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Showing posts from 2018

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

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The Shop Around the Corner is an extremely influential black and white romantic comedy. It's based on the same source material that was updated and adapted into "You've Got Mail," which I should probably watch one of these days.

Like most movies of its era (or at least the ones that have endured), The Shop Around the Corner is a bit complicated. It's well regarded - Rotten Tomatoes has it at 100% - but it's also dated. Do I even need to say that the gender politics in a movie made in 1940 are less than ideal? I suppose they could be a lot worse. The male lead manipulates and lies to the woman for half the movie, and in the end, she's just glad to end up with him. But aside from that, she's generally portrayed as intelligent and capable. The premise requires that the two fall in love with each other's minds, rather than their bodies, though there are definitely some awkward jokes around their concerns as to what their mysterious love interests loo…

The Rocking Horse Winner (1949)

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Based on a short story by D.H. Lawrence, The Rocking Horse Winner is a black-and-white movie straddling the line between drama, horror, and fantasy. I found it on a few lists of Christmas movies, though I'm not 100% certain I agree with its inclusion.

The movie either qualifies or fails to qualify solely based on its first twenty minutes, in which one of the lead characters, Paul, receives a rocking horse for Christmas. Granted, that's not entirely dissimilar to our justification for including Sleepless in Seattle. And there's something to be said for a movie that revolves around a haunted Christmas toy.

The tag attributes the gift to Father Christmas, though the movie never directly addresses where it comes from. Presumably, it was purchased by one or both of his parents or his uncle, though it's not an entirely unreasonable interpretation to take the tag at face value. That said, the rocking horse seems to be evil, so that's not the most generous reading towards…

Book Review: On Her Majesty's Secret Service

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On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Ian Fleming, 1963

So when we were researching Christmas espionage for the podcast, I realized I never wrote a review of this novel. And that was an oversight that could not stand.

I need to start by saying that I enjoy the Bond books. They are dated. They are sometimes awful. But I love the style, and I love how much more complex they are than the films.

For one thing, the series, taken as a whole, is the story of a man who has a thankless, terrible job that forces him to be a heartless weapon. The books very seldom glamorize the life of a spy.

In On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bond is tired of it all. He's ready to chuck the whole career in the bin, and he grasps at his whirlwind romance with Tracy as one bright thing, a light at the end of the tunnel. When we meet her, she's traumatized and suicidal after being abandoned by a husband and the death of a child. Bond is drawn to her need for rescue, but we never see whether the relation…

The Simpsons: Holidays of Future Passed (2011)

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This episode from the twenty-third season of The Simpsons was originally intended as the series's finale, in effect book-ending the holiday special that served as the pilot.

Holidays of Future Passed opens with a Christmas-themed intro, followed by a brief Thanksgiving sequence that transitions into a Christmas photo, which in turn transitions into a montage showing the family growing older over the years. This may have been my favorite part of the episode, honestly - there are numerous clever jokes hidden in this sequence, and I found the vignettes of these characters aging endearing.

When we catch up to the present (or more accurately the future), Bart is a 40-year-old renting an apartment in the ruins of his old elementary school. He's a deadbeat father to a pair of boys who typically live with their mom but are sent to him for the holidays.

Lisa is doing marginally better - she seems to have a successful career and a relatively okay marriage (she's married to Milhouse…

Some Girls (1988)

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I spent the entire runtime of Some Girls trying to figure out what the movie was, and I'm still not remotely certain. The best description I can muster is: Victorian drama crossed with raunchy 80's comedy. That doesn't really convey the experience of the movie, though, since the description sounds inventive and fun.

The plot... uh... Okay, I'll do my best here, but there's not a lot of meat to this thing. The movie opens with a voice-over from the film's lead, Michael, who's flying to Quebec for Christmas to reunite with his college girlfriend, Gabi, who dropped out due to her ailing grandmother, Granny.
That's her name in the credits, and she's easily the third most important character behind Michael and Gabi. Arguably, she's more significant than Gabi and deserves the #2 spot. She doesn't appear immediately, however. First, we're introduced to the rest of her family, who live in a sprawling massive gothic mansion full of musty librari…

Laid-Back Camp: Christmas Camp, Mount Fuji and the Laid-Back Camp Girls (2018)

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Do you need something warm and simple sometimes? Me too.

The anime series Laid-Back Camp (Yurucamp) is exactly what it sounds like. There is camping, beautiful scenery, friendship, and yummy-looking food. The last two episodes of the 12-episode series follow the main characters, a group of high-school girls, on a Christmas Eve camping trip.

In "Christmas Camp!" the girls meet up for their planned excursion. Friends (and founders of the school outdoors group) Chiaki and Aoi arrive early and get ice cream at the store up the road. Rin (an experienced solo camper) arrives on her moped, but can't find anyone else, so she sets up her tent a little ways off. Nadeshiko (hyper enthusiastic newbie) gets dropped off by her sister and she and Rin talk about the plan to trade off making meals.

