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Archive for December, 2011

Just to round off the year, I read this rather sweet little book.  It’s very short – 88 pages of widely spaced font, but packs a punch with it’s story.  Oscar is a young boy who is dying of leukaemia, and lives in hospital.  He receives visits from the ‘lady in pink’ who he calls Granny Rose, and she is the only person who he thinks understands him.  He resents his parents and Doctor for their inability to tell him he’s dying, or to treat him normally.  Granny Rose encourages him to see each of the following 12 days – which lead up to Christmas – as a decade of his life, and to write a letter to God each day, telling him what had happened in that decade.  Even though Oscar doesn’t even believe that God exists he starts to write the letters anyway.

The book is narrated by Oscar (through his letters to God) and he shares the great things about his life – falling in love with another patient, the friends he has at the hospital,and especially Granny Rose; and the not-so-great – his frustration with his parents, feeling tired all the time.  He is a very wise for a child, but somehow this all seems believable.  I adored Granny Rose especially and found the myths and tales that she told Oscar to be very entertaining (it was easy to see why he loved her).

Although the book consists of letters to God, it is not preachy in any way – it is just a deceptively simple story.  I’d recommend this – it would only take about an hour to read and I think many people would enjoy it.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

 

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This is a collection of essays by 42 contributors (because as anyone who has read/watched The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy knows, 42 is the meaning of life), all of whom are atheists.  The contributors are mainly British, and come from a range of different backgrounds and viewpoints – some of the contributors are Ed Byrne, Simon le Bon, Lucy Porter, Richard Herring, Brian Cox and Derren Brown.  And what compilation of essays by atheists would be complete without a contribution by Richard Dawkins?!

As the title suggests, many of the essays are regarding Christmas – just because someone is an atheist doesn’t mean that they can’t enjoy Christmas; after all, most of the rituals associated with Christmas are derived from pagan rituals in the first place.  Most of the essays – but not all of them – naturally also deal with the subject of atheism, but thankfully nobody here is trying to convert anyone to atheism, or encourage anyone to give up on their religion.

The contributions are divided into six categories – stories, science, how to, philosophy, arts and events.  I’ll be honest and say that a couple of the science contributions seemed to be a collection of long words put together in an order that I struggled to make sense of, but for the most part this is a collection of enjoyable, thought provoking, and occasionally hilarious stories and anecdotes.  ‘God Trumps’ by Christina Martin, where she describes making her own Top Trumps card set, featuring various religions, made me burst out laughing, as did (on several occasions) ‘A Day In The Life of a Godless Magazine’ by Caspar Melville and Paul Sims.  This particular essay, while fictional, contained snippets of various genuine letters sent to the New Humanist magazine – brilliantly funny.

Lucy Porter provides a list of recommended Christmas viewing/listening/reading, which can be enjoyed by the whole family, Derren Brown talks about how we should be kind to each other all year round rather than just at Christmas, and Simon le Bon describes how he gradually lost his faith – but how losing faith does not mean that he should or can not enjoy Church music or many of the rituals of a religious Christmas.

There is not enough room to mention each and every contribution, but my particular favourites are listed above.  As with all collections, some contributions are better than others, but there are very few entries which I didn’t find some enjoyment in.  I also don’t believe that this book is in any way offensive to people of any religion – as mentioned earlier, it isn’t an attempt to convert anyone – although some people are bound to be offended by it anyway.

Not only did I thoroughly enjoy this book, but I can see myself picking it up again in future years, to at least read some of my favourite entries.  Definitely recommended.

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This 1949 film stars Cary Grant as French(!) army Captain Henri Rochard in post-war Germany, who is sent on a mission with American Lieutenant Catherine Gates (Ann Sheridan).  Although the relationship is initially antagonistic, they eventually fall for each other and decide to get married.  Afterwards however, they realise that if Henri wants to accompany Catherine back to the United States, he will have to effectively become a war bride!

This is one of film films directed by Howard Hawks, and starring Cary Grant, and is probably the weakest of all five (I strongly recommend fans of either Hawks or Grant, to watch another of their collaborations, Monkey Business, which made me cry with laughter).  That’s not to say that there isn’t lots to enjoy here.  It’s billed as a screwball comedy, but while it had some hilarious physical comedy pieces, courtesy of Grant, it also tended to drag in parts.  When Cary Grant has real chemistry with his co-stars (such as with Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman and Rosalind Russell), the dialogue between them pops and fizzes.  Unfortunately there wasn’t that chemistry with Ann Sheridan, although she certainly gave a good performance.  Grant as a French man is also interesting, given that he doesn’t make even the slightest attempt at a French accent!  If you can accept that fact from the outset, it probably won’t bother you though.  And besides, it’s Cary Grant, and even the worst Cary Grant film (which this isn’t) is usually better than many other films.  Promos for the film show Grant dressed up as a woman, but don’t assume that he looks like this for long – the scene actually lasts for a few minutes, but it IS funny.

