A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 301 – Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – December 26th, 2010

I am experiencing some pretty severe holiday let-down today. It’s likely a combination of the snowpocalypse happening outside right now and a month’s worth of shopping and cooking and planning and whatnot all culminating in yesterday’s two separate Christmas get-togethers. And now it’s over. As is our Christmas movie fest. Except not quite, because this evening we discovered one more Christmas movie that had escaped our notice, sitting in a stack in the bedroom. Bizarre. We’ll watch it tomorrow since it’s on the long side. Since I’m a little out of it and cranky from post-holiday blah, we decided to go with something easy tonight. And hey, this one ends with a song about Christmas in Heaven (which really should be played back to back with Spinal Tap’s Christmas with the Devil). Hey, we don’t have any Boxing Day movies, okay?

This is a bizarre collage of a movie, starting with a short film about the elderly employees at the Crimson Permanent Assurance mutinying against their yuppie bosses and sailing their building off into the high seas of international finance as pirates. It has nothing to do with the rest of the movie really. There’s a callback to it later, when we revisit a location and the movie sort of laps itself, but really it’s just a passing reference to tie things in. It’s not part of the overall plot. And why is this? Because the movie doesn’t have much in the way of a linear plot. The rough idea is that the movie covers various stages of life, showing comedic takes on various situations and trying to point out the absurdity of finding meaning in it all. But by their own admission, Monty Python really just figured that was the only way to wrap everything they’d envisioned into a cohesive package.

I believe this movie was specially tailored for maximum embarrassment factor if viewed with one’s parents. I wasn’t allowed to see it for years and when I finally was I remember immediately understanding why. There were bits I loved, and bits I would fast forward through. Not because I disliked them, but because they were things intended to be embarrassing and they did precisely what they meant to do. There’s the thoroughly cringe-inducing scene with John Cleese and Patricia Quinn demonstrating sex for academic purposes. There’s the topless women chasing Graham Chapman through the streets to his character’s death. There’s “Every Sperm is Sacred” and the animated naked women who show up in a couple of places. It is full of bits and pieces intended to prod at you and go “So, who’d you take to see this? Your mum?”

So, after the Crimson Permanent Assurance short the movie begins in earnest. We get several stages of life, with a few sketches and bits in each. Birth features a hospital birth that gave us the fantastic reference to “the machine that goes PING” and the sperm song. Growth and Learning, focusing largely on a boys’ school, has the least sexy consensual sex scene ever. Fighting Each Other has some great commentary on war, the British army, and one of my favorite classic Monty Python bits: Waking up and down the square. Then we get the Middle of the Film, which has an utterly nonsensical bit with Michael Palin in drag and an invitation to “find the fish” in something I can only assume came out of Terry Gilliam’s dreams. Middle Age follows and features a medieval dungeon (haha, Middle Age, get it?) and a not so good conversation on philosophy from Eric Idle and Michael Palin with not so good American accents. Live Organ Transplants is probably my favorite part of the movie, since it features the Galaxy Song, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Live Organ Transplants is followed by The Autumn Years, which is where the infamous Mr. Creosote scene is. It’s classic Python, with the true humor coming from the waiter’s unflappable service to a pain in the ass customer. Death comes after that, ending the movie with an elaborate Vegas-style show full of showgirls in Santa/Angel costumes with fake bare breasts, singing about how it’s Christmas in Heaven every single day. The movie closes with Michael Palin in drag again, ranting about the state of films and offhandedly telling us the meaning of life.

Now, you can see it’s utterly ridiculous. It’s Monty Python, so that’s to be expected, but it’s a sort of bizarre cross between their movies and their shows. It’s not really a coherent movie with a plot and a cast of characters we follow the whole way, but it’s far more cohesive than any of the shows, with things roughly following a timeline. It’s just on a grander scale, with a bigger scope. What helps here is that at the end? In Heaven, before the big number starts, we’re shown the people in Heaven, seated at their tables. We see the children from the sperm song. We see the boys from the school. The soldiers from the war (from both sides). The couple who gave their organs. Everyone’s there, in this celestial dinner theater, enjoying a nice meal and a spectacle of a show. A cute bit of commentary there, if you squint.

As I mentioned, my very favorite bit in this movie is the Galaxy Song. I love a lot of the songs and sketches and gags in this movie and I have to say I always have. But I heard the Galaxy Song long before I’d seen the movie and I loved it instantly. I can sing it from heart. Eric Idle’s performance of it is absolutely perfect and it’s the sort of thing that sticks in your head. And even though it’s basically a recitation of some facts and figures, it does have a point. A snarky sarcastic point, but a point nonetheless. Which makes it all the better. Because in a movie like this, that’s all you can really ask for. Good humor and maybe a bit of a point under it all, but not anything deep enough to make you stop laughing.

December 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

December 26, 2010

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

This movie is very ‘R’ rated. That was my immediate reaction to it when I finally did see it. I did NOT see this in the theater when it came out due to my being only eleven years old, although I do remember one of my classmates before school describing the movie – and all the bare breasts that it contains. His perception of the movie was somewhat skewed, I think, by that distraction, and I can kind of understand. I mean how is a fifth grader supposed to react to a movie with the ”Every Sperm is Sacred” song in it? I was mortified when I eventually saw the movie with my parents at the age of sixteen or so.

