Posts tagged ‘Movies’

Many media outlets have declared that the Hallmark family of channels are the most watched channels in November and December because of their plethora of family-friendly holiday movies.  While many of the movies offered during those 60-some-odd days are ones that have been recycled from previous years, each year Hallmark debuts 20-30 new movies celebrating the season.  Many people (my husband included) denigrate these movies because they are somewhat predictable.  Granted, most of the time the plots are pretty similar, but that doesn’t stop people from watching them, myself included.  The annual marathon of holiday movies is over now, but the “lessons” these movies offer are worth noting.

Things I have learned watching Hallmark Channel Christmas movies:

  1. If your name is “Amy,” you are the first wife, AND you died of cancer.
  2. “North Pole Adjacent” is EITHER a veiled reference to Santa’s workshop OR it is a small town that does Christmas so perfectly that Santa would feel perfectly comfortable hanging out there in his down-time.
  3. Never try to travel during winter weather if you are single and there is a single, good-looking member of the opposite sex anywhere in the vicinity. You will have car trouble or snow will cancel all the flights.
  4. If a kid makes a “special Christmas wish,” it will come true before the end of the movie.
  5. Members of royal families from obscure or fictional countries in Europe will never reveal their family backgrounds unless forced.
  6. EVERYONE has Christmas traditions that include going caroling, making gingerbread houses, and baking cookies.
  7. You can’t bake without getting flour everywhere, including the tip of your nose.
  8. Even if it is Christmas eve, if you don’t have a tree, someone will get one for you and provide you with all the decorations you need.
  9. Those gifted ornaments will instantly have significant meaning for you for the rest of your life.
  10. Single moms are single because their horrible ex-husbands abandoned the family just before Christmas. Single dads are single because their wives died tragically. Either way, they have never really gotten over it.
  11. Stringing popcorn is WAY easier in the movies than it is in real life.
  12. No one adds alcohol to their eggnog because everyone (including the kids) drinks it at any time of the day.
  13. Hot cocoa is magical and can cure anything, including a broken heart.
  14. If there is an annual community celebration, it will be in danger of being cancelled for this or future years because of lack of funding, planning, or interest. Luckily, one or two people will be able to generate enough money and interest to save the town festival for years to come.
  15. The federal law that allows cancellation of any contract valued over $25 within the first three days of signing does not exist, or terms of the contract have been written such that this law can be ignored.
  16. Main characters who are angels will be able to become human again if they fall in love during their mission, but only if they are young and beautiful. Angels played by actors who are 40 or older will always be angels.
  17. If someone is searching for long-lost family, the people helping them search will turn out to be the missing relatives they are looking for.
  18. That man in town who “looks like” Santa is actually the real Santa.  Somehow, he has managed to get time away from the North Pole to visit Vermont or Chicago or Seattle or wherever the story is taking place.
  19. If you tell Santa your wish, it will come true.
  20. If a main character starts the movie already in a relationship, that relationship will be with Mr./Miss Wrong.  Their true soulmate will be a plot complication they meet in the first 20 minutes.
  21. Service members who are deployed oversees will always be able to make it back in time for Christmas.
  22. It will always snow in time for Christmas, even if you are living in a warm-weather place like southern California or Florida.
  23. The most preposterous things can happen because of Christmas magic or Christmas miracles.
  24. Even if there is an unexpected blizzard that suddenly hits the area, there is enough food in the refrigerator and pantry to feed a small army, including a whole turkey and gallons of fresh milk.  And everyone drinks Folgers.
  25. If you get a promotion at work within the first 15 minutes, you have the wrong job and will find your true calling soon.
  26. For every 5 minutes of programming, there are 4 minutes of commercials, and no movie lasts more than 1 hour 30 minutes without commercials.
  27. If you are stuck somewhere with your ex, it is because you are actually soulmates and this is your second chance to get it right.
  28. Everyone has a fireplace.
  29. Impromptu Christmas weddings will go off without a hitch.  The couple will be able to secure a dress, a tux, a venue, a minister, a caterer, a florist, a professional photographer, and musicians, all within 48 hours, if necessary.
  30. The only good Christmas tree is one you cut yourself.

