Meg Shone But Real Star Was On Sidelines

Some are surprised by the fact but some guys like movies that are fun and romantic more than ones which feature a lot of things blowin’ up. I’m one of those guys, so I don’t mind when my sweetie wants to snuggle up for the evening and put on a classic Romcom movie. Now there were some goofily fun ones made in the ’50s and her beloved Jane Austen wrote works which had the romance if not the comedy part of the equation, some of which have been made into perfectly acceptable period movies. But for me, you can’t do any better in that genre of film than the trio of late-20th Century smashes from Nora Ephron : “When Harry Met Sally”, “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.” All three had complicated romances, and all three had Meg Ryan as the female lead. Not a bad formula at all.

So I quite enjoyed reading the book I’ll Have What She’s Having, loosely a biography of writer and director Ephron, but more specifically an in depth look at those three movies and how they came about. The Erin Carlson book looks at Nora’s upbringing and her turbulent marriage to Watergate reporter (made heroic in the book and movie All the President’s Men) Carl Bernstein, which itself resulted in the movie Heartburn, and ends by filling us in a little on Ephron’s life after the three movies mentioned as well as those of the main stars. Still the bulk of the book is on the works Carlson says “saved the romantic comedy.”

Whether or not it did that, Nora certainly raised the bar for the type of film and made Ms. Ryan into America’s sweetheart. Whether coincidentally or not, Ryan probably looks the best in the book, generally as nice to be around and as bright as her movie characters. Tom Hanks also comes out looking good, a little reluctant to do so many romance movies but good to everyone on set and a great actor. Billy Crystal and Rob Reiner are seen in fine light… really the only featured person (besides the ever-philandering Bernstein) who isn’t shown to be a joy to be near was Ephron herself. Ephron is depicted as prickly, short-tempered and rather close-minded. However, that might be what made her a great movie-maker. She was also obsessively attentive to detail and had a great sense of dialog and movie pacing. Reading the book, one comes to expect none of the three movies would have amounted to much had it not been for Nora’s vision for them and insistence on certain actors being cast and scenes being shot.

Fans of the three movies will be interested in a lot of the trivia that resulted in them being like they were. An entire storyline cut out of You’ve Got Mail to keep it to under two and a half hours. The iconic “baby fish mouth” in When Harry Met Sally being adlibbed by Bruno Kirby. And of course, the punchline the book got its name from, the classic diner scene in When Harry Met Sally in which prim Sally fakes an orgasm at the table… to Harry’s mortification. Turns out that was Meg’s idea, and Rob Reiner (the director) thought it was brilliant… until he began to sweat when his own mom was brought on set!

However, even if these films aren’t your cup of tea and you prefer ones with a lot of explosions and perhaps heroes in capes, if you’re a fan of Hollywood and films in general, it could be interesting. Carlson details much of the film-making process, and how a so-so script is edited, tweaked and rewritten, sets are searched for and meticulously created, lighting sculpted, the processes of finding the right actor for the roles and much more that would be as applicable to a Marvel adaptation or teen gross-out flick as it would a mature romcom.

A fun and interesting read. I’ll give it 3.5 AOL mailboxes out of five.

Movie Extra 4 – Groundhog Day

For my fourth pick in this movie exercise (run by Hanspostcard at his site), I check off the “Sci-fi/Fantasy” category with one of my all-time favorites. And let me say I’m glad the two genres got lumped together, because frankly, I’m rarely a fan of science fiction. So rise and shine, fantasy lovers because it’s Groundhog Day!

For the unitiated, Groundhog Day was the 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray celebrating – or perhaps mocking – the beloved February 2nd Pennsylvania tradition of seeing if the groundhog (Punxsutawney Phil) will see his shadow, and thereby prognosticating if spring will come early. Or as the star of the movie would put it, “one of the times when television really fails to capture the true excitement of watching a large squirrel predicting the weather.” In a nutshell, Murray, the master of deadpan comedy in that era, plays another Phil, Phil Connors, a cynical Pittsburgh TV weatherman. He’s assigned to cover the Groundhog event, with his producer Rita (played by Andie McDowell) and a station cameraman, the goofy and slightly dim Larry (Chris Elliott, at the time star of TV sitcom Get A Life). Connors hates the event, hates the small town and wants nothing more than to hightail it out back to the city. But, a snowstorm he didn’t see coming keeps him in town for the day. Then, through unknown black magic (hence the “fantasy” designation) he ends up trapped in Punxsutawney, reliving the same day over and over and over again. So well-known is the plot that “groundhog day” has become well-known as a euphemism for boring states of affairs where nothing ever changes. It was based on Danny Rubin’s first screenplay (he’d win a BAFTA Award for it) which was tweaked by SCTV-alumni Harold Ramis, which doubtless explains some of the ridiculous but hilarious comic bits.

