Friday, November 19, 2010

Top 25 8: Holiday Films You Should Know

With Thanksgiving upon us next week and Christmas following closely, it’s time to consider holiday movies. But this isn’t as easy as it sounds. For while holidays are some of the most deeply-ingrained aspects of our culture, there seem to be a shortage of significant holiday movies. It’s not as bad as trying to find films about the American Revolution, but it’s pretty close. So let’s call this a Top 8.

What’s interesting about holiday films is how few are actually about the holidays themselves, i.e. few films retell Christmas stories or tell us tales about Pilgrims. That tends to be the domain of television, where you find the likes of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and The Charlie Brown Christmas Special or A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Instead, we seem to consider a movie a holiday film if it takes place during the holidays and it involves “the holiday spirit.”

The holiday spirit consists of a combination of deep sentimentality and some form of redemption. Even the holiday films that aren’t truly sentimental in the strictest sense always end up with a moment near the end where all sins are forgiven, the bad guys are redeemed (as is the misguided hero), the value of family relationships and friendships is extolled, and everything ends happily. Here’s the list:

1. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946): Directed by Frank Capra and staring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, Life is the story of George Bailey, who is prevented from committing suicide when his guardian angel shows him what his family, friends and community would have been like if he had never been born. While this movie flopped when it came out, it’s become the most-loved holiday film and tops almost everyone’s list. “Harry wasn't there to save them, because you weren't there to save Harry.”

2. A Christmas Carol (various): Charles Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol has been made and remade so many times and in so many forms that it’s impossible to pick a single version as the most influential or best. Many people swear by the 1951 British version, while others prefer the 1984 George C. Scott version. Some like Bill Murray’s version in Scrooged. Even It’s A Wonderful Life contains elements of this story. My personal favorite version is The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). In any form however, this is one of the most well-know stories on the planet, and everyone knows each of its elements. “What day is it?” “Why, it’s Christmas Day, sir.”

3. Miracle on 34th Street (1947): Miracle is the story of a department-store Santa who believes he really is Kris Kringle. When they try to institutionalize this Santa for being insane, a young lawyer defends him by arguing that he is the real Santa. In the process, this film points out that a little faith in good things makes all of our lives better. “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.”

4. A Christmas Story (1983): Set in small-town America in the 1950s, this tale of a young boy’s quest to get his hands on a Red Ryder BB gun swims in nostalgia and sentimentalism. This is another film that flopped in the theaters, but got a second life on television. By 2007, this film crawled to the top of several “best holiday film” lists. In fact, the film has became so popular that one cable station now airs a 24 hour Christmas Eve marathon each year, during which they run this film over and over. . . and people watch. “I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!”

5. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989): This is possibly the best of the Christmas comedies (see below), and I’ve separated it because this is the one that spawned a generation of holiday movies that took a cynical look at Christmas. Unlike prior, thoroughly-sentimental films, Vacation dug into the love/hate relationship that many people have with the event that is the family Christmas, and it waited until the end before it whipped out the usual sentimentality. “Welcome to our home - what's left of it.”

6. White Christmas (1954): The story of two army buddies who meet their former commander in Vermont amidst a series of romantic mix-ups, this light romantic comedy was based around the song of the same name and was basically a star vehicle for Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney. “There's no Christmas in the Army!”

7. The Bishop’s Wife (1947): The story of an angel (Cary Grant) who comes to Earth to help a bishop (David Niven) who has lost focus on what is important in life as he has become obsessed with building a cathedral. On Earth, Grant finds himself falling for Niven’s wife (Loretta Young). “Sometimes angels rush in where fools fear to tread.”

8. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1997): Not particularly influential, but very popular, Planes is the only Thanksgiving film on our list.Planes is the story of an advertising executive (Steve Martin) who wants to fly home for Thanksgiving, but finds himself stuck with an obnoxious salesman (John Candy) as a traveling companion. Written by John Hughes in three days, this film went on to gross $50 million and remains a television mainstay today. “Those aren't pillows!”

Christmas comedies: Finally, let’s finish off the list with a group acknowledgement for the holiday comedy. Films like Elf, Ernest Saves Christmas, Jingle All The Way, Bad Santa, Home Alone, and The Santa Clause are standard Hollywood comedies that touch upon Christmas in one way or another. There’s little to these films, and they have even less staying power, but they do tend to make money as star vehicles in the year they are made, and the ones listed here have been entertaining enough to stick around for a little. It's hard to say that any of these films is influential, but the genre itself continues to reflect the cynical side of our views of the holiday season.

