Top 10 Christmas Movies #6: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Pmpw-38615oor Clark Griswold.  All he wanted was the perfect good time, old fashioned family Christmas.  The lights, the tree, the carols, sledding, the perfect Christmas dinner, and of course that big Christmas bonus.

What he got was frustration, a squirrel infested Christmas tree, Cousin Eddie, a cat food jello mold, a SWAT team invasion, and the Jelly of the Month club.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation takes all of the elements folks come to dread about the Christmas season and puts them on steroids.  Chevy Chase’s well-intentioned family man Clark Griswold does his best to give his family a Christmas to remember.  It certainly will be, but for all the wrong reasons.  His wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and kids, Rusty (Johnny Galecki) and Audrey (Juliette Lewis) do their best to stay encouraging as the wheels start to come off the closer the big day gets and the house fills up with more cantankerous family members than it was made to handle.  Coupled with the realization that big Christmas bonus may not be coming, and thus leaving him unable to pay for the big gift he had planned and paid for, by Christmas Eve, Clark is pushed to the brink of holiday insanity.  The arrival of the chronically uncouth Cousin Eddie (chronically tax-evading Randy Quaid) didn’t help.

Another Chicago-based holiday movie with John Hughes’ fingerprints on it (he wrote this one), Christmas Vacation is the holiday nightmare that seems far fetched, and yet all too real.  Fortunately for me, my good time, old fashioned family Christmas’ all turned out pretty well.  But it isn’t hard to see how bringing so much family under one roof at one time during what should be a festive but is often stressful season, can go horribly awry.

As is usually the case in Hughes’ movies, despite the chaos endured, when it gets down to it, with your family by your side, things have a way of working out.  Even if you do have to live in constant fear of being accosted by a Mississippi leg hound.

Top 10 Christmas Movies #7: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Note:  Here’s Jeff’s take on #7.  Enjoy!

The only reason this movie is not higher on our list is because it is not a Christmas movie. It is a Thanksgiving movie and it is maybe one of the two or three funniest movies I have ever seen.Written and directed by John Hughes (who was involved in two other movies on this list and the ’94 version of Miracle on 34th Street) it stars two of the all time great comedic actors, Steve Martin and John Candy.  It is a shame that this team never collaborated again because when they did, it resulted in pure gold.

Martin plays Neal Page, a straight laced, sort of uptight ad executive who is on business in New York City. All he wants is to get home to his family in Chicago in time for Thanksgiving. His path crosses with Del Griffith, played by Candy, a friendly but uncouth shower curtain ring salesman. When bad weather strands them in Wichita this unlikely pair teams up to try and make it back to Chicago in time for Neal to get his turkey. Thus begins the road trip from hell.

Neal and Del find themselves facing every imaginable obstacle on their journey: robbery, biting  dogs, missing rental cars, the worst imaginable wrong turn, exploding cars, and uncomfortably affectionate bus mates just to name just a few. When you add the oil and water quality of their personalities to these foibles you get as many laugh out loud moments as I can remember having in any movie. (As I write this I have been giggling just thinking about some of them)

What makes this movie stand out though is that with the laughs comes real heart. Neal may be uptight but he loves his family. Del is obnoxious but he possesses more than meets the eye behind his goofy mustache.  The scene below is one of my favorites. Forced to share not just a motel room but also a bed Neal is driven to the breaking point by Del’s nighttime routine. He delivers a rant for the ages. It’s hilarious, but watch as Hughes with his writing and Candy with his acting take this from being simply a funny tantrum to a truly poignant moment.

This scene is followed up with one of the biggest laughs ever in a movie. I won’t spoil it here but after you see it the words “Those aren’t pillows!” will be forever burned into your mind.

This movie has become a part of my Thanksgiving routine. It gets the holiday movie viewing off to a fantastic start. (One warning: if you watch an unedited version of this movie on DVD or by streaming, it it does contain strong language. In one scene Steve Martin uses one particularly profane word 19 times in one minute. This is done for comedic affect and it is pretty funny but I didn’t want anyone to be caught off guard by it).

Top 10 Christmas Movies #8: Holiday Inn

holiday_inn_posterHoliday Inn was released in 1942 and features some classic Irving Berlin holiday (not just Christmas) songs that would pop up in various other movies over the years.  Most notably, it features the first appearance of White Christmas, which would of course be the eponymous title of a movie that may or may not be featured later on this list, and go on to be the best selling song of all time.

