Showing posts with the label Classic

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The Shop Around the Corner is an extremely influential black and white romantic comedy. It's based on the same source material that was updated and adapted into "You've Got Mail," which I should probably watch one of these days.

Like most movies of its era (or at least the ones that have endured), The Shop Around the Corner is a bit complicated. It's well regarded - Rotten Tomatoes has it at 100% - but it's also dated. Do I even need to say that the gender politics in a movie made in 1940 are less than ideal? I suppose they could be a lot worse. The male lead manipulates and lies to the woman for half the movie, and in the end, she's just glad to end up with him. But aside from that, she's generally portrayed as intelligent and capable. The premise requires that the two fall in love with each other's minds, rather than their bodies, though there are definitely some awkward jokes around their concerns as to what their mysterious love interests loo…

Mon oncle Antoine (1971)

Apparently, Mon oncle Antoine is considered one of the best Canadian films ever produced. Honestly, I lack anywhere near enough cultural background to offer an informed opinion on that claim. For what it's worth, I found the movie interesting enough, despite an intentionally slow pace and meandering point-of-view.

For all intents and purposes, the plot doesn't even kick in until about halfway through. Prior to that, it feels like you're watching a series of vignettes about a few different groups of people living in rural Quebec in the 1940's. An asbestos mining operation serves as the backdrop and is pretty clearly significant to the movie's point, but you really need some knowledge of Canadian history to understand the connection. I skimmed a few Wikipedia articles after watching the movie, but I suspect the film would have had more impact if I had a more personal connection.

The short explanation is that there was a major asbestos strike in 1949 that effectively…

Meet John Doe (1941)

Even going by our standards, Meet John Doe qualifies as a Christmas movie on something of a technicality. Only the last few minutes actually occur around the holidays, and even then they're almost incidental. However, the movie goes out of its way to tie the season into its premise in order to build something of a heavy-handed metaphor.

I'll cut to the chase: Meet John Doe is a Christmas movie because "John Doe" is Jesus.

Well, sort of. It's slightly more complicated than that, but not as much as I'd have liked. The movie has a relatively strong opening, centering on Barbara Stanwyck's character, Ann. She plays a newspaper columnist who's just been laid off. As her final act, she writes a fake editorial letter written by an average Joe, who's fed up with the way "the little guy" is treated in society. The letter concludes with "Joe" vowing to jump off of City Hall on Christmas Eve.

The letter gets a huge amount of publicity. I…

Christmas in July (1940)

Christmas in July is an extremely odd black & white comedy written and directed by Preston Sturges, who adapted it from a play he wrote in the 1930's, which wouldn't actually be produced on stage until 1988.

Astonishingly, all of that is less convoluted than the movie's plot. That isn't a criticism (though I will have a few later on) - the movie's refusal to follow convention makes it more interesting than most comedies I've seen from the period. Apparently, Sturges is remembered as something of experimental filmmaker, testing his boundaries and playing with structure in his comedies, at least if I'm understanding the Wikipedia article I just skimmed. That certainly seems fair: Christmas in July definitely played with expectation, tone, and theme.

The story centers on Jimmy, a young man interested in advertising who has entered a contest to create a slogan for a coffee company. The contest carries a twenty-five thousand dollar prize, but the movie esta…

Seinfeld Christmas Episodes: 1991-1997

It's hard to overstate how big Seinfeld was in the 90's. It was the top sitcom for four years and the top TV show for two. The subject matter was surprisingly adult for its time slot, and among geeks, it offered a rare opportunity to see our interests cross over with mainstream entertainment.

While Jerry himself was Jewish, the series had several Christmas episodes, often exploring the holiday without even a hint of sentimentality or nostalgia. That alone makes these stand out from the norm.

I felt like the show held up well on a new viewing. While the jokes of course weren't as fresh as when I first heard them, most of them remain funny. The exceptions were Jerry's monologues, which came off more dated. But those weren't more than a few minutes of any episode, anyway.

