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What I Watched In… December 2015

Star Wars Episode 7-The Force Awakens

Favorite of the Month-Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. Magic Christmas Tree (1968), F; RiffTrax Riff, B+
2. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), A
3. It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown (2015), B+
4. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970), B
5. Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas (1999), B
6. A Madea Christmas (2013), D+
7. One Magic Christmas (1985), C
8. The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About Christmas (2012), C+
9. I’ll Be Home For Christmas (1998), B-
10. The Christmas Dragon (2015), C
11. Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace (1999), C
12. Christmas With RiffTrax: Santa’s Village of Madness (2012), B+
13. The Story of Santa Claus (1996), C
14. Mrs. Santa Claus (1996), B
15. Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones (2002), C-
16. Krampus (2015), A-
17. Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith (2005), C+
18. Gremlins (1984), A-
19. Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), A
20. Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), A+
21. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), A
22. The Munsters’ Scary Little Christmas (1996), C
23. Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), A
24. Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), A
25. Babes in Toyland (1961), B
26. Becoming Santa (2011), B+
27. Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972), F; RiffTrax Riff, A-
28. Elf (2003), B+
29. A Muppet Family Christmas (1987), B+
30. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977), A-
31. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), A
32. The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), B+
33. It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (2003), B
34. I Believe in Santa Claus (1984), D-; RiffTrax Riff, B
35. Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A
36. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), A+
37. Die Hard (1988), A
38. A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa (2008), B+
39. A Christmas Story (1983), A
40. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), D-; RiffTrax Riff, B+
41. Home Alone (1990), A
42. Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992), B
43. Joyeux Noel (2005), A
44. Her (2013), A
45. King of Thorn (2009), B
46. The Purge (2013), C-
47. The Purge: Anarky (2014), C+
48. Home (2015), B
49. Shakespeare in Love (1998), A-
50. Good Burger (1997), B-
51. What We Do in the Shadows (2014), B
52. The Muppet Movie (1979), A
53. The Cocoanuts (1929), C
54. A Night at the Opera (1935), A
55. Horse Feathers (1932), B
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What I Watched in… December 2015

Favorite of the Month: I Am Santa Claus

Favorite of the Month: I Am Santa Claus

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. I Am Santa Claus (2014), A
2. Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year (2002), B-
3. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), D; RiffTrax Riff, B+
4. Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever (2014), D-
5. Home Alone (1990), B
6. Journey to the Christmas Star (2012), C+
7. The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t (1966), C+
8. Babes in Toyland (1986), D
9. The Crucible (1996), A
10. A Flintstone Christmas (1977), B-
11. Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), B+
12. Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A
13. A Merry Friggin’ Christmas (2014), B
14. Ernest Saves Christmas (1988), B
15. Bad Santa (2003), B
16. The Santa Clause (1994), B+
17. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), A
18. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), A+
19. A Christmas Story (1983), A
20. Arthur Christmas (2011), A
21. Love Actually (2003), A
22. Stage Fright (2014), B
23. Foodfight! (2012), F
24. Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014), B

2014: The Year in Film

Favorite of the Year: Captain America-The Winter Soldier

Favorite of the Year: Captain America-The Winter Soldier

It’s been quite a year. I got married. My wife and I put together a little home together. I directed one play, I’m currently in rehearsals for another. I wrote a new book that — God willing — will be available relatively early in 2015. And in the meantime, I managed to see a few movies.

Not all the movies, mind you. There are still several 2014 releases I haven’t seen yet, often because the aforementioned activities got in the way of my movie time. I still haven’t seen Boyhood, for instance, and I’m dying to. I’m delinquent in keeping up with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, and despite all my efforts to the contrary, I’ve yet to get around to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

So consider this list highly incomplete. These are all the films from 2014 that I have seen, in order of my favorite to my least favorite. This includes direct-to-video and made-for-TV movies. I’ll leave comments for the ones where I have comments to leave.

