Saturday, December 31, 2022


Despite the Hallmarkian title, this is a very adult six hour Norwegian miniseries that has little to do with Christmas. Some viewers have compared it to LOVE ACTUALLY, but it more resembles a little-remembered 60s ensemble film called THE V.I.P.s. When a major storm shuts down all flights out of an airport in Oslo the day before Christmas Eve, we follow, in almost real time, the concerns of a bunch of unconnected people, some of whom become connected in unexpected ways. Pop star Ida, who has a new album out, feels her creative drive has run down. Her personal assistant Ingvild feels a bit abused by Ida and is looking for a creative outlet of her own. A young girl named Kaja gets tired of her parents' constant bickering (which is threatening to blow up into a divorce) and runs away, hiding from her parents and from the security people trying to find her. Berg, a concert pianist, is experiencing a career low point after a bad review goes viral. Ronja, the airport priest, is trying to help an old man who won’t talk and may be suffering from dementia. There's also an insufferable rich bitch who abuses everyone she runs across, a young woman whose naïve romanticism irritates a pilot whom she fixates on, a friendly bartender who learns he has terminal cancer, and a lonely dog stranded in a carrier. Over the six hours of the series, these characters (and a few others) cross paths, interact, and influence each other. Despite the melodramatic narratives, there are moments of humor, many involving an easily irritated Santa Claus figure, and all the characters, even the worst assholes (the pianist, the rich bitch), get some sort of redemption.

The first hour or so is hard to get through, partly because of the sheer unlikability of many of the characters, and also because you know exactly how some of these plotlines are going to turn out. But there are some surprises in store, and a couple of the characters who are ciphers for most of the running time—a young woman all alone and seemingly at odds who is looking for a present for her father, a man dressed in shorts heading for a vacation in Majorca—have unexpected twists in their stories in the last half-hour. This was filmed in a real, and quite grand, airport in Oslo, and that adds immeasurably to the atmosphere of the series. All the acting is good, with standouts including Jon Oigarden (pictured) as the bartender, Maibritt Saerens as the priest, Ibrahim Fall as the Santa, and Ravdeep Singh Bajwa as the pilot. Alexandra Rapaport deserves special mention; she makes the awful rich woman truly hateful but then executes her personality change in the end quite well. Near the end, a cathartic moment for many of the characters occurs as the pianist plays "Over the Rainbow" on the airport piano—at first I fought the scene but I wound up in tears. Overall, it's not exactly what I would call heartwarming, but if you can get past the first hour, and don’t mind some bald-faced emotional manipulation here and there, it does eventually pay off. [Netflix]

Friday, December 30, 2022


Britta is living with her grandmother in Hollywood after the death of her acrobat parents in a tragic accident. Between her grandma's house and the high school she attends is a lovely park called Holly Woods, in the middle of which is a statue of a mythical figure called Holly Boy. In the distant past, Holly Boy, a Spirit of Christmas, saved the Pine Tree Queen, another Spirit of Christmas, from destruction by the evil King Otto. In the present, the reincarnated Otto possesses the real estate developer Ridgewell and engineers a plan to buy the Holly Woods and destroy them. The plan: rig the high school holiday talent show so Ridgewell's son Blair, a talented gymnast, wins the huge cash prize (in theory, a full college scholarship), then use that money to buy the woods. Britta and her teacher, Ms. Audrey, are trying to save the woods from development and soon, Holly Boy comes alive to help them, as other spirit possessions occur: Ms. Audrey by the Pine Tree Queen and Principal Kimmel (who had been neutral on the issue of the woods) by one of Otto's underlings. But with the talent show fix seemingly on, can anything, magical or otherwise, stop the bad guys? Did I mention that Britta, who enters the talent show with her maybe-boyfriend Gabriel, is a pretty good acrobat but won’t indulge anymore since her parents' death?

I watched this because a description I read sounded interesting, but this is scraping the bottom of the barrel of Christmas films, even considering it's aimed at kids. The director, John Carl Buechler, was apparently a talented special effects man but his efforts here come off as strictly amateurish. It was made-for-video with cheap-looking magical effects and washed out visuals throughout. A handful of B-level actors star but mostly seem to be just going through the motions. Carol Lynley (Return to Peyton Place, Bunny Lake is Missing, The Poseidon Adventure) is OK as the grandma but she winds up with little to do. Lindsay Wagner (pictured)  seems to be truly sleepwalking through her roles as teacher and pine tree spirit. Edward Albert is good as Otto (he gets to spout the deathless call, "Decline of joy, rise of commercialism!"), not so good as Ridgewell. The best performance comes from Frank Bonner (Herb on WKRP in Cincinnati) as the principal; he finds the right tone for this bland fantasy and runs with it. Among the kids, Danielle Nicolet saves the day as Britta; she was almost 30 when she filmed this but she makes for a very credible teenager. Christian Oliver (Gabriel) and Oliver Macready (Blair) are passable, but Christopher Khayman Lee is uninspiring as Holly Boy. The mythic Holly Boy plot had some promise in a Robin Hood/Peter Pan way, but there is zilch development beyond a brief sequence at the beginning. The scenes in the woods were all shot in bright daylight, robbing them of any magical atmosphere they might have had, and the Christmas atmosphere is equally disappointing—it might as well have been set in July. Why did I bother to stick this one out to the end? Well, I thought it might be a nice alternative to Hallmark Christmas movies. Though I'm not an expert on what kids like, I suspect that, though it seems pitched at teenagers, only elementary grade students will enjoy this. [DVD]

Thursday, December 29, 2022


With her sister due to give birth around Christmas, high powered business consultant Emily (Paniz Zade) wants to get back to her hometown quickly, but things aren't going well. When her Uber driver misses her, cute all-round nice guy Simon (Adrian Spencer) comes to her aid. At the airport, his chattiness drives her crazy, but she loses her seat until Simon again comes to her aid. A storm causes the plane to be diverted and she is stuck overnight in a strange city. At a hotel, she realizes she has left her wallet at the TSA checkpoint and Simon once again helps her out. They platonically share a honeymoon suite and soon the two are warming to each other. More hotels, cars, and a train are in their future, and in the usual TV-movie way, an initial kiss gets thwarted. But just as she's planning to bring Simon with her to her family Christmas, he finds out that in the course of her job, she winds up suggesting mass layoffs to companies, and decides to cut things off before they get started. Will a Christmas miracle keep them together?  The best word for this movie, produced for UpTV, is lame, mostly due to poor writing. The character of Emily is poorly written, there are plotholes galore mostly in terms of details about how airports and hotels are actually run, the only supporting player to speak of is Emily's uninteresting sister, Simon’s objection to her livelihood comes out of nowhere and doesn't feel real, and the low budget hurts the sets and visuals. But I lost my Christmas romance heart to Adrian Spencer (pictured) who plays angelic and innocent very well. His glasses give him a sexy Clark Kent look (he is less fetching without his glasses) and he manages to work up some chemistry with Zade who is so-so at best. Fans of handsome, wholesome blond boys should watch; others can skip it. [Amazon Prime]

The much beloved Mrs. Marley has died. Everett (Kyle Dean Massey), who took care of her for the last year of her life, wants to save the house from the clutches of developers. As Christmas nears, Everett and five of his childhood friends get letters from the late Mrs. Marley asking them to meet up at her property for a treasure hunt. One of the friends is Riley (Taylor Frey), a social media maven, whom Everett had a crush on back in high school. Riley still feels hurt after thinking that Everett had unceremoniously ditched him back then—the truth is that Everett was conflicted about being gay—but he shows up with Tipper, another one of the friends who is in business with Riley. Also along are town official Ricky, famous basketball star Clay, and his wife Jeannie. The treasure hunt begins but the six soon find out that Mrs. Marley had an ulterior motive: she wants Everett and Riley to get together. As this is another new addition to the small list of gay Christmas romances, I'd like to say how good it is. It's not terrible, but the ludicrously stupid plot set-up mostly sinks this effort and the hard work of the actors. Massey and Frye, married in real life, are fine in the leads. Even better are Roberto Aguire and Katie Walder as Ricky and Tipper, who slowly become a likable secondary couple—I wanted more screen time for them. [Lifetime]