If you're too young to have seen these, it might be worth checking out a few episodes. I didn't feel like any of the Christmas episodes were required holiday viewing (though a case could def…

Peace on Earth (1939) and Goodwill to Men (1955)

"Peace on Earth" is an animated short from 1939. It was made by Hugh Harman, one of the founders of the Warner Bros. animation studios. "Goodwill to Men" is a remake made by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera fourteen years later. The two pieces are extremely similar, so I'll talk about them together.

As works of animation, these are beyond topnotch. "Peace on Earth," in particular, is absolutely breathtaking. If this had been made a half-century later, it would still have been cutting edge. The remake is also great. You can drop every association you have with Hanna-Barbera: this is beautiful work. Both versions were clearly labors of love, stories the animators and directors clearly believed needed to be told.

If you've never seen these, the fact they exist is utterly shocking. In fact, if you've never seen either of these - and especially if you've never heard of them - you owe it to yourself to stop reading and watch the original. It…

Brazil (1985)

The title of Brazil is drawn from its theme song, despite the fact the movie is not set in Brazil, and the nation of Brazil has absolutely no bearing on the movie, nor is it even mentioned. It should be noted that they considered several alternative titles while the movie was in development, and - miraculously - Brazil seems to have been the best they thought of. You can read a bunch of the others on Wikipedia.

If I could be so bold, I might suggest calling this the Metropolis Christmas Special, which is how I'm going to think of it from now on.

Recently, I found this on a couple of lists of science fiction Christmas movies, which surprised me, since I didn't recall it having taken place at Christmas. Granted, it's been more than a decade since I saw this, and I didn't think much of it at the time. For years, my summation was simply: any ten minutes of Brazil is gorgeous, but there's no reason to watch more than that.

Maybe I'm just mellowing as I age, but I …

Stalag 17 (1953)

Stalag 17 is considered a classic. Along with It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story, it's on the IMDB's top 250 movies of all time (as a society, we really need to get A Christmas Story off that list). Between the IMDB and its 97% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it was pretty much a given this was going to be good. Well, this late in the season, we're ready for some good movies.

This is, indeed, worth seeing, providing you're a fan of the era. The movie is well written and directed with a genuine sense of mystery and suspense broken up by occasional comic relief. The entire movie takes place inside a German POW camp during World War II. It's a few weeks before Christmas, and the Americans held there are continuously undermined in their attempts to escape or conceal information from their captors. The consequences aren't sugar coated, either: the movie opens with two of their number being gunned down in an escape attempt.

It becomes apparent they'…

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

I'm pretty sure it's been at least twenty years since I last watched this thing. I actually had positive associations with it going in, though everyone around me set less optimistic expectations when I said I'd be watching it. I'm glad they did: this was pretty bad.

It wasn't terrible, exactly, at least not when compared to its peers, but sitting through it wasn't a pleasant experience. The movie is the third in the series, which focuses on the Griswold's vacations. Christmas Vacation actually has a direct-to-video spin-off of its own starring Randy Quaid. I'll... uh... I'll go add that to my Netflix queue.

Anyway, like I was saying, this one wasn't especially awful, as far as uncomfortable Christmas comedies go, but it didn't exactly transcend the genre, either. The movie centers around Chevy Chase, who's obsessed with giving his family the best possible old-fashioned Christmas ever for absolutely no reason. The movie rests on the shou…

Die Hard (1988)

We held off on this one for a few years, because it kind of felt like cheating. But, when you look at it, Christmas permeates Die Hard a hell of lot more thoroughly than it does Holiday Inn. There's a lot of Christmas woven into Die Hard's soundtrack. Along with the background of the Christmas party and the (brilliant) elevator sequence, it gives the entire film a holiday feel.

Beyond that, Die Hard is arguably the quintessential action movie. At the very least, it's the quintessential action movie of its generation, and it could easily be the best action ever made.
It's been a few years since I last watched it, and it holds up marvelously. Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman are both amazing in their respective roles as the ultimate cop and robber, and they've got great material to work with, thanks to some fantastic writing and directing. Decades of knock-offs would follow this, but none would figure out what made Die Hard work as well as it did.
There's a lot tha…

White Christmas (1954)

As White Christmas opens, the film proudly announces that it was produced in VistaVision, which research tells me means that it was filmed in a special widescreen process that gave exceptionally high resolution for its time. While the Netflix version that we watched occasionally lost some of that gorgeous resolution, the care and artistry that went into this picture was still very apparent.