  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Marvel has had a good year — a good couple of years, actually — but this to me was the movie that really elevated their universe beyond simple superhero action into something with greater depth and meaning.
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Similar to Captain America, this film took what Rise of the Planet of the Apes began and ran with it, creating a larger world and a highly intelligent, powerful science fiction film.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy. This was just pure fun.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past. Easily the best X-Men film to date, and so good that it actually erases some of the sins of the previous films.
  • The LEGO Movie. Again, pure fun, but with a surprising amount of heart to it.
  • Gone Girl. Incredibly tense and engaging.
  • Interstellar. One of the most engaging, entertaining pure sci-fi films in years
  • Godzilla. Fantastic reboot of the franchise.
  • Edge of Tomorrow. Great movie hurt by atrocious marketing.
  • Big Hero 6.
  • Stripped. Fine documentary about the comic strip form.
  • I Am Santa Claus.
  • St. Vincent.
  • Doc of the Dead. Interesting documentary about zombie fiction.
  • Stage Fright. Little seen but actually entertaining musical horror comedy about a slasher killer attacking a theater camp. It’s on Netflix streaming right now. Meatloaf is in it.
  • A Merry Friggin’ Christmas. One of Robin Williams’s final performances, alongside Community‘s Joel McHale.
  • Son of Batman.
  • Justice League: War.
  • Mr. Peabody and Sherman.
  • Big Driver.
  • Chilling Visions: 5 States of Fear. Okay anthology, but the premise holding the segments together is paper-thin.
  • JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time.
  • Maleficent. Could have been a great remake from the villain’s perspective, but a horribly invasive voice over and some poor performances really hurt.
  • Print the Legend.
  • Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
  • Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. The original remains one of my favorites. This film seems like further proof that Frank Miller has lost his mind.
  • Robocop. Unnecessary, lifeless remake.
  • Lucky Duck. Treacle-filled animated kiddie film I watched with my niece. Just because a movie is targeted for children is no excuse for making it bad.
  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2. After a first movie that I thought was just as good as — maybe better than — the Toby Maguire films, I couldn’t believe how utterly this one fell apart.
  • I, Frankenstein.
  • Happy Christmas. “Hey, you know all those dull, unscripted movies about obnoxious people who can’t get their lives together? Let’s make one at Christmas. And put Lena Dunham in it.”
  • Sharknado 2: The Second One. In fairness, they weren’t trying to make a good movie. They succeeded.
  • Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever. All I can say is that the title was accurate.

Santa Week Day 4: Tim Allen in The Santa Clause (1994)

Santa ClauseNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: John Pasquin

Writers: Leo Benvenuti & Steve Rudnick

Cast: Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Wendy Crewson, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz, Larry Brandenberg, Mary Gross, Paige Tamada, Peter Boyle, Judith Scott, Frank Welker

Plot: Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) is your typical Christmas movie businessman, an executive who just doesn’t seem to have time for his son Charlie (Eric Lloyd), putting the burden of the parenting task on his ex-wife Laura (Wendy Crewson) and her new psychiatrist husband, Neil (Judge Reinhold). After a disastrous Christmas dinner, Scott and Charlie hear noises outside. When Scott goes to investigate, he sees a man in a Santa suit on his roof. Startling him, the Santa slips, falls from the roof, and dies. I would like to remind everyone reading this that we are discussing a PG-rated Disney family film.

Scott finds a card in Santa’s pocket that instructs him to put on the Santa suit, and that “the reindeer will know what to do.” He looks up to see a sleigh and reindeer on the roof, then back down to find the Santa suit, empty of its late owner. The reindeer whisk Scott and Charlie from house to house, and Charlie convinces his father to put on the suit and take over Santa’s job. When the night ends, the reindeer bring the Calvins to the North Pole. The head elf, Bernard (David Krumholtz), gives Charlie a snow globe and explains to Scott what he’s gotten himself into: the card in Santa’s pocket was a legally-binding document with a clause – a Santa clause, get it? — stating that when Scott put on the Santa suit, he took on the job of Santa Claus. Bernard tells him he has 11 months to get his affairs in order before returning to the North Pole to prepare for next Christmas.

As school starts again, Charlie begins telling everyone his dad is the new Santa Claus. Laura and Neil try to logically convince him that Santa doesn’t exist, and when Scott tries to tell him the same thing, he blanches at the idea of ruining his son’s Christmas spirit and, instead, asks him to keep it a secret. Scott starts gaining weight, growing a beard, and watching his hair turn white. He has an insatiable desire for sweet, sugary food. Laura and Neil, worried that Scott is forcing a physical transformation to keep Charlie’s affections, petition with the court to revoke Scott’s visitation rights. Scott visits him anyway on Thanksgiving, as Bernard arrives to take him to the North Pole. They take Charlie with them, and the police find themselves on a search for the boy abducted by Santa Claus.

Charlie introduces several new innovations that Scott employs on Christmas Eve, and together they go out to make their rounds, but he’s nabbed by the police when he visits Neil’s house. The elves break him out and they return Charlie to his mother. Laura realizes Charlie has been telling the truth, and she burns the custody papers, inviting Scott to visit any time he wants. The police – and everyone else on the block – arrive just in time to see Scott take off from the roof in his sleigh. Later, after everyone has left, Charlie summons Scott back with Bernard’s snow globe, and Laura gives her blessing for him to join his dad for a quick ride in the sleigh.

Thoughts: The English teacher in me has great reason to despise this film. For the past 20 years, we have been subjected to outbreak after outbreak of people spelling Santa Claus’s name with an “E” at the end, and I place the blame for that squarely on the shoulders of Tim Allen and the Walt Disney Corporation and Shadow Government. However, in the interest of cinematic integrity, I promise to try to put that righteous anger aside for the remainder of this article, that I may discuss The Santa Clause in an unbiased fashion.

