‘Kill Your Darlings’ Review

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The Beat Generation have enjoyed a cinematic surge of interest as of late, to varying degrees of success: the good, if forgettable Howl (2010),  Walter Salles’s disappointing On the Road (2012), and most recently, the inexplicably well-received Kill Your Darlings (2013). It’s no wonder the first two made it to the big screen; Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956)– along with William Burrough’s Naked Lunch (1959)–are consistently hailed as the era’s defining works, and Kill Your Darlings brings all three writers together at the brink of these creative years. It’s actually one of the film’s biggest problems. As much as I’d love a film about the Beats inspiring, fighting, and loving each other, this perhaps was not the best vehicle to do it. Kill Your Darlings makes the understandable, but fateful mistake of exploring these social relationships  at the expense of an interesting story in its own right.

Dane Dehaan and Daniel Radcliffe in Kill Your Darlings

Dane Dehaan and Daniel Radcliffe in Kill Your Darlings

At the center of the film, and indeed the Beats themselves, was Lucien Carr, a charismatic, free-spirited young man, arguably responsible for the formation of the Generation in the first place. Ginsberg once said, “Lou was the glue,” and it’s true that the brightest of the Beats met through Carr. A scion of wealthy St. Louis high society, Carr was already well acquainted with Burroughs, himself from a prominent St. Louis clan, long before he made it to Columbia University. Once there, he met Edie Parker in an art class, and she introduced him to her boyfriend (soon-to-be husband) Jack Kerouac. Then late one momentous night, playing Brahms at high volume, Carr drew to his dorm room a bright young freshman: Allen Ginsberg. Thus, a generation of luminaries was formed. Perhaps Carr, too, would’ve reigned in public consciousness as recognizable a name as Ginsberg and Kerouac, had he not murdered David Kammerer deep in the summer of 1944.

It’s unfortunate then that writer-director John Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn place this story firmly in the hands of Ginsberg, who was the least involved and the last to know what was going on. As a consequence, the film loses a lot of its inherent drama, and what might’ve been a complex commentary on infatuation, obsession, and love–romantic and platonic–is stifled, swapped instead for a heavy-handed coming-of-age story. The film follows Ginsberg (played by Daniel Radcliffe) from his unstable home life with an emotionally absent father (David Cross) and mentally ill mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Columbia University, where he finally begins to come into his own. He is immediately struck and taken by Carr (Dane Dehaan), and after a reenactment of the Brahms incident, the two become fast friends, or nearly, given the tilted dynamic between them from the beginning. Carr ushers a grateful and eager Ginsberg into the 1940s New York literary scene  where he soon becomes acquainted with the brilliant but odd Burroughs (an effortless performance by Ben Foster) and the passionate Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). Always lurking along the periphery is English professor-turned-janitor David Kammerer (Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall), a tolerated rather than welcome presence. Ginsberg begins to question the hold the possessive Kammerer has on Carr when he discovers that Lucien might be more complicit, and perhaps more devious than initially thought.

Burroughs (Ben Foster) standing while Kerouac (Jack Huston), Ginsberg (Radcliffe) and Carr (Dehaan) read

Burroughs (Ben Foster) standing while Kerouac (Jack Huston), Ginsberg (Radcliffe) and Carr (Dehaan) read

As young Ginsberg, Radcliffe’s performance is earnest, but just shy of convincing, perhaps not entirely his own fault. As a character, the actual man himself is captured rather dismally. There are moments of genius, like when he argues with his professor about meter and rhyme and his pining for Carr leading him to embrace his own sexuality, but largely the character feels inconsistent. Dehaan fares much better as the charming, manipulative Carr, as does Michael C. Hall in the role of the tortured Kammerer.  The others, all of them talented, are unfortunately wasted here, especially Elizabeth Olsen resigned to a decidedly shrewish Edie Parker. In fact, the saddest thing about Kill Your Darlings is all the wasted potential. The filmmakers took a story ripe with drama–obsession, jealousy, sex, murder–and by handing it over to Ginsberg (a master storyteller in his own right), stifle a lot of complexity. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say they were slightly derivative of On the Road, turning Carr into a sexually confused Neal Cassady, which is a shame because Lucien Carr was already plenty interesting. There’s no basis for the film’s claim that Carr strung Kammerer along and forced the man to write his college papers (something the character later transfers to Ginsberg). In fact, by all accounts Carr was really quite a brilliant student. Later he would become one of the most respected editors of his day, working until his death for United Press International, in the meantime editing and reviewing the early drafts of his friends Kerouac and Ginsberg. 