So would I watch it again?  Possibly, if it happened to be on tv, but I’m not sure I’d make the effort to specifically sit down and see it.  That’s not to say that I didn’t like it – just that if you’re going to watch a Grant movie, you might as well pick from the myriad of excellent films he made, rather than one of the less interesting ones.

Year of release: 1949

Director: Howard Hawks

Writers: Henri Rochard (book), Charles Lederer, Leonard Spigelgass, Hagar Wilde

Main cast: Cary Grant, Ann Sheridan

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Another classic musical from the MGMs golden age, starring the immensely talented Judy Garland (it’s a good job she is multi-talented too, because a lesser star would have had the show stolen from right under her nose by Margaret O’Brien as adorable Little Tootie).  This isn’t strictly a Christmas film, but it does feature Judy singing ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, so it almost counts!

Set in 1904, the Smith family live in St Louis and are excited about the yearly St Louis World’s Fair.  Judy plays Esther, the second eldest daughter and one of five children.  The aforementioned 7 year old Margaret O’Brien is youngest child Tootie, and anyone who thinks that children can’t be exceptional actors should see this film!  While eldest daughter Rose (Lucille Bremer) hopes for a proposal from her boyfriend Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully), Esther falls in love with the family’s new neighbour John Truitt.  The family’s happiness is threatened when their father (Leon Ames) announces the he has been given a job in New York, and the family will have to move there.  There are some superb songs – the title track, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, Skip To My Lou and The Trolley Song, to name a few – and there is lots of colour, romance and humour.

This isn’t my favourite Judy Garland film – I think the lesser known films The Harvey Girls and The Pirate are both better movies – but it is hugely enjoyable and bound to make the viewer feel good.  Judy looks beautiful, and there is not a weak link among the cast.  And it made me want to visit St Louis!

Recommended for all fans of great musicals.

Year of release: 1944

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Writers: Sally Benson (book), Irving Brecher, Fred F. Finklehoffe, Doris Gilver, Victor Heerman, William Ludwig, Sarah Y. Mason

Main cast: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, Tom Drake, Marjorie Main, Henry Davenport, Joan Carroll, Henry H. Daniels Jr.

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This much beloved Christmas film from 1954, is the second Bing Crosby film to portray him as part of a group of entertainers, set in a hotel, and in which he sings White Christmas.  The similarities to Holiday Inn are notable – and the two films would have been even more similar if Fred Astaire had been Crosby’s co-star – which was the original plan.  However, Astaire was going through his first retirement stage when this film was made, so Donald O’Connor was cast.  When he became unavailable, Danny Kaye was eventually given the role.

Crosby and Kaye play two Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, two WW2 army friends.  After the war is over Bob goes back to his original job as a Broadway entertainer, and is joined by Phil.  They meet two sisters – Betty and Judy Haynes (played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen respectively), who have a singing act of their own.  Hoping to get Bob and Betty together, Phil persuades his entertainment partner to accompany the sisters to Vermont, where they wind up in a hotel run by their former commanding officer, Major General Waverley (Dean Jagger).  The hotel is down on its luck, haemorrhaging money, and has no guests.  Bob, Phil, Betty and Judy pledge to put on a show to draw the crowds in, and improve the fortunes of their beloved former boss.

I did like this film a lot – it was very light hearted (and of course, somewhat predictable; we all know how romantic comedy musicals are going to turn out after all), but it’s a shame that Astaire wasn’t available to partner Crosby again – for the all the fabulous dancing and entertainment on show here, I think his presence would have enhanced it still further.  Still, Danny Kaye really gave it his all, and provided many of the more humorous moments.

There were some terrific dance numbers, courtesy mainly of Vera-Ellen (who had a beautiful face, but sadly some of the skimpier costumes really highlighted the actress’s battle with anorexia – her legs looked painfully thin in certain scenes) – my favourite one was the dance with her and Danny Kaye ‘The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing’ – lovely song, great dance.

Rosemary Clooney’s voice was perfect – of course – and I really liked her more hesitant character.  She was the perfect screen girlfriend for Bing Crosby here – while Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye provided humour, Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby provided pathos (and humour too).

