Showing posts with the label 90's

Music Review: Solitudes Christmas Albums

I got a full-time job as an editor this year, which means that I often want to listen to music without words. This has lead me to many soundtracks and atmospheric albums, and eventually to rediscovering Solitudes.

Solitudes are a lengthy series of albums that mostly combine new-age-ish instrumentals with recordings of wildlife and natural soundscapes. The series was created by Canadian Dan Gibson, who created new techniques and equipment to improve wildlife sound recording.

I had a compilation in the 90s (Favorite Selections), but I’d forgotten all about it until recently. I think they make great background music for office work, particularly if, like me, you’d rather be out in the woods than in a cubicle.

And there are Christmas albums! Here are three you can easily access on Amazon (or YouTube. Seriously, there are a ton of quality long instrumental tracks on YouTube).

Christmas Wonder (1996 CD)

Overall this is my favorite of these three. The songs often evoke a melancholy frost or, …

Murder, She Wrote: The Christmas Secret (1992)

The secret of the title is half obvious and half boring. Just putting that up front.

Murder, She Wrote can sometimes be charming, and sometimes it can just be tedious. This is one of the latter. Angela Lansbury does her best to maintain unflappable enthusiasm and charm, but the story is downright dull.

We open in that deceptively peaceful Maine town, Cabot Cove, which is welcoming Charlie, a young veteran who is engaged to Beth, the daughter of a prominent family. Charlie is thrilled to be so embraced by the community, as he and his sister grew up in foster care. He has something important to tell Beth, and gives her a key to his hotel room so they can meet up later. Except they don’t.

Instead he finds a tape with a blackmail message on it, and he has dinner with Beth but doesn’t talk to her about anything important. We know that the son of Beth’s father’s business partner resents Charlie’s presence in town, but he’s a red herring.

There’s also another sketchy young man (Floyd) who…

Ronin (1998)

The number of action movies set at Christmas is staggering. You can add Ronin to the list, though this one is really only a technicality - the holiday elements are faint to the point of being nearly nonexistent. But, for whatever reason, it's established that it's set during Christmas, so we're reviewing it in the interest of being complete.

Ronin might be one of the 90's better action flicks, though that's really not saying much. It's a tense, realistic spy thriller that masquerades as a heist movie. We never get more than a first name for most of the movie's characters, nor do we really get a good sense of their motivations. It's a movie about secrets, so don't expect a great deal of emotional depth.

Set in France, it follows its lead, Sam, played by Robert De Niro. He's a former CIA agent hired by Irish terrorists to work with a group of mercenaries in order to steal a briefcase before it's sold on the black market to the Russian mafia. …

Christmas in Connecticut (1992)

Arnold Schwarzenegger has starred in dozens of movies, he's been the governor of California, and he is one of the most iconic actors who has ever lived. But, in his entire career, he's only directed one movie: the 1992 made-for-TV remake of Christmas in Connecticut. And how is this film? Well, it feels like it's a made-for-TV movie directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The story was updated to make Elizabeth a TV cook instead of a writer, and the titular Christmas in Connecticut a live televised event orchestrated by her manager. The other lead, played by Kris Kristofferson, is Jefferson, a Colorado Forrest Ranger whose log cabin burned down while he was rescuing a kid lost in a blizzard.

For reasons that are never adequately explained, the manager - who's standing in as Elizabeth's nonexistent husband - invites Jefferson to come early, so they can get to know him prior to the special. This is particularly confusing, as the manager's primary motivation is to cajo…

Animaniacs: The Christmas Tree (1998)

"The Christmas Tree" opened the third-to-last episode of the series. They tacked on the holiday opening, featuring snow over the credits, too, before starting the story. It doesn't run the full thirty minutes, but it takes up about 2/3rds of the half hour slot.

The other shorts included a Katie KaBoom bit about her negotiating the rules for going to the prom and a Deadline short built around Chicken Boo. The Deadline bit was fun, if a bit repetitive, but I've never really been a fan of the Katie KaBoom shorts. But neither of these are Christmas themed, so I've got nothing more to say about them.

Back to "The Christmas Tree." The story opens in a snowy forest with a giant pine tree being cut down by lumberjacks. There's a touch of toonish absurdity to the whole thing, but there's also a bit of sincerity in the holiday music and the expressions on the lumberjacks' faces. They hop in their truck and drive off, heading for New York, where...


