90’s Film Frenzy: Wicked Round 1

Before we conclude Round 1 of 90’s Film Frenzy please go back and check out first round action in the Dope, Fly, and Phat divisions.

 

You have likely noticed that I consistently use two metrics in my evaluation…box office and critic reviews. I utilize Rotten Tomatoes to see what the critics had to say, and I look at Box Office Mojo to see how the movie stacked up financially against its competition. When I was growing up we didn’t have The Internet and movie critics were a rare breed mostly confined to big city newspapers. The big dogs on the block were Siskel & Ebert because they actually had their own television show, so you’re seeing them referenced a lot, mostly out of nostalgia. I also tend to focus on reviews that were written at the time of a film’s release in the 1990s because it is rather bogus and a bit unfair to give credence to something written many years later by a critic who has suddenly jumped on the bandwagon of a cult film that has grown in stature thru the magic of home video. Having said that, neither the box office nor the critics are always an accurate measure of a movie, and something that has achieved cult status for whatever reason shouldn’t be overlooked just because it didn’t make much money or receive critical acclaim two+ decades ago. It’s a delicate balancing act…one I hope that I am doing well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ghost

Release:                       7/13/90

Starring:                        Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg

Directed By:                 Jerry Zucker (Airplane!, Ruthless People)

 

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Reality Bites

Release:                       2/18/94

Starring:                        Ethan Hawke, Winona Ryder, Janeane Garofalo, Steve Zahn, Renée Zellweger, John Mahoney

Directed By:                 Ben Stiller (The Cable Guy, Zoolander, Tropic Thunder)

 

If there is one film in this competition that might qualify as “quintessential 90’s” I think Reality Bites fits the bill. It’s right there in the title…Reality Bites. Angst-ridden twenty-somethings try to find their footing in the post-graduate jungle that is life. That’s pretty much the idea. The cast is impressive, and the soundtrack is representative of its era, with songs from Crowded House, Lenny Kravitz, Julianna Hatfield, & The Posies. Not exactly mainstream, right?? I feel like the most enduring legacy of Reality Bites is the hit song Stay by quirky Lisa Loeb. This movie came out right after I graduated college and had entered the workforce, but at the time I was also still clinging to the old college life…hanging out with my friends and patronizing familiar watering holes ‘til 3am. Stay was in heavy rotation on the jukebox, and I have a vague recollection of a female acquaintance of mine dancing to the song and stripping down to her unmentionables right in the middle of the bar. Ghost was nominated for five Academy Awards and won two of them. When a banker is shot & killed by a mugger his ghost enlists the help of a shady psychic to warn his grieving girlfriend of impending danger. The enduring legacy of Ghost includes the zenith of Patrick Swayze’s solid career, Whoopi Goldberg when she was still funny and not a political hack, one of Demi Moore’s best performances, a renewed appreciation for The Righteous Brothers’ hit Unchained Melody, & a sudden interest in learning more about pottery.

 

The Verdict:       Ghost. I was precisely the target audience for Reality Bites and still found it dull. It was the 63rd highest grossing film of 1994, behind such stalwarts as Shaquille O’Neal’s Blue Chips, Pauly Shore’s In the Army Now, & Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Timecop. Rotten Tomatoes scores it at 66%, with the Chicago Tribune calling it “a good example of an anti-establishment comedy crippled by a seeming desire to infatuate the establishment itself”, while The New Yorker observed that “when the movie is over you don’t feel as if you had shared the experience of a new generation…you feel puzzled and vaguely crummy”. Conversely, Ghost won Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Goldberg). It was the second highest grossing film of 1990, behind only Home Alone, and holds a 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Gene Siskel declared that “Moore has never been more fetching”, while his buddy Ebert said that the movie “occasionally succeeds in evoking the mysteries that it toys with”.

 

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Glengarry Glen Ross

Release:                       10/2/92

Starring:                        Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey

Directed By:                 James Foley (Reckless, The Chamber)

 

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Striking Distance

Release:                       9/17/93

Starring:                        Bruce Willis, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Farina, John Mahoney

Directed By:                 Rowdy Herrington (Road House)

 

Just glancing at the cast of Glengarry Glen Ross elicits such high expectations that it’d be almost impossible for a film to live up to them. Based on a 1984 Pulitzer Prize winning play by David Mamet, the story shows us two days in the lives of aging real estate salesmen desperate to keep their jobs. The corporate office has announced that half of them will be fired in a week, so they must do whatever necessary to get the numbers needed to impress the boss. Lemmon, Arkin, Harris, & Pacino are powerful performers on an individual basis, and as an ensemble they are unmatched. Throw Spacey and a brief but memorable appearance by Baldwin into the mix and what you have is a movie in which the plot is secondary to the performances. In the hands of lesser actors it might be a total yawner, but what we end up with is a masterclass in how to make relatively mundane subject matter absolutely riveting. Bruce Willis was already a big movie star by 1993, with two Die Hards, two Look Who’s Talking films, & less appreciated fare like The Bonfire of the Vanities, Hudson Hawk, & The Last Boy Scout on his resume. Striking Distance tells the story of a disgraced Pittsburgh homicide detective relegated to river rescue duty after opining that a serial killer might be a rogue cop. When someone begins stalking him the game is afoot and the only person he can trust is his fetching female partner…or so he thinks. Striking Distance isn’t fondly recalled as one of Willis’ best, but with a cast that includes Parker, Mahoney, & Farina and a Pittsburgh backdrop familiar to this West Virginian I believe it is better than many may recall.

