Showing posts with the label Documentary

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas (2017)

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas is a Canadian documentary/musical ostensibly chronicling the influence several Jewish songwriters had on the holidays. I say "ostensibly" because - somewhat appropriately - the documentary itself seems to go through an identity crisis. It's difficult to summarize what the final product is, since it feels like the purpose and core idea must have changed a few times during production.

I'll back up. This opens with a quick introduction from the filmmaker, Larry Weinstein, who grew up fascinated by Christmas, a holiday he never felt like he could participate in. But from the start he lets us know this isn't quite accurate: his family had Christmas traditions built around avoiding the obvious trappings. He briefly explores the roots of the traditional Chinese meal enjoyed by many Jewish families at the holidays.

A little too briefly, frankly. This is an interesting topic in itself, but Weinstein glosses over the history. This is going t…

Tree Man (2016)

Tree Man is a documentary about one of the merchants who travel into New York City every year to run a Christmas tree stand. The movie is difficult to review because it's more an exploration of character and place than a story. It would work well as a companion piece to I am Santa Claus or Becoming Santa - this aims to do for tree salesmen what that did for Santas.

To its credit, it mostly succeeds. The central character, Francois, is intriguing, as is the expanded cast of seasonal help and rival sellers. There's a seemingly endless line of loyal customers ready to tell the camera why they keep returning to buy from Francois - he's energetic, enthusiastic, and friendly in public. In private, the movie gives a glimpse of the toll this lifestyle's taking. He's been at this for years, which means he's missed those holidays with his family.

A large portion of the movie focuses on New York itself, and it does a better job than most films in capturing some of the co…

Loose Canon: Santa Claus (2016)

I stumbled across Lindsay Ellis's YouTube channel somewhat randomly, and it almost immediately became one of my favorites for essays on movies and pop culture. Stylistically, I'd describe it as a blend of a great college lecture and an energized barroom discussion.

Like most successful YouTube channels, it's broken into several ongoing series. One of these, Loose Canon, examines a character or concept as it reoccurs in media. Ellis has made installments on figures as diverse as Starscream and Hades - she's not constraining herself to any specific type of character.

Of course, we're a tad more limited in our focus here, so we'll be looking at her episode on Santa Claus.

It opens with some backstory on the character, summarizing three of the most significant figures who were compiled into the modern day incarnation. She condenses the history and origin of Santa Claus about as succinctly as I've ever seen. Then she moves onto The Night Before Christmas before…

Mainlining Christmas Ruins Adam Ruins Christmas (2016)

I've seen several episodes of the series, "Adam Ruins Everything" and I've enjoyed it quite a bit. That said, I think it has a tendency to fall into a similar trap that often snared Penn and Teller's Bullshit: it challenges a common, oversimplified narrative and replaces it with a less common, oversimplified narrative. In the process, you get a decent amount of trivia, but if you accept the episode's conclusions are completely true, you're really no better off.
With that in mind, I'd like to try a slightly more meta approach to the Christmas episode, which contains clever humor and some interesting information, but doesn't really paint any more accurate a picture of the holidays than the one it deconstructs.
The episode, as usual, is broken into segments examining different aspects of the holiday. The first takes on the subject of the non-Christmas roots of several Christmas traditions, including low-hanging fruit like the absence of evidence of …

The Great British Baking Show: MasterClass: Christmas (2016 PBS)

I have enjoyed what I’ve seen of The Great British Bake Off (aired as The Great British Baking Show in the U.S.). I love how friendly and good-hearted the competition is.

It’s an elimination-based baking competition that takes place over ten weeks. This is one of the spin-off specials that are formatted more like a cooking show. The two judges from the show, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, make recipes to inspire the viewer.

I’m not sure whether I was inspired to try any of these, but if nothing else, it was interesting to see some British holiday desserts. There’s no pudding here, but nearly all of the desserts involve fruit and custard and I think everything involves alcohol.

The six recipes outlined in this hour are a pavlova (meringue and custard); spiral buns containing dried and fresh fruit and jam; a fancy trifle, a turkey, ham, and leek pie; a ridiculously pretty thing made of sponge cake, pastry cream and candied orange slices; and a pandoro (Italian sweet bread/cake).

The f…

Very British Problems at Christmas (2015)

Very British Problems is a show based on a book based on a Twitter account, but don’t write it off because of that. It stars an array of comedians and celebrities, mostly British with a few from elsewhere who frequently work or live in Britain. These folks give short accounts to the camera of their experiences of the unwritten social rules of British society. A narrator provides context and ties the different interviews together under various broad subjects.

If you’ve seen the first season, there isn’t much in this Christmas special that isn’t addressed elsewhere, but if you haven’t, it’s probably a fine sample of the series.

The accounts of ridiculous social awkwardness around gift exchange or hosting a party are amusing because all the speakers have a sense of humor about it. It can also be heartening to those that have been there. I’ve read accounts of folks who have social anxiety finding this show reassuring -- hearing that other people (most of a country) feel the same way abou…

Mr. Christmas (2012)

Mr. Christmas is a short documentary about Bruce Mertz, a retired electrician in Concord, California who spent more than three decades building elaborate holiday light displays in his yard. At a cursory glance, his display wasn't much more impressive than hundreds of other throughout the country: there were animated displays, a large number of bulbs, and the whole thing was synced to music - we've seen thingslike that.

