Christmas classic.

Rating: Own it.

Watch: Because you were a kid once, too.
Don’t watch: If you’ve already shot your eye out.

White Christmas (1954)

Not Rated, 120 minutes, Musical

Starring: Bing CrosbyDanny KayeRosemary ClooneyVera-Ellen

Christmas movies (annoyingly enough) are not cheap. For some reason the corner on the market backs up to here, just opposite of Disney films. Once in a great while, however, the movie executives smile upon the masses and a few holiday titles slip through the cracks. So when my wife dropped a Christmas five dollar double feature into the shopping cart many years ago I didn’t complain. What we ended up with was a steal.

The first of the two films happens to be White Christmas, a classic from another era which my wife adored yet I knew nothing about. Sure, I’d heard the song a million times, but back then I had no idea about the movie. Set among the showbiz glitz of the age, this movie is a bit of tussling romance between a couple that cannot seem to wait two seconds in order to figure out what the other person is really up to.

After serving together in World War II, Wallace (Crosby) and Davis (Kaye) band together to become music sensations. When they scout the Haynes sisters (Clooney and Vera-Ellen) sparks fly. After being unable to settle a hotel bill, the four run away and a budding romance begins between the two couples.

When they arrive at their destination, “all-that-snow” Vermont, the guys run into their old army general. The general manages a failing bed and breakfast and longs to return to the service. The idea to hold a show in honor of the general strikes our heroes, but romantic strife threatens to ruin the whole act. Before the show goes on, the four must get it together without ruining the general’s surprise.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t much of musical person when I first viewed this movie, but now I can’t imagine getting through the Christmas season without it. It’s simple, celebrates the acting arts, and it’s downright heartfelt. This is a movie that acts like a play and has the budget to make one heck of a show that will bring a tear to your eye.

It’s interesting watching our crew act, sing, and dance. They’re all fine actors, but some are better singers than they are dancers and vice versa. To showcase this, different segments of the films are done either as action-filled dancing sequences or flashy song numbers. And since this movie is about putting on a production, the show is broken up throughout in the form of rehearsals before the big real-deal final act. This evenly spreads out the song and dance, adding interspersed drama between so that everything isn’t bunched together. It’s a smooth ride.

If you’ve made it this far into the review, I commend you. I doubt this old movie will sound anything near interesting to someone unfamiliar with it. I know I didn’t expect much at first. Yet this film is still bound to surprise you. White Christmas is a staple of the season and December must-see for any movie fan.

Rating: Own it.

Watch: Just trust me and do it.
Don’t watch: If you hate Christmas.

The Ref (1994)

R, 93 minutes, Comedy

Starring: Denis LearyKevin SpaceyJudy Davis

My wife isn’t as crazy about movies as I am. Oh she likes them just fine, but she mostly tolerates me wanting to watch something in the evenings. Still, she has a tendency to surprise me once in a while with an off title that completely skipped my notice, yet she adores. It’s nice because it helps round out my interests with wild cards.

She drew an ace with The Ref. Lloyd and Caroline are a nasty, bickering couple who couldn’t save their marriage even if they were normal. Lloyd (Spacey) lets his mother control him and Caroline (Davis) is so much of a free spirit that she’s practically at Alpha Centauri. Their relationship is simply nuclear.

Then there’s Gus, a bitter cat burglar determined to retire for good. After he sets off an alarm his getaway driver gets away from him. Forced to take drastic measures, Gus (Leary) kidnaps a lady at a local store only to find himself in backseat of Lloyd and Caroline’s vehicle. Gus makes his hostages drive to their home where he tries to think of a way to escape, but winds up the referee for their constant feuding. Things take a turn for the worse when all manner of guests show up at the door. From a drunken Santa to the military to Lloyd’s overbearing mother, Gus has no other choice but to play along. What’s a crook to do?

What probably surprised me the most about this movie is that’s vulgar, yet my wife loved it enough to buy it and share it with me. Granted, nothing explicit is shown (except some boobs in a photograph), but the constant fighting throughout this film results in colorful language tapestry that is weaved… and wooven… into highways of communication… I don’t know, I heard it all on Oprah last week! …That probably went right over you head. Zoom!

There’s nothing special to say about technicals or style, this movie is pure dialogue. No one gets along and it’s about the tension releasing explosively within the family. This ultimately leads to a moral dilemma that has an expected, but otherwise incorrect outcome. You’ll just have to see it to understand, because spoiling endings makes movies unwatchable.

If you’re in the mood for something different this Christmas, then give it a try. I probably chose some odd Christmas flicks this year. Ones with guns and blood. The Ref is a step down from testosterone explosions, but it’s a great reminder of how worse off your family could be.

Rating: Watch it.

Watch: It’s funny, chaotically dramatic, and having it set during Christmas gives it a uniqueness.
Don’t watch: Robbery, extortion, and a boat load of f-bombs.

