Favorite Christmas movies usually come down to something
that strikes you and sticks with you from early experience,
as either a child or young adult.
One of the few stories centering on the celebration of
Christmas is Dickens's A Christmas Carol, often adapted
directly into movie versions (and inspiring many more).
But its themes of personal moral reformgreed and self versus
generosity, family, sacrifice and charity for othersare
secular and linked only implicitly to Christianity.
The holiday is also the main focus of Jean Shepherd's comic
memoir, A Christmas Story (1983), which is good-naturedly
anti-secular Christmas and perfect for the age of irony.
In most beloved Christmas films, only a single famous celebration
scene is holiday-related (It's a Wonderful Life).
It is still almost always secular, though often pseudo-supernatural
elements sneak in a heavenly aura (the angel Clarence in
Life, the "real Santa" in Miracle on 34th Street).
Well-done religious connections are quite rare. My own
favorites are also "holy" only by implication: the overwhelmingly
happy family in Meet Me in St. Louis (with Judy Garland's
definitive "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), and
German and American soldiers coming together to sing carols
at the front in A Midnight Clear.
SERENDIPITY (A-3, PG-13) is a romantic comedy in what is
becoming a revered genre: Lovers meet but separate for one
reason or another. Then they desperately try to find each
other, often years later. One problem with this scheme is
that the boy and girl seldom spend the movie in the same
city, much less the same shot (Sleepless in Seattle).
This may be kind to everybody's shooting schedule, but is
tough on romantic chemistry.
In this case, Jonathan and Sara (energetic John Cusack
and charming Brit Kate Beckinsale) meet amusingly at Bloomingdale's
while Christmas shopping. They hear all the magic music
as they digest sundaes, skate in Central Park and gaze at
But Sara resists: She's a romantic who believes in fate
and not dumb luck. Some years later, each is about to marry
someone else and still pining for his/her lost soulmate.
Sara goes back to New York for one last shot at finding
Jonathan. You know she will, although the near-misses and
coincidences are thick.
Those who believe in destiny and one true love will enjoy
this dippy, happy moviesilly or not. Director Peter
Chelsom (Hear My Song) has a knack for this stuff.
Jeremy Piven plays Cusack's comic sidekick, a Times
obituary writer, with an improbable patter as good as Jay
Leno's. Not about real love but the pop, feel-good variety;
time to lighten up and say O.K. for mature youth and adults.
Hearts in Atlantis
HEARTS IN ATLANTIS (A-3, PG-13): This Stephen King tale,
deftly and moodily directed by Aussie Scott Hicks (Shine),
explores the seemingly idyllic small-town, 1960s life of
a normal boy suddenly put at risk. The threat comes not
from King's patented supernatural horrors but from mundane
sources of evillust, jealousy and dark political powers
in the larger world.
The idealized childhood of Bobby Garfield (debut performance
by luminous Anton Yelchin) and woods-romping best pals Sully
and Carol seems flawed only by his grouchy single mom Liz
(Hope Davis). She's a widow left scrimping and loveless
by the early death of her apparently no-good gambler husband.
Then enters a new and mysterious upstairs roomer, Ted (Anthony
Hopkins), soft-spoken but reclusive and a likely fugitive.
He becomes Bobby's mentor and father figure.
Ted is a psychic, with deep insight into character and
future events, who proves to be a handy ally (in sizing
up Liz's abusive boss, in fending off menacing juvenile
bullies, in helping Bobby discover the truth about his father).
Ultimately, to help his friends, Ted sacrifices himself
to his own pursuing demons (Cold War bad guys who want to
use his powers). Ted is a familiar King character, the reluctant
paranormal who uses his powers for good, a gently spooky
fellow Hopkins can play in overdrive.
Other familiar motifs include nostalgia for the innocence
of boyhood, eternal friendships, first bicycles and first
kisses. Some violence, sexual and otherwise; good triumphs;
humane, poignant quality offers satisfaction for mature
youth and adults.
TRAINING DAY (O, R): Denzel Washington plays a motor-mouthed,
crooked narc detective who is smart, charming and absolutely
ruthless. This hair-raising, Los Angeles-based tour de
force is three-parts action film, one-part social commentary.
Ethan Hawke is a suitable opponent as a decent, hard-nosed
Washington's Alonzo Harris is presumably breaking in idealistic
Jake Hoyt (Hawke), promoted from a safer job in the Valley.
