I think I see your problem. You have this list. It’s a list of people you need/want to buy a Christmas gift for. The trouble is that they’re into home theatre, and you don’t know Star Trek from Star Wars. You couldn’t tell a Wolf Man from a Wolverine. And you always thought that Paranormal Activity was something too kinky to talk about. Fortunately, Upcomingdiscs has come to the rescue every Christmas with our Gift Guide Spotlights. Keep checking back to see more recommendations for your holiday shopping. These gift guides ARE NOT paid advertisements. We take no money to publish them. With conditions as they are, shopping won’t be easy this season. The nice thing about discs is that they’re so easy to get from places like Amazon that you can give a great gift and stay perfectly safe while you do it. Warner Brothers Home Entertainment has released four classic Christmas movies on UHD Blu-ray and in 4K for the very first time. These will not only make great gift ideas but you might want to pick up some copies for yourself. They’ll provide great holiday family time.
A Christmas Story (1983)
by Gino Sassani
“Now it was serious. A double-dog-dare. What else was there but a “triple dare you”? And then, the coup de grace of all dares, the sinister triple-dog-dare.”
This 1983 classic has become my favorite Christmas movie beating out favorites like It’s A Wonderful Life and more recently The Man Who Invented Christmas. There have been some wonderful Christmas movies over the years and this gift guide delivers 4 of the best, to be sure. But for my money this is how we do Christmas at my house. More on that later.
The film is based on one of the somewhat autobiographical short stories written by Jean Shepherd in the short stories collection In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash. The elder Ralphie Parker, narrated by Shepherd himself recalls one special Christmas in the 1940’s where he conspired to receive that once in a lifetime Christmas present: a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and this “thing” which tells time. At every turn the young Ralph, played by Peter Billingsley tries to outwit the adult world who have joined in a conspiracy to deny him his prize with the standard-issue response: “You’ll shoot your eye out”. Even Santa seems to be in on the plot but Ralphie will stop at nothing to achieve his Christmas miracle.
” Next to me in the blackness lay my oiled blue steel beauty. The greatest Christmas gift I had ever received, or would ever receive. Gradually, I drifted off to sleep, pranging ducks on the wing and getting off spectacular hip shots.”
While it sounds like such a simple plot, and it really is that simple, both Shepherd in his original story and Leigh Brown and Bob Clarke in their screenplay populate the story with the most compelling characters and atmosphere to be found. Who among us can’t identify with the 10-year old on a mission like this one. We’ve all had that special wish or desire that in kid-mentality is life or death. Peter Billingsley does a perfect job of capturing this BB gun mania with the world allied against him. We’ve all been there whether you’re willing to admit it or not. Billingsley had a lot of range as a child and did a brilliant job acting with his eyes and facial expressions. Of course, every kid has his little “gang” of friends and Ralphie is no exception. We all had friends like these guys. There’s Flick, played by Scott Schwartz. He’s the know-it-all who ends up getting his tongue stuck on a metal poll in one of the film’s more iconic moments. There’s Schwartz, oddly not played by the child actor whose name really is Schwartz but by R.D. Robb who would go on to become a porn star for several years. I wonder who triple dog-dared him into that? Schwartz is the practical joker/smooth talker who always has an angle and ends up talking Flick into that iconic moment at the flag pole. Every neighborhood had its bullies and here we had Scott Farkus, played by Transformers star Zack Ward. He didn’t really have yellow eyes but he and his “toady” Grover Dill (Anaya) were the terror of the block.
“Fra-GEE-leh!” It must be Italian!”
The adults were just as interesting and compelling. We only know Ralphie’s father as The Old Man and he’s played by none other than Carl Kolchak himself, Darrin McGavin. Fans of The Night Stalker will instantly get a wonderful moment where he channels the original television monster hunter in a nice little nod to them. His “major award” delivers another of the many iconic moments in the film and a certain lamp that is now manufactured just in case you would like to have a leg-up on the next major award. It’s McGavin who deserved a major acting award for this unforgettable performance. Mom was played by Melinda Dillon and brother Randy was played by Ian Petrella. Petrella and a friend bought the house used in the film and have restored it to the film’s appearance and turned it into a museum where the actor will pose for a picture under the sink for you, should you come and take the tour.