Like The Nightmare Before ChristmasHoliday Inn is a musical appropriate for more holidays than just Christmas.  The similarities pretty much end there.  There are surprisingly few clowns with tear-away faces in Holiday Inn.  All told Holiday Inn covers Christmas, New Years Eve, Lincoln’s Birthday, Valentine’s Day, Washington’s Birthday, Easter, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas again, New Year’s Eve again.  Each holiday features a great song and dance number.

Oh, right, the plot.  Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby), Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire), and Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) are a song and dance trio at the top of their craft.  Fed up with show biz life, Jim convinces Lila to leave the rat race, marry him, and take up the lazy, carefree life of a farmer. Apparently Jim has never seen or heard of a working farm before this proposal.  Spurned by Lila, who opts to marry Ted instead, and discovering farming is anything but lazy or carefree, Jim turns the farm into the Holiday Inn, a venue only open all holidays, giving him the rest of the year to kick up his feet and think of clever Bing Crosbyisms (“take a slug out of the mug”).  Joining him at his new venture is Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds), yes Linda Mason, an aspiring performer and new love interest for Jim.

But before long, in stumbles Ted, drunk and dumped by Lila, on the opening night of Holiday Inn, New Year’s Eve.  In his stupor, Ted trips the light fantastic with Linda to wild approval of the crowd.  But, he’s too fractured to remember her after the fact.  What follows is a festive spate of musical scheming on the part of Ted and his unscrupulous agent Danny Reed (Walter Abel) on the one hand, and Jim on the other, in a battle for Linda’s affections and sway in determining the course of her show biz career.

The performances are great all-around.  I’m not really a dance guy, but somehow Fred Astaire makes it look pretty cool, especially his fireworks tap dance routine (brief snippet in the trailer below).  All the holiday musical numbers are great, and feel more organic and realistic than they might in other musicals.  They don’t just randomly burst into song like in a lot of other old musicals.  They are giving actual performances for the most part, so they seem natural.  There are a couple exceptions of course, but when it’s Bing doing the crooning, who cares?

There is the matter of the black face performance during the Abraham number.  Try to remember is was 1942.

All told, it’s a fun and entertaining movie with great songs, worthy of a yearly viewing and and the number eight spot on this list.

Post Script:

Besides being great on it’s own merits and providing us with the greatest Christmas song ever, Holiday Inn also spawned this amazing (and only?) Bing Crosby remix.  Enjoy.



Top 10 Christmas Movies #9: Miracle on 34th Street

Note:  Here’s the latest offering from You Know What I Mean? for our Top 10 Christmas Movies.

What do you do when the same Christmas movie has been made twice and both are excellent? One option would be to include both in our list. Another option would be to have them face off in a head to head, winner take all death match to determine dominance and therefore inclusion. Based on what I have observed in shopping malls, this seems to be in keeping with the holiday spirit so let’s go with option two.

This first MO34S (as it shall be referred to henceforth) was released in 1947 and stars Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, and Natalie Wood in the essential roles. The second came out in 1994 and correspondingly stars Elizabeth Perkins, Richard Attenborogh, and Mara Wilson. Both follow the same basic plot line. Little Susan Walker has been raised by a single mom (an executive at a New York City department store) to be a realist and therefore does not believe in Santa Claus. Enter the store’s new Santa for the Christmas season
who not only looks and acts the part to degree never seen before but actually believes that he is Santa Claus (he even enters Kris Kringle as his name on his employee information). Kris sets out to convince Susan that he really is Santa Claus culminating in a court battle to determine his true identity.