This was Tim Allen’s first big movie role, breaking from his hit sitcom Home Improvement, although the differences between Tim Taylor and Scott Calvin aren’t as pronounced as you might hope. Early on the film relies on a lot of Allen’s TV shtick – for example, a scene where he destroys Christmas dinner turns into an impromptu demonstration on why to keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen. Santa’s trademark “Ho Ho Ho” sounds suspiciously like the Tool Time grunts Allen used on his show-within-a-show. Even the director of the movie, John Pasquin, is a veteran of Allen’s sitcom (and would team up with him on many other movie and TV projects over the years).

That’s not to say his performance was bad. But it’s very different from pretty much any other version of Santa Claus. That’s understandable. This is one of the movies that plays off the “Santa Legacy” trope (more on that soon), so Allen isn’t exactly playing the same character as Edmund Gwenn, John Call, or David Huddleston. Rather than playing the Santa Claus, he’s playing a man who is attempting to accept his new role as a Santa Claus. It’s a fine distinction, but it’s one worth making, and it allows Allen a little more leeway in creating his own character instead of living up to the idea of Santa Claus. What’s impressive, then, is how he slowly transforms over the course of the film. He begins as a grumpy cynic who wants to maintain the magic of Christmas for his son, but eventually converts to a joyful, jolly manifestation of holiday spirit. Wearing a fat suit.

Although Allen was still, at this point in his career, relying on his same gags, the writing on this movie is really kind of clever, once you get past the unintentional Santacide. Charlie misunderstanding “The Night Before Christmas” leads to a cute gag about the “Rose Suchak Ladder Company,” for instance. Eric Lloyd is actually the heart of the movie – he’s the one who propels Tim Allen along when he wants to give up, whose faith never waves, who steadfastly believes in Santa Claus despite all evidence to the contrary. Far too many adults forget his simple lesson that “just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

It also brings in a theme I don’t think ever appeared in a Santa movie before this one – making the core of the story a father/son relationship. This isn’t exactly a movie about “saving Christmas” like so many of them are, but it’s about Scott and Charlie finding one another again and crafting the relationship they almost missed out on. Sure, there are a lot of stories out there about fathers and sons, but not too many of them deal with Santa Claus, which makes for a nice thematic departure in your holiday viewing.

One odd thing in this movie – and not just this one, but it seems to be an idea that’s been permeating for a few decades now – is the idea of Santa Claus not being any one particular man, but rather a legacy passed on from one individual to another. Sometimes the new Santa must be chosen by the old (such as in 1988’s Ernest Saves Christmas), sometimes it’s hereditary (as in the film we’re going to watch tomorrow), and sometimes, like in this movie, it seems entirely at random. But we’ve been seeing it over and over again, and I’m not entirely sure why. If I had to hazard a guess, it may be a sort of unconscious effort on the part of Hollywood to make Santa Claus a bit more “realistic.” After all, the notion that a Turkish priest from the 3rd century has been hanging around handing out presents for the past 1800 years is far less preposterous if you accept the fact that somebody else takes over the job every so often, right?

No, of course that isn’t right. For Heaven’s sake, we’re talking about a mythology full of flying reindeer, time-space dilation, naughty and nice surveillance techniques that would make the NSA drool with envy, and the most efficient postal system in the world… but immortality is the concept that people can’t deal with anymore? Nonsense. The weird thing is, when you apply this same logic (as many fans do) to the James Bond franchise, I absolutely love it – I think it makes perfect sense. But aside from having impeccable fashion sense, Bond and Santa Claus really don’t have that much in common.

Wow, that was a wild tangent, even for me.

Anyway, although the writing of the movie holds up, the special effects don’t, and it’s kind of inexcusable. Just a year earlier, we were treated to CGI dinosaurs in Jurassic Park that were entirely believable. Comparing that to the weak greenscreen effects for the flying reindeer or the jet-powered Elf rescue squad makes it look even more ridiculous. Even Santa Claus: The Movie, released nine years earlier, had more impressive flying scenes. And c’mon – the scene with Scott and Charlie being followed by reindeer at the zoo would have been pathetic by 1970s standards.

Santa’s workshop, at least, is impressive – cleverly designed and brightly colored, although it has an oddly shiny, modern feeling to it. In a unique choice, most of the elves are played by children, and the kids are actually pretty darn good. The elves are immortal (but Santa can’t be? – sorry, not going there again) but appear eternally youthful, and the kids in the cast do a surprisingly good job of acting like old souls in young bodies. Paige Tamada as Judy, in particular, is impressive. She was 11 when this movie was released, but she gives off an air of someone much older and more mature. She winds up lapping Allen, becoming a sort of mentor, even motherly figure to him, which is funny on the face of it, but a darn impressive feat when you consider the demands on the young actress.

