Tuesday, January 31, 2017

What I Miss About My Mom

Today would have been my mom's 86th birthday. Five years ago she passed away. Sometimes I can't believe it has been that long and other times it feels like she has been away forever. I have always believed that when you love somebody you never lose them. You will always have them in your memories. But even with my memories of her firmly in hand there isn't a day that goes by when I don't miss her. Below is some of what I miss the most:

Her sandwiches (Perfection between two slices of bread)

Watching her with my kids.

Getting the occasional old school, snail mail letter from her ( She never did learn how to use email)

Seeing how she reached out and ministered to people who could be difficult or overlooked.

Christmas breakfast at her house.

The way her face would scrunch up out of nowhere when she started to cry.

Knowing that if I was watching a Giants game she was probably watching it too.

In her last couple of years, hearing her tell same story she told yesterday or even a couple hours ago.

Her goody drawer. (It was for the kids but I liked it too)

How she took care of dad (before and after his illness)

Knowing she was praying for me.

Being able to call her if I wanted or needed to.

The way she would laugh at herself.

Playing cards with her and dad.

Having her visit and hating to see her go back home.

Her quiet adventurousness.

Her wise advice.

Her gentle spirit paired with a powerful faith

Her presence.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Top 10 Christmas Movie #1: It's a Wonderful Life

Some of the movies on this list were instant hits. Home Alone, White Christmas, and Miracle on 34th Street were among the highest grossing movies the years they were released. Others like A Christmas Story and Planes, Trains and Automobiles took some time to find their audience and take their place among the classics. It's a Wonderful Life is considered  to be not only a classic feel good Christmas movie but is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made (#20 on the American Film Institutes top 100 movies). But, when it was released in 1946 it was a box office flop and looked to be destined for obscurity. 

Fate had a different plan. A clerical error caused the movie's copyright to lapse which made it inexpensive for local televisions stations to broadcast, This resulted in stations airing it repeatedly especially during the holiday season and bringing the movie back into the public's consciousness. What they discovered was not a corny, lighthearted fluff piece but rather a brilliantly written and  acted film that goes to some pretty dark places to tell an ultimately inspirational story.

The movie starts with Angel Second Class, Clarence (played by Henry Travers) being assigned to help George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) on Christmas Eve. George is contemplating ending his life and it will be Clarence's job to restore his hope. To prepare he is given an overview of George's life. He sees events like a young George saving his brother from drowning and stopping the local druggist from accidentally poisoning a child. He watches as George sees his dreams of travel and achieving great things continually being thwarted usually because he has sacrificed his own interests to help somebody else. 

Even though he has set aside his dreams he has his wife Mary (played by Donna Reed) and children who he loves. He is, if not completely satisfied, content until the fateful Christmas Eve. Suddenly, through no fault of his own the life that he has built and the family he loves appears to be in danger of collapse. The dreams he never achieved seem to mock him as irreversible failures. His past is a bad joke and his future appears to be a nightmare. The two clips below take place just as George is hitting rock bottom. (By the way, Jimmy Stewart's acting in this scene is amazing)

Soon after this scene George and Clarence finally meet in person. George tells him that everyone would be better off if he had never been born. Clarence decides that his best chance at helping George is to show him what the world would be like if he had never existed. What follows is a nightmare. George gets to see how he touched not just the lives of his friends and family but how his absence had effects far beyond what he could have imagined. Clarence sums it up this way, "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" George also also learns that the help he has given to others will be returned in kind. As Clarence reminds him at the end, "No man is a failure who has friends".

I like all of the movies on this list. They are all entertaining. They have made me laugh and in some cases have made me cry. They have all contributed to what makes this time of year so much fun. This film though is the only one to have actually had an impact on me. I remember stumbling across it one afternoon on TV. I think I was about 12 or 13 years old. I was struck by the message of the film. After watching it I wanted to be George Bailey. I wanted to be the guy that had that kind of effect on other people. This movie made me want to be a better person. How many movies can you say that about?

There is no question in my mind that this is the greatest Christmas movie of them all. In fact I will fight you on this. (So much for being a better person) If you haven't seen it you need to fix that soon. And if you don't tear up when Harry says, "To my big brother George. The richest man in town", well you need to get an x-ray to make sure you have a heart.

