'tis the season... DVD Advent Calendar
Twenty-four days of Advent means twenty-four festively themed DVDs.
If you’re feeling decidedly un-jolly, then there’s still time to get in the mood for the Xmas atmos. Twenty-four days of Advent gives you the opportunity to watch twenty-four festively themed DVDs. It's an advent calendar for the digital format you know and love.
And what’s the definition of a ‘Christmas movie’? Well, the flimsy criteria is that the film can’t just briefly feature Christmas; the majority of the film has to be set during the yuletide period. So, there’s no Catch Me If You Can, When Harry Met Sally or About a Boy on this list.
Bundle up on the sofa with a bag of roasted chestnuts/popcorn and get ready to watch a dozen characters learn ’the true meaning of Christmas’ and maybe you'll see a few seasonal miracles along the way. Just be warned that the term 'Christmas movie' doesn't automatically mean 'good movie'...
After crawling into Santa’s sack once Christmas Eve, a small baby grows up in the North Pole believing that he is an Elf. When the truth is finally revealed, ‘Buddy’ (Will Ferrell) makes his way to New York in search of his father. Unfortunately, Dad is firmly lodged on the ‘naughty list’, and unless Buddy can spread a little Christmas cheer, Santa’s days could be numbered…
One of the best Christmas films in recent memory, 2003’s Elf is a genuine example of a film that is ‘fun for all the family’. The reason is undoubtedly Will Ferrell, one of the best comic performers to break-out into the box office mainstream. There’s a lack of schmaltz and an abundance of belly laughs as Buddy adapts to New York life. Able support comes in the form of James Caan and Mary Steenburgen.
Afforded a bumper two disc set which includes a commentary, Elf isn’t just a fantastic Christmas movie - it’s a great comedy and worthy of your attention.
To look after the cute, lovable pet known as the Mogwai there are three strict rules: Don't ever get him wet. Keep him away from bright light. And the most important thing, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs... never feed him after midnight. Unfortunately, young Billy fails to follow these guidelines and soon a gang of malevolent creatures are terrorising the neighbourhood.
In 1984, Joe Dante presented us with an idyllic town at Christmas time...then proceeded to destroy it with the arrival of the anarchic Gremlins. While lacking big laughs, there's enough dark humour here (including a rather nasty story about Santa Claus) to make things memorable.
The Gremlins returned in The New Batch, the 1990 sequel. The humour had become broader and with a knowing touch of post-modernism, but it’s business as usual as the creatures take over a sophisticated building.
The region two DVD of Gremlins is a disappointing affair as it's depressingly vanilla. Region one viewers have been treated to a Special Edition which boasts two commentaries and deleted scenes. The sequel is currently unavailable in region two, but a region one release has a commentary and music video.
3. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
On the trail of criminal mastermind, Ernst Stravos Blofield, James Bond eventually tracks him down in the Swiss Alps. Blofield is posing as a scientist, and plans to launch a deadly virus upon the world. Can 007 save the day?
Ignoring the festive setting for the final scene of The World Is Not Enough (which is primarily used to shoehorn in a lousy double-entendre), OHMSS is the only Bond film to be set at Christmas. Coupled with a more caring Bond in the shape of George Lazenby, this is probably about as saccharine as 007 will ever get. The movie is often dismissed as being below par, but it’s certainly a cut above a fair few Bonds (particularly Die Another Day). Lazenby, in his debut and swansong, isn’t THAT bad and the dour ending is the best finale in the series.
The DVD contains a candid documentary on the making of the film, plus the usual plethora of trailers and commentaries.
4. The Santa Clause
When Santa Claus falls off his roof, single dad Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) inherits the sleigh and the job. However, trying to be Santa and a regular guy isn’t all that easy…
A light-hearted and fun movie from Disney, The Santa Clause succeeds due to a tight pace and the key casting of Allen. Although lacking consistent laughs, it will keep the younger members of the family entertained.
The region two release of The Santa Clause is sans extras, while a region one Special Edition fails to to set the world alight with a disc that relies on DVD-Rom features.