Die Hard (1988)

R, 131 minutes, Action

Starring: Bruce WillisAlan RickmanBonnie BedeliaReginald VelJohnson

If there’s one role that’s imprinted on my mind that Bruce Willis always seems to be whenever he acts, it’s got to be John McClane. Last Man Standing, The Fifth Element, The Whole Nine Yards, 16 Blocks–he just seems to be in the same character. Maybe that’s how he’s always been. Who knows? Maybe I’ve typecast him mentally. Either way, I can’t think of Bruce Willis without thinking of Die Hard.

John (Willis) is New York cop.  After his wife relocates to Los Angeles, he has to fly in to make her work’s Christmas party. An expensive party set in an expensive office building, the employees get to drink, screw in back offices, and even do lines of coke off coworker’s desk. They’re out of control. John ignores them as he focuses on his real objective: getting his wife back.

It isn’t long before a group of terrorists lead by a man named Hans Gruber (Rickman) take over the building. Woah, that came out of nowhere, didn’t it? They set out to rob the company of all its assets in an act of revenge. When John sneaks away from the machine gun toting criminals, he begins stalking through the building in order to pick them off one by one. But these guys aren’t playing around. They’ve brought some seriously large arsenal and they aren’t afraid to bring down the entire building.

For some reason I watched this as a child. I watched a lot of adult movies as a child. Some might find that normal, but I wouldn’t want my kid watching something like this until s/he was older. It’s violent, it’s curse-laden, it’s political–it’s adult. A kid couldn’t really appreciate it. So why the heck was I allowed to watch it?

Anyway, this movie and it’s over-the-top use of practical effects are great. Guns, explosions, car crashes, blood, and one heck of a set. The set is a fine piece of work done up to look like a classy office building and they just friggin’ trash it. You really believe that they filmed all they could before they ceremoniously sent off the set a blaze of glory. With an army of vehicles involved, crowds of extras, and everything they trashed during production, you really get the sense that this is a big budget deal. They just don’t make movies like this anymore!

The characters may have all been fairly flat, but they were still memorable. The overly excited hacker who smashes bad sports puns into murder scenes, the angry German brothers that don’t get along yet fight violently for each other, and cold, manipulative Gruber in charge of every situation he finds himself in. It’s enough to make you think the archetypes for modern villains started right here.

Through and through, this is a guy movie about one man facing off against a team of angry sociopaths. He’s a cop who does his job and protects those he cares about and that gets my thumbs up. So sit down, enjoy, and welcome to the party, pal.

Rating: Watch it.

Watch: Classic Willis and memorable bad guys.
Don’t watch: Because you’re 5 years old.

First Blood (1982)

R, 93 minutes, Action

Starring: Sylvester StalloneBrian DennehyRichard Crenna

As I slogged through The List I came upon the first of the John Rambo movies. I never got around to watching anything from the series, but as a kid it was hard not to know about the shirtless commando with a band around his head, massive machine gun in hand. I’d seen Terminator. I’d loved Alien. I’d yippie-kye-yayed at Die Hard… but still I hadn’t touched the Stallone movies.

So making it to The List was First Blood… and somehow it’s a Christmas movie. John Rambo (Stallone, of course), is released from the military and sets out across America. In perhaps one of the most ridiculous incidents that started a local war, a small town sheriff (Dennehy) decides he doesn’t like soldiers and kicks Rambo out.  Stubborn, Rambo returns and winds up in jail. His PTSD kicks in and all Hell breaks loose.

Rambo escapes and with the help of the shiniest knife imaginable he maims and murders most of the local police force in the woods. The National Guard and the Army are called in, yet Rambo proceeds to destroy half of the town in order to exact revenge on the sheriff who persecuted him so.

Sounds messed up, right? It is! This movie amazed me… It’s shock value at its most tragic. Though not the most notable film in the series (I believe that to be the second one), this entry is just one crazy out-of-control ride through a soldier’s waking nightmare. By the end you can’t help but feel a little sorry for the guy.

This movie isn’t as gory as you’d expect, but the real sobering truth here lays in the absurd horror of the situation. Can you imagine getting ready for Christmas when all of the sudden your home town goes on lockdown? Police are dying; soldiers are swarming everywhere; stores start blowing up? It’s the Chrispocalypse!

I can’t help but wonder if the book this film was based on puts the whole situation in a more digestible light. It feels like it went from zero to crazy in no time flat. Having not been in war, it’s harder for me to understand Rambo’s trauma, so skipping to the killing made it feel rushed. After all it’s a guy movie, so who needs all that mushy exposition and crying crap? MAKE SOMETHING BLEED!

I bought this during Black Friday after I had seen it, so obviously I don’t think it’s too bad. It’s sure rough though, which has made me curious about the book. Perhaps someday I’ll get to that, but for now I can say that I’ve watched one of the weirdest movies set during the Christmas season.

Rating: Watch it once.

Watch: Because you love mayhem.
Don’t watch: Because this movie is utter mayhem.

Home Alone 4: Taking Back the House (2002)

Not Rated, 83 minutes, Comedy…?

Starring: Mike WeinbergClare CareyErick AvariFrench Stewart

Uhp… Hrrmmm… This movie… How to start this… This movie exists. I didn’t know about it back when it came out and I honestly wish I didn’t know about it now… It apparently aired on television some time ago, but it wasn’t until I received a box set of Home Alone movies that the shock of a fourth installment hit me.