Then, there’s the problematic framing of the narrative, namely as an unrequited love story. While the extent of their relationship remains elusive–was it sexual, fanatical, obsessive, unrequited, mutual?–it should  be known that Kammerer first took interest in Carr when he was fourteen. When the boy’s mother discovered a stack of “desperate letters” from Kammerer to her son and decided to move, the 29-year-old professor uprooted, too, and proceeded to follow them around Northeast America, from Massachusetts to Maine to Chicago. A suicide attempt at the University of Chicago is, in the film, decided to be a result of Carr’s own sexual frustration and inability to come to grips with his sexuality.  Ginsberg argues that Carr had perhaps at one point loved Kammerer. On the other hand, Carr, who’d been abandoned by his biological father, may also have regarded Kammerer as a paternal figure of sorts, given his chillingly casual confession to Kerouac, who later recounted them in Vanity of Duluoz:  “Well,” Carr said, “I disposed of the old man last night.”  But understandably, one must be careful with that kind of narrative, for it plays to the worst of homophobic inclinations, and indeed, Carr himself owed the leniency of his sentence (he was sentenced to one-to-twenty years, but served only two) to the hysteria that gay men actively prey upon straight men.

Overall the film itself leaves a lot to be desired, largely because of uneven writing, leaving the story and its characters scattered. It’s better than On the Road, but that’s not saying much.

2 1/2 *

The Wolf of American Hustle on Wall Street (2013)

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First of all, Happy New Year!

I figured I would talk about Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and David O. Russell‘s American Hustle given they suffer from largely the same issues and seem to have been designed with similar intent. The emptiness of the “American Dream” is not fresh ground for the American storyteller, nor is it a theme of the past.  It continues to haunt, and I wonder if it wasn’t always an incubus disguised as hope.

Both films are based on true stories–Hustle far more loosely than Wolf–taking place nearly thirty to forty years ago, but no less relevant considering our society still rewards and honors wealth. It also serves as a pretty good excuse for defenders who argue films aren’t meant to be morality tales (true) and since society doesn’t condemn these kinds of people, it wouldn’t be “realistic” if they were condemned in art (less true and problematic).

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In Hustle, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a small-time businessman who embezzles money on the side with the help of his lover Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams).  They soon find themselves in the cross hairs of an ambitious and unstable FBI agent Richie DiMasio (Bradley Cooper), who uses them as a means to catch even bigger fish, like goodhearted mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and merciless mobster Victor Tellagio (a highly entertaining cameo by Robert DeNiro). To be completely frank, American Hustle is a sloppy, rambling mess with little else going for it besides solid, measured performances and occasional moments of levity. Bale, Adams, Cooper and Renner are all brilliant, especially given the uneven material they’ve been given, and I wouldn’t mind seeing one or two of them nominated in the coming months. But if someone is awarded, it will likely be Jennifer Lawrence, who, for some reason, seems to be garnering a lot more attention for a role she was too young to play and was really a caricature more than anything else. At any rate, the accolades this film has been receiving  is truly beyond me. If it’s true that Russell was going for some kind of character piece, he failed: because even though they all started off strong, a series of quirks does not a fully-realized, much less entertaining character make. Thirty minutes in, I found myself completely indifferent to the fates of these people. And once I’m no longer invested in who I’m watching, the story becomes meaningless. The running time is only a little over two hours–relatively short by today’s standards–but I couldn’t wait for the film to be over. It didn’t help that Russell employs the most blatant, aggressive use of the Male Gaze I’ve ever had the displeasure to witness. Gratuitous shots of Amy Adams’s ass and Jennifer Lawrence’s boobs did not make this any more enjoyable a watch. It certainly didn’t add anything of depth to the story. 