Of course, Phil goes through all sorts of reactions to his recurring day – disbelief, anger, conniving manipulation, conceit (he tells Rita at one point “I am a god,” to which she expresses skepticism so he clarifies “Iam A god, I’m not THE God. I don’t think…”), industriousness (why not learn to play piano or ice sculpt with a chainsaw if you have all the time in the world?) and finally a mature realization of what a gift he has been given. He can do almost infinite good since he has the time and the knowledge of what will happen that day. If he knows bad outcomes, he can work on changing them for the better. The maturing weatherman falls in love and finally, by losing himself, or his ego at least, he finally finds fulfillment and happiness. He also learns that planning for the unknown only takes you away from being happy in the moment. No wonder entire books have been written about the philosophy behind the movie.

Surprisingly, Ramis and Rubin say they didn’t intend to write anything more than “ a good heartfelt, entertaining story.” University courses and religious sermons alike have since been dedicated to the philosophy behind the movie, which most curiously of all was apparently an aspect of the film the normally goofy Murray was especially anxious to play up. Murray’s said that the film speaks to him because it deals with people being afraid to change and “having the strength and knowledge to make a change when faced with the opportunity to repeat (or right) previous mistakes.”

Learning, evolving… Groundhog Day is right there with A Christmas Carol as a classic overnight bad-to-good redemption tale. Which is part of why it was brilliant and still resonates even as the cars and technologies seen in it seem increasingly outdated. But there’s the other part as well. It’s also there with other Murray classics like Ghostbusters as a simple comedy. Groundhog Day works because it’s just flat out funny. We fall on the floor laughing as we’re subtly being preached to. No matter how many times I see it, I still laugh at Phil’s changing reactions to Ned (his insurance-selling old schoolmate), or him lazily answering every question on Jeopardy to the amazement of everyone around him. Not to mention Phil the Groundhog driving… “don’t drive angry!”

Mindless comic fun that actually has an alter-ego as a remarkably deep philisophical statement on the meaning of life. Either way, Groundhog Day works for me. I give it a rare five out of five woodchucks!

Movie Extra 3 – Catch Me If You Can

For my third movie pick in Hanspostcard’s Movie Event, I check off the “Crime” or “Film noir” category with a 2002 box office biggie that I only saw for the first time this past holiday season – Catch Me If You Can.

The names on the poster let you expect it was going to be fairly decent. It’s a Steven Spielberg film starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Tom Hanks (with the likes of Martin Sheen, Christopher Walken and the lovely Jennifer Garner having supporting roles.) I’m fairly indifferent to young Leo (though he did play the lead role very well in this) but like most of the world, I tend to love anything Hanks puts his hand to, and this was no exception.

It’s a cool visual retro trip and it’s a cop buddy story with a twist. That being that the cop’s buddy is the criminal he’s pursuing. Interesting, no? However, much like my previous two movie reviews in this project (Moneyball, Loving Vincent), the thing that made this one a standout to me is that its based on a real-life story. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, but to me, much more interesting usually. And how strange this story is. The next couple of paragraphs will contain spoilers revealing the plot, so skip over them if I was in fact not the very last person in the country to have seen the movie and you think you might like to still.