The rest of the charm is pure atmosphere. Director Bob Clarke truly takes us back to the 1940’s and uses the pieces of that time to deliver one of the more authentic period pieces you’ll find. Everywhere you look you’ll find careful attention paid to the small details from products to toys and traditions of the time. The film is really a collection of short vignettes that focus on an element of the period from Ralphie’s obsession and eventual disillusionment for his Little Orphan Annie radio show decoder ring to The Old Man’s battles with his old furnace. An old-time school room and teacher takes us back to the days where chewing gum was a big deal and contraband was mostly comic books and cheap toys and gags. The end doesn’t make any sense unless you can imagine a time where no business was open on Christmas Day and finding a restaurant was almost impossible.
Jean Shepherd is also such a wonderful narrator. You might recognize his voice as the narrator from Disney World’s famous Carrousel Of Progress where he voices the main character with friends right out of his own stories like Schwartz. If you’ve ever experienced the ride you will understand instantly why he works not just because he’s the original writer but because he’s engaging and humorous. He makes a cameo in the film as the guy who tells the kids to go to the back of the line to see Santa.
On HBO Max there is a sequel that I have not yet seen but it reunites many actors and characters from the film. I hope you’ll check it out. I don’t really stream much here because there are always just too many discs to watch but I hope to find a way to watch it and see if the magic is still there. Peter Billingsley returns as an adult Ralph with a family of his own but it’s hard to imagine any of it without The Old Man, the late great Darrin McGavin.
by Jeremy Butler
I generally don’t go in for Will Ferrell movies. However, given that it tis the season, there seems no better time to enjoy his 2003 film, Elf. And enjoy it we did. It been a while since I’d originally watched the film, and if I’m being honest, my bias towards Ferrell may have colored my judgement. Now with some time distance between viewings, I was able to appreciate the story better. In my opinion, it’s a film that is best watched as a family. In that type of setting, my family and I fed off of each other’s energy. What made them laugh, made me laugh and vice versa. Under different circumstances, I guess for Stockholm syndrome could be made. But here, I like to believe that it was simply the Christmas spirit.
On Christmas Eve, an orphaned baby crawls into Santa Claus’s sack at the sight of a teddy bear, and is unknowingly taken back to the North Pole from an orphanage. After the infant is discovered at the workshop, the elves name him Buddy. Buddy is accepted by the elf community and grows up to adulthood under the misguided belief that he is an elf, but soon overhears he is a human. Papa Elf explains to Buddy that he was born to Walter Hobbs and Susan Wells. Susan put him up for adoption prior to her death. Walter, who now works as a children’s book publisher at the Empire State Building in New York City and is unaware of Buddy’s existence. Santa reveals that Walter is on the Naughty List due to his selfishness but suggests Buddy could help redeem him with some Christmas spirit.
For the first time in his life since being discovered in Sant’s sack, Buddy travels to New York and finds Walter. Though it takes some convincing, his identity as Walter’s son. Walter’s takes Buddy home to his new family; his stepmother Emily (Mary Steenburgen) and half-brother Michael (Daniel Tay). Buddy’s assimilation into his new family is rocky with Walter and Michael both put off with Buddy’s strange behavior. Meanwhile, Buddy makes it his mission to try and redeem his father in order to get him off Santa’s naughty list. Which naturally makes for some hilarious encounters.
I will admit there were still times when I was put off with Will Ferrell’s over the top style of comedy. However, even I have to admit that his style brought the kind of energy need for this time of film. Without it, it wouldn’t have been the same. What worked for me was Buddy’s heart and naivety. When he comes to New York and he is oblivious of how out of his element, it reminded me of when Eddie Murphy first arrived in Queens in Coming To America. I also enjoyed the budding relationship between Ferrell’s Buddy and Zoey Deschanel’s Jovie. They balance each other out; with Buddy being so flamboyant and Jovie being so enthusiastic. However, the crowning moment for me and my daughter, was the brawl with Santa. When Ferrell confronted the “fake Santa,” telling him that “he sits on a throne of lies,” and “you stink. You smell like beef and cheese.” I lost it, and so did my daughter. And how could anyone not enjoy the snowball fight scene, which was my wife’s favorite part, well if you don’t count the ending. But then again, she’s always been a sucker for a happy ending.
