Obscure Advent Recommendation #3: Family Man

Watch The Family Man | Prime Video

This one is for my dad, who loves to watch this movie each year on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Family Man is a sweet and under-appreciated movie from 2000 starring Nicholas Cage and Tea Leoni. You can watch the trailer, but the basic premise is: Jack is a highly successful businessman, basically decent if superficial, living the high life until an unthinking moment of heroism on Christmas Eve launches him into a “glimpse” — a vision of what life might have been if he had passed up a career opportunity as a young man to marry his first love. Waking up as a family man in the New Jersey suburbs that Christmas morning, Jack initially panics and tries to escape the glimpse, but gradually settles into the alternate world. But, given the choice, would he choose to stay? And can he?

If it sounds a bit like It’s a Wonderful Life, good for you, you’ve clearly had a much more cultured childhood, because I didn’t watch that until just last year. But it’s a cozy Christmas movie that celebrates the life of quiet sanctification of a man who lays down his life for his wife, his children, his community of friends, setting aside the path where talent and ambition might have led. It’s the life my dad chose, the life I struggle each day to choose for myself.

That said, our family is the only people I know who have seen/liked this movie. By and large the internet has forgotten and/or actively hates it — the New York Times called it “a piece of moldy wax fruit,” which is a charming but perplexing insult. This 2019 piece argues the movie is making a comeback, but offers absolutely no evidence except that the author likes it.

Family-friendly? We haven’t let our kids see it. There’s a suggestion of an affair, some mild bedroom talk, some obscured nudity, etc.

Where to get it: Rent from Amazon for $3.99

Obscurity level: 8/10 — I guess they made another movie with the name Family Man in 2016 and that makes finding this particular Family Man even harder.

Obscure Advent Recommendation #2: Children of Men

Children of Men - Wikipedia

OK, for our next stop on the Obscure Advent Recommendation Tour, let’s visit a slightly less obscure but definitely controversial pick: Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 movie, Children of Men. Let’s take it as a question and answer:

  1. Haven’t you written about this before?

I thought I had! But now I can’t find anything about it aside from a mention about how haunting it was to recall in the early days of the pandemic. Maybe Instagram?

2. What’s it about?

It’s based on a novel by P.D. James. (Not as good, FIGHT ME.) The premise is that worldwide infertility is creating a world slumping into despair, unrest, and suicide. It’s 2027 (!) and a baby hasn’t been born in eighteen years. When alcoholic everyman Theo Faron is tapped to help on a desperate mission, he’ll brave the dystopian world outside to find hope for himself and the world in what one review aptly calls a Via Dolorosa.

3. That doesn’t sound like an Advent movie.

Ok, friend, that’s not a question. But to answer your non-question, an Anglican priest friend first introduced it to me, actually, as an Advent movie. Even though it’s extremely violent, it has a lot to say about hope and human frailty and the joy a birth can bring. (For instance, this post traces how Theo’s name translates to “God-bearer.) There are a lot of allusions and visual references to the religious themes — though you can also watch it as a film connoisseur (which I am decidedly not) for its famously long and complicated shots.

4. You said it’s violent?

I don’t want to understate this. It’s very hard to watch, but valuable viewing. I mean, I think it still would be. It might be kind of haunting to watch after our pandemic year.

5. How should I pair this?

If you’re watching it with people, be prepared for everyone to sort of stand up dazedly at the end of the viewing and wander away to think through it. Not a cookies-and-cocoa viewing, for sure.

The world of Children of Men
O come, o come Emmanuel, yes?

Family-friendly? ONLY LATE TEENS AND UP. This is outside edge of “hard to watch but worth it” for me. (Though I’m a bit of a weeny.)

Where to get it: It looks like you can rent it on Amazon for $3.99; I got a copy from the library without having to deploy interlibrary loan.

Obscurity level: 6/10 — not on a lot of cozy blogger mom lists of Christmas movies, but plenty of other people agree with the Advent take. (There’s a good review here.)

Books and Movies I Now Highly Regret

A Vulture piece on Emily St. John Mandel (her book Station Eleven discussed below) observes, “But there can be something reassuring about taking in a fictional disaster in the midst of a real one. You can flirt with the experience of collapse. You can long for the world you live in right now.” I can sort of get it, as an anxious person who’s always found end-of-the-world books weirdly comforting, but now that things are actually tough, I, for one, will be inhaling LM Montgomery, The Secret Garden and other comfort reads like it’s my job.

