Christmas Book and Movie Reviews (So Far)

Image from Amazon.com

THE TAILOR OF GLOUCESTER

I have tried to read and review a children’s picture book each Christmas along with a novel and a nonfiction book. This year I chose The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter. I have never been a big Beatrix Potter fan (I can’t say I’m not a Potter fan because, well, that would be misleading), but I grow to appreciate her art as I get older and, I hope, more mature. Perhaps some of that appreciation comes from the movie Miss Potter, which I reviewed way back in 2015. (Goodness! It does not feel like that long ago. In the immortal words of one of Zadie Smith’s narrators, “She had been eight for a hundred years. She was thirty-four for seven minutes.”)

If you know Beatrix Potter, then you won’t be surprised by The Tailor of Gloucester. The title is a cute play on her other titles, which are all “The Tale of…”. It is definitely a Christmas story set in a familiar 1700s European setting with lead glass in the windows and snow piled on the horse-trod roads. Because it is Potter, the story is gentle and calm and animals behave like humans out of the blue. The animals in this particular story do not speak human except for the night of Christmas Eve, but they do other strangely human things, like wearing clothes and shopping.

The story is remarkably similar to the Cobbler’s Elves fairy tale, though the original idea was from a true story. Potter had a cousin in the town where a much younger tailor got sick while making the mayor’s elaborate, Christmas frock and he recovered to return to the shop with the coat completed (by his assistants) with only one button hole unsewed and a note attached reading, “No more twist” (aka thread). When the locals started saying it was fairies, the tailor encouraged it. Potter wrote the story with her characteristic animal personification and careful attention to illustrative detail as a gift for her friend’s child. According to Wikipedia, it was Potter’s favorite of her books, for years.

It is a charming, simple little book and the real beauty is in the watercolor illustrations. It would be a nice addition to any holiday picture-book collection for either a child or a bibliophile grown-up like me. It stands the test of time, though the story can feel a little repetitive at this point. Still, a child might like hearing it and the moral is kindness and respect for others, as well as caring for those who need help.

There are two movie/show versions, a 1989 live-action movie with Ian Holm and Jude Law and a 1992, animated episode in The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends. I watched the Peter Rabbit version first. It was twenty minutes, being made for a TV episode slot. It is as expected. The animation is out of date, but being based on Potter’s illustrations, it still has a certain, soft charm to it. The story is embellished a little to make it last twenty minutes, but much of the narration and lines are lifted straight from the book. If you want something short and nostalgic and Christmassy for some reason, then this is a fine example of the type of thing you might find in 1989, complete with chamber music and a prolonged scene with rats rollicking and singing with wine flowing in the sewers.

Both are difficult to find unless you go to Youtube, where they’re probably not meant to be posted. The second is a forty-minute, also made for TV movie, but with live action. It has that British, set-movie feel because that’s what it is, but it is more theater than masterpiece, and the narrator even talks directly to the camera. It’s cheesily acted, seemingly on purpose, but it is replete with Christmas-ness: children’s choirs, wassail for sale out of a cart on the street, etc. Of course, it is extended and changed to fit the time with much more story, and there is—like the other version—more music and singing than I imagined. Though it looks (mostly) like a Potter story. The strange thing is that the animals are people dressed up in furry costumes, nodding at one another and placed on sets to make them look small, except for Simkin the cat, who is a man dressed in a more Cats-esque human-cat-hybrid costume. Perhaps some of it isn’t very Potter-y. The reviews on IMDB are actually quite good (perhaps due to British people and nostalgia), and if an older, British retelling of a Potter fairytale is what you want, then go ahead and search this one out.

Image from Amazon.com

RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER

Last year I bought a picture book to read and review and then I didn’t. So this year you get two.

It is a little difficult to find a copy of the 1939 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Robert L. May. I think it’s the older version with illustrations by Denver Gillan that you’ll want, but I accidentally ended up with a David Wentzel. The illustrations in my edition are fine, but I would have much preferred the old duochrome prints from the Gillan, even the 75th anniversary edition.

This is, by the way, the origin of Rudolph. May wanted to write the great American novel (don’t we all?) but ended up a catalogue writer for Montgomery Ward. At Christmastime, Montgomery Ward would give out an original Christmas book to children, and May—with a five-year-old daughter at home and a history of childhood rejection like Rudolph—wrote the poem that is now the book and the famous tale. Montgomery Ward sold the rights to May later, and he worked with a musician to create the song which took words from the book. It was picked up by Gene Autry (1949) and then made into the classic Christmas film (1964) that I watched every year growing up, on TV. The whole thing made May enough money to live comfortably until he died.