Wednesday, December 28, 2022


Nicky (Alison Sweeney) goes to her hometown to spend Thanksgiving with her parents who are downsizing and selling their house, and while sorting through some of her high school stuff, she finds an unopened and unsigned Christmas card expressing admiration and, via a quote from Romeo and Juliet, love. Her best friend Simone urges her to do some detective work to find out who sent it. Meanwhile, local real estate agent Derrick (Brennan Elliott) is helping Nicky's folks prepare their house for showing to prospective buyers. Guess who sent the card? This central romance is less interesting than the secondary plot involving Simone and her fiancé Jeremy—she's upset that her teenage son is spending more time with Jeremy than in indulging her nostalgic Christmas activity wishes. I love Sweeney but I think Elliott has not aged well; Emily Durance and Michael Karl Richards are fine in the supporting roles. The unusual but charming final shot shows both couples celebrating their Christmas love. Worth watching for being a little offbeat. [Hallmark]

Big Teddy Toy Company has decided to shut down their brick-and-mortar stores but data analyst Charlie (Vanessa Lengies), whose dream is to be a toy designer, is allowed to visit the one store that actually still shows a profit to see if she can figure out what they're doing right. At first she is mistaken by  Grant, the hunky and adorable manager (Jesse Hutch), for seasonal help, but when that gets straightened out, he reluctantly agrees to let her shadow him. Grant's hunkiness is obvious but his adorability comes out in several ways: in his concern for his staff who are like like family (in some cases, actual family members spend time in the store); in his hope to be able to reopen his beloved late grandfather's small toy store; in the way he treats the kids and their parents in the store, particularly when he dresses up like a hunky Christmas elf (pictured at right). Grant and Charlie grow close over the week, with Charlie remembering that she'd actually been to the grandfather's store when she was a kid, and Grant turning two of Charlie's preliminary designs into real toy figures. But will their bond survive the possibility that Big Teddy's may not survive? It's odd to have to include a SPOILER warning for a Hallmark movie since they always have happy endings, and indeed, the romance plot does. But oddly, the store itself does not get saved. Like many Hallmark movies, the wrap-up is rushed, and some plotpoints are left in limbo—Will Grant continue to make Charlie's toys? Will she leave New York City for rural-ish New Jersey? And most importantly, what will happen to Grant's beloved staff? There's a rushed scene in which he promises everyone that he'll take care of them, but he delivers his speech a bit uncertainly. Maybe the filmmakers thought they were being edgy or defiant with their ending, but I must admit in the context of a Hallmark holiday movie, it left a slightly bitter taste afterward. Hutch and Lengies are adequate, and despite its flaws it was worth watching to see Jesse Hutch dressed up as the beefiest elf you’ve ever seen. [Hallmark]

Tuesday, December 27, 2022


Actor Madison Rush is trying to escape her past fame (she seems to have been known as a child actor whose catchphrase was "Great googly!”" and stretch her talents by directing a play she has co-written to be staged for one night only in the town of Troy, New York during their Victorian Christmas recreation festival (the Troy Victorian Stroll is a real thing). The play, called The Trial Before Christmas (again, based on a real play that has been staged in Troy), is a mock trial in which two lawyers attempt to establish authorship of the poem famously known as The Night Before Christmas—was it Clement C. Moore, as is usually credited, or Henry Livingston Jr. as others have claimed? At the end of the play, the audience votes on which man is the real author. Madison gets Connor Avery, an actor friend of hers who is entertaining ideas about switching from acting to law, to play one of the lawyers. Lena, the producer's girlfriend, is the other lawyer. Lena can't really act, but with expert tutelage from Madison, she eventually nails the part. In fact, she's so good that a Hollywood producer signs her for a big supporting role for a movie to be filmed in New Zealand so Lena has to leave the play. Who will take the role? Why, Madison, of course, who is striking romantic sparks with Connor. During rehearsals, two men in Victorian garb calling themselves Moore and Livingston show up arguing about the poem's authorship. Assuming them to be players in the Victorian Stroll, Madison rewrites the play and hires them as the ghosts of the authors who appear at the trial. Might they actually be ghosts?

I appreciate it when Hallmark tries to stretch a bit (just like Madison Rush) beyond its formulas, and there are definitely pleasures here. Torrey DeVito (Madison) and Zane Holtz (Connor) are very good and have great chemistry. The romance plot is actually underplayed here to give more time to the play and the characters. The supernatural twist, unusual for recent Hallmark films, plays out nicely. I loved the handful of cute 1960's pop culture references (My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, Sound of Music, and the spy show The Avengers). I even suspect that the bad actress is named Lena in tribute to Lina Lamont of Singin' in the Rain. But man, did that script need a rewrite. When the producer wants the play to actively push a solution, Connor suggests some research; wouldn't Madison and her co-author already have done plenty of research? Lena, a strictly amateur actor, gets a major part in a movie and has to leave the night before Christmas Eve? (Hallmark's time-pressure gimmicks are always glaring weak spots.) No one involved in the production would be bothered by the fact that the "ghosts" pop in and out unreliably and sometimes appear in puffs of animated smoke and glitter? The ghosts basically improvise their speeches, apparently derailing the play as written? A legendary Broadway producer shows up to watch the first full run-through of the play? Don't even get me started on their definition of what an intermission is—Madison refers to the audience coming back after voting at intermission, but when they come back in, the verdict is announced and the play is over. That is not an intermission. My brain kept hurting over sloppy plot points, most of which could have been easily cleaned up. But, tis the season and all. I watched this on a below-zero snow day and mostly enjoyed it. More DeVitto and Holtz (pictured), please. [Hallmark]

Monday, December 26, 2022


Darcy Gale works for Gumm Public Relations in Kansas City and discovers at an office Christmas party that has lost out on a big award she was sure was hers. When she hears that Austin Inc., a big Manhattan firm, is in PR trouble, she has a plan. The late founder's son, William Austin, has spent years out of the public eye and the company seems to be foundering under him and Winona West, the public face of Austin. Darcy thinks she can help straighten things out by either getting Austin to come out of hiding or by making news of the company's massive charitable contributions to the Emerald Educational Trust. Her first meeting with Austin high-level exec guy Glen Goodman is a mistaken identity meet-cute, but they do hit it off nicely and when she proposes to make her campaign pro bono work to help win her agency Austin as a client, he agrees to let her. Her plan to highlight the children's charity at Christmastime is almost derailed by Bridget Tinsley, who is concerned that the trust will be seen as being exploitative of the children. Darcy's two other contacts at Emerald are Jackie Crow (who has lots of ideas but comes off as a little ditzy) and Riley Lyons (a young man who loves dancing but a fear of public performance). Slowly, it looks like everything will come together, but will West and Austin himself derail the PR campaign? 

It took me a little while to figure things out, but what makes this stand out from other Hallmark Christmas movies is that it’s inspired by The Wizard of Oz, the MGM movie more so than the novel. Once you start looking, the references are plentiful. Darcy Gale from Kansas City = Dorothy Gale from Kansas; Gumm was Judy Garland's real last name; Winona West is, of course, the Wicked Witch of the West (though she's not really wicked); Tinsley is the Tin Man (too much heart to want to exploit the kids), Lyons is cowardly (of course he finds his courage eventually), and Crow is the Scarecrow (seems to have no brain but is really the smartest of all). It isn't a spoiler to note that Goodman is the Wizard of Oz (a very good man but a very bad wizard); he's actually William Austin (the Wizard of Austin) who has been hiding all these years. I had that figured out even before I caught on to the Oz details. Also, Darcy's brothers back home are Zack and Huck (Zeke and Hunk in the movie); her dad is Henry and her stepmom is Emma. Once you start playing the game, it's hard to stop, but I’ll refrain from listing more similarities and even direct quotations involving curtains and lions and tigers and flying monkeys. However, my favorite reference occurs when Darcy arrives at the Emerald Trust and wonders out loud which way she should go to find Goodman. Jackie Crow, her head hidden momentarily behind a computer monitor, says something along the lines of, "Some people go this way and some go that way"—I laughed out loud at that Scarecrow reference. And of course, the title refers to the song Dorothy and her pals sing along the Yellow Brick Road.

