Media in Review: December 2020

BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY (2001)

Kicked off the Christmas season with my teen daughter’s first viewing of Bridget Jones’ Diary. It’s possible it’ll be her last, but maybe—while she’s still under my roof anyways—she’ll join me come Christmastime and I won’t have to watch “all by myself.” I believe she said it was “cute.” It is a little sexy, for my taste, as in there is a lot of casual sex involved in the characters’ lifestyles, which, among other things, provided a little awkward tension while viewing and doesn’t quite jive with my own life. On the other hand, it is a really straight-forward romantic comedy (based on a Jane Austen novel; funny/feisty young woman looking for a man but keeps falling for ones that are not so nice, then accidentally falls over right guy but must lose him a few times before the end) that has become famous—a cult classic of sorts with some surprising awards and a secure place in England’s pop culture— for the epistolary/New Years’ resolution telling and the general quality: it is standing the test of time. There are two sequels: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and Bridget Jones’ Baby. I believe that all three are based on books by Helen Fielding. (Review of the first one HERE.) I watched the second one years ago and was SO irritated that we had come back to the same tired love triangle, that I couldn’t enjoy it. And when I heard the third movie revisited the same love triangle (again!?) I just avoided it altogether. For what it’s worth, Bridget Jones was a movie I saw at a time in life when I was building my own traditions AND I’m an Anglophile, so it is a favorite holiday movie of mine—a romantic comedy I can snuggle up with under a pile of wrapping paper and fake mimosas, year after year.

CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES 1 and 2 (2018 and 2020)

Image from IMDB.com

Last year, The Christmas Chronicles (stupid name, yes) popped up on our Christmas movie radar; a new offering from Netflix that was getting some attention for its’ being decent. We watched it. Everyone in the family liked it okay enough to recommend it to the cousins. It really is an acceptable Christmas movie, full of secular-Christmas cliches and iconography, about a pre-teen girl and her teen sibling who are still suffering from the death of their father. Though one of them is dubious, they end up in Santa’s sleigh, which crash-lands so that the unlikely kid heroes must save Christmas before the sun rises. It involves Kurt Russell (and an appearance by his wife), a jazz number, some animated elves, and all the obvious things, including the ending. Everything is fine. There’s not much to deter you from watching it, but it won’t necessarily go on our nice list.

So we figured, this year why not watch the new sequel: The Christmas Chronicles 2. Because it’s a sequel, that’s why, and it falls prey to all the things that make sequels often terrible, except for the appearance of the original actors and the addition of Goldie Hawn. It’s an under-edited and poorly written piece of blech. Seriously, it was way too long and way too obvious and even lacked the charm of the first one, try though everyone is. It attempts to be funny, and it’s not. It attempts to be moving and falls flat. You can actually see the actors trying so hard to hoist this behemoth on their shoulders and hold it up, but it just plain doesn’t work. Sure, there’ll be kids who like it, just like some kids like Barney. But it’s not great entertainment, and I had a hard time finishing it.

THE GREAT CHRISTMAS BAKEOFF

Image from radiotimes.com

There are a handful of holiday specials orbiting in the Great British Bake-Off system, and one of them is The Great Christmas Bake Off. (Another, I just found out, is The Great New Year Bake Off.) Held for the last few years, 2020 was no exception. I have watched, in the past, all The Great British Baking Show: Holidays episodes, as well, which are from the old PBS days and feature Paul and Mary showing us how to make holiday bakes at home. The newer holiday episodes are just one-episode competitions reminiscent of the usual bake off, themed around the holidays and featuring recognizable faces from past seasons. If you like Great British Bake Off, you’ll probably like these, too, though you have less time to get invested in the bakers and also more time to want to keep watching. Forever one of my favorite food shows, and one of my top two favorite food competitions (with Iron Chef America), it’s always in good fun and meant to be a little funny as well as full of candy for us baking geeks. You’ll deplete the “series” pretty quickly, but it’s there for a seasonal GBBS fix.