Masterpiece Mystery: Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1994)

I know I read the book this is based on, I have the review to prove it, but I have no memory of it. A quick read of my review tells me it’s a common Christmas mystery plot - family gathering, locked-room murder of the head of the family. See also: The Santa Klaus Murder, 8 Women...

The episode opens with some unnecessary backstory to establish the twist ahead of time and confirm that Simeon Lee is a murderer and a rake, so we won’t care when he gets murdered. Then it jumps ahead to Simeon as an crotchety old bastard bent on emotionally torturing his spineless kids over the holidays. Everything is very by the numbers and all of these characters are morons.

Simeon made his money in diamonds, and a lot of the red herrings in the plot follow some uncut gems he receives. It’s funny, because uncut diamonds don’t look like much, so it’s hard to remember why everyone’s so wound up over them.

Finally we bring in Poirot, who is invited along to the holiday party because Simeon claims he “fears…

The Good Son (1993)

Once again, our tolerance for what constitutes a "Christmas movie" has been put to the test. This time, it's for entirely different reasons. Strictly speaking, The Good Son should meet our litmus test, as it seems to take place entirely around the holidays. However, that's really a technicality, as the producers don't seem to have realized that Christmas should be going on.

See, there's a line early in the movie establishing that the events unfold over "winter break." I'm assuming this was done to explain why no one needs to go to school. Unless there's another "winter break" I'm unfamiliar with, that means this should be set at Christmas. But at no point is the holiday referenced, nor are there any decorations or lights shown.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the winter break line was either an error or an artifact of an earlier draft, and that for all intents and purposes the movie was set over some mysterious …

Saved by the Bell, the New Class: Christmas in July (1994)

I’d like to say that we saved the worst for near the end on purpose, but it was just challenging to get a hold of this episode. It turns out that these DVDs are out of print for a reason.

Here’s what I know about Saved by the Bell: There was a character named Screech, and it must have come on after something I watched regularly, because the theme song is familiar.

Here’s what I know about Saved by the Bell: The New Class: When I was looking for Christmas in July television episodes, I found out that there was a spin-off of Saved by the Bell.

So, with that lack of knowledge in place, let’s begin.

This is a heavily Christmasy episode, which we appreciate, and it packs an impressive amount of plot into 22 minutes. It does this by making every line, beat, and sound effect exquisitely painful to experience, thus extending the subjective time spent watching.

I can’t say this enough: do not under any circumstances watch this show. Making it was a waste of electricity, props, and craft servi…

Road to Avonlea: Christmas in June (1995)

When we borrowed this DVD from the library, I wasn’t sure whether I had seen this show. It turns out that my confusion is because the Disney Channel just called this show “Avonlea,” because the opening sequence was definitely stored in my deep memories.

Avonlea, or Road to Avonlea, is sort of a spin-off of Anne of Green Gables, based loosely on other L.M. Montgomery stories and produced as a joint production between a Canadian television station and the Disney Channel. That should be enough to give you an idea. It’s a melodrama, a soap opera safe for children, following the citizens of Avonlea through the vagaries of their lives.

However, I don’t remember this episode at all. It mostly focuses on Cecily King. I have some memory of her mother as a character, but I don’t remember her. (Aha, Wikipedia tells me that the character’s actress switched around this time.)

Cecily has tuberculosis, like you do if you live in the early 1900s and need some extra drama. She has been taken into a p…

Rugrats: Angelica Orders Out/Let It Snow (1997)

I know that kids in most cartoon shows never age, but that convention seems especially creepy when you’re talking about infants never growing old enough to try to speak, even though they have experienced (at least once) both Christmas and summer.

This is technically a Christmas-in-August, but it counts for our purposes. Christmas in July tropes include an off-season photo opportunity and characters who believe it’s Christmas when it isn’t.

Incidentally, the first half of the episode isn’t Christmas, just an example of unfunny children’s television in which Angelica gets in trouble for pretending to be an adult on the phone.

In “Let It Snow,” the babies see Tommy’s Grandpa decorating a Christmas tree. Grandpa explains to the adults about taking a holiday photo in time to have cards done, and some obvious foreshadowing is laid around a bag of old toys intended for donation.

The babies think the presence of the tree must mean it’s Christmas, but there aren’t any presents. Some extreme…

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

I'd been meaning to rewatch Edward Scissorhands for a while, though I bumped it back because I was a bit skeptical of its status as a holiday movie. Now, I feel pretty confident describing it that way.