This is a strangely paced film, even for a Python film. Unlike the television show the other Python films are more plot driven. The Holy Grail and Life of Brian both follow a smaller collection of characters through a single film length narrative. This movie on the other hand does not attempt to disguise the fact that it is much more a collection of individual skits. In most cases they don’t even have clever links, a Python trademark, to blend from one to the next. Instead they have title cards that introduce them each. There is some blending of one bit to others and characters that appear in the background of other sketches. It’s subtle though and I didn’t pick up on it the first time I viewed this. About the only thing I did notice was that characters from every sketch in the film show up in the final number, which is appropriate.

Over the years I have come to quite like this movie. It has a lot of classic moments, great sketches and a bunch of fantastic songs which I absolutely love. I would NOT recommend that your first viewing be with a parent, though. The irreverent tone of this film thumbs its nose at notions of taste and propriety and while they are often very funny they can also leave the audience feeling somewhat uncomfortable. Who wants to see the sexual education sketch with their father? Nobody, that’s who.

If this movie has a unifying theme it is not the supposed search throughout the movie for the meaning of life – it is lamenting the plight of being British. Now I can understand this in a kind of outsider looking in way, but it does somewhat alienate me. The boys poke fun at British boarding schools. They mock the British officer class in three different time periods. Death – the grim reaper himself – at one point accuses the British of not having any balls. I guess the Pythons are attempting to say something more serious and lean away from their usual madcap zany antics, but they’re writing mostly from what they know which makes me feel somewhat out of touch with some of the sketches. Oh, I get the jokes, but I’m not as much a part of them.

The other striking thing about this movie is how much of a budgetary upgrade it must have been. The sketches are much more elaborately staged, with big sets, complex costumes and one enormous musical number with a cast of hundreds. It’s a far cry from just the six of them (and Carol) on a sound stage with a laugh track. The Crimson Permanent Assurance very much feels like a dry run for Brazil, with all its miniature effects shots and the sense of bureaucracy being overthrown by whimsy. Terry Gilliam is listed as the animation director in the credits, implying that he has a whole team of animators working under him – and indeed the animation in this movie is a pretty big cut above the usual Python cut-outs. Somebody handed an awful lot of money to a group of guys who were used to producing comedy on a BBC budget, and it’s a strange sort of adventure to see what they decided to do with it.

I’m glad that I’ve overcome my initial squeamishness about this movie. It has so much that makes me laugh that it would be a pity if I had let my tender sensibilities cause me not to like it. How can I help but love the Universe song or Christmas in Heaven? Even the revolting Mr. Creosote is funny in the end. I love anything that gives a big raspberry to organized religion and things like the sycophantic school prayer tickle my fancy. This is a strange sort of swan song for a strange sort of comic troupe, and in a way it is fitting that their last outing should end on such a high note. It also ties in to our last week of movie reviews. “Every single day is Christmas day.”

December 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 300 – A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story – December 25th, 2010

Merry Christmas to all who are celebrating it today! Today is our twelfth day of Christmas movies and is also our last. Alas. But it’s been a good holiday season for us and we’ve really enjoyed doing these Christmas movie reviews, watching the favorites we do every year as well as some things we’ve skipped over in the past but enjoyed anyhow. And today we watched A Christmas Story, well known and well referenced and on the air all day long on Christmas day, thanks to the TBS 24 hour marathon.

This morning during my daily workout I flipped through the channels and came to rest on this. I was just in time to see Ralphie shoot his glasses off with his air rifle. Later today when we got to my mother’s I caught the same scene before going to help with dinner. I saw bits and pieces, scattered throughout the movie, over the course of the next several hours. At the end of the evening we were all sitting around drinking our coffee and tea and the topic turned to this movie. We went over which scenes we’d each seen today. I mentioned the ones I knew I’d seen and realized I’d really only caught about five or six scenes. My mother had seen even fewer. My brother and uncle had seen more, but my husband had seen about the same as me. None of us had seen the whole movie, even split up. But we all knew it. We new it so well we could go scene by scene and figure out what we’d missed.

Of course we did come home and put in the DVD and watch the whole thing from start to finish. But we almost didn’t need to. We know it from start to finish. From the beginning, watching Ralphie at the window of the department store, gazing longingly at the Red Ryder BB gun, to the end, with his exhausted parents finally enjoying a quiet post-Christmas moment while he’s asleep upstairs, said gun cradled in his arms. We know the scene with the flag pole and we know the scene with the leg lamp and we know Ralphie’s fantasies and we know the dogs and the infamous ‘fudge’ scene.