CHRISTMAS COOKIE CHALLENGE (2017-)

Image from amazon.com

As much as I am not a Ree Drummond fan, I am constantly drawn back into her through her food and projects. Drummond is the head, recurring judge of Christmas Cookie Challenge, but thankfully is not the host; she leaves that to Eddie Jackson (at least for some of the seasons. Can’t remember. Did it begin as Jonathan Bennett?) On it’s fourth season in 2020, each episode is its own competition between five bakers who have to make impressive-tasting and -looking cookies to win. There is a structural challenge every time, and don’t be thinking it’ll be gingerbread houses because it’s bound to be more off-the-wall, like a box filled with presents or an advent calendar. It’s a cute, calm, little show, fine for the holiday season and especially for thinking about what you might want to bake for your friends (though we’re mainly talking roll-out cookies like sugar, shortbread, and gingerbread). When it’s not a pandemic. And you still have friends around. Maybe next year…

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)

I have seen this movie, probably once or twice over the years, but have never gravitated back to it on my own. I don’t know why not. The pacing, perhaps? It is a little slow and drawn out. But I love Jimmy Stewart on the screen and this is such an iconic and enduring story. Something reminiscent of A Christmas Carol but with an angel instead of the ghosts: small town, early twentieth-century hominess instead of Victorian spookiness. In a nutshell, George Bailey has had a nice, quiet life in a small town full of people who love him, but that’s not at all what he ever wanted. Every time he tries to take off for adventure, duty and circumstance hold him back, and since he can’t be cold-hearted, it’s his own fault that he’s stuck where everything (mostly finances) is now falling apart (thanks largely to the town patriarch and bully). It’s about a mid-life crises and about dreams that don’t pan out, but the first and final scenes take place against the backdrop of Christmas. There are some wonderful scenes in this old-fashioned gem, and I would definitely recommend it for at least a one-time viewing.

HOME ALONE (1990)

Technically, I already reviewed this movie HERE, but it was pretty short. Plus, now that my son’s first viewing has made it into an annual tradition, I have a slightly different opinion of it. I love how it brings me back to the nineties, for one thing, from the clothes and hairdos and home decoration choices to the airports and religion and family life, etc. And as little Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) has grown further and further from my own age, I find him to be rather a cute, little nugget. I am less surprised by his antics and more endeared by his survival techniques. He’s a “funny kid,” as his dad says, and not funny ha-ha. Yes, the ending is predictable and the acting hokey and the comedic turns silly and unfeasible, but this one—soaked in Christmas-ness—is still a great family movie to watch together and has inspired booby-trap movies of the following decades, because how childlike and cool is that?

NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION (1989)

Image from Amazon.com

I can’t believe I’ve never reviewed this movie. It is, with Elf, my favorite Christmas movie and perhaps the movie I have seen most in my life. (I believe I’ve seen it every December since I was a child). Now, speaking of the child in the 80s thing, I can’t believe this was thought okay for kids in the 80s, though I have had it postured to me that perhaps, in its TV versions, some of the stuff was cut out. I dunno. Different times. I mean, it is really tame for National Lampoon, actually, but there are scenes that I still skip for my teens, to this day. Just some sexy stuff. And there is definitely some swearing. I also wonder how this movie would seem to someone who didn’t grow up with it. Probably they would think it was funny and entertaining. Those of us who did grow up with it find it funny and entertaining and nostalgic and unifying and perhaps a little soothing. We can recite all the important lines with the characters. My husband and I were Todd and Margo two Halloweens ago, and there are any number of characters or situations in this movie that are part of our culture and our shared discourse. In other words, it’s a classic. Maybe the most classic of the modern Christmas movies. It is funny, and even touching amidst its slight irreverence. And the situations just never get old.

LOVE, ACTUALLY (2003)

I find this an unlikely candidate for the Christmas pantheon, but in the years following its release it endured and is now one of the most-watched Christmas movies. Taking place during the holiday season, this British blockbuster weaves together ten different plot lines with characters that connect (sometimes barely). The idea is to present love in its many forms, from familial relationships to affairs, from marriage to blooming love, from office crushes to business partners, from children to old men. Also to celebrate love. Some of the plotlines are better than others, though the way they jump in and out through the film is part of what makes it nice. And some of the plotlines even come with their own distinct genre: drama, comedy, romance, family, etc. Not a family movie, it is one that will continue to endure because it is entertaining, engaging, and at times, shockingly well-acted. (Emma Thompson’s scene during the Joni Mitchell song is, though subtle, arguably the best bit of acting I’ve ever seen.) It’s also filled with top-billed names, and though it is a bit of fun when Hollywood or elsewhere releases one of these “ensemble cast” movies every once in a while, this one is better than almost all of them. I mean, you’ve got Snape and The Hobbit and Darcy and Schindler… the list goes on and on, and it is well-acted, well-written, well-directed, and well-edited. Despite some plotlines being a bit too sexy for my taste (though one of them is contrastingly chaste: you’ll have to watch it to see what I mean), this is one for young to middle aged women to watch year after year after year.

