Hello 2019!

Hello All,

I hope your first month of 2019 is progressing well. Apologizes for the lack of posting. Funnily enough, in order to write book and movie reviews, one needs to read said books and watch movies.  New postings coming soon!

In the meantime, enjoy Pride & Prejudice: Book Versus Movie and the Top 5 Robin Hood Novels, which seems to be what everyone is reading.

Cheers.

2018 Film Reviews.

A quick rundown of all the films I saw this year but never got around to reviewing. 

I Feel Pretty (April 20)

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  • Starring: Amy Schumer, Michelle Williams
  • Decent storyline but rather insulting. Schumer has some acting abilities but the writers let her down with this script. Williams’ “little-girl” voice is insanely annoying and grating. The whole premise of this film is that Schumer’s character proves her worth by knowing that “bargain” makeup comes with an applicator brush. Okay. The marketing team of this “makeup company” deserves layoff notices for not knowing this already.

Ocean’s 8 (June 8)

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  • Starring: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Awkwafina, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, Anne Hathaway
  • The screenwriters forgot to add in any excitement. Ocean’s 11, 12, & 13 succeeded because the films got to the caper within 30 minutes. This film spends most of the narrative introducing all the characters and trying too hard to be clever.  Furthermore, none of the characters really stands out in any way. All the actors involved possess the ability to play more complex characters than the uninspired stereotypes in this boring rehash of a more exciting film.

Venom (October 5)

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  • Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate
  • Surprisingly humorous for what is essentially a body horror film. Venom, a symbiotic life form, takes over Eddie Brock’s body and proceeds to wreak havoc on New York City. This films is definitely not appropriate for younger audiences, it is quite dark. Tom Hardy does an excellent job playing Brock as a conflicted individual without falling into caricature. However, the ending seemed a tad anti-climactic and an overly easy resolution. I look forward to seeing the sequel.

The Incredibles 2 (June 15)

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  • Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Brad Bird, Samuel L. Jackson
  • While enjoyable, I did not think the story was as tight as the first film. The action drags slightly in the middle and the villain is a little too convenient. I wanted more of Edna! Overall, a decent sequel that took excessively long to make. A solid, enjoyable follow up to the original.

Tag (June 15)

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  • Starring: Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson, Ed Helms, Hannibal Buress, Jeremy Renner
  • Probably the first “adult oriented” comedy I have enjoyed in the last fifteen years. This is not a deep story but the narrative provides some insightful comments about friendship amongst adults. It is funny without falling into overt crassness. All the actors play off each other quite well and obviously had a blast during filming. I highly recommend this film.

Black Panther (February 16)

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  • Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan
  • Marvel does The Lion King. I loved the visuals and the world building. Ryan Coogler, the director, did an excellent job of filling in the history of Wakanda without slowing down the narrative’s momentum. A solid Marvel superhero origin movie.

Bohemian Rhapsody (November 2)

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  • Starring: Rami Malek, Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, Josph Mazzello, Lucy Boynton
  • Queen Rocks! Malek deserves a Best Actor nomination from the Academy for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury.  He does a superb job portraying the hugely talented Mercury who only wanted to make music and find some shred of happiness in his life. The film mostly focuses on the musical evolution of Queen and how they became one of the most popular rock bands in history. The screenwriter takes some artistic liberties with the sequence of events, but is, overall, an excellent rock music biography.

Mission Impossible: Fallout (July 27)

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  • Starring: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Vanessa Kirby
  • Watch the film that cost Warner Brothers $24 Million dollars. Yes, Cavill’s mustache caused production problems with Justice League. MI:6 holds nothing back and delivers one of the better Mission Impossible films of the past few years. Cruise, as always, delivers a solid performance as Ethan Hunt and completes several death-defying stunts. Narrative wise, this is one of the better-constructed story arcs in the series and actually pits Hunt against a worthy adversary. Excellent job and I hope this is not the last one.