In some ways this movie is a lot like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. There’s an underlying plot, which is Ralphie’s quest for a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, but it’s woven through an episodic view of the Christmas season for his family in one particular year. The air rifle shows up every so often, with Ralphie mentioning it to someone, writing an essay about it for school, asking Santa for it, imagining his mother and his teacher singing “You’ll shoot your eye out!” together. But then there are bits that have nothing to do with it at all. It’s a lot of slice-of-life stuff, set in 1940 in the midwest. We get to see his father’s neverending fight with the furnace. We see his struggles with a school bully. We get him with his friends and his brother and things like his disillusionment with his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring. It’s all in little pieces, patched together to form a nostalgic view of a childhood Christmas when not everything went right, but a few important things did.

This movie is a lot more hyped now than it was when my family started watching it, but I don’t mind at all. It’s nice to know that it resonates with so many people out there. What’s fun is knowing that people in my generation and younger generations love it just as much as older generations do. It’s got a charm to it that makes it at the same time quintessentially set in a specific time period and also timeless. Because regardless of the decade and year-specific trappings like the fashion and the cars and the Ovaltine and the radio programs and everything else, there’s something about a kid desperately wanting that one thing he knows he probably can’t get that reaches across years. That’s likely why the movie is the success that it is.

December 25, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

A Christmas Story

December 25, 2010

Christmas day at last. We chose a nice short Christmas movie to watch today so we could spend more time with family. It’s also a modern classic and one Amanda, myself, and her entire family are more than familiar with after watching it repeatedly every Christmas day due to the TBS 24 hours of Christmas Story marathon which has been on the last few years. Amanda’s mother particularly likes this marathon since the family can leave it on all day and although she has to spend a lot of time in the kitchen preparing dinner she can still pop in to the living room periodically and over the course of the afternoon she’s likely to see the entire movie – albeit completely out of sequence.

I saw this movie in the theater in 1983 when it first came out. As an eleven year old kid I didn’t really appreciate the movie, I have to say. It might be a movie about a young boy at Christmas, but it is not really a movie intended for children. It is a movie based in nostalgia, and as an eleven year old I knew nothing of such things. You don’t fondly look back on years gone by through rose tinted glasses until many years later.

Furthermore I had no grasp on the time period the movie takes place in. I can appreciate now that Jean Shepherd’s tales of Christmas days of yore take place in a sort of idealistic half-remembered early nineteen forties, but at the time it all seemed pretty alien to me. There were old-timey cars and radio programs and even though things like getting a Christmas tree and craving the perfect gift were familiar things didn’t quite jibe with my own childhood in the seventies. Over the years however I’ve come to appreciate this movie though. Jean Shepherd’s tales of growing up in the midwest now remind me most of Garrison Keillor’s tales of Lake Wobegon – where all the men are smart, all the women are good looking, and all the children are above average. These are stories of a simpler, more care-free world where a child’s biggest concern is if he will get the B.B. gun he most desires for Christmas or not.

The irony is that this movie itself is now a source of nostalgia. When I was working at Suncoast we started carrying all kinds of Christmas Story swag around this time of year. In particular the leg lamp replicas were popular with fans of the movie. After having seen this film several times over every Christmas Amanda and I can easily quote every line and look forward with glee to our favorite bits.

Most of my favorite parts involve Darren McGavin and his portrayal of Ralph’s gruff father the “Old Man.” It’s a great character, defined through the narration and childhood memories. He gets all the best parts of the movie. His is the “major award” leg lamp. His is the epic battle with the furnace in the basement. At the end of the movie when Ralphie finally gets his Red Ryder rifle it’s a fantastic tender moment that reveals so much about his father. It’s an almost recursive moment – you see the father’s nostalgia for his own long ago youth and his own B.B. gun.

It has taken me years to appreciate this movie. I suppose that it is simply not a movie for children. It is a movie for people who fondly remember their childhood days. It’s like sharing stories with a friend about things that happened years ago – the hard edges of those times have all worn off and all that’s left is a warm nugget of truth around which our imaginations have formed an entirely different childhood. That idealised youth is this movie. And it’s a pleasant place to visit every December 25th.

December 25, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 299 – It’s a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life – December 24th, 2010

How does one begin to review this movie? It is a quintessential classic about community and giving and sharing and family and desperation at a time of year when many people surely feel the same way. It’s certainly dated, and I find myself annoyed at it for what was acceptable at the time and is now more than distasteful. But it’s also timeless in its message and story and tone, so I can look past the dated stuff and focus on everything positive about the movie, and there is a lot of positive.

There was a time when this wasn’t a Christmas classic, but that was before I was old enough to really think about it. Now it’s one of the staples of my family. Something we can always put in around this time of year and leave running in the background even if we’re busy baking or wrapping presents or goofing off as we are wont to do. In fact, we watched this with my family this evening after Christmas Eve dinner and we spent much of the time talking and joking and looking up trivia about the movie and pointing out anachronisms and goofs and over-analyzing it and singing Buffalo Gals. I think we probably missed half the movie. I know I wasn’t watching the whole scene at the dance and only caught the tail end where George and Mary are dancing ever closer to the edge of the pool. And yet I can’t really tell where I came in, because I know the movie so well that I know how it all goes.