 

The Verdict:       Glengarry Glen Ross. I’m not usually into murder mysteries or police dramas, but Striking Distance works for me in a way it doesn’t seem to for many others. It was the 63rd highest grossing film of 1993 (better than Rudy but behind Pauley Shore’s Son-in-Law) and has an abysmal 14% Rotten Tomatoes score. Entertainment Weekly called Willis “morose” and the movie a “flat, dankly lit, grindingly inept thriller”, while Ebert called it “an exhausted reassembly of bits & pieces from all the other movies that are more or less exactly like this one”. Conversely, Glengarry Glen Ross has a stellar Rotten Tomatoes score of 94%, with Ebert saying that “you can see the joy with which the actors get their teeth into these great lines” and ReelViews opining that “for anyone who loves sharp dialogue, compelling characters, and a stinging social rebuke, Glengarry Glen Ross is not to be missed”. It was only the 94th highest grossing movie of 1992, yet we must consider that it isn’t a big budget epic but rather a stage play put on film. The fact that one can still appreciate its prominence nearly three decades later outweighs any perceived box office shortcomings.

 

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The Big Lebowski

Release:                       3/6/98

Starring:                        Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Tara Reid, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Directed By:                 Joel & Ethan Coen (Raising Arizona, Fargo, No Country for Old Men)

 

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Ten Things I Hate About You

Release:                       3/31/99

Starring:                        Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Larisa Oleynik

Directed By:                 Gil Junger (Black Knight, If Only)

 

Ol’ William Shakespeare is still inspiring people 400 years after he left this mortal coil, and a big Hollywood trend the past few decades is to take the basic theme of a Shakespeare play and set it in modern times with young & hip movie stars. Ten Things I Hate About You turns Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew into a romantic dramedy about high school students. Stiles, Ledger, Gordon-Leavitt, & Oleynik star as two sisters and the guys attempting to woo them, and the cast also includes Andrew Keegan, David Krumholtz, Gabrielle Union, & Allison Janney. It was the 53rd highest grossing film of 1999 and has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 62%, with Variety observing that it “doesn’t even seem certain which decade it’s set in”, the San Francisco Chronicle opining that the movie “wimped out by blanding down the story and the characters to the point where she isn’t really a shrew and he isn’t really a maniac”, and Ebert chiming in that high school films are “running out of new ideas and have taken to recycling classic literature”. The Big Lebowski has grown in stature & popularity in the two decades since its release when it was the 96th highest grossing movie of the year, behind immense competition like Half Baked, Simon Birch, & Bulworth. It is the very definition of a cult film, although with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 82% it seems like critics recognized its greatness long before the masses caught up. Jeffrey Lebowski is known by his friends and refers to himself simply as The Dude. He is the quintessential slacker who enjoys sitting around in his bathrobe, drinking white Russians, and bowling with his pals Walter & Donny. When two thugs assault him in his house demanding money that is owed to their boss it becomes clear that they have the wrong guy…they’re after the other Jeffrey Lebowski – an old, handicapped millionaire. The thugs leave The Dude in peace but take a wiz on his area rug first, which offends him tremendously because the rug “really tied the room together”. When The Dude seeks out the other Lebowski for recompense he ends up getting caught in a complex plot involving kidnapping, ransom, a porn magnate, & a high school kid named Larry. The Cincinnati Enquirer called The Big Lebowski “loopy, unfathomable, profane, & very funny”, while Ebert simply framed it as “weirdly engaging”. There is actually an annual event in Louisville, KY called Lewbowski Fest which, since 2002, has celebrated the film with bowling, trivia, & costume contests, and a “religion” called Dudeism that advocates & encourages “going with the flow”, “being cool headed”, and “taking it easy” in the face of life’s difficulties, which does sound kind of awesome.

 

The Verdict:       The Big Lebowski. No contest. The Dude abides. But well, you know, that’s just, like, my opinion, man.

 

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October Sky

Release:                       2/19/99

Starring:                        Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Laura Dern, Chris Owen

Directed By:                 Joe Johnston (Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji)

 

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Four Weddings & A Funeral

Release:                       5/13/94

Starring:                        Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell

Directed By:                 Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)

 

Hugh Grant first became a thing in the early 90’s mainly because of Four Weddings & A Funeral. The plot is pretty simple, as it follows a small group of people whose lives keep intersecting at various social engagements, specifically…you guessed it…four weddings and a funeral. Andi MacDowell is a charming actress who has been in a few films that I’ve really enjoyed but she mostly flies under the radar. I vaguely recall seeing Four Weddings & A Funeral back in college, and what I remember most is a cover of an old 60’s song Love Is All Around that would be co-opted again a decade later for the British Christmas rom-com Love Actually. I think others enjoyed the movie more than me, as Four Weddings & A Funeral was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards, holds a 95% Rotten Tomatoes score, & was the 21st highest grossing film of 1994. Gene Siskel observed that it “couldn’t be more psychologically astute in its portrait of a man who defines himself by his bachelorhood”, while Entertainment Weekly raved that its “infectious charm and sunny goodwill can immediately buoy a soul”. Fellow West Virginian Homer Hickam is the subject of October Sky, which is based on his memoir Rocket Boys. We meet Homer as a high school student living amongst the economically and otherwise depressed coal fields of southern West Virginia in the 1950s. Homer and his pals dream of a better live outside of Appalachia, and the launch of Soviet satellite Sputnik into space inspires an interest in building rockets. Unfortunately dreams of success, happiness, & achievement are met with resistance from the redneck masses, and it’s up to the young lads to blaze their own trail and prove everyone wrong. The only person who seems to be in their corner is a kindhearted science teacher, but that’s enough. Homer Hickam went on to become a NASA engineer for nearly thirty years. October Sky was the 63rd highest grossing film of 1999 and holds a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Ebert complimented the movie’s “deep values”, while CNN called it “a sensational character-driven story with a strong narrative and great visual style”.