A Wrinkle in Time (March 9)

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  • Starring: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling
  • I hate this movie. If you like the book, stay away from this film. The screenwriter removed all the religious and philosophical undertones and replaced them with a new-age mysticism, which renders the plot meaningless and hollow. Chris Pine’s character is a deadbeat, Charles Wallace is adopted, and Calvin only likes Meg because of her hair. Read the book. Your imagination will probably conjure up a more satisfying cinematic experience.  

12 Strong (January 12)

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  • Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Pena, Michael Shannon, Geoff Stults
  • A decent military action film that needed some more militant editing. While well-acted, the narrative definitely drags and makes the film feel longer than its run time.

Gringo (March 9)

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  • Starring: Charlize Theron, Joel Edgerton, Sharlto Copley, David Oyelowo, Thandie Newton
  • A very black comedy that asks some probing questions about happiness, marriage, and corporate culture. This is definitely unlike anything else you will watch this year. Worth the cost of the Amazon Prime rental.

Pacific Rim: Uprising (March 23)

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  • Starring: Scott Eastwood, John Boyega, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman
  • Please, un-cancel the Apocalypse and save humanity from this movie. This film spent an excessive amount of time on the forgettable cadets and not enough time on the Kaiju. Not enough monsters and an over helping of teenage angst. No one goes to a monster film to listen to a bunch of adults complain about the lack of meaning in their lives. A more accurate title: Pacific Rim: Existential Crisis in 3 Acts.

Avengers: Infinity War (April 27)

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  • Starring: Everyone
  • Excellent film where everyone you expected to die does. The ending felt incredibly anti-climactic since it seems unlikely that Marvel’s favorite superheroes will remain dead.

Overboard (May 4)

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  • Starring: Anna Faris, Eugenio Derbez, Eva Longoria
  • An unneeded and unasked for remake of the 1987 Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell film. Faris possesses excellent comedic timing but this film wastes her talent. Derbez is okay but has zero sexual chemistry with Faris. This is a scene-by-scene remake of the 1987 film with the roles reversed. The soundtrack is the most memorable part of the film.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado (June 29)

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  • Starring: Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan
  • Thanos goes to Mexico. A thought provoking sequel to Sicario. This excellently acted movie makes you think. I highly recommend.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Grindelwald (November 16)

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  • Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Dan Fogler, etc…
  • Visually stunning and an entertaining ride back into the Harry Potter Universe. The first movie, in my opinion, lacked any kind of plot or overarching narrative. This one has a much stronger plot and a believable villain. I enjoyed it. My one problem is you can tell it is the second film in a five-part franchise as there is absolutely no plot resolution. I am ready for part three.

Creed II (November 21)

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  • Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren Florian Munteanu
  • An enjoyable follow-up to Creed and a touching tribute to the classic Rocky films. Jordan infuses a lot of emotion into Adonis Creed and dominates the screen. Stallone and Lundgren both put in excellent interpretations of their classic characters trying to mentor their hot headed protégés. My one main critique was the rather heavy-handed use of melodramatic music. It got rather ridiculous in a few scenes. If you enjoy the Rocky Franchise, you will enjoy Creed II.

Top 27 Bad Romantic Comedies

Romantic comedies are enjoyable, feel good narratives that make you happy when done well. When executed poorly, romantic comedies make you want to swig a beer and never talk with a member of the opposite gender ever again. For the sake of brevity, I only included films released in cinemas in the last two decades and ones I could remember without looking up. Otherwise, this list would be endless.

He’s Just Not That Into You (2009)

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  • Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Connelly, etc..
  • I wish directors would stop making anthology films. 2009-2011 provided long-suffering romantic comedy fans with a series of increasingly forgettable anthology films. I forgot everything about this film as soon as the credits rolled. 

She’s Out of My League (2010)

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  • Starring: Jay Baruchel, Alice Eve
  • Kirk (Jay) falls in love with Molly (Alice). His lack of self-confidence and his friends get in the way of romance. I watched this movie in college and all I remember was an extended masturbation scene. It was gross.

Kate & Leopold (2001)

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  • Starring: Hugh Jackman and Meg Ryan
  • I love Hugh Jackman, he is one of my favorite actors. But he has zero chemistry with Ryan and it is painfully obvious. Also, is New York City’s dating scene so bad that you would give up your career, indoor plumbing, air conditioning, and refrigeration just to be with some guy in 1876? Have fun.

