Sunday, December 11, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: One Magic Christmas (1985)

Mary Steenburgen
Gary Basaraba
Harry Dean Stanton
Elizabeth Harnois
Robbie Magwood
Arthur Hill
Wayne Robson
Sarah Polley
Graham Jarvis

Some of the more successful Holiday films always seem to have an element of fantasy.  I guess that goes with the territory.  After all, it is the season of Santa Claus, Flying Reindeer, Red-nosed reindeer, Christmas Cookies, the North Pole, Gremlins, and  Elves. 

And let’s not forget the religious themes that  permeate the  holiday season.  That’s when the screenwriters trot out angels, lessons about why it is better to give then to receive, Christmas Ghosts of past, present and future, and discovering the true meaning of Christmas.  You know the drill.  It’s not about waking up to that big 60 inch screen flat screen stuffed  into your Christmas stocking.  It’s about giving and sharing, being with family, and doing unto others before they do it to you.  On the other hand, that 60 inch flat screen HD-TV does kind of help set the tone for the rest of the day.
I’ve always tried to have a good outlook about the holiday season, although some years it’s kind of tough.  As you get older, it seems to get more and more difficult to get into the Ho! Ho! Holiday spirit, especially when you seem to be living in a world inhabited by a growing population of Grinch's.  It’s even worse when some of those Imitation Scrooges inhabit the same dwelling as you do. 

But when things seem to be going totally in the crapper, a good Christmas film always seems to lift my spirits.  Or at least it did back in the day when there was someone around always willing to share the cinematic experience with me, regardless of how many times they had seen Chevy Chase screw up the holiday or George Bailey wished he’d never been born.  What really gets my goat is that some people can sit and watch a Lifetime movie five dozen times over, sometimes all in the same day.   But when you ask them to view a Christmas film they’ve seen maybe once or twice, they run away as if Santa had just dumped a hot lump of burning cool in their underwear.

But things could be worse.  Much worse.  If having a down and out Christmas is becoming the normal in your life, just visit the Grainger Family. 

To say that the Grainger Family is not having a good Christmas, is putting it mildly. The father, Jack (Gary Basaraba) has been laid off. His wife Ginny (Mary Steenburgen) is working long hours at the local supermarket as a cashier for low pay to help make ends meet. The children, Abbie and Cal (Elisabeth Harnois & Robbie Magwood) often overhear their parents arguing about money. To make matters worse the Grainger's are being evicted from their house, owned by the company Jack was laid off from and they have to be out by New Years.

Despite all these problems Jack and the children manage to keep a certain amount of Christmas spirit. Jack piddles his life away in the basement fixing bikes, including one for neighbor kid, Molly Monahan.  Without someone like Jack nearby, who has the Christmas Spirit in abundance, Dirt Poor Molly’s chances of having a bike would be zero percent.

Jack also has this dream of opening up his own bike shop, because let’s face it, the man has mad mechanical skills. But Ginny, says nah baby nah! You have to get a job, a real job, just like the shit job she’s working down at Glenn’s Supermarket where she has to cater to the young twerp Herbie who's her boss. 

This is one thing the film industry always gets right.  Having experienced this situation myself and knowing others who have, when you go to work for a young shit like Herbie who’s half your age or even more, they generally treat you as if you’ve just been secreted from a dog’s ass.  This is true.  I swear to it on a stack of gingerbread men. 

And Herbie is no exception.  He forces Ginny to work a double shift on Christmas Eve, simply because he knows her situation at home is desperate and she isn’t about to say no.  Herbie also has Ginny make his store announcements for him, for no particular reason, then gives her a load of crap about her line being backed up when he’s the cause of it.  So after surveying the situation at home and at the store, I’d have to say sorry Jack, it looks like it’s the AM/PM or 7 Eleven for you bud, and not bicycle city.

And then there’s the nasty customers Ginny has to put up with.  Customers like Harry Dickens (Wayne Robson), whom she has to deal with when she accidentally double rings a bag of chips, to which Harry shows why he’s in the running for customer jerk of the year.

Harry:  Hey, you already rang up those Dorito chips already.
Ginny:  Oh, okay.  You’re right, I’ll take it off your tote.
Harry (to another customer):  See what she tried to pull on me?  See that?  (then very loudly) Next time I’m going to the A&P.
Ginny:   Please.  Be my guest.  Next time go to the A&P!
Harry:  All right!
  So what does random jerkoff customer Harry have to do with this story?  You’ll find out.

