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Sunday, December 23, 2018

Waldo's Top 5 Christmas Movies

Days of rattling about the house- yours or someone else's- loom, stuck with people you may or may not like, or who may or may not like you. Football will be on TV all the time.

Happily, we all have extra "devices" now so we can escape the day-long college and NFL couchfests with the guys.

If you need to slink of away for some bracing holiday fare- with just the right notes of black humor and schadenfreude- start looking for these classics in Netflix. You can watch them on your phone, under the covers, like you read with a flashlight in your old room.

The Family Stone (2005)

Roger Ebert wrote,
The oldest son, Everett (Dermot Mulroney) is bringing home his fiancee Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) to meet the family. Meredith is not going to be an easy fit. She's aggressive, uptight, hyper-sensitive and dresses like someone who has never been undressed.
Waiting in the hometown are Everett's family: His mom Sybil (Diane Keaton), his dad Kelly (Craig T. Nelson), his brother Ben (Luke Wilson), his gay and deaf brother Thad (Ty Giordano), and his kid sister Amy (Rachel McAdams). We will also meet Thad's African-American partner, Patrick (Brian White), and their adopted son.
So, OK, if the Stones are OK with Patrick, they're strong on empathy and acceptance. Therefore, if they don't like Meredith, it is because she is not to be liked. And that does seem to be the case, because (1) it is instantly obvious to her mother Sybil that this is the wrong woman for her son Everett, and (2) poor Meredith is one of those perfectionists who in their rigid compulsion to do the right thing always succeed in doing the wrong one.
Sir Michael Tippett, who wrote operas, said, "There is only one comic plot: the unexpected hindrances to an eventual marriage." While this definition does not encompass "A Night at the Opera" or "Babe: Pig in the City," there is much truth in it. In Meredith's case, she is her own greatest hindrance to marriage, and the more she realizes that, the deeper the hole she digs.
The screenplay by director Thomas Bezucha establishes subplots around this central fact. We learn that Everett is drawn to Meredith partly because he believes that to be successful in business, he should be more like her and less like he really is. We learn that Ben, the Luke Wilson character, thinks of himself as a wild and crazy guy. We meet Meredith's sister Julie (Claire Danes), who flies in to rescue her sister and turns into a second fly in the same ointment. Julie is as relaxed and natural as Meredith is emotionally constipated.
And then, in ways I will not reveal, it turns out there is another truth Sir Michael might have observed: Opposites attract.
"The Family Stone" is silly at times, leaning toward the screwball tradition of everyone racing around the house at the same time in a panic fueled by serial misunderstandings. There is also a thoughtful side, involving the long and loving marriage of Sybil and Kelly. Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson create touching characters in the middle of comic chaos. They have a scene together as true and intimate in its way as a scene involving a long-married couple can be. It doesn't involve a lot of dialogue, and doesn't need to, because it obviously draws on a lot of history.
There is an emerging genre of movies about family reunions at holiday time. It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that most reunions at Christmas end happily, while most reunions at Thanksgiving end sadly. That's odd, because the way things shake down in the world of fragmented families, we tend to spend Thanksgiving with those we choose, and Christmas with those we must. If those two lists are identical in your life, your holidays must all be joyous, or all not.
What is always true is that the holiday itself imposes Aristotle's unities of time and place upon the plot. Most of the action takes place in the house or on the way and from it, and whatever happens will have to happen before everybody heads back to the airport. That creates an artificial deadline that makes everything seem more urgent and requires that the truth be told or love declared right here and now, or not at all...
Scrooged (1988)

A reimagination of the Dickens tale, set in a Manhattan television network preparing for a live broadcast of the story in all its modern TV excess, from dancing girls to John Houseman as the host hawking his accent for another paycheck, and Buddy Hackett as Scrooge.

But that is as nothing compared to Frank Cross, the soulless network president, who gets it from the three spirits, and gets it but good. A brilliant supporting cast rounds out the carnage.

Brazil (1985)

One of the fever dreams of Monty Pythonist Terry Gilliam, Brazil did poorly when it came out. Roger Ebert was baffled:
While Orwell's lean prose was translated last year into an equally lean and dour film, "Brazil" seems almost like a throwback to the psychedelic 1960s, to an anarchic vision in which the best way to improve things is to blow them up.
The other difference between the two worlds - Orwell's and the one created here by director and co-writer Terry Gilliam - is that Gilliam apparently has had no financial restraints. Although "Brazil" has had a checkered history since it was made (for a long time, Universal Pictures seemed unwilling to release it), there was a lot of money available to make it. The movie is awash in elaborate special effects, sensational sets, apocalyptic scenes of destruction and a general lack of discipline. It's as if Gilliam sat down and wrote out all of his fantasies, heedless of production difficulties, and then they were filmed - this time, heedless of sense.
The movie is very hard to follow. I have seen it twice, and am still not sure exactly who all the characters are, or how they fit.
Perhaps it is not supposed to be clear; perhaps the movie's air of confusion is part of its paranoid vision. There are individual moments that create sharp images (shock troops drilling through a ceiling, De Niro wrestling with the almost obscene wiring and tubing inside a wall, the movie's obsession with bizarre duct work), but there seems to be no sure hand at the controls.
The best scene in the movie is one of the simplest, as Sam moves into half an office and finds himself engaged in a tug-of-war over his desk with the man through the wall. I was reminded of a Chaplin film, "Modern Times," and reminded, too, that in Chaplin economy and simplicity were virtues, not the enemy.
Now, it runs like the CBS Evening News, only with music. The government constantly demands, "WHO CAN YOU TRUST?" The 1% are only occasionally bothered by the terrorists, and one matron has so many facelifts she finally dissolves into an overripe fruit salad. It is the perfect Trump holiday film.

A Christmas Carol (1984)

Yes, there are versions for every taste, and some will cling to the ancient Alastair Sim version till the last acetate cel crumbles, but for my money George C. Scott nailed Ebenezer Scrooge in Clive Donner's elegant period production.

Scott's movie persona was bluff and bluster and, often, meanness. He pulls out the stops here, a man used to being in control who finds himself utterly losing it. Scott's portrayal of Scrooge shown his future is an anguished wail by a man at the abyss. His conversion is all the more real for it.

Christmas in Connecticut (1944)

Everything about Elizabeth Lane- the Martha Stewart of the golden age of magazines- is a fake. For a lifestyle goddess with a beautiful farm, cow, child, and husband, she lives in a New York City walk-up, can't cook, and is single. And she's played by Barbara Stanwyck.

That's enough plot to launch a classic B movie slamming-door farce: the sort that, once in a while, emerged a classic. The studio system's binders full of character actors is rarely seen to work so well, with turns by Una O'Connor, Sidney Greenstreet, S.Z. Sakall, Reginald Gardner, and more.

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