Sydney (Adams), Richie (Cooper), Carmine (Renner), Irving (Bale) and Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Lawrence) in American Hustle

Sydney (Adams), Richie (Cooper), Carmine (Renner), Irving (Bale) and Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Lawrence) in American Hustle

At least Hustle acknowledges that greed and deceit win you nothing without taking something precious in return. I suppose, in the name of “realism” Wolf of Wall Street feels no such obligation. Wolf  is a dramatization of Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio, clearly having fun at least) hedonistic pursuits starting in 1987 when the 22-year-old lands a job at an established Wall Street firm. His boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) takes the young and obviously talented Belfort under his wing and initiates him into a life of drug-fueled debauchery. Unfortunately, Jordan loses the job just as quickly as he earned it when the firm crashes following Black Monday. He ends up at a smaller, much less established brokerage, where he gains enough confidence to branch out on his own and start Stratton Oakmont comprised of a ragtag group of friends–including Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), Robbie Feinberg (Brian Sacca), and Chester Ming (Kenneth Choi)–every bit as greedy and morally bankrupt as Jordan. They make big bucks charming and scamming first naive average Joes before graduating to the elite one percent. Soon Jordan and his friends are partying on yachts; enjoying orgies on private planes to Vegas; chucking little people at a target board; and practically every waking minute between these more extravagant events, tripping on coke or Qualuudes. All this excess, naturally, catches the attention of a FBI agent Patrick Denham (a sadly underused Kyle Chandler), and something resembling a plot finally begins to take shape, albeit in the third act.

Donnie (Hill) and Jordan (DiCaprio) meet for the firs time in The Wolf of Wall Street

Donnie (Hill) and Jordan (DiCaprio) meet for the firs time in The Wolf of Wall Street

Even if we decide to ignore all the allegations of misogyny behind the camera and count the misogyny before it as a product of Jordan’s own distorted view of women, the film is even more of a mess than American Hustle, and critics, in this instance, were not nearly as kind. For one thing, too much time is spent on Jordan and co.’s debauchery, where one or two sequences would have sufficed. Instead, we’re forced to dwell in it, and at a certain point it goes beyond simply vapid and hollow and repugnant; it becomes, worst of all, tiresome. A movie checking in at three hours does not have the luxury of becoming tiresome, not even for a minute. As it were, by the hour mark The Wolf loses most of what it had going for it; although it boasts entertaining performances from DiCaprio and Hill throughout. Any momentum it had fizzles early on, and we sort of drift along in an endless flow of generally dull, rarely even entertaining licentiousness, before, in the final half hour, rushing toward a conclusion that’s neither groundbreaking nor ultimately satisfying: Money rules everything around me.

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,900 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

25 Days of Christmas Movies: A Christmas Story (1983)

A Christmas StoryFirst of all, Merry Christmas all! You know it’s Christmas Day when TBS broadcasts its annual marathon of A Christmas Story,  the tale of one boy’s quest for a Red Ryder BB gun one Christmas. Why has Ralphie Parker’s (Peter Billingsley) story touched so many hearts and souls? What keeps us from getting sick of it running back-t0-back every Christmas? I’d wager it’s because the film is hilarious and relatable for anybody who has ever been a nine-year-old.

Triple dog-dare gone wrong with Flick (Scott Schwartz), Schwartz (R. D. Robb) and Ralphie (Peter Billingsley)

Triple dog-dare gone wrong with Flick (Scott Schwartz), Schwartz (R. D. Robb) and Ralphie (Peter Billingsley)

When he first asks his mother (Melinda Dillon) for the BB gun, she begins the phrase that becomes the film’s defining mantra: “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Ralphie proceeds to take us through the holidays with his family–including his mother, the Old Man (Darren McGavin) and his brother Randy (Ian Petrella)–and his friends Schwartz (R. D. Robb) and Flick (Scott Schwartz). Marking one of the few instances voice-over narration works without being superfluous to some degree, at least half the fun is Adult Ralphie’s commentary on the proceeding events, from a failed Santa Claus visit, to a disastrous triple-dog dare, his Orphan Annie obsession, standing up to bullies, swearing in front of his parents, and a memorable Christmas dinner. The rest is left to the capable, adorable hands of Billingsley, given solid, hilarious support from McGavin, Dillon, and Petrella.

So while you’re enjoying your turkey and ham, it probably goes without saying–or trying–that you’ll likely catch at least one showing of this. It’s not quite Christmas without it.

25 Days of Christmas Movies: A Christmas Tale [Un conte de Noël] (2008)

a-christmas-tale-movie-poster-2008-1020420639Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (known as Un conte de Noël in his native France) is easily one of my favorites to watch this season.

