The von Trapp Family: A Life of Music (2015)

If filmmakers were hoping to cash in on my love for The Sound of Music, Austria, and Matthew Macfadyen, they’ve found the right vehicle in this von Trapp family biopic. While it doesn’t approach the beloved classic by any measure, it’s a workable companion piece that casts a light on the children’s perspective, namely that of eldest daughter Agathe. The movie is based on her memoirs and, not surprisingly, paints a different, less rosier portrait than the one in the musical. The principal players and events and even some singing remain, but this story is not so concerned with kids traipsing around in drapes as it is with a family navigating the growing menace of Nazism.

Maria (Yvonne Catterfeld) has a supporting role behind sixteen-year-old Agathe (Eliza Bennett), who has never gotten over the death of her mother. After the family move to Salzburg, the young girl takes charge of her siblings, content to be the lady of the house. She is indispensible to her adoring father, Georg (Macfadyen), a respected naval officer, and is not so thrilled when he announces his engagement to their new nanny.

On screen, the courtship takes all of ten minutes, from the time Maria appears at the von Trapp home, guitar case in hand, to the moment the wedded couple shuffle through the gates of Nonnberg Abbey. The sequence is a reminder that this isn’t a movie for soft focus close-ups and romantic ballads in the moonlight. Instead, A Life of Music is determined to bring the mood down closer to reality, and its rougher take makes this retelling worthwhile.

Stubborn and proud, Georg misjudges the political situation and keeps his family in Austria perhaps longer than he should. His defiance sets him up for a dramatic confrontation with the Nazis, who try to strong-arm him over to their cause. Agathe, meanwhile, is more attuned to the national mood. Her friendship with Sigi (Johannes Nussbaum), a young resister, and Lotte (Annette Dasch), an opera singer, allows her a close-up of the destructive ideology taking over the city.

This plot adds details to a familiar story and is the movie’s main appeal because by itself, it’s a lackluster pre-war drama with spotty character development and a completely unnecessary framing device. Rosemary Harris plays an elder Agathe, who is recounting her history to grand-niece Kirsty (Lauryn Canny) in America. Besides contributing nothing to the story that couldn’t be done with voiceover or better writing, the constant flashforwards are so distracting that you would do well to skip over them.

The film trades on what it knows though, and that is the 1965 classic. Sometimes this means trying to get away with half-sketched characters, like Konrad (Cornelius Obonya), the chauffeur and resident villain of the piece. He is parts Franz and Herr Zeller, his working class frustrations manifesting themselves in the worst possible way. Yet his occasional bursts of loyalty to Georg are confusing and neither earn him sympathy nor create genuine tension.

We’re left to fill in the blanks with Maria as well, who while not the film’s focus still has an important secondary role. Unfortunately she doesn’t do much besides establish herself as an anti-Julie-Andrews-Maria, a bit cold and entitled. Part of the problem is that Agathe only really interacts with Sigi and Lotte and, in one powerful scene, her father. The remaining von Trapp children are mere extras. Agathe’s relationship with her childhood friend, Sigi, is the most touching, marked by great warmth in a movie that parcels those emotions out in small amounts. There’s a distance between the family though, and it’s misleading to think of this as a movie about the von Trapps when it really is about Agathe. Nevertheless, Georg has some fine moments, and credit to Macfadyen for bringing precious vulnerability to another beloved character.

Where the film fails its subjects, it makes up for with nods to the movie musical. The stately yellow house with the green doors, the trimmed landscapes of Mirabell Gardens, the lush and sweeping Austrian terrain – the two movies link in a way that doesn’t detract one from the other. This one may be a humbler set for a humbler story, but it still captivates with little effort.

Released: 2015
Prod: Rikolt von Gagern
Dir: Ben Verbong
Writer: Christoph Silber, Tim Sullivan
Cast: Eliza Bennett, Matthew Macfadyen, Yvonne Catterfeld, Rosemary Harris, Johannes Nussbaum, Cornelius Obonya, Annette Dasche, Brigitte Kren
Time: 98 min
Lang: English, some German
Country: Germany
Reviewed: 2019


One Magic Christmas (1985)

There are plenty of movies to choose from if you want to watch one about a down-on-their-luck family that gets a little holiday help during Christmas. One of my favorite films that kind of falls into this subgenre is Where God Left His Shoes. The 2007 drama stars John Leguizamo as a father who tries to get his family out of a shelter and into their own home before Christmas. It treats homelessness with the seriousness it deserves and leaves you feeling both uplifted and uneasy. I also recently caught up The Christmas Star, an older movie that fits snugly into this category. Not as powerful as Leguizamo’s film, it nevertheless has touching moments that make it worthwhile.