Catch Me If You Can is the story of one Frank Abagnale, Jr., a bright, ambitious and slightly devious NewYork teenager. Very bright and very ambitious. He sees his dad struggling to keep his business afloat and keep the taxman at bay, so to speak and young Jr. aspires to a ritzier, easier life than that. He also sees his dad using his charms on various women he encounters to get things done and young Frank decides that’s one bit of his family heirloom he can fully appreciate and use himself. So with …ahem… “moxy”…aplenty, he sets out to portray himself as a young pilot for the then hippest airline, Pan Am. He manages to scoop free flights to anywhere he wants after scoring himself a uniform with that Abagnale charm. Soon he figures out to forge Pan Am paycheques, and how to cash them without detection. Before long he’s made himself over two million bucks as an imaginary pilot and lived the playboy lifestyle of a suave young flyboy. Eventually he tires of that and meets a nice girl who happens to be an Atlanta nurse. Voila! He’s now a doctor at her hospital. Amazingly he manages to fool the other staff and not kill anybody by watching medical shows on TV for terminology and quickly figuring out what every good leader knows – how to delegate his work!

In turn he wants to marry, and again amazingly, her dad is taken in by him and gives him a job as a lawyer in the district attorney’s office. This time, he actually does the work and passes the bar. Needless to say, after awhile, Pan Am became aware of the fraud happening across the land and call in the FBI. In particular, an agent called Hanratty, played by Hanks. Hanratty even manages to corner Frank in an apartment one time…but the youngster cons his way out of it.

However, for all the money, cars and girls, the conman finds little peace. Eventually he has to flee to Europe to avoid the feds, where he begins a similar scheme. He gets lonely and, not having much contact with or much of a tie to his own dad, turns to the one friendly-ish father figure in his life – Hanratty. He periodically calls the lawman, at first to taunt him, but after awhile just to chat and share stories. In time Frank gets caught, does time in European jail before Hanratty gets him released to American custody. After an escape or two and recapture, he does some hard time with visits from… the guy who tracked him down.

Hanratty isn’t dumb either. He sees in the young lad an amazing intelligence and some sense of decency, so against the advise of his agency, he manages to have the con sprung from prison… to work for the FBI. He soon becomes their top guy for tracking down other forgers, who are usually far less skilful than he had been.

In real life, Abagnale said that he thought Spielberg was the only movie-maker worthy of telling the story. And while Spielberg added a few elements to make the crazy story even more Hollywood (for example, in the movie, he’s captured at his mom’s house after meeting his new half-sister. In real life, she never had more kids nor remarried after divorcing his dad, and he was caught on the run in Quebec… the Mounties always get their man!) , for the most part the unbelievable film was accurate. The reformed con still advises the FBI on fraud cases and has his own consulting agency to help businesses protect themselves from… the next Frank Abagnale.

The movie looks good, with an eye to detail for the visually impressive early-’60s fashion, furniture and cars. At the end, I loved it because it did two things not many films can do for me. First, it’s long (almost 2 and a half hours) but never drags. There’s never a point where I found myself looking at my watch thinking “how much longer does this go?” Second, the characters are well-fleshed out and it pulls off the truly rare feat of having me rooting simultaneously both for the criminal and the cop. So the resolution is quite satisfying. As is the film itself.

I’d give it 3.5 jumbo jets out of 5…but then Frank would probably come along and skilfully change that number to 4. And I wouldn’t care too much.

Movie Extra 2 : Loving Vincent

For my second pick in this movie bonanza (being run at SlicetheLife), I take care of the “Historic/Biography” category with a visual stunner – 2017’s Loving Vincent.

Loving Vincent flew somewhat under the radar upon its release, rather like its subject did in his lifetime. It’s a look at the life and death of Vincent Van Gogh… but it’s also a whole lot more than that. Amazingly, we learn the great painted over 800 canvasses in his final eight years…but sold only one while alive.

The movie was the brainchild of Polish artist Doroto Kobiela, and is a collaborative project of Polish and British film companies. While interesting enough as a story, the thing that makes it memorable and outstanding was the method of making it. It is billed as the “first fully painted animated feature film.” Indeed, although using rotoscoping (which as I understand it is the method of using live action film and drawing over it for added realism), the movie is finished in the only way fitting a great painter. Its 95 minutes are comprised by 65 000 or more oil paintings! A staff of 125 professional painters created the movie by painting every scene in a style reminiscent of the great post-impressionist… so much so that we actually see some of his most famous works come to life – “”Wheat Field With Crows,” “Portrait of a Postman”, and of course “Starry Night.” The result is like a very high-end graphic novel come to life. To accentuate the story, the “present time” bits are in vibrant color while most of the flashback bits are told in a more photographic-looking B&W.

