This week Mary the Borderstan Movie Fan offers some suggestions for movie rentals during the Christmas season. Her column runs every two weeks.
Other Reviews by Mary
- “Precious” and “The Blind Side” Tell Some Hard Truths
- Borderstan Movie Fan: Children’s Movies for Grandparents, Part 2/Older Kids
- Borderstan Movie Fan: Children’s Movies for Grandparents (Part 1)
- High School Musicals
- Movies for Foodies
- Health Care Options at the Movies
- My Favorite Sexy Movies
- “Borderstan Movie Fan” Tells You What to Rent
Many movies now at the local theaters have been released in time for the Oscar rather than the Christmas season, and they give little comfort to anyone looking for cheer. A lot of the films at the mall are apocalyptic, grim, and sobering. So what to rent or download for Christmas Eve? How to escape the doldrums of an empty holiday afternoon when you don’t want to undergo another movie that is so loud and so dire that it leaves you feeling hopeless?
If you haven’t viewed It’s A Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story, two great American Christmas movies, hurry right off to whichever Blockbuster is still open in your neighborhood. Otherwise, I can recommend some seasonal films that are less familiar because they come from abroad. I’ve chosen two from England, two from France, and one from Russia.
My favorite Dickens Christmas dinner does not end A Christmas Carol; it begins Great Expectations. During that dinner, the young Pip is terrified that his fierce sister will discover that he has stolen a pork pie out of her pantry to give to an escaped convict. In the novel, the orphaned hero’s terror at a table of gourmandizing adults is laced with fabulously comic observation. David Lean couldn’t get all of Dickens’s narrative humor into his adaptation of the novel in 1946, but he took full advantage of the fact that Dickens was one of the most cinematic of authors.
Many of the written details from the book form the most striking imagery of the film. The novel still holds up, and so does Lean’s movie. And if you like his Great Expectations, you might want to watch his Oliver Twist (1947) as well. The two films feature the first film performances by Alec Guiness and marvelous cameos by other distinguished British actors.
The role of Pip as a grown man in Lean’s version of Great Expectations is taken by John Mills. And a second English film worth seeing stars his daughter. In 1961, before her career as a Disney child star took off, Hayley Mills shone in a sweet little movie called Whistle Down the Wind. The plot turns on the discovery by three children of an escaped convict (played by a very young Alan Bates) hiding in a barn. When they come upon him, he exclaims “Jesus Christ!” and they take that literally to be his name.
The children’s belief that they have found the messiah merges the innocence of childhood with the sadness of a lost adult in a way that aligns itself with the season. You can rent Whistle Down the Wind on VHS at Potomac Video.
One of the French films I recommend, Joyeux Noel (2006), retells the story of French, German, and Scots soldiers at the front lines on Christmas Eve in World War I. It elaborates on the historical fact that in 1914 some weary men declared their own Christmas truce, sang their carols across No Man’s Land, and then rose to greet one another there. This film manages to make that story suspenseful, critical of military bureaucracy, and charged with some beautiful singing (by opera stars Natalie Dessay and Rolando Villazon).
Another French film that combines music, sentiment, and social criticism is Les Choristes (2004). This movie concerns a quiet music director at an institution for difficult boys. He teaches them how to sing his beautiful compositions and thereby find pride in themselves. Though not specifically set at Christmas time, the haunting music is right for the season. It gave rise to a best-selling album in France, as did the sound track for Joyeux Noel. You can book both films at Netflix.
Several years ago I toured Russia during the Christmas season, and our guide told us about a small movie, called Ironiya Sud’bi (The Irony of Fate), that has aired on Russian television every December since it came out in 1975. Its plot involves a reticent young man who is enticed by friends into a bachelor party on New Year’s Eve, the night before he plans to propose to his conventional girlfriend.
He becomes very drunk, and his equally drunken friends put him on a plane to St. Petersburg. Once there, and still dazed, he gives a cab driver the address of his Soviet-style Moscow apartment and is taken to the same address in the same kind of building in St. Petersburg. What’s more, the key to his Moscow apartment actually works. Our hero passes out in “his” apartment, only to find himself with the wonderfully attractive young woman who resides there when he wakes up. What ensues is predictable, but also funny and endearing.
You can rent this film from Potomac Video, and it’s worth the effort, for its simple humanity crosses boundaries of its language and culture. After all, that crossing does inspire this season’s universal hope for love and understanding beyond nationality or religion or any other battle lines.
And so… S Novum Godum! Or as we say in Amerika, “Happy New Year!”