So it was with some expectation that I thought One Magic Christmas would deliver. Unfortunately, it buries you in so much sorrow that its feel-good ending comes as a relief rather than as any celebration. Mary Steenburgen is masterful as overworked mom and wife Ginny Grainger, wearing her exhaustion like it’s the only thing she’s got. With an unemployed husband and bills coming due, she has to take a job at the grocery store. You can see her soul creeping away as she stands at the till, leaving her hollowed out by shift’s end. Then things go from bad to worse. It’s not just about finding a way to pay for gifts or arguing about whether Ginny’s husband, Jack (Basaraba), should start his own bike shop. A chain of events leads to a devastating Christmas, a place where all hope has been abandoned.

The thinking behind this movie seems to be that the more sadness and misery these characters experience, the more joyful and redemptive their Christmas will be. A somewhat forgotten angel, Gideon (Harry Dean Stanton), is witness to what transpires and has been sent by God, or the talking moon – it’s not clear which, to help Ginny. But help comes via the most circuitous, painful route imaginable, and I’m sure the movie would be just as moving had Ginny not felt like she’d entered the gates of Hell.

The story is a pile-up of tragedy, which doesn’t just make things sad, it also makes them slow. Steenburgen has a scene early in the film where she’s singing to the Supremes in the shower, and it’s a rare fun and carefree moment. The movie doesn’t allow enough of these though. Sarah Polley plays the sweet neighbor girl, and Ginny’s own kids add charm. Her daughter (Elisabeth Harnois) wants to send a letter to Santa, hoping that he can change things for the better. I even liked sad, hangdog Gideon who does bring perspective and a sense of calm despite talking like he’s the angel that all the other angels don’t invite to their parties. All I need from this supposedly family-friendly movie is a little more optimism.

Released: 1985
Prod: Peter O’Brian
Dir: Phillip Borsos
Writer: Phillip Borsos, Barry Healey, Thomas Meehan
Cast: Mary Steenburgen, Gary Basaraba, Harry Dean Stanton, Arthur Hill, Robbie Magwood, Elisabeth Harnois, Wayne Robson, Sarah Polley
Time: 89 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

After years of neglecting this Christmas classic, I finally found time to enjoy the movie the way it was meant to be enjoyed – alone and nursing bowls of mac and cheese and popcorn. I was pretty disappointed, however, to find that Miracle on 34th Street was about as festive as my holiday snack, and I’m still working out why a film so tedious remains beloved by so many. The plot relies heavily on a court case and a tangle of psychiatric evaluations, none of which scream Christmas fun. It’s not exactly the family-friendly entertainment I was led to believe, and I want my money, or at least my two hours, back.

I’ll also take the 1994 adaptation because while that remake is not on my annual Christmas must-see list, it at least has touches of great tenderness and joy. I still remember Santa signing with the deaf girl and little Susan’s surprise when she tugs his beard. Also there’s dreamy, dreamy Dylan McDermott. None of the characters in the original have the same emotional pull even though the two stories are similar.

The multi-Oscar-winning 1947 film also follows skeptical Susan (Natalie Wood), her reality-based mother, Doris (Maureen O’Hara), and Doris’s suitor, lawyer and neighbor Fred (John Payne). Doris’s last-minute hiring of Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) to replace drunk Santa at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade proves to be a fortuitous move. He looks the part and converses in a language kids understand, Dutch in one case, but more importantly, he gives helpful shopping tips to parents. Sometimes that means directing them to Macy’s competitor, Gimbels, a tactic that unwittingly earns Macy’s greater goodwill and customer loyalty.