The movie opens with a brief frame story of an old woman telling a story to her granddaughter. Since we're talking about holiday connections, I'll add that it's snowing outside and the patterns on the wallpaper bear a resemblance to the Star of Bethlehem.

We soon cut to Peg Boggs, an Avon saleswoman going from door-to-door in a town of pastel houses laid out on a curved road ending in a cul-de-sac. It's a sunny, bright day in what looks like a suburb of LA in the 1960's. When she doesn't have luck with her neighbors, she turns her attention to a giant castle atop a dark mountain that sits just beyond the cul-de-sac.
You really have to admire Burton's flair.
She drives up and discovers a courtyard of stone gargoyles and meticulously maintained topiary bus…

Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree (1995)

Relatively unknown Christmas specials are often either terrible or boring, but this one has Muppets! Muppet specials are usually good, right? Not this time. Well, nuts.

In truth, this short special isn't terrible, but it is rather boring. The plot is from a book, and I would venture without checking that the book was short and mostly pictures.

It follows a mouse family in search of a 'perfect Christmas tree' for their holiday celebration. They choose a section at the top of a very tall tree, but then the whole tree is cut down and they go along for the ride. The big tree is for Mr. Willowby's 'perfect Christmas tree', but it's too tall for the room. The top third or so is cut off and sent upstairs to be the housekeeper's tree. The tree is too tall. The top is cut off and thrown out the window, where it's picked up by some bears for their celebration. Still too much tree. The top of their tree is taken by a group of owls, and the very tip is cut of…

Sailor Moon R: Venus: Minako's Nurse Mayhem (1993)

I have been watching through Sailor Moon as the new subtitled version has been coming out over the last two years (167 episodes and counting!), and this is the only Christmas episode I know of.

It's not a great episode, just middling, being mostly filler.

It's Christmastime, and the city is all decorated, but a terrible flu is going around and all but one of the Sailor Senshi is sick in bed. Minako (Sailor Venus) is the only healthy one in the bunch, so she's been going around to her friends' houses to help them feel better.

Unfortunately, she's a terrible nursemaid, and a large part of the episode is slapstick surrounding her attempts to cook a good meal or put on soothing music, only to get the spices completely wrong or blow up the stereo. Really, you need skill to fail this badly.

When Mina gets to Usagi's place, she finds that Chibi-Usa is feeling okay too, but she's frustrated that no one will let her help while the family is sick. Maybe because sh…

Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas (1999)

This direct-to-video special comes from a particular time in the history of the Disney company. When it came to anything starring classic Disney characters, they hadn't yet embraced a modern sense of humor or story, but had rejected any edge or depth inherent in the early cartoons.

This results in stories so bland they could be animated entirely in beige.

Of course, the animation is actually bright and crisp. It's the writing that's so painfully inoffensive as to end up nothing but drivel.

The special consists of three separate pieces linked by some dull, poorly written rhymes read by Kelsey Grammer.

The first piece is a variation on the 'Christmas Every Day' story, which we've seen before in many forms. It features Huey, Dewey and Louie as the kids who wish for it to be Christmas everyday after they have a great holiday with Donald, Daisy, Scrooge and an over-emotional aunt character who I've never seen before. Unlike many times I've seen this story,…

I'll Be Home For Christmas (1998)

I'm having a very hard time resolving how lazy the construction of the individual scenes of this movie was with the fact that the premise was a relatively ingenious re-imagining of The Odyssey built around an eighteen year old trying to get home for the holidays. It's worth noting I'll Be Home For Christmas did this a few years before O Brother, Where Art Thou? got a lot of attention for a similar gimmick (though - needless to say - O Brother did it much, much better).