 

The Verdict:       October Sky. In doing my prep work I was surprised to learn that Four Weddings & a Funeral had been nominated for Best Picture. Perhaps the timing is just off for me. Back then I was at the tail end of my collegiate existence and caught up in other things. I remember seeing it once, and in the ensuing decades I don’t think I’ve ever seen it again. I’m sure if I went back and watched it now I’d find it perfectly delightful, but obviously it didn’t really resonate with me for whatever reason. Conversely, I can identify with certain beats in October Sky that few outside of Appalachia could ever understand. This was Jake Gyllenhaal’s first starring role, and he & the rest of the cast are superb.

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Liar Liar

Release:                       3/21/97

Starring:                        Jim Carrey, Maura Tierney

Directed By:                 Tom Shadyac (Patch Adams, Bruce Almighty)

 

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Doc Hollywood

Release:                       8/2/91

Starring:                        Michael J. Fox, Julie Warner, Woody Harrelson, Bridget Fonda, David Ogden Stiers, Barnard Hughes

Directed By:                 Michael Caton-Jones (Rob Roy)

 

Jim Carrey is a mixed bag for me. His shtick gets old really quick, and I tired of it fifteen years ago. However, between 1994 & 2003 he starred in a handful of memorable films, and Liar Liar might deserve a spot at the top of the list. Carrey plays a hotshot attorney whose focus on his career and deceitful ways have already ended his marriage and are on the verge of costing him his young son Max, who makes a wish on his birthday that his Dad not be able to lie at all for just one day. Max’s wish comes true and hilarity ensues. Liar Liar was the fourth highest grossing film of 1997 and has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 81%. Variety called it “close to an ideal jumping-off point for Carrey”, the Hollywood Reporter opined that “Carrey has never been better, funnier, or more controlled”, and Ebert expressed trepidation that “I am gradually developing a suspicion that Jim Carrey is growing on me”. Doc Hollywood marked Michael J. Fox’s emergence from the Back to the Future niche that he’d been in for over five years, and the results aren’t too shabby. He plays a hotshot Washington DC doctor on his way to Los Angeles to make bank as a plastic surgeon. But when he crashes his classic Porsche in a rural South Carolina town he finds himself marooned for awhile and forced to serve as the local physician for a quirky group of townsfolk. Gradually he starts to mellow and grow fond of his new neighbors, and of course there is a fetching young lady with which he becomes smitten. Doc Hollywood is kind of predictable, but enchantingly so, with a great cast and fun characters. It was the 24th highest grossing movie of 1991, ahead of Bugsy, Thelma & Louise, and Point Break. Rotten Tomatoes scores it at 71%, with Newsweek saying that it “oversells its whimsy and fits its quirkiness into a sitcom formula”, while Ebert called it “a sweetheart of a movie”.

 

The Verdict:       Doc Hollywood. There is a scene in Doc Hollywood involving the exquisite Julie Warner emerging from a lake that rivals Phoebe Cates infamously exiting a swimming pool a decade earlier in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I can’t get that scene out of my head when pondering the film. I’m a sucker for stories involving big city types being beguiled by easygoing small town life, and the cast pulls this version of the formula off to my satisfaction. I am not swayed by the box office for Liar Liar and like Fox better than Carrey.

 

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Lethal Weapon 4

Release:                       7/10/98

Starring:                        Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, Rene Russo, Chris Rock, Jet Li

Directed By:                 Richard Donner (Superman, The Goonies, Scrooged)

 

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Can’t Hardly Wait

Release:                       6/12/98

Starring:                        Ethan Embry, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Lauren Ambrose, Peter Facinelli, Seth Green, Charlie Korsmo, Jason Segel, Donald Faison, Selma Blair, Sara Rue, Jenna Elfman, Jerry O’Connell, Melissa Joan Hart, Breckin Meyer

Directed By:                 Deborah Kaplan (A Very Brady Sequel)

 

Fans of the Lethal Weapon series have been anxiously awaiting a fifth installment for twenty years, and though I’m usually a “never say never” kind of guy I believe at this point that it’s too little too late and I’m okay with that. The fourth & final Lethal Weapon finds Riggs reluctant to marry his very pregnant girlfriend Lorna, Murtaugh dealing with the pregnancy of his eldest daughter by a mystery man, and the long in the tooth duo investigating an illegal Chinese immigrant smuggling situation. Rock joins the cast as an overzealous detective who is more than he lets on, and of course Pesci is back as fast talking ex-con Leo. Lethal Weapon 4 was the 11th highest grossing film of 1998, though it was also the most expensive of the four films to produce. It holds a 52% score on Rotten Tomatoes, with Time referring to it as “mindless, sadistic violence juxtaposed with rote sentimentality”, while the New York Times generously pronouncing that it “turns out to be one of the nicer blow-’em-ups around”. Can’t Hardly Wait is another Hindsight Film, full of young actors who have stuck around long enough to be known for other things. It is also a classic high school film, set at a conventional graduation party and deconstructing all of the requisite high school archetypes. It was the 74th highest grossing movie of the year, ahead of Rushmore and A Simple Plan but behind Bride of Chucky and A Night at the Roxbury. It holds a 40% Rotten Tomatoes rating, with Entertainment Weekly calling it “a high-spirited, synthetically raucous house-party comedy” and Ebert saying that it “lumbers ungracefully from romantic showdowns to deep conversations to bathroom humor”.