Of the two main conflicts, Susan’s wavering disbelief strikes a merrier tune. Wood easily won me over with her hopefulness and measured cynicism. While she might give Santa a mean side-eye, she has a child’s vulnerability, an inclination towards wonder and magic. That’s what I want out of a Christmas movie, but it’s something the adults in her orbit fail to convey. Payne is indistinguishable from the other suited white men, and I was turned off by Fred’s initial admission that he was using Susan to get close to her mother. That’s creepy and very un-Dylan-McDermott-like, even if he does encourage Susan to believe in Santa. Doris, meanwhile, doesn’t give a damn what your criticisms are so long as you keep your ideas about fake old men away from her daughter. In the 1994 version, Elizabeth Perkins shows off this character’s frosty side too, but it seems motivated by some deep hurt, as if sticking to what is real and tangible will keep her from experiencing the rest of life’s disappointment. O’Hara’s interpretation is less forgiving; Doris just doesn’t believe.

Miracle is about more than a little girl who meets Santa Claus though, and the story takes a long, dull turn when it becomes a debate over Kris Kringle’s sanity. Doris insists he go in for a psychological examination when he lists his reindeer as his next of kin, a good show of humor if you ask me. A disgruntled doctor’s report, however, results in a court hearing over Kris’s mental state. I’m not saying that existential questions have no place in a Christmas movie, and actually the holidays are a great time to ponder deeply, but the story dries up when it moves too far away from Susan and her youthful enthusiasm.

Um, *spoiler alert*. “Susan believes” clip:

Released: 1947
Dir: George Seaton
Writer: George Seaton
Cast: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood, Porter Hall, William Frawley, Jerome Cowan, Philip Tonge, Harry Antrim
Time: 96 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Having never seen a version of Miracle on 34th Street, I figured now, when I’m in my late 30s, would be the perfect time to catch up. I still believe in Santa Claus, or at least the spirit of Santa anyway, and that’s more than six-year-old Susan (Mara Wilson) can say. She thinks we’re just a bunch of gullible fools, and she’s not impressed when her mother, Dorey (Elizabeth Perkins), the head of events for a large department store, hires a very realistic Santa (Richard Attenborough) for the holiday season. Despite his efforts and those of Dorey’s boyfriend, Bryan (Dylan McDermot), she just can’t seem to get in a Christmas mood.

I can see where Susan is headed, and it’s straight for the Hallmark Channel. She’s going to grow up into one of those women who hates Christmas because of a traumatic childhood, only to rediscover its joys after a hot guy enters her life. Mara Wilson, the cutest girl onscreen in the 90s, has a soulful sadness to her in this film, and Susan looks like a girl who’s been having an existential crisis for some time. She worries that Cole’s, the department store where her mother works, is going to be bought out and turned into a junk store, and when Bryan starts asking her about getting presents from Santa, she gives him a hard stare that says, don’t talk to me like a six year old.

I love little Susan and pint-sized Mara. Susan wants to believe in Santa so badly, but her cool, practical mother just won’t have it. Dorey even puts her relationship with Bryan on the line by insisting he stop encouraging such fanciful thinking. But Bryan is a dreamboat and all-around good guy and does what he can to give Susan a more magical Christmas experience, including a visit to Santa where her skepticism starts to fade. She concedes that the Cole’s Santa does look like the real deal and is bewitched by his beard and costume, but she really starts reconsidering when she spies Santa sharing a touching exchange with a deaf girl.

The movie is far less holly and jolly than I expected, and it seems more like a film for cynical adults than it is for bouncy kids. It doesn’t have the energy of Home Alone or the adventure of Arthur’s Christmas. Some will surely be bored by aspects of the plot, like when a competing store schemes to kidnap Santa and turn a profit. This results in the arrest and trial of Kris Kringle, and his release depends on a legal argument about the abstract concept of belief. If I was a kid, I’d much rather watch A Christmas Carol, any of them.

Miracle on 34th Street has its appeal though, and it’s thanks to the actors who really inhabit their roles. To this day, I think of Attenborough when I think of Santa Claus. McDermott is the perfect boyfriend and the perfect complement to Perkins. The movie is as much about Dorey as it is about Susan. The latter knows what she wants – a childhood filled with family and wonder. It turns out that Dorey wants that too; she just doesn’t realize it yet.