Home Alone 4… Has… Well, let’s just call him “Kevin.” Or Kevin 2. Or Afterbirth. Or I don’t know! I’d like to say that it’s Kevin from an alternate universe, but that’s just a cop out. This Kevin (Weinberg) has to deal with spending Christmas with one parent or the other after his folks split up. Lo and behold he gets in a fight with his family and runs away to spend the holiday with his father and his father’s new fiance who reside in a veritable palace.

Kevin enjoys the luxurious getaway until an old foe shows up to scout the mansion. Marv (Stewart) and his lady set their eyes on kidnapping a future guest of the mansion. Kevin wants nothing of the sort, so he does what he can to keep Marv out. Unfortunately there is an insider helping Marv get access and it’s up to Kevin to root out the mole.

So… The McCallisters are separated. Only Buzz, Megan, and Kevin are left. Jeff and Linnie are… gone? This all confused me something fierce before, but after enough time I think I pieced together what happened. Within a year of returning from New York, Jeff and Linnie were killed in an accident. Devastated, Kate became depressed and was forced to quit being a fashion designer. Peter continued work, but started a side relationship with Natalie in order to cope. Eventually they lost their old home and had to move. The family held their first Christmas without Jeff and Linnie in the new home as evidenced by the home movie shown. Things fell apart even more as Kate found out about Peter’s affair and he moves out. Since it’s a family trauma, no one ever talks about the missing siblings. Kevin would now be in his eleventh year of life. I wrote all that just now because this little conspiracy theory is far more interesting than the actual movie itself. It also set things straight in my mind because it’s just too hard for me to transition from version of the McCallisters to the next. Blech…

French Stewart and Erick Avari actually agreed to star in this pinnacle of degeneration. It seems like a desperate move for these Stargate alumni. Stewart’s acting is in his normal weird style… which doesn’t match Marv’s just plain stupidity at all. Avari’s acting is stiff. Perhaps the character, but I’d like to think he didn’t really want to be there. And speaking of acting: What the heck Weinberg? This child spazzes on camera as though he’s off his meds. He’s hard to watch.

The biggest budget item about this entire production has to be the house set. It’s massive, though that might have just been a way to get the cameras around easily. The most impressive scene has to be the flooding of the bathroom. Not only is it a dream bathroom, but it somehow has the ability to destroy the rest of the house with a tsunami. The entire stunt only takes a moment, but it’s impressive enough that I’ll say that moment was worth filming.

I’ll just end this here. If you grew up liking Home Alone and actually found yourself attached to the McCallisters like I did, then do yourself a favor and stay far away from this entry. It’s the worst of the run (so far) and it makes me sad to think this bastardization is the best they could scrounge up.

Rating: Don’t bother.

Watch: Because you like PAIN!
Don’t watch: It’s the smart thing to do.

Home Alone 3 (1997)

PG, 102 minutes, Comedy

Starring: Alex D. LinzOlek KrupaRya KihlstedtHaviland Morris

This time around Kevin finds… Wait… Kevin’s not here. Almost as if it were a joke, Kevin isn’t in this movie! Instead we… Alex? Who? I’ll admit that when I first saw the trailer and realized that it wouldn’t be the same set up I immediately lost interest… and it seems like a lot of people did as well.

While Home Alone 3 does not involve in the McCallisters we are introduced to the Pruitt family. Young Alex (Linz) replaces Kevin as the focus. Alex is a given a remote control car in exchange for shoveling snow. When he comes in from the cold he finds himself covered in chicken pox. This results in Alex staying home from school with his mother (Morris).

Unfortunately, a group of thieves, tracking down a stolen military microchip hidden inside Alex’s car, move into the neighborhood to begin their hunt. Receiving pressure from work, Alex’s mom leaves him alone just as the crooks make their move on the Pruitt residence.

I feel like this movie is under appreciated–a crime I’m guilty of. The third installment of the series didn’t make much at the theater and it hasn’t been well received. I blame the lack of Kevin due to Culkin’s family troubles. However, this film takes the hit and roles with it. After all why bother fudging the McCallister family with an entire recast? We’re also given more bad guys, more traps, and a bigger story. It’s obvious that someone was trying, but had to make some cuts.

As for Alex, he’s basically just a copy of Kevin. The only real difference is that Alex seems more cute, if only in a more pitiable way–at least in the beginning. He’s cuter perhaps due to his raspy little voice, but moreso by the animals he’s surrounded with. They get in on the traps and add the comic relief giving the movie a cuddly feel. Otherwise, Alex is pretty much the same bratty eight year-old we’ve already been introduced to. Likewise, the Pruitt family is basically the same as the McCallisters: bully older siblings, busy parents.

Perhaps if the Home Alone series had originally started as stories about various children being left to fend off against bad guys, this one might not have felt out of place. This is the point where production value is still theatrical quality, so some money could have been made, but it just fell short with the audience. I still think most people should give this one a second look. If audiences then only knew the horror that was to be, maybe they would have taken advantage of this film while it was still on the big screen.

Rating: Watch it.

Watch: It’s better than you might think.
Don’t watch: Because no Kevin.