JINGLE JANGLE (2020)

Image from IMDB.com

Depending on who you are, you looked at that title and thought about representation and children, or teens and drugs. Perhaps an unfortunate name for a brand-new, Christmas-released children’s movie, jingle jangle also refers to a drug (perhaps related to heroin) on the popular show, Riverdale. So, yeah, awkward. Nevertheless, I was ignorant until I rented the movie and sat down to watch it with the whole family and my daughter said, “What?!.” We were skeptical about it being more than a kid’s movie, and in many ways we were right: this is definitely geared toward kids and doesn’t have too many grown-up tie-ins (besides the obvious and not especially poignant.) Jingle Jangle does have a few things going for it, though. First, it is one of a bevy of recent releases under the “representation matters” wave, and this one not only draws from Black actors to act in it, but also incorporates a distinctly Black personality and ethos, mashed together with some sort of Victorian-era steam punk. The music. The characters. The interactions. The look. They are especially reminiscent of both African and African American culture, but set in a fantastical place and time. Second, people break into song and dance, so it’s a musical. For me, it wasn’t quite musical enough, but I did really enjoy this about it. And third, the CG is so realistic, that amidst the “real-skin” actors and scenery, it’s hard to believe it is CG at all. While I liked Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium more than this somewhat lackluster tap-dance, it’s a good family movie for movie night, guaranteed. Oh, and I forgot four, the costumes. I wouldn’t be surprised at an Oscar nod for costumes. I totally want to wear what they’re wearing, and indeed, have seen sweaters a la the main character popping up on clothing racks, left and right.

THE FAMILY STONE (2005)

Image from Amazon.com

This movie made multiple appearances on lists when I was looking for the best Christmas movies for a blog list. It sounds good, trips over the tongue, so to speak. But when it started, I had this strange feeling of deja vu which only deepened as I continued. That never strikes me as a good sign, since it probably means I have seen the movie but didn’t bother to mentally file away anything about it. Still, I watched on for the review and also because I was curious about why it made absolutely no impression: it didn’t seem to be a bad movie, so far. With what I found to be an interesting combination of actors (popular at different times and for vastly different things), The Family Stone (yes, it’s both an object and a name) tackles a quintessential holiday movie topic: family; love or dysfunction? I guess I enjoyed it, but it was hard for me to see why it would make the best holiday movies list. There are things that might grow on you, but over all, it felt blah, mostly because of the writing. And the speed at which the boyfriend-swapping happens. Totally weird and unfulfilling. I also think that everyone plays their parts too well, so that you can’t find it in your heart to love them: they end up being caricatures. Ehn, okay. Not my favorite and I can see why I found in forgettable.

RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (1939)

Image from Amazon.com

I can’t believe this TV special has been airing since the 30s, but it has. One of the annual specials that we used to wait anxiously for every Christmas and then hunker down in the family room to watch as a family, I can not completely separate myself from the nostalgic experience of it. I mean, if you just happened upon this today and watched it, you would find some good in it, but you’d also probably find it strange. And there’s a whole lot of story to tell in less than a half-hour, so it moves whip-lash quick. I can’t help but think that it was subversively addressing being gay waaaaaay before that was the cool thing to do, as well. But I could be wrong. Anyhow, you have a couple of misfits, some daddy issues, and forbidden love, and it’s all framed in a monster-out-to-get-them and save-Christmas double-whammy, along with a few quick tunes and stop-motion animation effects that are, obviously, laughable today. Still, I watch it and will continue to do so.

A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983)

Image from TVGuide.com

This movie is so authentic to the time of its story (the 60s), that I often forget it was made in the 80s. But it makes sense, because the narrator is a grown man telling the story of a memorable Christmas holiday—memorable, but typical. Another movie that many of us grew up with, it has also worked its way into our Christmas consciousness, with leg lamps and “fra-jee-lay” and pink, bunny pajamas and the Bumpuses’ dogs, etc. It does really make me feel like I have time travelled, somehow; the illusion is pretty complete. The story is interesting enough: a maybe-ten-year-old boy wants a BB gun for Christmas, but his fretting mother says he’ll shoot his eye out, a sentiment every adult seems to share. The set-up is a series of seasonal incidences from dealing with a bully, daring someone to stick their tongue to frozen metal, visiting Santa, Christmas shopping, opening presents, getting a tree, and Christmas dinner, etc. Not to mention Dad winning a “special prize” for his religiously filling out the crossword puzzle and the 1960s consequences of a little boy saying a bad word… the bad word. A fascinating look into life in America at a different time. (I do have some issue with the final scenes, which take place in a Chinese restaurant. While probably pretty accurate, the mom just can’t stop laughing at the Chinese men’s inability to make the “l” sound and also the serving of duck with its head on. In other words, she’s being culturally insensitive and we’re supposed to laugh along with her, also being culturally insensitive.)