Do I have to describe it? This might well be the introduction of the concept of alternate universes for most people, or at least the root of other inspired works. After all, we watched a movie just last week that was clearly a take on this theme and I’ve seen it done in many more places. The final episodes of the Highlander tv series used this plot device, even. A man with a full life but also many regrets falls onto desperate times and wishes he’d never been born (thinking that everyone around him would be better off). With a little divine intervention he’s shown just how wrong he is when he sees the world as it would be without his existence. People are harsher, meaner, lost, dead, thoroughly changed in unthinkably sad ways. The world is worse off. It’s all about showing how one person can make a difference in the lives of others and not even know it.

In this, the classic version of the story, George Bailey is the main character. He’s lived his whole life in a small town and seen all of his friends leave and make big lives for themselves. He sacrifices and gives and works himself sick for the people in the town of Bedford Falls. He gives up a trip to Europe that he’d saved for. He gives up college. He gives up his honeymoon. He never gets to see the world or get out of his home town. Instead he stays and puts every ounce of energy he has into his father’s old Savings and Loan, which he is adamant the town needs so as to not become thoroughly beholden to the stingy and cruel Mr. Potter (who runs the bank). George falls in love with Mary, who’s always had a thing for him, and they set up house right there in town. But it’s one of those situations where it feels like no matter how much you give, you never get anything back and nothing goes right. We get to see George’s life and how desperate he’s been to leave and how conflicted he is about staying. When everything goes to hell and he thinks the S&L’s lost eight grand and he’ll be going to jail, well. It’s just too much. He wants to die. Worse, he wants to never have lived.

From there you know how it goes. He meets his guardian angel, who shows him Bedford Falls without him. His old boss spent time in jail since he wasn’t there to fix a mistake he made. No one knows him. Potter owns the whole town and everyone lives in shacks and slums. Violet, a woman who flirts with him outrageously in the regular world and is usually all dolled up but a nice gal at heart, is a drunk without George around. His mother is a bitter old widow who lost George’s brother as a boy since George wasn’t there to pull him out of a freezing pond. His friends are nasty and mean. And his wife? Well, Mary is… a LIBRARIAN! (Cue the gasp of horror – she even wears GLASSES!) Truly, everyone is suffering without George. And so he returns and everyone shows up to help him the way he’s helped them in the past and it all turns out just fine.

It’s a nice message, that if you give aid to others they’ll give it back when they can. It seems to me it’s a wonderful bit of Christmas spirit and puts me in mind of an incident that happened this year on this awesome blog where people started donating to other people just… because they needed it. And people who got more than they needed turned around and donated it to others. It’s that sort of message. True, in real life there are plenty of people who toil and work and give and give and give and don’t get recognized in any way. And that, I say, is a fucking travesty. Because when someone is a George Bailey, they should be recognized. But in this movie there is this wonderful ideal of community and friendship. True, it would be nice if the people who came through for George at the end had maybe been there for him more before that, but they showed up when it was needed. At Christmas. And George didn’t say he wanted to world to go back the way it was because of himself. He wanted it to go back because he knew while he was miserable, he’d truly made a difference, and other people would be happier. Again, idealized, but a nice message.

Now, there are some negatives here. The movie has a couple of racial stereotypes that make me wince, and George’s brother’s actions towards the family’s cook (an African American woman) are reprehensible at best. While there are some great lines and bits between George and Mary after the dance, his refusal to give her back her robe when she’s hiding in the bushes, ostensibly naked, makes me cringe. And his off-hand comment about the police being on his side is exceedingly gross. And Mary’s tragic alternate life as a spinster librarian always makes me laugh at its dramatic sting. But, well, time period, you know? It doesn’t make it okay, but it does explain some of where it comes from. And there are some bizarre bits that don’t seem to fit the time at all, like Mary’s line to her mother, snappily telling her that George “is making violent love to [her]” when her mother is snooping, which seems so out of place in the time. But as I said I pass over it and focus on the good stuff, like the fantastic plot and Jimmy Stewart’s amazing acting. I love him in this role. I love how desperate he is through the whole movie. How trapped he is and how he conveys it with facial expressions alone in several scenes.

It’s one of those movies people just know. It’s grown hugely in popularity to the point where it’s a cultural touchstone, and I like that. I honestly think, unfortunate racial and gender implications aside, that it is an excellent movie with wonderful acting and a fantastic script and plot. It’s quotable and easy to reference. It teaches a nice lesson that could be for Christmas or could be any time. And so it is our penultimate Christmas movie for this year. Sweet and heartfelt and a joy to watch.

December 24, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s a Wonderful Life

December 24, 2010

It’s a Wonderful Life

I’m probably not going to be able to be able to say anything new about this movie. It’s one of the most beloved of all Christmas stories, and with good reason. It’s kind of funny – I didn’t see the whole movie for most of my youth. I saw bits of it here and there over the years. It’s always being broadcast during the Christmas season. There are clips from this movie in two of the other movies we’ve reviewed for these twelve days of Christmas. But during this time of year there’s always so much else going on. There’s shopping and wrapping and cooking and such. So what with one thing or another I never managed to see this whole movie until I was about thirteen years old. (Heck, even tonight we have it playing in the background during a family dinner on Christmas Eve and there’s boisterous laughter and barking dogs and all kinds of distractions, so I’m maybe catching three words in ten.) I finally saw the whole movie in July one night when I has insomnia and it was on late one night on channel 38. It started at around one in the morning and with ads it lasted until four AM. Of course I loved every minute of it.