On a strictly "Hallmark Christmas movie" level, this is about par for the course. We're in good hands with the two leads, Candace Cameron Bure and Warren Christie (pictured) who are old pros. Of the other actors, no one really stands out except maybe Jordana Largy who is quite personable as Crow, but they're all OK. The usual predictable plot turns and plot holes are in place but there's nothing egregiously off about the narrative. As a novelty, this is quite enjoyable. I can imagine a drinking game—take a drink every time you recognize an Oz reference—that would leave you with quite a hangover the next morning. I can't resist pointing out one more scene that made me chuckle: when Darcy and the three Emerald Trust workers go hoping to meet Mr. Austin, we get a shot of them from behind, walking down a long, intimidating corridor, and Riley decides he should just stay behind. I feel like a lot of Oz love went into this and I can respect that, even if it has little to do with the actual story. [Hallmark]

Sunday, December 25, 2022


In 2015, same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States. After that, it seemed like the next big gay rights battle was for representation on made-for-TV Christmas romance movies. I'm not sure why this, over the next few years, became such an issue, but as a gay man who enjoys Hallmark Christmas movies, I was happy to see how this pop culture battle would play out. In 2018, Hallmark aired ROAD TO CHRISTMAS which featured a very subtly-portrayed gay couple as secondary characters—the relationship was presented in a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments, but still it seemed like a line had been crossed. In 2019, Lifetime presented TWINKLE ALL THE WAY in which a married gay male couple featured prominently. 2020 brought the first Christmas romance movies centered on gay couples: Lifetime’s THE CHRISTMAS SETUP and Paramount's DASHING INTO DECEMBER. That same year, Hallmark featured a gay couple as the secondary leads in THE CHRISTMAS HOUSE (a sequel came the next year). Netflix’s SINGLE ALL THE WAY and Hulu’s HAPPIEST SEASON (which featured a lesbian couple) were presented in 2021. Now, in 2022 Hallmark, the gold standard broadcaster of Christmas TV-movies, goes all in with their own movie starring a gay male couple.

In THE HOLIDAY SITTER, we first meet Sam (Jonathan Bennett, pictured) on a first date with a handsome doctor, but things go south quickly when we learn the doctor loves kids and wants a traditional family and Sam doesn't—when these facts are revealed, they both quickly ask for their checks. As Sam prepares for a solo holiday trip to Hawaii, his sister Kathleen and her husband ask him to watch their two children for a couple of days so they can go pick up the newborn baby they're adopting. The last time he was left in charge, Sam started a small kitchen fire trying to cook breakfast, so he's reluctant, but his sister guilt-trips him into it. Sam arrives to find Kathleen's neighbor Jason (George Krissa) watching the kids until he gets there. Jason is handsome, kind, and also happens to live next door so he already has a good relationship with the kids. Worried about his babysitting abilities, Sam asks Jason to be a "uncle-ing consultant" and even offers him a generous check for his time. Jason also happens to be gay and the two begin to warm up to each other, but it turns out that Jason wants all the things Sam doesn't (settling down in the suburbs, having kids, etc.) and is even in the process of adopting a child to be a single parent. Sam gets pretty good at being an uncle, and even manages to successfully cook a meal, but will he ever change his tune about marriage and family so he and Jason could get together?

This movie's secret weapon is Jonathan Bennett (who was in THE CHRISTMAS HOUSE). He is handsome, charming, and genuinely funny—he also gets to give his character some personality above and beyond what the typical Hallmark male lead allows (usually, only Kristoffer Polaha and Ryan Paevy get to do that). He makes Sam's development from commitment-phobic to romantic believable, and the Hallmark happy ending feels earned. Kirssa, stuck with playing the perfect guy, isn't as effective (and, though he's nice looking, what is with his hair?). The teleplay could just as easily have had a heterosexual couple at its center, and that may be a problem for some gay viewers who criticize the "heteronormativity" of the gay Christmas movie, i.e., presenting gay male couples as more or less interchangeable with straight couples. However, Bennett gets a very nice scene in which he traces his problem with settling down to the fact that, for so many years, he was used to being told "no" by society, so it takes some getting used to having a "yes" mindset. I identified with that—after living with my partner since 1990, we got married in 2015 and it took me a long time to refer to him as my husband without feeling self conscious or like I was picking a political fight. I applaud Hallmark for this film, and I think Bennett's performance makes it worth watching whatever your political worldview is. [Hallmark]

Thursday, December 22, 2022


Hillary (Bonnie Somerville) is a reporter for a small newspaper tracking down a neighborhood story when she briefly crosses paths with a cute guy in a human billboard costume who gives her some info for her article. Sadly, that afternoon, Hillary gets some unwanted news: the paper is closing. Being as it's close to Thanksgiving, her mind is more on her current boyfriend Jason, an ambitious lawyer. She's happy that she finally has someone to show off to her family at the holiday gathering, and has told her mom (Shelly Long), who meddles too much in her daughters' lives, to expect him. But Jason has decided that she may be a liability in his new career, so he breaks up with her. Not wanting to seem to be a failure, she takes her roommate Sophie's advice and posts an ad on a web site devoted to finding fake escorts for social occasions. The guy she picks is an out-of-work actor named David (Jordan Bridges), who happens to be the human billboard guy. The deal: David comes with her for Thanksgiving weekend and pretends to be Jason, and she'll give him two resort vacation tickets she won in a radio contest. Of course, complications pile up right away. Mom puts the two in the same bedroom, so David volunteers to take a cot and let Hillary have the bed. Dad (Sam McMurray), a city council member, wants legal advice from Jason about some possible charges of wrongdoing. David keeps forgetting little details about Jason (Jason likes yams, David hates them). Worst of all, with Mom pining to be involved in their assumed upcoming wedding, Hillary blurts out that the date is set for December 21st which sends Mom into a tizzy of planning, and creates a quandary for the local priest because David is Jewish. What more can happen? Well, just as sparks of romance begin flying between Hillary and David, the real Jason shows up because he didn't get the promotion he wanted at work. And someone else comes into play: David’s ex, who wants the resort tickets.

Despite the labored and predictable plot, and some big problems with narrative logic (like how does unemployed Hillary afford her apartment, and why on earth would she blurt out a wedding date, and what exactly is Dad guilty of?), this is enjoyable because of the two leads. Somerville, Ross's girlfriend Mona on season 8 of Friends, makes a potentially unlikable character charming. Bridges, a real cutie pie, manages to come off as both real and as too good to be true. Long and McMurray are fine doing their clueless parent shtick. There is a somewhat complicated backstory involving Hillary's sisters (Haylie Duff and Carrie Wiita) who are both keeping secrets from Mom, and these scenes are dropped in here and there without much development, though there is a very amusing moment when a milquetoast podiatrist boyfriend spends some time cuddling up to David's feet. I also enjoyed a brief scene of Sophie's flirtation with an over-the-top surfer dude whom Hillary rejected as an escort. Though set at Thanksgiving, the house gets decorated for Christmas over the weekend, and there is a very sweet scene in which David and Hillary sing "Angels We Have Heard on High" at a piano. So yeah, it might as well be a Christmas movie. Pictured are Bridges and Somerville. [Hallmark Channel]

Wednesday, December 21, 2022


We first see Molly and her friend Lucas as kids on Molly's family's Christmas tree ranch in Vermont. She loves to write stories and Lucas wants to become a photographer. She has a favorite small tree that she names after herself, and when Dad is about to clear that land, she talks him into saving the tree, and even though an axe blow has already been delivered, she dresses the "wound" and saves the tree so it can continue growing. Twenty years later, Molly is still working on her writing but has a job as assistant to Walter, head of a big publishing house. Walter, a widower, feels free to use her as a personal assistant; she often babysits for his two charming daughters and he sends her on Christmas shopping chores. When she runs across the very tree that she saved years ago, now ready for use as a Christmas tree, she decides to drop everything and take the tree to Vermont to spend one more holiday there before her folks have to move because the bank is about to foreclose on the farm in order to build a fancy golf resort. Her brother Ryan, a successful architect, joins her. At the farm, she can't even decorate her tree because Mom and Dan have already packed everything up. She's upset to discover that Lucas is still in town. He gave up on his photography dreams and works for his father, the town banker (think Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life), so she blames him for her family's predicament. Molly and Ryan come up with a scheme to get their house labeled a historic landmark, and when she makes the national news, Walter and his two kids show up to lend support. But the banker and the mayor try to stand firm against them, and Lucas, who still has feelings for Molly, is caught in the middle.

