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Home Theater for the Holidays

by Ed Owens

Blackadder's Christmas Carol (Richard Boden, 1988)

Dickens' now ubiquitous source material serves as little more than fodder for this television version of the usually treacly tale of Ebenezer Scrooge's own Road to Damascus. British comedian Rowan Atkinson, having parlayed his bitterly cynical (and alarmingly funny) Edmund Blackadder character into a recurring series for the BBC, turned his savage worldview on the holiday spirits and gave us perhaps the most subversive Christmas Carol to date. A pleasant surprise for those new to the world of the scheming Edmund (and his idiotic assistant Baldrick), and a must-see for fans of the series.

Dekalog
(Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988)

Kieslowski's mini-series is a bit hit or miss, ranging from the masterful ("Thou shalt not kill...") to the melodramatic ("Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife..."). But the occasional missteps cannot prevent many of the episodes from being the powerful meditation Kieslowski intended. Far from making spirits bright, the opening episode, a tale of loss and grief centered around a holiday tragedy, is sincerely moving and genuinely thought-provoking, largely due to Kieslowski's sure-handed direction.

Go (Doug Liman, 1999)

No holidays are complete without drug deals gone bad, warehouse raves, wild trips to Vegas, and talking cats...at least, not in Doug Liman's deliciously over-the-top follow-up to Swingers. Go's magic carpet ride manages to completely engage and intrigue despite treading familiar Tarantino territory, thanks largely to fine work from an ensemble cast that reads like a Who's Who of TV refugees, a perfectly chosen soundtrack that keeps things light and bouncy, and energetic camerawork by Liman himself. Credit should also go to editor Stephen Mirrione who brings some much needed order to the chaos.

Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)

As comedies go, Dante's scathingly satirical vision of monsters on a yuletide rampage through small-town America is about as dark as it gets (surprisingly so given the influence of writer Chris Columbus and executive producer Steven Spielberg). Though the movie is not without flaws (some of the performances are...well...weak), Dante keeps the proceedings moving briskly enough, frequently making references within references and building nicely to the film's very un-Disneylike climax. Followed by a more farcical sequel that, though not set during the holidays, would certainly make a worthy double-feature.

Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987)

If nothing else, the first in the series is a study in tightness and efficiency. For example, not two minutes into Richard Donner's uber-buddy picture, Jackie Swanson, wearing thigh-high designer hose and no bra, seduces the camera from the relative comfort of her swanky couch. Porn movies waste more time. Of course, she then snorts some coke and swan dives off a 20th floor balcony, but then this isn't a porn movie. It is, however, a tightly written actioner (from Shane Black, also responsible for the underrated The Last Boy Scout), well-acted by Glover and Gibson, and smartly directed by Donner, providing the template for a slew of buddy-cop pictures that followed. While the downward trajectory of the series can't be ignored, it shouldn't be held against the original.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983)

Ok, so any link to the holidays is tenuous at best, but the fact that few people have even heard of (and even fewer have seen) Nagisa Oshima's brutal and haunting psychological study is truly a shame. Toichiro Narushima's (Double Suicide) cinematography is sumptuous, while Ryuichi Sakamoto's score (he also plays one of the leads) is one of the better examples of how music can enrich a film (he most recently scored DePalma's Femme Fatale, including the brilliantly executed opening sequence). Add to this great performances by Tom Conti, Pre-"Beat" Takeshi Kitano, and the Thin White Duke himself, David Bowie, and you've got a film that deserves to be better known than it is.

A Midnight Clear (Keith Gordon, 1992)

Keith Gordon wrote and directed this adaptation of William Wharton's novel of the same name, a memorable, if not entirely successful, film about a young squad of American soldiers in the last days of WWII. Gordon tends towards the overly obvious at times, but the ensemble cast (including Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon, Gary Sinise, and Frank Whaley) manages to overcome the material's shortcomings with a lot of help from the superb cinematography by Tom Richmond (most recently behind the camera with Knockaround Guys). Whether you find the film's eventual climax mind-numbingly predictable or achingly inevitable is largely a matter of taste, but the film's resonance makes it well worth seeing regardless.

Monty Python's Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)

Four years after striking a chord with Monty Python and the Holy Grail , the British comedy troupe struck a nerve with this tale of a man constantly mistaken for the Messiah. Edgy and controversial even today, the film is also very funny, showcasing the clever and subversive humor they had honed on the series, lampooning religion and history (many of the sets--produced by Terry Gilliam--are jokes in and of themselves). The film plays more as a series of sketches than Holy Grail did, but still manages moments of inspired comic brilliance (the stoning is one of my favorites, as is the closing musical number). This one has Christmas Eve tradition written all over it.

©2002 Ed Owens
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