Right behind Harry is the next customer, Molly Monaghan and her mother whose items come up to slightly more cash than she has on hand, not to mention she’s totally embarrassed by the fact that the cash she has on hands is actually food stamps.  I can see why she would be a bit sheepish.  This was smack dab in the middle of the St. Ronald Reagan era when he had the whole wide world convinced that every child bearing female on food stamps or government aid was a welfare queen riding off into the sunset in their government financed Cadillac's, thus stigmatizing those desperate and in need forever.  And as far as I can tell, the Repugnicant Party has only gotten worse since,  doling out billions to their corporate benefactors while squeezing the crap out of the rest of us.  

Mrs. Monaghan’s purchases come up to $26.83, but she only has $25 in stamps. Ginny, who despite having her own problems, offers to loan her the difference, showing Ms. Monaghan and us that beneath the Scrooge-like layers, there’s a heart encrusted in there somewhere.  But instead, of taking the loan, Ms. Monaghan puts back a box of snacks that she had bought for Molly.  Tough luck kid!

Jack is also conspiring with another friend and neighbor to collect money in order to obtain and fuel up a generator to light up the town’s Christmas Tree, because I guess the City Council says there isn’t enough money in the city coffers after having bought themselves a fleet of BMW’s.  And what does wife Ginny think of all this?  She thinks Jack is pretty much pissing his life away, and that the kids are annoying as hell every time the words Santa and Christmas come out of their mouth.

”I’m getting a little sick of hearing all this talk about Santa Claus from you,” she tells Abbie.

Ginny is in a mood so foul you might even think her body has been inhabited by the spirit of the Grinch, twice over, or that she was clone directly from the gene pool of Ebenezer Scrooge.    Therein lies the crux of this holiday entertainment. The question is whether or not Ginny can once gain find the spirit of Christmas and realize that the most important thing in life is still the love of your family and without that you’ve got nothing.

It's your basic Christmas movie plot, which means you need a Christmas crises intervention. In this case it comes in the form of Gideon (Harry Dean Stanton). 

We have already met Gideon at the beginning of the film.  He is sitting in a tree playing his harmonica when he is given his mission to head north to Medford, and help Ginny find her Christmas Spirit.  Why is he sitting in a tree playing his harmonica?  I guess that’s what Christmas angels do the rest of the year when they aren’t out interfering in the lives of people like Harry Bailey or in this case, Ginny Grainger.  Or maybe he gets his party groove on with Monica and Tess.  Details are sketchy.

Gideon meets up with Abbie when she sneaks out of the  house to mail a letter to Santa.  After magically retrieving her letter, he tells her how he became a Christmas Angel:

Gideon: Can you keep a secret?
Abbie: Yeah.
Gideon: Well, uh, I'm an angel. A Christmas angel.
Abbie: Oh, no, you're not, 'cause my dad told me you can't see angels. They're invisible.
Gideon: Well, they're invisible sometimes, but sometimes they have to show up.
Abbie: So, what's your name then?
Gideon: Gideon.
Abbie: Gideon? Was you a good person that died?
Gideon: Good person? Well, I was a cow hand... out, out west. And one Christmas, a long, long time ago, I was riding along the Snake River, and I heard this little... kid, uh, yelling to somebody, and, uh, so I jumped into the river to save him. Well, I saved him, all right, but I got myself drowned. 'Cause I didn't know how to swim. And, um, after that they, they made me a Christmas angel.
Abbie: What do Christmas angels do?
Gideon: Well, my job is to, every Christmas, have to help one person, that's feeling down, to get into the Christmas spirit.
Abbie: One person?
Gideon: Yeah.
Abbie: Could it be my mom? Could you make my mom like Christmas better, Gideon?
Gideon: Yeah. I think so, if you'll help me?
Abbie: Okay.

Gideon tells Abbie that instead of mailing the letter to Santa, to give it to Ginny to mail instead because this will help Ginny get into the Christmas Sprit.  But it’s not going to be easy.  Ginny is dead set against getting the kids anything more than a tea set and an etch-a-sketch.

Gideon pops in to see Abbie once again, and in a bit of showboating, busts her snow globe and then makes it so it isn’t broke, explaining that’s what they have to do for Ginny.  She’s broke, but the only one who can fix Ginny is herself.  He also warns Abbie that no matters what happens, not to be afraid, and that if she needs to find him, just listen for the sound of a harmonica coming from the nearest tree. Well, not really, but he does tell her to check out the angel at the town’s Christmas Tree and he’ll show up as if he’s the first cousin of Mary Poppins. 

You have to hand it to the writer (Thomas Meehan) for coming up with what happens next. I understand there must be a little tragedy in life for someone to find the true meaning of Christmas,  but Meehan gives Ginny enough heartache and tragedy to fill three or four Christmas movies because her Christmas hasn’t been quite crappy enough up to this point in time.  It makes Jacob Marley and his ghostly crew seem like a day in the park with Grumpy, Sleepy, Dopey, and Bashful, just by way of comparison.