SOUL (2020)

Image from ComingSoon.net

Hm, hm, hm. I was really glad when Pixar decided to release this straight to the Disney streaming platform so we could enjoy the next, big, animated adventure. Compared to Inside Out before it was even released, the comparison is an apt one: they both deal metaphorically with deeper things than the typical family movie. In the case of Inside Out, it was emotions. In Soul, it’s, as the name suggests, the meaning of life. But the metaphors are less obvious, since our characters either are from or visit what is essentially purgatory and life-before-birth places. (We know that there are no actual, little people in our heads, driving us. It is less obvious that there isn’t a conveyor belt between death and the beyond.) In fact, I know quite a few people who won’t let their kids watch Soul, because it kind of infringes on religious territory, and who wants Pixar to teach their kids religion? My kids are teens, so they’re not confused about what they have been taught about the nature of the afterlife, and I don’t think Soul means to teach theology, exactly. The ideas are playful, and they are meant to teach something else: that the meaning of life is not what you do, but the relationships you have and just living, in the moment. Having gratitude. Slowing down. It’s a lesson that I can endorse, again, if you don’t think your kids will be confused by the messaging. If they (or you) won’t, it’s a movie I hope you watch, but not one I’ll be putting on my favorites list. You might be rioting right now: it seems unsafe not to love this movie at this time. The reviews are shining. For one thing, it is another “representation matters” movie, though maybe not officially, as the main character is a middle-aged Black man. He is a lovable guy, and the story is cute and, at times, a little surprising. Also, the music, mostly jazz (a double entendre for the title), is really nice. Perhaps this is part of my problem. Though Joe’s love of music is infectious, I still don’t really like, or even relate to, jazz, so something was lost on me. But I found myself enjoying it at a once-is-enough level. I endorse it, with above caveat, but it’ll be going the way of Onward and Coco for me: just happy memories.

WONDER WOMAN 1984/WW84 (2020)

Image from Amazon.com

So, I always vote against comic book/superhero movies and I am usually out-voted. Honestly, I can count the comic book/superhero movies I’ve loved on one hand (Into the Spider-Verse, the Tim Burton Batman movies, Dark Knight, Spiderman: Homecoming, and maybe Captain Marvel and Guardians of the Galaxy. (The maybes don’t count as fingers.) Doctor Strange and Shazzam! look interesting, but I haven’t seen them. I do want to see Glass. If you count it, I also like The LEGO Movie and sequel and I’m not counting movies like Ghost World and Scott Pilgrim.) I must have seen hundreds. So, as much as I felt all empowered and amped up after watching Wonder Woman (2017), I was less pleased with the continuation of the series, WW84. Now, don’t get confused. This movie was made, not in 1984, but in 2020. It takes place in 1984, after Diana’s love has died and she’s been forced to continue her nearly-immortal life for some twenty years, stateside, without him. They contrive to give him an appearance, anyhow, along with the highly unlikely Kristen Wiig. Not sure anyone pulls much off in this movie, though, because the writing is crap and I don’t know as anyone cares. It’s got special effects galore and ties into the whole world of the comic book movies. The best thing? The outfits were fabulously 1980s. That’s about it for me.

MULAN (2020)

Image from Disney.com

I have been waiting to watch this one, since it came out in the middle of the ongoing pandemic, this past summer. I like the animated Disney movie (1998) and thought that this live-action mash-up with wire-fu would be awesome. I am a fan of wire-fu. I did miss the songs. And I also think we’ve got it, Disney!!!: women don’t need men to be happy or successful. But to take away Mulan’s romantic ending was, for me, quite disappointing. And let’s be real: in that time and place, she would have needed it, even after she saved the country and managed to not get executed. Yeah, this one fell a little flat, despite my initial enthusiasm. There were the usual wire-fu things: sweeping landscapes, saturated cinematography, eye-catching, magical, kung-fu moments, and a girl kicking some butt. Also, honor and family and nationalism. I think, though, we somehow see through this portrayal of Mulan. She’s still my fictional hero, but I wanted just a little bit more; something cleaner and sharper, more brilliant and breath-taking and more over-the-top. I would recommend it, but maybe don’t expect too much and you’ll enjoy it more.

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