A Christmas Eve from three very different perspectives. Threatened with eviction, check-out girl Ronna is forced to embark on her first drug deal. Meanwhile, impulsive Brit Simon and his reluctant friend Marcus see the sights of Vegas. And finally, soap-stars Adam and Zack find themselves invited to a very strange Christmas dinner.
The adolescent’s answer to Pulp Fiction, [/i] Go[/i] succeeds due to its solid casting (Sarah Polley, William Fictner, Katie Holmes) and frantic pace. Similar in tone to director Doug Liman’s earlier effort, Swingers, it verges between comedy and drama in a very effective manner. While the finale is a disappointment, the movie stands up to repeated viewings.
Despite being released relatively early in the days of DVD, Go has a surprisingly good bunch of special features, ranging from a director’s commentary to fourteen deleted scenes.
6. The Grinch
Christmas is the big event for the citizens of the magical town of Whoville, but the miserly Grinch is less of a fan and decides to hijack the proceedings by stealing the presents that Santa brings.
Ron Howard’s 2000 adaptation of Dr Seuss’ story How the Grinch Stole Christmas is dominated by the central performance of a latex-clad Jim Carrey. Songs and extra material have been added to stretch out the thin story, but fans of Suess may find this unwelcome. Either way, one must credit Howard for bringing a sense of spectacle to the story, even if the effect is slightly wearing.
The region one and two DVDs includes a long list of extras that denote quantity over quality. Short featurettes, music videos and trailers will be of little interest to anyone. In response to this, a region two vanilla disc has just been released.
Dr Seuss' popular story had made it to the screen twice before, firstly in a 1957 version starring Walter Mathhau and secondly, in the famous 1966 cartoon starring the voice of Boris Karloff. The latter is available on DVD, packaged with various other Seuss cartoon adaptations.
7. Die Hard
One Christmas Eve, terrorists seize a skyscraper and hold the inhabitants hostage. Their only hope is LA cop John McClane (Bruce Willis), who wages war against the bad-guys using his cunning and the occasional machine gun…
An antidote to some of the cheesier efforts in this list, Die Hard is a tightly plotted action movie which is still a thrill-a-minute all these years later. Bruce Willis’ wise-guy-in-peril was an original idea back in 1988, and his sparring with Alan Rickman is a constant joy. John McTiernan’s direction has never quite recaptured the dizzying heights seen here, and the set-pieces are filled with tension.
Die Hard is available separately or packaged with its sequels. Either way, it’s usually a comprehensive double-disc set with, amongst others, audio commentaries, deleted scenes and out-takes. Also of note, is a special feature that shows you the numerous benefits of widescreen. Essential viewing to those still sticking with pan & scan.
8. Home Alone
When his parents mistakenly leave him behind while they go on holiday, Eight year old Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) is left to fend for himself. This involves defending his house from two dim-witted burglars.
Remembered primarily for the ten minutes towards the end where the burglars stumble from one booby-trap to the next, Chris Columbus’ Home Alone was a huge smash-hit when it was released in 1990. Its appeal may rest largely on the slapstick finale, but there’s no denying it holds a certain charm due to the writing talents of John Hughes and a marvellous score by John Williams. Who would have thought that the tricky issue of child neglect would be such a winner?
Home Alone is available on DVD separately, or in various packages containing one, two or all three of its lesser sequels. Its sole extra is a trailer which, at least, contains a couple of clips that failed to make it to the finished cut. This is a hugely popular film that deserves better treatment.
9. The Muppet Christmas Carol
Christmas Eve, and miserly skin-flint Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine) is visited by five ghosts intent on making him change his ways…
Quite easily the best Muppet movie, Michael Caine excels in a tough gig as one of only a handful of ‘human’ actors in the cast. Made in 1990, following the death of Muppet creator, Jim Henson, this was a step in the right direction for the franchise, and one that has yet to be equalled in subsequent films (the fair Treasure Island, and forgettable Muppets in Space). Despite the muppetised angle of the adaptation, this is pretty faithful to Dickens’s original story, with a good mixture of humour and pathos. Special credit to the songs too, with some genuinely hum-able tunes. A festive favourite for the family.
