Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, December 11, 2015

Christmas 2015: December 11

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Any time a crappy sitcom wants to do a Christmas episode, there’s about a fifty percent chance they’re going to recycle one of two stock plots. The first of which is a variation on “A Christmas Carol,” in which some asshole is visited by three ghosts that change his life. More often though, TV shows will reference “It’s a Wonderful Life.” That is, they’ll have someone wish they weren’t born, only to have an angel show them what the world would be like if they never existed. It’s such a common cliché that it even has a TV Tropes page. Yet none of that would have happened without Frank Capra’s 1946 original. Though it took a long road to being a classic, the movie really is good enough to deserve that status.

Prayers for a man named George Bailey rise all the way to heaven. God recruits an angel in training and shows him George’s life. As a boy, he rescued his little brother from drowning in a lake, at the price of loosing hearing in one ear. Though George dreamed of adventure and travel around the world, his hometown of Bedford Falls kept pulling him back. His father’s early death meant he had to stay home and take care of the family business, so that the greedy Mr. Potter wouldn’t buy it up. George finds his own form of happiness, marrying a good woman and fathering four kids. Yet a recent screw-up at his buildings and loans business, George is overcome and considers taking his own life. That’s when Clarence the angel intervenes and shows George what Bedford Falls would be like without him.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is only technically a Christmas movie for its second half hour. The first half is set all throughout the year. Yet it still makes perfect seasonal viewing. The film is an entirely sincere homage to the value of the human life. That last act has become so widely referenced and parodied that it’s easy to overlook its meaning. It’s not just that George Bailey has a wonderful life. We all do. Every one of us has touched those around us, whether or not we know it. Though it doesn’t hurt that George is a truly extraordinary character. It’s such a powerful story, the idea of a man who wants a life of adventure but settles for his small home town because he knows he has to. That first hour, devoted to giving a high-light reel of Bailey’s life, shows all he’s accomplished. Such as saving his brother, saving the old pharmacist’s business, saving his dad’s business, saving his town repeatedly, and touching so many lives. Then again, maybe if we all got a high-light reel of our life, we’d have a similar impression.

I’ll admit I haven’t seen very many of Capra’s films beyond this one. (I imagine it’s that ways for lots of people.) Obviously, “Capra-esque” is a phrase with its own connotations. When people imagine the idyllic American small town, they probably see Bedford Falls. Something that makes “It’s a Wonderful Life” so powerful is that there’s nothing cloying or saccharine about its portrayal of the town. The movie is entirely sincere. It loves this place and the people in it. Though an awfully nice place to live, Bedford Falls still seems realistic. The people have their troubles but they also have each other. Something else Capra has a talent for is capturing the small moments in people’s lives. How George makes a wish on a lighter, or the look on his face as he slowly realizes he can't leave the town, are given special attention. The school dance, which transformed into a pool party, is another example.

We’re so used to imagining Jimmy Stewart as the perfect American everyman that it’s easy to overlook his actual skills. George Bailey is so incredibly lovable partially because of Stewart’s abilities. The scenes where he chews out Mr. Potter shows what an incredible passion and rage he could summon. Though the pop culture conception of the movie only remembers Stewart's small town charm (which is incredible), I think his moments of frustration, anger, and despair is what truly makes the character human. I also love George’s romance with Mary. In any other movie, with most any other actor, the scene of George holding her robe while she hides, nude, in a bush might have been creepy. The same could be said for the moment when Mary and George finally admit their feelings for one another. The incredible chemistry Stewart has with Donna Reed truly sells the relationship. I also have to mention Lionel Berrymore as Mr. Potter, one of the slimiest and most repellent bad guys in classic cinema. Berrymore generates an astonishing amount of nastiness without ever leaving his chair.

