DVD Times Favourite... Christmas DVDs

Noel Megahey: It’s a Wonderful Life
Frank Capra, 1946

As an opera-goer, I absolutely loathe Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’. It’s not that it’s a bad opera - it has some of the most beautiful music ever composed - it’s just that it is so calculatedly manipulative and unashamedly melodramatic that it leaves me gasping for breath right from the second that Mimi chokes back her first tubercular cough in Rodolfo’s Parisian garret. Puccini knows the effect of every note of his music and, much as I loathe submitting to his manipulations, I’m always astounded at his genius. What’s this got to do with ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’? Well Frank Capra is the Puccini of cinema and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is his ‘La Bohème’, in that as much as my brain tells me that the film is sentimental claptrap, my heart is unfailingly moved by it every single time I see it.

James Stewart plays George Bailey, the failed real-estate businessman in the sleepy town of Bedford Falls who feels that he has let down his family, his friends and his customers, and who is about to commit suicide on a snowy Christmas Eve when his hand is stayed by an ineffectual angel called Clarence. Clarence shows George the effect his life has had on those around him and what his absence would mean to them. The characters are Dickensian caricatures, all hopeless innocents or pantomime villains. The film even takes ideas from ‘A Christmas Carol’ in its look at the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future without a George Bailey. It’s appallingly naïve and sentimental, but there is genuine humanity and compassion in the film and it is immensely powerful and effective in its delivery. Like ‘La Bohème’, I hate myself for submitting to its calculated and manipulative message that we’re all special and can make a difference to the lives of others, but at Christmas time it’s a message we’d all like to believe is true.

There are any number of DVD editions of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ out there and there will no doubt be another Special Edition out for this Christmas. It’ll be on TV anyway and you know you’ll be watching it again.

Michael Mackenzie: The Nightmare Before Christmas
Henry Selick, 1993

Although credited to Henry Selick, The Nightmare Before Christmas bears the unmistakeable style of Tim Burton, who produced the film and upon whose poem and designs it is based. Selick, who also directed James and the Giant Peach and is helming the upcoming Corpse Bride, both of them Burton productions filmed in stop-motion animation, lends his considerable skill as a director of animation to this enchanting claymation musical, featuring catchy songs from the pen of composer extraordinaire Danny Elfman, wild gothic imagery, outrageous gags and a genuinely touching story about the relationship between a skeleton man and a woman made out of cloth and cotton wool. One of the few films that works equally well at Halloween and at Christmas, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a wonderfully charming holiday film that never gets old no matter how many times you see it.

The best DVD version of The Nightmare Before Christmas is the R2 Danish release, which features a sumptuous anamorphic transfer in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio (prior releases have always either been non-anamorphic or anamorphic but cropped down to 1.85:1), as well as all the bonus features of the US and UK releases.

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Region 2 Review (Dk)
Region 2 SE Review (UK)

Nat Tunbridge: Brazil
Terry Gilliam, 1985

Gilliam's blackly brilliant 'Brazil' is still the best film the renegade American director (and erstwhile Python) has done, an astonishingly ambitious project chock-full of his trademark socio-political concerns, irreverent humour and highly stylised visual sensibility. Brazil is bracingly cynical, unendingly inventive and just looks gorgeous – the production design is still a marvel – while its political satire, based on a society ruled by a government that deliberately exaggerates its fear of terrorist attacks, could scarcely be more relevant. Understanding the tortuous pettiness of British bureaucracy as only an outsider can, Gilliam envisages an Orwellian future Britain, ruled by a harsh totalitarian regime, where a single case of mistaken identity starts a spiral of steadily more ludicrous events, centered around Jonathan Pryce’s lowly administrative clerk Sam Lowry. The Christmas setting is crucial - the film even begins with a cheery fireside scene in which a mother is reading 'A Christmas Carol' to her young ones. Add dream sequences, sweeping romance and Robert De Niro as a guerrilla-plumber and you have a masterpiece.

Citerion's 3-disk 1999 DVD of Brazil was one of the most outstanding sets of its day, an ambitious and pioneering demonstration of the medium's ability to provide previously unimaginable depth and perspective to a single film. While the lack of an anamorphic transfer and the 2.0 sound means that the set's technical standard is no longer cutting edge, the extras are magnificent: Gilliam’s 142-minute final cut of the movie AND on a separate disk the studio-approved 'Love Conquers All version', plentiful documentaries (including the 60-minute 'The Battle of Brazil' by Criterion) a hilarious audio commentary by Gilliam and much more.