 

The Verdict:       Lethal Weapon 4. Though rumors of one last movie persist I think 4 provides a fitting conclusion to a very entertaining series. Perhaps the powers-that-be could learn a lesson from Die Hard, a franchise that should have stopped after three installments but has subjected the masses to two additional films with a sixth one possibly on the way. Sometimes it’s better to end on a high note and leave the memories alone. Back in the days of Party of Five I had a huge celebrity crush on Jennifer Love Hewitt, so I’m all in on Can’t Hardly Wait. However, in a sub-genre that has produced so many memorable movies the past few decades it really doesn’t stand out from the crowd.

 

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Backdraft

Release:                       5/24/91

Starring:                        Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Robert De Niro, Donald Sutherland, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca De Mornay

Directed By:                 Ron Howard

 

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That Thing You Do

Release:                       10/4/96

Starring:                        Tom Everett Scott, Liv Tyler, Johnathon Schaech, Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry

Directed By:                 Tom Hanks

 

Every uniformed profession…policemen, the military, doctors, lawyers (hey…a three piece suit is kind of a uniform)…seems to get their own movie or TV series eventually. After all, life or death situations provide plenty of theatre. Backdraft is an ode to firefighters that tells the story of a wave of suspicious fires in Chicago, with a little family drama, political intrigue, & romance thrown into the mix. Ron Howard is a terrific director and the all-star cast is impressive, helping to make it the 14th highest grossing film of 1991, just behind Fried Green Tomatoes and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II but ahead of JFK and The Prince of Tides, and has a solid 74% Rotten Tomatoes score. Gene Siskel called it “a spectacle worth observing”, Ebert feebly praised it by saying “the scenes involving fire are so good they make me recommend the movie anyway, despite its brain-damaged screenplay”, and the Washington Post said “Backdraft is sure to do for fire what The Poseidon Adventure did for water”, which may have been meant as a compliment…possibly. That Thing You Do was written & directed by Hanks and tells the story of a small town band that quickly rises to fame in the early 60’s on the popularity of an infectious pop hit. Hanks plays a supporting role, while the real stars are the band along with a fetching young female groupie. As with many actual bands egos & personal agendas quickly get in the way and torpedo the group’s success, making the movie a more insightful than expected examination of why one hit wonders are what they are. It was the 60th highest grossing film of 1996 (better than Fargo and Sling Blade) and has a stellar 93% Rotten Tomatoes score. Variety calls it “a sweet, likeable tale”, the New York Times dubbed it “rock-and-roll nostalgia presented as pure fizz”, & Rolling Stone framed it as “a brightly entertaining blend of humor and heartbreak”.

 

The Verdict:       That Thing You Do. This matchup illustrates a few things. First of all, my personal tastes are on full display, with a breezy, lightweight, fun movie beating out an effects laden, action packed melodrama. Secondly, I think it points to the dichotomy that we see even more today than two decades ago when it comes to movies…the action film packed with explosions and A-List talent that inspires awe on the big screen versus the frivolous guilty pleasure that we watch over & over again on television years after its release. And finally, if the material is written well enough then sometimes it’s okay to cast a few under-the-radar performers and help them pull it off with catchy tunes and a good director. Tom Hanks also wrote & directed 2011’s Larry Crowne, so he isn’t infallible…but I’d be willing to give anything he wrote & directed a whirl based on That Thing You Do.

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A Time to Kill

Release:                       7/24/96

Starring:                        Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Sandra Bullock, Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland

Directed By:                 Joel Schumacher (St. Elmo’s Fire, Falling Down, Batman Forever)

 

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The Blair Witch Project

Release:                       7/14/99

Starring:                        Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard

Directed By:                 Daniel Myrick (Believers, The Strand)

 