This is a movie to be savored. Oh, sure, everybody knows the story of this movie. It’s so familiar that it’s cliche. George Baily Is a small town guy who is foiled in his every attempt to escape and live his own life. Instead he stays home, takes over his father’s business, marries a girl who had a crush on him in high-school, fathers an enormous family and is generally an all around nice guy when he isn’t preoccupied with feeling all sorry for himself. This movie is inspired by one particular bout of extreme self pity when George actually becomes convinced that people would be better off if he weren’t around and just then his guardian angel shows up and shows him just how awful things would be for everybody he has ever known if he hadn’t been there.

It is couched in terms of this being a sort of Christmas miracle, what with Clarence the angel and such, but I view it more as speculative sci-fi. It’s a story about alternate universes and the many ways that one person’s life intersects with and influences the lives of many others. To that end the movie spends a lot of time introducing you to George Bailey and to his friends, loves, frustrations and dreams. Indeed it takes an hour and forty minutes for the film to reach the crucial turning point that is the crux of the movie. It’s not wasted time either – the many episodes in Georges life that are shown all act to help us fall in love with him, fall in love with his quaint home town, and learn to see the pattern in his life.

In many ways this is a simple movie. George’s home of Bedford Falls is a Norman Rockwell vision of simple American perfection (except for the evil Scrooge figure Mr. Potter.) There’s a formulaic repeated theme to every stage of George’s life with him being ready to set out on some grand adventure when some new disaster befalls his town or his father’s altruistic but never profitable savings and loan business which pulls him back in. Time and again he must put the welfare of the people of Bedford Falls ahead of his own until the inevitable moment when disaster strikes and he has that one particularly bad day. It is not a subtle movie. But it is wonderfully moving and touching nonetheless.

The fact that this movie works at all is mostly due to Jimmy Stewart. His oft lampooned stutter and passionate speeches drive the movie. He has that perfect everyman feel to him, as has often been pointed out. George Baily is the hero for every man who works his whole life and has nothing to show for it (except the love of his peers.) On the other side of the coin there’s Lionel Barrymore’s thoroughly loathsome Mr. Potter, who is the perfect foil for George’s enthusiasm and self sacrificing nature. Lionel’s sneer and squint convey so much about how utterly miserable his character is – and how miserable he wants everybody else to be.

We watched this tonight with Amanda’s brother and parents and all of them at various points did James Stewart impressions, and all of them were completely loving the movie. We were watching an old VHS copy of a colorized version of the film (the first thing we did was turn the color on the TV all the way down so we could watch it in proper black and white.) Amanda’s mother pointed out how brilliant Stewart is in the scene when George has his complete breakdown in front of his family. He has this haunted, haggard look that carries so much power after seeing him overcome every obstacle up until then in the movie. From there he gets to portray that great manic desperation of his fall from grace and his befuddlement when shown the horrifying nightmare world that would exist were it not for his influence. And the equally manic joy with which he greets everything that he once felt held him down is of course completely wonderful and uplifting.

It leaves me overwhelmed with joy and sobbing as always (somewhat embarrassing when hanging out with your in-laws.) I didn’t particularly want to be writing a lengthy review tonight of all nights, but this movie is to wonderful a tale to simply shrug off. I want all the world to know how much I truly love this movie. And all that I have to say in the end is “Merry Christmas, you old movie-a-day blog!”

December 24, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 298 – The Box of Delights

The Box of Delights – December 23rd, 2010

When we planned this little mini-project, with twelve days of Christmas movies, I knew exactly which day I wanted to watch this on. It is, hands down, my favorite Christmas movie out of all of our regulars. I’ve been watching it at least once a year at Christmas time since I was a kid. We first saw it on our local PBS and fell in love with it instantly. The next year they showed it again and we thought to tape it, but it was an edited version, only two hours long instead of almost three. Such a disappointment. We cherished our somewhat illicit tape, watching it once a year only, to keep it from wearing out. And well into my adulthood, with eBay and Amazon and the like making it easier to find such things, I located an NTSC copy of the full version and snapped it right up. And so tonight, for my birthday, I am watching the full version of my favorite Christmas movie, in excellent condition, while making cookies with my mother. All in all, the perfect way to spend a Christmasy birthday evening.

You might not have heard of this one. I’ve met people who have, but most of them are from the UK. It’s just not as well known around here. It’s based on a children’s novel by John Masefield and is a rollicking adventure about a magical box and an evil sorcerer bent on getting it and Christmastime and mythology. There’s some stuff with King Arthur and Herne the Hunter. There’s a trip back in time and demons and robberies and kidnappings. It’s a highly unusual story, and I love it thoroughly.

