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By David O'Grady
No one does the holidays like Noe Valley--from the mirth of the shops on 24th Street to the mischievous elf who, with a bit of electrical tape, renames Noe Street "Noël." If only it snowed here, Noe Valley could be a stand-in for Dickens' London in A Christmas Carol.
But even in our happy hamlet, the relentless, inescapable cheer of Christmas sometimes provokes the gentlest of inner Humbugs. Traditional holiday movies can also induce mixed feelings. Even films as heartwarming as It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street start to grate on the nerves after the 34th viewing.
If you're looking for an antidote to the usual holiday fare, you might want to check out the following films, all available in Noe Valley video stores. They still deliver the Christmas goods, but with a refreshing twist.
A Good Catch for Christmas
Director Steven Spielberg takes on the real-life story of a 1960s teenage con man and check forger in Catch Me If You Can (2002), starring Leonardo DiCaprio. With his parents divorcing and his huckster father drowning in IRS entanglements, DiCaprio runs away from home and disguises himself as a pilot to lend credibility to his bad checks. What starts out as a way to survive becomes a series of increasingly complex but empty fantasy lives. The only real connection DiCaprio can find is during his Christmas Eve phone calls to the one person who truly knows him--the straight-arrow FBI man trying to catch him, played by Tom Hanks.
Catch Me If You Can wonderfully counterbalances the breezy, upbeat feeling of DiCaprio's man on the run with heartbreaking scenes of him sneaking home to see his diminished father, brilliantly played by Christopher Walken. DiCaprio arguably gives one of his best performances (for once his boyish face and the character's age are well matched), and Spielberg avoids his typical slips into sentimentality. Catch Me If You Can may well become a new holiday classic.
A Kermity Christmas Carol
In The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Jim Henson's creations perfectly populate Charles Dickens' well-worn tale, with Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchett, Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchett, Fozzie Bear as Fezziwig (or Fozziwig), and Michael Caine as Scrooge, who holds his own against a cast of puppets.
Much of the movie's appeal for older viewers is seeing your favorite Muppet as a character in the familiar story. Watch for Beaker as a charity fundraiser and for Waldorf and Statler, the denizens of the balcony from The Muppet Show, as Scrooge's dead business partners and the harbingers of the three ghosts to come.
The bluish, bug-eyed Gonzo gives the movie an irreverent edge, thanks to his scratchy-voiced narration and witty banter with his sidekick, Rizzo the Rat. Rizzo's obsession with eating gives him some of the best laugh lines throughout. "Mother always taught me: 'Never eat singing food,'" he quips after we see a cart of produce joining in one of the many musical numbers in the movie. The Muppet Christmas Carol will delight fans and win over Grinches of any age.
Scrooge the TV Executive
While the Muppets take over 19th-century London, Scrooged (1988) gives A Christmas Carol the modern comedy treatment. Bill Murray plays a Scrooge-like TV executive who despises Christmas so much he schedules a live-TV performance of A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve. The ploy will boost ratings and turn Murray's misanthropic executive into a legend, at the expense of employees forced to work the holiday.
But Murray is cruising for a bruising--literally--as the spirit of his former boss and the three usual ghostly suspects pay him a visit. Comedian Carol Kane nearly steals the show as the Ghost of Christmas Present, a full-grown Tinker Bell whose impish tough-love physically knocks some sense into Murray.
Updates of classics depend on fresh creative choices to succeed, and Scrooged, in its wacky, noisy way, comes close enough. After Murray survives his ghostly guests and a confrontation with an employee he fired (played by the maniacal Bob Goldthwait), Scrooged delivers a preachy but satisfying conclusion that, of course, is caught on live TV.
There's Room at the Inn for the Holidays
Holiday Inn (1942), which spawned a sort-of sequel in White Christmas and christened a motel chain, is often overlooked, but the movie still holds its charms--and controversies. Based on Irving Berlin's songbook of holiday tunes, Holiday Inn features Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire as performers always falling for the same gal, onstage and off. On Christmas Eve, Crosby's crooner decides to give up the performing grind and retreat to country life. But when he fails as a farmer, Crosby cooks up the idea of opening his large farmhouse for holiday-only performances.
Soon Crosby is head over heels for his singing partner, Linda (Marjorie Reynolds), with whom he shares a wonderful duet of "White Christmas." But a visit by Astaire spells trouble; he wants Linda to be his new dance partner and run off with him to Hollywood. It will take another Christmas holiday to decide the trio's fate.
The story is a singing and dancing showcase, but not without a regrettable scene where Crosby and Reynolds commemorate Lincoln's birthday by singing a song in blackface. Despite the scene's justification--a ruse by Crosby to hide Linda's identity from Astaire--it's a cringe-worthy moment that reminds us how far we've come in 60 years. Fortunately, Holiday Inn recovers its footing with Astaire's happy feet.
Santa as a Bad, Bad Man
Terry Zwigoff, the San Francisco filmmaker who directed Crumb and Ghost World, has made the most twisted Christmas movie yet with Bad Santa (2003). Billy Bob Thornton plays a self-destructive Santa who swears, drinks, and philanders his way from mall to mall every holiday season. He's also a thief, and he and his partner, a dwarf in elf's clothing, use their red and green suits as a cover for robbing department stores.
But Santa may get a double-shot of redemption for Christmas--whether he wants it or not--when a female bartender, with a certain thing for St. Nick, and a parentless, misfit boy drop in his lap. Thornton's partner in crime, however, has other plans, and the elf's greedy schemes may turn deadly before the end.
Bad Santa, and the DVD release Badder Santa, which features additional raunchy scenes, uses its lewd and crude behavior not just for laughs--although it's wickedly funny--but also to bury the essential goodness in Thornton's shattered Santa. When a drunk Thornton raids the kid's Advent calendar for its chocolates, you know he'll feel pangs of guilt when he wakes up sober the next day. Bad Santa is also noteworthy for John Ritter's excellent turn as an ineffectual mall manager, the last screen role he played before his death. Bad Santa is a funny, fitting tribute and the ultimate anti-Christmas Christmas movie.
David O'Grady is a writer and film fan in Noe Valley. If you have comments or movie suggestions, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.