The story itself is essentially a bio of the last year or two of Van Gogh’s life. The artist was besides a painter, a prolific letter-writer. After his death, the local postmaster, a friend of his, finds a last letter Van Gogh had written to his brother, and he sends his son on a journey to deliver it in person. The son, Armand, (voiced by Douglas Booth), starts out grudgingly, thinking Vincent an insignificant crazy man… something mirrored unfortunately by the artist’s self-perception. “”What am I in the eyes of most people – a non-entity, an eccentric or an unpleasant person…in short the lowest of the low,” he’d written before adding “I should one day show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody has in his heart.”

Armand finds he can’t deliver it to Van Gogh’s brother Theo, but sets out to find a person who would care about it, meeting with those who knew him, loved him, even despised him along the way including the innkeeper where he’d spent his last months and the doctor who treated him. As the miles go by, the courier’s opinion of Van Gogh improves and in the end he not only finds himself an admirer but openly skeptical of the report that Van Gogh had commit suicide.

The film, which its producers described as “without a doubt, the slowest form of film-making ever devised in 120 years” had a budget of about $5.5 million, and made it back easily at the box office although it was far from a blockbuster. Critics tended to like it, with it winning the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival award for best movie and being nominated for the Best Animated Movie Academy Award (which it lost to Coco.) Rotten Tomatoes call it “a dazzling visual achievement” and the only real complaints about it anywhere were that the visuals outdid the story somewhat. Indeed, Loving Vincent might be a bit of “style over substance” but since it still told a compelling story and the style was so good, its an entirely forgiveable shortfall.

In short, Loving Vincent is what you wished Art History lessons were like in high school. Once you see it, you’ll never feel indifferent again when you hear Don McLean sing “Starry, starry night…”

I saw it recently on Hulu, although you can find it in hard copy too if you look around.

I give it 4 swirly stars out of 5.

Movie Extra 1 – Moneyball

Thanks to Hanspostcard for inviting me to be a part of this movie bonanza! I was most pleased to take part in a similar event Slicethelife ran last summer and fall, which dealt with record albums.

Now while that one was easy to me – I don’t want to be a big braggard, but I have been a pretty serious music fan since I was a child and think I’m probably a bit more knowledgeable about artists and their works than a casual radio listener – this one could be a little bit of a challenge. I’m no Siskel or Ebert or Hollywood insider. But, like most people I watch movies and know what I like and what I don’t. So I don’t start out by claiming my list will be the ultimate list of the ten or twelve finest films ever created. Instead, I’m just going to fill you in on a movie per category that appeals to me and that has stood up to repeated viewings for me.

As Hans has noted by now, he’s chosen a dozen genres or types of movies for us to pick from (one per category), and I decided to start with “Sports”. There was no hidden meaning in it being the first pick, by the way. I’m not trying to count down from my most favorite to least or vice versa. This one just came to mind since I watched it recently and it’s a great representative of the category.

Anyhow, I am a bit biased because I am a huge baseball fan (some of you might even read my MLB blog), but I always feel like there are more good movies about baseball than all the other major American sports combined. Perhaps because it’s a part of the nation’s heritage and the “national pastime”. But there’ve been a lot of good ones through the past three or four decades . Many of them look at the struggles of individual players, real (The Rookie, 42) or made up (Bull Durham), others look at historical teams (A League of their Own, Eight Men Out.) The one I chose was closer to the latter. So my first movie pick is – Moneyball. The 2011 movie was based, loosely, on the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, and starred Brad Pitt (who was not a bad fit for Billy Beane, but was quite possibly picked to help sell the sports flick to female viewers).

In short, the movie follows the 2002 Oakland A’s, a team coming off a great season but forced to try and fill holes in their roster. They had several big stars leave and a small budget to work with, posing rather a dilemma. Oakland is located in a large, prosperous metro area, but have the misfortune of being across the bay from the more popular San Francisco Giants and their better stadium. Crowds and money are usually scarce for them compared to most other teams. So their General Manager, Billy Beane, has the task of trying to stay competitive without having enough money to replace his departed stars with equal-quality players. Which is where it gets interesting.