The interesting thing about this Christmas TV-movie is the way, deliberately or not, it scrambles some of the traditional plotlines. Sometimes this is due to writing problems: Walter is set up as a somewhat cold boss, not evil, just oblivious. But his sudden change to being interested in the welfare of her family comes out the blue. In fact, he rather usurps Lucas' role as love interest. This doesn't happen on the surface—the two never develop romantic feelings—but we care a lot more about Molly's relationship with Walter and his kids than we do about her and the drab, passive Lucas. In another surprise, the emotional climax of the movie is not about Molly and Lucas, but about Ryan and his father. Ryan has been blaming himself for not staying on the ranch and taking the business over in the usual family tradition. The scene in which the two clear the air is beautifully written and well-acted, and came the closest to jerking tears out of me. Finally, at the end, it's Walter who steps in to save the ranch. Molly and Lucas do get a romantic kiss, but the final scene, set a year later with all the characters together, doesn't clarify the status of Molly and Lucas. Many of these elements might be seen as faults, but I found them interesting.

Lacey Chabert (Molly), an old hand at Christmas movies, anchors the movie well. Corey Sevier (Lucas) is colorless and never shows us why we should want him to end up with Molly. Matthew Kevin Anderson (Ryan) is likable and has loads of personality. Jim Thorburn (Walter, pictured above with Chabert) is kind of a wild card. In the beginning, he felt disengaged and artificial, but later that tone felt appropriate for the character who we find out walled off his emotions when his wife died. He's also not as conventionally handsome as Sevier, though he is appealing. Ultimately, I really wanted Walter to end up with Molly, though it was clear that the filmmakers weren't going to subvert the narrative rules that much. Eric Keenlyside and Lini Evans are convincing as the parents. Lastly, the title "character": I'm not sure how it saves Christmas since it's forgotten once it winds up back at the farm until the very end. I guess since it's the main reason Molly comes home, it can be said to have saved Christmas, but my preference for a title is something like It Happened at the Christmas Tree Ranch. Overall, recommended. [Amazon Prime, first shown on UpTV]

Monday, December 19, 2022


Joseph is the playboy son of a wealthy woman who is about to give up on him ever amounting to anything. She gives him one last chance: go to California and meet with a stubborn landowner who won't sell her family farmland. Joseph and Leo (his assistant—or valet or butler or bosom buddy, as it's never quite clear what his official function is) head out to the small desert town to meet with Wendy, the landowner, and her daughter Callie. On the way, Joseph spills coffee on his clothes and changes into a casual t-shirt and jeans (that are too tight for him, but who cares because he wears them well), and Callie mistakes him for a new farmhand named Manny. Joseph decides not to correct her, thinking that he can soften her up for the big sales pitch later. The dairy farm work is hard but he manages to keep up. He discovers that Callie's father and her boyfriend both died in a car accident that she survived, and her mom Wendy is dying of cancer, so Callie is unrealistically desperate to hang on the farm, which her father was hoping to turn into a winery, despite the fact that the bank is going to foreclose in a month. Of course, hard work and a growing respect for Callie make Joseph a better person, but everything might come crashing down when Mom comes calling, threatening to expose his charade.

I sometimes wish that Hallmark's Christmas movies would shake their formulas up a little, and this movie, made for Netflix, does exactly that. It takes the Hallmark/Lifetime template (big city person made better by small-town person) and makes it a little more serious, throws in a few vulgarities, and gets its hero to take off his shirt a couple of times. This leads to some tone clashes, with scenes involving the mom's cancer diagnosis followed by jokey scenes with secondary characters. It's interesting but a bit jarring. Joseph is portrayed explicitly as promiscuous—the opening scene has him bidding "good morning, goodbye" to his latest one-night stand—though still charming and fairly squeaky-clean. There's a sullen ex-boyfriend who comes off as far more threatening than any Hallmark ex—he gets into a bar fight with Joseph, and seems like he could go further off the deep end, though he doesn't.

My favorite departure here involves Leo, the assistant (Ali Afshar) who, though not explicitly played as gay, winds up in a sort of bromance with Manny, the actual farmhand (David Del Rio). In the beginning, Manny comes off as a threat to Joseph's plans, but soon, Leo and Manny are best buds, playing video games and comparing their wine palates. Honestly, I was more interested in these two than in the main couple because it was a relationship we don't see in these romance movies. At 100 minutes, this is too long and, despite its edgier elements, just as predictable as any TV romance movie. But I kept watching partly because the male lead, Josh Swickard, is ridiculously handsome (see above right). His real-life wife, Lauren Swickard, is very good as Callie (and she also wrote the movie). In general, the acting is a notch above average. You may notice I never mentioned Christmas in the plot summary. That's because the Christmas setting is barely there, seeming like an afterthought. There is a sequel though I'm not sure I need to see it. Different from but not necessarily better than the norm. [Netflix]

Saturday, December 17, 2022


Raul works as an accountant in Madrid. We learn through a series of flashbacks to his childhood that he has many reasons for hating Christmas so every year, he flies off on a tropical vacation to avoid the holidays, But this year his boss sends him to a small town in the mountains to conduct an audit on a sweets factory that needs to be done by the new year. His boss assures him his job won’t conflict with his holiday plans, but us Christmas movie viewers know better. Little does he know that the town is famous not only for its candy but also for its nativity play, and this year the people from the Guinness Book will be present to see if the play qualifies for world's biggest. He drives into town and immediately runs into and destroy the manger set, which also serves as the meet-cute moment with Paula, a perky woman who seems to have a hand in every town activity (most importantly, she runs the nativity play). Soon, Raul's Christmas-hating reputation is well known, with the townspeople calling him The Grinch, though it's done affectionately as they have come to like him, and soon romantic sparks are flying between he and Paula. But in addition to a Grinch, a Scrooge pops up: Pablo, son of the factory owner, who harbors an unrequited crush on Paula. Raul finds inconsistencies in the company's books and agrees to stay on a couple extra days while Pablo, who blames the problems on his aging father, tries to figure out what's wrong. But Pablo has actually cooked the books because he wants to sell the factory to Japanese investors who will probably close it down. To the townsfolk, it looks like Raul is the villain whose audit will be responsible for a shutdown, and they all turn against him. Will Raul figure out what's going and at the same time, regain his Christmas spirit and win the love of Paula?

The plot summary makes this sound like a fairly typical Hallmark-style Christmas romance, but it's actually from Netflix, and it was made in Spain (and in Spanish). And though the main plot elements are familiar (big city vs. small town, traumas of Christmas past, a community holiday event which must go on), the movie takes a disturbing turn in its last half-hour. Things get rather dark as the townsfolk turn against Raul in some rather nasty ways, and Pablo winds up throwing Raul out of a car to tumble down into a valley where he winds up bloody and unconscious. There's also a pregnant woman who, of course, goes into labor during the nativity play, threatening the Guinness certification. Luckily, some Santa magic (or, interchangeably, Hallmark-style magic) rights everything by the end. Tamar Novas (pictured) and Andrea Ros are charming and attractive in the lead roles (Novas does an effective girlish scream); Peter Vives makes a hissable bad guy, and the supporting roles of parents and friends and factory workers are filled nicely. IMDb says this is rated TV-PG, but that must be for the English dub as the Spanish version contains some coarse language, including an f-bomb, in its subtitles. [Amazon Prime]

Thursday, December 15, 2022


Natalie (Melissa Joan Hart) has a popular podcast called Holiday Love, and in December, she's doing a multi-part arc called "Dear Christmas," sharing stories from listeners about their Christmas romances. After a chat with her boss Penny (Robin Givens) about Natalie's distinct lack of a love life, Natalie heads to her hometown of Lake Tahoe to spend the holidays. Upon arrival, she gets a flat tire and the AAA repair guy who shows up is grizzled but hunky Chris (Jason Priestly) who remembers her from eighth grade. She doesn't remember him, but nevertheless, as Chris is omnipresent in town (handyman, fireman, but at heart a glassblowing artist), they run into each other frequently and sparks start to fly. Despite some encouragement from Natalie's bookstore-owning parents and her enthusiastic sister Emma, Natalie resists falling for Chris's charms, certain that fate and/or destiny will lead her to a grand love, but then something she finds in a high school diary makes her think that fate may be taking a hand after all. This Lifetime Christmas movie follows all the rules of the Hallmark template without finding anything new or interesting to build on, but its intended audience will like it just fine. Priestly was unrecognizable to me, as he is now a bearded daddy figure, but he and Hart (both pictured at right) are pros and fill their roles well. Robin Givens is amusing, and the movie could have used a little more of her energy. The parents are Faith Prince and Ed Begley, Jr., both fine, especially Begley giving a surprisingly naturalistic performance. The presence of little glass heart ornaments is a call-out to nurses and first responders (though the Covid pandemic is not actually mentioned), and I liked that Chris's name is Chris Massey (say it out loud). [Amazon Prime]

