Christmas Challenge Film #3: Home Alone (1990, Directed by Chris Columbus)

John Hughes was a genius  of comedy writing. I’ll just list his credits: National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), Mr. Mom (1983), Sixteen Candles (1984), Breakfast Club (1985), Weird Science (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), Uncle Buck (1989), Christmas Vacation (1989, which I’ll probably watch before this challenge is through), and Maid in Manhattan (2002) among other films. He was amazingly prolific. Look at the years those films released. Deviating from my plan to start my Christmas Challenge with movies I hadn’t seen, or at least hadn’t seen in a long time, I watched one of his films I didn’t include in that list: Home Alone. Written and produced by Hughes, Home Alone was the biggest success of his career, and, like all of his work, funny, creative, and emotional; also a tremendously powerful piece of nostalgia for me. It’s probably one of a first handful of movies I’ve seen in my life. A wonderful film, so when I saw it flash across the Netflix popular tag, I realized its been a few years since I last saw it, thus I felt compelled to watch.

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Kevin McCallister (child superstar, Macauley Culkin) is kind of a brat. He’s supposed to be anyways, though I’ve always taken his side in that long introductory scene. He seems fine. It’s his massive family that seem rotten. They’re all gathered together (aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, mother, father, bed-wetting cousins), preparing to go off to Paris, France the next morning, where they’ll spend their Christmas. Kevin wishes he had no family, and tells his mother so after fighting with his bullying older brother, Buzz. She sends him to bed in the attic to cool off. The next morning, an electrical outage keeps the alarm clocks from working, and the McCallisters oversleep. In the madhouse scramble to get dressed and get over to the airport in time for the flight, the McCallisters forget about bratty Kevin, asleep in the attic. He wakes up to an empty house and believes that his wish has come true. No family, and a big, beautiful house all to himself for Christmas. It promises to be a barrel laughs until he figures out a couples of robbers, Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern), plan to steal from every house on the block, including his. Seeing as all the neighbors are out of town, Kevin decides that it’s up to him to protect his house, and booby traps the joint leading to the pretty well-known, spectacular final thirty minutes.

Hughes was big on mixing laughter with tears, and gave all his comedies a sense of pathos that was as memorable as the jokes. In Home Alone, he gives us Kevin’s mother (Catherine O’Hara) desperately trying to make it home to her son and a subplot with Kevin’s elderly neighbor who’s been estranged from his son. The laughs, meanwhile, come fast and easy. Kevin is a precocious, remarkably resourceful kid, and it’s fun to see him outsmart the adults, especially Pesci and Stern’s dimwitted but menacing robbers. Pesci is one of those performers who can pretty much make anything he says funny. Maybe it’s his voice. He amuses me.

Macauley Culkin was one of the most famous kid stars of all time. He did other films, but he’ll always be remembered for slapping his hands to his face and screaming in Home Alone; a gift and a curse, I’m sure. He’s really good, a natural, carrying a film and selling the outlandish idea of an 8-year-old being smarter than adults.

Technically speaking, Home Alone’s not much to write about. It’s an inspired idea delivered straight and told plainly, like all of Hughes’ films, even ones like this that he didn’t direct. John Williams’ score mixed with the exciting soundtrack that includes the Drifter’s version of White Christmas is a major component of Home Alone’s success. Some critics harp on the film’s implausibility. Seems like a waste, since the premise is clearly absurd and the film is worth suspending disbelief. It’s fun. I might end up watching it again before Christmas is over.

(8-Exceptional Film)

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Christmas Challenge Film #2: A Christmas Prince (2017, Directed by Alex Zamm)

A new one for me, though I feel as though I’ve seen this film a hundred times before. My expectations weren’t high, but 86% on Rotten Tomatoes suggests a decent enough time, and so I took the plunge. For my second movie in my Christmas Film challenge, I watched A Christmas Prince. A Netflix exclusive, which at this point (though the company is ambitious and looking to go bigger) is slightly better than made-for -T.V movie, A Christmas Prince benefits from lowered expectations. It’s the kind of film that goes down easy, makes no waves, hits its marks, and whatever other clichéd metaphors come to mind. It won’t surprise you. It doesn’t exceed expectations. It’s exactly what you’d expect, and that’s alright.