This list could go on and on.  The themes of family, togetherness, reflection, and opportunity run strong through Hallmark’s movies.  Mistaken identities, true love, and fate will be fodder for Christmas movies as long as there is Christmas, and Hallmark has found a way to capture it all.  They have a stable of actors that rivals the classic Hollywood studio system, and those same actors appear in multiple movies and series for Hallmark all year long.  They also have a variety of locations that reappear over and over.  There is one particular L-shaped, red brick house with a round turret that has been used in countless Larry Levinson movies.  If I didn’t know better, I would think it was Levinson’s own house.  Regardless, the similarities that run through Hallmark’s movies are consistent from movie to movie.  If some people feel that this makes these movies boring and predictable, so be it.  Nevertheless, for many of us, the “Countdown to Christmas” is part of our own holiday tradition.  So here’s to finding your true love or your true calling and getting everything your heart sincerely desires, even if you don’t realize at first that’s what you really want.

And, if for some reason, you missed this year’s Hallmark Christmas movies, you can always go back and watch some of them on their new streaming service.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

We have a movie theater in our town that screens only classic films – ones that you are sure would have been amazing to watch on the large screen when they were new, but (at least in my case) they were new before you were born.  This weekend they were screening It’s A Wonderful Life.  Now, I have seen this movie so many times, I could probably recite the lines along with the movie, Rocky Horror style, but it is still the quintessential holiday film.  There are others, of course – A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th St., and just about any version of A Christmas Carol – but Wonderful Life seems to epitomize that simpler time that we all seem to long for.  The question remains, if given the opportunity, would we really enjoy returning to that kind of existence?  Or can we somehow find a compromise?

I think about all of the technological advances that have come, in a wide variety of fields, and I know that there are many I would be loathe to live without.  At the top of my list would be some of the medical advances that have happened in the past 30 years, particularly in the area of breast cancer research.  When I was 12, my paternal grandmother died of the disease.  At that time, there was no such thing as yearly mammograms, ultrasound to inspect suspected lumps, or even any training on any front for women to self-examine.  My grandmother did not even know she had cancer until it had spread so far into her body that there was not much anyone could do other than to make her comfortable until the end.  Fast forward 25 years.  One day, my mother found a lump.  Within the span of two weeks, she had been examined by her doctor, had mammograms, a sonogram, a needle biopsy and a diagnosis.  Within a week of that she had started treatment.  Last month she met with her oncologist for the last time.  After all, since she has been cancer-free for the last 10 years, he really doesn’t see the need for her ever to come back.

Similarly, the progress that has been made in the area of HIV-AIDS is amazing.  When I was in high school, the worst thing that could happen to you if you had unprotected sex was a disease that required a visit to a doctor’s office and a rather embarrassing discussion that ended with a shot of penicillin.  When I was in college, the worst was a viral disease that you would have for the rest of your life, with some rather unpleasant sores, but there were drugs that would control it.  Toward the end of my college career was the first time I had heard of a sexually transmitted disease that could kill you, but even so, I figured I was immune, as I was never going to be having sex with a gay man.  Today, there are over 30 million people living with HIV.  Part of that statistic is the rampant spread of the disease in sub-Saharan Africa, but the other part is that today, due to medical advances that have occurred in the last 30 years, people are no longer dying of AIDS like they were in the 80’s.  As a matter of fact, with proper treatment and maintenance, an person with HIV can expect to live a normal lifespan, into their 80’s or 90’s, with relatively few HIV-related problems.