I’m sure I’m not spoiling it for anyone that the film ends on happy note. It be a pretty subpar Christmas movie if it ended any other way. Then again, that would be highly original. While the film does not embrace this idea, its conclusion was still a good one, which tugs on the heartstrings and prompts the audience to get into the Christmas spirit.
In my opinion, Elf is the perfect holiday season movie, or any occasion where you may be feeling nostalgic. It is a lighthearted tale that shows the power of endless optimism and positivity. Will Ferrell may not be my favorite, but I can say that this may very well by my favorite film by him. Probably has something to do with the fact that it was directed by Jon Favreau, who also makes an appearance as the Hobbs family pediatrician. In fact, I wouldn’t be opposed to making watching Elf a Butler family tradition.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
by Brent Lorentson
It’s the holiday season and it’s this time of year most of us embrace our family traditions, whether it be hopping in the car and drive around looking at Christmas decorations, or simply staying warm and cozy under a blanket and watching a variety of films that take place during the holiday season. For me there are always a few go to movies that I have to watch this time of year, Die Hard, Gremlins, and then there is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I know I’m not the only one that embraces Christmas Vacation and sees it as a holiday classic, what’s even more impressive is that it is one of the few films that breaks the third film curse, the belief that the third film in a franchise is typically a dud. Personally the only dud in the Vacation series that I feel doesn’t deliver is Vegas Vacation, I just prefer to pretend that film doesn’t exist.
In 1989 John Hughes was still at the peak of his career, Uncle Buck had come out the same year and the next year he’d pen the script for Home Alone, and in-between he had National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I mean there’s a reason why John Hughes is a Hollywood icon and is hands down the best screenwriter from the 80’s, heck I haven’t even brought up his numerous other classics. As for the director, Jeremiah S. Chechik, Christmas Vacation was his first film, after directing a handful of music videos. While I wouldn’t say he had a bad career, it is safe to say that Christmas Vacation was the biggest hit of his career and I’m sure he’s okay with that because to this day it continues to be a must watch holiday film.
For those that may be unaware that there was a Vacation film before the 2015 film with Ed Helms and Christina Applegate, well in my eyes Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) and Ellen Griswold (Beverly D’ Angelo) will forever be the heart and soul of the Vacation films. In 1983 we were with the Griswold family as they took their road trip to Walley World, in 1985 we joined them on their European Vacation and in 1989 we got to be a part of their Christmas Vacation at home.
Clark continues to be the loveable but bumbling buffoon that only Chevy Chase could bring to the character and Ellen continues to be the loving and supporting wife that is Clark’s anchor when things start to get out of hand. As for their kids Rusty and Audrey they are once again played by different actors, this seems to be a running joke throughout the franchise, this time it’s Johnny Galecki as Rusty, and Juliette Lewis as Audrey. Personally this is my favorite pairing with the kids but I think the family member that gets the most attention in this film is cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) who is really down on his luck and visits Clark and the family because he’s out of options and finances.
The plot for this film is pretty simple, Clark simply wants to enjoy the holidays with his family, while he’s waiting for his holiday bonus to come through to he can have a pool installed. As you’d expect for the Griswolds, anything that can go wrong will go wrong in hilarious fashion. I feel what makes the Vacation films so relatable despite how over the top some situations may get, John Hughes always seems to inject these moments that just about all of us have encountered at some time. Sure we may not go to the extent Clark does with setting up the lights around the house but we’ve all encountered the frustration of tangled lights and things just not working as we expect them to.
Christmas Vacation plays out more as an ensemble film more so than the other Vacation films and I feel that is what helps make this film stronger. The banter with the in-laws and seeing Clark simply go through hell just to make Christmas a memorable occasion as a way of saying thanks to his father is something I never fully grasped until I was older and revisiting the film. That’s part of the magic of these kinds of films, though the film never changes, we as an audience evolve and our perspectives change and it gives us a different insight of the film. What’s also incredible is how timeless this film is, sure it came out in 89 but the heart of the film and the dynamic of the family drama still holds up.