Released: 1994
Prod: John Hughes, William Ryan, William S. Beasley
Dir: Les Mayfield
Writer: George Seaton, John Hughes
Cast: Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, Mara Wilson, J.T. Walsh, Simon Jones, James Remar, Jane Leeves, William Windom, Robert Prosky, Joss Ackland
Time: 114 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

The Lucky One (2012)

Hallmark movies are an insidious thing. I’ve seen and reviewed so many of them that films like The Lucky One now seem classy stuff. Let’s not kid ourselves though. Nicholas Sparks serves up nothing but treacle – but since this is Zac Efron treacle, I give myself permission to dive in. I’m not sure the hour and a half swim in sugary sludge is worth it, however. Still, anyone who dares take a dip should know what they’re getting into. All of Sparks’s novels and movies find inspiration from the same bingo card, and this one does its best to tick all the boxes.

Efron plays Logan Thibault, a Marine who’s recently returned from his third tour in Iraq. He’s suffering from PTSD and, worried that he might accidentally strangle his nephews and desperate to escape the suffocating normalcy of suburban Colorado, he decides to take a hike, a very long one. The guy walks across the country to Louisiana, maybe because he’s crazy but also because he wants to find a woman, “the lucky one.” It’s not what you think, unless you guessed that she was an anonymous face in a photo that Logan found during a firefight. He credits her picture with saving his life, and while he wrestles with survivor’s guilt, he figures he should at least say thank you and perhaps return the photo.

Logan clearly has stellar Googling skills because he manages to find Beth Green (Taylor Schilling) at her dog kennel somewhere out in the Louisiana woods. Before he can explain that he’s not a stalker, she assumes that he wants to apply for a job and just like that, he’s lost his courage to correct her. Folks, this is why we must watch movies; we need to hammer home the importance of communication. This initial misunderstanding is the basis for a lot of hurt later, pain that could have been avoided if Beth had been a little more patient and Logan had been a little more forthcoming. They would have clarified straightaway that the photo belonged to Beth’s deceased brother, killed in action alongside Logan’s friends.

This isn’t Logan’s only problem though. He has an uncomfortable meeting with Keith (Jay R. Ferguson), Beth’s boorish ex-husband and father of her son, Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart). Keith is a toxic brew of wealth and male entitlement, a sheriff’s deputy and son of a local judge who thinks he can police the town and its women. Ben adores his father but has trouble living up to his macho expectations.

People like Keith exist. Look at Twitter, or the White House, so it’s important that we have characters like Logan, who will encourage Ben’s musical pursuits and stick around for some after-dinner chess. He even works overtime to help Beth’s grandma (Blythe Danner) with kennel repairs and ends every sentence with a “sir” or a “ma’am.” Did I mention he’s also played by Zac Efron? Yes, Troy Bolton grows up and bulks up. This is Efron’s first real adult role, and unfortunately it doesn’t call for much acting. We’re not counting his turn in 17 Again, in which he plays a man swapped into a teenage body. That part required some actual skills, but here, all he needs to do is be a generic love interest. He does a decent job of it, and shy, reserved Logan allows the imagination to fill in the rest.

My imagination isn’t so strong as to overcome the mismatch between Efron and Schilling though. Both have a world weariness about them, but hers is better suited to play Logan’s older sister rather than his lover. Beth’s feelings of loss run deep and because she knows how difficult it is to also support a returning vet, her vulnerability around him seems too easy and clean. Nevertheless, Schilling does her damnedest to turn up the heat, and I’m nominating two scenes for the incredibly-over-the-top-yet-incredibly-hot hall of fame. One involves your standard outdoor shower sex, and the second occurs when Beth is washing the dishes and spies a sweaty Logan from the window causing her to lose all her shit. Girl, same. This is why people watch these movies though, right, to feast on the latest up-and-coming star, be he Ryan Gosling or Liam Hemsworth or Scott Eastwood. I know objectification is not everyone’s thing. Well, sappy romances filled with stock characters aren’t my thing, but I do love how the lush southern scenery frames our couple. The backlighting is intense, and if I ever meet my own Logan Thibault, I better look as fresh and sun-kissed as Beth does in every damn frame.

Released: 2012
Prod: Denise Di Novi, Kevin McCormick
Dir: Scott Hicks
Writer: Will Fetters
Cast: Zac Efron, Taylor Schilling, Blythe Danner, Jay R. Ferguson, Riley Thomas Stewart
Time: 100 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018