In 1999 The Internet was still in its infancy and “going viral” was a new concept. Social media wasn’t a thing yet, but that worked out well for The Blair Witch Project. The movie was highly anticipated before it even hit theaters because of its ingenuous marketing campaign. Reality television wasn’t on anyone’s radar yet either, so many folks were easily duped into believing that the movie was actual lost footage of a student documentary gone terribly awry. One kind of longs for those halcyon days when we weren’t so jaded & cynical. The movie itself follows three student filmmakers investigating an urban legend called The Blair Witch. I’m not a horror film aficionado, but I recall thinking that the movie isn’t really that scary, that it is more fascinating as an examination of the trio’s descent into madness. It was the tenth highest grossing film of 1999, earning more than The Green Mile, Oscar winning Best Picture American Beauty, and the first American Pie movie. That feat is even more impressive when you know that The Blair Witch Project had a budget of only $60k and earned almost $250 million. It has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 87%, with the Associated Press pointing out that “the thought that it might just might be real makes it much scarier”, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune calling it “a no-excuses horror show with an emotional wallop like falling headlong into a bear trap”, and the Washington Post saying it is “not the goriest, the grossest, the weirdest, the eeriest, the sickest, the creepiest, or the slimiest movie…just flat out the scariest”. A Time to Kill might be John Grisham’s best book…even better than The Firm…maybe. The movie takes a few liberties in telling the story of a Mississippi lawyer attempting to defend a black man who murdered two white men that raped & beat his young daughter. McConaughey is superb as the stressed out attorney, and Jackson gives one of his most nuanced performances as the distraught & vengeful father. The main issue I have is that the part of the female law student helping the defense team is beefed up considerably from the book because Sandra Bullock was cast in the part, but I realize that probably only bothers fans of the novel. A Time to Kill was the tenth highest grossing film of 1996, ahead of Scream but behind The Nutty Professor. It has a 65% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Rolling Stone called McConaughey “dynamite in a performance of smarts, sexiness, scrappy humor, and unmistakable star sizzle”, while Ebert thought the movie “a skillfully constructed morality play that pushes all the right buttons and arrives at all the right conclusions”.

 

The Verdict:       The Blair Witch Project. Wow, this is a very difficult decision. Neither film is the kind of breezy couch potato escapism to which I am typically drawn. However, evaluated on their own merits the choice becomes a bit clearer. I am not a big Sandra Bullock fan. There is just something about her that annoys me for no apparent reason. Given that fact, I was more irritated than usual when her character was magnified in the movie far more than she had been in the book. Secondly, while the novel A Time to Kill is probably a better book than The Firm I am not sure that is true when comparing the two movies. I am not at all into horror movies and probably won’t ever watch The Blair Witch Project again, but I cannot overlook its uniquely astounding success and the fact that it was most certainly a product of its time…probably a little ahead of it.

Merry Movie Mayhem: North Pole (Round 1)

Today we finish the first round of Merry Movie Mayhem. If you need to go back and catch up on the results thus far just click on the links to see what went down in the Candy Cane, Eggnog, & Mistletoe Divisions. I’m pleased with the pace we’ve set so I think we’ll take a break for a few days before moving on to Round 2. If you didn’t see your favorite holiday film in the competition don’t hesitate to leave me a comment asking “What up with that, dawg??”…or something to that effect. There is probably a perfectly reasonable explanation for its exclusion. Or maybe I just completely overlooked it. Who knows??

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s A Wonderful Life                             

Released                                           12/20/46

Starring                                              James Stewart, Donna Reed                                

Director                                              Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)

Rotten Tomatoes                              94%

I feel like I’ve written just about everything there is to say about IAWL in the years since the inception of The Manofesto, but allow me to offer a brief refresher. The story was conceived by a Pennsylvania Civil War historian named Philip Van Doren Stern. The Greatest Gift was not accepted for publication for whatever reason, so Stern simply included it in his annual Christmas card mailings. Someone on his Christmas card list must have liked the short story, because it was subsequently published in 1944. A film producer saw the story and it eventually ended up in the hands of director Frank Capra. IAWL was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, & Best Director. A clerical error prevented the copyright from being renewed in 1974, so due to it being in the public domain the movie became a popular late night staple during the holidays on local TV stations throughout the 70’s & 80’s until 1993 when the copyright was restored to Republic Pictures, who then licensed it to NBC in 1996. For the past two decades NBC had shown it only a couple of times every December (early in the month & again on Christmas Eve), but starting in 2016 USA Network (which is owned by NBC/Universal) added a few additional airings. Of course with streaming & other home video options none of that really matters anymore.

 

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Love Actually

Released                                           11/14/03

Starring                                              Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth. Laura Linney, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley

Director                                              Richard Curtis (Four Weddings & a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary)

Rotten Tomatoes                              63%

Personally I am more unconvinced of Love Actually’s claim to being a Christmas film than I am Die Hard, but I’m feeling generous. This is one of those movies…like New Year’s Eve, He’s Just Not That Into You, & Valentine’s Day…with a huge, very British, very talented ensemble cast involved in multiple stories that all seem to intersect by the end. There are those who love Love Actually, and maybe they are right. Perhaps I’m missing something or just being obtuse.

 

The Verdict:       It’s A Wonderful Life. Believe it or not there are people that hate IAWL. Some people say “How can a movie about suicide be a heartwarming Christmas classic??”. Others remember when it used to be on TV a bazillion times every December and still hold a grudge, even though a) that hasn’t been the case for over twenty years, & b) there are other movies these days that are shown just as much as or more than IAWL used to be and those same people love those other movies. I guess folks just like what they like, and I happen to adore IAWL. If it’s not your cup o’ tea we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Love Actually is a perfectly delightful film, but not only is it severely overmatched here, it’s also a movie that I just haven’t watched often at all & can take or leave.

 

 

 

 

The Polar Express                                

Released                                           11/10/04

Starring                                              Tom Hanks                                 

Director                                              Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away)

Rotten Tomatoes                              55%

Zemeckis is back!! Actually this was his first foray into motion capture technology…and perhaps one of the earliest feature films utilizing it. The story is based on an award winning 1985 children’s book about a group of kids who ride a magical train to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. Tom Hanks plays a half dozen different characters. I’m totally into motion capture and think it’s cool, but I understand that others find the animation disturbing for whatever reason. I am far beyond the age of believing in Santa Claus, but I’ll be darned if this movie doesn’t make me REALLY want to believe once again.