Although the sequels to this movie – particularly the third one – dilute the story terribly, this first installment is really quite sweet, quite charming, and worth watching as Christmas rolls around. And from what I’ve seen of the TV schedule, if you turn on your set right now there’s a 97 percent chance that at least one of the movies in this franchise is currently playing on ABC Family.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Santa Week Day 1: Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Miracle_on_34th_StreetIcons is back, guys, for a week-long look at one of the greatest characters ever to grace the screen… Santa Claus!

Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: George Seaton

Writers: George Seaton & Valentine Davies

Cast: Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood, Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, William Frawley, Jerome Cowan, Philip Tonge, Jack Albertson, Alvin Greenman, Harry Antrim, Porter Hall

Plot: Shortly before Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a charming man calling himself Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) discovers the Santa Claus Macy hired has arrived stone cold drunk. Horrified, he reports the problem to parade organizer Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), who in desperation hires Kris to take his place. Kris turns out to be a huge hit, and he is offered the job as Macy’s store Santa for the Christmas season. Single mom Doris returns home to find her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) watching the parade with their neighbor, lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne). Fred tries to bond with Susan over fairy tales, but Doris has raised the girl to be strictly pragmatic, not believing in such foolishness as giants or Santa Claus.

Kris turns the store upside-down when a child requests a toy Macy’s is sold out of, and he tells the boy’s mother which competitor still has some in stock. When word reaches toy manager Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tonge), he’s briefly outraged until he realizes the goodwill Kris is generating is turning the parents into loyal customers. In fact, everyone starts to fall for Kris’s charms – even the stoic Susan is stunned when she overhears him speaking Dutch to a lonely child who is new to America. Doris asks him to explain to Susan that he’s merely an employee, but he surprises her by insisting that he is, in fact, the real Santa Claus. Shocked, she’s about to fire him, until R.H. Macy (Harry Antrim) congratulates her on the “new policy” of redirecting customers to other stores. Still nervous about his stability, she arranges for him to be examined by the store therapist, Mr. Sawyer (Porter Hall). Sawyer is the only person not taken in by Kris’s charm, immediately deciding the kind old man is potentially dangerous.

Macy’s policy of directing customers to other stores becomes so popular that competitors begin following suit, and Kris takes advantage of his proximity to the Walker girls to continue bonding with Susan, hoping to convince both of them of the reality of Santa Claus. He gets enraged, though, when he finds out that Sawyer has been analyzing his friend Alfred (Alvin Greenman), loading him with nonsense about hating his father and guilt complexes. He angrily confronts Sawyer, striking the therapist with an umbrella. He’s played straight into Sawyer’s hands, giving him the opportunity to paint him as dangerous and forcing him into a competency hearing.

Fred Gailey quits his law firm in order to represent Kris, and the trial becomes front page news. The Judge (Gene Lockhart) finds himself walking a thin line, not wanting to be the man to rule there is no Santa Claus in an election year, and Fred cleverly makes the District Attorney admit that Santa exists. The trial now rests on his ability to prove that Kris, himself, is the legitimate Santa Claus. He brings in one character witness after another, even Mr. Macy, to testify on Kris’s behalf. Things dangle precipitously in the air, though, until a pair of mail clerks see a letter addressed to Santa Claus at the courthouse (from one Susan Walker, who is writing to tell him she believes in him now). The clerks see an opportunity to dump the mountains of Santa Claus mail in their dead letter office, and send them all to Kris Kringle. In a magnificent finale, Fred argues that if the United States Post Office – a department of the Federal Government – recognizes that Kris Kringle is Santa Claus, the courts must do so as well. The judge agrees and Kris is set free.

On Christmas morning, at a party at the home where Kris lives, Susan is disappointed that she doesn’t see a sign of the present she asked for, and her faith in Kris is shattered. Kris gives Fred directions on a “shortcut” home, and on the way, Susan spots her present: a house she saw in a magazine. And, as Fred notes to Doris, it’s for sale. As they look at the house, they find Kris’s cane leaning in the corner, and Fred has to question if he really was such a fantastic lawyer after all.

Thoughts: I couldn’t possibly spend a week talking about Santa Claus in the movies without starting here, the quintessential performance of the character. Perhaps the most amazing thing about it, though, is that the movie is couched in such a fashion that you’re not supposed to be entirely certain if Kris really is Santa Claus or if he’s just a sweet-hearted lunatic. Obviously, with nearly 70 years of loving the film behind us, I think most people have taken it to heart that Kris was legitimate, that the magic he brings to the role is all real, but that doesn’t mean it was intended that way, that’s part of the baggage we’ve assigned to the film over the years. It’s earned baggage, though, earned by Edmund Gwenn and his flawless performance.