I like both of these movies but I can only include one. I am going to compare 4 important elements side by side and let that determine which Miracle rises to the top. (Warning, this will contain spoilers)

1. The Santas:
If you want to make a movie about whether or not there really is a Santa Claus you had better have an actor that brings the goods when it comes to that role. As it happens, both versions possess that. In the 1947 MO34S Edmund Gwenn actually won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal. (Apparently Natalie Wood was convinced that he really was Santa Claus until the wrap party.) Richard Attenborogh for his part exudes warmth and charm and hits all the right notes in his performance. He also looks the part. It’s hard to imagine other actors from their respective eras doing a better job than either of these two.
(Edge: Even)

2. The Susans:
MO34S 1947 was Natalie Wood’s first major film role and to be honest it shows. She would grow up to become a big star and respected actress. She gives a fine performance but it’s pretty much one note. Mara Wilson’s acting though, is nuanced. She displays a wide range of emotions, often with just her facial expressions and instantly makes the audience care about what happens to her. Plus she is completely adorable.
(Clear Edge: 1994)

3. The Moms:
In both movies the mother has been hurt by her past and has had to make it on her own. She is obviously strong and resourceful but she is guarded and even cynical. The difference in the performances is that in MO34S 1947 Maureen O’Hara is able to show a spark of warmth behind the layers. Her change of heart for Kris is more subtle and seems organic. Elizabeth Perkins comes across as an Ice Queen. She is prickly and almost mean. I honestly don’t see what her kindhearted love interest sees in her other than that she is pretty. When she finally comes around it seems to come out of left field.

4. The Climax
As mentioned before, both movies wind up in a courtroom for a competency hearing to determine whether or not Kris should be committed. The only way for him to be declared sane is to somehow prove that Santa Clause does in fact exist and the Kris is Santa Claus. In both movies this appears to be a lost cause until a last minute maneuver tips the scales of justice in Kris’ favor. In MO34S 1994 the judge uses “In God We Trust” being printed on U.S. currency as the basis for an argument that Santa Claus is real. It’s confusing and anticlimactic. The 1947 version does a more satisfying job of proving Kris’ case.

This has become on of the most iconic scenes in movie history and is one of the main reasons this movie has been a Christmas mainstay for almost 70 years.
(Overwhelming Edge: 1947)
Winner: 1947
While I had to declare a winner, I recommend you make time for both of these movies this Christmas season. You will find plenty to love with both.

Top 10 Christmas Movies #10 – The Nightmare Before Christmas

the_nightmare_before_christmas_posterA few years ago I posed a question to my legion of Facebook friends (385 and shrinking):  Is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Christmas movie or a Halloween movie?  The overwhelming (and obvious) answer was “both!”  So really, the movie covers three major holidays; Halloween, Christmas, and because it fits neatly between those two, Thanksgiving.  This is important because there really aren’t any  good Thanksgiving movies, with one exception, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.  But more on that later in this series.

Due to it’s unique amalgam of multiple holidays, it’s the one that usually kicks off the holiday movie viewing season at my house in October.  I’ve got small kids, and I’m not really into horror movies anyway, so this is about as scary as it gets in our living room.  For an animated Christmas movie, it’s pretty creepy.  For a Halloween movie, not as much.

Released in 1993 and springing from the warped mind of Tim Burton, it’s the story of Halloween Town and it’s pumpkin-headed Hallowen party planner Jack Skellington.  Growing tired of the same-old-same-old spooky life in Halloween Town, Jack wanders into the woods and stumbles into Christmas Town.  He’s immediately smitten with Christmas Town–where the kids are throwing snowballs instead of heads–and tries to bring the holiday to Halloween Town, with disastrous results.  Trying to play the role of Santa, Jack quickly learns the world is not ready for a Halloweenized version of Christmas.  People prefer the gifts under their tree not try to eat them.

Nightmare is a musical, and all the music is written by Danny Elfman, who is also Jack’s singing voice. The music is the best part of the movie with some really great, memorable songs.  Some are creepy (my son is constantly quoting the line from This Is Halloween “I am the clown with the tear-away face!”), some are festive like What’s This, some are melancholy like Sally’s Song, and some just weird like Kidnap Sandy Claws (sample: “Kidnap the Sandy Claws, beat him with a stick, lock him up for 90 years, see what makes him tick”).  Oh, and of course the jazz-inspired Oogie Boogie’s Song.  They’re all great.

The animation is of the stop-motion variety, and pretty impressive, especially for 1993.  The production included the use of about 400 different heads for Jack to capture all his expressions!

Most of the movie takes place in Halloween Town, full of all kinds of fun and creepy characters.  There’s the aforementioned clown with the tear away face, the two-faced mayor, the mischievous trio of Lock, Shock, and Barrell sent by Jack to kidnap Santa Claus, and Sally, the Frankensteinesque monster love interest of Jack.  And of course, Ooogie Boogie, who is basically a burlap sack full of bugs who lives in some kind of death trap casino.  The town is also full of all the Halloween regulars; vampires, werewolves, skeletons, and bats.