Beane knows he can’t outspend big market teams like New York or Boston, so he needs to be smarter than them. He brings in a young computer nerd to be his assistant and starts to buy into the theories of Bill James, a bean factory security guard who happens to have a mind for numbers and stats. James has come up with brand new statistics that he thinks better show which players are great, average or need dumping. One very basic example the film mentions is that walks are not counted in many “conventional” stats like batting average. But a player who walks a lot gets on base and has a lot of chances to score runs…which win games. Few teams at that point paid much attention to that; Beane does.

Now this sounds rather esoteric and probably dry as fun as watching paint dry to non-fans. That’s where the brilliance of screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zuillian come in. They were able to find the human part of the story, the drama, which in turn makes it into a film on a larger scale anyone can relate to – a tale of underdogs fighting jerks, a tale of perseverance paying off.

Beane’s approach rubs many in the team and its organization the wrong way. He has conflicts with old scouts who refuse to buy into stats, relying on their guts instead (in one of the more humorous bits, a scout tells Beane a young player isn’t worth having because his girlfriend is ugly. “Shows he lacks confidence,” the scout declares). They hate the young nerd, Peter, played well by Jonah Hill, who comes in in a tie with a computer spouting numbers that go over the oldtimers heads. Beane has to choose who to believe, and takes a chance on several underdog players dismissed by other clubs based on his assistant’s numerical take. And then there’s the bench coach, a surly, old veteran, Art Howe, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose initial response is to simply scoff and refuse to obey his boss’ (Beane) instructions.

Needless to say, Beane’s experiment seems ill-fated at first, but then the team suddenly “gels” and goes on a historic winning streak. In the end, the A’s make the playoffs, he’s validated and ends up changing the nature of the game. Within three or four years, most teams would copy Beane’s approach.

The movie was in general accurate, but the true baseball fan will find a few errors in it as well as oversights. For instance, while the film focuses on the success of his “pet” players, washed up or under-rated types like Scott Hatteburg and Dave Justice, it ignores a solid core of established stars that had stayed on from the 2001 team, like Miguel Tejada, who won the league’s Most Valuable Player award that year. This doesn’t diminish the overall effect and appreciation of the film though.

A classic David vs Goliath battle, with a likeable hero and a goofy but equally likeable sidekick. It’s a film for everyone, that shows sports is a lot more than just what goes on on the field. Moneyball was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Pitt and Best Supporting Actor for Hill.

I give it four fastballs out of five!

No Freaks, No Economics, Just Good Reading

So an update on my year’s reading… not long ago I finished reading the famous (some might say “infamous”) Freakonomics, a 2005 non-fiction work by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Actually, I should say “re-reading” as I read it many years ago when it was on the Current Releases shelf at a library many miles and years away from here now. It was a pleasant reunion for me.

The first thing you should know about Freakonomics is that despite the title, it has very little to do with economics as we know it. In fact, that has been one of the criticisms of the book by the more scholarly types. Noted economist Ariel Rubinstein for instance says “economists like Levitt have swaggered off into other fields” and the book’s “connections to economics, none.” The second thing you should know about it is that this fact makes it eminently readable! The third thing you need to know about the book with the orange-inside-an-apple cover is that it was wildly popular and influential. According to Publisher’s Weekly it was the 9th best-seller of 2005 and #12 again in ’06. It’s sold over 4 million paper copies to date, which if books were rewarded like records, would surely make it multi-platinum.

The fourth thing you need to know is that if you’re interested and haven’t picked up a copy before, skip the next couple of paragraphs which have spoilers!

Levitt, the economist by trade, and Dubner and newspaper journalist combined to put out a book of interesting anecdotes and studies which make us challenge some of our preconceived notions and ways of looking at things. Not unlike Malcolm Gladwell and his books, which I’ve mentioned are big favorites of mine. They show evidence that sumo wrestlers, despite the Japanese emphasis on honor and integrity, frequently “throw” matches to help out friends within the sport, and that teachers will cheat as readily as their students if the kids test scores can influence their own job appraisals. A fast-moving and wide-ranging book, it touches on subjects as disparate as the downfall of the Ku Klux Klan and if Black people name their kids differently than other parts of society, as well as if so what effect that has,  to the structural organization of a drug-dealing street gang. Among the surprising findings there were that at least one large gang they studied had a college-educated, peace-loving, overpaid boss, a board of directors and a ton of poorly-educated, subsistence-wage street operatives who flummuxed the bosses by going rogue and shooting people.