I also think about communications.  In Frank Capra’s world, the local police officer had to drive up and down the city streets, looking for George to let him know he was needed at home.  Running out of gas on a lonely stretch of road used to mean hiking for miles or accepting a ride from a stranger.  Clark Kent changed into Superman by ducking into the nearest telephone booth.  Enter the cell phone, and suddenly theses scenarios are obsolete.  And speaking of Superman, no where has there been a better harbinger of things to come than the scene in Superman: The Movie of Christopher Reeve desperately searching for a phone booth, only to discover an open-style pay phone with no enclosure or door.  When cell phones first came into existence, they were big, bulky bricks that were unwieldy tools used only by certain business people.  Today, if you are 12 and your parents haven’t gotten you a phone that allows you to text, surf the net, check your email, play games, take pictures and stream movies (not to mention make calls), you are considered a total dweeb by your peers.  The ability to communicate with almost anyone on the planet at a moments notice is second nature to us now.  I know I have felt lost on those rare occasions that I walk out the door without my phone.  How can I call home to check in?  What if I feel a sudden urge to call my aunt in Seattle while I am waiting in line at the grocery store?  What if there’s an EMERGENCY?  If only cell phone usage was limited to emergency situations . . .

Communication advances have also improved the dissemination of information.  The advent of the 24-hour news channel and the internet makes us all aware of world news any time of the day or night.  I was having a conversation with my husband just the other night about how Nancy Grace’s HLN show anymore seems to be nothing but trying to find the latest missing child.  Now don’t get me wrong, I believe that a missing child, in any situation, is a horrendous tragedy that I would not ever wish on anyone.  But 10 years ago, if a child went missing, it was local news.  They didn’t broadcast it on any national networks, and there certainly wasn’t the attention given to missing children today.  If a child goes missing today, the ability to let the entire country or world know about the situation, post pictures and descriptions, issue Amber Alerts, and get everyone looking for the child greatly improves the probability that that child will be returned home, safe and sound.

The information age has also sounded the death knell for the old door-to-door encyclopedia salesman.  After all, who needs an encyclopedia when one has Google or Wikipedia?  Despite that, when a neighbor held a garage sale several years ago, and had a World Book set from 1987 available for $10, I snatched it up.  It’s not like there is suddenly going to be new information on folks like Beethoven, George Washington, or Elvis Presley.  There is valuable information to be had in an encyclopedia, and even “outdated” ones can be useful.  As a matter of fact, we now have two sets of encyclopedias in our home.  The other set is Encyclopædia Brittanica from the 1880’s.  It belonged to my great-grandparents.  I figure if I am still around in 2080, I will buy another set.  One every 100 years should keep me up to date.  Seriously, having the world at my fingertips is an advance I would not want to give up.  Being able to learn about situations around the world help me to appreciate what I have at home or, conversely, prompt me to try and improve myself and my situation.

In the working world, technology has improved the safety of the work environment, expanded job opportunities to entirely new classes of people, and improved the qualities of the products we buy.  Labor unions gave workers the ability to unite forces and demand better working environments.  Henry Ford’s assembly line revolutionized manufacturing.  The US involvement in World War II introduced women to the manufacturing fields, and equal pay laws helped to level the playing field.  At the same time, child labor laws forced children out of the factory and back into the schools, where, by improving their education, they are able to improve their prospects for employment opportunities in the future.  And in “Research and Design”, the goal of trying to make the latest widget smaller, faster, stronger, cheaper, longer-lasting and more environmentally friendly seems to be never ending.  Computer aided design makes reaching for that goal even easier.  Engineers can “test” virtual models in a simulated environment without the cost of actually making a prototype.  The end result being better products for the consumer at prices that seem to plummet the longer the product is on the market.  Priced a GPS unit or big-screen TV lately?