Admittedly, the most famous sequence in “It’s a Wonderful Life” only comprises a small portion of its run time. After he’s ready to toss himself over a bridge, Clarence jumps into the waters below, forcing Bailey to rescue him. Though the fantasy elements are introduced from the first scene, they don’t become immediately apparent until the end. Like I said, the last act of the film is so widely parodied, it’s slightly difficult to take seriously. Bailey’s home town filling up strip clubs and bars, his brother dying, his friends becoming jerks… This isn’t what pushes George over the edge. No, it’s his wife becoming a librarian that unnerves him above anything else. Still, the sequences of Bedford Falls (Or Pottersville, rather) are appropriately hellish, in a way. George’s joyous run through the restored town is certainly infectiously fun and, though well known, that conclusion also warms my heart.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is the original example of a holiday staple that was initially overlooked in theaters only to be vindicated by television. Through some studio shenanigans, the film fell into the public domain for a few decades. Because it was free to show and related to the holidays (Starring a cinema icon like Jimmy Stewart probably didn’t hurt either.), it frequently cropped up on television around December. The film was rediscovered this way and, by and by, eventually became a seasonal classic. Unlike “A Christmas Story” though, “It’s a Wonderful Life’ is actually a really good movie. [9/10]

The Big O: Daemonseed

Here’s a random-ass thing I pulled out of my collection. Despite what the title might indicate, “The Big O” is not a show about orgasms. Instead, it’s a Japanese animated series from 1999, combining elements of classic giant robot anime with American superhero cartoons. The premise is a little tricky to unpack but I’ll do my best. It takes place in Paradigm City, a place where the rich live in domed cities and the poor exist in slums outside. Forty years ago, everyone lost their memories. Roger Smith, the show’s hero, is referred to as a negotiator but he’s actually more like a private detective, consulting the police on various cases. When Paradigm City is attacked by giant monsters or machines, Smith pilots a giant robot named Big O. Also, he has an android sidekick/love interest named Dorothy and a badass butler named Norman.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with Christmas. Turns out, “The Big O” has a holiday episode! As December ends, a holiday called Heavens Day approaches. A holiday invented by the Paradigm Corporation, the corporation that owns most of the city, Heavens Day is devoted to decorating trees and giving gifts to your loved ones. Alex Rosewater – Paradigm’s leader – receives threatening letters, promising that the world will end on the 25th. Roger and Dorothy encounter Oliver, a street musician and saxophonist, and his blind girlfriend Laura. Oliver becomes connected to the case when he meets the mad scientist responsible for the threats. He’s given a necklace containing a seed by the strange man dressed as Santa. On Heavens Day, the seed sprouts, a giant Christmas tree attacking the city. Looks like a job for Big O!

“Daemonseed” is not as demonic as the title suggests. It’s actually a laid back episode with little giant robot action. Mostly, the episode concerns itself with the characters’ relationships. As part of the “will they?/won’t they?” between Roger and Dorothy, Norman convinces Roger to buy Dorothy a winter coat for the holiday. Likewise, the episode begins with Dorothy tie shopping for Roger. As part of a running joke in the series, it must be black, as Roger refuses to wear any other color. This pays off well at the end of the episode. Likewise, the subplot about Oliver and Laura is genuinely sweet. The saxophonist has a day job as a garbage man. This still doesn’t pay enough for him to afford a gift for Laura. His passion is music, which doesn’t earn him much. Despite this, Laura stays with him. A cute scene has him pushing a sugar shaker to her while serving coffee. Despite being one episode characters, they’re still memorable and likable.

When the giant Christmas tree sprouts, “Daemonseed” finally gets to the action. Roger summons the Big O and attempts to attack the tree. However, there’s not much he can do. Any time Big O tears part of the tree off, it just grows back. After destroying a few buildings and bursting through the city’s dome, the tree stops growing. So what did the villain accomplish? He created a big, pretty Christmas tree and allowed snow to fall on the city for a nice, white Christmas Heavens Day. While perhaps not the best introductory episode to the show, “Daemonseed” shows how idiosyncratic “The Big O” was compared to other giant robot anime. Besides, what other show contains references to “Mazinger Z,” Akira Ifukube’s “Godzilla” score, “Batman: The Animated Series,” and Queen’s “Flash Gordon” soundtrack? I really want to go back and re-watch the whole series now. [7/10]

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