Gwenn has a timeless quality about him. He’d be perfectly suitable in a Santa story set in Victorian England or modern America, but he made Christmas in New York circa 1947 an extraordinary place. He relishes every moment in the role, whether suited up in red or walking down the street in a topcoat. (Speaking of red, do the world a favor and don’t watch the colorized version of this. It’s an abomination on to Rudolph. Stick with the glorious black and white.) He won an Oscar for this part, as best supporting actor, although I find it hard to imagine he wasn’t up for lead. The film, incidentally, also won “best writing, original story” and “best writing, screenplay,” and was nominated for best picture, losing to Gentleman’s Agreement. You guys have all seen Gentleman’s Agreement, right? Show of hands? That’s what I thought.

A word, if I may, about the history of this movie. When it was released in 1947, it actually came out in May, and the marketing did its best to hide the fact that it was a movie about Santa Claus, instead trying to make it appear like a simple romantic comedy about O’Hara and Payne’s characters. Word has it the studio head was convinced that more people see movies during the summer, and didn’t want to wait until the holidays to release it. It just goes to show you that short-sighted movie executives are nothing new. The film would have been moderately successful as a romcom, I suppose, but can you possibly imagine it having the longevity or cultural impact it did if it wasn’t a Christmas movie? Hell, can you even imagine what the plot would be without Kris Kringle? A May release? It’s practically insane.

The rest of the cast is very good, though. Maureen O’Hara and John Payne are a classic screen couple, with the kind of old fashioned glamour that you just don’t see in movies these days. Modern audiences may want to assign some sort of creepy attitude towards Gailey – he does, by his own admittance, start to befriend Susan in an effort to win over Doris – but he never comes across as inappropriate or sleazy. What’s more, the chemistry between Payne and young Natalie Wood is one of the high points of the film. There’s a sort of frustration that comes along with his attempts to convince the child that Santa Claus is real, and that’s something a lot of adults struggle with as the world their kids grow up in gets more and more cynical. It rings very true, very honest.

The bit players are fantastic too. Porter Hall as the nasty Mr. Sawyer is the closest thing the film has to an antagonist, and he sells the part solidly. Jerome Cowan as the District Attorney gets some really plum scenes, such as the one where his own son is called to testify to establish that even he has admitted Santa Claus exists. Gene Lockhart as the judge helps carry the film to its conclusion, and I Love Lucy’s William Frawley as the Judge’s campaign manager brings a touch of modern politics that keeps the film from becoming too saccharine.

This movie has been remade from time to time, including a particularly famous remake in 1994 starring the great Richard Attenborough, but nothing comes close to the sweetness and joy of the original. (And, to be honest, I simply can’t forgive them for the way they changed the absolutely perfect ending.) Accept no substitutes this Christmas, friends – stick with the original.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Festive Firsts: I Am Santa Claus (2014)

I am Santa ClausNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Tommy Avallone

Featuring: Mick Foley, Russell Spice, Jim Stevenson, Bob Gerardi, Santa Claus

Synopsis: This documentary follows five very different men with the same important job – when Christmas rolls around, they put on the red suit and hat of Santa Claus. The movie shows approximately a year in the life of these Santas, all of whom come from wildly different circumstances, but take the viewer on a sweet, beautiful journey together.

Thoughts: I’ve never written about a documentary here at Reel to Reel before, because on the surface they don’t exactly fall under the aegis of what I started this blog to write about. I like to follow film trends and story structure and how one influences the other, and in a true, well-made documentary, most of those standards don’t apply. A documentary should, in essence, point a camera at reality and show the viewer what the world is like with as little structure or manipulation from the filmmaker as possible, regardless of trend or trope. I do like documentaries, however, very much, and when this one turned up in my annual Christmas movie binge-a-thon, it hit a chord with me that left me extremely anxious to talk about it.

As I said in the synopsis, I Am Santa Claus is about the journey of some department store Santa Clauses over the course of a year, leading up to the Christmas season. It’s one of those documentaries that takes a long look at something that is out there, in the real world, under our noses all the time, but that few of us ever really stop to think about. The movie lets you in on a lot of what it means to be an itinerant Santa, the realities of job hunting, of learning to be a Santa Claus, and of what kind of spirit it takes to essentially give up your own Christmas season in order to bring a little magic to other people. It also gives you a sense for what Santas all over the world must feel – at one point Santa Jim (who, it should be pointed out, has no real family of his own) starts to break down a little as he tells the story of how he once took a picture with a four-day-old child, and thinks about the fact that he’s going to be a part of this other family’s Christmas memories long after he has gone. It’s just one of many strongly emotional moments in the movie, and the waves of emotion coming from Jim pull the viewer I like few other movies, scripted or otherwise, that I’ve seen this year.

At the same time that director Tommy Allevone tells you about the mutual experiences of all Santas, he gives you five nicely individual stories as well. One Santa lives in his daughter’s basement, unable to afford any other accommodations. Another spends his time mostly alone, missing his boyfriend, who lives 700 miles away. A third is so dedicated to the role that he’s had his name legally changed and dream of the day he’ll own his own restaurant – where he’ll be Santa year-round.