I was a bit of a late comer to the party, not ever seeing Nightmare until a few years ago, watching it with my then four-year old daughter.  The wife was not so happy about that.  Neither was the daughter, to be honest.  Ooops.  She is eight now and my son is five and they both love it.

If you want something a little subversive and off the wall during your Christmas movie viewing this year it’s worth checking out.  It’s funny, clever, and the songs are infectious.  If it were strictly a Christmas movie, it would be higher on our list, but it’s Halloweeness worked against it in this case.  Also, Jeff has only seen it once.  Shameful.  Happy Halloween!  I mean, Merry Christmas!  Or something.

Top 10 Christmas Movies: The List

christmas-moviesNote:  Between now the Christmas my uncle and friend Jeff Graves (AKA Heavy G) and I will be posting our Top 10 Christmas movies list here and on his blog You Know What I Mean?  Below is the intro he wrote.  Enjoy!  Or don’t. We really don’t care.  Merry Christmas!

The Christmas season is upon us once more. With this comes Christmas music, Christmas shopping, Christmas parties, Christmas cookies, and even Christmas sweaters. In addition to these, this time of year brings a cavalcade of Christmas movies. There is so much to choose from. You have everything from the heartwarming to the cynical, from family friendly to not family friendly at all. No matter what your taste you can find something to help you get in the holiday spirit or in some cases escape from it.

With this in mind Andy Bauer over at Life of Ando and I have comprised a list of and will be posting about our top 10 Christmas movies of all time. There are some parameters. All the movies on this list are theatrical releases so that means no Rudolph or Charlie Brown (maybe next year we will tackle TV specials). Also we have expanded beyond strictly Christmas movies to include other holidays, but being a Christmas movie does increase a film’s ranking.

If you have not seen one or more of these movies, hopefully you will be inspired to check them out for yourself. We would also love to hear what you think and look forward to your comments. If you disagree with us that’s OK,  just know that you’re wrong

My Kid Finished Last

5kMy daughter, age eight, ran/walked her first 5K today.  Out of 69 kids, she finished dead last.

My daughter is an amazing kid.  Sure, my opinion may be biased, but the facts remain.  She is creative and funny and smart and thoughtful and unique and sweet and innocent.  She’s just as likely to pick up a salamander as she is to pick a flower; as likely to design an evening gown for her doll as to take a hike through the woods; as likely to sit quietly reading her book as she is to spend a morning watching episodes of Phineas and Ferb.  Her interests are wide and varied, her time split equally between scholarly pursuits, girly-girl frivolity, tomboyish exploits, media consumption, and keeping her little brother at bay.  This may sound like fatherly braggadocio, but ask anyone that knows her and you’ll hear much of the same.

Despite all her qualities, athletics is past time she has yet to show much aptitude for.  Our first attempt to introduce her to the world of participation, competitive sports was a weekly basketball clinic when she was four.  Granted, she was one of the younger kids involved, but she showed next to no interest in doing much of anything that wasn’t a water break.  She often complained of being too tired to participate in the drills, feigning yawns and “needing” to sit down to “rest.”  The next try was soccer last year.  It started well, though we quickly noticed she was more interested in the social component than the competitive.  She did show some surprising flashes of an underlying competitive drive.  Once as goal keeper she actually leaped onto the ball with an opponent rapidly bearing down on it.  It was shocking she actually knew what to do, did it so quickly, and with apparently little thought of the possibility of getting kicked in the face (getting kicked was usually her #1 concern).  As the season went on, her enthusiasm waned, with a nice little resurgence for the last couple games.  I thought maybe we had found her athletic niche.  But when signups rolled around this year, she wasn’t interested.  She complained of being too slow.  Her being too slow, not the game.