Tuesday, December 13, 2022


Dublin, 1921. What I've gleaned from Wikipedia about this time in Irish history, as it applies to this movie: it was near the end of the War of Irish Independence between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British who were aided by a band of hired enforcers called the Black & Tans, who were apparently particularly brutal in putting down protest and going after IRA members. Young medical student Kerry O'Shea (Don Murray) is our way into this situation. An American, he came to Ireland after the death of his father (who had been an IRA foot soldier) and decided to stay. He is opposed to violence, but he helps out a woman who was almost caught smuggling illegal arms to the IRA. Later, in the aftermath of a car bombing, his friend Paddy, an innocent bystander, is wounded by the Black & Tans. Kerry gets him to safety and, to his surprise, his professor, Sean Lenihan (James Cagney) is a commandant in the IRA. Because Kerry accidentally left a notebook with his name on it in the street, the IRA guys figure he's a marked man so they give him two choices: he can join up (which means for life, and it means death if he ever tries to back out) or they can send him back to America. He opts for America, but while he stays at an IRA hideout waiting for the next ship out, he bonds with some of the guys, and also meets the General (Michael Redgrave) who was with Kerry's dad when he died. After Kerry takes the rap for an illegal gun that belonged to another IRA member, he is arrested and beaten up by the Black & Tans but doesn't give them any information. Lenihan leads a squad on a rescue mission and when they free Kerry, he decides to stay with the IRA. As it happens, the General is about to sign a treaty with the British that will give Ireland dominion status with its own Parliament. Lenihan considers that a betrayal of the cause, and soon Kerry thinks that Lenihan has become what we might call "blood simple," loyal not so much to the cause as to bloodshed, and eventually the two wind up in a standoff that can only leave one of them alive.

I'm not a student of Irish history, and this film simplifies the issues, probably too much. Still, it's an engrossing film with good performances all around. Cagney is just right as a character we admire in the beginning and change our mind about later. Orson Welles said that Cagney was one of our greatest actors because he always went full tilt without going over the top, and that's the case here; even in the climax, Cagney keeps Lenihan human and somewhat sympathetic, until he kills a very likable character in cold blood. Some viewers think Murray is too passive, but I think he's just right as an audience surrogate: a little confused, a little suspicious, but ultimately able to take a moral stand that we appreciate. (He's also darned handsome.) The supporting cast is strong: Cyril Cusack as a poet turned freedom fighter, Glynis Johns as a young prostitute, Sybil Thorndike as a titled lady who is sympathetic to the IRA, Richard Harris in an early role as an unlikable IRA member who clashes with Murray, and Donal Donnelly as a slow-witted kid. Dana Wynter is lovely but fairly bland as the necessary (but not really) love interest. Pictured are Murray and Cagney. [DVD]

Saturday, December 10, 2022


Jane Hudson (Katherine Hepburn) from Akron, Ohio is what would have been called a spinster back in the 50s, middle-aged and unmarried. She is on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation in Venice, constantly taking home movies with her ever-present hand-cranked camera (how quaint!). A bit awed by the city, she's also clearly looking for some special experience; as she says to Signora Fiorini, the woman running the pensione where she's staying, she wants a "magical miracle" to happen. The pensione is lovely, the view from her room gorgeous, and Fiorini is charming, but the only other people staying there are a typically touristy retired couple, and a scruffy American artist and his sexy young wife who seem to still be in the stage of their relationship where they can't keep their hands off each other. The only person who pays much attention to Jane is a scruffy street kid named Mauro who acts as her informal guide around town. One evening, we see a local man admiring her at an outdoor bistro, and when she notices him noticing her, she panics and leaves. But the next day, she sees a lovely red glass goblet in a shop window, and the owner of the shop, Renato (Rossano Brazzi, pictured with Hepburn), turns out to be the man from the restaurant. He's handsome and kind and seems genuinely interested in drawing her out; she remains resistant but slowly starts to melt and soon they're actively dating. One night after an outdoor concert, he kisses her in a dark alleyway and she kisses him back before muttering "I love you," and going back to her hotel. The next day, she learns that the American artist is having a fling behind his wife's back with Signora Fiorini, which upsets her. That night, as she is to meet Renato for dinner, Jane learns that Renato is married and has three children. When she meets him, he explains that he and his wife are separated, but Jane remains a bundle of nerves—the magic of Venice feels more threatening than miraculous, and her instinct is to dismiss him. But when Renato scolds her for being unrealistic and unwilling to accept the situation she's in, she begins to change her mind.

Based on a play (The Time of the Cuckoos) by Arthur Laurents, this was the last relatively small-scale movie David Lean made before turning to epics like Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. It's beautifully photographed by Jack Hildyard and contains some good performances, and in some ways it feels like a version of Lean's earlier BRIEF ENCOUNTER, but ultimately it winds up an average 'spinster' story. Part of the problem is Hepburn; she has a spirit and fire she can't quite hide, so her character doesn't really ring true. She had the same problem playing a similar character in The Rainmaker two years later. Rosanno Brazzi is quite good as the sweet-natured scoundrel—we have to take his word for his marital situation and we don't get much other background about him, but Brazzi makes him handsome, charming and sympathetic. A young Darren McGavin is the adulterous artist and Italian actress Isa Miranda is quite good as Fiorini, and I was sorry we didn't see more of her character. It's all pretty to look at but finally insubstantial. [DVD]

Thursday, December 08, 2022


It's Friday afternoon in the small Arizona town of Bradenville. We see a traveling salesman (Stephen McNally) arrive at the hotel. Two associates (Lee Marvin and J. Carroll Naish) arrive soon after by train. But the trio aren't businessmen, they're bank robbers, casing the downtown area in preparation for a Saturday noon holdup. In the bank, we meet a nerdy bank manager (Tommy Noonan) who, though married, ogles women and occasionally peeps in windows. In the library, we see a librarian (Sylvia Sidney) who, when she receives a past due notice from the bank threatening to put a lien on her wages, steals an unattended purse from a table. Elsewhere, a copper mine worker (Victor Mature) has to deal with breaking up a fight that his young son instigated when another kid called his dad a coward for not serving in WWII—he was kept home by the government for his important war work. Meanwhile, the copper mine manager (Richard Egan) is drinking too much because his wife has been having affairs, and that night, he drunkenly comes on to bar patron Virginia Leith, who has to help him get home, which sparks a confrontation between her and Egan's wife. Finally, we meet an Amish farmer (Ernest Borgnine) and his family who have strict non-violence beliefs. The next day, the "violent Saturday" of the title, most of the townspeople will have their lives changed by the bank robbery.

If this had been made a few years earlier, in black & white, in a square TV screen ratio, by B-film filmmakers, it might have been an interesting and moody film noir. But in widescreen and color and by a big studio (Fox), it's at best a quirky novelty. The first half of the movie plays out like the set-up for a small town melodrama TV series; the second half gets all the characters in place for their various involvements in the robbery, then the robbery and its aftermath occur in almost real time. Most of the soap opera situations get resolved, some for the good, some not. I don't want to give too many spoilers, but the most predictable resolution involves Victor Mature who gets to act heroically and make his son proud—though honestly, ten years seems like a long time for people, especially kids, to hold a wartime grudge. The Amish farmer's story has a particularly satisfying ending, though again predictable. Not all the resolutions are happy, and the story of the librarian doesn't really get one, unless I just missed it. The actors are all fine, with Noonan making the peeper relatively sympathetic. In the beginning, I had a hard time identifying the leads because Mature, McNally and Egan all have big, beefy faces, and it took me a few minutes to get McNally and Egan separated and settled. I can't recommended this without reservations about its pace, but the climactic battle almost made it worth sitting through. Pictured are Borgnine and Mature. [DVD]

Tuesday, December 06, 2022


In the office of the Morning Post, the managing editor, Gustav, and the news editor, Fredrik, are arguing about how the paper should take on the issue of Sweden's plunging birth rate. Gustav says the problems are rich bachelors and a housing shortage; Fredrik thinks it's a general lack of love. Fredrik's daughter Lena (Ingrid Bergman) is suffering in silence over her love for her married boss Johan (Lars Hansen), while Johan is suffering over the state of his marriage. He thinks having a child would help keep him and his wife Clary together, but she still feels too young and carefree to be burdened with children. Walpurgis Night rolls around, a time of spring celebrations. Lena, who has said nothing to Johan about her feelings, decides to quit her job, and when Clary tells Johan she doesn't want to spend the evening on the town with him, he asks Lena to join him and the two fall in love. Meanwhile, Clary discovers she is pregnant and goes to her doctor for an abortion, but instead he lectures her on the dignity that motherhood would bring to her, so she has it done illegally. This leads to a melodramatic turn of events: the abortionist is arrested, but the only record that Clary has of the abortion goes missing, and the small-time crook who stole it tries to blackmail Clary. As the story makes headlines in the Morning Post, Fredrik comes to believe that it was his daughter who had the abortion, and when the blackmailer is shot dead, Johan is the chief suspect. Can happiness possibly be in the cards for Lena and Johan?