The thing that may pull a lot of people to this film who wouldn’t otherwise spend their time on a documentary about 21st century Santas, though, is the story of Santa Mick, aka Mick Foley, the former WWE superstar also known as Mankind. I’m honestly not a wrestling fan – I never have been – but even I’ve heard of Mick Foley, so it was a bit of a surprise when I discovered this gargantuan man known for a pretty brutal form of entertainment has transformed himself into the gentle symbol of the Christmas season. In fact, the movie focuses on Mick’s first time out as Santa, and shows him in a light so inexplicably sweet that you genuinely start to tear up as you watch him interact with the children. They don’t know squat about Mick Foley, they don’t care about any wrestling championships, all they know is that they’re staring up into the eyes of Santa Claus, and that hits you right in the gut. Mick himself (who, it should be mentioned, is one of the movie’s producers as well as one of the subjects) comes across as someone with an endearing, lovely heart, and his desire to spread that love as Santa Claus never for a second feels contrived or put-upon for the cameras. It would be easy to dismiss him, to say that being a producer it’s easy for him to act the role or demand the cut that shows him the best in front of the cameras. I’m telling you though, friends, if he is acting in this movie, then he’s the best actor to come from the ranks of professional wrestling since Andre the Giant, because I bought it entirely.

I should mention that this is not a family film. Although the core of it is sweet and kind, there is some harsh language, a good bit of sexual conversation (most – but not all – about the rather unconventional lifestyle one of the Santas leads), and most importantly, it’s a movie that shows you exactly how Santas are made. Watching men bleaching their beards or limping along with a full-size candy cane as they try to make ends meet may well kill the magic for a small child. For older folk, though, I think it actually does an awful lot to bring the magic back.

The movie is currently available on Netflix streaming, as well as for rental on other VOD services, and for purchase on DVD and Blu-Ray, so check it out if at all possible. It’s one of the most unexpected – yet most charming – Christmas movies I’ve seen in a very long time.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

What I Watched in… November 2014

Favorite of the Month: Big Hero 6

Favorite of the Month: Big Hero 6

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. Trick ‘r’ Treat (2007), A
  2. Big Driver (2014), B-
  3. V/H/S 2 (2013), B-
  4. Snowpiercer (2013), B
  5. In a World… (2013) B+
  6. Print the Legend (2014), B-
  7. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), C
  8. Edge of Tomorrow (2014), B+
  9. Liberal Arts (2012), B-
  10. The Antics Roadshow (2011), D
  11. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), B+
  12. Jay and Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie (2013), F
  13. Interstellar (2014), A
  14. Big Hero 6 (2014), A
  15. Bettie Page Reveals All (2012), B-
  16. Barbarella (1968), D
  17. The Initiation (1984), D
  18. The Wall (2012), B-
  19. Transylvania 6-5000 (1985), B
  20. The Last Slumber Party (1987), F; RiffTrax Riff, B+
  21. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), B+
  22. Free Birds (2013), C
  23. Fun in Balloon Land (1965), F; RiffTrax Riff, B
  24. ThanksKilling (2009), F
  25. Pumaman (1980), D-; MST3K Riff, A
  26. Happy Christmas (2014), D
  27. Lego DC Comics: Batman Be-Leaguered (2014), B+
  28. Bridgend (2013), B
  29. Christmas With the Kranks (2004), C+
  30. The Holiday (2006), C

What I Watched In… December 2013

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

This being the December list and me being a big Christmas nerd, you’ll notice a trend here, both in feature films and in shorts and specials. Try to act surprised.

1. Scrooge (1970), A
2. Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983), A
3. Yodelberg (2013), B
4. The Hockey Champ (1939), B+
5. Pluto’s Christmas Tree (1952), A
6. The Art of Skiing (1941), A-
7. Corn Chips (1951), B
8. The Sound of Music Live (2013), B-
9. A Christmas Carol (1984), C+
10. Scrooged (1988), A-
11. Frosty the Snowman (1969), B+
12. Mickey’s Magical Christmas: Snowed in at the House of Mouse (2001), C+
13. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1993), A
14. A Flintstones Christmas Carol (1994), B
15. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), A
16. Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales (2002), B-
17. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys (2001), D
18. A Chipmunk Christmas (1981), B+
19. An All Dogs Christmas Carol (1998), D+
20. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), B+
21. Christmas Comes to PacLand (1982), C-
22. The Smurfs Christmas Special (1982), C
23. ‘Tis the Season to be Smurfy (1987), C
24. He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special (1985), D
25. Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer (2000), C+
26. The Alpha-Bots Christmas (2004), F
27. The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), F; RiffTrax Riff, B+
28. A Christmas Carol (1999), B+
29. Christmas Carol: The Movie (2001), F
30. A Christmas Carol: The Musical (2004), B+
31. A Christmas Carol: Scrooge’s Ghostly Tale (2006), D
32. A Sesame Street Christmas Carol (2006), C
33. The Adventures of Huck Finn (1993), B+
34. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989),  A
35. Bah Humduck! A Looney Tunes Christmas (2006), B
36. A Dennis the Menace Christmas (2007), C+
37. A Christmas Carol (2009), B-
38. Mister Scrooge to See You (2013), C-
39. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985), B+
40. Home Alone (1990), B+
41. White Christmas (1954), A
42. Babes in Toyland (1961), B-
43. Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas (1997), B-
44. Ernest Saves Christmas (1988), B
45. The Second Honeymooners Christmas Special (1978), B-
46. A Garfield Christmas Special (1987), B+
47. Shrek the Halls (2007), B
48. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), A
49. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), A+
50. Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A+
51. Love Actually (2003), A
52. A Christmas Story (1983), A
53. Frozen (2013), A
54. Saving Mr. Banks (2013), A