Merry Christmas!

Top 10 Christmas Movies #2: White Christmas

Andy Bauer weigh in on movie #2 on our list.
I’ve written about White Christmas in this space a couple of times, and truth be told, could probably fill a substantial volume writing about all it’s awesome sauce.  It’s one of those movies I’ve seen so many times I don’t even really pay attention to the plot anymore.  I spend my time looking in the background for all the little things I missed on the previous 100 viewings.  And boy is there some great stuff in the background.  Whether you’ve seen it dozens of times like I have or if this is the first time you’ve ever heard of it, do yourself a favor and watch the backup dancers during the Mandy routine.  It’s solid gold.
For the ones that somehow aren’t familiar with this Christmas gem, White Christmas is the story of army buddies Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) who team up after WWII to become a “boffo” song and dance act.  Doing a favor for an old pal from the Army, they meet the Haynes sisters, Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen), another song and dance duo.  Phil, scheming to get Bob a wife and kids, and therefore some time away from the show biz grind for himself, conspires with Judy, looking for some freedom from Betty, to get Bob and Betty together.  The four travel to Vermont for a little R&R, where they run into Bob and Phil’s old commander, General Waverly (Dean Jagger), who now runs an inn.  Times are tough for the General (who prefers not to be called general, but everyone calls him that anyway).  The lack of snow has been bad for business and the inn housekeeper Emma (Mary Wickes) let’s Bob and Phil in on the secret that the General is in over his head.  Bob and Phil, look to their show business sway to find a way to save the inn and show the General he hasn’t been forgotten.
Song and dance hijinx ensue.  Also, occasional cross-dressing.
Like Holiday InnWhite Christmas has tremendous music penned by Irving Berlin, including of course the eponymous title track.  In a similar fashion, it centers around show biz folks, so most of the song and dance numbers appear like natural performances or rehearsals, not just people randomly bursting into elaborate musical numbers on the street.  There are exceptions, most notably The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing number.  The silliness in which that particular routine ends and abruptly returns to reality only adds to the movie’s charm.  Oh, and this chestnut.
Lovely as it is corny.  I can’t get enough of it.
If you’re the kind of person that enjoys musicals, then you will love White Christmas.  If you’re not that person, you will probably still enjoy it.  It’s a good story on it’s own and Bing and company are impossible not to love.  It’s a funny and sweet movie, and you might just get a little misty at the ending.
If you’re a White Christmas veteran but have never taken the time to appreciate all that’s happening on the margins, do yourself a favor this year and keep an eye on the scenery.  It’s more than just spotting the miscues and continuity mistakes.  There is actually a lot going on outside the main action that  will enhance your viewing experience.
A few clues to help you out:
  • Watch modest Bing in the dressing room after Blue Skies
  • The aforementioned backup dancers during Mandy
  • Watch the coffee pot in the Haynes sister’s dressing room
  • Bing’s wardrobe in the Army hospital tent
There’s just a few to get you started.
Not only is White Christmas one of my favorite Christmas movies, it’s one of my favorite movies period.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Top 10 Christmas Movies #3: A Christmas Story

Do you remember that one Christmas gift you wanted more than any other? Maybe it was a bike or a Cabbage Patch Kid. Depending on when you grew up it might have been a video game system (Atari, Nintendo, Playstation...) or an Erector Set.  The specific gifts may differ from person to person and time to time but the dream is the same. We all went to bed on Christmas Eve hoping the morning would bring us joy tied up with ribbon.

A Christmas Story taps into this universal longing with protagonist Ralphie's quest to get a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model BB gun for Christmas. He seems to be thwarted at every turn. Whether it's his mother, his teacher or even Santa Claus himself he always hears the same refrain, "You'll shoot your eye out". Sprinkled throughout his pursuit are views into his everyday life.  We get to watch as Ralphie and his friends try to survive encounters with the school bully. We meet his parents (in particular The Old Man). We even get a glimpse into his childhood fantasies. These looks provide some classic moments: Flick and the frozen flag pole, the major award, The Santa Slide, the bunny suit just to name just a few.