The plot is simple on the surface: Burl Ives and Danny Kaye play a pair of friends and showbiz business partners who fall for a pair of sisters who are a singing duo. On that level, it seems similar to Holiday Inn, the classic holiday musical which White Christmas (the song) originated in. But the experience here is miles above the earlier film.

For starters, all the characters are actually characters. The pair of guys are army buddies as well as business partners and that affects the plot throughout. The secondary romantic pair make it their business to get the primary pair together, and it was a…

Scrooge (1951)

There have been many, many adaptations of A Christmas Carol. This isn't the first we've looked at, and assuming this blog pops up again next Christmas, I don't think it'll be the last.

The 1951 version starring Alastair Sim is generally recognized as the best of the bunch. I haven't seen nearly enough to render that verdict, though this is certainly better than the Jim Carrey vehicle that came out a few years ago. If we're counting parodies, though, it's not even close to Blackadder's Christmas Carol or Scrooged, and I actually prefer Mickey's Christmas Carol if only because it's shorter.

But if we're just talking about versions that are relatively accurate to the source, aren't parodies, and don't replace the characters with anthropomorphic animals, then yes: this is the best I can think of.

The depiction of the various characters is about as close as is humanly possible. Sim's Scrooge is particularly well done, both as the cur…

Jack Frost (1934)

Yet another short on a collection we found for next to nothing on Amazon. Going in, I didn't know what to expect from this eight minute cartoon about a young bear ignoring advice about staying in for winter, but I was really quite smitten.

The character of Jack Frost is presented as sort of a nature spirit who shows up to paint the changing season and warn all the animals it's time to get in out of the cold. He warns the main character - the aforementioned bear - about Old Man Winter, but the bear's convinced his coat of fur is more than enough to keep him safe. Long story short, Old Man Winter (personified as a creepy ice-man) is a bit tougher than the bear was expecting.

It's not particularly complicated, but it's my favorite of these eight minute shorts so far. Not surprisingly, it's readily available on YouTube, as the embed below suggests. Once again, if you're no fan of old cartoons, this isn't for you.

For those that are, it's kind of awesom…

Christmas Comes but Once a Year (1936)

I know I've seen this eight minute short from Fleischer Studios before. It's relatively simple in concept: a bunch of orphans' Christmas is ruined until Grampy (one of Fleischer's reoccurring characters) breaks into their kitchen, transforms a bunch of stuff into toys, then disguises himself as Santa Claus to hand out the gifts.

It's a simple concept, but the execution was ahead of its time. Like Grampy, Fleischer Studios invented some tricks of their own. Half a century before computer effects, they were developing innovative methods to create the illusion of 3D environments, as evidenced in the opening shot.

Like most old cartoons, if you're not interested in animation and its history, you won't find much to like here. If, however, you appreciate the art form, this is a great piece.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948)

Note the year of release - this isn't the famous Rankin/Bass stop-motion special, but rather a short directed by Max Fleischer. It's only about 8 minutes long, and it's an earlier adaptation of the song.

I've known for a while that there were multiple versions of Rudolph out there, but somehow I missed that this was directed by Fleischer. If you're not a big fan of animation, he's the guy responsible for the Popeye cartoons, as well as the extremely influential Superman animated shorts.

His take on Rudolph is, if nothing else, extremely bizarre. The story starts with Rudolph shunned for his nose by his peers, as you'd expect. What I didn't expect was the level of anthropomorphism used. These Reindeer walk upright, live in houses, and speak. The coach's whistle in the Rankin/Bass special seems realistic in comparison.