So really, like a lot of musicals, this is a string of great numbers held together by a slightly flimsy storyline.  It’s so good-natured however that you can’t help feeling good when viewing.  Definitely recommended as a festive treat!

Year of release: 1954

Director: Michael Curtiz

Writers: Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, Melvin Frank

Main cast: Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen, Rosemary Clooney

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It was probably a very brave decision to remake Miracle on 34th Street.  The original 1947 movie is much loved and pretty near to a perfect Christmas film.  This 1994 version is actually the third remake, but the only remake made for cinematic release.  The story is more or less the same.  A young girl named Susan doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, but then she meets the new Santa at Cole’s Department Store (the original film used Macy’s, but Macy’s didn’t want to lend their name to this film, so the fictional store of Cole’s was used instead), who insists that he is is the real Santa Claus.  Susan starts to wonder whether Santa might in fact really exist…

There are a few changes in this version.  In 1947 those who wanted to prosecute Kris Kringle only needed to prove that the man really believed he was Santa Claus, in order to prove him insane, and have him committed.  In 1994, the fact that a man might believe he is Santa Claus would not be enough to have him committed – he is no danger to anyone else or to himself.  To that end, the reason for Kris going on trial is changed slightly.  There are also a couple of added villains who provide a tangent that was not in the first film.

I would say that while this was not an unenjoyable film, it simply is nowhere near a patch on the original.  Richard Attenborough is certainly great as Kris Kringle/Santa; I preferred Edmund Gwenn in the role, but Attenborough cannot be faulted.  However, whereas the little girl Susan was so adorably portrayed by a young Natalie Wood in the original version, I found Mara Wilson somewhat irritating in the same role (and I do feel bad criticising a child actor in a Christmas film!).  The real difference however is in the chemistry – or lack of – between Elizabeth Perkins as Dorey, Susan’s mother, and Dylan McDermott as Bryan Bedford, Dorey’s some-time boyfriend who defends Kris in court.  There simply wasn’t any spark between them; Bryan came off as bland, and Dorey verged on being unlikeable (unlike in the original film when the chemistry between Maureen O’Hara and John Payne really crackled).

The story dragged a little bit more as well, and the added elements didn’t really work.

On a shallow note however, there was one thing going for this film – James Remar as a spy for a rival department store, was GORGEOUS!  I very much enjoyed watching him on the screen!

Overall I would say that my enjoyment of this film was slightly lessened by my enthusiasm for the original.  If you watch the 1994 version first, you may really enjoy it; it just doesn’t stand up well to comparison.

Year of release: 1994

Director: Les Mayfield

Writers: Valentine Davies (story), George Seaton, John Hughes

Main cast: Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, Mara Wilson

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Click here for my review of the 1947 movie.

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This film from 1946 has rightly become classic Christmas viewing.  It was James Stewart’s favourite of his own films, and it’s easy to see why.  He plays George Bailey, a kind hearted businessman who has looked after others and sacrificed his own dreams to help his own family, but now he finds himself contemplating suicide as his business looks set to fail, and he faces jail for a mistake that he didn’t even make.  An angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) is dispatched to earth to help George (Clarence hopes that if he can help George, he might finally earn his wings), and shows George what life would be like in his town, if George had never existed.

This is just such a lovely film.  It certainly isn’t particularly light-hearted or funny (it touches on themes of poverty, lost dreams and suicide), but it is still a film that makes you feel happier for having watched it.  James Stewart had such a likeable manner about him, and nowhere is it put to better use than here.  He plays George as a thoroughly decent and generous man, but he is not without flaws.  Indeed his sense of generosity makes him a less than brilliant businessman, and he keeps employing his hapless uncle -a decision that may lead to George’s downfall.  Donna Reed is luminous and beautiful as George’s wife Mary, and is certainly not just a token wife.  She is a strong and kind woman, who dearly wants to see her husband happy.  Henry Travers is adorable as Clarence the angel – he might not be a very intellectual angel, but he has buckets of compassion.  The villain of the piece is Lionel Barrymore as Henry Potter – a rich businessman who threatens to get rid of George and his business – and make many of the citizens of the village poor and trapped in unhappy lives.  Barrymore is excellent in this type of role!

The ending is perfect, and yes I was sitting there with tears rolling down my face!  It’s a perfect film to watch at any time of year (but especially at Christmas), and really reminds us of how all of us can make a difference to others.

Year of release: 1946

Director: Frank Capra

Writers: Philip Van Doren Stern (short story),  Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson

Main cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers, Toff Karns

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