Having read the book this is based on, I can say with some authority that it’s very true to it. There are some things changed, but they were minor enough that they made little impact on me and I honestly can’t say what they are. Some additional description, probably. Some more magical stuff. But from what I recall it cleaves very closely to the book. Which is fantastic, because the book is a ton of fun too.

I’m going to attempt to explain the plot here, but I warn that I am quite certain I won’t be able to truly impart the charm this movie has. Please just believe me on that point. Kay Harker, a boy returning home for the holidays from school, meets a Punch and Judy man who turns out to be the keeper of a magical box that allows one to fly, shrink and go inside of it to have magical adventures in fantasy lands and the past. The evil sorcerer Abner Brown, whom Kay has dealt with in the past, is trying to get his hands on the box, but the Punch and Judy man, Cole Hawlings, gives it to Kay. Abner and his gang – masquerading as the staff and students of a theological college near Kay’s home – kidnap (or ‘scrobble’ as the movie puts it) person after person to try and figure out who has the box. He takes Hawlings. He takes Kay’s governess, Caroline Louisa. He takes clergyman after clergyman, believing that since the local cathedral is planning its 1000th Christmas mass and won’t be able to run it without the local clergy, someone will step forward and give over the box in order to save the big celebration. Kay and his friends, a family of children who are staying with him for the holidays, have to find out what’s going on and stop Abner and his gang and rescue all their prisoners – including the clergymen – before midnight mass on Christmas.

Throughout the course of the movie Kay has many adventures. The villains in the movie are characterized as wolves and the phrase used to warn that there’s villainy about is that the wolves are running. Kay helps Arthur fight them off and defend a caste. He learns about them from Herne the Hunter. He shrinks down and talks to a mouse living in the walls of his home and he goes into the past to try and find the creator of the box and ask him to come forward in time and take it back with him so people will stop fighting over it. And the movie ends with Kay, stuck tiny because he’s lost the box, riding around in Abner’s pant cuff in secret, helping free prisoners and learning all about Abner’s devious plot.

The movie features plenty of wonderful shots of the British countryside (the movie was filmed mostly in Worcestershire), both green and covered in snow. Kay and his friends have a grand time, even though there’s clearly some nasty stuff going on and the stakes are rather high. The story is set in the mid 1930s and it’s got a fantastic period feel. We (being my mother and myself, specifically) especially love some of the language used, like scrobble, splendiforous, and the purple pim. The last is used as an exclamation, as in “Being scrobbled really is the purple pim!” We use it all the time and laugh whenever we do.

The adults you see a significant amount of are Abner and his gang (Patricia Quinn plays one of them, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, with relish) and Cole Hawlings. Abner is played by Robert Stephens, and he has this wonderful delivery for his lines. Sure, in any other movie it would be scenery chewing, but it’s perfect here and same for Patricia Quinn. The kids playing Kay and his friends are fine, but really the stand out is Joanna Dukes as the spitfire Maria (she’s been expelled from four boarding schools and the headmistresses still swoon when they hear her name). I love Maria. But then there’s Cole Hawlings, the mysterious old man who gave Kay the box in the first place. He’s played by a familiar name to anyone who knows Doctor Who: Patrick Troughton. You might not recognize him under the wild hair and bushy beard, but he does a magnificent job with the role.

If you are at all interested in seeing this, and I hope anyone reading this will be, I would encourage you to see if you can find the full version. There’s about 40 minutes more material and while there are some “comedic” bits with a foolish police constable who doesn’t believe Kay, there are also some extra bits of magic and time travel and conversations and it’s well worth it. And, well, if you can’t find the long version do the short version anyhow. It’s worth it too. I truly love this movie and I’ve loved it for years. There is nothing else like it and it’s not really Christmas for me until I’ve seen it. There are some fantastic bits of animation and a whole lot of adventures and evil plots and magic. All to stop a villain from getting his hands on a magical box and to save Christmas (just ignore the cop-out ending). An odd combination to be certain, but a wonderful one. Splendiforous, even.

December 23, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Box of Delights

December 23, 2010

Box of Delights

1984 was a great year for Christmas movies apparently. Yesterday we reviewed the 1984 adaptation of A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott, and today we review the BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s Box of Delights, which came out that same year. I talked yesterday about how professional and impressive A Christmas Carol was – how little it looked like a made for television production. This is the other side of the scale: a made-for-TV movie that clearly shows it. The production values here are what I am accustomed from the BBC in the Eighties, reminding me a great deal of my days watching the old Doctor Who. Which is appropriate due to the delightful presence of Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor, as the elderly Punch and Judy man in this movie.

There is much that is familiar to me as a long time anglophile about this story and setting. This is a tale of English schoolchildren having a supernatural adventure during the winter holidays. Kay Harker has returned home to his manor at Seekings, where he is in the care of his guardian Caroline Louisa. The truth of the matter is that young master Kay pretty much has the run of the place. Visiting him for the holidays are the “Blessed Joneses” Peter, Maria, Jemima, and Susan: four siblings about Kay’s age. On the way home Kay encounters an elderly Punch and Judy performer who claims to date from pagan times and who warns Kay that “the wolves are running.”

