Sunday, November 24, 2019

Last Christmas (2019)

Premiered November 8, 2019.

Kate (Emilia Clarke) is going through a rough patch as Christmas approaches. She has no real place to live, has flopped in her latest singing audition and has a complicated relationship with her immigrant family.  The only stable part of her life is her job. Kate works as an elf in a Christmas shop. Her boss “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh) likes her “elf,” but feels Kate’s work ethic has faltered ever since she recovered from a health crisis the previous Christmas.  

Her life improves when she meets a customer named Tom Webster (Henry Golding).  He encourages Kate to “look up” and appreciate all the good things in her life and in London.  Tom also suggests that Kate should swallow her pride and go stay with her parents, which she does.  

Kate and Tom spend lots of time together, exploring bits of London that she never knew existed.  When she visits a homeless shelter where Tom volunteers, Kate realizes she can fund raise for the shelter by singing Christmas songs in the street for money.    She learns that doing good things for others makes her feel much better about life.  

Will Kate manage to patch things up with the family and friends she has alienated?  Will she find happiness with Tom? You’ll have to go see this movie which was written by Emma Thompson and features the music of George Michael to find out. 

J.A. Morris says:

Last Christmas is a good movie that features a great cast.  Emilia Clark and Henry Golding are very likable actors and I found myself rooting for them right away.  Since Kate works in a Christmas specialty store, we get a lot more holiday decorations and imagery than you see in most Christmas films.  Emma Thompson is one of the greatest actresses of all time and she's great here as Kate's mother Petra.  

Michelle Yeoh is almost perfect playing the "good boss" role.  You might say that Yeoh's Santa character is a sort of "second mother" to Kate.

London is a great city and director Paul Feig does a nice job showing it off.  While the city is lit up for Christmas, the London of Last Christmas isn't a fairy tale version of the city, and the script isn't afraid to comment on current events in the UK (my co-blogger will say more about this).

I'll admit that I've never been a fan of the Wham! song that gave the film its title.  However, Clarke performs a version of "Last Christmas" that's a bit more up tempo and I liked it better than the original (and most other cover versions I can think of).  The soundtrack features "Last Christmas" and about a dozen other George Michael/Wham! songs.  So you'll probably like this film more if you're a George Michael fan. 

I'm reluctant to say too much because this movie is still in current release and I don't want to spoil the story.  So I'll just say that Last Christmas is recommended and I encourage fans of Christmas films to see it while it's playing on big screens.  George Michael fans will probably like it more than others.

J.A. Morris' rating:

3 candy canes.

RigbyMel says: 

Last Christmas is an enjoyable holiday trifle with a lot of heart.  Christmas movies do have a tendency to be pretty formulaic,  but this is a well-told holiday tale with a twist, that I don't want to spoil.  Credit is due to Emma Thompson for crafting a touching story. 

As J.A. Morris says, the cast is top-notch and the leads are appealing and likeable.   

Plus, it's always nice to see bits of London done up for the holidays.  We see a fair amount of Oxford Street as well as Covent Garden (where "Santa's" Christmas shop is located) and bits of Camden Market (I think) and Marylebone.  

It's not all fairy lights and tinsel though, and I appreciated the embedded message regarding Brexit- related xenophobia that is directly addressed in a couple of scenes and more subtly addressed by showing that London is (and has always been) a multicultural city via good casting choices.  

One's mileage may vary in terms of the soundtrack -- I quite like George Michael's oeuvre in general, but have never particularly been a fan of the title song -- but it's well used in service of the story and the uptempo version of "Last Christmas" sung by Kate and friends made me like the song a little better.

Overall,  Last Christmas is a very enjoyable holiday confection and is well worth a visit to the cinema this season if one is so inclined!  

RigbyMel's rating:  


Three and a half candy canes 

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Christmas Eve On Sesame Street

Premiered December 3, 1978. 