Chiaki and Aoi find firewood at the store and get Rin to come carry most of it on her moped. (Their adult chaperone spends most of these two episodes amiably drunk.) Rin's friend Ena ar…

The Gift of Winter (1974)

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The Gift of Winter is a 1974 Canadian television Christmas special with very low production values that inexplicably stars Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd.

Presented as an origin story for snow, the story concerns a group of characters setting out to lodge a complaint against Winter (presented here as sort of a cross between a pagan deity, an ice giant, and a bureaucrat) due to the relentless, bleak season. The characters - and I'll get to them in a moment - are hoping Winter will cancel his season altogether and replace it with more spring or summer.

Well, most of the characters. Two of them are planning to assassinate Winter using dynamite.

"Characters" is almost too strong a word. These are almost better described as caricatures of 70's archetypes. They have names like Goodly, Nicely, Rotten, Malicious... you get the idea. Their personalities are tied to their designs, which are best described as stylized doodles made by a four-year-old. That's not intended as a…

Daddy's Home 2 (2017)

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I've never seen the original Daddy's Home, mainly because I don't entirely hate myself, so I'm unable to offer any opinions on how this stacks up against its predecessor. I have, however, seen a elephant defecate, so I can provide some comparison there (said comparison is not favorable towards Daddy's Home 2).

I should mention that, as much as I despised this film, it managed to make me laugh a handful of times. I really, really didn't want to, but - to the movie's credit - there were a few scenes or jokes that really landed. They were exceptions, none of them came close to redeeming the film, and they mainly felt like the movie was mocking us by showing us what they could have made instead... but they were real scenes. I didn't dream them.

The rest was...

     God.

          Where to begin?

Maybe with the trailers. If you don't recall this movie, first of all, I envy you. Second, it's the one with the trailer where Will Ferrell kisses his fath…

The Christmas Visit / The New Year Voyage (1959)

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I'm not entirely sure how to label this short animated Russian holiday special from 1959. The New Year Voyage is a more accurate translation of the Russian title, but it was released in the US under the names "The Christmas Visit" and "A Christmas Tree." The version we saw was dubbed into English and explicitly set at Christmas, though the original took place on New Year's. This isn't at all surprising - it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in the Soviet Union when this was produced. Despite that, the special is filled with trappings and elements that would feel at home in American Christmas specials from the same period.

The story follows a Russian boy whose father is stationed in Antarctica. It's Christmas Eve (New Year's Eve), and the child is distraught his father is going to wake to Christmas morning (New Year's Day) without a Christmas Tree (New Year's Tree).

The kid grabs his decorated tree and heads outside in the hopes of find…

A Holiday to Remember (1995)

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I'm not trying to be clever when I call "A Holiday to Remember" forgettable: it's honestly just the first adjective that pops into my mind. It's been less than twelve hours since I subjected myself to this made-for-TV movie, and I'm already having a hard time recalling details.

A Holiday to Remember belongs to a sub-genre best called the Christmas melodram-rom-com. It sounds specific, but - trust me - there are millions of these things. It tries to appeal to everyone by encapsulating all genres simultaneously, but forgets to do any of them even halfway well.

If there's a reason this was made, it was likely to serve as a vehicle for country music star Randy Travis. This isn't quite his first acting credit, but it shows up early in his filmography. He plays Clay, one of the two romantic leads, though the narrative follows Carolyn, who's played by someone you've never heard of (Connie Sellecca is actually pretty good, at least compared to the ov…

Book Review: The Battle of Life

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We all know A Christmas Carol was a great success, but what about the stories that tried to follow it? Dickens released four more special Christmas volumes following the publication of A Christmas Carol. I'm reading through them all this year.


The Battle of Life: A Love Story
Charles Dickens, 1846

This third novella wasn’t as unfocused and odd as The Chimes or as charming as The Cricket on the Hearth. It was just sort of... there.

If anything, it’s even less Christmassy, as one important scene takes place at “the Christmas season” and the rest is vague, but probably not in winter.

The story takes place in a village that sits on the site of an ancient battle. Many characters make reference to the history, and the primary thematic conflict is between the older men who believe that in contrast to the past, life is “too easy” or “a joke,” and the young people, who believe that everyone is struggling in their ways, and just because their battles are of the heart does not make them less …

The Family Stone (2005)

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The Family Stone is a dramedy about... God, I can't believe I have to type these words again... a dysfunctional family celebrating the holidays together.

There are several things the movie does wrong, but one in particular is going to make it astonishingly hard to synopsize: it lacks a solid POV character. I think they were aiming for an ensemble cast, but the goal in those movies is to have multiple points of view - I'm not sure The Family Stone has any.

The closest actually might be Meredith, played by Sarah Jessica Parker. She's the new girlfriend of the titular family's oldest son, Everett Stone. The movie opens with her, and she gets a lot of screen time. But practically, she's closer to the comic relief than the lead. Parker plays Meredith to an over-the-top excess - she feels like she stumbled out of a farce without realizing everyone else is in a drama. And structurally, she's the false love interest, the wrong girl for Everett. He wants to marry Mered…

Holidaze: The Christmas That Almost Didn't Happen (2006)

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Holidaze: The Christmas That Almost Didn't Happen is a Christmas special you haven't heard of that features fantastic designs, gorgeously animated stop-motion, and an impressive cast. So why haven't you heard of it? Let me check my notes... Oh. Okay. Yeah, that makes sense. I wrote, "Writing matters."