All of this leads to Christmas morning. After all the gifts appear to be opened and the Red Ryder is nowhere to be found, Ralphie has one last surprise.
This is my favorite scene in the entire movie. Darren McGavin (The Old Man) deserved an Oscar nomination for this scene alone. He captures perfectly that as great as it is to finally get that gift you have been wishing for it's even better as a parent to be able to give your child exactly what they wanted for Christmas.

A Christmas Story is set in Hammond, Indiana during  the post WWII 1940's, It is a period piece that perfectly presents its era yet it ties into themes that audiences from any generation can relate to. The result is that whether you are a Baby Boomer, Gen X, Gen Y, or even a dreaded Millennial you walk away from this movie with a sense of nostalgia.

Top 10 Christmas Movies #4: Home Alone

Here is Andy Bauer's thoughts on our #4 movie.

mv5bmtuzmzg4mtg2m15bml5banbnxkftztywndm4otk4-_v1_sx640_sy720_As a 13-year old, I saw Home Alone in the theater when it was released in 1990.  For reasons explained elsewhere, I did not go to the movies much as a kid, and persuading my mother to let me see the hottest new movie amongst my demographic in the theater was something of a coup.
Some time later, a family member informed my mother, who still had not seen Home Alone, about the bad attitude Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) has toward his family and how disrespectfully he speaks to his mother (Catherine O’Hara).  Mom pointed this out to me, as if I had been keeping it a secret from her.  I assured her I knew Kevin’s attitude was not acceptable, as I probably rolled my eyes while she wasn’t looking.
A parent myself now, I can of course understand a little better Mom’s concerns about how a Hollywood movie might influence her child.  But, Kevin’s terrible attitude is of course central to the plot of Home Alone (and I’m happy to say Mom has since seen it and, by appearances, seemed to enjoy it).
When the movie opens, we find the McCallister house a-bustle with activity, as the family and extended family prepare to leave for France the next morning.  Eight year-old Kevin is fed up with all the relatives and the lack of enough plain cheese pizza.  In his defense, his siblings and cousins do treat him cruelly, insulting him in French, calling him a disease, and eating all the aforementioned cheese pizza on purpose.  This last offense breaks the camels back and Kevin flips out, causing a scene in the crowded kitchen which results in some misplaced travel documents.  Only adding to his disdain for his own family, Uncle Frank spews a sneering invective in one of the greatest insults in movie history ever leveled at an eight year-old:
Somewhat understandably, yet completely inappropriately, Kevin declares he wishes he didn’t have a family.  Hurt, his mother hopes he doesn’t mean it and sends him off to bed in the attic.
When he awakes the next morning to find the family gone he thinks his wish made his family disappear (in their rush to leave for France, they just forgot him).  At first, it’s a dream come true and he revels in it.  Enter the Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), a couple of burglars who have had their eyes set on the McCallister house, the “silver tuna”, since they started working the neighborhood.  As the days go by and Christmas Day draws nearer, Kevin defends his house from the criminals, conquers his fears, and realizes he misses his family and loves them after all.
The final John Hughes movie on our list, in Home Alone Hughes again reminds us that while family can drive us nuts, when it comes down to it, it’s what really matters.  There are great performances by Culkin, Pesci, and O’hara.  The late, great John Candy has a fairly minor, but scene stealing role as Gus Polinski, the Polka King of the Midwest, who helps O’hara get home to Kevin.
For us 90’s kids, Home Alone is a Christmas classic, but I wonder if today’s kids have realized that the whole madcap scenario could have been solved rather easily since the advent of cell phones.  My kids haven’t clued in on that yet, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.  For it’s time, the movie does a pretty good job of realistically thwarting all of the family’s attempts to contact Kevin from France, though I would not give their communities police department high marks for diligence.  One unanswered knock on the door and the officer assumes the abandoned eight year-old is fine?  Okay.
Of course, you can’t talk about Home Alone without bringing up the funhouse of horrors Kevin transform his house into when the Wet Bandits make their final assault.  Irons to the face, blowtorches to the head, and broken glass to the feet are just a few of the booby traps Kevin sadistically dreams up and employs.  I recently read an article that documented all the injuries Pesci and Stern’s characters would have suffered in real life.  It’s a Christmas miracle they survived.
Home Alone is a full of slapstick fun and a lot of heart.  Good performances, a great–and Oscar nominated–soundtrack from John Williams, a ton of quotable lines and memorable scenes also help to make it #4 on our list.  Merry Christmas, you filthy animals.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Top 10 Christmas Movies #5: Elf

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a human, raised by elves at the North Pole, traveled to New York City to meet his long lost father? I know I have. Luckily the next movie on our list lets us know.