Someone Like You… (2001)

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  • Starring: Hugh Jackman and Ashley Judd
  • Man-hating, anti-monogamy career woman discovers all she needs is love. I only watched this because of Jackman. All I remember is a scene involving lowing cattle. Exactly the mood setter I want during a romantic-comedy.

Rumor Has It (2005)

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  • Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Mark Ruffalo, Shirley Maclaine, Kevin Costner
  • A romantic comedy based upon the sequence of events that “inspired” The Graduate. Sarah (Aniston) runs out on Jeff (Ruffalo) because Beau (Costner) might be her actual father.  Naturally she sleeps with Beau. The only memorable part of this film are the flip-cellphones.

Monster-in-Law (2005)

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  • Starring: Jane Fonda, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Vartan, Wanda Sykes
  • This would have been better if Fonda and Sykes were the couple getting married. I watched this while I had the flu and I think it prolonged my illness.

Made of Honor (2008)

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  • Starring: Patrick Dempsey, Michelle Monaghan
  • Tom (Dempsey) cannot admit that he loves Hannah (Monaghan). The he shames her for ordering fried dumplings at dim sum. She runs off with a hot Scottish guy and Tom tries to win her back. No need to see the movie. That is the whole plot.

What Happens in Vegas (2008)

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  • Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Cameron Diaz
  • How do people get into these predicaments? I am genuinely curios. Did the screenwriters hang out in Vegas and write this while intoxicated?

Bride Wars (2009)

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  • Starring: Anne Hathaway, Kate Hudson, Chris Pratt, Steve Howey
  • Never get married, your best friend will hate you. Especially when you both want the same venue. I felt sorry for the grooms-to-be. What terrible women. 

The Ugly Truth (2009)

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  • Starring: Gerard Butler, Katherine Heigl
  • Two actors needing a hit come together to make a film that is both boorish and offensive. “Hopelessly single” but “drop dead gorgeous” Abby (Heigl) needs Mike (Butler) to coach her on how to suggestively eat a hot dog in order to seduce a sexy surgeon at a baseball game.  If anyone tried this advice in person, no would ever get married. Or have intimate relations ever again.

The Bounty Hunter (2010)

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  • Starring: Gerard Butler, Jennifer Aniston
  • Butler and Aniston should stay away from romantic comedies. The bounty hunter (Butler) is tasked with catching his ex-wife (Aniston). She objects. He puts her in the trunk of his car. Sparks fly.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)

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  • Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner
  • Thank goodness McConaughey transitioned into more dramatic roles. This is truly the bottom of the barrel. Connor (McConaughey) treats Jenny (Garner), horribly, yet, she takes him back. Run away Jenny, he is not worth your time! Jenny should have insisted on Connor undergoing STD testing.

All About Steve (2009)

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  • Starring: Sandra Bullock, Bradley Cooper
  • Bullock won a Razzie award for this turkey. Actual line of dialogue: “If you love someone, set him free; if you have to stalk him, he probably wasn’t yours in the first place.”

Couples Retreat (2009)

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  • Starring: A bunch of people who should of known better
  • Having marital problems? Drag your three closest couple friends with you to group therapy. Meanwhile, all the singletons fly to Ibiza just because they can. Decent idea for a movie, badly executed.

The Switch (2010)

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  • Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Patrick Wilson
  • Want a relationship with your super-attractive friend who is not interested? Contaminant the sperm sample she bought and secretly father her child. Apparently nothing can wrong.

When in Rome (2010)

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  • Starring: Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel
  • Nick (Duhamel) falls for Beth (Bell). She is convinced that she is under a love spell. Forgettable hijinks ensue. This is the perfect paint-by-numbers romantic comedy that forgot to be funny. Or even mildly amusing.

The Back-up Plan (2010)

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  • Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Alex O’Loughlin
  • Because someone as gorgeous as Lopez is going to be single. Any rom-com that opens with a montage of a woman looking longingly at every baby that crosses her path is off to a terrible beginning.