It’s Christmas Eve and the residents of Sesame Street are feeling the spirit of the season.  After a trip to the local ice skating rink, they pick out Christmas trees, sing holiday songs and shop for gifts.

Big Bird (Carroll Spinney) and his friend Patty (Debbie Chen) are excited about the impending arrival of Santa Claus.  However, he still has lots of questions about how the “Jolly Old Elf” can get down a chimney, let alone all of the chimneys.  Oscar the grouch (Spinney) has doubts about this and expresses these doubts rather rudely.  

He says that if Santa can’t fit down chimneys, kids won’t get presents.  Big Bird asks his friends Kermit (Jim Henson) and Grover (Frank Oz) to get children’s theories of how Santa delivers toys. 

Later, Ernie (Henson) spots a box in Mr. Hooper’s (Will Lee) store and thinks it would be a perfect place for his friend Bert (Oz) to keep his beloved collection of paper clips.  He has no money to pay for the box, so he offers Hooper his treasured rubber ducky as barter, which Hooper accepts. 

When Bert visits Hooper’s store, he sees a pink soap dish that would make the perfect home for Ernie’s rubber ducky.  He gives up his paper clips in exchange for the soap dish!

As evening approaches, Big Bird is determined to stay up and watch Santa make his way the chimney.  He goes to the roof of the Sesame Street apartment building so he can see what happens.  The heavy snow and frigid temperatures put Big Bird in jeopardy of freezing.  

Patty gets worried when Big Bird isn’t in his nest.  She goes to Gordon (Roscoe Orman), Susan (Loretta Long) and Maria (Sonia Monzano) for help locating their feathered friend.  

Will Big Bird see Santa arrive?  Will Bert and Ernie’s Christmas be "ruined" by their selflessness? 

Plus, Cookie Monster (Oz) tries to write a letter to Santa Claus! 

J.A. Morris says:

I rarely say this of anything we review, but this special is just about perfect.  I was born two years after Sesame Street debuted, so it was a big part of my childhood.  While the cast changed a bit while I was watching, this is more or less “my” Sesame cast.  So Christmas Eve On Sesame Street is a wonderful way to visit my old TV friends every December. 

The whole cast, puppets and humans is great, but Carroll Spinney is the real standout.  It probably wasn’t easy for Spinney to provide voice for Big Bird’s excitement about Santa and Oscar’s nastiness, but Spinney excels here. 

Frank Oz and Jim Henson's scenes as Bert and Ernie are among their best work.  Their performance of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” brings me tears of joy every time I watch it.  Their story line is one of the best versions of  "The Gift Of The Magi."

Big Bird asks Mr. Snuffleupagus (Jerry Nelson) to help him solve the Santa/Chimney conundrum.
Roscoe Orman is wonderful as Gordon.  Orman plays the perfect father figure for Big Bird, Patty and even Cookie Monster.  I also thought it was sweet that Susan and Gordon invited Cookie Monster and Big Bird to spend Christmas with them. 

Christmas Eve On Sesame Street features three new songs and they’re all great, with “Keep Christmas With You” being the best.  When I was a little boy who loved the holiday season, I tried to take the song’s message to heart.  I remember grabbing a notepad and writing down the lyrics so I’d remember them “all through the year!”

This special is highly recommended and especially recommended to everyone who loved this particular Sesame Street cast when they were kids. 

J.A. Morris’ rating:

4 candy canes!

RigbyMel says: 

As I am a few years younger than J.A. Morris, this 1978 special DEFINITELY features the Sesame Street cast I remember.    The special was appreciated when it first aired - it won the 1979 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Program - and it holds up wonderfully well.  

Impressively, Christmas Eve On Sesame Street manages to present the "spirit of the season" in a sweet, but not sappy way and does so in a completely secular context.   