The dysfunctional Vuillard family do Christmas like no other. Damaged over the years by loss, jealousy, hatred, emotional abuse, and bottled up anger, when they come together to celebrate the holidays, it can’t be expected to go anything but horribly wrong. The family started off normally when Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) and Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) have their first two children: Joseph and Elizabeth (played when she is older by Anne Consigny). But when he is in kindergarten, Joseph is diagnosed with leukemia, and the child–Henri (played when he is older by the always brilliant Mathieu Amalric)–they conceive in an effort to save him proves powerless to help them. Joseph dies, and Henri becomes the painful, hated remainder of the family’s loss.

Paul (Emile Berling), Henri (Mathieu Amalric), and Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) at Christmas Mass

Paul (Emile Berling), Henri (Mathieu Amalric), and Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) at Christmas Mass

Years later, after the Vuillards have had their third son Ivan, the family–with the exception of Abel–continues to act out the pain of their past. Junon is a distant mother, and Elizabeth hates Henri, an alcoholic who often finds himself at odds with other members of the family. Six years prior to the film’s present day holiday celebrations, Henri filed for bankruptcy, and Elizabeth agreed to pay off his debts provided she never see him again and that he stay away from the family. Fast forward to the present,  Junon has been diagnosed with leukemia. She needs a  transplant and wonders if one of her children might be able to donate bone marrow to her.  Christmas gathers all the Vuillards–Elizabeth, her mentally ill teenage son Paul (Emile Berling), Henri, his girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), Ivan, his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni–fun fact: Deneuve’s daughter), their children, and the Vuillard children’s cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto)–under one roof. It is disastrous from day one. 

It’s a pretty dark film for Christmas, given the alcohol abuse and implications of incest among other decidedly un-Christmas-like subjects. But moments of hilarity and levity arise amid the chaos, and it’s well worth the two hours and a half. Although at certain points, it feels the film suffers from one too many characters, that’s because each is well-developed, brought to life by solid and engaging performances. What’s more, commendably, the film takes an unconventional route for its conclusion, neither entirely happy nor entirely dismal. By the end of the film, everything is not all peaches and cream. The Vuillards still need a ton of work and extensive therapy but their “redemption” so to speak is a realistic transformation. They are at least farther away from where they started at the beginning.

25 Days of Christmas Movies: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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Frank Capra‘s classic–also one of the most critically-acclaimed films of all time–stars James Stewart as the suicidal George Bailey, who, one Christmas Eve, gets a glimpse into what the world would be like if he had never been born. That night, as George ponders suicide, his loved ones and friends all pray for his safety. Two angels give the bumbling angel Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) a portrait of George’s life up til then and all the selfless, generous acts he has committed over the years. He saves his little brother from drowning in an ice-pondbecoming deaf as a result, and prevents a grieving pharmacist (H. B. Warner) from mistakenly giving poison to a sick child; these are the earliest of many sacrifices for his brother and others through the years. Perhaps chief among them is George stopping the ruthless and greedy Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) from taking over the town with his totalitarian measures. By the time he gets to that fateful Christmas Eve night, George has married his childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) and they have four children. But a mistake by his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), coupled with the heartless, vengeful nature of Potter, puts the Bailey’s Building and Loan business into jeopardy and puts George in danger of prison time. So Oddbody is charged with showing George how much his life has impacted the lives of others.

George (James Stewart), Mary (Donna Reed), and their children

George (James Stewart), Mary (Donna Reed), and their children

You can’t go wrong with this one. It’s a Wonderful Life annually tops all the favorite holiday movies lists–all the great movie lists of any given season, in fact. Uplifting as it is though, it probably wouldn’t hurt to carry some tissues with you either.