Something Borrowed (2011)

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  • Starring: Kate Hudson, Ginnifer Goodwin
  • The audience is meant to cheer for Rachel (Goodwin) to steal Darcy’s (Hudson) man because she did not have the confidence to make a move on him first. Yay a film about passive aggressive behavior and poor self-confidence. I have yet to meet anyone else who admits to seeing this.

New Year’s Eve (2011)

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  • Starring: Zac Efron, Lea Michele, Halle Berry, Ashton Kutcher, etc…
  • It’s Love Actually only with a dozen couples you will not be able to name or remember until the end credits roll.

Valentine’s Day (2010)

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  • Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx, etc..
  • See above. This is the film for all people who hate made-up-holidays. And good movies.

This Means War (2012)

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  • Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy
  • Lauren (Witherspoon) dates two guys at the same time. They both work for the CIA, because why not. This film screams “I’m only here because of my mortgage payment.”

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), Fifty Shades Darker (2017), Fifty Shades Freed (2018)

  • Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan
  • Lets be real, this “trilogy” is only successful because Christian Grey is attractive and rich. If he was older, out-of-shape, and dirt poor we would all call this perverted and watch is play out as an episode of Law & Order: SVU.

Fool’s Gold (2008)

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  • Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Kate Hudson
  • Honestly, I think this movie only got made because the cast and crew wanted to be paid to go on a Caribbean vacation. Hudson seems to play the same role in every film.

In The Mix (2005)

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  • Starring: Usher, Chazz Palminteri, Emmanuelle Chriqui
  • Romantic comedies, stereotypical mobsters, and Usher do not go together. It is a good thing Usher stuck to singing.

Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009)

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  • Starring: Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sam Elliott, Mary Steenburgen 
  • I had some friends with the last name Morgan who took a selfie with this poster. Them taking that photo was more memorable than this film.

My Boss’s Daughter (2003)

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  • Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Tara Reid
  • There is a reason Reid’s most successful franchise at the moment is Sharknado. She cannot act.

Because I Said So (2007)

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  • Starring: Mandy Moore, Diane Keaton, Gabriel Macht
  • I am fairly confident Keaton slept walked through this movie. Clumsy, bland, and forgettable, this film takes one basic premise-the obnoxious and interfering mother-and forgets to add in any other plot for almost two hours.

Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell-The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made

Themes explored: Hollywood, life, dreams, nonfiction, autobiography, memoir, culture, film, film history, pop culture, movie culture, independent film making, humor, cult classic, screenplays

Synopsis: From the actor who lived through the most improbable Hollywood success story, with an award-winning narrative nonfiction writer, comes the inspiring, fascinating and laugh-out-loud story of a mysteriously wealthy outsider who sundered every road block in the Hollywood system to achieve success on his own terms—the making of The Room, “the Citizen Kane of bad movies”.

 Readers need not have seen The Room to appreciate its costar Greg Sestero’s account of how Tommy Wiseau defied every law of artistry, business, and interpersonal relationships to achieve the dream only he could love. (From Goodreads).

Review: Everyone dreams of stardom. No one aspires to middle management. What exactly is stardom? Your name in lights? Instagram fame? Multiple magazine covers? These days everyone lives online. Between Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, WordPress (like moi), WhatsApp, YouTube, and so on, everyone can broadcast every moment of their life. Before Social Media, finding fame took slightly more work. Usually this involved moving to New York or Los Angeles, the two entertainment epicenters in America. New York specializes in singing, theater, and comedy. Los Angeles is the home to Hollywood and television. Both cities house stars, wannabes, reality stars, and the people who came for stardom but now serve coffee full-time.

Some people never took a chance on their dreams, majored in something practical, and settled down into a predictable American middle class life. Than there are the people who have tons of tenacity, the willingness to chase a dream, and minimal talent.

Enter Greg and Tommy, two dudes who wanted more out of life. Greg wanted to act. Tommy wanted fame. They met at an acting class and a cult classic emerged. Born into a comfortable middle class family, Greg fell in love with acting and the art of film making. When he was twelve, Greg sent John Hughes, the writer of Home Alone, a screenplay. While Hughes did not buy the screenplay, he encouraged Greg to keep trying and never giving upon his dream of working in the movies.