Scrooge Month Day 20: David Ruprecht in MISTER SCROOGE TO SEE YOU (2013)

Mister Scrooge to See You 2013Director: Steven F. Zambo

Writer: Steven F. Zambo

Cast: David Ruprecht, Matt Koester, Shannon Moore, Curt Backlund, William Beglinger, Nancy Ferdyn, Tyler L. Johnson, Jeff Johnstone, Daniel Koester, Torry Martin, Arlensiu Novelli, Rick Richter, Karen Spiegelberg, Chris Taylor, Ken T. Williams

Notes: I thought it would be fun to end Scrooge Month with a different tale of the character. In Mister Scrooge to See You!, David Ruprecht plays the former miser one year after his redemption at the hands of the ghosts. This time out, Jacob Marley (Rick Richter) sends him on a mission of his own, casting him into the distant future to save the embittered soul of Timothy Cratchit VI (Matt Koester), who has lost the very Christmas spirit his ancestor helped restore to Scrooge

Thoughts: This is by no means the first time someone has attempted a sequel to A Christmas Carol. There have been versions that show Tiny Tim as an adult, Marley getting redeemed himself, and all manner of stories featuring the older versions of these characters. This one is a cute enough film, if obviously made on a low budget. The greenscreen effect use to insert Marley into the shots is crude, the footage looks cheap (although that’s probably an ironic effect of using digital video rather than actual film), and the performances are straight from an amateur production of… well… A Christmas Carol.

Of the cast, David Ruprecht’s Scrooge is the best performance. In one scene he pulls off a fake-out on Bob Cratchit before making him a full partner in the firm of “Scrooge and Cratchit,” and he’s pretty convincing both as the nasty miser he used to be and as the cheerful soul he’s become. Ken T. Williams’s Bob Cratchit isn’t bad either – still a bit downtrodden, but a man who has happiness in his heart. It really shows in that same scene, when he gives Scrooge a gift of the original Tiny Tim’s no-longer-needed crutch.

In the present day, Tim VI’s life has matched that of Scrooge in several neat ways. Now a wealthy developer, he comes back to his hometown to buy up the property. There he runs into his own girl that got away, coincidentally named Belle (Shannon Moore), who is running her little diner into the ground by giving free meals to homeless citizens who drive off other customers. What’s more, Tim’s company now owns the mortgage on Belle’s diner and he’s there to shut her down if she can’t meet her back payments by Christmas. (Does anyone else find it odd that the companies in these movies always set a Christmas deadline? I’m not a businessman, but isn’t the first of the month more traditional for this sort of thing?)

Belle (Belle Dickenson – aaaah? Get it?) is in trouble, but Tim’s soul is in far worse shape. He’s greedy, nasty, and frequently spouts slightly-altered versions of Scrooge’s classic pre-redemption lines. He comes across here even more actively malevolent than Scrooge usually does in the traditional versions of the story.

Scrooge is mysteriously transported to the present day, where he meets up with Belle and learns how Tim is planning to shut down her company. Unfortunately for Tim, Scrooge still has the paperwork marking him as a partner in Scrooge and Cratchit Financial, and uses it to block Tim. He begins to turn the company around, driving Tim crazy while making everybody else in town merry as can be. Once we hit this mark, where Scrooge starts driving Tim insane, the film actually gets entertaining. There are some great comedy beats where he’s integrating himself into modern society, and a few fine mirrors of his own time while Tim gripes and complains about all Scrooge’s efforts to bring Christmas down upon him.

The movie ends with a surprising twist – surprising in the sense of “utterly ridiculous and impossible to believe.” On the other hand, it does prevent the movie from having the same ending as 90 percent of these movies do, so I’ve got to appreciate it for that if nothing else.