This Swedish love triangle melodrama is notable for two things: the presence of the young Ingrid Bergman and the anti-abortion slant. Despite the overall serious tone of the narrative, the newspaper scenes, especially the discussions of birth rate, play out humorously. However, the first doctor's proclamation of the dignity of childbirth is clearly meant to be taken as the philosophy of the filmmakers. Though the proceedings are rather soapy (as in soap opera), the acting is solid. Bergman is actually the weakest of the leads, largely because her role is underwritten. Lars Hanson, who had a solid career in Hollywood silent movies but returned to Sweden with the advent of talkies, is quite good as Johan, and Victor Sjostrom is equally good as the father. Sjostrom is better known as the director of the silent classic THE WIND and as the lead in Ingmar Bergman's WILD STRAWBERRIES. Sture Lagerwell is also good in the small but important role of a newspaper tipster. Pictured are Bergman and Hansen. [TCM; Criterion Channel]

Friday, December 02, 2022


On stage 5 at Gaumont film studios, actor Neil Blair (Dennis Price), an extra in historical garb, is recognized by director Derek Engles (Robert Newton) who was Blair's commanding officer in the war. Engles pulls Blair aside and asks him to take on what seems to be relatively safe espionage activity: in the guise of a screenwriter (and accompanied by Wesson, a cameraman), he's to head off to a small ski resort cottage in the Italian Alps and watch the comings and goings of the small number of guests. Blair is not told what he's looking for, only that Engles will eventually show up and ask for a report. When Blair and Wesson arrive, they are told adamantly by the proprietor Aldo that there are no rooms for them, but one of the other guests, Valdini, who seems to have some clout with Aldo, manages to get the situation cleared up though Aldo remains antagonistic. Soon, Blair meets the other guests, all of whom seem to know each other but are reluctant to admit it. In addition to Valdini, there's a contessa whom Blair thinks he recognizes from his past; Mayne, an ex-army officer; and the German Keramikos (Herbert Lom) who, we eventually discover, was in the Gestapo. There are mysterious meetings by moonlight, an arranged injury on a ski slope, and plots of betrayal before we discover what's at stake: a treasure in Italian gold stolen by Nazis that is supposedly buried near the cottage.

Despite its inclusion in a DVD set called British Noir, this is in no way a film noir. Enjoy it for what it is: a mid-budget British post-war spy thriller with an interesting setting and some fun characters who are not quite what they seem at first. As one might expect, Herbert Lom (pictured) takes top acting honors as a man whom we like, then dislike, then we're not sure about—he keeps us on our toes. Price is OK if a little low-energy for a spy movie lead. French actress Mila Parely is better known for her work in French films (Beauty and the Beast, Rules of the Game) but she's fine here as a character who keeps her secrets close to her chest (though her final secret, revealed, sort of, in the last scene, is disappointing). Stanley Holloway (Eliza's father in My Fair Lady) is fun as the cameraman, and I also liked Guy Middleton as Mayne and Marcel Dalio as Valdini. The first half is a little slow-going as it sets its characters up, but the last half picks up considerably on the ski slopes and with the arrival of a blizzard that leaves them all, yes, snowbound. The tense ending is a little reminiscent of The Maltese Falcon or Treasure of the Sierra Madre. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 30, 2022


Mark (Michael Cole, pictured) and his pregnant wife Catherine (Deborah Walley) are vacationing at a mountain cabin when Catherine goes into premature labor. They charter a small plane from Tony (Johnny Desmond) to get her to a hospital but they're caught in a storm and make an emergency landing near a small village that resembles an Old West town. They get Catherine to a hospital where a doctor (Warner Anderson) delivers her healthy baby, but Mark and Tony are concerned by the odd appearance of the town, which seems to be made up of movie set buildings and props, and the strange behavior of the townspeople who act like automatons, repeating actions and stock phrases ("Taxi, Mister?" is all the taxi driver says) as though they have no will—though Tony manages to find some comfort that night with a show girl he meets in a saloon. When the three try to leave, they realize that the town is encircled by an invulnerable transparent bubble, and that periodically, a gigantic and presumably extraterrestrial being reaches down from the sky to carry a person off. As the three look for ways to escape, they must be careful not to become victims of the aliens.

This was originally released in 3D, in a format called Space-Vision, and watching the film flat as I did, you can see lots of gimmicky shots that would stand out in 3D: a Can-Can dancer; a tray of drinks (with very visible wires attached) that, with no explanation, rises up and floats in the air; umbrellas opening and closing, and more. The standard critical take on this movie is that it's an overlong Twilight Zone episode, and indeed that's what comes to mind while watching it, even some very specific stories that involve people plunked down in mysterious and artificial landscapes ("Where Is Everybody?," "Elegy," and one of my favorites, "Stopover in a Quiet Town"). At 90 minutes (cut down from an earlier version at nearly two hours), this feels too long, with lots of padding in the way of people whining and wandering around to no purpose. The special effects, such as they are, are cut-rate and unimpressive—for example, we never see the giant aliens, only their shadows as they grab people out of the bubble. The story is intriguing but don't expect a solid resolution to the story; it feels like the screenwriter, Arch Oboler (also the director), either just got tired and gave up or cared more about creating 3D ballyhoo. The acting is all over the map. Michael Cole (a teen idol of mine from his Mod Squad days) occasionally slips into sleepwalking mode, probably needing more direction than he was given, but generally is fine as a kind of average-guy figure caught in circumstances he can't fathom. Deborah Walley is pretty bad, but mostly because of what she's given to do, which is to hover on the edge of hysteria and act helpless. Johnny Desmond, best known as a big band singer in the 40s, is quite good as Tony, but he is underused. Warner Anderson, who despite a solid career as a character actor is unbilled, is fine as the doctor, the only townsperson to develop a personality. Despite this film's bad reputation, it does have a cult following, and it remains watchable. If I had the chance to see it in 3D, I'd watch it again. Rereleased later as Fantastic Invasion of Planet Earth. [Streaming]

Monday, November 28, 2022


In Rome, the lovely Maria (Sophia Loren) and the handsome Pasquale (Vittorio Gassman) meet cute one morning when both are drinking their morning coffee across the street from each other. A singer by trade, he bursts into an aria and asks her to marry him. She does. Months later, he has lost his job and they are struggling to get by. Maria revisits the Holy Souls in Purgatory orphanage where she grew up and visits Alfredo (Mario Adorf), the director of the orphanage, which he has made rich by setting up a saint statues factory. She tells him her problems, unaware that Alfredo has had a crush on her since she lived there. Meanwhile, Pasquale discovers an offer almost too good to be  true: he can rent a 17th century palace in the middle of the city for free, as long as he agrees to keep the place clean for the absentee owner. The one drawback is that the place is supposed to be haunted by the ghost of a duke, but that doesn't bother Pasquale. Soon, Alfredo sneaks his way into the house, hiding in an attic room, hoping to seduce Maria into an affair. When Pasquale sees him in the house, he thinks Alfredo is the Duke's ghost. Farce ensues. For the most part, this is a cute and effective comedy, though it relies on a far-fetched solution to everyone's problems at the end. I've not seen much of Loren and she's good at farcical comedy, and Gassman and Adorf are even better. The scene in which Pasquale first sees Alfredo and thinks he's a ghost is perhaps the highlight of the movie, and a simple procession of nuns near the end provides another big laugh. When the sales agent is insisting there's a ghost in the house, Pasquale says, "Don't sound like Dracula all the time!" But the name of the orphanage provides the biggest laugh in the film. Worth seeing. Picture are Loren and Gassman. [TCM]

Thursday, November 24, 2022


This animated adaptation of a story by Hans Christian Andersen was made in Russia in 1957 and was an inspiration to Japanese animation master Hayao Miyaziki (Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle). The version I saw was the 1959 American release through Universal with new voices and a new musical score. The opening sequence has the feel of a Bing Crosby family Christmas special, with a somewhat uncomfortable looking Art Linkletter (a TV host known for his "Kids Say the Darndest Things" segments on his show House Party) handing out presents to children as a lead-in to the movie. We see a Mr. Magoo-ish character named Old Dreamy climb out of a book of Hans Christian Andersen stories. Accompanied by his magic "slumberella"—which induces dreams in Andersen's sleep that he can then write out in the daytime—he tells of a young boy and girl, Kay and Gerda, who are best friends. One snowy winter night, Gerda's grandmother tells them that snowflakes are actually "snow bees" controlled by the cold, unfeeling Snow Queen. Later, the children see the Snow Queen's face at the window, and she comes sweeping into the room and shoots ice splinters at Kay, turning him into a cold, uncaring person. The next day, when Kay has been mean to Gerda, the Snow Queen returns and kidnaps Kay to live with her in her ice castle up north. Gerda decides to search for Kay with some help and hindrance from a sorceress, a raven, and a young bandit girl who keeps her pets cruelly locked up and loves to threaten people and animals with her knife. 