Knowing all that, I respect this book a bit more than I did when reading it. To be brutally honest, the poem is second-rate. The story is ehn. But I’m glad we have the concept so that we could have that goofy Christmas movie that I still love and that has helped Americans on their journey to embrace “misfits.” I am not a huge fan of the Wentzel version that I own and would much rather have a copy of the 1964 movie around. But if I had a Gillan copy, I would keep it around to put out with my Christmas decorations every year (which is, strangely or not, what I do with my Christmas books).

Image from IMDB.com

A CHRISTMAS STORY 2

While decorating the house this year, I turned on A Christmas Story (1983). It is a Christmas classic that I re-watch many years (and if anyone wants to buy me a leg lamp for the front window, I would gleefully accept), but it is not a family favorite around here so I figured having it on in the background was fine, this time. When the movie finished, I still had things to do, so I followed the Roku to A Christmas Story 2 (2012). I don’t think I’ve seen it before. I paid a little more attention to it, for this reason. And, um, it’s okay. I wonder if the story in it isn’t based on the short memoir stories that Jean Shephard wrote that inspired (and Shephard narrated) the original A Christmas Story. (I looked it up and it is only mildly related to a story he published about getting jobs with friends and being fired. Also, I found out that this sequel doesn’t work with an earlier sequel, My Summer Story, which was a 1994 flop). The sequel takes place six years after the events of the first movie, even though it was made like thirty years later. It is, really, a silly little thing and I didn’t think that the characters or feel were kept very consistent. It seemed like a holiday movie that is cranked out flippantly with pieces and references meant to please the masses but not make movie history or win any awards. So, it’s fine. Ralphie’s a teenager. He wants a car for Christmas. He actually crashes said car before he’s even close to owning it and has to figure out how to make enough money to pay pack the dealer before Christmas. His buddies get involved. There’s a girl, too. Harmless, I guess (though some have actually labeled it the worst Christmas movie), but not consistent with the original or anything too special.

Image from IMDB.com

A CHRISTMAS STORY CHRISTMAS

And then I kept going with a new-this-year (2022) A Christmas Story Christmas (and its similar title to last year’s Home Sweet Home Alone). Set 33 years after the events of the original but released more like 40 years later, this sequel used many of the actors from the original (which is especially notable because many of them have not had successful acting careers). I think this is a huge draw for fans of the classic. I thought it was kinda fun. But I did think it had—like 2—issues with character consistency, especially with the dad and maybe the mom. While it has better reviews than 2 (which I have read is quite a hated movie), I found it similar in its cashing-in on holiday themes and nostalgia to not really create anything special. It’s not new. It’s not like the old one. And what I found especially unforgiveable about it was the writing theme. Ralphie wants to be a writer. Of course, in the end, he wins (at least in some way). But did the writers of Christmas not bother to find out how writing and publishing even work!? It’s stupid stuff, really, but nothing about Ralphie’s journey or his idiotic attempts ring true. He hasn’t even finished one book and has severely limited funds, but he has a manager who calls him regularly? And a manager? What even is that? Not an agent. Not a publisher. A manager. He bribes publishers? Shows up at their offices?! Only queries locally?!? And it goes on and on throughout the movie. It makes no frickin’ sense.

While I wouldn’t totally tell you not to give both these sequels a one-time try, I don’t think you’re going to love them. You could join the many people watching A Christmas Story Christmas this year and scrutinizing it for its repeat actors and searching for a resemblance to the classic, but it’s the classic you’ll want to return to next year and for many years to come.

Image from IMDB.com

ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE

I can’t even. My teen son and I stumbled upon Anna and the Apocalypse (2017) on a list on the internet last year and watched this together. We have been threatening our friends and family members all year about how they must see this movie. Full disclosure: It is not for everyone, or maybe even most people. It is not, for example, for children. (Besides gore, there is some very heavy-handed innuendo). Or people who are especially squeamish. But even though I don’t like horror movies or much violence, I do make exception now and again. For this exceptional movie, I will continue to do just that.

Apocalypse immediately rose to the top of my favorite holiday movies list and after a re-watch this year (with husband and teen daughter with me and my son), it will stay right there. First of all, it is unbelievable that this movie was ever even made. A British (Scottish), teen, musical, zombie apocalypse, Christmas movie?!?! Horror-comedy-tragedy?! I could barely believe my eyes reading the description, and then Eamon and I sat there (last year), jaws agape, incredulous looks on our faces, for at least the first quarter of the movie. (I saw those same looks on Kevin’s and Windsor’s faces this year.) It takes time to warm up to the movie and also to accept this mash-up of genre and theme. And there is a side of this movie that is satirizing film by playing to the cliches, for sure. But in the effort, something truly unique and wonderful was made. I am not joking: I laughed (hysterically at one scene), legit cried, covered my eyes (a couple times), jumped with surprise… all the things. Because, actually, you think this is going to be a fun ride and it totally is, but it is also a tragedy as well as comedy. So you might want to know that ahead of time.