The story actually isn’t bad – it’s at least as good as the endless carbon copy made-for-TV movies that turn up on the Hallmark Channel this time of year. It would be nice to see what would happen if someone with a budget got their hands on this script. This is pleasant as a diversion, but a talented filmmaker could probably make something really memorable out of it.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Month Day 19: Jim Carrey in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009)

Christmas Carol 2009Director: Robert Zemeckis

Writer: Robert Zemeckis, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Daryl Sabara, Bob Hoskins, Molly Quinn, Fay Masterson, Fionnula Flanagan

Notes: This was the third film from director Robert Zemeckis in which he used his motion capture process to animate in 3D, following The Polar Express and Beowulf and preceding Mars Needs Moms, which flopped so painfully that his animation study was shut down. Although a fairly straightforward retelling of the story, he employs a lot of the motion capture tricks he’d used in previous films, such as using the same actor to play different characters opposite himself or at various ages. Jim Carrey, for example, plays Scrooge at every stage of his life, as well as all three of the Ghosts, using the logic that the ghosts are extensions of Scrooge’s own soul. Okay, I can buy that. Gary Oldman, meanwhile, plays both Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim and – for some reason – Marley, while Robin Wright plays both Scrooge’s sister Fan and the love of his life, Belle, which has some disturbingly Freudian implications.

Thoughts: Once there was a little boy named Robert Zemeckis. Robert made great movies in a far-off land called the 1980s, but as the 21st century began, he fell in love with a pretty girl named “Motion Capture CGI.” They had four children together before they broke up, and of the four, this is probably the best.

Part of it, let’s be honest, is the source material. A Christmas Carol is by far more classic than Zemeickis’s first or last motion capture films, and while Beowulf is a classic in its own right, he took too many liberties with that one (Grendel’s mom is hot? That’s sick.) for it to really rank. Here, though, he takes a legendary tale and gives it a pretty decent polish that makes it worth revisiting at this time of year.

One of the interesting things that Zemeickis pulls off is creating characters recognizable as the actors that play them while still giving them enough of a twist to work as animated figures. Carrey is clearly visible inside Scrooge, but his elongated nose and chin would look silly in real life. Gary Oldman can be squished down to play a short little Bob Cratchit, Colin Firth can be puffed up a bit so Fred looks comfortably plump. Carrey can also be seen in each of the three ghosts. It’s an odd choice, to have him portray the three of them, and I’m not entirely convinced of the point Zemeckis was trying to make, but Carrey’s performances as the ghosts are just fine. Christmas Past is light and airy, Christmas Present is enormous and bombastic. Christmas Yet to Come… well, he’s barely there, and that’s a good thing.

This version is also a good bit scarier than many of them, and at the same time, more in keeping with the original Dickens. Marley’s head wrapping – which was actually a tradition at the time to keep a corpse’s mouth from hanging open – comes loose, and his jaw opens up to a horrific degree. As he howls at Scrooge his mouth rattles around like something out of a zombie movie. Christmas Present doesn’t just age, as he often does, he withers away until there’s nothing left but a skeleton, its teeth chattering with maniacal laughter. Then there’s Christmas Yet to Come, who shows up initially just as a shadow – Scrooge’s shadow, in fact, in a warped and twisted form. We don’t really see much of a physical form for him at all, in fact, which is terribly effective. This is about as scary a version of A Christmas Carol as I’ve ever seen.

The scenes with the three ghosts are pretty by-the-book, but done well. In fact, one of the few times where Zemeckis’s love affair with his computer (more on that later) really works is when Scrooge is facing Christmas Present. Rather than teleporting him to the other locations, as he usually does, he turns the floor in Scrooge’s house transparent and we watch as they “fly” from one place to another. The visuals here – throughout the Christmas Present sequence, really – are absolutely top-notch, and are an example of what Zemeckis can do with his CGI at its best.

There are a lot of good things about this movie, but Robert Zemeckis brings the same problems to this as he did with all of his motion-capture films. First, and most problematic, the characters are largely expressionless. He can make a character move like a human, but he hasn’t mastered the skill of putting feeling into their eyes, which makes them seem somewhat stiff and lifeless. It’s the classic Uncanny Valley problem writ large.

What’s more, Zemeckis was so in love with the technology that he often did things just because it was possible that didn’t really add anything to the story. There’s an extended sequence where Scrooge – for absolutely no reason – is shrunk to the size of a mouse and whips around London. It reminds me of the scene from The Polar Express in which a train ticket is taken by the wind and blown around. It looks good, but ultimately, it’s a meaningless scene that doesn’t go anywhere or do anything. In both instances, I felt like I was watching the film of one of those motion simulator amusement park rides, which is pretty dull when you’re in a stationary seat. Zemeckis does similar things several times throughout the film, to the point where it starts to get actually obnoxious when you sense the first few seconds of the next such sequence.

It’s actually a shame that he never quite got a handle on how best to use this sort of technology, because when it works it works well. But like George Lucas dropping in added effects to the Star Wars special editions, Zemeckis got so excited that he could do certain things that he never stopped to think about whether they should be done. The result is like going to an industrial sawmill to cut a single two-by-four in half. It’ll work, but it’s overkill, and there are much better ways to do the same thing.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!