Everyone gets along merrily in “Last Christmas” (2019), director Paul Feig and co-writer Emma Thompson’s holiday trifle inspired by the bittersweet George Michael song of the same name. Setting the tone, Kate (Emilia Clarke) has a nice conversation with a guy in a pub, then we smash cut to the next morning where she’s still looking gorgeous in the guy’s bed but – silly Kate – the guy’s girlfriend shows up. And it’s not to be; but oh well: On with the 20-something’s flighty, horrible-but-actually-delightful rom-com life.
With Christmas approaching, it’s a good time look back at the films of Shane Black, the unofficial King of Christmas among moviemakers. Although he may not have any overt watch-it-every-year “Christmas movies” – his first hit, “Lethal Weapon,” comes closest to that celebrated status – he peppers holiday trappings into his films more than any other major filmmaker today.
John Hughes wrote five Christmas or Thanksgiving films between 1987-92, but with their adult humor and – in the case of the “Home Alones” — violence, arguably none of them were appropriate young viewers. His Nineties update of “Miracle on 34th Street” (1994) rectifies that. Directed by Les Mayfield and based on the 1947 film written by George Seaton, this “Miracle” is ideally suited for kids on the borderline between belief and nonbelief in Santa Claus.
Acut above the typical Christmas flick shoveled out by streaming and cable, “Happiest Season” (Hulu) is a heartfelt and impressive breakthrough from director/co-writer Clea DuVall (an actress in “The Faculty” and many other roles) and co-writer Mary Holland (who also acts here, and who I had previously known as the cat-store lady in the “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” video “Buttload of Cats”). I laughed out loud three times and was never bored as an all-star cast slickly navigates the rom-com and holiday traditions.
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” (1938) stands out because of its holiday setting, making it an ideal book to read while warming your toes by the fire (but darn that draft around your shoulders!). Agatha Christie taps into the holiday theme with a robust family gathering, and reflections among the adult Lee children about their patriarch, Simeon, and what it was like growing up in Gorston Hall. I’m a little disappointed that the novel isn’t replete with a holiday vibe, although Christie does hang a lampshade on this when a character reflects that Christmas is merrier without a murder.
Sequels inspired by easy money rather than creative impulse are always risky propositions for viewers, and “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” (1992) – following in the footsteps of the most successful Christmas film and most successful comedy ever – is worth approaching with wariness. It’s not phoned in by the returning team of writer John Hughes and director Christopher Columbus – indeed, the idea of bringing the action to New York City is smart – but by the end of its too-long 2 hours, it’s clearly a step down.
Home Alone” (1990) is a simple crowd-pleaser on the surface, deftly crafted by writer John Hughes and director Chris Columbus (among the best directors of kids since Steven Spielberg). But it has gained an intriguing layer of controversy in the 30 years since its release because of the violence inflected on the Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci’s Harry and Daniel Stern’s Marv) by young Kevin (Macaulay Culkin).
The most interesting thing about “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure” (2003) is that it exists. Impress your friends with the trivia: Yes, there is a sequel to “Christmas Vacation” (1989). It went straight-to-TV and premiered on NBC, the second of three films in the series (along with “Vegas Vacation” and 2015’s “Vacation”) made without John Hughes.
Like the 2018 original, “The Christmas Chronicles 2” (Netflix) feels like an instant family-friendly holiday staple with its colorful filmic magic, broad messages, and warm relationship between Santa Claus (Kurt Russell) and his young True Believers (led by Darby Camp’s Kate). It’s a children’s movie that will make adults feel good in the moment, even if we forget the details as soon as it’s over.
The 2016 Annual, “Illegal Aliens,” is a classic X-File – maybe a little too classic. Writer Andrew Aydin – gamely assisted by artist Greg Scott and colorist Wes Dzioba — has the interactions between Mulder and Scully down to a tee, like when she calls to make sure he’ll meet her at the airport on time and knows he’s been arguing on conspiracy chat boards. Later, there are vintage Mulderisms, like when a man starts talking to him while he’s at a urinal: “I’d shake your hand, but …”