Greg’s parents did not want their nineteen-year-old son working in entertainment. They wanted him to pick something practical and stable. Greg had other ideas. He enrolled in acting classes and met Tommy, a guy with a shady history and lots of money. Tommy came from an undisclosed country yet swears to be a red-blooded American. He struggles to act, dies his hair black, and refuses to discuss anything personal. After moving to Los Angeles, Tommy and Greg decide to make a movie. Tommy wrote the screenplay and funded the film, to a tune of $6 Million dollars, making this one of the most expensive independent movies ever made.

The Room became a cult hit due to the terrible acting, slapdash directing, the mystery surrounding Tommy, and the inconsistent narrative. I learned about The Room in college. One of the multiple guys who fostered an unrequited crush on my roommate took me to a late night showing. My roommate was unavailable. Anyway, The Room was the weirdest film I have ever watched. Though throwing spoons at the screen was a novelty.

The Disaster Artist, now a feature film starring James and Dave Franco, relates Greg’s experiences with breaking into Hollywood and the circumstances that brought The Room into existence. Tommy certainly seems to suffer from a psychological disorder to some kind. He is extremely obsessive, jealous, and unable to read social cues of any kind. My brother stopped reading this book half way through since he kept getting mad reading about how Tommy treated Greg.

This book is not for everyone Greg holds nothing back. Indeed, it is actually amazing that Tommy was both weird yet oddly normal. He wanted what everyone else wants: recognition, family, success, some form of satisfaction with life, and belonging. The story is both fascinating and a little depressing. Here are two guys trying to make their deepest held dreams come true yet their own lack of talent and connections holds them back.

If you are a fan of The Room, a movie that is almost indescribable, or just a Hollywood nerd, The Disaster Artist is a quick look at the other side of the red carpet. Not everyone who comes to Hollywood leaves with accolades and money. Some leave with creepy billboards, a cult classic and pop culture infamy.

The Disaster Artist, Simon & Schuster, 2013, ISBN: 9781451661194

Christmas Movie Reviews

Now that December has arrived, my brother informed me that Christmas movies are now allowable. I feel Christmas is the only time of the year where I can admit to liking sappy stories without earning social derision. Somehow, the “magic” of the season makes everyone more willing to embrace emotion. Until January 2, then all sap must end immediately.

Christmas movies seem to fall into two categories: Watchable and Unbearable. Part of the problem, in my viewership experience, is the lack of strong story development. Most made-for-TV Christmas themed movies follow one of two narrative arcs:

Arc 1: Girl/Boy is deeply unhappy. She/He just broke up with a long-term romantic partner and he/she no longer likes their job/boss. The hero/heroine returns home and meets up with a former boyfriend/girlfriend. Sparks fly but old problems arise. Then the magic of the season makes them realize they love each other and the film ends with them kissing.

Arc 2: Insanely rich man/woman lacks an emotionally stable relationship. His/her significant other only likes him/her because of money/power/looks. Christmas season starts and the hero/heroine finds no joy in the season. To them, Christmas feels “hokey” and they can no longer find a reason to celebrate. Then a romantic interest and/or precocious child enters their life and melts their ice cold heart. Film ends with the hero/heroine either getting married or making significant changes to their company that reflects their new outlook on life.

A major problem with most Christmas movies is something I call “instant love”. This occurs when the hero/heroine meets their love interest and sparks fly immediately. They know nothing about each other but fall madly in love after three seconds of looking into each other’s eyes. Alternatively, they spend the whole film hating each other and acting hostile until the final act where they proclaim their undying love and then share a passionate kiss while the credits roll. Most television films follow this format since it requires little writing talent to create and does not ask much of the actors. However, this lack of development makes the film seem cheap and the story somehow unfinished. One reason Christmas movies (especially television movies) seem familiar is that most of them follow the same plot with various levels of acting talent.

Below are some of the Christmas Movies I recommend organized by Television/Streaming and Cinematic Release.

