Scrooged (Richard Donner, 1988): It’s entirely fitting that director Richard Donner completed Scrooged after both The Omen and The Goonies. That basically sums the whole thing up: it can’t decide whether it wants to be genuinely scary or laugh-out-loud funny. The result is somewhere between both and neither, in the same comic-horror vein as Gremlins (which is, by the way, a much more awesome addition to the holiday laugh-and-scream-fest genre). Bill Murray is goofily unconvincing as a business executive but brings it all home in deadpan reactions to magical situation — a sly double-take into the Ghost of Christmas Future’s belly is one of the film’s best moments, despite the special effects being so dated. It ends with an unnecessary breaking of the fourth wall, like an attempt to be hip and contemporary; as The Grinch below here suggests, I don’t think it’s possible to make a Christmas story hip and contemporary. Christmas is hokey. Movies seem to succeed more when they embrace the hokiness and don’t deviate from it, or embellish it to the point of explosion (like how Love, Actually all but bursts with Christmas-coloured hormones).
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Ron Howard, 2000): Speaking of lame-duck Christmas movies kept afloat by talented comedic actors (read the review above, if you didn’t catch the reference), it’s unquestionable that anyone would watch The Grinch were it not for Jim Carrey. The movie was basically made for him. The rest of it is the result of what they assumed kids on ADD would be engaged by: the songs are sporadic and jumpy and the gags are actually too many, as if Howard and the writers were afraid that one joke every 10 seconds was too few, so upped it to one every five seconds and dismissed each as quickly as they introduced it. The result is a schizophrenic slapstick nightmare, so in-your-face that you want to just lie over and fall asleep… which is exactly what happened to my girlfriend and I. (P.S. Can we briefly acknowledge what a goth goddess Taylor Momsen grew into? Unrecognizable from the adorable little girl who believes in the true spirit of Christmas.)
The Vice Guide to North Korea ( Shane Smith & Eddy Moretti, 2006): I don’t think Vice Magazine purports to be ta paragon of journalistic integrity, and that’s fine. Their travel guides — especially their hour-long summary of North Korea — are bite-sized travelogues by proper dudes’ dudes, meant to incite vague interest and quick laughs along with a bit of history and pop out just as fast. But, somehow, their NK travel guide has garnered much acclaim and wrested a spot onto the English-language NK info canon. So maybe I’ve read too much about North Korea, seen too many photos and, well, have been actually living in its southern neighbour for too long, but watching the thing didn’t quite live up to all that I’d heard. It’s mostly just Smith making the same jokes again and again (he uses the word “bustling” to describe what NK is clearly not more than a few times), and remarking how bizarre it is that everybody acts like a North Korean. I mean, dude, what did you expect? Why do you think it’s weird that in a totalitarian regime, nobody’s heard of the Sex Pistols? It’s like he’s making fun of children in a language they don’t understand. Bonus documentary points for the incognito shooting, though; some candid moments of North Koreans staring dead-eyed into the camera make for more than one striking image.
Fiddler on the Roof (Norman Jewison, 1971): Rather than dissect the roller coaster of joy and misery experienced by these impoverished Russians, or repeat how magnificent most of the songs are, let’s address the question of how well this 42-year-old musical holds up. It was released in a rough time, at the end of the ’60s, near the end of a string of hit Broadway-cum-Hollywood hits like West Side Story (1961), Mary Poppins (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Oliver! (1968) and Hello, Dolly! (1969), and this post-Vietnam America saw a surge in gritty realism with independent film on the rise (think John Cassavetes) and sobering dramas like The Godfather and Five Easy Pieces. Fiddler is very much a combination of these two cinematic ideologies. It combines the grandiose musical mentality of awesome spectacle with the heavy-hitting dramatic reality of Jewish diaspora in the rapidly forming, viciously antisemitic Soviet Union. Natural Jewish intonation (sound like you’re dismissing everything; shrug and say, with an upward-lilting accent, “What’s wrong with marrying a Jewish man?”) lends itself brilliantly to naturalistic acting, primarily by the immortal Topol as the brusque and traditional Tevye. More than anything, too, is how really, truly, goddamned Jewish it is; I had to cover my ears and close my eyes lest be haunted by memories of Toronto Hebrew school. To answer the question posed above: Fiddler on the Roof absolutely holds up.