It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It Happened One Christmas

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Why yes I do cry like a baby over it’s a Wonderful Life: every time. That ending is such a huge release after such as a dark and depressing alternative reality. I’m always left shaken up by it and need a break before I can watch another movie as well as making me want to make amends with loved ones. I’m sure everyone who watched It’s a Wonderful Life thinks to themselves what the world would be like if they were never born. The struggle of George Bailey is relatable to a wide spectrum, and I know for myself it really hits home. Being stuck in a dead-end town and feeling you will bust if you don’t get away from it; having your life not going the way you intended it to while your siblings appear to be doing so much better than you. But in at the end George Bailey realises what he’s got when it’s all gone, above it all, God’s greatest gift. It’s a Wonderful Life takes placed in a world in which God exists (and can focus his time on this one person over the rest of the world, but I digress). I’ve never felt however for It’s a Wonderful Life to have a religious agenda, it’s merely just a plot device for the film’s fantasy elements.

Lionel Barrymore’s performance as Henry F. Potter I feel is a tie between his brother John’s roles in Twentieth Century as the best performance from the Barrymore clan. Potter is one of the biggest douche bags in movie history; the archetype evil business mogul and ripe for comparisons with real-life figures. Not only has he no charitable side, he directly steals money in order to destroy his competition. Unlike other screen villains, Potter does not get any comeuppance at the end of the film, although you could say he’s destiny as a sick, frustrated and lonely man who hates anyone that has anything he can’t have is punishment enough. Potter isn’t a total caricature though, he is more three dimensional than that. He’s a man who knows how to conduct and run a business and understands that high ideals without common sense could ruin a town. But George Bailey is no fool, he is a natural born leader, even if he doesn’t realise it. He stands up to Potter without giving it a second thought, runs a building and loan which is a real estate empire itself; even his father states to him that he was born older than his brother.

Moments like the makeshift honeymoon suite in the broken down house which they later make their own or the recurring gag with the mantle at the end of the stairway represents the kind of writing which elevates It’s a Wonderful Life above the majority of other movies. Like the greatest of films, you notice something new on every viewing. Likewise, nobody can do moments of intimacy like Frank Capra, the movie is full of scenes in which it is simply two actors talking with no background music, yet creates raw human emotions like no other. Take a scene such as George and Mary walking through a neighbourhood at night while George talks about his ambitions for the future, the rest of the world ceases to exist. Many will be quick to put down Capra’s work as so-called “Capracorn” or as Potter puts it, “sentimental hogwash”. Get off your high horse and stop thinking you’re above such emotion – cinema is about the manipulation of emotions.

It’s hard not to feel sentimental for the representation of small-town America on display. Bedford Falls itself is a town full of interesting and unique characters. It actually reminds me of The Simpsons. Potter himself is essentially the town’s own Mr. Burns in The Simpsons – the people of Springfield hate Burns but are dependent on him for their energy needs. Likewise, the people of Bedford Falls hate Potter and would be dependent on him for their housing if it wasn’t for the competition of the Bailey Building & Loan.

Due to its public domain status, the film was shown on some TV networks in 24-hour marathons. I’d happily watch one of those networks as I can’t stop watching It’s a Wonderful Life no matter what point in the movie I begin. Could you get a more perfect marriage between actor and director than James Stewart and Frank Capra? Collaborating on a perfect trilogy of films, with each one better than the last. It’s a Wonderful Life? It sure is.

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The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The Other Jimmy Stewart Christmas Movie

The Shop Around the Corner was the first Ernst Lubitsch film I saw and as soon as the characters started interacting with each other I instantly knew this was a guy who knew how to handle dialogue in what is referred to as the so-called ‘Lubitsch Touch’. With such levels of subtly, this is the kind of movie that needs to be watched multiple times and gets better every time you do so. Often there will be a verbal joke in which I am unaware it even is a joke and it will take a few seconds to catch onto it. Most of Lubitsch’s films were set in Europe as this was where he was from. The shop of Shop Around the Corner is in Budapest, Hungary. The world this movie is set was on the brink of destruction in 1940 but there is no mention of this in the film. Just like how the film harkens back to a more peaceful time it also acts like a nostalgia portal to a time before the internet or big corporate businesses. A shop which is a physical, hands-on and above all a communal experience. The shop is a world onto its own populated by unforgettable characters.

Like Lubitsch, most of Margaret Sullavan’s movies also took place in Europe, I don’t know of the reason for this, however; a big coincidence or did she deliberately choose to star in movies with European settings? James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan aren’t remotely Hungarian but classic Hollywood movies aren’t exactly known for their realism in this regard. I also find it humorous how Klara is able to get a job by walking into a store and proving she is capable of selling items; if only it were that easy in real life!

The Shop Around the Corner is one of the prime examples of the classic “they hate each other but are really in love”; in fact, they really hate each other. Stewart’s Alfred Kralik is actually a real asshole; he’s brash and very opinionated. Likewise, Margaret Sullavan isn’t a sexy, glamorous Hollywood star; Klara Novak is a down to Earth, intellectual. As the movie progresses you so badly want these two characters to end up together to the point that it hurts. These aren’t two performers with great chemistry, these are two performers with incredible lifelike chemistry which blends the dividing line between fiction and reality. If ever there was an on-screen couple how where made for each other, this is it.