Jonathan Taylor Thomas plays Jake, the Odysseus character. Like his archetype, he's a pathological liar and conman. At the start of the movie, Jake is at college in Los Angeles, along with his girlfriend, Allie, who comes from the same town on Long Island (it's a plot point later that her family only lives a few blocks from his). If this seems absurdly unlikely, it's worth noting that you'll also have to suspend your disbelief around the film's portrayal of college, a place where nerds a…

Mrs. Santa Claus (1996)

Here's a quick quiz for you:

How do you feel about:
Old-School Movie Musicals? 
A: Love 'em B: Like some C: Meh

Broadway Musicals? 
A: Love 'em B: Like some C: Meh

Feminist Themes?
A: All kinds, all the time, it's even okay if they're slightly awkwardly handled
B: Passing the Bechdel Test is good
C: Only when impeccably researched/in documentaries

Angela Lansbury? 
A: Goddess of theater and film
B: She's pretty great
C: I only like her most of the time

Give yourself two points for every A, one for every B, an extra four points if you have a daughter younger than 12 who would answer A on two or more of the questions, and an extra point for every one of these names you recognize: Jerry Herman, Bob Mackie, Rob Marshall, Mark Saltzman.

If you score 8 or more, see this film. (My score is 11 out of a possible 16.)

That's a long way of saying that this movie may not be great cinema, but it can have a lot of appeal to a particular demographic. I found it incredibly charming, w…

The Cosby Show Christmas episodes (1984, 1989, 1991)

It's difficult to convey how influential and important The Cosby Show was. It easily belongs on a short list of most significant sitcoms ever produced. In addition, it was quite good. The humor holds up extremely well, as do many of the emotional character moments. Moreover, in portraying a funny, successful black family living the American dream, The Cosby Show helped tear down stereotypes. The fact that it was extremely successful while doing so demonstrated a wide audience for diversity in entertainment.

Of course, all of this has been overshadowed by the revelations that the series's lead and mastermind spent decades drugging and raping women. Repeats of the show have been pulled almost everywhere, but we were surprised to discover it on Hulu.

Surprisingly, The Cosby Show included only a handful of Christmas episodes, none of which fit the traditional holiday archetypes. There were three we located set around Christmas, though only one was particularly focused on this fac…

Grace Under Fire Christmas Episodes (1993 to 1997)

Grace Under Fire was a sitcom from the 90's, which already tells you a great deal about what you're getting into. This one was built around the comedy of Brett Butler, who stars in this as a divorced mother raising three kids in a Missouri.

Watching this, I was immediately overtaken by a sense of deja vu. I remember these actors and sets, despite having no memory of seeing an episode.

Keeping Faith (1993)
The A-plot in this episode concerns Grace's sister, Faith, who's hospitalized at the start. Grace and her friend, Russell, drive to the hospital in Alabama to meet her, which leads to a series of run-ins with people who remember Grace from high school, despite her having no recollection of any of them. This is easily the weakest part of the episode: while the recurring joke is occasionally funny, the over-the-top characterizations of the locals gets a bit too cute. When Faith enters the picture, things improve. The sisters bicker constantly, and the actresses play off…

101 Dalmatians: The Series: “A Christmas Cruella” (1997)

Whoa. I have seen episodes of this show, but that was many many moons ago. So I was cringing a little and expecting this to be awful. Unexpectedly, it was fairly delightful.

Plot-wise, it’s a pretty standard Christmas Carol riff, but the writing and voice acting made it work really well.

After a brief intro with a cute joke about puppies being able to smell what presents are through the wrapping paper, we dive straight into Dickens, with Cruella (briefly in a fabulously ridiculous Christmas-tree dress) as Scrooge. She hits all the classic notes: why should people have the day off, cruelty to carolers, charity workers and the homeless, and she fires Anita. The show adds a few excellent nonstandard moments, however (for example she also exults in Christmas as a glorious celebration of capitalism, and she turns snowmen into snow devils by hitting them with her car).

Cadpig (one of the main puppies in the show) appears as the Ghost of Christmas Past and takes Cruella through several of…

101 Dalmatians (Animated - 1961; Live Action - 1996)

When you think of classic Christmas movies, Disney's animated 101 Dalmatians doesn't jump to mind, which is actually a little odd. Setting aside the first couple of scenes, the entire movie takes place immediately before Christmas, the majority of the film is about the titular dogs wading through a blizzard, and the finale occurs on Christmas day. Oh, and it's about getting a family back together.

It is, in fact, a Christmas movie through and through.
It just doesn't act or feel like one. Most of that discrepancy can be tied to fact the movie isn't interested in Christmas. Until that last sequence, the holiday is only name-checked once, and then in an ambiguous manner. Likewise, we don't see any decorations during the dogs' quest.
The 1996 live-action remake is a little more complicated. It's difficult to say for certain, but the timing of the movie seems to be slightly offset. The scene before the dogs are kidnapped has "The Christmas Song" …