Category Archives: Christmas Films

A Christmas Carol-1951

A Christmas Carol-1951

Director-Brian Desmond Hurst

Starring-Alastair Sim

Scott’s Review #871

Reviewed February 26, 2019

Grade: A

A Christmas Carol (1951), released as the American title, or Scrooge in Great Britain, is yet another film incarnation of the world famous 1843 novel by Charles Dickens. This version seems to be the winning popular favorite, historically shown on television around the holidays. Alastair Sim is perfectly cast as the curmudgeonly Scrooge with the eventual endearing qualities in this earnest and wonderful seasonal effort.

Set in bustling London, a fabulous setting for any Christmas film, the story gets off to a resounding start with Dickens’ words being narrated subsequently presenting a faithful tribute to the book. The brooding Ebenezer Scrooge (Sim) angrily leaves the London Exchange on Christmas Eve eager for a quiet night at home. He begrudgingly gives his clerk Bob Cratchit (Mervyn Johns) the day off to spend with his poor family and bemoans the holidays as humbug to fellow wealthy businessmen that he encounters.

Scrooge embarks on a strange journey during the night as he is visited by his deceased business partner Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern), shackled in chains and doomed to walk the earth clad in chains to represent his greed during his living years. He warns Scrooge to repent or suffer the same fate as he is visited by three ghosts representing chapters of his life: The Spirit of Christmas Past, the Spirit of Christmas Present, and the Spirit of Christmas Yet to come. The first two ghosts more benevolent, the third ghost is mysterious and frightening and takes Scrooge down a dim journey of what will be after he dies.

The centerpiece that makes A Christmas Carol work so well is its star, Alastair Sims. Hardly handsome, the actor is perfect in the role offering relish with his irritated facial expressions and untamed white locks. As he dismisses a waiter at the realization that he will be charged extra for more bread the penny-pinching Scrooge is in fine form as only Sims can be. Later, his cleaning lady assumes Scrooge has lost his marbles as he frolics about gleefully in his bed clothes raising her salary beyond comprehension, clearly a changed and jolly man. Sims plays this range of emotions with relish and truthfulness.

The cinematographers work wonders creating a magical London set drizzling with celebratory facets. With eons of pure white falling snow and streets filled with young Christmas carolers and city people, the film offers a great feel. With the Cratchit household modest yet filled with holiday cheer, the film doses the audience with the right blend of sentimentality and spirit never turning into schmaltz. The result is a richly produced film with a small budget proving that a robust budget does not equal greatness.

Rated G, the film has a few dark moments but is largely tailor made for an all ages audience. This undoubtedly is testament to its success and staying power. Neither a musical nor too heavy in the drama field, the pacing is perfect, and the story builds throughout the running time. After many decades most viewers will be familiar with the conclusion, an enchanting character turn that is always wonderful to witness with joyful glee.

A Christmas Carol (1951) is a legendary film with crackle and spark and an effective atmosphere leaving adoring fans to look forward to more each season. For an interesting contrast, a suggested companion piece is the aptly titled Scrooge (1970) starring Albert Finney, a musical version of the same story. Watched in tandem or even traded off, these two similar yet different creations offer interesting perspectives both enchanting and celebrating the human spirit.

It’s a Wonderful Life-1946

It’s a Wonderful Life-1946

Director-Frank Capra

Starring-James Stewart, Donna Reed

Scott’s Review #863

Reviewed February 5, 2019

Grade: A-

A popular holiday tradition in many households eager to cozy up in front of the fire with an enduring and entertaining classic, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) serves an important purpose and is the ultimate annual festivity passed from generation to generation. While not one of my personal standards I do recognize the influence and the endearment the film offers and cannot fault its power to bring people together with its humanistic and sweet message.

James Stewart is perfectly cast as the wholesome and likable George Bailey, a man who strives to help all those needing help in his small community while neglecting himself in the process. Depressed and despondent by the failure of his bank one Christmas Eve in the 1945 snowy locale of Bedford Falls, New York, George is visited by a guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) who teaches him what life will be like if he chooses the dire path of ending his own life.

Along with Stewart, Donna Reed as wife Mary Hatch Bailey is cast exceptionally well and is the perfect counterpart to George. Together the actors immerse themselves in their roles and hold their heads high as the leaders of the sleepy little town they reside in and set an example for the other townspeople with their kindness and thoughtfulness. A sound “king and queen of the prom” the duo radiate and illicit tears from audience members living their lives vicariously through the couple.

A perfect companion piece to A Christmas Carol, perhaps the version from 1951 for similar time-periods, both spirited and teaching life lessons, is recommended. Both thematically similar in the visitation by a heavenly spirit and offering glimpses into the past, present, and future, the comparisons are endless to say nothing of the Christmastime elements both possess.