All of this technology has admittedly improved our lives, but at what price?  I am lucky if I can get my family to unite at the dinner table four nights a week.  Even so, breakfast and lunch are usually in front of the TV, watching something or playing the XBox.  I don’t know most of my kids’ friends because, rather than going to each others’ house’s to play, they party on their gaming systems and text each other late into the night.  If they want to see each other, they wait until they are at school.  Gone are the days of the entire gang descending upon one child’s house to raid the refrigerator and disappear to study or play a game or just “hang out.”  Being able to talk to anyone at the drop of a hat doesn’t mean I am any more connected with those people who are most important in my life.  On the contrary, I think to a certain extent  I take for granted that I can talk to someone at any time, and therefore I don’t talk to them unless there is a pressing need.

For this holiday season, I propose that we all try and take a moment, and make our lives Wonderful.  Take a look at the people around you and really appreciate them for who they are and how they contribute to your happiness.  Look at the value of the quality of your life, not just the quantity of what you have.  Turn off the cell phone and the TV and gather the family for some Christmas caroling in the neighborhood. Invite your friends to join you for Christmas Eve services at church, and repeat the following mantra:

“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”

Merry Christmas.

I grew up going to church.  I still go to church.  As a matter of fact, in my lifetime, I have attended many churches of varying denominations, and the messages were always the same – Love thy neighbor as thyself, Do unto others, and For God so loved the world, etc..   The problem is that much of the time, very nice, well-meaning people go to the church of their choice, listen to the sermon, recite the prayers, sing the songs, sit, stand or kneel when appropriate, and then go home, feeling that they have met their religious “obligation” for the week.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I have, on occasion, fallen into this categorization myself.)  It is one thing to say, “I believe,” and quite another to put that belief into behavior.

My husband is a Netflix junkie.  He regularly scours the Netflix site looking for interesting things to add to our instant queue.  Recently, he pulled up Netflix and told me, “You need to watch this movie.  I watched it last night, and it was certainly not what I expected, but it was really good.  You need to watch this.”  And with that he started Lord, Save Us From Your Followers.  If you have not heard of this movie, I highly encourage you to seek it out.  It is available for instant streaming on Netflix, and has also been released on DVD.  There is also a companion book (which I have not read, but would like to).  The simple premise of this book/movie is “Why is the Gospel of Love dividing America?”  Dan Merchant set out to discover why “Christians” have gotten such a bad rap over the years and why, if we all agree that Jesus calls his followers to “Love One Another,” we don’t seem to be doing that in our daily practice.  It is a provocative look at faith and how that faith translates into daily behavior.  Several years ago, a minister I knew told me that he believed that Religion had given Faith a bad name, and this movie really seems to drive that point home.

Now don’t get me wrong, this film is not Christian-bashing or Religion-bashing.  It asks the question “What would Jesus do?’ and then sets out to try and answer it.  Would Jesus have a political party affiliation?  Would he be hanging out with the movers and shakers or would he be found with the homeless under the bridge?  And if we are really striving to live “Christ-like” lives, what should we be doing?  Ironically, several of the most “Christ-like” insights come from none other than Al Franken, a life-long Jew.  Franken is not the only notable name that shows up in this film, either.  Tony Campolo, Rick Santorum, Lars Larson, and Tom Krattenmaker also contribute their insights on the subject.  Archival footage including the likes of Bono, President Bush, Bill Maher, Pope John Paul II, and Jon Stewart is also used.  Many times when someone used archival footage under Fair Use, the user will “selectively edit” the footage to help support the point that they are trying to make (see “Michael Moore”), but I don’t get that here.  Merchant uses footage to help tell the story, but his point is made without the footage by virtue of the first-hand experiences shown throughout the film.  Merchant filmed a group going under the bridge for a once-a-week service to provide the homeless food, clothing, and personal hygiene. Watching that segment really made me stop and question what I had done recently to help those less fortunate.

Now, all the way through the movie, Dan Merchant stresses repeatedly that he is not trying to rate anyone, judge anyone, or belittle anyone for things that they may or may not have done in their lives.  He is also not taking sides, by any stretch of the imagination.  What he IS trying to do is “start the conversation” – get people talking about what they really believe, why they believe it, how strongly they believe it, and how that belief can be translated into action.  What results is one of those films that seems to continue beyond the ending credits.  It causes you to stop and think, and then want to talk about what you just experienced and how, if at all, it affected you.