I believe I've read the original Andersen story (and I know that Disney's Frozen is loosely based on it) but it hasn't stuck in my mind, so I don’t know how faithful this film is, though it certainly has a strong fairy tale 'quest' feel with a dreamy, sometimes illogical flow to the adventures. The bandit girl is one example; she's mean and bitter until suddenly when she changes personality for no particular reason. The animation is quite nice, with an icy blue palette predominating. I suspect that 21st century children would not be likely to take to its old-fashioned non-CGI style, and it's dated even further by its occasional resemblance to the 1930s Max Fleischer movies (HOPPITY GOES TO TOWN). The English dub features the voices of teen stars Sandra Dee (Gerda), Tommy Kirk (Kay) and Patty McCormack (the robber girl) in addition to old voice pros Paul Frees and June Foray. It's not quite a musical though there are a couple of so-so songs. Overall, the production seems ambitious but uninspired; perhaps the original Russian version would prove more interesting. [DVD]

Tuesday, November 22, 2022


I am not a fan of opera or ballet but I am a fan of the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and this is one of the few of their films I had avoided over the years because it's an opera made up of linked stories with balletic elements. But on a fine fall afternoon, I girded my loins and popped this DVD in the player. In the opening, the prima ballerina Stella (Moira Shearer) is performing in a ballet about a dragonfly. The poet Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) waits for a note from Stella suggesting a meeting place after the show, but the note is waylaid by his rival Lindorf (Robert Helpmann, who plays all the villainous characters in all the stories). At intermission, Hoffmann goes to a nearby student tavern and regales the drinking lads with stories of three of his past romances gone wrong. The first involves Olympia (Shearer), an automaton built by the inventor Spalanzani (Helpmann); as long as Hoffman is wearing the magic glasses of Coppelius (also Helpmann), he sees her as fully human. In a disturbing but effective scene, Olympia is pulled apart, limb by limb, leaving just her head on the floor. The second, set in Venice, is centered on the courtesan Giulietta (dancer and choreographer Ludmilla Tcherina) whose Satanic-looking master wants her to steal Hoffmann's reflection. In the last story, Antonia (Ann Ayars) is a singer suffering from a debilitating illness (it seems like consumption) who has been forbidden to sing lest the attempt kill her, though the vampiric-looking villain Dr. Miracle encourages her to sing, perhaps just so Hoffmann can't have her. In the end, Stella shows up at the tavern just as Hoffmann passes out from drink and storytelling exertion.

I don't know what to make of this all in terms of plot, though having read some of Hoffmann's somewhat Gothic fairy tales, I feel like the tone of the proceedings is faithful to his work. But as a work of cinema art, this is a sumptuous feast of color, with beautiful sets and costumes. Though most assuredly not simply a filmed opera, it does remain deliberately artificial and theatrical throughout, a sign perhaps that narrative is not its main concern. My attention would occasionally drift, but beautiful visuals or interesting special effects brought me back into the movie. Rounseville and Helpmann give fairly strong actorly performances, and though I'm not the best judge of the opera and ballet arts, the singing and dancing seemed fine. For a modern audience, one casting choice stands out. Pamela Brown plays Hoffmann's buddy Nicklaus. Dressed in men's clothing and wearing a short haircut, she doesn't sing but she is visible frequently, his/her face shown reacting to various actions of Hoffmann's, and once or twice, even seeming to look with longing at Hoffmann. I don't know how deliberate this was—apparently it was common onstage for the singing part in the opera to be played by a woman—but it added a nice extra frisson for my viewing enjoyment. Quite gorgeous, if a little empty in terms of plot and emotion. There were times when I felt like I was watching a movie-length version of the Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse "Broadway Rhythm" number from SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. [DVD]

Sunday, November 20, 2022


In late 1800s Venezuela, Abel (Anthony Perkins) is trying to escape the revolutionary street fighting in Caracas; with men and dogs following him, he grabs a ride with a priest on a boat going down the Amazon. His father was killed by rebels and Abel plans to eventually make his way back and seek revenge after finding gold rumored to be in the interior lands. The priest warns him about the natives who have a habit of practicing their headshrinking skills on strangers, advising him the natives admire bravery and the ability to talk non-stop for long periods of time. On his first day in the jungle, he is almost attacked by a jaguar but saved by natives. Brought before Chief Runi, he undergoes a day standing in the hot sunshine, talking non-stop, before Runi decides to free him. Runi's son Kua-Ko (Henry Silva), having spent time with missionaries, can speak English and warns him away from the forbidden forest where there lives a mysterious woman, a bird spirit, who was responsible for the death of Kua-Ko's brother. Abel goes exploring anyway, is bit by a snake and passes out. He awakens two days later having been cared for by an old man named Nuflo (Lee J. Cobb) and the bird girl, Rima (Audrey Hepburn), who is not a spirit but a girl who was saved from a village massacre by Nuflo, whom she thinks of as her grandfather. Romantic feelings develop between Abel and Rima, and when Abel discovers that Kua-Ko is about to journey into the forbidden land to kill Rima, he figures out that it was actually Kua-Ko who killed his brother. And Rima soon realizes that her 'grandfather' may have been culpable in the destruction of her village. Bad things ensue all around.

Words like "mystical" and "romantic" are used to describe the original novel by W.H. Hudson from 1904 (and still in print) and the movie is often labeled as fantasy or magical realism. The film is romantic, the visuals do suggest fantasy, and there is a touch of the mystical, especially in the final moments, but overall it's too earthbound to qualify as fantasy. Comparisons to Lost Horizon make a little more sense, as an amorphous spirituality does crop up here and there, but at heart, it's mostly a jungle melodrama, not too far from the Tarzan movies. Hepburn does a nice job incarnating the slightly otherworldly Rima. Perkins (pictured above) does not exactly fit the bill of an revenge-seeking adventurer—in the original novel, the character is a poet and including that in the movie would have made Perkins more believable—but still, he's OK here. Henry Silva makes a good (and hunky) villain you love to hate, Cobb is fine, and Sessue Hayakawa, as Runi, doesn't have much to do but looks appropriately 'jungle regal.' Most of the film was shot on lush-looking studio sets which look quite good, and there is a little background footage that was filmed on location, but there are some jarring cuts between the gorgeous green jungles and some California exteriors that look nothing like Venezuela. The primary element of mysticism has to do with the afterlife—Rima shows Abel the hatha flower which, according to her, dies after it blooms but always blooms again elsewhere, a point that is crucial to the ending which is not necessarily coherent but is beautifully shot. [TCM]

Friday, November 18, 2022


Dr. Bryant is working on a radar gun that can shoot an atomic ray to destroy aircraft from the ground. Bryant goes to Kent Fowler, who runs an airplane-based security service, to get protection from possible spies, in particular a mysterious UFO that occasionally appears over Bryant's lab. One night, Fowler manages to shoot it down but before Fowler can get to the wreckage, the UFO's occupant. Mota, a man from Mars, has escaped. Mota finds Bryant, a Nazi sympathizer, and tells him that Hitler failed in his quest for world domination only because he lacked the right weaponry. Mota can help Bryant perfect his ray, and Bryant can then help the Martians to rule the Earth. Bryant agrees, and plays both sides by continuing to ask for Fowler's protection even as he hires a couple of henchmen to help him steal enough uranium to power the new and improved weapons. Mora sets up a headquarters in an active volcano (foreshadowing, anyone?) using equipment that was left there by a previous Martian mission, and builds a new "flying disc" ship like the one that brought him to Earth. Over 12 chapters, Fowler, with his associate Steve and secretary Helen, try to keep the bad guys away from the uranium and to stop the blackmailing of major corporations as Mora and Bryant threaten destruction unless they get cooperation. 