Arguably, It’s a Wonderful Life is the more uplifting of the two, which is both good and bad. The lesson constantly voiced is to be good to other people and one will then be rewarded or at least have peace of mind. This is not a bad lesson at all, which is the main reason for the films lasting appeal. Bad luck and financial hardship will inevitably make its mark on everyone, but kindness is forever enduring.

The timing of the creation and release of It’s a Wonderful Life is also worth mentioning. As the United States, to say nothing of many European nations, struggled to pick up the pieces after the devastation of World War II, what an opportune time for the picture to immerse itself into the lives of many people in need of a strong and uplifting message. No wonder the film was popular when first released as the feel-good film of 1946.

The black and white cinematography does wonders to portray the films magical atmosphere as the cold and snowy bridge scenes are the high point. Controversial years later was the colorization, and some would say the ruination, of the films appeal, a decision that was met with anger by star Stewart who went as far as testifying in court to voice his displeasure.

At the risk of being raked across the coals and deemed a “scrooge”, portions of It’s a Wonderful Life are saccharin and manufactured in the utmost in goodness-sometimes too good. Admittedly coming across a bit trite at times, the characters of George, Mary, and their children seem to glimmer and radiate with only benevolent characteristics never having an improper or impure action. A fantasy film for sure the overly humanistic approach can sometimes be a tad silly. The same can be said for the angel, Clarence.

Nonetheless films such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) serve their purpose in the annals of cinema history. With a powerful and heart-warming message, the positive vibes simply cannot be denied and the warmth and emotion the film possesses radiates even the coldest hearts and the harshest of critics willing to accept and be enraptured by the films staying power.

Elf-2003

Elf-2003

Director-Jon Favreau

Starring-Will Ferrell, James Caan

Scott’s Review #846

Reviewed December 20, 2018

Grade: B-

Elf (2003) is one of the few lasting Christmas hits of recent memory or at least one that many fans make a regular viewing experience each holiday season. The film is light and unarguably a safe, feel-good experience mixing a hopeful Christmas message with comic gags and romance. The key to its success is Will Ferrell who possesses wonderful comic timing. More wholesome than my tastes and lacking plausibility the film does succeed as a family friendly, ready-made, fun experience.

The story revolves around one of Santa’s elves (Ferrell) named Buddy who learns he is human and was orphaned as an infant. Revealed that his biological father Walter (James Caan) resides in New York City, Buddy embarks on a trip to find the man and spread Christmas cheer in a world filled with grizzled and cynical human beings. In predictable comic form Buddy has trouble adjusting to the human world and the fast-paced lifestyle with misunderstandings arising repeatedly. Buddy eventually wins over his father and family finding love with downtrodden Jovie (Zooey Deschanel).

Hot on the heels of his Saturday Night Live stint ending in 2002, Ferrell was primed to embark on a successful film career. Elf is a great role for him as it capitalizes on his comic timing and energy and the setup works. At 6’3″ who better to play an elf for laughs than a hulking middle-aged man? Due to his talents Ferrell makes the role of Buddy fun, appealing, and the highlight of the film. With a lesser talent the character would have been too annoying (as it is there are too many hug jokes) and the overall film would have suffered.

Other than Ferrell the supporting roles are nothing memorable other than Caan’s role. The once dashing star of films such as The Godfather (1972) Caan still has the charm and charisma to appeal, though the balding and dyed head of hair does nothing for him. A small role by television star Bob Newhart as Papa Elf is fine, but Deschanel’s role and Mary Steenburgen’s role as Emily, Walter’s wife, could have been played by many actresses and nothing is distinguishable about either part. Lesser roles like Walter’s secretary, Walter’s boss, and the Gimble’s store manager are stock parts with no character development.

A major high-point is the New York City setting and the exterior scenes are aplenty. Filmed in 2002 and released in 2003, the location shots were completed not long after 9/11 and showcasing a city with such recent decimation adds to the film’s appeal. Scenes in Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and the Empire State Building are prominently featured making the film festive and merry. What greater city is there at Christmastime than New York?

Elf remains an entertaining experience with enough shiny ornaments and fun moments in the department store and Walter’s office to hold interest. The luster wears thin at the conclusion as all the traditional elements come together. Jovie leads a chorus of strangers in “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, Walter quits his job without concern for paying bills, and everyone happily rides off into a sparkling winter wonderland. This may satisfy some, but I wanted more conflict than a troupe of Central Park Rangers chasing Santa through the park.

A film that might be paired nicely with holiday favorites of similar ilk such as National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) or Christmas with the Kranks (2004), Elf (2003) is an energetic affair with a charismatic lead actor. Containing silly moments, but a spirited and worthwhile message nestled nicely within, the film is worth a watch if in the mood for slapstick. More thought-provoking holiday films with deeper merriment and stronger flair exist, but for a chuckle or two Elf works well.