At first, Alonzo seems an ultra-tough, profane veteran giving
the kid gritty, politically incorrect survival advice. A
voyeuristic tour of his hellish combat zone ranges from
slum drug dens to posh restaurant hangouts of decadent police
bosses. Soon Alonzo escalates to weird behavior.
Alonzo is often persuasive: "You give me 18 months and
I'll give you a career," or "It takes a wolf to catch a
wolf." But finally, it becomes clear that he's lost his
soul in the jungle war between good and evil. Alonzo even
sets up Jake as the fall guy in an effort to save his own
Hopefully, neither the world nor the cops are this bad.
Washington and Hawke get the absolute max from the material.
As directed by ex-video guy Antoine Fuqua, Day bristles
with intense, scary fights, shootouts and suspense to the
last drop. Endless low-life language and mean-streets detail
seem intended to bolster far-fetched plot twists and marginal
A major plus is the admirably dogged virtue of Jake, who
hungers for justice. Cynical, lurid, violent storytelling
with some redeeming moral and artistic values; for adults.
PHILLY (ABC, Tuesdays): Steven Bochco's new legal series
is his best project in many seasons. It also unleashes Kim
Delaney, freeing her from her beautiful-but-bland, blue-collar,
low-key cop role on NYPD Blue. Her Kathleen Maguire
character, a smart-talking first-year defense lawyer in
Philadelphia, contends for the most admirable and likable
female quality drama-series lead ever on TV.
She has a heart of gold in a tough world, negotiating the
mean streets of criminal law, working long hours for justice
for her imperfect but often sympathetic low-life clients.
Kathleen is tireless and kind, defined by her compassion.
"I believe in rehabilitation," she says. A friend responds,
"It's the Irish Catholic in you."
She also knows the bad clients from the good ones, and
constantly bugs them all to fix up their lives. She's a
single mom with a volatile-tempered ex (Kyle Secor) in the
DA's office, a 10-year-old son, a mother who is un-friendly
and a troubled father. Delaney is gritty and credible. She's
also kind of an angel in the authentic, superbly detailed
courthouse chaos of seedy defendants, unpredictable jurors,
ambitious attorneys (especially Tom Hanks look-alike Tom
Everett Scott) and oddball, self-absorbed judges.
Despite these assets, some will still be turned off by
Bochco's fondness for the risqué (not involving Kathleen
during the first month), especially early in the hour to
grab audiences. One has no idea where he and coproducer
Alison Cross may take their heroine in future episodes.
Episode endings tend toward terrific. In one, Kathleen
holds her son, rocks him and gently calms his fears about
her boyfriend: "But it won't always be like that....You'll
know about it, and nobody can ever make me love you less."
In another, the main plotline is a long, frustrating effort
to get a client, innocent but damaged, out of jail to attend
his mother's funeral. Finally released, he can't cope with
his grief. As he sobs in a darkened car, she joins him in
praying the "Hail Mary" in a quiet moment of genuine grace.
Band of Brothers
BAND OF BROTHERS (HBO): This extended miniseries that started
in October follows a World War II airborne company from
basic training through the Normandy assault and the Battle
of the Bulge into Germany. It is grim, real, relentless
and as hypnotic as a great book you can't put down. Co-produced
by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, and based on the history
written by Stephen Ambrose, it is among the greatest films
about men in combat. It is the fall's premier television
(HBO tends to make up, now and then, like a rich man donating
wealth to a good charity, for the outrageousness of series
like The Sopranos and Sex in the City.)
To underline the reality, each episode is preceded by brief
commentary from surviving soldiers, now aged but still obviously
moved by their memories. Music by Michael Kamen provides
emotion and grandeur. Extraordinary cinematography, close-up
and mobile, plus creative use of slow motion, help re-create
the terror, the exhaustion, the waste and the genuine comradery,
love and heroism of the times.
The action is neither glorified nor mocked, but presented
in all its moral complexity. Every episode has fine moments
of all kinds. Those to remember include the suddenness of
death, the maxed-out troopers in a French convent serenaded
by a choir of nuns, and the sergeant's prayer as darkness
fell on D-day in France: "I promised God if I ever got home,
I would spend my life in a place of peace."
A Bit of Divinity
A BIT OF DIVINITY seems suggested in the Infiniti car ads
that show a driver with uncanny power to stop the rain,
halt interfering traffic, turn on his CD player and change
the traffic signals from red to green. But then, when you
think about it, most saints would be willing to get wet,
let the other guy go ahead and wait patiently for the light
to change. Come to think of it, they'd also probably be