Jack Frost (1998)

He’s Snowboarding On His Flesh

When I was a kid, nothing got me and my friends more hyped up in anticipation than snow. Yep – the glorious white stuff. To us, there were few other activities as fun as playing in the snow. One major problem, however; I grew up in a country in which we only get about 3-4 days a year of significant snowfall in which it would actually settle on the ground. So when there was a significant level of snowfall, we would make the utmost use of it. Snowball fights, sledding, snow angels and of course, making a snowman.

Snowmen were a subject of my childhood fascination. Why? They just have a certain magical appeal. Whenever I would see one in someone else’s garden, I would always have to point it out, “Look, a snowman!” So when my friends and I heard about the movie Jack Frost, in which a snowman comes to life, we were psyched to see it. Although there already existed the 1982 animated short The Snowman which had a similar premise, I believe Jack Frost appealed to us more for several reasons:
-It was a movie more of our generation.
-It was live action and the snowman looks just like a real snowman we could have created ourselves.
-But most importantly, the movie was called Jack Frost. When I was younger, whenever there was a frosty night, we would always say that Jack Frost is out tonight.

So one weekend myself and one of my friends rented Jack Frost on video and we thought it was an absolute blast. However even at that age we thought there were some stupid moments, such as when Charlie is hanging over a wall of snow and he’s supposed to be in danger, yet the drop itself is tiny; or during the sledge chase sequence when two kids just happen to have a snowball the size of a boulder on standby to stop Charlie and Jack. However, the one aspect of the film we found to be the most unbelievable was in how Charlie had not got over his father’s death one year on. The reason for this is that a friend of ours had recently lost his father to an illness, yet was back in school one week later, acting as he normally would. To us, Charlie isolating himself from his friends due to his father’s death one year on seemed far-fetched. In retrospect, however, this view was short-sighted.

Regardless we could only look on in envy at just how much snow this fictional picture perfect postcard town of Medford, Colorado had. In my home country when it did snow our teachers wouldn’t even let us go outside to play in it. Yet in Jack Frost, the kids are able to go into the snow and have trench warfare battle snowball fights. Plus they don’t even wear school uniforms?! You can imagine the jealousy us kids had for our Yankee counterparts.

Several years later, I saw Jack Frost again on TV one weekend and the following Monday in school, it seems half the class also watched it and were all raving about how much we loved it; discussing our favourite moments, talking about the scenes we found to be the funniest. Even my teacher had watched it over the weekend and called it – and I quote – “a wonderful film”.

Now years later with the advent of the internet, I find out that Jack Frost is considered a terrible film and the critics trashed it. However, when watching it again after all these years it still strikes a chord with me as a pool of happy, nostalgic memories coming flooding back. But what I can I take from the film and examine now with an adult perspective?

One of the biggest criticisms I hear against the movie is that the snowman is creepy. Even Roger Ebert criticised the design with its anorexic looking twigs for arms. Well, it’s all in the eye of the beholder I guess. I also liked the design of the snowman as I think not only does he look cute but looks just like a snowman the average kid would make. The snowman was originally designed for George Clooney and I can see Clooney’s face within it. Apparently, the casting change to Michael Keaton caused major problems for the film’s SFX team. Watching my late 90’s DVD copy of Jack Frost, the CGI doesn’t look half bad. Although if I was to ever watch the film on an HD transfer perhaps it might not look as good.

Jack Frost belongs to that breed of film which was everywhere in the ’90s in which a workaholic father can’t make time for his kids. As drawn out as this cliché was in the 90s, it does raise the question – should you even have children if you’re going to dedicate yourself to a lifelong career or venture? Jack Frost does go a step further with this examination of fatherlessness with the character of Rory whom as the movie states, never saw his old man and resents it (“It sucks, it sucks big time”). Any coincidence his character is a delinquent. The father-son relationship in Jack Frost does tug at my heartstrings and yes, that ending kills me.

Many aspects of Jack Frost scream this is a late 90’s movie from those early CGI credits to the film’s emphasises on extreme sports such as hockey and snowboarding. Even the antagonist is named Rory Buck – might as well be called 90’s Mc 90’serson. Even the radio presenter at the beginning of the film states: “we got more music coming from the 70’s and 90’s. No 80’s I promise” (Boo!).

Viewing Jack Frost from a more mature perspective I am forced to suspend my disbelief at my many aspects of the film’s plot. So for starters, does the afterlife exist within the universe of Jack Frost? Where was Jack for the entire year before he came back as a snowman? Was he in purgatory? How did he suddenly find out how to change back to his human self then leave? What’s the deal with the magic harmonica? Does God himself exist in this universe?

Then there’s that whole snowboarding sequence. It’s a blast to watch even though I have to refrain from questioning how illogical it is. I already thought the conveniently placed snow boulders where stupid as a kid but I also notice how snowboards and snowbikes are all conveniently placed. But more importantly, the kids do notice that Charlie is sledding with a sentient snowman? Also, have you considered that he’s essentially snowboarding on his flesh? But who cares, this sequence is a ton of fun and Hey Now Now by Swirl 360 is a tune. That money shot of Jack Frost snowboarding in mid-air brings a smile to my face.

Rock on Jack Frost! Snow dad is better than no dad!