Tuesday, December 18, 2018

My Ten Favorite Christmas Movies: Some No-Brainers & Surprises

"Yippie-ki-yay.... and Merry Christmas!!"

Watching movies -- at home and in a movie theater -- is just as much a beloved Christmas tradition in our house as drinking eggnog, kissing under the mistletoe, and shoveling reindeer poop off the roof. Wait, what? You don't shovel reindeer poop off your roof?  Eww....

Below, in no particular order, are my ten favorite Christmas movies of all time. Some of these you'll know, but some you may not. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all! 

1) The Family Man - This was an instant classic, a new standard, when it came out in 2000. The modern Dickensian tale stars Nicolas Cage (right) as a hapless, hardened Wall Street titan and Tea Leoni as the long-lost love of his life. This hopeful fantasy is actually rooted in reality: It's all about evaluating your life, and learning the encouraging lesson that it's never too late to re-set, to start over and go after what you want rather than what you think you need.

2) Scrooge - This somewhat obscure 1970 musical is a hugely underrated take on "A Christmas Carol," with the great Albert Finney as Ebenezer. Finney is a masterful actor, and this for me is the finest screen performance ever of Scrooge, with terrific songs by Leslie Bricusse. Every bit as good as "Oliver," the Oscar-wining musical take on Dickens' Oliver Twist, Scrooge also stars Alec Guinness as Jacob Marley's ghost. 

3) Christmas Vacation - Another instant classic. Funny, and surprisingly touching, this movie undoubtedly resonates with every American father/husband who wants to give his family a perfect Christmas. This is Chevy Chase at his most endearing and vulnerable.

4) Holiday Affair - Another underrated Christmas film, this 1949 comedy/drama tells the story of a young mother (Janet Leigh) who lost her husband in World War II, and the charismatic stranger (Robert Mitchum) who befriends her and her precocious but likable son, eight-year-old Gordon Gebert. Gebert, who is still alive and was born in my hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, steals every scene he is in. This for me is the best Christmas movie no one knows about... unless you watch Turner Classic Movies. 

5) Die Hard - I mean, what's Christmas without “Yippie ki-yay, mother****er!” Bruce Willis at his beleaguered, charismatic best. And yes, it's a Christmas movie, there are lots of references to the holiday throughout. It begins, you'll recall, on Christmas Eve with Willis’s character John McClane arriving in L.A. to attend his wife’s work Christmas party with the hope of reconnecting with his kids for the holiday. "Winter Wonderland" and "Let It Snow" play during the movie, which may be a bit too violent for some folks’ taste on the holiday, but I find it cathartic. 

6) Bells of St. Mary's - Poignant classic about the goings-on at an inner-city Catholic school with Bing Crosby reprising his Father O'Malley role and Ingrid Bergman as the feisty, big-hearted nun. We watch it every Xmas, and here's some trivia: "Bells of St. Mary's" is the film that appears on the movie theater marquis in a scene from "It's a Wonderful Life," which was released a year later.

7) Just Friends - Ryan Reynolds plays to perfection a former chubby, high-school nerd and now svelte, big-shot Hollywood record producer who reluctantly returns to his hometown for Christmas after a "flyover" flight is forced to land nearby. He reunites with his high school dream girl, played by Amy Smart, who never let him get out of the “friend zone.” He tries to win her over by acting cool, and she rejects him. It’s funny, touching and real. 

8) Elf - Another immediate standard. I've seen this movie at least 15 times. Will Ferrell is a revelation as Buddy the, um, world's tallest elf. He’s pure joy, and freaking hilarious. What better way to explain the movie than to include a couple of lines from Buddy: "We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.”    "I planned out our whole day: First, we'll make snow angels for two hours, and then we'll go ice skating, and then we'll eat a whole roll of Toll-House cookie dough as fast as we can, and then to finish, we'll snuggle."    "I'm sorry I ruined your lives and crammed 11 cookies into the VCR."

9) Scrooged - My favorite Christmas comedy/satire, with the inimitable Bill Murray inhabiting the Scrooge character as an insufferably self-centered TV executive. Admittedly, this is a favorite in part 'cuz I covered this film as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate in New York in 1988. I got to spend the entire afternoon with Bill Murray. It remains one of the favorite days of my career.