Mike Sutton: Gremlins
Joe Dante, 1984

The American celebration of Christmas has become a grotesque celebration of conspicuous consumption in which the holy trinity of “It’s A Wonderful Life”, Phil Spector and Andy Williams combine to celebrate the coming of that most mystical of sacred beings; Santa Claus. What makes “Gremlins” such a pleasure is its glee in trashing everything Americans hold sacred about the Christmas festival. Santa, carol singers, snow ploughs, gingerbread men, Walt Disney, even the innocent Christmas Tree – nothing escapes Joe Dante’s anarchic eye. Even the sentimental side of the film – the horribly cute Gizmo – is undercut by Dante’s obvious pleasure in subjecting the furry little bugger to as much indignity as possible. The creatures introduced in the film, the Gremlins, are delightful creations who embody the spirit of joyous anarchy and celebrate the redeeming powers of chaos. At its best, the imagery resembles what might have emerged if Heironymous Bosch had come back to life and watched a few too many episodes of “Christmas With The Osmonds”. This is Joe Dante’s best film and a remarkably subversive one; under the guise of a feelgood family comedy, Dante smuggles in more than a few mischievous messages and it’s hard to avoid a feeling that he’s really on the side of the little green critters. He’s helped immensely by Chris Walas’s astounding creature effects and the greatly missed Jerry Goldsmith’s sprightly music score.

“Gremlins” is available in Region 2 on a barebones disc which offers acceptable picture quality. However, the version to get is the Region 1 Special Edition which contains a remastered transfer, commentaries and a vintage featurette.

Kev Gilvear: Die Hard
John McTiernan, 1988

We usually associate Christmas movies with presents, warm log fires, comedic or heartfelt storylines and generally the niceties of life. Why then does Die Hard manage to make its way into peoples’ players or attract large viewing figures on TV over the Christmas period? – Well, to put it simply, John McTiernan’s 1988 blockbuster is a solid action film that still captures the spirit of Christmas while offering a multitude of cracking one liners and dramatic turns that ensure its ongoing and unrivalled success (Though Die Hard 2: Die Harder is a lot of fun also).

It is hard to imagine that any film dealing with terrorism could ever be considered a Christmas classic, but how can Die Hard not be loved? Bruce Willis - in his first major film role, shines as the ever-jesting John McClane and makes a fine hero for us to back. In addition, his maniacal rival Hans Gruber - played marvellously by Alan Rickman, proves to be an equal foil who can match him line for line and churn out an unforgettable performance as one of cinema’s greatest villains. Even McClane’s wife, Holly has that Christmas air in her name. So did McTiernan know exactly what he was doing when he made this film? Was he aware at just how seasonal it would become? While films like this are ordinarily reserved for a Summer release (and indeed as was this in July of ‘98) Die Hard somehow went beyond this and not only became one of the greatest action films of all time but also a much celebrated Christmas smash hit - after all, that is where it belongs. Bad things still happen during the festive season but there’s no reason why we can’t sit down, put our feet up and be unashamedly entertained by a hail of bullets and wise-cracks for 2 hours on Christmas day.

Die Hard has been released on a brilliant 2-disc set, individually or as part of a box set that includes its sequels. Choosing which version to get is relatively easy as both the R1 and R2 cuts are the same. However, should you decide to go for the box set trilogy then be aware that Die Hard With a Vengeance is still cut in the UK.

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Region 1 SE Review
Region 2 (Non-SE) Review

Colin Polonowski: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Jeremiah Chechik, 1989

The Griswold family returns for the third, and last, official National Lampoon's Vacation film (Vegas Vacation doesn't have the National Lampoon seal of approval), and it's a damn good festive adventure. Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase) and family are expecting all of their relatives to descend on their house for Christmas celebrations and, in true Lampoon fashion, nothing goes to plan. John Hughes writing shines through and helps to lift Christmas Vacation above the usual Christmas comedy movies. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is also probably the last good Chevy Chase film - everything since has varied between mediocre and awful, so it has to be worth a punt.

There is just so much to have you rolling around the floor in laughter - Clark's disappointment when his huge light display fails to work, the cutting of the Christmas tree cord and of course, the moment Clark goes on a super-sonic sledge experience thanks to his new extra-slippery kitchen lubricant (according to the man himself, it's 500 times more slippery than cooking oil)!

The Region 2 Special Edition DVD is a reasonable package - it's presented in the correct aspect ratio for a start, which already lifts it above previous releases. The transfer is anamorphic and we have the original Dolby Stereo soundtrack. In terms of extras we have a commentary with stars Randy Quaid, Beverly D'Angelo, Johnny Galecki, Miriam Flynn , Director Jeremiah Chechik and Producer Matty Simmons along with the theatrical trailer. It's definitely not packed to the brim, but the film is great fun and easily my favourite piece of festive entertainment.

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Region 2 Review

Bex: White Christmas
Michael Curtiz, 1954

Heavily inspired by Holiday Inn (1942 - starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire), White Christmas stars Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby as two song-and-dance men who used to be in the Forces together, and have since become popular entertainers. They meet up with the Haynes Sisters, another performing group played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen and circumstances see the foursome end up in Vermont in a Lodge owned by an retired general. It's unreservedly sentimental and soppy, and the story not exactly opaque in any way - but the music and the humour bring something else to the mix and never fail to entertain me. And of course it includes Irving Berlin's famous 'White Christmas' song, amongst others.