There are other holiday films we could list and some that are seen as holiday films despite not having any particular holiday theme (like Babes In Toyland). But none of those films is particularly influential. In fact, even the holiday films listed here were not particularly influential, certainly not as influential as those on the other Top 25 lists. Perhaps this is because our holidays are defined elsewhere in the culture, and these films only reflect what we already know about the holidays rather than trying to make a statement about the holidays? Or, said differently, maybe we don’t need movies to tell us what Christmas and Thanksgiving mean because we already know?

So what are your favorite holiday films?

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

TV Review: Sherlock (2009)

The BBC has a recent history of producing very entertaining, high-quality programs. Everything from the new Doctor Who to Top Gear have been smashing successes worldwide. High production qualities, top notch acting, and quality writing have abounded. Even some of their misses have been better than anything on American television today, like Primeval and Apparitions. The new PBS Masterpiece Mystery program Sherlock, a BBC production, easily continues that tradition.

Sherlock is a three part series that is written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, and directed by Paul McGuigan and Euros Lyn. This is the team responsible for the best Doctor Who episodes, including The Empty Child, The Beast Below, The Time of Angels, The Girl In The Fireplace, and Silence in the Library, as well as Torchwood Children of Earth. They also wrote the Victorian Era episode The Unquiet Dead. Moffat also previously adapted The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into the 2007 series Jekyll. So this is an impressive pedigree, and they don’t disappoint.

Modern adaptations of Sherlock Holmes are difficult, almost by definition, because Holmes is so associated in our minds with Victorian times. The way he speaks, his habits, his style of reasoning, his relationship with others are all deeply Victorian, as are the types of crimes and criminals he pursues. Indeed, prior to this series, I suspected that his very essence was uniquely Victorian and probably could not be brought outside of that era. But this new production proves that wrong.

What is truly striking about Sherlock is just how well they capture the essence that is Holmes. They kept his superior intelligence and his incredible ability to deduct stunning (yet obvious once you hear them) conclusions from minute details that you or I would otherwise miss. But even more importantly, they’ve managed to keep the balance between Holmes’ amazing ability to understand everyone around him instantly, against his inability to relate to anyone. Indeed, despite his almost omniscient grasp of human nature, he seems strangely incapable of dealing with others on any personal level. And it’s not clear if Holmes is a pathologically introverted character who offsets his problem with extreme arrogance, or if his “bored genius” makes him a “high-functioning sociopath,” as Holmes describes himself. This is classic Holmes.

Moreover, they have done a stellar job of maintaining the relationship between Holmes and Watson without giving in to modern "sensibilities." Indeed, at a time when it has become popular to suggest that the two are gay (a misunderstanding of Victorian era norms), this show avoids that trap, just as it avoids introducing modern soap-opera-like drama into their relationship. At one point, they actually poke at this theory when Holmes jokingly suggests that people might think they were gay because of the way Watson is behaving.

The production qualities are first rate as well. The sets are well chosen, giving you a flavor of London without doing the usual clich├ęs. In other words, rather than doing things like setting scenes at the gates of Buckingham palace, they use locations like a railway yard with only a hint of the famous Battersea Power Station peeking out from behind an overpass. The inside sets are realistic as well, unlike shows likes CSI where the coroners work in the dark under intense mood lighting. In fact, every single setting is entirely believable and feels like something your would find in real life.

The actors are well chosen too. Holmes and Watson are strong actors with obvious chemistry as friends, but also manage to display the tension that comes from Holmes’ constant condescending to Watson. There is a character introduced near the end, whose name I will not reveal, who also ends up being perfectly played despite my initial shock at his mannerisms. The extras too impress me. Most of them are fat or old or simply "normal," but that helps make them entirely believable. Indeed, this is something great about British television, which is lacking in Hollywood: the ability to produce believable “every day” people on screen.

Finally, the show is fast paced with gripping plots that balance carefully between giving you enough to follow the story and to feel that you can predict where the story is heading, and giving away too much. In fact, you probably won’t have any idea what will happen next, though you never feel cheated. And even better, there isn’t a hint of political correctness. We are not treated to anti-war statements, attacks on religions or the military, attacks on corporations, attacks on conservatives, etc. They don’t wedge minorities into every position of authority, there are no moments where we are told that Islam is wonderful, and Watson even shows disgust at the homeless. There are even two moments that the gay lobby would not have accepted on film in this country. It is refreshing to not feel like you are being lectured.

All in all, I highly recommend this show. They really have managed to take the essence of Sherlock Holmes and bring it to the present. The only complaint I have is that there are only three episodes. Let’s hope for more!

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Film Friday: The Guns of Navarone (1961)

The Guns of Navarone is a fascinating movie, and not just because of what’s on the screen. Based on a book by Alistair MacLean, the film was written and produced as anti-Cold War propaganda by Carl Foreman, a member of the communist party, who was blacklisted in the United States. His intent apparently was to suggest to Western audiences that they not fight the Cold War. But like so many other liberal message films, his message backfired, and he ended up creating a rousing film that remains one of the stronger World War II movies.

** spoiler alert **

Navarone ostensibly is the story of a commando team that must infiltrate a fictional Nazi-occupied island in Greece and destroy a large rail gun so the British Navy can pass by the island to save 5,000 trapped British troops. As they do this, they are repeatedly faced with nasty choices, such as whether or not to kill one of their own when he gets wounded or to feed him false information knowing he will reveal the information under torture. They also encounter betrayal, cold-blooded murder, and cowardice.

More importantly, the three main characters struggle with each other. Capt. Mallory (Gregory Peck), an American, is tired of the war, but continues with his duty even though it seems hopeless to him. Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn), a former Colonel in the Greek army, fights to free his home. Corporal Miller (David Niven), a British explosives expert, is anti-war and revels in criticizing Mallory’s actions.

I say “ostensibly” because the film is actually a metaphor for the Cold War. If we see this film as Foreman intended, then we would notice the following: the Nazis, who stand in for the Soviets, are ruthless, efficient, and nearly omniscient. It is hopeless to fight them. Mallory, who represents Americans, is a stupid man who is only doing what he’s been told and has no idea why he’s fighting. Miller, who represents America’s allies, is worn out, cynical and ready to make America carry the load. He also manipulates Mallory into doing all the dirty deeds. And Stavros represents the people of third world countries who are dying on these misguided American missions.

But here’s the problem for Foreman. Leftist propaganda doesn’t sell. To make the movie profitable, the characters had to resolve their issues before they could move ahead. And in so doing, Foreman’s anti-war message morphs into a call for everyone to understand the importance of fighting, i.e. the reasons why the West did fight, and to grasp their importance to the fight. In effect, to draw an audience, he turns an anti-war screed into an incredibly strong pro-war film.

Indeed, as the characters reach the make or break moment, Mallory suddenly realizes why he’s fighting -- he needs to make this realization if he is to be able to continue the mission. He realizes that he is not fighting just a different ideology, but an evil ideology, and that he must succeed if he is to save the people who are relying on him. In other words, he learns that he is part of a bigger picture and what he does matters because people are relying on him.

What brings about this epiphany is his observation of the Greeks. Up to this point in the film, Mallory and Miller have been little more than tourists. They see the island as just another battleground and they pay no attention to the locals. But as they are brought into the lives of the locals, they come to realize what the Nazis have wrought upon this community and the lives they’ve destroyed. This particularly strikes Mallory when he realizes this war is a matter of life and death to Stavros, and that Stavros can’t simply quit the war and go back to his old life. He knew this, just as he knew that 5,000 soldiers and sailors would die if he failed, but his experience finally personalizes this for him.

It’s at this point that Mallory has enough of Miller’s constant harping and disclaiming of any responsibility. Miller has disavowed responsibility for everything that happened, and criticized Mallory at every turn, safe in the knowledge that Mallory would do his duty no matter how asinine Miller behaved. But now Mallory has his fill, and he delivers one of the most pro-war speeches you will ever hear in a film. Indeed, he berates Miller for trying to pretend that he is only an observer and he tells Miller “whether you like it or not, you’re in this thing, up to your neck.” He then demands that Miller finally carry his own weight. Shamed, Miller realizes that his cynical pacifism had been disloyalty bordering on sabotage.

Thus, what was meant to present an image of America adrift facing an invincible foe as worn-out, whiny, worthless allies harp at America from the sidelines, suddenly becomes a rousing pro-war statement declaring the importance of everyone working together to win this struggle to set the world free. Basically, Foreman’s anti-war film turned into a crystal clear statement of why everyone needed to do their duty.

This is one of the ironies of leftist propaganda films: they often backfire on their creators because the need to attract an audience requires certain elements that change the message of the film. In this case, had the characters surrendered to their cynicism, then there would be no doubt about the anti-war message of the film. . . but there wouldn’t have been an audience. Instead, the characters overcome the ideological confines placed upon them early in the film so they can try to end the movie successfully. And because of that, the “message” of defeatism actually gets converted from being the thing the audience was meant to take away from the film into the thing that must be beaten for a brighter future. And that's the exact opposite of what Foreman hoped to convey.


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Friday, November 5, 2010

How To Remake A Movie/TV Series

Hollywood loves remakes. On the surface, they appear intellectually easy because all the work of creating characters and situations has already been done, and done in such a way that it proved to be a success. Indeed, these movies/TV shows tend to come with ready-made audiences because they have long-term fanbases. Toss in a few new things to add to that audience and you have guaranteed success, right? Not quite. If it was that easy, then remakes would never fail, and most of them do fail. I think the reason is a lack of love for the subject matter.

What Doesn’t Work

Hollywood has tried all kinds of things for remakes and most of them have failed. The types that have failed generally fall into three categories:

(1) Frame for Frame Remakes: These films basically remake the prior movie almost exactly or with slight differences. The idea behind this type of remake is to sell the movie to an entirely new generation by including new actors. The classic example of this was the scene for scene remake of Psycho starring Vince Vaughn. Other examples include things like the remake of Final Destination, which uses different ways to kill characters but follows the same plot point by point.

The problem with this type of remake is that it’s pointless and it risks killing what made the original so interesting. If the film offers nothing new other than new actors, what is the point in seeing it? Moreover, movies are more than the combination of their plots. They are defined by their camera work, the chemistry of the actors, and the quirks of their time. When you start removing any of these elements, the quality of the film suffers. Thus, these types of remakes are rarely as good as the original and their appeal tends to be limited to fans of the new actors.

(2) Remakes In Name Only: These films are not really remakes, though they claim to be. The classic example of this type is Starsky and Hutch, which had nothing to do with the original series. Instead, this was just a generic modern cop-buddy comedy with the names from the original series laid over the characters. In fact, if you removed the character names, no one would have been able to tell what was being remade. The problem with these films is that they insult the fans’ intelligence, because it’s easy to see that Hollywood is trying to exploit them. Further, these films often turn off non-fans who fear that they would need to know the original material to enjoy the remake.

(3) Provocative/Angry Remakes: This is the type of remake where the person who has gotten their hands on the rights to the original, apparently has no love for the original work. A classic example of this would be the remake of Battlestar Gallactica. It was clear to fans of the original series that Ronald Moore hated the original series; you could see this in all of his interviews where he was condescending to every aspect of the original material, from the storylines to the characters to the production values. And this came across in the first season of the series, where he made needless changes to the characters that insulted fans, and seemed to revel in attacking the original work at every turn. Another example of this was the first year of Star Trek The Next Generation, where the show seemed more interested in repudiating the universe created in the original series than it did in creating a watchable television show. In both instances, it wasn’t until they moved beyond this anger that these shows really found audiences. In films, a good example of this was The Stepford Wives which added an intense amount of anger at the original material, which made the movie unpleasant rather than morally provocative, as the original had been.

The problem with this type of remake is that it has no good will. It turns off fans of the original almost before they’ve seen it, and it keeps non-fans away, just as strangers tend to avoid sitting between squabbling family members. Moreover, it wastes its creative energy attacking the original rather than creating an entertaining new product.

What Does Work

So what does make a good remake? In truth, it’s probably just the avoidance of the three problems above. First, if you’re going to remake material, don’t ever do just a frame for frame or plot-point by plot-point remake. You need to find some new spin on the material and present a full story that stands on its own. Secondly, don’t try to pass off a regular film as a remake just because you include the character names or some references to the original story, you need to capture the essence of what the fans liked about the original.

But the third point is the most critical: not only should you not despise the original material, but the best remakes are made by people who clearly loved the original material. Consider for example The Brady Bunch Movie or The Addams Family films, these were excellent films that struck a chord with the public and continue to get play today. What made these films so special was that the producers clearly loved the original material and intended to keep the essence of the original alive in the remake. They didn’t try to change the characters and they didn’t set out to punish them or to settle scores. And when they did poke fun at the original material, they did it in good humor (not nasty), and the jokes tended be the sorts of things fans might sit around joking about when the original shows were on the air. It’s the difference between laughing with someone and laughing at them.

The remake of Ocean’s Eleven is another good example where they took the overall premise of the original film, kept the hip spirit of the movie and characters, and then set about making a good film that stood on its own, but which simultaneously honored the original material. Indeed, it was clear that whoever remade Ocean’s Eleven understood what made the original so loved, and worked hard to keep that essence in the remake even as they were offering something new to the audience. To give you a sense of what could have gone wrong, the writer could have tried to make the characters edgy, rather than hip, or they could have tried to insert the standard liberal criticisms of the 1950s being a time of racism, wife beating and alcoholism. . . but they didn’t. They stayed true to the spirit of the original.

The problem with this, of course, is that it takes a lot more brain power to understand something and then to expand upon it, than it takes to just steal some character names, make a few references to the original and otherwise just write a generic modern film. Apparently, it’s also hard to find people in Hollywood who don’t hold grudges against older material. But this is something Hollywood should think about asking the next time someone suggests a remake: do the people involved really love the original material or do they just see it as easy material to exploit?

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