10) It's a Wonderful Life - Last but certainly not least, there is the gold standard of Christmas movies. Frank Capra's heartwarming masterpiece never gets old. There has never been a film that I can name that resonates more deeply with more people. It has universal appeal. And for the record, the common narrative that this film was not popular when it was first released is actually not entirely true. It wasn't a smash hit like some of Capra's movies such as “It Happened One Night" and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” but it did ok, and it was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture. It is now widely and deservedly considered the best Christmas movie of all time and, yes, one of the best movies, period.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

On Election Eve, My Best Friend, A US Marine and Lifelong Staunch Republican, Denounces Trump and Defends American Journalism

Reno (left) and The Stauff
Michael Christopher Stauffer and I have been best buddies since we roamed the halls of Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa in the late 1970's. 

After high school, Mike joined the United States Marine Corps, where he was quickly shipped off to the Middle East while Iran held Americans hostage.  

Meanwhile, I headed to California to attend college.

Mike is a lifelong Republican. I’m a lifelong Democrat. Over the years, we've remained best of friends but we've had spirited debates over just about every issue you can name from war to welfare to healthcare.

But it has always remained civil and respectful between us. Mike and I know each other on levels that transcend political labels. We have a lot more in common than our political differences might suggest. 

Such as the kindness we both show not only to our family, friends and coworkers but to people we meet on the street, and the love we share for good music, sports, comedy, and so much more. 

No one makes me laugh harder than Mike, who I have affectionately referred to for the last 43 years as "The Stauff." And no one makes me think more about my own views. We challenge each other, positively. 

He's often said that no one makes him think more about his views or challenges him more than I do. But in the era of Donald Trump, our friendship has been challenged like never before. And what happened this week surprised me. 

Mike, who's defended Trump since he was elected, has finally seen and heard enough.

“Jamie, I will not be voting again for Trump in 2020,” Mike told me. "I want to share this for the sake of integrity. I have been vocal in my support of Trump on some issues and feel that on this one he is absolutely wrong.”

Mike, who noted that his opinion carries some weight amongst his circle of friends and professionals, noted that “these migrants are being protested as animals. It is simply wrong and is a falsehood. I want to speak up on this." 

On one level I was surprised to hear him say this. But when I gave it some more thought, I realized that this was right in line with Mike’s character. I know what he is made of.

"I would not vote for any of the current Democratic front-runners such as Booker, Harris or Warren,” he told me. "But I could definitely vote for someone like a Joe Manchin or Joe Biden. Regardless, I will not be voting for Trump."

Knowing I am a journalist, Mike also said that if I wanted to write a story about this, "I trust you and give you absolute unconditional freedom to write and communicate this how you see and think best."

In other words, he was giving me permission to tell the world what he had just told me. And in this divided, downright tribal era in which we live, that took courage.

Trump Fomenting Hatred

Mike Stauffer, Yankee Fan
Over the past few weeks , Mike said he has been reading in "very neutral media" sources about the migrant caravan of families from Central America that is making its way to the United States up through Mexico. 

He said he began to notice that, each day, the description of this caravan grew more threatening and inaccurate. 

Ultimately, Mike said, “The President fully embraced an ad that was in my opinion fomenting hatred and fear among Americans toward the people of Honduras."

Mike had turned off his Facebook account and stopped watching all cable news channels. 

Except for reading a couple relatively small written accounts, he said he was determined to come to his own conclusions regarding the migrants and immigration from south of the border in general.

"I came across a picture in which a young migrant mother was collapsed from weariness and sleeping on the dirt,” he said.

"Her two young children were close by her. I asked myself how bad it must be in her homeland that she would uproot and walk thousands of miles across sun scorched land to escape it. I heard Christ’s words ring clear and unmistakable in my heart: 'In all things do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.”

Mike looked at the mother’s despair and that’s what turned him against Trump for good.

"I knew beyond all doubt that if I were in her shoes, I would want to be welcomed and received in a better, safer land,” he said. "I then thought again about how the President has been describing an entire people as dangerous and a threat to us, when in reality it is probably an extremely minute percentage."

At that point, Mike said his faith could no longer align itself with the words coming from the Presidents mouth.

“The active duty troops I've talked to this week, most of them, say off the record that Trump is abusing his power as commander in chief for purely political purposes. No one considers these families as an actual threat,” Mike said. 

He also read this past week how the President has called the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution insane, and that also was too much to take.

"Calling for change to the Constitution through the orderly process of ratification is one thing,” he said. "Attacking any part of our Constitution as being ‘insane' as a sitting President is downright dangerous."

Mike has been a staunch defender of our Constitution his entire adult life. 

"To ignore such a remark simply because I am a Republican would, for me, be hypocritical,” he said.