So begins a splendiferous magical adventure. Cole Hawlings, the Punch and Judy man, is in possession of a magic box which a number of seedy individuals are attempting to steal. The box of delights holds all sorts of mystical power. It will allow you to go swift, or to go small. Inside it contains wonders and visions. The nefarious sorcerer Abner Brown wants the box so that he may sell it back to Cole in exchange for the secret to eternal life, and so he uses his minions (a nasty spying rat, a pair of crooks named Joe and Charles, and Kay’s old governess the witch Sylvia Daisy Pouncer) to steal and scrobble and ransack the pleasant English countryside in search of it.

This is an ambitious production. The version we’re watching is a single three hour movie, but originally it was broadcast as six episodes. Over the course of his adventures Kay travels into the past to hunt wolves in the pagan English countryside at the side of Roman centurions. He travels with Herne the Hunter in the form of a deer and goose and trout. He flies and shrinks. He befriends a talking mouse and escapes from pirate rats. The technology of the day, and the restraints of the BBC budget mean that most of the time the effects look pretty laughable. There is a lot of chroma-key compositing and your usual BBC cardboard sets. The rats and mouse are slap-dash costumes. There is a lot of pretty good hand-drawn animation as well, which contrasts oddly with the live action bits. As Kay travels in time he flies through cardboard models of different time periods. It’s the kind of BBC special effects I’m well used to from my youth, and I really don’t mind the necessity to suspend my disbelief to enjoy the adventure.

It struck me as we watched this tonight that it’s an odd sort of Christmas movie. It does culminate in a joyous millennial mass at the local cathedral, but all of Kay’s dealings with the Romans and with Cole, who comes from pagan times, and with Hearne, act to stress to me how young a religion Christianity is, and how it’s only in the last couple millennia that it has forced itself upon the world. Still, it is very much a Christmas tradition with us to watch this movie. We love the cast, the “special” effects, the overall British feel of the whole thing. It makes me grin and laugh in the face of the stress and chaos of the Christmas season. “Ha, ha, what?”

December 23, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 297 – A Christmas Carol (1984)

A Christmas Carol (1984) – December 22nd, 2010

There are ever so many versions of this story out there. We’ve already reviewed the Muppet version for our project, and while the Blackadder version is far too short for us to include, we still watched it this year. It’s been adapted many times over the years, with various well known and lesser known actors playing the lead role. And while I know that Patrick Stewart has done Scrooge, and I do love Patrick Stewart, this will always be my very favorite version. There’s something about it that just makes it work in every way I want. Maybe it’s that it’s the version I’ve seen the most. Maybe it’s the music, or George C. Scott’s Scrooge. I’m not sure. But I love it.

My mother and I tend to quote from this version during the Christmas season. It’s not so much the words that are important as the delivery. Specifically we have a habit of telling each other every dessert we make is “a triumph!” as Bob Cratchit tells his wife about her pudding. It’s one of those movies that has embedded itself into my family’s lexicon, and I’ve passed that on to Andy. I love sharing my family’s Christmas favorites.

Given that this is a classic story that’s been told and retold, I don’t think I need to spend too long going over the plot, really. Ebenezer Scrooge is a stingy grouch of a man who says nasty things and treats other people abominably and sees Christmas as a pointless waste of time and money. After being met by three spirits of Christmas on the night of Christmas Eve, however, he learns what the spirit of the day truly is and repents of his ways, changing course to avoid a lonely death with mockery his only remembrance. It’s a good story, with plenty of emotional weight to it, even if it is a little heavy handed in places. Scrooge is shown his childhood – an unhappy time spent alone at a boarding school thanks to a father who blames him for his mother’s death. He sees the love of his youth and how he lost her. He sees the lives of Bob Cratchit’s family, his nephew, Fred. He sees strangers, out of work and desperate. And he sees a bleak future, with death a certainty for both himself and Tiny Tim Cratchit.

It’s the same story no matter how you look at it. Except the Blackadder version, but that’s parody anyhow. So what are the best bits here? I’ve got to say, George C. Scott’s Scrooge is truly fantastic. He’s gruff and blustery and when he walks he leads with his chest. He has a presence and gravitas, with his deep scratchy voice and truly excellent scowl. He takes obvious delight in flustering others and causing them discomfort and Scott plays him with such conviction, it’s easy to see how he has everyone around him cowed. And then when he’s seeing the various Christmases his transformation is fantastic, both dramatic and subtle, with outbursts and little asides and facial expressions. He still enjoys discomfiting people after his transformation, but not in a negative way. It’s a character trait I find fascinating and he keeps it throughout the movie, but it’s not really written in there. It’s all in his body language and grins.

I also love the overall look and feel to this version. It truly looks cold and bitter in many of the scenes and the characters, from the main to the small, are all either dressed appropriately or clearly cold because they don’t have the means. And the costumes are gorgeous. Scrooge is fully dressed for most of the movie, as opposed to being in his pajamas and dressing gown, but somehow it works. That he would still want to be formal and present himself as a well-off man, even when traveling invisible with a spirit of Christmas. There’s a really nice feeling for the period here, even if some of the instruments shown are a bit anachronistic. The clothing, the houses, the hairstyles, the whole community. It feels right. It feels full and festive with the season, which is perfect in contrast with Scrooge’s offices and home, so devoid of anything but business.

