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

The Duel (2016)

Emory Cohen was robbed of the Best Supporting Actor nod for his portrayal of Tony, Saoirse Ronan’s sensitive, working class boyfriend, in Brooklyn in 2015, and I’ve been chasing his career ever since, waiting for him to take a part that is as compelling and magnetic as that one. He hasn’t, but he’s still fascinating to watch no matter how small the role, which is how I end up watching movies like The Duel, a film that bears no resemblance to the polished Brooklyn.

A dirty, unapologetic Western, this movie stars Liam Hemsworth as David Kingston, a Texas Ranger sent to investigate the murders of dozens of Mexicans along the border. He brings his wife, Marisol (Alice Braga), at her insistence to the dusty town of Mount Hermon, which is under the grip of mayor and healer Abraham Brant (Woody Harrelson). Cohen plays his son, Isaac, a young man with any number of demons to be exorcised.

It’s clear before David and Marisol even stumble into town that something is wrong with the place. They enter under the pretense of visiting nearby family, but the calculus changes when Abraham offers David the job of sheriff, one he takes so that he can explore the area with less suspicion. Marisol is at first wary of the eyebrowless preacher dressed in white, but when he corners her in her home and begins speaking of her insecurities, she is bewitched.

The film grabs ahold of several interesting threads. The mystery of the dead bodies clogging up the river doesn’t just reveal the brutality of mankind but also touches on issues of sovereignty, nationalism, and race. Faith takes on mystical qualities as Marisol becomes increasingly drawn to Abraham’s healing powers, and relationships between father and son and husband and wife expose a rot at their core. There’s also the first instance of a duel when Abraham kills David’s father, perhaps allowing revenge to overtake the latter’s sense of duty.

None of these are followed through or proceed in a way that makes a lot of sense, however. Is Marisol really sick or is it all in her head? Why does she suddenly turn from her husband? Also, what is Isaac’s deal? He clearly wants to win his father’s approval, but what is driving them apart to begin with? Mount Hermon is a town that’s good at hiding things, and there’s just too much hidden in this plot to justify any kind of investment in the story or characters.

Instead, the movie banks on the appeal of Abraham. In the hands of Harrelson, that means a wacky personality that dominates the picture despite strong performances from the other actors. Hemsworth the Younger is surprisingly fierce, and his David is more than a righteous stoic. You get the feeling that he’ll always make the just decision even if it’s not the moral one. Braga and Cohen get parts that are not as well written, but they still convey their characters’ bleak and tortured souls. Cohen especially is a live wire. Harrelson, however, wrestles control from every scene he’s in, putting not just the people of Mount Hermon under his spell but the audience as well. There’s a point when Abraham’s zany behavior becomes oppressive though, serving the character alone and not the story.

Released: 2016
Prod: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Adam Rosenfelt, Maureen Meulen
Dir: Kieran Darcy-Smith
Writer: Matt Cook
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, Alice Braga, Emory Cohen, Felicity Price
Time: 109 min
Lang: English, some Spanish
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Legends of the Fall (1994)

Legends of the Fall was released in 1994, when I was twelve and thought such films were Very Important Epics, ones that only grown ups watched. So now that I’m grown up and pruning my Netflix queue, I thought this grand American tapestry could go with my July 4th weekend. (Alright, I watched this in July.) What I imagined would be a charged national myth instead turns out to be a misty western romance, of the kind that’s got me wondering why we have such stubborn reverence for these things. The film is beautifully shot, and I concede that Montana is a place of majesty, but it’s a movie full of self-importance and little story. I never managed to figure out what exactly are the legends of the fall and whether they are in fact just variations of Brad Pitt.

The story is ostensibly about a U.S. cavalry officer and his three sons who live deep in the Montana wilderness at the turn of the century. William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins) raises his boys far from the shadow of the government, not because he fears its encroachment but because he is disgusted by its treatment of native peoples. Respect. The story, however, is mostly about middle son, Tristan (Brad Pitt), who is singled out for legendary status by his father. He is neither ambitious and political like older brother, Alfred (Aidan Quinn), nor is he naïve and bookish like younger brother, Samuel (Henry Thomas). Tristan is a man true to his surroundings, one who wrestles with bears, tames wild horses, and cuts hearts out of dead soldiers. And he looks fab doing it.

Tangling with the West is a lonely pursuit, and that’s the way the Ludlows like it, but introduce a woman, and suddenly priorities change. Samuel brings his fiancée, Susannah (Julia Ormond), back from the East, and she’s barely gotten settled before he decides to go off and play soldier with the Canadian military during the First World War. The older brothers follow, and Susannah thinks she’s gotten a raw deal, especially because she also fancies the brother with the long, flowing hair.

The war changes the family irrevocably, but then again, wars do that. So do changing times and the need for human contact. Alfred goes off to Helena, the big city, and makes a career for himself as a businessman and politician. Tristan goes off to find himself, and also finds Isabel II (Karina Lombard), the grown daughter of his dad’s farmhand. All get caught eventually, whether by rum runners, romance, or bears.

If there is some deep meaning in these legends, however, you’ll have a hard time finding it. The film is little more than a string of majestically shot and scored vignettes. Just you watch as beautiful Brad Pitt crests a sun-kissed hill with a herd of wild horses, a James Horner score humming in the background. These suggestions of grandeur and epic never materialize into something more than a romanticized ideal of the West though. One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis), an old Cree scout, narrates the picture, but he’s no more than a prop to lend the story a mythic, “native” quality. We never meet him or even know his relationship to the Ludlow family. He’s kept at arms length, like Tristan, distant and unknowable. Legends, I suppose.

Released: 1994
Prod: Marshall Herskovitz, William D. Wittliff, Edward Zwick
Dir: Edward Zwick
Writer: Susan Shilliday, William D. Wittliff
Cast: Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn, Julia Ormond, Henry Thomas, Karina Lombard, Gordon Tootoosis, Christina Pickles, Paul Desmond
Time: 133 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018