 

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Deck the Halls

Released                                           11/22/06

Starring                                              Danny DeVito, Matthew Broderick

Director                                              John Whitesell (Big Momma’s House 2)

Rotten Tomatoes                              6%

The Rotten Tomatoes score seems harsh, but I get it. With a title borrowed from the beloved Christmas carol you’d expect this movie to be a bit more uplifting, but it’s not. The story follows two neighbors who end up going to war during the holiday season when one of them decides to put up an elaborate light display that “can be seen from space”. I have to assume that the plot is inspired by those shows you see on The Travel Channel this time of year called Crazy Christmas Lights or something like that, and I think those shows & those types of gaudy displays may have been inspired by National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Personally I prefer elegant & tasteful Christmas lights and can do without the rock music accompaniment, but to each their own. Anyway, in my opinion this movie isn’t as bad as the critics might indicate, if only because of the talented cast.

 

The Verdict:       The Polar Express. I adore this movie. It is the very definition of holiday magic. Wouldn’t we all like to retain that childlike wonder that allowed us to believe in something as enchanting as Santa Claus?? Of course we would. Deck the Halls is better than a rotten 6% rating…but not much better.

 

 

 

 

 

Planes, Trains, & Automobiles 

Released                                           11/25/87

Starring                                              John Candy, Steve Martin            

Director                                              John Hughes           (Mr. Mom, Sixteen Candles, Uncle Buck)

Rotten Tomatoes                              92%

Here we go…back to Thanksgiving. However I think this is probably superior to any other Thanksgiving movie or show. It’s actually a road trip/buddy comedy that happens to be set at Thanksgiving. I’m a huge John Hughes fan. He wrote/produced/directed so many wonderful films. And the pairing of Candy & Martin?? Inspired. Brilliant. Comedy gold. I only wish they would have made more movies together. Thanksgiving is a unique holiday that is difficult to besmirch with commercialism. People don’t want gifts or candy or flowers. It’s not an excuse to party or blow things up. All that most folks want on Thanksgiving is to be at home with loved ones and enjoy a nice meal. This movie captures that desire in such a subtle & funny way that it kind of sneaks up on you.

 

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Arthur Christmas

Released                                           11/23/11

Starring                                              James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie

Director                                              Sarah Smith

Rotten Tomatoes                              92%

A lot of the movies & shows you’re reading about here have been around for awhile…25 years, 35 years, 50 years, 75 years. This is one of the new kids on the block. It hasn’t had time to really ingratiate itself into our pop culture consciousness. It may or may not ever achieve that goal, but does merit inclusion in this exercise. Arthur is Santa’s youngest son, and he’s kind of the black sheep of the family. The North Pole is depicted as a high tech command center, Santa’s sleigh is the sort of ultramodern vehicle that NASA dreams about, & the annual Christmas Eve flight around the world is an intricate operation that’d make the U.S. military envious. The mantle of Santa Claus is passed from father to son, with the current titleholder, Malcolm, on the verge of retirement and his eldest, Steve, preparing to take the reins soon. But this particular Christmas Eve something goes awry and it’s up to Arthur, inept but resolute, to save the day. Arthur Christmas takes familiar territory and adds a futuristic spin, but instead of being cynical itself it is more of a fun commentary on Christmas cynicism.

 

The Verdict:       Planes, Trains, & Automobiles. I like Arthur Christmas well enough. It’s fresh, creative, & entertaining. But the competition is just too much. It has become almost as much of a Thanksgiving tradition as turkey, football, & the Macy’s Parade.

 

 

 

 

 

Frosty the Snowman         

Released                                           12/7/69

Starring                                              Jimmy Durante, Jackie Vernon          

Director                                              Rankin/Bass

Rotten Tomatoes                              60%

“Singing Cowboy” Gene Autry recorded Frosty the Snowman in 1950, just one year after his Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer hit #1 on the charts. But it wasn’t until 1969 that CBS first broadcast the animated special based on the song. Nearly a half century later it is still a beloved annual tradition. While the song is a winter carol that has become tangentially associated with Christmas despite the holiday only being mentioned at the very end, saying “he waved goodbye saying ‘don’t you cry…I’ll be back on Christmas Day!’”, the special is set on Christmas Eve and features Santa Claus “resurrecting” Frosty after he’s been locked in a greenhouse by Professor Hinkle and melted.

 

 

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The Family Stone

Released                                           12/16/05

Starring                                              Diane Keaton, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Clare Danes

Director                                              Thomas Bezucha

Rotten Tomatoes                              52%

Dysfunctional family dramedy has become a common theme in holiday films. I really can’t relate because I’ve always gotten along with my family and look forward to visiting with them on holidays. At any rate, there are several subplots in The Family Stone, as everybody seems to have some kind of issue. They scream, they cry, they argue…but familial love wins in the end, as it should. The cast is phenomenal, from the sublime Diane Keaton & elegantly low-key Craig T. Nelson to the wittily charming Luke Wilson & radiant Rachel McAdams. The movie ends on a bit of a downer, which unfortunately impacts one’s lasting impression. The story stays with you for awhile, but not necessarily in a good way.

