Gifts for Film Buffs
Yes, Virginia, you still have time to select appropriate presents for the movie lovers on your Christmas list. Here are eight recommendations, ranging from a 2013 release of special interest to Texas audiences to a silent-era masterpiece Roger Ebert once described thusly: “This movie seems to really believe in vampires.”
The Muppet Christmas Carol
Long, long before he attracted a new generation of fans by playing Batman’s butler, Michael Caine enchanted small children and young-at-heart adults with his portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge (opposite, among others, Kermit the Frog’s Bob Cratchit) in this 1992 Muppet musical take on Charles Dickens’ yuletide tale.
As I have noted elsewhere: The beauty part of Caine’s performance is, unlike a lot of actors who perform opposite Muppets, Caine isn't merely trying to be a good sport; he's being a great actor. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you could somehow digitally lift his performance here and drop it into a more conventional adaptation of A Christmas Carol — that is, a movie in which all of Caine's co-stars were human beings — it would be every bit as effective and affecting.
Give this one to the youngsters on your list, but only if you’re reasonably sure they’ll let you watch it with them.
Of all the classics on all the Blu-Rays in the world, this one is the perfect choice for any hopeless romantic, male or female. And if you’re still seeking an appropriate present for a film buff, take note: The 70th anniversary home-video edition also includes Michael Curtiz: The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of, a 37-minute documentary about the incredibly prolific Warner Bros. contract director.
Curtiz made 45 features between 1930 and 1939 and fortuitously was chosen to helm this Old Hollywood masterwork. Here’s looking at him, kid.
Surely you know at least one Willie Nelson fan — and/or devotee of the Austin music scene — that you want to make merry this season, right? Directed by Tim McCanlies, and based on Turk Pipkin’s popular novel When Angels Sing, this family-friendly, feel-good fantasy dramedy has Nelson perfectly cast as Nick, a twinkly eyed graybeard who helps an Austin college professor (Harry Connick Jr.) rediscover the magic of Christmas and, better still, find affordable housing in the Texas capital.
But wait, there’s more: The filmed-in-Austin indie feature (which premiered last spring at the SXSW Film Festival) features Kris Kristofferson and Lyle Lovett in key supporting roles, as well as amusing cameos by such Texas music scene notables as Dale Watson, Marcia Ball, The Trishas and Charlie Sexton.
Perhaps the most amazing of the many amazing things about Fritz Lang’s deliriously extravagant sci-fi spectacle is, despite its profound influence on films and filmmakers over several decades, there’s scarcely anyone alive who’s ever seen the complete version that Lang intended audiences to see. The movie, which originally clocked in at around two-and-a-half hours, was whittled down to a less intimidating length shortly after its 1927 premiere in Berlin — and trimmed again before its American release.
Until fairly recently, Metropolis existed only in a drastically reduced version that was available exclusively in scratched and tatty public domain prints, blurry VHS copies and bargain-basement DVDs — or, arguably worse, as a disco-flavored reconstitution concocted in the ’80s by Giorgio Moroder. Even the most recent restored edition, taken from an essentially complete copy unearthed in Buenos Aires in 2008, is missing scenes that some film historians fear will never be located.
But never mind: The latest version, available on DVD and Blu-Ray since 2010, would be welcomed as a stocking stuffer by any serious student of cinema who doesn’t already own one.
I occasionally screen this guilty pleasure for my film studies students, to illustrate just what kind of mondo-bizarro oddities often were green-lit by major Hollywood studios (in this case, MGM) back in the wild-and-crazy 1970s.
Consider: Fresh from his success with M*A*S*H (1970), maverick Robert Altman got the okay to make this mashup of crackpot fairy tale and deadpan farce, about an eccentric young man (Bud Cort) who tries to construct wings while living in a fallout shelter beneath the Houston Astrodome, all the while protected by a comely fairy godmother (Sally Kellerman), who orders birds to drop toxic poop on anyone who threatens the guy.
If you know anyone who’s profoundly upset by the prospect of an Astrodome demolition, they might have their sprits lifted by seeing how awesome the Eighth Wonder of the World looked back in the day. Similarly, the nostalgia-minded may enjoy the plentiful period-specific H-Town details — note the repeated references to local radio icons Hudson & Harrigan — that give this outlandish 1970 flick the evocative appeal of a novelty recently retrieved from a time capsule.
The Right Stuff
Houston, we have no problems with gifting director Philip Kaufman’s grandly entertaining adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s non-fiction best-seller about the incredible exploits of the original Mercury 7 astronauts. Back in 1983, this Oscar-winning extravaganza was launched with a tad too much advance hype — and too seriously parsed for its possible impact on the presidential ambitions of former astronaut John Glenn (played here, powerfully well, by Ed Harris).
But as the nifty new Blu-Ray edition amply demonstrates, The Right Stuff can be savored today without distractions as a splendidly seriocomic account of the real-life heroes behind the larger-than-life legends, brimming with loop-the-loop energy and rah-rah patriotism, chockablock full of vigorous humor and shrewd human insights. And, yes, Houston’s very own Dennis Quaid still steals the show with his brassy insouciance as astronaut Gordon Cooper.
If Metropolis is a film that we may never see again in its original condition, then F.W. Murnau’s splendiferously expressionistic classic is one we’re lucky to see at all. Back in 1922, the visionary German filmmaker helped himself to the plot of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula without bothering to purchase rights to do so; Stoker’s widow was so incensed, she filed suit in an effort to have all prints of the “illegal” adaptation destroyed.
All the more reason, then, to be grateful for this digitally restored edition — released several weeks ago on DVD and Blu-Ray — which is visually sharper and atmospherically spookier than any previous version I’ve ever viewed in any medium.
Count Orlock, the eponymous bogeyman portrayed by Max Schreck, is unlike any of the dozens of Draculas who have followed in his wake. In sharp contrast to the suave and silken bloodsuckers later played by Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, this vamp comes off a pure evil on the hoof, complete with the pointed ears, extended fangs and skittish movements of a steroid-enhanced rodent.
Consider giving Nosferatu not only to movie buffs on your gift list, but also to those Twilight fans who may not fully understand that vampires are supposed to be, well, you know, scary.
Yes, it really is the greatest movie ever made, but don’t let that scare you off. Orson Welles’ enduringly amazing 1941 debut feature — which Welles directed, co-wrote in and starred in at the tender age of 25 — is an exhilarating mix of full-tilt melodrama, wink-wink soap opera and character-driven mystery, brimming with rude vigor in its vernacular and sassy zest in its storytelling.
For all the meticulous intricacies of its construction, Citizen Kane has the feel of something made in a single, spontaneous burst of creative energy. Francois Truffaut once praised it as “probably the film that has started the largest number of filmmakers on their careers.” As such, it’s the perfect gift for anyone on your list who dares to dream big.