 

25 Days of Christmas Movies: Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)

chronicles_of_narnia_the_lion_the_witch_and_the_wardrobe_xlgMy Dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again…

C. S. Lewis wrote this letter and in fact The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for his goddaughter Lucy Barfield; and thus originated my favorite quote from an author outside his own books: “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) meet for the first time

Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) meet for the first time

Perhaps needless to say, Barfield was the inspiration for the kind-hearted Lucy Pevensie (played here by Georgie Henley) the youngest of the Pevensie children–Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), and Edmund (Skandar Keynes)–sent off by their mother to protect them from German attacks in World War II-era London. The children are to live with the mysterious Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent) in his large country mansion. Bored and trapped inside by the rain, the children decide to play hide-and-seek one day around the huge house. Lucy hides in the large wardrobe in the spare room, and as she backs deeper into the closet, she finds herself in a snowy new world called Narnia. There she meets the friendly faun Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) who invites her back to his place for a spot of tea. If this doesn’t alarm you, it’s meant to, because as kind as Mr. Tumnus truly is, his plan is to kidnap Lucy and take her to the White Witch (Tilda Swinton). The White Witch rules Narnia with an ice cold fist. It’s always winter and never Christmas, and she has advised its inhabitants to immediately bring to her any Daughter of Eve or Son of Adam. Tumnus’s conscience and good heart get the better of him, and he helps Lucy escape. But when she returns after what felt like hours, she discovers only mere seconds have passed and naturally none of her siblings believe her. Lucy goes back that night to check on Mr. Tumnus, and Edmund follows her. There, he encounters the White Witch, who charms him into bringing his siblings into Narnia. But when Edmund and Lucy return to the Professor’s house, Edmund maintains that Narnia is not real in front of Peter and Susan. After accidentally knocking a ball through the house, the children, fearing the Professor’s  domineering housekeeper, hide in the wardrobe. There, they find Narnia together, and discover their destinies to overcome the White Witch.

The Pevensie children (Anna Popplewell, Henley, and William Moseley) meet Father Christmas (James Cosmo) in Narnia

The Pevensie children (Anna Popplewell, Henley, and William Moseley) meet Father Christmas (James Cosmo) in Narnia

One of the main reasons this adaptation succeeded so well is how aptly the filmmakers managed to capture the spirit of Lewis’s story. Donald McAlpine‘s generous and engaging eye is our view into this fantastical world; somehow he makes the transition from gloomy, war-torn London, to sunlit countryside, to snowy winter wonderland rather seamlessly. The cinematography obviously plays a huge role into creating this world and making it believable, and McAlpine pulls it off beautifully. The music takes care of the rest.  This happens to be one of Harry Gregson-Williams’s best scores, a wistful, ethereal ode to wonder and adventure, vacillating between a child’s lullaby and some kind of fay litany. The child actors are mainly passable, and they are supported by more than capable talents like McAvoy, Swinton, Broadbent, and, of course, Liam Neeson as the noble Aslan.

It doesn’t get any more magical than this.

25 Days of Christmas Movies: Elf (2003)

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Oh, Elf (2003). Bet you were wondering when this one would appear.

One Christmas Eve, when Santa (Edward Asner) is delivering presents to an orphanage, a baby named Buddy crawls into his sack and gets carried back to the North Pole. There, the elf supervisor of sorts, called Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) raises him as an elf. Once grown, the very huge Buddy (Will Ferrell), who remains ignorant of the fact the he’s actually human, finds himself unable to keep up with all the other elves’ in terms of toy making. One day he overhears a conversation describing the true circumstances of his birth and his actual father Walter Hobbs (James Caan). So with a tender farewell, Buddy sets off to New York to reconcile with his father. And in typical Will Ferrell fashion, it can only go horribly, awkwardly, and hilariously wrong.

Buddy (Will Ferrell) the "elf"

Buddy (Will Ferrell) the “elf”

I challenge you to watch this film and not thoroughly enjoy it. Easily one of Jon Favreau‘s best, Elf also features the charming and solid support of a blonde Zooey Deschanel, Peter Dinklage, and Mary Steenburg. Not to mention, Ferrell and Deschanel manage to turn the creep-tastic song that is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” into something actually endearing. This is a fun one.

25 Days of Christmas Movies: Home Alone (1990) and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)

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The adventures of KEVIN! McCallister over the course of two Christmases makes for some good, wholesome entertainment this holiday season. The first film, the highest grossing comedy of all time, sees eight-year-old Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), the youngest, most bullied, but also most charming member of the McCallister clan, left behind by his huge family in their rush to make it to the airport on time. Instead of panicking, Kevin views this as a great opportunity to get in some quality “me” time. As only child, I can only imagine (with dread) how suffocating his childhood must have been and so I understand the initial enthusiasm with which he greets his newfound freedom. Kevin milks the situation with as much creativity as you can expect from a kid: watching old movies and binge-eating his favorite foods. But at the same time he proves himself incredibly resourceful and able to take care of himself, despite his youth. When two thieves (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) known as the Wet Bandits attempt to break into the house, Kevin manages to thwart them using every household item you could possibly think of. Of course, this film wouldn’t work today, in the age of cell phones, high tech alarm systems and constant camera surveillance, but the film somehow never feels dated, even watching it today.