All region DVDs are the same package for this film and includes an anamorphic transfer and good, solid soundtrack with a commentary by Rosemary Clooney.

D.J. Nock: Black Christmas
Bob Clark, 1974

There's nothing like a bit of slaughter at Christmas is there? Director Bob Clark (Porky's) certainly doesn't believe in festive cheer, since his 70's cult classic Black Christmas is one of the scariest slasher films you've never heard of. Relentlessly bleak, and rather chilling, it's best remembered now for the inspiration it gave Halloween. In fact, most people believe John Carpenter stole ideas from this little-seen masterpiece, since both offer several key ingredients - killer POV shots, a "calendar date" massacre, and high-voltage scares that don't resort to gratuitous gore. Predating Carpenter's classic by five years, I find it hard to determine which picture is better. One thing's for sure, Black Christmas has more than a few surprises in its stocking!

Shockingly, much of the film is first-rate, and calling it a "slasher" film is doing it a disservice. Clark's handling of the different elements is marvellous - the music creeps up on you with menace, the killer is never seen but always heard, and the characters are people we genuinely care about. So much so, that the murders pack a brutal punch. If that wasn't enough, the cast features cult veteran John Saxon (Enter the Dragon, A Nightmare on Elm St.), who only helps to give the production an aura of class. In fact, not even the Christmas setting can distill the creepy vibe of Clark's opus - this is one holiday that will linger in the memory...

The Region 1 "Collector's Edition" of the film (released in 2002), represents the best release of the film to date. The widescreen (1.66:1) transfer has been lovingly remastered, and given a whole host of bonus material - commentaries with Clark, Saxon and co-star Keir Dullea, a "Revisited" documentary, original trailers and TV spots, alternate endings and interviews with Saxon. A fantastic package, considering this film was forgotten by most. Influencing many of the slasher films since (even this years Saw), Bob Clark's Black Christmas is worth tracking down for fans of macabre entertainment...

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Michael Sunda: Batman Returns
Tim Burton, 1992

Although this might not be as identifiable with Christmas as most others on this list, I’ve always strongly associated Tim Burton’s second foray into Gotham City with the festive period. It certainly couldn’t be any further from the sombre atmosphere portrayed in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but then this change compliments the first Batman film perfectly. Admittedly it’s very light on Batman himself, but then with wonderfully developed characters such as Pfeiffer’s now-iconic seductress, Catwoman, and DeVito’s eccentric villain, The Penguin. Bold, brash, and full of confidence, with references to everything from Nosferatu to The Elephant Man, this is comic-book-to-film conversion at its best.

As for the DVD, you’ll want to go for the uncut Region 1 release. Although it’s been around for a while now, the anamorphic transfer’s decent, the DD5.1 soundtrack is respectable, and there’s even a full-screen version included if you’re that way inclined.

James Gray: Home Alone
Chris Columbus, 1990

I grew up with Home Alone. Being two years younger than Macaulay Culkin's character Kevin when it was first released, I find it hard to remember now a Christmas when it didn't feature in my life in some way. From seeing at the cinema one year to finding the video under the tree the next to watching one of its umpteen broadcasts between then and now, watching it has become for me as much part of the pre-Christmas ritual as putting up the decorations or worrying what to buy Auntie Edna. And, while it's not cool to sing its praises these days, I still find much to enjoy in it, even when stripped of the nostalgic connections.

Okay, it's by no means John Hughes or Chris Columbus' - or, heck, even Macaulay Culkin's - best film, and its predictable tugging at the heartstrings and twee message can grate a bit, but against that it has a lot of positives - the mischievous, old fashioned sense of humour mercifully free of irony (winks to the camera being just that with no smug subtext), a genuinely child-like outlook on life complete with cartoonish adults and situations straight out of Tom and Jerry (appealing to its target audience without talking down to them) and one of the great child performances in modern cinema. (You might not like him, but Culkin's effortless carrying of the film is easy to underestimate but very hard to replicate - Curly Sue, anyone?) Add to this the fact it shows, unlike a lot of similar fare, what Christmas is really like - chaos, family fights, child abandonment (well, okay, not the last) - and the fact that it is only as an adult that one can truly appreciate the fact that Kevin kicks Joe Pesci's ass - this is the guy who in the same year was scaring the bejesus out of audiences (and Ray Liotta) in Goodfellas - and there's plenty of reasons why it still succeeds in bringing a lot of Christmas cheer to this cynical old heart. Now all I have to do is make my family disappear for a couple of hours so I can watch the disk in peace...

Unfortunately it's not a very good disk, as Home Alone has yet to be given the sort of DVD presentation it really needs. The region 2 has the advantage over its American counterpart in that it has an anamorphic transfer, but as both disks have at best an average picture and an underwhelming 2.0 sound mix (for a film that would really benefit from 5.1), together with an almost total lack of extras (R2 has trailers for Home Alones 1-3) that's not saying much.

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