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17 December 2009 Edition

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Christmas movies we all love

WHETHER you are a Grinch, a closet Christmas lover or someone who gives it the full tinsel effect we all love our Christmas films. What’s more not only do we watch the old favourites repeatedly we also have new entrants in the Christmas movie canon. As the 10th remake of Dickens A Christmas Carol hits the cineplexes, this time in animated 3D ROBBIE SMYTH unwraps the history of Christmas films from The Night Before Christmas in 1897 to the the latest blockbusters. And An Phoblacht’s own first top ten Christmas films is unveiled.


Christmas conquers all
There is a world where the Christmas message counts, where consumerism and corporate advertising comes second to the idea of ‘goodwill to all men’.
There is a place rooted in the philosophy that things can get better, that wrongs will be righted, no matter how serious or insurmountable, or how terrifying, and that the small, weak and powerless will triumph, always!
And for the record it is not the Vatican, a secret Tibetan monastery, or some lost pacific island. It’s the Hollywood Christmas movie factory, which has been in overdrive on the Christmas production front for over a century.
Christmas at the movies comes in all themes, though story lines with Santa Claus in them feature most heavily, the nativity story is not a winner in movie land. Though with Santa on your side you will always come out tops.
There are literally hundreds of Christmas films and we cannot mention them all here so we have focused on the republican viewer’s top ten, the trilogies, the remakes, the tenuous connections, the bizarre and the bad!
But now the history bit. The first projection of a film for an audience took place in 1895 on 28 December. Though the Lumiere brothers who organised the historical screening did not have any Christmas themes in the series of shorts it wasn’t long before others filled the breech.
The first series of Christmas films were released in 1897, and so we have Christmas Eve, The Night Before Christmas and Santa Claus Filling Stockings. Movie running times were curtailed by the shortness of the actual film hence the multiple titles.
Some of the early film pioneers made Christmas films including George Melies in 1900, who made The Christmas Dream, and Edwin S Porter who made the first film version of the famous poem by Clement Clarke Moore written in 1823.’Twas the Night Before Christmas.
By the 1940s Christmas fare is a staple Hollywood output, but it was the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol that set the scene for future Christmas film output, and an audience always ready to believe that good will triumph over evil, that humanity, charity and hope will always win out.

The remakes
Some films are so good they make them twice and then there is Dickens Christmas Carol, written in haste in 1843. Dickens facing disappointing sales of his serialised novel Martin Chuzzlewit, and increased costs of supporting his family, his wife was pregnant with a fifth child, wrote the story in six weeks as one book rather than the serialisations he usually had published. His inspiration came from the poverty of industrial Manchester and so the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future entered popular consciousness as well as coining a new word as ‘scrooge’ became an adjective.
As a film, it has been made ten times not counting theatrical adaptations. In its movie life it has been an animation feature twice, first in 1962 with Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol and again in 1983 with Mickey’s Christmas Carol, a musical in 1970 starring Albert Finney, but perhaps its outstanding interpretation is the 1992 Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine as Scrooge. Yes there is singing, but you have to see it to enjoy its full range, with examples such as where the first ghost Marley is not Jacob, but in this version but Robert!
For some the 1951 version with Alastair Sims is the definitive production. But you would still have to consider Bill Murray’s 1988 Scrooged which for many is not just the best Scrooge, but also one of the best Christmas films ever.
So where do we put the 2009 3D version with Jim Carrey as not just Scrooge but also the Ghost of Christmas present. It one of the most faithful adaptations to the original Dickens text and might end up being another classic.
Other Christmas remakes include the 1947 The Bishop’s Wife staring Cary Grant which becomes in 1996 The Preacher’s Wife where an angel, Denzel Washington this time, is dispatched to help an overworked pastor who has lost touch with the important things in life. His wife, among other things if you are wondering. Whitney Houston plays the wife in the remake.
Miracle on 34th Street, the story of a child and her mother who don’t believe in Santa, was released first in 1947 and remade to much less acclaim in 1994. Here is one film where the black and white original is head and shoulders above the remake
The Dr Seuss The Grinch who stole Christmas is an animated feature made in 1966 narrated by Boris Karloff that is transformed by Jim Carrey’s 2000 performance.
The most bizarre remake, well sort of, is the 1942 Holiday Inn, in which White Christmas is first performed. It is rehashed as White Christmas in 1954 with Bing Crosby. The storyline is vaguely similar, but the key songs are the same!

The trilogies
Some films are so good they make them again and again and again, so hats off to Home Alone and the Santa Clause.
Home Alone introduced the world to Macaulay Culkin and is just one of three great Christmas films written by John Hughes who died this year. His other Christmas movies were National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and then Trains Planes and Automobiles, where Steve Martin’s attempts to get home for Christmas are thwarted in every possible way and then some. Home Alone is a classic. Two was a good movie, but three and four are forgettable at best.
The second trilogy is Tim Allen’s Santa Clause, which loses steam in Santa Clause three, but one and two are worth consideration as Christmas classics. Plus it solves the puzzle of how Santa Clause can live on and on.

The bizarre and the bad
A 1959 Mexican made Santa Claus, where Santa battles Lucifer originally filmed in Spanish is surprisingly dubbed into English and appears occasionally on the minor cable channels. A regular entrant in the worst films ever made lists is Santa Claus Conquers the Martians made in 1964.
Republicans know that Santa is an anti-imperialist and not into conquering anyone! Still there is also the question of a terrible script, bad acting and many more flaws.
There are several Santa horror films and not worth cataloguing here, but there are many other bizarre Christmas films such as Billy Bob Thornton’s 2003 Bad Santa, where Santa is very much on the naughty list. There are a surprising number of republican comrades for whom this is their favourite Christmas film. You know who you are and yes it could be a contributing factor to your inclusion on the naughty list!
Ben Affleck stars in the 2004 Surviving Christmas, where a wealthy executive tries to buy the family Christmas he never had only to end up in a dysfunctional family made even more chaotic by his increasingly bizarre Christmas demands.

But is it really a Christmas film
Both Die Hard 1 and 2 are set on Christmas Eve, and have happy endings and so qualify we believe in the An Phoblacht editorial junta as Christmas films. As does Gremlins 1984, and most importantly Eddie Murphy’s 1983 Trading Places, which merits a place in our Christmas top ten.
Not qualifying is Sleepless in Seattle. No, not even if Gerry Adams once told me it was his favourite film. I think, hope even, that he was joking.

Good but not great
Love Actually 2003 combines eight different stories in the weeks before Christmas and has the feel good factor in spades but still there are better films out there. Politically interesting is the characterisation of Hugh Grant as a Blair type prime minister who stands up to the US president, so no invasion of Iraq in this film.
The 2007 Fred Claus with Vince Vaughn as brother to Paul Giamatti as Santa has its moments but it is all to predictable albeit funny plot. 1985’s Santa Claus the Movie with Dudley Moore is a biography of Mr Claus with a modern day test of will for our portly hero, but has been surpassed by the far more funny and pacey Santa Claus movie.


The Top Ten


1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
A possible contender for not just the best Christmas film but possibly of all time, this feel good Frank Capra movie has a subtle religious theme as an angel appears at the critical juncture in our hero’s darkest hour and shows him how different the world would have been without his positive and noble influences.
In our current economic malaise it is a film for the times as it shows the twin horrors of how uncontrolled financial greed and property development can destroy a society’s soul. It should be a must see this year.

2. Elf (2003)
So this is my own personal favourite, but I bow to the forces of democracy or rather the Republican cabal who demanded a Wonderful Life take the top slot. Excellently directed by Jon Favreau, our hero Will Ferrell as the adopted Elf returns to New York and restores Christmas spirits worn down by consumer life, greed, selfishness. Albeit predictable it is laugh out loud funny, even after repeated viewings and if you have it on DVD check out the subtitled commentary.

3. Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
The first of three versions of this film on the top ten. It is markedly different as Gonzo takes on the role of Dickens as narrator. It doesn’t have the horror of other versions but for the little people it is the best introduction to the Christmas genre. And yes it is alright for adults to sing along.

4. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
One of three John Hughes Christmas films, this irreverent Chevy Chase comedy tells the story of a good family man pushed a little too far by the pressures of work and a demanding family at Christmas.
And like our first three picks, the evil boss gets not only his just desserts but a change of heart also and the workers get better wages. So a complete suspension of reality here!

5. The Santa Clause (1994)
By far the best of the trilogy, once again we have the working dad who has lost touch with the important things in life who ends up becoming Santa and Yes he saves Christmas. More for the children than the adults, it still shows that everyone can have a little Santa spirit.

6. Home Alone (1990)
Ok, so the film is not technically about Christmas, but it has all the standard Christmas themes of hope, reconciliation and adventure. Macaulay Culkin steals the show as the young boy accidentally left alone but his thwarting of Joe Pesci and side kick as thieves is excellent fare. This is the second John Hughes film in our top ten.

7. Scrooge (1951)
Some claim that this is the definitive version of the Dickens Classic. It stars Alastair Sim who did bring the role to life. Yes the special effects are weak by modern standards, however it has atmosphere in spades and is great for scaring small misbehaving children.

8. Scrooged (1988)
Coming off the back of Ghostbusters, Bill Murray gives us a modern day scrooge who would give Simon Cowell a run for his money and it is this X-factor link that gets the film in the top ten. It exemplifies the currency of network TV today. Murray makes this film, and is rarely off camera the whole time.

9. Trading Places (1983)
Yes it is a Christmas film. It has all the elements, with evil uncaring business people who get their comeuppance and though there is little mention of Santa Claus or Christmas it is set against the Christmas holiday period. The Dan Acyroyd-Eddie Murphy trade off is acted excellently and makes the film!

10. Planes Trains and Automobiles (1987)
Written and directed by John Hughes it is the first of his three Christmas films and showcases wonderfully the talents of Steve Martin and John Candy. Set in the days leading up to December 25th, accidents, calamities and endless incompetence thwart Martin from getting back to Chicago for a family Christmas.

Interestingly in Home Alone 1 it is Candy who helps Macaulay Culkin’s mother get home to Chicago without any of the blundering in this film. Stands out in this list as it is the one film where it is not about the evils of capitalism, but in a travel world dominated by Ryanair, it could amount to the same thing.


An Phoblacht
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