Elf (starring Will Ferrell in the title role) tells the story of Buddy. He was a baby living in an orphanage when one Christmas Eve he crawled unseen into Santa's (Ed Asner) sack and ended up stowing away to the North Pole. There he was raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) and grew up believing that he was an elf himself. The elves loved and accepted Buddy as one of their own but eventually his 6'3" frame and lack of toy making skills lead to his discovery that he is actually human.  On top of this shocking revelation he also finds out that his real father (James Caan) is on the Naughty List. 

Having learned his true identity Buddy heads to New York to meet his father and find his place in the world. What ensues is what one might expect when a large elf-man armed with nothing but an over abundance of Christmas spirit and childlike optimism confronts the harsh realities of the modern world and a cynical father who is not exactly overjoyed to find out he has one of Santa's helpers for a son. He even has a less than friendly experience with one who he thinks is his own kind (Peter Dinklage.)

Eventually Buddy is able to make peace with his father, fall in love, and even save Christmas. Happy endings all around.

This is a movie that could have been terrible. It is an admittedly silly story and uses a lot of slapstick humor to get its laughs. In different hands it could have been nothing but a corny schlockfest. But, what makes it work is Will Ferrell's absolute commitment to the role. He is completely without inhibitions but never stoops to mugging for the camera. He has a real sense of innocence and heart. The movie doubles down on the fish out of water theme: first with Buddy's humanness conflicting with his life at the North Pole and then with his elfness in New York creating mayhem for himself and pretty much everyone he comes in contact with. All of it results in plenty of genuine laughs.

This is the most recent of the movies on our list. It was released in 2004 but it has already claimed its place as a classic must see holiday favorite. I took my family to see it when our kids were still kids. I watched it with them just the other day and we laughed and loved it just as much

Monday, December 19, 2016

Top 10 Christmas Movies #6: Christmas Vacation

Andy Bauer gives his take on our #6 movie.
Pmpw-38615oor Clark Griswold.  All he wanted was the perfect good time, old fashioned family Christmas.  The lights, the tree, the carols, sledding, the perfect Christmas dinner, and of course that big Christmas bonus.
What he got was frustration, a squirrel infested Christmas tree, Cousin Eddie, a cat food jello mold, a SWAT team invasion, and the Jelly of the Month club.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation takes all of the elements folks come to dread about the Christmas season and puts them on steroids.  Chevy Chase’s well-intentioned family man Clark Griswold does his best to give his family a Christmas to remember.  It certainly will be, but for all the wrong reasons.  His wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and kids, Rusty (Johnny Galecki) and Audrey (Juliette Lewis) do their best to stay encouraging as the wheels start to come off the closer the big day gets and the house fills up with more cantankerous family members than it was made to handle.  Coupled with the realization that big Christmas bonus may not be coming, and thus leaving him unable to pay for the big gift he had planned and paid for, by Christmas Eve, Clark is pushed to the brink of holiday insanity.  The arrival of the chronically uncouth Cousin Eddie (chronically tax-evading Randy Quaid) didn’t help.
Another Chicago-based holiday movie with John Hughes’ fingerprints on it (he wrote this one), Christmas Vacation is the holiday nightmare that seems far fetched, and yet all too real.  Fortunately for me, my good time, old fashioned family Christmas’ all turned out pretty well.  But it isn’t hard to see how bringing so much family under one roof at one time during what should be a festive but is often stressful season, can go horribly awry.
As is usually the case in Hughes’ movies, despite the chaos endured, when it gets down to it, with your family by your side, things have a way of working out.  Even if you do have to live in constant fear of being accosted by a Mississippi leg hound.