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Rose McIver, terrific in her CW series, iZombie, stars as Amber Moore, an aspiring journalist, stuck at the copy-editor’s desk. For some reason, she’s given the opportunity of a lifetime by her boss. King Richard (I don’t know if this is his name, but this is what I’m calling him) of Aldovia (a made-up kingdom full of people with British accents) has died, and his son Prince Richard (played well by Ben Lamb), a playboy and layabout according to most media and tabloids, might not show up to his own coronation. If he doesn’t appear, he would be abdicating his throne, leaving the country in the hands of his weaselly, scheming cousin Simon (Played Theo Devaney). Amber is given a ticket over to Aldovia where she is to report back on any developments. Simply trying to get an interview at the palace (security at this place is rather lax), Amber gets mistaken for a new tutor for the princess, Emily (Honor Kneafsey), a mischievous little girl with spina bifida. Now in prime position to break any story, Amber must keep up her deception, dig up dirt on the royal family, and control her growing feelings for the Prince, who’s not at all what she thought he’d be.

Okay, the positives. I’ll start with the setting. The royal palace where most of the film takes place is beautiful and a real asset to the fantasy. The actors are all good and likable and attractive. The romance is pretty well modulated without too much schmaltz. Basically, all the familiar beats are played and performed well. There are a few small decisions I liked, one being that the young Princess finds out that Amber is not a tutor but a reporter early on. The whole main character lying, wanting to tell the love interest, but someone else telling them first thing is old-hat. This film at least keeps it from being the whole show. I also wasn’t interested in Amber taming the bratty young princess (you know like Maria does with the von Trapp family). I think A Christmas Prince wisely moves past this quickly. The Princess is only a pain briefly, but becomes Amber’s ally early on. Their relationship is one of the film’s more charming aspects. Director Alex Zamm, responsible for a film I would nominate for worst of all-time (Chairman of the Board), does a fine job here. It’s not particularly well-crafted, but not conspicuously hack either.

A small complaint I have is that it’s not very Christmasy. Christmas is in the background, and not a necessary part of the plot. In any case, I’m a man of many different film-watching moods. Sometimes I want to see a thoughtful, challenging film. Sometimes I just want to watch things blow-up. One mood I occasionally indulge, but rarely advertise is a rom-com mood, when I want to watch a film with beautiful people in beautiful places in a story that you know will end with happily ever after. In this mood, A Christmas Prince works.

(5-Okay Film)

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Christmas Challenge Film #1: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, Directed by Henry Selick)

First, the clichéd, age-old question: is it a Christmas or a Halloween film? The clear, non-insightful, only-correct answer is that The Nightmare Before Christmas is bizarrely, wonderfully both. I’ve made a habit of watching it either Halloween or the day after as an essential Holiday transitional piece. I gobble up the Halloween candy and fortify myself mentally for the onslaught of too-early, bad Christmas music around the immediate corner. I love The Nightmare Before Christmas, and prefer it as my first Christmas movie each year, because it’s dark, sly, and has a hint of malice to it. Until late in November, my yuletide cheer hasn’t switched on yet- it’s not Christmas time until Thanksgiving is over- and I’m not ready for all of your red and green treacle. Films like this one, Bad Santa, or Die Hard are more my speed until that point, at which time I fall victim to the Christmas spirit, and you can throw any level of corn at me, and I’ll bite.

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Anyways, I watched The Nightmare Before Christmas this year before work, on the first of November, by myself through Netflix, on a small computer screen. I’ve seen it enough times for the setting and conditions of my viewing it to be irrelevant. It’s a wonderful film.

If you haven’t seen it, I’d like to invite you to reexamine your priorities. Sprung from the mind of Tim Burton (Batman), executed and rendered in stop-motion by Henry Selick (Coraline, James and the Giant Peach), it tells the story of Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon and Danny Elfman), loved and revered in his home community of Halloweentown, a land dedicated to the Fall holiday. Jack’s going through something of an existential crisis (there’s really no way of gauging how old he is, but I assume he’s middle aged). “Is this all there is?” he ponders.

         Year after year, it’s the same routine

And I grow so weary at the sound of screams

And I, Jack the Pumpkin King

Have grown so tired of the same old thing.

It’s an instantly relatable feeling, and The Nightmare Before Christmas has its heart and depth, that something that makes it more than just a breakthrough in stop-motion animation, more than a series of special effects, or a ghoul show. When Jack stumbles into a new world, one dedicated to Christmas, he believes he’s found his new destiny. Astounded by what he sees, he breaks into the film’s best song (which is saying something), What’s This. He decides to give Santa Claus a vacation, and fill in for him during Christmas. This proves a folly, one foreseen by Sally (voiced by Catherine O’Hara), always nearby, who, too, longs for something else in life. She’s desperately in love with Jack (clueless), and wants to be more than  Dr. Finkelstein’s lab assistant. Unable to convince Jack that his Christmas idea is a disastrous one, he goes through with it, and the results are humorously macabre. In the end, like John L. Sullivan in Sullivan’s Travels, Jack Skellington finds meaning in being himself, and takes pride in doing what he does best. It’s a meaningful theme given special credence considering how weird and oddball of a story we’re just gifted with, pulled off beautifully by filmmakers being themselves.

The whole production is a testament to strangeness and originality. How much time do you allow for appreciating the little things in film? Take some time with The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s a gorgeous movie from a design standpoint, and seemless, technically amazing in its craft. No strings attached, you don’t see the hands of the artists unless you want to peak behind the curtains. You can watch it and be swept up in the incredibly efficient storytelling (76 minutes) without wondering how they make clay models look like they are talking (moving their lips) effectively. Howver, when you’v seen it twenty times and that question persists, perhaps it’s time to investigate. I’m sure there’s some “Making of” featurette I could watch.

Danny Elfman’s soundtrack is pretty iconic and it, like the film, is a major part of an entire counterculture. It’s to the goths what Easy Rider and its soundtrack was to hippies.

Strong and dependable start to my Christmas movie viewing.

(9-Great Film)

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


White Christmas (1954, Directed by Michael Curtiz) English 7

Starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Dean Jagger

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(7-Very Good Film)

Picturesque. Affectionate. Romantic.

Phil Davis (Kaye) saves Bob Wallace’s (Crosby) life during the war; the big one, World War II. “How can I pay you back?” Wallace asks Davis. That’s how the unknown Phil Davis became the partner of showbiz entertainer Bob Wallace, and years later, after their partnership’s proven a success, Davis looks to play Cupid and find a wife for his friend. Chance leads the duo to rural Vermont where the beautiful Haynes sisters( Clooney and Vera-Ellen) are set to perform at a small inn. There, they find their old general runs the place, and that his inn is struggling to make money. To turn things around for him, Wallace and Davis decide to put on a Christmas show. White Christmas is a very old-fashioned film and people who don’t like that simply aren’t my people. Romantic adventures, quaint scenery in technicolor, with wonderful performers singing timeless music. What kind of Christmas movies do you like?

-Walter Tyrone Howard-




Easter Parade (1948, Directed by Charles Walters) English 6

Starring Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Peter Lawford, Ann Miller

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Two song and dance greats, Astaire and Garland, pair together and make an entertaining if not quite essential film musical. Astaire plays Don Hewes, a successful performer part of a winning duo with Nadine Hale (Miller), his dance partner and romantic flame. The two fall apart, however, when he discovers she’s in love with his best friend, and he vows he can take any girl to replace her, and be as successful, part of a pygmalion type wager he makes while drunk. As part of his bet, he takes on Hannah Brown (Garland), a dancer at some local dive. The Hewes-Brown partnership doesn’t take off until he lets her be herself instead of trying to emulate Nadine. The conflict and antagonism between Astaire and Garland’s character is tame to the point of being non-existent. I would have preferred some more push and pull before they end up together inevitably. Set just in New York just a few years before the first World War, the period costumes set design, along with the sparkling technicolor are spectacular. The songs and dance numbers, while being middle of the pack for Astaire and Garland and Irving Berlin (who wrote the music), are still head and shoulders above most musical numbers. And the age difference between the two stars doesn’t detract as much as it would under different circumstances, as she’s playing basically the lovestruck pupil.

Bad Santa (2003, Directed by Terry Zwigoff) English 10

Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Bernie Mac, John Ritter, Lauren Graham

Darkly hilarious Christmas story about two thieves who pose as a mall Santa/elf team in order to survey and ultimately rob the store. Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie, the self-destructive Santa half of the team, who finds himself having a change of heart after spending time with portly child loser, Thurman Merman (his name alone brings me joy). The actors are very good here, the comedy not only gets laughs, but gets under your skin making each scene memorable. Considering that the premise could have easily yielded a one-joke comedy with a few easy laughs, kudos to those involved for making a bona fide cult classic.

Fanny and Alexander-Full T.V Cut (1982, Directed by Ingmar Bergman)Swedish 9

Starring Gunn Wållgren, Jarle Kulle, Mona Malm, Ewa Fröling, Jan Malmsjö, Allan Edwall, Stina Ekblad, Lena Olin

It seems a weird thought that this film, one that runs over five hours, should be the legendary Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman’s, most accessible, but I think it is. One of the few major works he did in color, Bergman’s epic slowly develops an odd ghost story in the midst of a young boy, Alexander’s, painful coming of age tale. After Alexander’s father dies, his mother remarries a Bishop, who gradually reveals himself to be a sadistic bully and hypocrite. Ultimately, Alexander goes to supernatural lengths to free himself and his family from the Bishop’s reach. Every single actor from the top down is of the first order, and the script, aided by its massive runtime, gives each actor their moments.