Ironically, as we head, full-throttle, into the Christmas season, we see a lot more people doing those things that this movie encourages us to do year-round – giving to the less fortunate, taking time out of our busy lives to help another, and showing compassion and caring to everyone we encounter.  When I was in my early teens, someone gave my mother a poster at Christmastime that said, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.”  She hung this poster up in our big eat-in kitchen, where we could see it every day, at every meal.  I teased her in January when she did not take it down with the other Christmas decorations, but she told me she liked being reminded of that “Christmas feeling” even beyond Christmas.  I didn’t understand then.  I do now.  So does Dan Merchant.  I think Dan Merchant is a hero.  Not the kind that rushes forward to face the danger, but the kind that is slowly, methodically, one person at a time, trying to change the world.  And I like the direction he thinks we should take.

Every once in a while, I stumble upon a tidbit that reassures me that the modern experience is truly a universal one.  This time, the story comes to me by way of a silly email I get once a week from a website that does nothing more than compile odd little news stories from around the globe.  They got it from The Guardian in London, who got it from the Calgary (Canada) Herald, who got it from the Associated Foreign Press, who got it from the official state news service in China. So, in a way, the story is third- or fourth-hand, but I did take the time to look up the original Calgary story, so I feel rather confident sharing it here.

To set the scene: You see a trailer for a film you are interested in seeing.  You go to the bank and speak to your friendly loan officer and see if you can get enough money scraped together to pay the current going rate for a movie ticket (OK, I might be exaggerating here).  The paper says the movie starts at 7:30, so you diligently arrive at the theater at 7:20, buy your ticket and popcorn, and are snuggly in your seat promptly at 7:30.  At which point the “Coming Attractions” begin.  It is a modern nemesis, and it seems that there is nothing you can do about it, but one woman in the People’s Republic of China is taking back the power.

Chen Xiaomei, who just happens to be a lawyer, actually sued her local movie theater for wasting her time with 20 minutes of movie trailers.  Granted, it will be a token suit, as she is only requesting damages that total about $12: actual damages of her ticket price, and the ticket price again, plus $1 as punitive damages for the Chinese equivalent of “pain and suffering”.  She is also asking for a written apology and calling for pre-show ads to total no more than 5 minutes, with the actual ad times being listed in the paper along with the movie times.  The whole thing will probably come to nothing, but it is the principle of the thing that impresses me.

After all, how many times have you sat in a darkened theater thinking, “Can we just get on with it, already?”  I know I have, and I have always felt helpless to do anything about it.  If you take into consideration that there are going to be trailers, and arrive fashionably late, then you have to try to find a seat in the dark.  If you arrive on time, you have to sit there and watch the  best 4 minutes of every movie being released in the next 18 months, along with the repeated “commercials” requesting you turn off your cell phone (I use that time to text friends).  The longer these ads and announcements go on, the more restless and bored the audience gets, so they start talking to each other, and the next thing you know, you have missed the pivotal first 45 seconds of the movie because you were eavesdropping on the woman in front of you who was describing her recent gallbladder surgery to her companion.  You have just wasted $7.50 (or more if the movie is 3-D).  Now you only have two choices (OK, really you have three, but personal ethics prevent me from encouraging anyone to illegally download current run movies): you can either pay another ticket price and see the movie again, or you can wait for it to come out on DVD or Netflix and buy or rent it.  Either way, since you have already missed the first 45 seconds, the entire rest of the movie will be ruined.  You might as well have stayed home.

I hope Ms. Chen wins.  I hope her local theater is suitably chastised and slapped on the wrist, and I hope that the rest of the world sits up and takes notice.  Who knows, maybe this time next year, the local paper will be listing: “Doors open at 7:15, actual movie time at 7:53.”