So far organized sports have been a miss (we may try basketball again next year, or maybe softball).  As a life long watcher of and participant in team, competitive sports it’s been a little hard for this dad.  I’m not one of those parents who think winning is not important.  If you do anything where there is a stated goal, you should do all you can (within the rules) to achieve that goal.  In sports, the goal is winning, so you should try to win.  However, I’m not one of those insane, win-at-all costs people either.  If you lose, that’s fine as long as you give it your best shot.  There’s a lot of life lessons to be learned through losing; probably more than in winning.  I’m not a big fan of participation trophies, but with little kids who are just learning the rules of the games and whose feelings are a bit more feelery, it’s probably for the best.  It’d be great if Lily showed a bit more competitive fire in the proper contexts, but she’s just not there.  Who knows, maybe she never will be (and that would be okay).  She has taken to swimming and loves riding her bike, so at least she’s moving.

This spring, my wife signed her up for a running group called Kids on the Run.  It included other members of our homeschool group, and was run by some great parent volunteers.  For about eight weeks, the kids all met to run together, divided into age groups, in training for the 5k at the end.  Boys and girls from all grades of elementary school participated.  I went to several of the trainings.  Lily was, without a doubt, the slowest one there.  And it wasn’t as if she would stick with the pack, then fade toward the end.  Within just the first few minutes of starting, she’d be waaaaay behind.  Before long, she would be begging to walk.  She wasn’t the only one who had to walk a fair portion, but she was the one who walked the most portions.  We would try to alternate, run-walk-run-walk.  We set small goals:  walk to that tree, then run to that cone, now walk to the fence, then run to the picnic table.  In between the weekly group runs, Jen did a great job of running with her at home.  In the evenings, they would go to the track near our house and do a few laps.

She often complained (“my feet hurt” “my tummy hurts” “my head hurts”), she took a few spills, always finished with her face red as a tomato (a Bauer trait), and more then a few times contemplated quitting.  But she kept at it.  She was still always the slowest at training, but showed noticeable improvement.  She still whined about her sides hurting, but she didn’t give up.

Jen took her running five days of the week leading up to the big 5k.  Two days before the run, she got an agonizing toothache.  A filling had become infected and the tooth would need to be pulled.  But it was the weekend.  The procedure would have to wait a couple days.  The day before the run, she was in excruciating pain, mostly sitting on the couch trying to hold back the painful tears.  The dentist prescribed some antibiotics and a regimen of pain reliving meds that seemed to be working by that evening.

Unlike me, Jen did not grow up with a love of competitive sports.  While I have known both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, this is all very foreign to her.  Couple that with a mother’s love, and it was difficult for her to watch Lily be the last one to finish week in and week out.  She was concerned for what would happen to Lily’s fragile psyche if she finished last at the big run.  The toothache gave her an out.

The night before the big run, she told Lily if she didn’t feel up to it, she could skip it.  We could do our own, private 5k when she was feeling better.  To Jen’s surprise, I think, Lily said she still wanted to do it.

The day of the run, all the family came to support Lily.  Both sets of grandparents turned out, and one grandma (Mimi) even decided to run with her.  The race began, and before long Lily was already bringing up the rear.  The run was not on a regulation track, and it would take 10 laps to equal the 5k.  The kids all wore 10 rubber bracelets to help keep track of the laps.  After finishing a lap, they would take one off and toss it in a bucket near the starting line.  As the run went on, more and more kids had fewer and fewer bracelets on and it was looking like Lily may well indeed be the final runner on the track.

Jen, Mimi, and I ran along side her.  Encouraging her to keep pushing and reminding her she had more down inside than she realized.  Her tooth was fine, but she complained of her tummy hurting.  Red faced and winded, she pressed on, all the other runners having already finished.

The final lap was her strongest.  Her best friend, who had come to watch, ran along side her. Just before the final turn, a group of kids who had already finished joined her for the home stretch.  She raced toward the finish, energized by the cadre of kids and coaches running along side her, all the other participants and spectators lined up along the last few yards, cheering her to the end.  She threw her last bracelet into the bucket and raced to the finish line, probably the fastest she ran all day.  When she crossed the finish line she had a look on her face I’m not sure I’ve seen before.  It was the look of accomplishment, of having achieved something thought not possible.  Rather than Jen’s fear of a crushed spirit at finishing last, she had the glow of someone who set a difficult to reach goal and met it.  Jen threw her arms around her in a hug, tears welling up in her eyes.

My daughter, age eight, ran/walked her first 5K today.  Out of 69 kids, she finished dead last.  I couldn’t have been prouder.