I am afraid I am talking this movie up too much, but I can’t imagine why it shouldn’t become a cult classic and in a decade Hot Topic will have holiday merch with Anna and her spiked candy cane on ugly sweaters. True, some of the reviews are not great (and others are). Personally, I think that those critics and viewers just don’t get it. All four people of my family think this movie is brilliant (despite two of us being a little put off by the campy violence). And you might feel a little played by feeling like it’s a total coming-of-age High School Musical until stuff actually gets real (because this is the end of the world, so…). But I am not going to back down here. I love Anna and I totally think the world should embrace it in all its crazy glory, especially actual teenagers.

Image from IMDB.com

LAST CHRISTMAS

I hadn’t managed to see this newer (2019) Christmas movie yet, but I remember seeing the previews for Last Christmas a few years ago and intending to. Besides being an Anglophile, I am drawn to great, Christmas romances, and this promised to be one. Though, strangely, it wasn’t really much of a romance. It was more a late-coming-of-age, meaning that 25-year old Kate-Katarina has had struggles since fleeing Czechoslovakia with her family in her teen years and even more with a mysterious “illness” that almost killed her last Christmas. Something about that fateful night left her a stranger to herself, and instead of embracing life and staying healthy, she’s drinking herself to an early death and sleeping with whomever comes across her bar-hopping, app-swiping path. She’s also a real jerk and has become completely selfish. Then she meets Tom, who is goofy and optimistic and a perpetual do-gooder. She can’t help but be drawn to him and he, in turn, sees something buried in her. Written by Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings and directed by Paul Fieg, the movie is star-studded with Emilia Clark, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, and Michelle Yeoh. It was much-anticipated but bombed with critics then went on to be a moderate box-office success. Even now, the reviews are almost comical. Either you hate it and give it a one can call the Hollywood elite names for their crap attempts at social commentary or you give it a seven to ten and like or love it. There are few who fall in between, but the vast majority of reviews are in the upper range. People just can’t come to a consensus about whether it completely sucks (the acting, the message, the romance) or is brilliant (the acting, the message, the romance).

I fall somewhere in between, but definitely more like a 7. I did find that some of the movie magic is missing and I was kinda paused over some of the acting—jury is still deliberating. And the surprise twist is quite a surprise (though left me feeling like it was pretty darn close to another, great movie which I will not share the title with here because it will give everything away), as in it totally changes the tone of the movie and fails to deliver on the “Hollywood ending” (song from Anna and the Apocalypse). But on purpose. It’s meant to be a different movie, a little feminist. Quirky. Young. Modern. Light-hearted and yet real. The last of those seems to be the tension that really bothers some people: many think that you can’t handle things like Brexit, immigrants, war, illness, depression, anger, homelessness, sexuality, etc. in a movie this light and, at times, almost goofy and that much of this falls flat (and false). Perhaps if the writers had narrowed the issues so that it was more like a Life Is Beautiful but less for the masses and more for the edgy, hip crowd? It is a lot for one, little, Christmas movie to take on, but I think the real deal here is that one girl is struggling with the world and her own place in it, and that’s why the issues mount. I enjoyed the strangeness, the acting, the sets and costumes (the fits!), as well as the way the George Michael/Wham music weaved through it (the movie being based on one line from the song, “Last Christmas”). I was interested in the story, but was thrown a little off by the twist; I think we could have been a little better-prepared not for the thing itself but for the mood of the twist. All in all, I liked it and would recommend it, but I would also understand if you didn’t like it. I think it deserves its place on a best-of Christmas movies list, come 1-ratings or 10.  

CHRISTMAS RE-WATCH FAVES AND RECOMMENDS

I also re-watched a number of Christmas faves, which I keep not reviewing because they are a staple of my holiday life: Home Alone, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Elf, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Love Actually, Christmas with the Kranks, Charlie Brown’s Christmas, Arthur Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and The Grinch (original). Perhaps we’ll rewatch Klaus as well.  Maybe one day I’ll review them, but they are all going to get five stars (or really close). I also received personal recommendations for Olive the Other Reindeer, Daddy’s Home 2, Love the Coopers, Prancer (with Sam Elliott), and Spirited. We’ll see how many I get to in the next week.

VIOLENT NIGHT

So, we have not seen this one yet. I will add a review next week, which is when we plan to see it as a family (with older teens).

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