The Muppet Christmas Carol has recently been re-released on DVD in both region 1 and 2. Although audiences will be pleased that the film is finally available in widescreen, a casualty is Brian Henson’s director’s commentary that didn’t make the cut. Also absent is the song ‘When Love is Gone’ which was absent from the cinema release but made it to VHS. It seems we’re not going to get the definitive edition of this film anytime soon.
10. Jingle all the Way
After missing one important occasion too many, Howard Langston (Arnold Schwarzenegger) promises his son that he’ll get him the ultimate Christmas present: a Turbo-man doll. Unfortunately, Howard is unaware just how popular the doll has proven to be with sold-out toy stores across the land. And so begins a frantic quest to find one before Christmas morning…
Back when the Governor of California was an actor, he made some truly dodgy career choices, usually involving the genre of comedy. Bottom of the barrel is 1998’s Jingle All the Way, an overly sadistic and mean-spirited family film. Co-starring Jake Lloyd ( Phantom Menace’s Anakin Skywalker) and the late, great Phil Hartman (Lionel Hutz et al in The Simpsons) it really is as bad as you‘ve been led to believe. Taking its cues from Buzz Lightyear mania, it could be called a ‘satire‘. It could also be called ‘pretty dreadful’. There’s nothing particularly jolly about beating up reindeer and riots in toy stores… It gets the DVD it deserves; a trailer and very little else.
11. Christmas with the Simpsons
Five themed episodes featuring America’s first family:
The Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire: Homer gets a job as a department store Santa to earn some extra cash.
Miracle On Evergreen Terrace: Bart accidentally sets fire to the Christmas tree, destroying the family’s presents in the process. Blaming the whole sorry affair on a burglar, the town rallies around and donates $15,000 to the family. Can Bart carry the burden of guilt?
Grift of the Magi: A popular toy, Funzo, is launched. However, when Lisa learns some dodgy facts about the manufacturers, she launches a one-girl campaign against the toy.
She of Little Faith: As Christmas approaches, Lisa converts to Buddhism.
Mr Plow: Barney and Homer compete in the snow-ploughing industry.
The Christmas episodes of The Simpsons have never quite built up the same recognition as Halloween’s traditional Treehouse of Horror entry, and there are far better episodes out there than the ones that have made their way to this DVD. As for the theme…well, it’s not even that strict as Mr Plow has nothing to do with Christmas.
A sequel of sorts has just been released containing the episodes Homer Vs. Dignity, Skinner's Sense Of Snow, Dude- Where's My Ranch and 'Tis The 15th Season. Once again, the theme is stretched thinly as Homer vs. Dignity is more specifically a Thanksgiving episode.
While obviously popular, the themed releases pale in comparison to the season box sets. Even considering the sluggish rate at which Fox are releasing them, it is to these that the average fan should dedicate shelf space.
12. Jack Frost
When Charlie’s dad (Michael Keaton) dies in a car-accident, the young boy becomes reclusive and withdrawn. One year on and as Christmas approaches, Charlie is startled to discover that a snowman has been possessed by the spirit of his father.
Not to be confused with either the 1979 Rankin-Bass special or the horror comedy from 1998 both of which share its name. No, this is a rather mawkish film from 1998 with far too much emphasis on sentimentality rather than laughs. Jack Frost at least benefits from some reasonable CGI and a nice turn from Keaton. The 'firm but fair' finale may threaten to tug on the heartstrings but it's handled in such a clumsy way, that any impact is lessened. Save the hankies for the DVD which has no special features apart from 'scene access" and "interactive menus', and we all know there's nothing particularly 'special' about them.
13. Die Hard 2
John McClane is about to have another bad Christmas Eve. Terrorists have seized control of an airport, spelling disaster for the passengers on the planes above...
Although it's superior to the third film in the series, Die Hard 2 is definitely a case of a diminishing returns. The narrative tries to follow the award-winning formula of the first film too closely but forgets that the originality of Die Hard was what made it so good. As an action film, Die Hard 2 an enjoyable ride to the credits. As a follow-up to the movie that redefined the genre, it's a disappointment.
Make sure you plump for the Special Edition of Die Hard 2 as it's far superior to the original disc that 20th Century Fox released. An audio commentary and deleted scenes are just two of the highlights.