If one were to nitpick the film, the only flaw I see with the film is with the neighbors, played by a young Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest. We see their annoyance with Clark and his antics but it just really doesn’t go anywhere and really we don’t get much of a payoff, they are just filler Scrooge types. They main villain is Clarks boss and while they bring him in during the third act, it’s somewhat unnecessary and just seems like a scene that is a bit forced just to show the audience the meaning of Christmas. It just doesn’t feel like the moment was earned to be a real character catharsis. I bring this up as being weak because when you look at Hughes and his previous work, he really seems to always land the endings of his films, Planes, Trains and Automobiles really stands out as an example of this.
At the end of the day this movie still holds up and will continue to be a classic for decades to come. The Griswold’s are far from perfect but Clark’s heart and motivations are in the right place and he’s a prime example of what getting into the holiday spirit is about. With how obsessed people are with their cell phones and how it seems the world is becoming more material driven, putting a focus on family and about being a part of the moment together is hopefully a lesson some can gleam from this film along with having a few laughs along the way.
The Polar Express (2004)
We’ve all been at that age where we begin to challenge the thought of how just one man could travel around the world in one night. This inevitable dilemma has been showcased nearly every year in a motion picture, so how does The Polar Express stack up against them?
Based on the 1985 short story written by Chris Van Allsburg, Robert Zemekis and Tom Hanks set out to make a memorable Christmas classic. Besides producing, Hanks voiced a numerous amount of the characters encountered throughout the film. Th… movie begins on Christmas Eve as the main character, referred to as “Hero Boy” is lying in his bed hoping to hear the sounds of Santa’s sleigh. Like every child at that age, doubt about the reality of Santa begins to set in. Soon falling asleep appearing to have lost hope, our hero boy is awoken to the sounds of and old time steam train. Upon investigation The Conductor (Hanks) reveals that the train is bound for the North Pole. Hesitant at first “Hero Boy” hops aboard and soon meets several other children, all hopeful of meeting Santa Clause himself. We find out that each of the children has been given a golden ticket by the Conductor with two letters punched into them. At this point we do not know the importance of these tickets, only that they are important.
Throughout the course of the film we are taken on several visually spectacular scenes. One of my favorites is the journey of a lost golden ticket, which is swept from the train and out into a snow filled forest. From here we encounter a pack of wolves that kick up the ticket only to have it swooped up by an eagle, which attempts to feed it to its offspring. Regurgitated from the side of the nest it snowballs and once again floats through the air only to meet up again with the engine of the train.
Whether it’s watching an out of control train cascade through mountains in a roller coaster perspective, or viewing an interaction between a twelve year old and a hobo The Polar Express manages to stay entertaining throughout its 100 minute duration. It’s been many years since a family could watch a Christmas movie that both the children and parents enjoyed equally.
This movie contains some spectacular life like animations, colorful environments, vibrant characters, and an entertaining story line. There are moments of suspense, laughter, joy, and compassion. All of which are ingredients for a true Christmas classic. When the holiday season comes around and you find yourself wanting to watch a quality Christmas movie, I suggest you pick yourself up a copy of The Polar Express a must have for your holiday collection.
Warner Brothers’ release of A Christmas Story on 4K actually ended up changing a long-standing family tradition here at our house. Every year on Christmas Eve we watch Boris Karloff’s original The Grinch Who Stole Christmas followed by A Christmas Story. It’s a tradition that goes back to the laserdisc in the early 1990’s. That was eventually replaced by the DVD and then the Blu-ray a few years after that. Now it’s the 4K UHD Blu-ray, but here was my “classical Christmas dilemma”. I couldn’t wait until Christmas Eve to watch the film because I had to deliver this coverage BEFORE Christmas Eve to give you guys time to pick it up and start a Christmas tradition of your own. Now what am I going to pair with Karloff this year? It’s all worth it to get to see my favorite Christmas movie in ultra high definition and it will be for you as well. You won’t be able to resist this one. Go ahead and try to resist. “I triple dog dare you!”