 

The Verdict:       Frosty. Come on…was there any doubt?? Look, I realize that Christmas can be very sad for many people, and Hollywood feels compelled to address that aspect. I get it…I really do. I will admit that…mostly because of the talented ensemble and nimble writing…The Family Stone has gotten its fair share of repeat views from me. However, at the end of the day I still choose for Christmas to be a joyous occasion despite the harsh realities of life. Maybe someday I’ll be the guy sitting alone in a dive bar on Christmas Eve nursing my whiskey and raging at the jolly masses while wondering why my life has gone so horribly wrong, but thankfully I’m not there yet. Frosty the Snowman is something I grew up with, and for a short time every December I get to bring my inner child out to play, which is awesome.

 

 

 

 

Holiday Inn                           

Released                                           8/4/42

Starring                                              Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire 

Director                                              Mark Sandrich (Top Hat, The Gay Divorcee)

Rotten Tomatoes                              100%

Did you know that the Holiday Inn chain of hotels got its name from this movie?? Well you do now!! Bing Crosby stars as a song & dance man who decides to escape the bright lights of New York and open a quaint Connecticut inn that will only be open on holidays. There is singing, dancing, romance, & hijinks, all centered around familiar celebrations on the calendar. Holiday Inn is mostly remembered for introducing the world to the song White Christmas, but there are memorable performances throughout. They don’t make movies like this anymore, which is a shame.

 

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All I Want For Christmas

Released                                           11/8/91

Starring                                              Ethan Embry, Kevin Nealon, Thora Birch

Director                                              Robert Lieberman (D3: The Mighty Ducks)

Rotten Tomatoes                              0%

1991 will be forever be remembered by the masses as the year that launched the fabled career of actor Ethan Embry. And while he went on to star in cinematic masterpieces like Vegas Vacation, That Thing You Do, and Can’t Hardly Wait, it is this little holiday gem that might outlast everything else. The basic gist of the story is that two kids whose parents are divorced hatch a scheme on Christmas Eve to get them back together (spoiler alert: it works). For such an overlooked film the cast is actually quite stellar, including Thora Birch (who would go on to more notorious roles in American Beauty and…well…American Beauty is pretty much it), Leslie Nielsen as Santa Claus, SNL funnyman Kevin Nealon, & the legendary Lauren Bacall. All I Want For Christmas was a box office bomb that the critics didn’t like, but found new life for awhile popping up on television, which is where I first discovered it. It’s not a great movie, but it is delightful enough.

 

The Verdict:       Holiday Inn. I am eternally indebted to my friend & brother The Owl for introducing me to this movie back in college. I pride myself on having good taste, and films like this display a level of class generally absent from the vast majority of modern entertainment. Would it even be possible to maintain a business that is open less than a dozen times per year?? I have no idea. But the concept sure does make a terrific foundation for this movie.

 

 

 

 

 

The Santa Clause

Released                                           11/11/94

Starring                                              Tim Allen                  

Director                                              John Pasquin (Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous)

Rotten Tomatoes                              75%

There was a brief moment in 1994 when Tim Allen starred in the top rated show on TV (Home Improvement), authored the best-selling book in the country (Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man), & played Santa in the #1 film at the box office. The Santa Clause was the first of a (unplanned…I assume) trilogy, and is indisputably the best of the three movies. It is an origin story suggesting that Santa is a character inhabited by different men at different times. In this case Scott Calvin…a divorced toy executive who has consistently disillusioned his young son…inherits the job when the current Santa falls off his roof and I guess dies…a morbid fact that is mercifully glossed over. Scott & his boy Charlie deliver gifts around the world and spend a night at The North Pole, but the real fun begins the next day when the new Santa thinks it was all a dream…until he slowly begins to morph into The Jolly Old Elf over the next few months. I’m a fan of Santa Claus origin stories, and this is one of the best.

 

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Mickey’s Christmas Carol                   

Released                               12/16/83

Starring                                   Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck                 

Director                                   Burny Mattinson (The Great Mouse Detective)

Rotten Tomatoes                            90% (a)

It’s difficult to tell the story of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in a half hour, yet it’s been tried several times with varying degrees of success. Taken at face value the Mickey Mouse version is perfectly charming. Disney created the character of Scrooge McDuck in 1947 as a homage to Ebenezer Scrooge, and that tribute comes full circle in this show. Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit is perfect casting, and a few other cartoon favorites make an appearance (Jiminy Cricket, Daisy Dick, Goofy, The Three Little Pigs, Chip & Dale, Huey, Dewey, & Louie, Minnie Mouse). Television aficionados may be interested to know that Hal Smith (Otis Campbell from The Andy Griffith Show) and Alan Young (Wilbur from Mister Ed) provide the voices for Goofy/Jacob Marley and Scrooge McDuck / Ebenezer Scrooge, respectively.

 

The Verdict:       The Santa Clause. Mickey’s Christmas Carol is a great introduction to the story for small children, but at a running time of less than 30 minutes it only has time to hit the highlights, which is fine for short attention spans but not all that enticing to adults. There is also an issue with accessibility. I remember it being on TV when I was a kid, but I don’t think it has aired with any kind of regularity for a decade…maybe two. The Santa Clause instantly became a beloved classic twenty years ago. Sure it has some undertones emblematic of somber 90’s cynicism, but that is minimized in favor of Christmas magic. I love Santa origin stories, and though it has a modern spin at the beginning the outcome is decidedly vintage.