The Polar Express-2004

The Polar Express-2004

Director-Robert Zemeckis

Starring-Tom Hanks

Scott’s Review #800

Reviewed August 8, 2018

Grade: B+

The Polar Express (2004) is a modern entry into the annals of holiday film history. Along with treasures like Rudolph, Frosty, the Grinch, and all the other standards, this film has become a popular one to watch throughout the season. The film is not exactly like the others, since it is the first of its kind to incorporate live human characters animated using live action motion capture animation. The mood of the film is mysterious, edgy, and with a dark tint, so jolly it isn’t, but compelling it is, and visually is a marvel.

The story is as follows- on a snowy (naturally!) Christmas Eve, a young boy living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is doubtful of the existence of Santa Claus. When a steam locomotive suddenly appears outside of his house, he curiously boards the train to find a mysterious conductor (Tom Hanks) manning the train. As the train rolls away the boy meets two other children on board and stops for another one, also reluctant to get on. They begin a dazzling, frozen adventure to the North Pole with the promise of receiving the first gift of Christmas from Santa Claus himself.

The main reason to recommend The Polar Express is simply for the gorgeous visual treats offered. In 2004 the film was a unique experience and I fondly recall sitting in a dark movie theater observing the film for the first time. There was a magical element to the surroundings, combining intrigue and fantasy that still holds up well. For adults I do not think the film is at all scary, but I have heard some reviewers complain that the moody ingredients are a bit frightening for children so there is that concern. 

A major component is the mixture of human beings and animated tools. The familiar actor who everybody knows is Tom Hanks as the conductor. Therefore, to sit back and observe the character is a wonderful thing- is it really Tom Hanks or is it an animation? Certainly it is ultimately both, but the fun is in the observation and wondering how the film makers created this experience. And listen for Hanks in other voice performances throughout the film. 

The story (or fable) itself is warm and fairly predictable in nature. But, of course, being largely made with kids in mind, this is to be expected. There is never a doubt that the boy (interestingly never given a name) will ultimately believe in Santa after all and live happily ever after. The magic is in the details, though- the boy’s journey to this realization is peppered with fun and creative richness- the little girl’s floating ticket and an ornament falling off a Christmas tree are good particulars. 

Director, Robert Zemeckis, and Hanks worked closely together in Forrest Gump (1994) so the pair are familiar with each other, creatively speaking. Hanks undoubtedly had much input into the decision making and it shows. 

I do not personally rank The Polar Express (2004) among the best of the best of holiday film offerings, but I support an occasional dusting off of this work for viewing pleasure. Perhaps over time the animations may become dated or seem less dazzling, but the film is still to be appreciated for its creative elements. The story is nothing spectacular (in a way Scrooge for kids), but makes for a pleasant family viewing experience. 

Scrooge-1970

Scrooge-1970

Director-Ronald Neame

Starring-Albert Finney, Alec Guinness

Scott’s Review #561

Reviewed December 25, 2016

Grade: A

A classic that is perfect to watch around the holidays, accompanied perhaps by a roaring fire and a bit of brandy, Scrooge is a magical, musical experience, that should be adored by the entire family. The film is a re-telling of the 1843 Charles Dickens story, A Christmas Carol. Set in London with spectacular London style art direction, it is perfect in its depiction of life around the holidays in the historic city, circa nineteenth century.

To be clear, this is the musical version of the popular tale- not to be confused with the 1935 or the 1951 versions of the story. The film is not as dark or scary as those films are. Rather, the 1970 Scrooge would be a fantastic companion piece to the 1968 classic, Oliver!, both based on Dickens stories, as both mix fantastic musical scores with the dramatic elements.

Albert Finney takes center stage in flawless form as the old, cantankerous, miser, Ebenezer Scrooge. He plays the character as both an old man, and, via flashbacks, as a young man (Finney was merely thirty four years old at the time of filming). Guinness, certainly a high caliber actor, is effective as the ghost of Jacob Marley- Scrooge’s former business partner. Scrooge is a money-lender, mainly to the working class, and is unforgiving in his collection of debts.

Filled with hatred of all things good, especially the Christmas holiday, Scrooge refuses to attend a family Christmas dinner hosted by his nephew, Fred, or to give to any charities. He begrudgingly gives his minion and bookkeeper, Bob Cratchit, Christmas day off. Finally left alone Christmas Eve night, Scrooge is visited by the spirit of Jacob Marley, deceased seven years, who tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts during  the night.