The most controversial , and thus memorable, finding of theirs was that Roe Vs Wade – i.e., easy access to abortion – had more impact on reducing murder and violent crime rates than the effects of putting more police on the streets, longer jail sentences for criminals and a booming economy combined. Their suggestion is that with abortion legal, the majority of women who took advantage of it were likely to be single, poor, young and quite probably dealing with substance abuse issues which would have made them unfit parents and created unsuitable households for kids, who in turn would have a greater probability of turning into criminals when they hit their teen years. Not something popular among a good swath of the public, but an item worthy of revisiting in these times when numerous states are doing their best to outlaw abortion once more – and an interesting example of how the apparently differing objectives of hard-core right wing law and order types may actually align with those of the opposite, left-wing liberal segment of the land.

I loved the book, and highly recommend it to anyone wanting to be surprised, or to simply open their minds to new ways of looking at things.

Part two of the story though, is that I then watched the documentary movie of the same name. I found the DVD Freakonomics in a dollar store discount bin. There was probably a reason it was there. The big problem with Freakonomics, the movie, is that if you’ve read the book, it’s going to be… well, boring. And if you haven’t read the book, a movie with a fruit on the cover and a tie-in to economics isn’t likely to catch your attention.

The movie highlights some of the book’s sections, with the authors on screen a fair bit of the time. Both Levitt and Dubner are intelligent and seem nice enough, but neither has that special something that make them rivoting personalities on screen. And the little doodle cartoons and interviews they use to illustrate their points seldom do much to elevate the film. They scan quickly over a lot of material from the book, while spending too much time on the Sumo issue and adding only one new “chapter”, a look at trying to bribe kids to do better in school, which also drags and leaves the question unanswered anyway!

In short – Freakonomics book good, movie not so good and neither has much to do with economics. Which is fine with me, since about all I can really remember from university economics 101 is supply and demand. Which would tell us that with demand for cable TV dropping and supply of competitive options (Roku, streaming services, Netflix etc) increasing, prices should drop. Have you checked your cable bill lately?

So I suggest to Mr. Rubinstein, no the book has nothing to do with economics. But maybe economists should read it anyway, since it guides one to look at the world differently!

Christmas Movies Are Like… Beer?

It’s as predictable as the car blocking traffic in the mall parking lot waiting for the perfect spot to open up or the fruitcake under the tree from Aunt Madge – it’s the most wonderful time of the year for people to get hot under the collar debating movies. Or in particular, the best Christmas movies. Every year we seem to be inundated with a new horde of lists telling us what the “best” holiday movies are; every year people argue over said lists endlessly at the work water cooler and family dinners. 

A perfunctory google search quickly offered up Esquire magazine’s top 40 and Rotten Tomatoes list of the best 50. Each had its own quirks and things to get tongues wagging. Both for instance, included the 1974 slasher-horror flick Black Christmas (#38 on Rotten Tomatoes, #19 over at Esquire). Both had more than one version of “A Christmas Carol” – four on Rotten Tomatoes, which picked the 1951 Alistair Sim one as “the definitive”, and three on Esquire which agreed the ’51 B&W take on it is “still the finest adaptation of Charles Dickens’ legendary tale… yet rated The Muppet Christmas Carol higher. If only director Brian Hurst had thought to have Ebenezer Scrooge visited by Fozzie Bear in the night.

Both lists did agree on the top pick. Rotten Tomatoes call it “the holiday classic to define all holiday classics.” Esquire suggest “few films define Christmas like” it. Yet, surprisingly, when It’s A Wonderful Life came out in 1946, fans were indifferent to the now-classic Frank Capra ode to friendship and loyalty.

It’s hard to argue with the choice…particularly if like me, your sweetie’s hung a framed movie poster of it in the bedroom. But to me, asking my favorite Christmas movie is like asking me to pick a favorite color. Well, I like teal blue tones, but not if we’re talking about cuts of meat. Actually, it might be more akin to asking me what my favorite beer is. Sure I might prefer Blue Moon or Sam Adams to Bud Lite, but the answer is still “whichever is cold and in the fridge”! The favorite Christmas movie is often the one that we’re watching in the moment. The one that brings the whole family together sharing old memories and creating new ones.

That said, to me a season wouldn’t feel like Christmas without seeing most, if not all of the following ones from the Silver Screen and small screen: A Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Love Actually and A Christmas Story.