14. The Family Man
Jack Campbell has it all: he’s a high-flying career man with pots of cash and a fancy car. However, when Jack wakes up on Christmas day he finds himself in another life; the life he gave up with the woman he let go.
Redemption at Christmas is hardly a new idea as a Scrooge-like executive learns the error of his ways. Even if you ignore the Dickens parallel, you’ll find the hallmarks of another Christmas classic: It’s a Wonderful Life. Cage’s performance is indeed reminiscent of Stewart’s desperate turn as George Bailey. While these familiarities would be forgivable if the film was as fun as it’s forebears, unfortunately, after the quirky and enjoyable start, the film runs out of steam and follows Jack’s new mundane life in far too much detail.
A modicum of effort has gone into the region two DVD with a half-hearted selection of extras ranging from deleted scenes to outtakes. The region one release also contains a commentary.
15. Vice Versa
Eleven year old Charlie (Fred Savage) and his father Marshall (Judge Reinhold) don't seem to have much in common. However, they're forced to look at life from a different perspective when an enchanted antique switches their bodies...
One of several bodyswap movies to be released in the late eighties, Vice Versa benefits from a pleasing performance by a pre- Wonder Years Savage as a man trapped in his son's body. Despite being a reasonable diversion for ninety minutes, similar ground was covered in the superior Big and, the fact that this is all very similar to Freaky Friday means that the movie wont be winning any awards for originality.
Trailers are the only special feature on this badly presented disc. And what's more, the one for Vice Versa is not included!
16. The Nightmare Before Christmas
Jealous of all the fuss and attention that Christmas receives, Pumpkin King and ruler of Halloween town, Jack Skellington decides to take over from Santa Claus. Unfortunately, his methods are rather less traditional…
From the warped mind of producer Tim Burton, Henry Selick's 1993 animation, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a welcome change from the schmatz-ridden kid's films that find their way into cinemas each December. While the hoary plot convention of Christmas redemption is present here, it's dealt with in a significantly less sugary way than most other festive movies. Including some memorable songs sung by composer Danny Elfman, it may not be the most enjoyable film on this list, but there's enough creative talent on display to make it a must-see.
A comprehensive DVD containing a commentary, storyboards and deleted footage is available for region one and two.
17. The Santa Clause 2
Scott Calvin has been Santa for many years now, but a second Clause reveals that he must marry before Chistmas Day...or he'll lose the job...
Following the success of the original film, Disney eventually sequalised it eight years later with the imaginatively titled The Santa Clause 2 (what was wrong with 'The Second Santa Clause'?). The plot has plenty of good ideas, but there's a general impression that this was heading direct to DVD at the early stages of filming as it generally feels a lot 'cheaper' than the original movie.
The DVD is a fairly jolly affair with an audio commentary, deleted scenes, bloopers and the usual array of featurettes.
18. Santa Who?
Falling from his sleigh on a dry-run shortly before Christmas, Santa Claus (Leslie Nielsen) wakes up with amnesia. Adopted into a kind family, can jolly old St. Nick recover his memories before his big night?
A rather lame TV Movie and you know the sort; shot mainly in Canada on a limited budget. This film suffers from that growing cliché of modernising Santa’s methods with technology, where to previous generations the reliance on actual magic was far more pleasing. Fortunately, Leslie Neilsen in the title role is a adequate distraction, but quite what he’s doing here is anyone’s guess. Perhaps he enjoyed playing Santa following his earlier appearance in the role in 1991’s All I Want for Christmas. Unsurprisingly the DVD offers no extra features.
Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is a mean-spirited Television executive who despises Christmas. As the festive season approaches, he is visited by four ghosts eager to make him change his ways.
One of the most reliable directors around, Richard Donner does well here with a dark-comic retelling of Dickens’s Christmas Carol, first released in 1988. Bill Murray plays that familiar cynical wise-cracker at which he excels and there are also strong turns from David Johnasen and Carol Kane as the Ghosts of Christmas past and present respectively. Although it descends too easily into schmaltz by the finale, there is much to recommend. The same can not be said of the DVD, which houses just a trailer.