There is even a nod to the fact that not everyone is crazy about the holidays with Oscar The Grouch's "I Hate Christmas" song and he is the primary antagonist for the episode.   Fortunately, he does reform a la Rankin-Bass a little bit -- he's grouchy, but not a monster, for pete's sake!  

I also like that the special "opens out" the world of the cast a little bit -- we see the Sesame Street gang ice skating (with a little help from the cast of Holiday on Ice) and riding the subway back uptown.   Plus the ice skating sequence with Big Bird and a little girl skating to "Feliz Navidad" is precious -- especially the little girl's genuine reaction when she hugs Big Bird at the end of the number. 

The songs are great  -- full disclosure,  my first ever live concert was seeing Bob McGrath on stage!  As J.A. Morris says, "Keep Christmas With You" is a standout.   However, I find that "True Blue Miracle" has been really sticking with me in recent years as well.   There's something really charming about the Caribbean tinged tune. 

The original Muppet performers always make me smile, wonderful touches abound, like Oscar being helped over the turnstiles in the subway and Kermit and Grover's interviews with kids regarding how Santa does his job.

Plus, the human cast all gets moments to shine.   I particularly love Bob's interactions with Linda Bove.  Linda teaches the kids how to sign "Keep Christmas With You" in ASL as a present to Bob.

Mr. Hooper's intervention into Bert & Ernie's "Gift of the Magi" tale is a delight also.  It's a nice touch that the Jewish character (Mr. Hooper) wants to make sure his friends have a merry Christmas!

Christmas Eve On Sesame Street is an absolute classic and worth sharing with your family each year if you don't already do so!  Cannot recommend this one highly enough!

RigbyMel's rating: 

4 candy canes!!!

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Be Cool Scooby Doo : "Halloween"

Premiered September 27, 2017.

"Halloween isn’t about candy and dressing up as topical celebrities.  The ancient roots of the holiday are tied to the autumn equinox and the Gaelic harvest festivals."

"Is no one else bothered by the crass commercialization of Halloween?"

"Like, I just noticed without candy as a distraction, Halloween is utterly terrifying and filled with disturbing imagery!"

When Fred Jones (Frank Welker)  was a little boy, he went trick or treating at a house he had never seen before.

Fred (center) trick or treating as a young boy, dressed as his favorite detective.
The house was occupied by a witch who terrorized Fred.  He escaped and brought the police to the house...but it was nowhere to be seen, nor was the witch.  For the first time, Fred’s detective skills were unable to solve a mystery.

On Halloween eleven years later, Fred is visiting a town called Newtown with his friends Scooby Doo (Welker) Shaggy (Matthew Lillard),Velma (Kate Micucci) and Daphne (Grey Delisle).  Shaggy, Scooby and Daphne are all excited about costumes and candy.

Shaggy and Scooby dressed as a pocket and candy vending machine.
Velma is upset about the crass commercialization of Halloween and reminds her friends of its ancient Celtic origins. Since Velma isn’t dressing up, Daphne wears a “Zombie Velma” costume for Halloween to annoy her.

In contrast to his friends, Fred plans to skip the Halloween celebrations and stay in his hotel room.  His “failure” to solve the mystery of the disappearing witch house has taught him that Halloween is the one night when mysteries are impossible to solve.  However, Fred’s friends eventually talk him into joining them for trick or treating.

Shaggy and Scooby’s quest for candy leads them to a house in the woods.  Unfortunately, it’s the residence of a witch!  She chases the gang until Scoob and Shag create a diversion.

The witch scares the locals so much that Newtown’s Neighborhood Watch cancels Halloween.

Fred realizes the house (and the witch) is the same one he stumbled on in a different town eleven years earlier!  But how could the house move?   Velma recalls a Russian folk tale about a witch named Baba Yaga who lived in a house that had chicken legs which enabled it to move around.

When the gang returns to the house to search for clues, the house sprouts chicken legs and chases them once again!

Could this witch really be the Baba Yaga?  Can Halloween be saved from cancellation?  Will Fred finally solve the mystery that has haunted him for eleven years?