In short order we get: a bank robbery, a murder, a kidnapping, and a car crashing off a bridge upside down into a river. How's that for Christmas cheer folks? It does tend to make your worries about your Christmas credit card bills seem kind of insignificant by comparison.  And it’s even worse than that because out of necessity I’m leaving out some very important details.

And therein lies the biggest problem with this film.  For a movie that’s supposed to be uplifting, it piles on so much darkness and despair that by the time  the lights do come on so to speak, you’ll be  grateful  just to be able to breathe a sigh of relief let alone think about breaking out into a chorus of Deck the Halls or as Gideon would prefer, Hark The Herald Angels sing.  Talk about a movie being downbeat.  This may be a Disney movie, but I’d give serious thought to not sitting the younger tykes down in front of the TV to watch, at least not without letting them in on the plot beforehand.  Even the street this family lives on is photographed in a way that’s more fitting for Tim Burton movie.

I admire Mary Steenburgen a lot as an actress, and have loved most of her work from Goin’ South, to Melvin and Howard, to Time After Time and more.  But she is given an almost impossible task here.  Initially, Ginny has to show that she’s a loving and caring parent so that we can root for her redemption, but at the same time the director or writer or somebody also required her to be a cold, joyless, heartless, self absorbed, bitch, especially around  Abbie and Cal.  You can’t mix oil and water.

As if that’s not  enough, Ginny  then has to go from that mixed up frame of mind to one of total despair when she is forced to live out her worse nightmares.  Moments later she finds partial solace, which should have been enough to give her a new attitude, but it doesn’t.  Gideon still has to work a little more Angel magic to get Ginny to come around, but by the time we get to that point, I wasn’t buying it. 

There may not be an actress alive who could have accomplished all of this and do it believably, especially when it’s all so discouraging.  Perhaps ten or fifteen minutes early on of letting us visit the Grainger’s when times were good so we could see a nice Ginny in action would have helped.  I mean, with an 89 minute running time as it is, adding on those few moments to make us actually give a crap about this woman wouldn’t have hurt. 

Gary Basaraba who plays Jack is pretty generic and isn’t given much to work with.  He plays a good guy like he’s a good guy, and that’s all the part needs and that’s all that one can ask.  

Harry Dean Stanton is quite deadpan as Gideon.  I think I figured out how Gideon drowned.  He was saving that kid in the river, and having done so, he fell into a coma.   It’s fitting and proper that he’s dead because he’s not very lifelike as an angel.  But he does get the job done and that’s all that matters in a film such as this.  Just don’t invite him to your Christmas Party as entertainment.  You’d be better off with a mime.

Elizabeth Hanois and Robbie Magwood come off a lot better than the adults here, which is good considering that after Gideon and Ginny, the film rests on the very young shoulders of Hanois, who was all of five years or maybe six years old when the movie filmed.  The  worst thing that can happen are child actors who will either be encouraged to be overly cute and sweet, or they’ll come off as obnoxious brats.  That does not happen here.  Abbie and Cal do in fact exhibit the kind of behavior one might expect from kids their age with the caveat that I’m not sure any kid Abbie’s age that I know would begin talking openly to an unshaven scruffy rag-a-muffin person like Gideon claiming he was an angel.  You shouldn’t talk to strange strangers, kiddies.  But whatever.   Hanois alone is almost enough to save this film all by herself.  She’s perfect even if you do have to check the captioning once in a while to understand her.  But five and six year olds talk that way.

Arthur Hill  makes an appearance as the Grandfather.  Hill was an excellent actor, but was given nothing to do here beyond giving Abbie a Christmas Globe then bringing some welcome news to Ginny later in the film.  I would suggest watching him in some old episodes of Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law, but you’ll play hell finding those anywhere.  Look for them in aisle B, write next to the old Ben Casey episodes.

Back in 2003 I posted a shorter review of this film on the IMDB.  Only four out of ten people cared for my film expertise and that review taught me a lesson:  If you go knocking Christmas Movies or Classic Disney Movies, people are going to get their panties all bent out of shape.  But having watched again for this review, my opinion hasn’t changed at all.

I didn’t hate One Magic Christmas.  I just don’t care for it much and it wouldn't have mattered if my Christmas mood was good or just plain lousy.  Too much of it is way too gloomy, and Ginny is just not likable until it’s too late for any hope of our recovery, let alone hers.  You probably might like it a lot better if you’re already high on Christmas Spirit, but don’t expect to stay that way watching this stuff.  If you’re looking for the right vehicle to lift your spirit, then may advice is to find it elsewhere.  And if I have to give that kind of advice I have no choice then to show my holiday spirit by slapping a grade of C on One Magic Christmas.