Kevin (Culkin) and the Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern)

Kevin (Culkin) and the Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern)

In the next installment of Kevin’s adventure (I refuse to count any film after this one–except, if I’m feeling generous, Home Alone 3 is not as bad as reviews suggest), the boy wonder finds himself living the dream again–if for a short while–when he gets separated from his family in the airport and ends up flying to New York. Once there, Kevin checks into the Plaza Hotel, rides around the city in a limo, watches more old movies and eats more junk food. Unfortunately, his trip is ruined when he runs into the same crooks who tried to break into his house last Christmas, as they attempt to rob Duncan’s Toy store. “You can mess with a lot of things, but you can’t miss with kids on Christmas!” So Kevin faces off against the nefarious Wet Bandits again.

It’s Macaulay Culkin at his cutest and writer John Hughes at his wittiest. But wrapped up in all the fun and games and hilarity is a pretty sweet message about appreciating your loved ones (in spite of their flaws) and how loneliness is not an acceptable remedy to pain. The films also remind us to remember and be kinder to those overlooked, displaced persons of our society, for not everyone is lucky enough to share the season with loved ones.

25 Days of Christmas Movies: Harry Potter (1 – 8)

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I’m not sure what it is about Harry Potter that makes it prime watching through the holidays, that is, beyond the fact that we spend every Christmas with the boy who lived from the time he’s eleven to the time he is seventeen.

For those of you who have been living in a deep, dark, secluded cave somewhere for the past decadeHarry Potter began as a series first written by J. K. Rowling, who revolutionized the young adult genre with her tale of a curious orphan who discovers he’s actually a wizard on his eleventh birthday. The books swept the world to become immovably entrenched into the social conscious as well as the lives and hearts of children and adults all over. What’s remarkable is that Rowling spaced the series out so that so many of us actually grew up with Harry Potter, our childhood accentuated with the release of a new installment, and soon, our summers marked with a big screen adaptation of his adventures. No doubt it’s one of the most financially successful book and film series of all time and a pop culture phenomenon.

The trio: Harry Potter (Dan Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) in the snow

The trio: Harry Potter (Dan Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) in the snow

The first ten years of young Harry Potter’s (Daniel Radcliffe) life are miserable. He’s forced to live with his snobbish, cruel relatives the Dursleys who take every opportunity to slight and abuse him. Holidays were not fun times for young Mr. Potter, until he realizes he is a wizard and is sent to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There he makes fast friends with fellow students Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). Harry also finds several adults who, unlike Dursleys, he can rely on for guidance and true affection: Professor McGonagall (Dame Maggie Smith), Hogwarts gamekeeper Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Ron’s parents Molly and Arthur Weasley (Julie Walters and Mark Williams), Harry’s godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) and most of all, Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (first brought to life by Richard Harris and continued by Michael Gambon). One of the many great triumphs of Rowling’s writing is her creation of Harry, this relatable rather than saintly (a la Oliver Twist) orphan, cursed with a life of frequent loss and grieving. Naturally Harry longs for the love of his parents, but he also aches to simply belong somewhere. Hogwarts, dangerous and treacherous as it can be, offers him that: a home and by extension, a family. His Christmases there always seem memorable, from his first year where he first experiences the delight of presents, including his father’s invisibility to cloak, to his soap opera-esque fourth year where Ron and Hermione argue dramatically after the Yule Ball, to an almost fatal seventh year where he and Hermione visit his parents’ grave on Christmas Eve night. Harry learns, as most people with families can attest, that while Christmas might not always be merry and ideal, it’s certainly worth it and so much better to spend it with those you love.

Professors at the Yule Ball: Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), Snape (Alan Rickman) and Prof. McGonagall (Maggie Smith)

Professors at the Yule Ball: Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), Snape (Alan Rickman) and Prof. McGonagall (Maggie Smith)

And if there’s one thing you can take from Rowling’s books it’s that without love there is nothing. I’d wager that’s why it’s feels most right to marathon these films around this time more than any other (and I started my marathon last night).