 

 

 

 

A Christmas Carol (1984)

Released                                           12/17/84

Starring                                              George C. Scott       

Director                                              Clive Donner            (The Thief of Baghdad)

Rotten Tomatoes                              74% (a)

I am a traditionalist in most aspects of life, and it has always been my belief that uniquely British characters from British novels should be portrayed by British actors in film adaptations. However, there are exceptions to most rules, and in this case I must admit that Virginia native George C. Scott is a worthy Ebenezer Scrooge. This version of Carol was a made-for-television production that aired on CBS here in America, but it was released in theaters in Britain and certainly has a big screen vibe. Like just about every other adaptation it takes certain liberties with the novel, adding & subtracting little things, but none are deal breakers. If you’re channel surfing and need your Scrooge fix you could definitely do worse.

 

 

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Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Released                                           11/18/94

Starring                                              Richard Attenborough, Dylan McDermott, Elizabeth Perkins

Director                                              Les Mayfield (Encino Man, Flubber)

Rotten Tomatoes                              61%

There are no sacred cows in Hollywood. If they’ll remake Psycho, The Karate Kid, Footloose, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and The Pink Panther then apparently all bets are off. This was clear way back in 1994 when a remake of the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street was released. The thing is…it’s not that bad. Macy’s didn’t want to be involved and Gimbel’s was already out of business, so two fictional department stores fill in, but other than that and a few other modern updates the essence of the story remains. Alas, while the underrated Elizabeth Perkins as the jaded mother is luminous, the film itself lacks the innocent magic of the original, replacing it with subtle 90’s era cynicism.

 

The Verdict:       A Christmas Carol. I don’t HATE the Miracle remake and I don’t LOVE this version of Carol, but I am used to there being a plethora of A Christmas Carol adaptations and accept that each of them tries to put their own unique spin on the story. This one brings a lot of good stuff to the table. 1994 wasn’t the first time Miracle on 34th Street was remade, but the others were TV movies made in the 50’s & 70’s that are easily ignored. The 1994 movie can’t be ignored and I’m not suggesting it should be, but it just doesn’t measure up.

 

 

 

 

The Lemon Drop Kid

Released                                           3/8/51

Starring                                              Bob Hope

Director                                              Sidney Lanfield (The Hound of the Baskervilles)

Rotten Tomatoes                              73% (a)

My generation remembers Bob Hope as an aging comedian who frequently hosted variety show specials on NBC, including an annual show at Christmastime when he would introduce college football’s All-American Team, and also for regularly heading overseas to entertain American servicemen in places like Korea, Vietnam, & The Middle East. Hope always ended his shows with his signature song Thanks for the Memory, and the Christmas special traditionally featured him singing Silver Bells. But from the 1930’s thru the 60’s he was also a movie star, and Silver Bells became famous in part due to being sung in this film in which Hope plays a fast-talking racetrack hustler known as The Lemon Drop Kid because of his fondness for lemon drop candies. When The Kid inadvertently crosses a well-known gangster in Florida he is given until Christmas Eve to come up with the money he owes or else he’ll face…unpleasant…consequences. The Kid flees to New York, but when his gig as a street corner bell-ringing Santa Claus doesn’t work out he hatches a new scheme to raise donations for a phony old folks’ home. That plan is going alright until another mobster interferes. Hilarity & chaos ensue, but all’s well that ends well in a fun Christmas Eve climax.

 

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Trading Places

Released                                           6/10/83

Starring                                              Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd

Director                                              John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers)

Rotten Tomatoes                              86%

I wanted to avoid crossover with this project and 80’s Movie Mania, which necessitated a few difficult decisions. At the end of the day that means Trading Places & Die Hard were saved for this competition, while Lethal Weapon was a part of 80’s Movie Mania. At any rate, Murphy & Aykroyd are both SNL alums who went on to bigtime movie stardom in the 1980’s. Their stars have since faded significantly, although they still pop up now & again (Aykroyd has gracefully transitioned into supporting roles, while Murphy still labors under the delusion that he’s relevant). Hot off the success of 48 Hrs. and just before the box office triumph of Beverly Hills Cop, Murphy took this role as a smartass homeless bum who basically switches lives with an erudite stockbroker at Christmastime as part of a social experiment/wager between two wealthy old geezers. The key is that the two guys are set up and not in on the joke. It is essentially a modern take on Mark Twain’s 1881 novel The Prince & the Pauper, and the two leading men really deliver. It is a smart, funny, well-written movie with an immensely satisfying conclusion.

 

The Verdict:       The Lemon Drop Kid. This is a tough call. It’s a great example of what exactly defines a Christmas movie…or not. Both are set at Christmastime. Neither story is dependent on Christmas as a factor in the plot…they both could be set at any other time of the year with few changes needed. However, I think the Christmas timeline plays a slightly bigger role in The Lemon Drop Kid, and we cannot overlook the fact that the movie introduced the world to what has become a very popular Christmas carol. There is an accessibility issue. The Lemon Drop Kid is never shown on television…not even on AMC or TCM, and it’s not available on streaming services. The only way I know to watch it is on YouTube, which is a shame. Trading Places is a great movie…one of the best of its era. But it just doesn’t jump into my mind when pondering Christmas movies.