The premise is that a reindeer named Rusty is depressed and unable to find his place at the North Pole. See, he has this famous brother with a glowing red-nose, and... yeah. Hold on. I need to check my notes again - I think I remember... Here it is. I wrote, "This has been done way better in the same medium." Like Robbie, this special isn't able to say Rudolph's name outright, but it implies it and alludes to the classic to a degree I was genuinely disappointed when I failed to find a reference to this being sued.

Holidaze: The Christmas That Almost Didn't have the worst name I've ever seen on a holiday special starts with Rusty trying to …

The Christmas Dinosaur (2004)

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The Christmas Dinosaur was a made-for-TV special about a boy who receives a dinosaur as an early Christmas present. Information about the special is sparse and inconsistent - I'm not even 100% certain this premiered in 2004. It was produced by PorchLight Entertainment, whose only credit I recognize is A Martian Christmas, another forgettable special we reviewed way back in 2010.

This seems to have aired a few times on Cartoon Network before vanishing into obscurity. Like a great deal of what we review, we found it on a clearance shelf and grabbed it out of morbid curiosity.

The story doesn't get much more elaborate than the premise. Basically, a boy who's been fighting with his younger brother receives a dinosaur egg in the mail. He opens it before Christmas, and it hatches into a pterosaur, which the kids hide from their parents. Working together, they raise the animal, which grows up in a week or so. There are a bunch of side plots that go nowhere involving the kids'…

Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas (2013)

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This review definitely needs to start with an aside:

What Tyler Perry, the creator and actor behind Madea, managed to accomplish is nothing short of awe-inspiring. He created a series of plays, films, and television shows that appealed to grossly under-represented audiences, and as a result, he's become one of the most successful producers in entertainment. His personal story is inspiring.

The fact I felt I needed to open with all of that isn't a great sign. God, I wanted this movie to surprise me. I went in knowing that Perry's work has never appealed to critics, but I really, really wanted to be able to offer a dissenting opinion.

No such luck - aside from a handful of good jokes and one or two compelling dramatic beats, this was an awful movie.

The film opens with Madea working in a department store along with her great-niece, Eileen. This segment is basically a prolonged excuse for Perry to ad-lib Madea farcically interacting with customers. The jokes didn't land …

The Christmas Chronicles (2018)

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We already reviewed The Christmas Chronicles on the podcast, but I wanted to collect some more spoilery thoughts I had on the plot and overall structure. Which means, if you haven't see the movie yet, you should hold off on reading this until you do. The Christmas Chronicles is a good holiday fantasy you're better off experiencing without knowing where it's going.

The movie opens by introducing its two main human characters, Kate and Teddy, through a montage of home movies. We also get a brief look at their parents, only one of which survives past the opening. In a refreshing change of pace, the parent still breathing is their mother (it's disturbing this is as rare a choice as it is).

Teddy and Kate's dad was a firefighter, and he died between Christmases, making this the family's first season without him. Their mom is a nurse, so she's stuck working long hours. And of course it doesn't help that her kids are at each other's throats. She just want…

Book Review: In Peppermint Peril

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In Peppermint Peril
Joy Avon, 2018

New Release! I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

I almost didn’t write a review for this book, because I sort of felt bad. Unless it’s a new pseudonym (completely possible) this is the first book by a new author. And it’s not horrible, it’s just sort of broken. It’s a mishmash of mystery tropes that doesn’t recognize why some work together and others don’t.

It’s a holiday mystery that has little to do with the holiday. It has Agatha Christie elements but only sometimes. It has many, many side elements that read like references to previous books (that don’t exist). Worst of all, it’s a cozy mystery with a boring main character.

Cozy mysteries live and die by their leads. Almost always female, commonly bakers or small business owners, most modern cozy leads have romantic plots with happy endings or they have husbands who endorse their part-time mystery solving. Not every mystery lead has to be a winner - usually you …

Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

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Just want to nip this one in the bud, in case anyone skimmed the title of the post - this is the 1994 remake, not the 1947 classic. I reviewed the classic (albeit briefly) back in the first year of the blog.

That said, you can't examine this remake without considering the original, so I rewatched the '47 film before putting this on. And... wow, there's a noticeable difference. It's like comparing apples to oranges after one of those two pieces of fruit passed through the digestive track of a reindeer.

Let me slow down. I'm being unfair to the '94 movie, which actually does have several merits. The two key cast members, Kris and Susan, are well cast in Richard Attenborough and Mara Wilson. Both did good work in their roles and manage to salvage the experience of watching this...

...Assuming you've never seen the original film. Because if you've seen the original, it's physically painful to sit through this thing. It's not so much a question of t…