The Grinch – the ’60s animated TV version, true to Dr. Seuss’ words and other-wordly visuals- was a family tradition for me growing up and even as I got to be reading adult novels and reference books, was a reminder of how much those Seuss books entertained me and made me want to read on my own. I still feel curiously happy when walking past a rack with hardcovers of it, Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop and the like. Subconsciously I guess it harkens me back to one of the happy times in my young childhood; consciously it pleases me to know that kids today are still learning to love reading and words through his rhymes just like I did.

I’ve seen many good adaptations of A Christmas Carol, but I go with the lists I mentioned in adhering to the ’51 version as the definitive one. Sure it’s B&W, the sound a little tinny and the special effects, Scrooge flying through the ghost-ridden air and so on, are cheesy but its tough to beat the charm of Sim as the changed man on Christmas morning or not to break out laughing at the frightened maid who encounters a freak of nature – a singing, cheerful Ebenezer Scrooge! Of course, the real reason it perhaps is my pick of the many is that it was for years a Christmas Eve tradition for my Mom and I to watch it. It would be quite a letdown if no station was running it!

It’s A Wonderful Life is wonderful, plain and simple. It never hurts to be reminded of how we impact those around us more than we know, or how doing the right thing will get noticed and eventually be returned to you. I don’t think I saw it until I was in my 20s, but now not a year goes by without watching it with loved ones.

Love Actually is a bit of a variation. I first saw it at a local library mid-summer, during a thunderstorm. And of course that’s not all together unreasonable. It’s more of a romcom than straight ahead Christmas flick; it just happens to revolve around all those intertwined stories happening at Yule time. Since it came out 15 years back, there’ve been a slew of movies which have imitated its entanglement of storylines, but none I’ve seen do it as well. As a music fan, I’ll forgive it for making Mariah Carey richer still by re-popularizing “All I Want For Christmas Is You” because, hey has there ever been a cuter kid than little Sam playing drums watching the love of his life, 12 year-old Joanna, belt it out on stage at the school pagent? Besides, it makes up for that “digression” with the knowing cynicism of Billie Mack and his laughably honest assessment of his “crass” Christmas single as being crap! There are a hundred things that make me laugh every time I see it, from the kids’ dismayed “We hate uncle Jamie!” when he takes off from the house without dropping off presents to the intentional juxtapositioning of the shy, bland conversation of John and Judy with the X-rated sex scene they’re supposed to be filming. Speaking of, it’s a classic you really want to have the DVD of… TV is prone to cut out their whole storyline and edit some other parts so much as to make it almost unrecognizable.

A Christmas Story likewise makes me laugh… the father’s joy at the Leg Lamp, his simmering hatred for the Bumpkuses’ hounds , the pink bunny pyjamas and of course the greatest Bad Santa ever… they never get old. Naysayers who’ve popped up this season complaining that it’s not politically correct (being nostalgic for a time when women stayed at home and cooked, making fun of people with accents, a kid who’s only interested in the gifts part of Christmas all rub them the wrong way ) miss the point, and maybe a funny bone. It’s funny because it’s nostalgic and relatable for so many of us. Like Rotten Tomatoes (ranking it #13) it’s “warmly nostalgic and darkly humorous.”

But back to the beer analogy. The one on hand is often the best one. As time goes by and my life changes, my personal list shifts too. I first saw the Family Stone (picked by Esquire as their 30th best) about three Christmas’ back. It was already a favorite of my sweetie. So seeing it with her has made it special to me now, and a newcomer to our joint “must see” list. That one by the way, was surprisingly under the radar for one with as Esquire term it, an “all star cast” headed by the likes of Rachel MacAdams, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson and Diane Keaton. It blends humor and sorrow rather superbly studying one dysfunctional family”s – is there any other kind?- holiday. Likewise, last weekend we all watched Elf, a bigtime fave and annual tradition for her and her kiddo, which has elevated its status on my personal list considerably.

Some movies for you to consider over the next couple of weeks… but more importantly, a call for you to look back on your own happy holidays of years gone by and make your own, personal and meaningful list. Time flies by, so remember to take a moment or two to live in the present,not just the presents this December. And maybe grab me a beer if you’re going to the fridge!

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