I recently attended a production of “The King & I,” mounted by one of our local theater companies.  While seeing the play, I found myself thinking, “This makes me want to go home and watch the movie.”  Not that the play was bad – on the contrary – I thought the theater company had done an outstanding job.  I think it lies more in the storytelling approach – same story, different format.  Not necessarily better, just different.

It is kind of like books vs. movies.  Reading a particular book for the first time is wonderful.  You soak up the story, internalize it and envision it for yourself.  If you want Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise to be the hero in your personal mental version, so be it.  When Hollywood decides to make a movie out of your beloved story, and you find out that Jim Carrey is playing the lead, it puts a damper on your mental version.  And then there are the omissions.  There has never been a movie made from a book that includes every single aspect of the book, unless you include some of the recent movies made from children’s literature.  It is hard to leave anything out of an hour-and-a-half long movie that is based upon a 32-page children’s story.  No, I am talking about the Gone With the Winds, the Hunt For Red Octobers or any of the Harry Potters or the Twilights.  Any time you read a book, and then later go see the movie, you walk out of the movie with a list of things excluded from the story, whether it is additional characters, side- or sub-plots, or any other such details that the filmmakers omitted for time purposes.  It is impossible to take any book that falls into the 400 – 800 page category and winnow it down to 90 minutes and include everything.  Something has got to give, and when details are left out, we take it to heart.

The same is true when you make the film vs. live theater comparison.  Live theater is wonderful.  It has evolved from the ancient times when, rather than being a form of entertainment, it was a way to communicate the latest news or stories to the masses.  It became a form of storytelling in the oral tradition, recounting heroic or tragic battles, and continued to evolve to the creative storytelling format it is today – a combination of new and old stories, along with pieces that explore the human condition and, without making judgments, leave it to us to decide what is good or bad, right or wrong.  I love live theater, and will continue to do so until my dying day, but movies do have some advantages.  Movies can tell the same story that plays do, but they can do it with close-ups and vastly more orchestrated scores.  It is one thing to watch Anna and the King waltzing around the stage in my local theater.  They seem to be having a lot of fun.  It is quite another to see Yul Brenner and Deborah Kerr dancing away, only to be followed by those close-ups, where the sexual tension is palpable.  You feel it dripping in the air, and you want to shout out from your couch, “Go ahead and kiss her, already!”  Of course, they never will, but there it is.  Movies also have the advantage when it comes to location.  During a theater production, it is easy to imagine the Maine woods and the old road where the berries  grow, but On Golden Pond, the movie, showed us the lake, the woods, and the frightening confusion felt by Norman when he went looking for those berries.  In a movie, you can bounce from the south of France to Rio de Janero to the North Pole, if you choose.  In theater, you can only suggest those locations.  The rest must be left to the audience’s imaginations.  And when you come right down to it, imagination is the key point.

In books and live theater, your own imagination is part of the storytelling.  You might have a few illustrations or references to point you in a direction, but the rest of the pictures are all in your head.  The set designer can place a screen door upstage, and the dialog will tell you the lake is just outside the door and down the hill, but your imagination tells you what the lake looks like, how big it is, and what the shoreline looks like on the other side.  It is precisely that inclusiveness that draws us to books and live theater.  Watching a movie is passive. We sit, we watch, maybe eat a snack.  Books and theater are active.  The pleasure that comes from reading is not scanning and interpreting the words on the page.  It is the mental image conjured by those words.  It is the texture and smell of the paper.  Sometimes it is even the margin notes left from the last time we read the book.  Seeing a play is interactive.  The actors perform and the audience laughs, or cries, or applauds, or gasps, and the actors feed upon that collective energy and use it to give us even more in the next moment.  It is a symbiotic relationship.  We actively participate when we read or attend live theater.  Art can be defined as “The conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty, specifically the production of the beautiful.”  And it is this arrangements in our own heads that make books and theater Art.