In a chilling scene, Marley takes Scrooge on a journey through the sky where he is greeted by spirits doomed to traverse the Earth as Jacob is, with shackles acquired from their life as living beings. Since they were greedy and wicked, they are doomed in the afterlife, just as Scrooge will be if he does not change his ways.

In a wonderful sub-plot, we get to know the Cratchit’s, led by father Bob, a poor, but earnest man. The family has little, but make the most of what they do have, and appreciate the glorious holiday. They prepare a meager Christmas bird, and savor being together as a family. Their youngest, Tiny Tim, is lame, and he lusts over a lavish train set in the local toy shop. The Cratchit’s epitomize goodness and richness of character, and clearly contrast Ebenezer Scrooge.

As Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and Christmas yet to come, he slowly realizes he needs to change his ways before it is too late, and the audience is treated to stories of Scrooge’s youth, as we realize what has made him the miserly old man that he is today.

The clear highlight to this film is its musical numbers that will leave even the most tone deaf humming along in glee. Throughout each sequence we are treated to various numbers. My favorite is “Thank You Very Much”, as first appears during the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come sequence. By this time feeling more sympathetic and appreciative, Scrooge merrily dances and sings along with the townspeople, unaware of the fact that they are celebrating his death and are dancing on his coffin to celebrate the fact that their debts are now free and clear. This catchy tune is a reprise at the end of the film.

Other cheery numbers are “Father Christmas” and “I Like Life”, which perfectly categorize the film as a merry, holiday one, despite the occasional dark nature of the overall film. This is necessary to avoid making Scrooge too bleak.

I also adore the vivid set designs as the gorgeous city of London is perfectly recreated to show the festive Christmas holiday. The film is not high budget, but makes the most of it by using small, yet lavish sets.

Scrooge is a perfect holiday film that contains fantastic tunes, a meaningful story, that comes across on film as celebratory of life, never edging toward contrived or over-saturated in nature. A wonderful holiday feast.

Black Christmas-1974

Black Christmas-1974

Director-Bob Clark

Starring-Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder

Top 100 Films-#36     Top 20 Horror Films-#11

Scott’s Review #309

70057846

Reviewed December 29, 2015

Grade: A

Black Christmas is one of my favorite horror films of all time and, in my opinion, an under-appreciated classic.  Somehow it is just not the first, second, or third film mentioned when most discuss the influential horror films of years past. I make sure to watch it each holiday season. It largely influenced Halloween (another love of mine) from the killer point of view camera shots to the seasonal element. It is quite horrifying in several key scenes, in fact, and I am proud to list it as one of favorite films. Black Christmas is a must-see for fans of the horror genre.

The setting (a cold and snowy Christmas) is perfect and the film is shot quite dark. There are Christmas lights and carolers for a great winter holiday effect. Most of the film takes place at night and the location is primarily inside a huge, rather creepy, sorority house. The ambiance is well thought out.

Several sorority girls, led by boozy Barb (Margot Kidder) and sweet-natured Jess (Olivia Hussey), prepare to depart for the holiday season by having a small farewell Christmas party. Recently, the girls have been harassed by a prank caller spouting nonsensical gibberish on a daily basis. As in true horror fashion, the girls are systematically offed one by one as events turn dire. Two sub-plots which ultimately merge with the central plot include Jess’s pregnancy by suspicious boyfriend Peter, and the search in the park for a missing young girl.

The best part of Black Christmas is that it is an honest, raw film, made on a small budget, that does not include gimmicks or contrivances. It has authenticity. A disturbing film for sure,  one victim being posed in a rocking chair continuously rocking back and forth next to the attic window, while said victim is bound in plastic wrap, holding a doll, mouth and eyes wide, is one of the most chilling in horror film history. The nuances of the killer also scare and the brilliance of this is that his motivations are mysterious and unclear (in large part the success of Michael Meyers as well). We never fully see the killer except his shape and eyes, and that is the brilliance of the film.

The one slight negative to the film is the decision to make the cops appear incompetent. The desk sergeant in particular is a complete dope- one wonders how he got his job- as a sexual joke by one of the girls goes over his head while the other detectives laugh like fools. Why is this necessary? I suppose for comic relief, but isn’t that the purpose of Mrs. Mac, the overweight, boozy sorority mother?  Her constant treasure hunt for hidden booze (the toilet, inside a book) are comical and fun. And her posing and posturing in front of the mirror (she is a very frumpy, average woman) are a delight and balance the heavy drama.

The conclusion of Black Christmas is vague and fantastic and works very well. Due, once again, to the police errors, the final victims fate is left unclear as we see her in a vulnerable state, unaware that the killer is looming nearby. We only hear a ringing phone and wonder what happens next.

My admiration for Black Christmas only grows upon each viewing as I am once again compelled, noticing more and more ingenious nuances to the film. Can’t wait until next Christmas to watch it again.