In fact, Santa's the only human in the short. He comes across Rudolph when he's dropping off gifts in his town then enlists h…

Home Alone (1990)

To my surprise, this movie is not actually terrible, just sort of boring. It's decently shot, and it has good music, but the characters are uninteresting and the plot is thin and slow.

From the beginning, the whole set-up is heavy-handed; the level of anger and actual evilness from the family members is so over the top that it's hard to get behind the later desire for reconciliation. They are all jerks, and the kid is kind of better off without them.

There are some truly random tone shifts; it feels as though most plot elements were added piecemeal, and moved around somewhat at random. It doesn't help that the continuous schtick prevents the characters from gaining any real emotional momentum. Macaulay Culkin mugs through the whole thing, seeming determined to prove he can't act.

And then of course, there's the house of death. You remember the house of death, it's probbaly the only thing most people remember about this movie at all. It's the part where the…

It's a Wonderful Life? Not for that guy.

I haven't been feeling too Grinchy yet this year, but bashing It's a Wonderful Life feels like a good place to start. I have such oddly mixed feelings about this movie.

I sympathize.

I appreciate the overt message: each of us touches others' lives in ways we can never imagine, and you don't have to have a perfect life for life to be worth living. I'm just not as fond of the packaging.

Spoilers follow.

First off, of course I find all the beginning narration with the talking nebulas completely idiotic. I actually considered for a while whether the movie might be better without the supernatural elements, which is an odd idea for me. But Erin gave me a horrified look when I floated the idea by him, so I guess I can't say that.

It's well done. Well filmed, mostly well acted, parts were funny, but I just didn't enjoy watching the film. I found the pace slow, and the characters felt always on the edge of slapstick, never like real people. Like the people in Roc…

It's A Wonderful Life (1946)

This was probably the biggest omission in last year's lineup of Christmas classics. Easily one of the top three most famous Christmas movies of all time (along with A Miracle on 34th Street and the grossly overrated A Christmas Story), It's A Wonderful Life is a quirky, stylish flick.

Ironically, I think this movie is probably best the way it's least viewed: beginning to end. As one of the mainstays of holiday television, I suspect most people have seen this in bits and pieces. But the movie's most effective when you see how the pieces snap together, and to do that, you've actually got to sit through the whole thing. At two hours and change, you'll want to avoid the extra padding added by commercials. This movie has a reputation for being slow - I suspect most of that comes from the fact so many people grew up watching it with commercial interruption. Most of it: to be fair, there are plenty of slow parts left over.
It's A Wonderful Life is fundamentally a…

The Snowman (1982)

This is a half-hour of gorgeous animation with brilliant use of music; it's just beautifully done, and one of my absolute favorites. It's wordless except for the short introduction and the one song. It's based on the picture-book of the same name, and the style of the animation looks just like a living illustration.

The animation looks like it was done with pastel and crayon, and the skill that is evident in the work is astounding. Particularly amazing is the flying sequence, which uses just perspective and careful planning to convey an amazing amount of movement and depth.

The song from this haunted me a while back, when I hadn't seen the special in years. I remembered that it was good, but not much else about it. When I finally tracked it down and sat Erin down to watch it, the opening strains of “Walking in the Air” began to introduce it, and I burst into tears.

It's a melancholy piece, but all the more beautiful for that. I love this special, but it still m…

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

This is the last of the "four pillars" of the classical animated Christmas specials.  No, wait.  It's the last of the four AMERICAN animated Christmas classics.

There is... another.  But we'll leave that ominous assertion for another day.

Rudolph is a tough nut to crack.  It's a decent special, but it certainly lacks the consistency or quality control of How the Grinch Stole Christmas or A Charlie Brown Christmas.  This is a flawed gem, that much is certain.  There are some slow spots, some weak writing, and some songs that are hard to sit through year after year.  Plus, all character growth takes place off screen: between scenes, Rudolph miraculously decides he can't run away from his problems, even as everyone at Santa's workshop realizes they were ripe bastards.

Despite all that, it's really intriguing.  It's just so damned imaginative, it's impossible not to like.  Between the elf wanting to be a dentist, Yukon's team of show dogs, a…