Still, I thought I’d take a 7QT romp through some of the eeriest post-apocalyptic things I’ve read and seen that populate my brain with a lot of now-unwelcome imagery:

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1. How I Live Now (book and film) for vividly depicting borders abruptly closing and lack of information. Bonus points for the chillingly understated title. How are any of us living now? Pretty differently.

2. World War Z (book, not movie) for prophecies about an illness breaking out in China and the quick and prudent quarantine in Israel. Very much regretting reading this one earlier this year.

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3. Children of Men (book and movie, but especially movie, which I rewatched last Advent) for life going on mostly as normal while things quietly, mundanely fall apart.

4. The Girl Who Owned a City (book) for a world of only children after a pandemic decimates the adult population. I read this a long time ago, when I was a kid myself and found it thrilling. Will not be reading it again anytime soon.

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5. Tomorrow When the War Began (mostly book, but some movie): people go out on a wilderness trip, return to find the world utterly unrecognizable — a thing that happened this month, thanks to coronavirus and an ill-timed rafting trip.

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6. Shaun of the Dead (movie): Why the everloving heck did J convince me to watch this movie earlier this very month?! (He’s always loved it, but I don’t handle violence in movies particularly well.) Anyway, kudos to the Shaun guys for forecasting the sort of apathy and self-absorption that still plagues our culture even when things are falling apart. And further applause for the duo teaming up to create this Shaun-update PSA for the time of coronavirus.

7. Station Eleven (our gold star winner) for picking a highly infectious disease that breaks down human connectedness as its agent of destruction.

If you find you want to read one of these (you weirdo) and your library is closed, maybe try ordering from The Bookshelf or another small bookseller? They could really use our help.

A Quiet Place, Parenting and Anxiety

If, like me, you’re getting excited for the premiere of A Quiet Place Part II next month, I wrote a little reflection on its predecessor after watching it for the first time this fall.

Look, you probably saw this forever ago, but I finally sat down to A Quiet Place last week after several friends urging that a.) I’d like it and b.) I would probably sleep again, eventually, despite my deep hatred of scary movies. I was, as they’d predicted, blown away, and now you’re going to hear about it. The movie’s premise? Vaguely mantis-like monsters with extreme powers of hearing have killed just about everyone, and one family, now anxiously — and silently — awaiting the birth of a new baby, must figure out a way to survive. [spoilers below]Read More »

Dan in Real Life

Do you remember that movie?


You mean you forgot the single most important film of the ’00s?!

For some reason, or maybe a lot of reasons, I always find myself longing to watch Dan in Real Life in the fall.

I first saw the movie hunched over our laptop screen in Uganda in fall 2008. I have no idea where we acquired it, but expats would trade whatever movies they had on their hard drives when they met — it may have originated with a couple of Canadian engineers we knew. Whatever the case, the appeal, I guess, was obvious: the film is set in perfect, autumnal New England, a breath of fresh fall air when we were denied that season in equatorial Africa. (Little did we know what stood in wait for us on the other side of 2009.)

What’s more, beyond the romance storylines loomed a big, boisterous family when J and I were still a little and very new family of two. Moving around the edges of the film are traditions and deep knowledge that appealed strongly when our family originated scant months before.

If you haven’t seen it (why haven’t you?!), the plot is pretty basic: a middle aged widower with three daughters packs up for his parents’ summer place in Rhode Island, where the whole extended family meets each fall to shut up the house for the season. In town, he meets a darling French woman who turns out to be his little brother’s girlfriend.

Like most of my favorite movies, I love it for the atmosphere more than the plot (which is pretty meh, if I try to look at it objectively). There’s a trick of backstory that suggests these people might be real someplace, a certain quality of light that makes each moment golden and desirable.

Aspirational is a word that’s trotted out too often, but this movie was that for us. Not in terms of glamor or drama or even Dan’s romance (sweet, but a little trite) — in fact, I think J and I would agree that if anything the grandparents were the most central characters for us, a matriarch and patriarch swarmed by goofy, loving progeny.
We were 22 and life was unfolding slowly as we sat in our little bungalow among the bougainvillea and sometimes waiting was almost too much to bear as we wiled away time till the swift equatorial nightfall, till we boarded the plane back home, till our real life together began.
And in the meantime, there was plenty of time for Dan in Real Life, and for dreaming.