I would like to take the space to point out a couple of actors in this version. Mark Strickson, perhaps better known as Turlough from Doctor Who, plays a young Ebenezer Scrooge, and does so quite well. He’s awkward and hopeful, then just plain awkward. It’s painful, seeing Scrooge so young and lost. The ubiquitous David Warner plays Bob Cratchit with a very nice sense of warmth and good cheer regardless of his troubles and crotchety boss. And Roger Rees, who also seems to pop up more frequently than I’d otherwise realized before this project, plays Fred, Scrooge’s nephew. He also does all of the narration, and I have to say he does have a fantastic voice and delivery for the role as well as doing a good job with Fred. They’re all actors I knew from elsewhere, and when I was younger I hadn’t made the connections. As I got older I started to realize where I knew them all from and it’s a treat to see actors like this doing some classic roles.

As I said, I realize there are many adaptations and renditions of this story. It’s been parodied, modernized and done faithfully on film, television and stage. And that’s not even touching the various print editions. But this one holds a place in my heart. It’s George C. Scott and the rest of the excellent cast. It’s the costumes and the set dressing and the fantastic Ghost of Christmas Present, played by Edward Woodward. It’s the music and everything. I love this movie and I saved it for closer to Christmas for a reason. It needs to be watched close to the holiday, with its message of giving and sharing and compassion. It really feels like Christmas to me now, and it gets more so with every movie we watch.

December 22, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Christmas Carol (1984)

December 22, 2010

A Christmas Carol (1984)

I often jokingly refer to this movie as “George C Scott in: Man Getting Hit By Football” but the truth of the matter is that this is by far my favorite adaptation of the classic Dickens Christmas morality play. There are a great many interpretations of this subject matter, from the Disney cartoon (origin of Scrooge McDuck,) to the musical Scrooge starring Albert Finney, to Scrooged – the comical Bill Murray take on the subject, to the wonderful Blackadder Christmas Carol, to the Muppet version we’ve already reviewed for our project. I have not watched Bob Zemeckis’ 3-D CGI version (indeed I somewhat dread it.) Of course there are countless serious dramatic versions of the story as well. Patrick Stewart. Alastair Sim. Picking a favorite is largely a matter of personal taste, but this is the one that stands out in my mind.

As with The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Treasure Island this story is one that I have fond memories of my father reading to me and my sister. It was a fondly anticipated Christmas tradition that we would sit beside him on the sofa beneath our vast Christmas tree in our pajamas and bathrobes with our feet tucked up under us as he read out the original Dickens. I liked the story because it was slightly sinister. Not many Christmas stories involve death and ghosts. There are unsettling moments in the story such as Scrooge snuffing out the ghost of Christmas past or the hollow eyed children beneath the cloak of the ghost of Christmas present. In a way it’s a horror story as much as it is a Christmas story – something which is largely glossed over in most versions that I have seen.

As a character Ebenezer Scrooge must be one of the greatest roles an actor can get. Not only do you get to play an almost irredeemably nasty man – always a fun and cathartic thing – but you then get to show him slowly realizing the error of his ways and ultimately becoming the giddy, jovial very spirit of Christmas. Talk about a character arc. George C. Scott attacks the role with relish and completely sells Scrooge at every stage of his story. At the start Scrooge clearly takes a perverse pleasure in his view of the world in this version. He is amused by the foolishness of all these people who squander their hard earned money on non-essential trivialities. Scott’s Scrooge is less mean-spirited than simply aloof and self righteous. It’s a fun interpretation that makes his eventual redemption believable. He doesn’t need to be a different person altogether, he just has to be shown that there’s more to the world than his narrow vision encompasses.

It should say something that I was somehow unaware until tonight that this version of the story was a made-for-TV adaptation. I was somewhat surprised when we put the DVD in tonight that it had no widescreen option – because it was broadcast in the early Eighties and therefore was filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio. The production values are so lush, so detailed, so marvelously alive that I had always assumed that it was a theatrical release. Nothing about this movie speaks of corners cut. The costumes are fantastic, the sets are wonderfully dressed to evoke a real sense of the time period, the lighting is fantastic. (I particularly like some of the supernatural lighting used on Scrooge during the visit of the ghost of Christmas yet to come – creepy and cool, managing to pull him out of the scenes he’s witnessing without any special effects whatsoever.) Remember that this movie was contemporary with things like the Ewok movies and Amazing Stories – the quality of television productions in that day was uneven at best.

I’ve always loved this story. It’s all caught up in the anticipation and wonder of Christmas from my childhood. And this production of the story perfectly captures the images I had in my young mind as my father read to me all those years ago. Every time I watch it I’m a child all over again, enjoying the wonderful anticipation of the Christmas season. Only three more days now ‘till Christmas, and I just can’t wait!

December 22, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment