A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 305 – Hogfather

Hogfather – December 30th, 2010

After Christmas, when we were quite sure we’d finished up every Christmas movie in our possession and had moved on to other things, we discovered this sitting in a stack in the bedroom. Somehow we’d missed even putting it into our master spreadsheet, so when I’d gone through to note all the Christmas movies so we could tally them up and plan for the season, I hadn’t figured it into our plans. And then there it was, sitting there with some of our other things, taunting us with its 3 hour running time and Discworld Christmas plot. Since we’re well under a year left in the project (unless we get a sudden influx of over 100 more movies, which I don’t foresee happening), we didn’t want to leave this for next year, and it would be silly to watch it in, say, April. Thus, we have extended the holiday season a bit.

I read the book this is based on back when I was in college. I remember quite distinctly that I had been having an absolutely hellish month. I was worried about my classes. I was worried about my job. I was worried about everything. I was depressed, to put it frankly, and then one day I got back to my room in my dorm and this book was sitting in front of my door. Inside was a note from a good friend, telling me she’d read it so I could take my time with it and she hoped it would help in some small way. And it did. The book itself was fantastic and having a friend care was even better. So this one holds a special place for me. It was a bright point in a horrible time.

At its root, this is a story about belief and the purpose it serves. It taps into myths of childhood and twists them in the way that Terry Pratchett is so famous for. It’s about Christmas, or the Discworld version of it, but it’s mostly about mythology and folklore and why it’s important to us as humans. It’s all about storytelling, which I love about Pratchett. He likes to write about why people do the things they do and the importance of stories in daily life. And this one is made to be a big one. It’s about the assassination of the Hogfather, an anthropomorphic representation of the winter season and hope for the return of the sun after the solstice and all of the things that come along with this time of year. In the story he’s evolved quite a bit in the time he’s been around, shifting from a boar, killed as a sacrifice to ensure the rising of the sun, to a pig-faced man in a red and white fur suit who drives a sleigh drawn by pigs and delivers presents and pork products on Hogswatch Eve. And there are forces out there who want him dead.

The thing about this movie is that it doesn’t have the benefit of the considerable amount of explanation possible in a book. And it depends entirely on the vast amount of worldbuilding that Mr. Pratchett has done with the Discworld. If you were to watch this movie with little or no prior knowledge of the world it’s set in, I think you’d be rather lost in it. There’s very little in the way of explanation of who Susan is until rather late in the movie, when she explains that Death adopted her mother and took her father as an apprentice and they fell in love and she’s somehow inherited certain abilities. In the books, if you’ve read about Death and his adopted daughter and Susan’s childhood and all that, you know enough about her to know her place in the grander scheme of the world. If not, well, she’s still a rather kick-ass lady, but the finer points of just why and how she manages to kick so much ass and be who she is are lost. Which is a pity. But this is a movie made for fans. It’s a movie made for people who know the world and will be amused by the cameos of Nobby and Visit and the Death of Rats.

All things considered, the movie does do a good job of presenting the story and the world. It’s not that it doesn’t do its job. It’s that the book it’s based on also expects you to know things and the things you don’t know are explained in narration or footnotes and you can’t footnote a movie. It’s a case of the medium not being able to hold much more than the story it’s telling without getting overburdened. And I don’t fault it for that. It never tried to and I think if it had it would have been a mess. Better to be a movie for people who know and love the world and people who are willing to jump in without prior knowledge for a bizarre alternate Christmas adventure, with assassins and pigs and a skeleton in a Santa suit and a pile of teeth. I’m sorry we didn’t remember we had this in time for Christmas, but from now on I plan on making it part of our regular seasonal viewing.

December 30, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Hogfather

December 30, 2010

Hogfather

A couple days after Christmas, when we had completed our twelve days of Christmas movie reviews, we discovered this in one of the piles in the Bedroom. It had not made it into our Christmas plans because somehow it had never been entered into our spreadsheet of movies which we created way back when the movie a day project began. Because we discovered it after the holiday was already over we had a tough choice to make. Do we watch it now, five days after Christmas day, or do we keep it until next year in the hopes that our project will be extended that far? I was in favor of keeping it for next year, but Amanda isn’t altogether confident that we will get the 140 or so movies that would be required to extend our project that far. As it currently stands we’re going to run out of movies around July or so – so we decided to extend the holiday season and watch this tonight. We both have the day off, so we have time to watch an extremely long movie, which is good since this was originally a two-part television special and is rather lengthy.

This was the first of a new series of Discworld movies produced for SkyTV in England. I’m not altogether sure why they chose Hogfather out of the entire series to make into a film version. Perhaps they felt that the tie-in to the holiday season would mean that people who were not enormous fans of Pratchett’s work* would perhaps tune in to see a strange fantasy Christmas movie. If those people did tune in I’d imagine they were rather confused, since no effort is made to really explain who any of the characters are. In the case of most characters, such as Death and the wizards of the Unseen University this is alright since they are based on familiar archetypes, but then there’s Susan, who is a pretty major character throughout the film. It isn’t until halfway through that she explains to another character about how her father was an apprentice to Death and fell in love with her mother, whom Death had adopted. Unless you know this about her then she’s just a sort of practical and perhaps sinister kind of Mary Poppins in this movie. To really understand Sarah you would at least have to know the story of Mort.**

It seems slightly arbitrary therefore that this particular book was selected for the movie treatment, but overall I have to say I was pleased by the result. There’s always going to be a disconnect when you first see characters that have only ever been pictured in your mind portrayed on the screen, but for the most part I was delighted by the casting. Michelle Dockery is absolutely perfect as Susan. She’s all practical skepticism and level headed common sense. She perfectly captures the tolerant eye-roll of a sensible woman caught up in family matters that are as usual fantastical and potentially world ending. I was at first thrown by Marc Warren’s interpretation of Mr. Teatime,*** since he’s more creepy than sinister, but he quickly grew on me. I think they somewhat undermine his truly capricious and deadly nature by playing him somewhat for laughs, but it fit the overall mood of the movie. Joss Ackland is absolutely perfect casting as Mustrum Ridcully, the Arch-chancellor of the UU, and I loved every scene he was in. The entire spirit of the University was I think exactly portrayed here in the movie as I had seen it in my head.

Special kudos to both Ian Richardson as the voice of Death and the crew that brought the character to life for the screen. Skeletal hands are something very difficult to make work on screen, for example, and these ones are wonderfully articulate. The grinning skull of Death’s face is actually surprisingly expressive, given that it never changes at all – it’s all in the way he holds his body, the shrugs and gestures. Death has long been one of my favorite characters in the whole Diskworld cannon and here he is – exactly as I pictured him. He has just the right air of both understanding things beyond human ken and being constantly befuddled by people.

I’ll admit that for the most part I viewed this not so much as a movie as a visit with old friends. I have loved the Discworld books for so long that it’s just a pleasure to see somebody who clearly loves them just as much putting so much care into producing them for the screen. Oh, not everything was exactly as I pictured it (Nobby Nobbs for example was nowhere near as gruesome and misshapen as I thought he ought to be) but so much care and dedication clearly went into this product that it’s easy to overlook such things.

I note that the same team have gone back to the start and done a version of the Colour of Magic as well as the new adaptation of Going Postal which should be available soon. I look forward to owning and viewing those as well. And in the future I think this movie will make its way into our regular Christmas rotation.****

* Assuming that such people actually exist.

** Which was made into a stage-play I know, but was never a movie to my knowledge.

***Everybody pronounces it wrong the first time. Honestly, he doesn’t hold it against you.

****I realize that I say nothing here about the plot of the movie. This is because if you are unfamiliar with it I highly recommend that you go read the book. Heck, read all the Discworld books you can lay your hands on. Then when you’re done come back and view this movie – because until then you probably won’t enjoy it as much.

December 30, 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

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

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

Movie 296 – Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas / A Muppet Family Christmas

Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas / A Muppet Family Christmas – December 21st, 2010

When we started this project we had to decide what we were going to include and what we would exclude. We had to look through our collection and see what we had and figure out the rules and guidelines and we finally decided that an hour and fifteen minutes was long enough over a television special to make for a real movie. But there were a couple of exceptions. The Ranma ½ movies are on the short side, MST3K: The Movie comes in a minute under our guideline, and then there are these. They’re both under 1 hour specials made for television, but we really wanted to keep them in for Christmas. So we decided on a one hour cut off for a single night and put these two together. I think this is the only time we’ll be doing this, but it’s Christmas and it’s our project. We can make exceptions.

Our first movie, Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas, is based on a children’s book by Russell and Lillian Hoban, who both do fantastic books. Oddly, I’ve never read this one in particular. My workplace doesn’t own it and it’s just never crossed my desk at a time when I could pull it aside and read it. I really should, because it’s a sweet story that’s sort of a twisted version of the Gift of the Magi.

Emmet Otter and his mother, Alice, live in the tiny town of Frogtown Hollow. They don’t have much, getting by on the money Alice makes doing laundry and some extras every so often from Emmet using his father’s old tools to do repairs for their neighbors. Things are hard and money is tight, but they’re happy together and they do their best. When both Emmet and Alice find out about an upcoming talent show in the next town over they each separately decide to enter to try and win the $50 prize to buy a gift for the other. The trouble is that entering will mean making sacrifices. Emmet and his friends for a jug band, but Emmet will have to put a hole in his mother’s washtub to make a washtub bass. Alice is going to sing, but she needs a new dress to go on stage in and the only thing left to sell for the money to make the dress is the tool box. So each sacrifices something the other relies on in the hopes of giving them a gift they’ll love.

It’s a beautifully realized special, done with fantastic immersive sets where the puppets come up out of holes so you can see the floors or ground they’re standing on. There are whole buildings and a river that eventually freezes over. The puppet work is amazing, with a wide variety of styles used to make this whole community come to life. I think the only thing I felt jarred by was Alice Otter, who’s voiced by Marilyn Sokol but controlled by Frank Oz. Sokol does a lovely job with the vocals, and Oz does his usual awesome puppeteering, but there’s something that doesn’t quite fit as well as some of the others. It’s a little thing, but in something as sweet and well done as this little things are all I can find to mention. Really, that’s my only negative. This is otherwise a thoroughly sweet story with a lot of attention to detail and fantastic voice acting and puppeteering. It’s not so much a Muppet production as a Henson production, but that’s fine, because it is thoroughly wonderful as it is. I would encourage people to check out the Muppet Wiki article on the movie for some additional making-of stuff, and if you get the HiT release of it on DVD, watch the bloopers. They’re hilarious.

Our second movie tonight is the last Christmas special Jim Henson worked on. A Muppet Family Christmas is a short but packed Christmas special featuring an astounding number of Muppets from Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock and Muppet Babies (as puppets instead of cartoons). The Muppet Babies bit is a little truncated and the Fraggles are more of a cameo appearance, but the Sesame Street characters and Muppet Show characters mingle freely. The premise is that Fozzie has invited all his friends up to his mother’s farmhouse in the country for Christmas. And all his friends mean the entire Muppet Show cast. The Sesame Street crew shows up caroling and are invited in and soon Animal’s hitting it off with Cookie Monster and Big Bird’s singing with the Swedish Chef. Piggy is somewhere out in the blizzard, trying to get to the house, and everyone’s singing and cooking and chatting.

It’s one big feel-good sort of thing. The plot is incidental, to be honest. It’s about being together for the holidays and family and friends and the spirit of sharing. But of course, being Muppet-based, it’s got plenty of jokes. I’m especially delighted by the Sesame Street humor, which has things like Ernie and Bert talking about what letter different words start with, then explaining that this is small talk where they’re from. The Count counts off every time someone mentions a number. It’s some great self-aware humor on the part of the Henson crew and none of it is mean spirited. It’s meant to make people who love or loved Sesame Street chuckle knowingly at the reminder of their childhoods.

At the end of A Muppet Family Christmas when the house is full of Muppets of all shapes and sizes and origins, Jim Henson shows up in the kitchen. He’s watching the Muppets sing and smiling because he likes when they’re enjoying themselves. And then he gets to work on the huge mound of dishes. And we go back to the Muppets singing, because it’s Christmas. This right here is a true Muppet Christmas. It’s full of all the wonderful characters I love and it’s got humor a-plenty as well as some sweet and touching moments. And the amazing thing is that it all takes place in and around Fozzie’s mother’s farmhouse (except a few little moments with Piggy on her way there). There’s only two humans, Doc from Fraggle Rock and then Jim Henson himself at the end. It’s not a remake of anything, though the songs are mostly classics of the season, and it’s really wonderfully simple. It’s not trying any harder than it should be. It simply is what it is. And it is fantastic.

It was wonderful to see both of these specials tonight. They’re exactly what I think of when I think of Jim Henson and Christmas together. Not that I don’t enjoy The Muppet Christmas Carol, and It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie had its moments. But you can tell Jim Henson was involved with these. You can see it and hear it and feel it and it’s so wonderfully perfect.

December 21, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 294 – Comfort and Joy (1984)

Comfort and Joy (1984) – December 19th, 2010

This is by far one of the oddest Christmas movies we own. It’s odder than The Ref by a great deal and it’s got far less shouting, though it’s got plenty of destruction. It’s not about the Christmas spirit or presents or Santa or anything like that. It takes place at Christmas, and it ends on Christmas afternoon with a nice pudding and the satisfaction of things being a little better in the world than they were a few days before. But mostly it’s about a break-up and rival ice cream companies and a radio DJ in the middle of it all.

My mother introduced me to this movie years ago. It’s an odd one, with a quirky sense of humor and a dose of mid-life crisis, with Christmas carols in the background. It’s by the same director as Local Hero and has a similar quiet off-beat comedy going on. I honestly don’t quite know what to say about it aside that it’s become a staple for us at this time of year.

Morning DJ Alan “Dickie” Bird has a gorgeous kleptomaniac girlfriend, but only for the first few minutes of the movie because she up and leaves him after dinner one evening. She takes everything and exhorts him not to be cruel by doing something so ridiculous as asking why she’s leaving. Of course, as far as we can tell she hadn’t given any sign that she wanted to leave until that evening. He ends up helping her carry her stuff out of their flat. And then he has a bit of a quiet breakdown. His life suddenly empty but for work, right at the height of the holiday season, he goes in search of something, anything, to throw himself into.

What he finds is a rivalry between two ice cream companies: McCool’s and Mr. Bunny. He witnesses some thugs smash up a Mr. Bunny truck (and the jingle the Mr. Bunny trucks run is something we whistle all the time and no one ever recognizes it) and tries to find out what’s going on. Turns out it’s a family squabble, of course, and he does eventually manage to solve their problems but not before his car gets smashed up and he goes introspective enough at work to cause his boss to wonder if there’s a “sanity clause” in his contract.

There’s a bleakness to the movie. It takes place in a cloudy-skied Glasgow in the middle of December. There’s not a single sunny day in the movie. It’s either overcast or nighttime. I’m sure it was a conscious thing, to emphasize Dickie’s mood. It’s clear that Christmas is coming, because people talk about it, but none of the festivities have impacted him since his girlfriend left. And at the same time there’s a sly bit of humor in every scene. The rivalry between the ice cream companies is hilariously dramatic, full of characters who seem like they should be in a mafia movie. And then through the whole movie there’s the radio going. Dickie’s station is a mix of music and talk and ads. The ads are ridiculous and he enjoys a friendly rivalry with the other DJs. The news that plays several times through the movie has a progression of stories that could get lost in the background but never do for me. But there’s also a lot of good serious emotion here too, especially in the scenes with Dickie and his good friend Colin, a doctor who’s started a family and has everything Dickie thinks he wants.

It’s an impossible movie to clearly communicate. It is, much like Local Hero, sentimental and funny and quiet and just far enough off the beaten path to make me cock my head a little. I wish more people would see it. I wish I could share it with everyone. It’s not at all the norm for this time of year, but it always puts me in a Christmas mood.

December 19, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 293 – It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie

It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie – December 18th, 2010

While I do consider myself a Muppets fan, I have not seen everything they’ve ever done. I hadn’t seen The Muppet Wizard of Oz until we watched it for this project and I hadn’t seen this until today. I’m a little wary of the made-for-tv stuff, but I was pleasantly surprised by their take on The Wizard of Oz, so I had some hope for this one.

Unfortunately, I was not blown away by it. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s the truth. It wasn’t terrible or anything. I enjoyed it just fine. Parts of it I enjoyed quite a lot. It’s just that it wasn’t great. It was a little messy and a little jumbled and suffered from a lot of dated pop culture references and that’s a pity, because at its core it has a good concept. It’s just got so much else going on around that concept that it gets lost.

The basic storyline of the movie is a Muppet version of It’s a Wonderful Life. And the Muppets have done some great parodies and takes on classics, so I’m on board with that idea. The plot follows Kermit as he learns that the new owner of the theater wants all the money they owe her by midnight on December 24th or she’ll foreclose on them and tear down the theater to build a nightclub. Through a string of events the Muppets miss the deadline and they lose everything and Kermit wishes he’d never been born and you know where this is going.

The trouble here is two-fold: Firstly, the story doesn’t start with the threat of foreclosure. It starts with a dejected Kermit out in the snow and an industrious angel taking note and insisting that someone in Heaven help out. Then he helpfully shows God what’s happened and rewinds the story back to the start so we can follow along. It’s a bizarre choice, probably made to have the It’s a Wonderful Life reference super clear and give the movie a bit of a sense of urgency. But all it makes me think is that the movie laps itself and makes its own timeline needlessly complex. Sure, the original movie goes back a ways, but it’s to show George Bailey’s childhood and early years. We don’t go back and see Kermit as a tadpole or watch him meet Fozzie and ride off in his Studebaker. If we had I might have been more understanding of the narrative choice. As it stands, I think it could have started with the owner’s arrival and threat and we’d have been just fine.

The second half of my issue with the movie is that it is so overly referential it’s easy to lose sight of what the main reference source is. This isn’t helped by the circular timeline either. The movie starts out with a series of admittedly pretty funny Gifts of the Magi references, with various pairs of Muppets gifting each other increasingly bizarre items. There are references to Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer, A Christmas Story and likely a lot more Christmas movies I’m not as familiar with (as evidenced by Jack Frost and the upcoming Comfort and Joy and The Box of Delights, my Christmas viewing is a little atypical for my geographical point of origin). And those I’m down with. I like how the Magi stuff was popped in there, and the bit with the flag pole. It’s cute and definitely works as an overall Christmas parody theme.

The pop culture, on the other hand, dates the movie horribly. There’s a lengthy Moulin Rouge spoof and a scene on the set of Scrubs. A blatant reference to Steve Irwin shows up to track Fozzie through the streets and music that is decidedly Nine Inch Nails-esque plays in at least two scenes. I can live with the somewhat adult-oriented lines from Pepe and the rather dark alternate Kermit-less world. Let’s face it, the original show wasn’t necessarily for kids, even though I was a kid when I started watching it. And I forgive the cameos and celebrities playing themselves because there’ve always been cameos in the movies and the folks playing themselves is a clear reference to the original show. But the pop culture stuff just tries too hard.

I really wish they’d kept it to Christmas references and Muppet homage. Because the references back to the older shows and movies are fantastic. There are a couple of Muppets who show up during a rehearsal for the big Christmas extravaganza the Muppets are planning and they’re straight out of the original show, all long-limbed and fluffy and probably controlled by puppeteers dressed in black using large rigs. In the Kermit-less reality there’s a Doc Hopper’s Frog Legs kiosk at the mall. The whole movie takes place at the Muppet theater, and it’s wonderfully familiar as well as expanded. That and the basic plot of Kermit seeing how much joy he’s brought to the world and how sad it would be without him? That’s really all this movie needed. It’s obvious from the outtakes and additional material that the crew who came together for this movie had a blast making it. They had a good human cast with David Arquette (not a stranger to Muppet films) as the angel, Whoopi Goldberg as God and Joan Cusak as the villain, Rachel Bitterman. I loved having Kermit back in the lead role and it was great to see the Muppets in their home environment. I just wish it hadn’t ended up with such a messy mish-mash covering all that up.

December 18, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment