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In the Catbird Seat/Joe Kirkish

Variety in alternative holiday movies

December 22, 2011
The Daily Mining Gazette

Ever on the lookout for ways to make money, Hollywood latched onto the biggest holiday season of all and spewed out movie after movie with Christmas somewhere in its theme. Variety is the result.

Some, like "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street," were actually scheduled for summer release, but gradually became welcome favorites for the holiday season, now listed among the "Top Ten" in popular Christmas films.

Others, like adaptations of famous books, have had long movie histories. Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," for example, turns up, year after year since its original shortened version as a silent 1901 hit.

Added along the way were dozens of other Christmas-related flicks that fell neatly into the genre: "Shop Around the Corner" (1940) has a stellar cast headed by Margaret Sullivan and Jimmy Stewart in a lightly romantic, traditional boy-meets-girl theme. "The Bishop's Wife" (1947) focuses on a religious theme with a bishop's economic needs attended to by Christmas "angel" Cary Grant.

There were variations on the Scrooge-turned-Santa themes, from the British "Scrooge" (1970) to the Hollywood "Scrooged" (1988), starring Albert Finney and Bill Murray, respectively.

Then along with feel-good holiday films come the lesser known family delights, including this one which won audiences for its sentimental magic: "Our Vines Have Tender Grapes," a 1945 war-time movie, reveals the special season in rural Wisconsin through the eyes of Margaret O'Brien and Edward G. Robinson.

But, traditional sentiment aside, there are also the odd-ball films.

Consider the animated surprises: "Nightmare Before Christmas" is Tim Burton's 1993 weird romance that has become a cult favorite, or the "Muppet's Christmas Carol" (1992), meant to be their filmic swan song, is still a hit. Another off-beat but lovable comedy is the surprise winner "A Christmas Story" of 1983, about a kid who remembers the time he wished longingly for a Red Ryder BB gun.

Then there's the funny-scary odd-ball "Gremlins" (1984) - Joe Dante's critter film which spawned a sequel, sadly not as clever or seasonal as the original.

Meanwhile, the worst for bad taste became the 2003 "Bad Santa," with Billy Bob Thornton as the swilling, flagrantly foul-mouthed Santa, mirroring the Hollywood '80s trend in destroying traditional icons.

Along the same iconoclastic vein, but in a far more brilliantly conceived movie that revolved around the holiday season, came from Monty Python creator Terry Gilliam in 1985, with his "Brazil," a richly inventive, bleak satire - not for everyone's taste.

In 1988 appeared an intensely dramatic action flick about crime in a flaming high-rise building during the Christmas season, "Die Hard," introduced Bruce Willis as a daring-do crime fighter par excellence.

The least successful of all holiday films came from an unlikely source: Steven Spielberg's "1941" with its cockeyed war comedy starred Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi; it disappointed Spielberg lovers and flopped.

From Australia came a colorful story about a group of Down Under country kids out to capture a pair of horse thieves. "Bush Christmas" was handsomely filmed - twice - in 1947 and 1983.

The oddest surprise to come out of the 2003 Hollywood mill is "Elf," a likable, gentle comedy from director Jon Favreau and starring Will Farrell as an adopted elf. He head from Santa Land for New York to find his roots, and the human-born elf turns out to be a cheerful, likable character roaming Gotham in full elf mufti, complete with G-rated yellow tights.

For all these, and so many more movies from here and abroad, during times of stress, were films that sought to fulfill the Christmas spirit as relief from the drudgeries of life. There were still the all-time favorites that, regardless of personal religious preferences, remain as awesome momentary escape at 24 frames a second - silent or with dialogue and music, in black and white or brilliant color - they prove that movies do provide magic when encouraged to do so. Soon, Santa in 3D anyone?

Rotten Apples averages: "Sherlock Holmes," C+; "Chipmunks," D.



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