20. The Office Christmas Specials
Old employees return to Wernham Hogg for the annual Christmas party. David (Ricky Gervais) goes to desperate measures to find a date for the function, while Tim (Martin Freeman) prepares to see lost-love Dawn (Lucy Davis) for the first time in three years.
For the simple reason that it's a fairer representation of Christmas than most of the DVDs on this list, this is a must-see. A fitting conclusion to a well-loved sitcom, The Office Christmas Special may not represent the best of the show, but it's certainly a lot better than most festively themed programmes that make their way to our Television screens. A DVD featuring a commentary, music videos and featurettes is available for both region one and two.
21. Home Alone 2
Kevin McCallister is alone at Christmas once more when his parents get on a plane to Florida...and boards one to New York.
A severe case of de ja vu as audiences are invited to watch a virtual rerun of the original film with our characters being forced through the same arcs as two years previously. Even the slapstick finale lacks originality, although the producers have at least gone to the trouble of reuniting the cast of part one. Sadly, the series did not end here and was followed by Home Alone 3 starring Alex D. Linz and a young Scarlett Johanson. Even worse was Home Alone 4, a TV Movie made in Canada, which returned to the McCallister's storyline; albeit with none of the original cast and a blatant disregard for continuity.
Home Alone 2 is available in various sequel-friendly packages, and also as a separate disc. The sole extra on all releases is a trailer.
22. Miracle on 34th Street
Declaring himself to be the ‘real’ Santa Claus, Kris Kringle is swiftly declared insane. His only hope is a hotshot lawyer and a young girl who doesn’t even believe he exists…
The original version, made in 1947 and starring Edmund Gwenn as Kringle, was—bizarrely—first released in May, giving the marketing men something of a headache when it came to promoting a Christmas movie. Despite this set-back, the movie has steadily grown from a modest hit into an endearing classic. Unfortunately, the DVD fails to represent this as all Regions have no features except a trailer.
Showing characteristic laziness, Hollywood has repeatedly remade Miracle with three TV Movies in 1955, 1959 and 1973. It’s doubtful you’ve seen any of these, although you may have bumped into the 1994 remake. Lacking any genuine laughs, it focuses far too much on schmaltz and drama rather than actual comedy. A shame since Richard Attenborough plays Kringle in effective, under-stated fashion. Don’t get too excited by the DVD either, which follows the original by having a trailer…and that’s all.
23. It’s a Wonderful Life
George Bailey has lived his life as selflessly as possible, but things just never seem to go his way. One Christmas Eve, he contemplates suicide…only for an angel to arrive and show him how life would be for the loved ones around him, had he never existed at all.
The ultimate Christmas movie is also a genuine classic in its own right. Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece manages to be feel-good even when the majority of the movie is surprisingly dark. James Stewart has never bettered his role as George Bailey, and there're also great turns from Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore.
A flop on its initial release, the film's copyright expired due to a clerical error. Because of this, it could be shown freely by Television Networks. Although Capra never received a cent in royalties, the constant repeat showings have meant that the film has generated a huge audience of loyal fans.
The DVD from both region one and region two, includes a couple of features that were made for TV. A documentary starring Tom ‘ Happy Days’ Bosley is interesting enough, but one wishes it could have been longer. Ditto for the short interview with Frank Capra Jr. Nevertheless, this remains an essential purchase and, like the best presents, it's not just for Christmas.
20. Santa Claus: The Movie
As Santa Claus discovers the world is changing for the worse, an unscrupulous Toy-dealer begins to exploit one of his elves…
The proclamation of 'from the director of Supergirl isn't all that promising and, unsurprisingly, Jeannot Szwarc delivers another turkey; this time of the Christmas variety. The first half is watchable (even if it does concentrate on the origins of a mythical character) but when the story is relocated to Eighties New York, things get rather tired. The cast, including John Lithgow and the late Dudley Moore, try their best but it's a thankless task with material this weak.
Despite its numerous faults, the film has its fair share of fans. They're undoubtedly clouded by the nostalgia they associate with childhood Christmas viewings, but they may be interested in the DVD. A rather dull documentary and two trailers aren’t going to entice any new devotees in region two, although the region one release is a livelier affair with the inclusion of an unapologetic commentary.
Editorial by Peter Martin
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