The 1950's serials were made on lower budgets than the ones from the genre’s heyday in the 40s (which were themselves usually low-budget affairs), and this one, made in about three weeks, is no exception. It's filled with recycled footage from earlier serials and repeated shots, mostly of the disc plane taking off and landing. The villain, Mora (Russian actor Gregory Gaye), spends most of his time making proclamations, sometimes wearing a business suit and sometimes in a sparkly spacesuit, as pictured at left. The two henchmen (Harry Lauter and Richard Irving) have more personality than Mora. The hero, Walter Reed as Fowler, is passable but not especially charismatic. Helen (Lois Collier) is, as is typical for the female serial lead, left with not much to do aside from passing along messages and getting caught once or twice in a cliffhanger, but she does at least get to shoot someone dead. Sandy Sanders, as Steve, is bland, which leaves Harry Lauter (as Drake, one of the henchmen) by default as the only standout because he manages to work up some enthusiasm for his nefarious, if constantly foiled, deeds. Among the better cliffhangers: Fowler is tossed from a plane and manages to make a soft landing in a haystack; Fowler lies unconscious beneath a heavy metal door sliding down toward him; Fowler appears to suicidally fly his plane into a missile to stop it from destroying a bridge. Most of the fisticuffs scenes are quite effective, with some wild swings and tosses. Not one of the better serials but the fact that I stuck with it says something in its favor. [Blu-ray]

Wednesday, November 09, 2022


At a fancy charity ball, the hostess sings a song perfectly imitating the old performing style of Lady Edgware (Jane Carr), a former American chorus girl who married into wealth and a title and is present at the ball with Martin, her companion. She tells a friend she would like nothing better than to get rid of her husband, jokingly (we assume) saying that in Chicago, she could have him bumped off. Her friend's reply: "We feel human beings have a right to live—even husbands." Lady Edgware approaches the famous detective Hercule Poirot (Austin Trevor, at right) and his associate Capt. Hastings (Richard Cooper), and asks them to persuade Lord Edgware to give her a divorce. When Poirot calls, Edgware insists that he has already agreed to the divorce and had sent his wife a letter to that effect when he was visiting America a while back. The next morning, Edgware is found dead at his home, and two people positively identify his wife as the last person to see him alive, but as Poirot investigates, he discovers that Lady Edgware was at a party when she was supposedly at Edgware's house. The obvious suspect is the singer who imitated Lady Edgware at the ball, but she also winds up dead, and Poirot and Hastings are soon on the hunt, finding more people with motives for wanting Edgware dead, including the Duke of Merton (whom Lady Edgware wanted to marry) and Edward Marsh, a nephew who would come into money and a title on Lord Edgware's death.

The complaint most often voiced about this film, the earliest Agatha Christie film adaptation still in existence, is that Poirot is nothing like the way Christie presents him in her stories. Even those who've never read Christie are likely to have seen Albert Finney or Peter Ustinov or David Suchet play the Belgian sleuth, and it's true that Austin Trevor does not look or act or talk like the other Poirots—he is relatively tall and has no mustache, though the Belgian accent remains. Even more surprising is the portrayal of Hastings—Cooper plays him as a comic relief bumbler, a bit like Nigel Bruce would play Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes. But unless you’re an obstinate purist, I think most fans of classic-era mysteries would enjoy this. It's well-paced and, though I was not familiar with any of the actors here, well-acted, and the mystery plays out nicely. [YouTube]

Monday, November 07, 2022


In 1929, movie director Franklin Ferrara is murdered in a bungalow on the grounds of National Artists studio. Silent stars Amanda Rousseau and Roland Paul and Ferrara's assistant Charles Rodeo (rumored to have been Ferrara's brother) all visited the bungalow the night of the murder and are caught up in the scandal, but the murder is never solved. Charles disappears and the careers of the actors are ended. Some twenty years later, Broadway producer Larry O'Brien (Richard Conte) and his agent Mitch Davis make a deal to reopen the studio where O'Brien intends to make a movie based on the murder. O'Brien’s financial partner (Fred Clark) is against it, and a cop (Richard Egan) advises O'Brien about the dangers of stirring up the past, but he forges ahead. He hires some silent movie stars to play in the film, and when he discovers Ferrara's screenwriter Vincent St. Clair (Henry Hull), living penniless as a beach bum, O'Brien hires him to write the script. Amanda's daughter Sally (Julie Adams) shows up, saying that Amanda was Ferrara's lover and that, though most people suspected Roland Paul of being the murderer, she doesn't think he was, and she wants him to give up the film for the sake of those concerned who are still alive. When someone takes a shot at O'Brien, he becomes more determined not just to make the movie but to solve the twenty-year old murder.

The idea behind this is interesting: it's based on the still-unsolved murder of silent film director William Desmond Taylor which involved a starlet he may have had an affair with—or was he gay?. (I highly recommend a 1986 nonfiction book called Cast of Killers by Sidney Kirkpatrick, largely based on research on the murder done by film director King Vidor.) This starts out well as the pieces all get put in place, but as the tension should grow, it slacks off. Richard Conte, a reliable B-lead, is only so-so here, lacking leading man energy. The other actors are serviceable. Especially good are Jim Backus, in a small role as Mitch the agent, and Henry Hull as the broken-down screenwriter. A handful of silent stars, including Francis X. Bushman, appear as themselves in a very short scene inspired by Sunset Boulevard, and Joel McCrea has a cameo as himself. William Castle, before the 60s horror films that made his name, directs in a journeyman fashion. An OK time passer, but a little frustrating given the potentials of the plot. Pictured are Adams and Conte. [DVD]

Saturday, November 05, 2022


At Wyndham College for Girls, Terry Taylor has a secret: she is an up-and-coming singer and songwriter under the name Joanie Harper. Her first song, "Help Stamp Out Men," was described by one listener as "the Kinsey Report set to music." Her new one, "Get Yourself a College Girl,"which she performs at a winter break party at the college, includes lyrics like, "She's at home with Freud--Siggy Freud!" Her fellow students know her secret, but she's afraid that she'll get in trouble if the administration finds out. However, when her song publisher, Gary Underwood, calls the school trying to contact her about doing some PR, the dean is notified, and soon the board is ready to expel her. The dean actually seems to be on Terry's side, but the board decides to take the Christmas break to consider the matter. Terry, with her friends Lynne and Sue Ann, takes off for a ski resort vacation, with a friendly teacher along as a chaperone. Senator Morrison, a board member, is against Terry, but because he's got an election coming up, he tags along in secret to get a feel for the youth vote. And guess who else shows up? Gary, the song publisher, who wants Terry to pose provocatively for an ad. Hilarity ensues, more or less.

Like many youth movies from the early 60s, this film's main appeal isn't really the plot or the actors, but the musical acts that perform throughout; in this case, we see Eric Burdon and the Animals (looking pretty uncomfortable, with Burdon notably lackadaisical about his lip-syncing), The Dave Clark Five (seeming a little more natural), and The Standells performing mostly second-tier material. The Jimmy Smith Trio, a jazz combo, gets some exposure, and most interestingly, Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto do their big hit "The Girl from Ipanema," with Astrud staring starkly at the camera with snow falling behind her. It feels almost avant-garde in the middle of a bland 60s rock-pop movie. Music aside, the movie is certainly watchable. Former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley acquits herself well as Terry, even if her singing is only so-so. Chad Everett (Gary, pictured with Mobley) is handsome, Joan O'Brien (the teacher) and Chris Noel (Sue Ann) are lovely and charming, and Willard Waterman (the senator) does the befuddled square nicely. Nancy Sinatra plays the other friend, Lynne, a newlywed; she meets her husband (the very handsome Paul Todd) at the resort and they spend the whole week having sex in their room, so anytime we see her, she's disheveled and dreamy-eyed. A group called the Rhythm Masters do a cute novelty tap dance. Fabrizio Mioni plays a romantic interest role for Sue Ann, and James Millhollin is the somewhat swishy assistant to the senator, who is never quite as funny as the movie wants him to be. It was filmed on studio sets rather than on location, which could have been a drawback, but the artifice of the backgrounds actually plays into the overall pop teen fantasy feel. I had more fun with this than I expected. [TCM]