J.A. Morris says:

As you may have gathered by looking at the screencaps above, Be Cool, Scooby Doo featured redesigned versions of Scooby and friends.  In spite of these changes, the characterizations and the stories were very much in the spirit of earlier Scooby TV series.

"Halloween" is a very good holiday episode.  In addition to the usual seasonal trappings, Velma gives her friends (and the viewers) a lesson about the Celtic origins of Halloween.  I'm guessing her complaints about the "commercialization" of All Hallow's Eve are meant to remind us of the similar sentiments Charlie Brown expressed about Christmas.

Like most Scooby Doo episodes, we get a "monster of the week" and entertaining chase scenes.  Baba Yaga is a great antagonist and using a witch from Russian folklore is a nice touch.

The voice actors here are all A+ cartoon talents.  Frank Welker does great performing double duty as Fred and Scooby Doo.  It's worth noting that Scooby displays a much more varied vocabulary that we've heard in earlier incarnations.  He exclaims "the logic is impeccable" near the beginning of "Halloween."  That's a big leap from his usual "ruh roh!"

Matthew Lillard, who played Shaggy in the live action movies is also great as Scooby's best bud.  Velma is voiced by Kate Micucci, best known for her work in the comedy musical duo Garfunkel and Oates (and she's also voiced tons of other animated characters) is a great Velma.  Rounding out the cast, Grey Delisle has been voicing Daphne since 2001 and she instills Daphne with a little more sarcasm and depth than in earlier iterations.

However, one thing bothered me about this episode.  Velma mentions refers to Halloween as Samhain, the original Gaelic name for the occasion.  She pronounces it "Sam Hane."  This bugged me, because I believe Velma, the smartest and most resourceful member of the mystery gang,  would make an effort to research Samhain and pronounce it correctly.  It gives me the impression that the writers and producers didn't do their research on Samhain.

"Halloween" is a very enjoyable Scooby Doo episode that is recommended for every fan of Scoob and gang.  The mispronunciation of Samhain prevents me from giving it our highest rating.

J.A. Morris' rating:


3 and a half jack o'lanterns.

RigbyMel says: 

"Halloween" is a fun episode of what looks to be a generally series.   Be Cool, Scooby Doo!  is the 12th incarnation of the franchise and has lots of meta-fun going on in it.   The characters may be redesigned, but their traits hew pretty closely to the original 1969 series, with perhaps a bit more of a comedic slant with gags going to all the characters, not just Shaggy and Scooby. 

Shaggy and Scooby take their trick-or-treat planning VERY seriously!
There are some great little in-jokes, like 11 year old Fred dressing up as his favorite Nordic detective.  I think I also spied a visual reference to The Creeper - a villain from the original series - in a scene involving kids out trick or treating.

The character redesign is fun rather than jarring in this series. 
Shaggy and Scooby's costumes and quest for candy were much appreciated as well and I really liked their attempt to fool the witch by promoting a fake cereal called "I Can't Believe It's Not The Fear Of Children."

I quite enjoyed this episode's references to Baba Yaga and to the Celtic origins of Halloween.   Unlike J.A. Morris, I am going to attribute Velma's mispronunciation of  "Samhain" to "reader vocabulary" (i.e., having read the word only and not being quite sure of how to pronounce it) and not hold it against her, or the show!

The central mystery of the witch traveling from town to town over the course of years and causing Halloween to be cancelled in each town visited rings interestingly in the current age of "trunk or treat" and generally spurious Halloween candy paranoia.

Shaggy and Scooby are disappointed they only collected a "mound" of candy, rather than a "mountain"
This is a super-fun Halloween episode with trick or treating, candy, witches, zombies, folklore (of the Celtic AND Russian variety) and the Scooby Gang.  It's well worth a look should you have the time and inclination. 

RigbyMel's rating:

4 jack o lanterns!