What set Mertz apart from those wasn't scale - his yard was modest-sized, even if he filled it with lights - it was artistry. The documentary only provides a brief look at how he built and maintained his display, but it's incredible to see. There's no laptop managing the whole thing: it's all done using analog dials and timers. And all the pieces were made by Mertz himself, down to the paint covering the lights (he wasn't satisfied with the longevity of the color on store-bought lights, so he developed his own paint mixture).

The documentary…

Passion For Truth Ministries: Truth Or Tradition (2012)

When right-wing pundits rant about "The War on Christmas," there's one group they always leave out, and that's Christians who boycott the holiday due to its pagan roots and lack of Biblical origins. These groups are incredibly inconvenient for both sides of the holiday debate: the right wants to paint a picture where atheists are attacking Christmas, and non-Christians certainly don't want them as allies (these groups tend to be even more hell-fire and brimstone than the ones they're battling). But Christians who don't celebrate Christmas are a significant group - about 5% of Protestants fall into this category.

I'm going to be considerate to these people and say that Jim Staley's reasons shouldn't be considered representative for the larger group.

Staley is the pastor for "Passion for Truth Ministries." He seems to be trying to recreate a more primal version of Christianity inline with what its founders believed. This 2-hour video,

I Am Santa Claus (2014)

I am Santa Claus is a documentary exploring a number of professional Santas' lives throughout the year. The subject matter is very reminiscent to that explored in Becoming Santa, though the perspective is slightly shifted. Both are fantastic documentaries, but I actually think this was a little more interesting.

There were five primary Santas in the movie, in addition to countless minor characters. The movie chose some fairly unique subjects to help you keep them straight, no easy feat given that everyone in the movie is working to become the same character.

The most famous subject is Mick Foley, a professional wrestler with a lifelong love of Christmas and St. Nicholas. Like Jack Sanderson in Becoming Santa, he's playing the part for the first time. The documentary introduces the juxtaposition between his former image and his new role, though it's hard to lend much credence to his violent performance: the man comes off as infectiously nice and gentle-hearted. In addition,…

Becoming Santa (2011)

I stumbled across this on Netflix, where it stood out like a sore thumb. I'm used to seeing Christmas stuff there, of course, but this really jumped out at me. Why? Netflix, for those who don't know, gives everything an estimated rating, based on your personal ratings of things you've watched previously. So in a sea of items marked with one or two stars, this was rated at four. We put it on before we even realized it was a documentary.

The movie follows the adventures of Jack Sanderson as he sets out to become one of the countless Santa Clauses who appear every Christmas. Occasionally, the documentary cuts away to interviews with a slew of experts and Santas who have been at the game longer.

There's an awful lot to like here. The documentary begins with Jack having his beard and hair bleached, a process that turned out being pretty unpleasant (well, unpleasant for him - it was hilarious to watch). He then took a two-day course in becoming Santa Claus and headed to the…

Extreme Christmas Trees (2011)

We came across this on Netflix and watched it on a whim. It's essentially a series of segments about Christmas trees and Christmas tree-inspired displays judged by TLC to be "extreme."

The first segment is about a thirty-two foot tall Christmas tree that gets wedged into the Biltmore House by hand. There was a ridiculous amount of pageantry surrounding this: they actually drove it up the house in a horse-drawn carriage, a choice that almost led to disaster because horses, unlike trucks, don't have an emergency brake.

The narration was particularly egregious while the tree was going up: they tried to ratchet up the tension. "With victory just a few feet away, the unimaginable happens." For those of you following along, the unimaginable was that they ran into a moderate snag which they quickly corrected before any damage was done. Of course, they did - these people are professionals, and they can get the job done even if they have to do so without machines, …

O Christmas Tree (2005)

"O Christmas Tree" is a PBS documentary made in 2005 (or 2006 - it's seems to be a little difficult to get the date clarified). Lindsay and I found it at the local library and picked it up on a whim. The description claims it "traces the history of the Christmas through the ages - from its origins as a pagan symbol of fertility to a Christian symbol of rebirth." Technically, there is a section of the DVD devoted to that, but it's about as in depth and comprehensive as the sentence above: there's very little meat to that or anything else the documentary touches on. It's slightly less educational than the Frosty sequels with a fraction of the production values.

But that's not important. All you need to know is that this thing is the Plan 9 of Christmas documentaries. It's completely fucking hilarious.

First of all, it's narrated by Richard Karn. Don't bother with IMDB: he's Al from Home Improvement. And he just phones this in. Eve…

Nature: Christmas in Yellowstone (2006)

Hey, Christmas is even in the title! This totally counts!

I love Nature. Even if you don’t, I recommend you watch the first part of this. It has one of my favorite scenes that has ever been on Nature or any other nature program, ever. It’s the part with the fox. I love it. I’m not going to tell you more.

The rest of the program is great too. It follows animals searching for food and shelter in Yellowstone National Park in the dead of winter. Bison, elk, wolves, bears, birds, otters and humans all make appearances. I was actually surprised how much I liked following the photographer Tom Murphy as he showed how he camps out in the snow, both to get amazing photos and just because he loves the area. The scene with the people who came out with telescopes to look for wildlife on Christmas day was pretty fantastic as well.

The narration tips over the edge into pretentious once or twice. By and large I’m willing to overlook silly narration in a good documentary, but the bit about the solst…