Mike has justified some of Trump's words and deeds as President, he explained, because there are some of his policies he does agree with and he still has a strong aversion to some parts of the Democratic platform.

But he can no longer do so. 

"I will not be voting Democratic in the 2020 election, but I also will not be voting again for Donald Trump,” he said.

Questioning Your Tribe

Mike Stauffer, Marine
One of the lessons I believe we should take away from hard decisions like the one Mike made this week is that we all have corners of ourselves that we do not reveal for fear of being booted out of the tribes we join.

Historically, political scientists have attributed such rigid political loyalty to the way we are raised and by our experiences. 

More recent research suggests there may be a genetic component to why we cling so tightly to our views. 

Whatever the case, the truth is once we pick and join a "tribe," most of us permanently subscribe to the tenets of that tribe and find it very difficult to outwardly question it, no matter how disdainful it gets.

I suspect this behavior has everything to do with our most primal instinct for survival. Don't step out of the herd and risk the chance of getting eaten by a T-Rex.

I've never had any problem stepping out of the tribal line. I guess that's because, as oxymoronic as it sounds, I am a fervent centrist, a passionate moderate.

I have strong views and can argue with the best of them, but I don't follow any party or ideological lines. 

I am a liberal, but I have never been a knee-jerk liberal or a knee-jerk anything. I have always had some conservative views.

I believe, for example, that if they are physically able, welfare recipients should have to prove that they are looking for a job to continue receiving welfare.

I have also always been a staunch supporter of the military and our veterans, as anyone who has read my journalism over the last 30 years will attest.

And I am a capitalist who strongly believes that free-market competition is a good thing -- as long as it is kept in check by, yes, the government.

But I am, at the beginning, middle and end of the day, a proud liberal. I have been all my life, and it is because I care about the less fortunate. This is why I call myself a liberal. 

Mike, too, has always had a few left-leaning views, though he would probably never admit it.

Probably his most liberal position, he said, is that he supports a “robust Medicaid system and strong federal aid toward Medicaid."

And he is of course an unabashed supporter of expanding our military. But in 2005, during the Iraq War, he said against the wishes of his party and many of his fellow Marines that the war should end and that we should bring our troops home.

But make no mistake: Mike is a classic conservative. I guess you could say he is a conservative in the Reagan model and I am a progressive in the Joe Biden model. 

But the friendship between us is bigger than politics. It actually works in the way it is supposed to work in Congress. Our debates have always stayed civil, and we always manage to find common ground.

That is, until Trump was elected.

Since then, while Mike has generally stood by Trump, I have grown increasingly outraged with Trump’s lack of moral compass, his thousands of blatant lies, dog whistles to racists, unprecedented divisiveness, systematic destruction of the environment, destruction of our relationships with our allies, and just his profound corruption.

Knowing Right From Wrong

I take no credit for my best friend’s change of heart. And with all respect for his religious beliefs, which I believe is a positive aspect of his life, I don't personally credit Christ for this decision.

I credit Mike’s own sense of goodness. I credit his own deep understanding of the difference between right and wrong, which he knew even before he embraced Jesus. 

"Thank you for doing your job as a journalist through thick and thin,” Mike told me this afternoon in an email. 

It meant a lot to me in this era in which The President of the United States calls any journalist who does his job honestly and writes anything negative about him “fake news” and an “enemy of the people.”

I am undeniably pleased that my best friend recognizes that Trump's ugly, racist fear-mongering over the non-threatening caravan of Hispanic families seeking a better life, and Trump's preposterous take that American journalists are enemies of the people, are both unAmerican.

"I was very wrong and completely off base when I joined in piling on the media,” Mike said. "There are .001% agenda-driven wackos in any part of life. But 99.99% of journalists are doing the job we as a democracy need them to do.”

Unlike so many people these days on the right and the left, Mike has a rare ability to re-carve a personal political view that seemed cut so deeply in stone. 

He, like most of us, typically sees the world through a narrow political prism. But this week, to my amazement and his credit, his courage and common sense overcame his stubborn inner machinery and he adjusted his sights. Again.

He did it with the Iraq War 13 years ago, and he did it again this week with Trump. Which is not to say that he is suddenly a liberal. He isn't. I don't expect that nor do I want that. He sticks to his guns. Literally.

I also don't expect a bunch of people to read this story and suddenly change your position on Donald Trump. 

But one can hope.

There's no shame in changing one’s mind. There is, in fact, great honor and courage in doing so. My best friend did it. So can you.