Television/Streaming

12 Dates of Christmas (ABC Family/Freeform)

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  • Starring: Amy Smart, Mark Paul Gosselaar
  • Synopsis: A story that follows Kate, a young woman who after a horrible blind date on Christmas Eve, wakes up to find she is re-living that same day and date all over again. (From IMDb)
  • Review: Groundhog Day set at Christmas with an unending blind date. This movie deftly explores loneliness, letting go, moving on, and embracing romance. Amy and Mark-Paul play off each other quite well and they make their characters’ romance seem plausible instead of hokey. I watch this every year.

The Spirit of Christmas (Netflix/Amazon Prime.YouTube/iTunes/Vudu)

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  • Starring: Thomas Beaudoin, Jen Lilley, Robert Walsh
  • Synopsis: A young lawyer must close out a client’s estate before Christmas this includes selling an Inn. She soon discovers that the Inn hides a few secrets, including a spirit that takes human form twelve days before Christmas. (IMDb)
  • Review: The name of this movie is a little misleading. It is not scary or creepy in anyway. Instead, it is a murder-mystery romance. Kate, the lawyer, ends up butting heads with Daniel, the former owner of the Inn who is now a ghost. Together they decide to figure out how Daniel died ninety years ago. This is one of the better “television” Christmas movies I have watched. Both characters are fully developed, the mystery is intriguing, the romance is not instantaneous, and the acting is excellent

The Princess Switch (Netflix)

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  • Starring: Vanessa Hudgens, Sam Palladio, Nick Sagar
  • Synopsis: One week before Christmas, a duchess switches places with a baker from Chicago, who looks exactly like her and they fall in love with other’s beaus. (IMDb)
  • Review: Netflix really upped their Christmas movie game this year. I actually recognize the two leads in this film: Hudgens from High School Musical and Palladio from Nashville. This is a retelling of the classic The Prince & The Pauper storyline, just set at Christmas with a female lead. Hudgens does a great job making the Duchess and Stacy two unique people. She also has excellent chemistry with Palladio and Sagar. While the plot is familiar, it is a complete narrative arc and all the actors can actually act. Shocking I know.

The Holiday Calendar (Netflix)

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  • Starring: Kat Graham, Quincy, Ethan Peck, Ron Cephas Jones
  • Synopsis: A photographer inherits an antique Advent calendar that seems to predict her future, including a budding romance. (IMDb)
  • Review: Yay another film where I recognize the lead actor! Graham previously starred as Bonnie in The Vampire Diaries. Magic seems to follow her everywhere. This is Us fans will recognize Ron Cephas Jones, he portrayed Randall’s biological father in Season 1. The narrative explores destiny, romance, growing up, and chasing your dreams. Like most of the movies on this list, the plot is a little gimmicky but wholly enjoyable.

A Christmas Prince (Netflix)

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  • Starring: Ben Lamb, Rose McIver, Alice Krige
  • Synopsis: A young journalist travels abroad to cover a royal family, and finds herself in a real-life fairytale. (IMDb)
  • Review: This was Netflix’s alternative Hallmark offering from last year. While the two leads are cute and do the best with the material provided, the narrative suffers from a lack of tension. The two major roadblocks presented for the lovebirds to overcome do not feel urgent or threatening. Everything feels too sugary sweet and programmed for maximum “Christmas Magic”. Given that this is Netflix, a computer algorithm probably played a role in the plot development. Overall, A Christmas Prince is a pleasant way to pass two hours.  I would not bother with the recently released sequel, A Christmas Prince 2: The Royal Wedding, it magnifies all the narrative problems from the first movie and makes them worse.

12 Men of Christmas (Lifetime/Amazon Prime/iTunes/DVD)

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  • Starring: Kristin Chenoweth, Josh Hopkins
  • Synopsis: A public relations executive uses her media savvy to help a search and rescue team in a small Montana town. (IMDb)
  • Review: This film only works because of the acting talent of Chenoweth and Hopkins. Without them, it would have failed spectacularly. Chenoweth plays EJ Baxter, a PR exec who discovers her fiancée sleeping with her boss. EJ decides to take a PR job in Montana and ends up helping the search-and-rescue team raise money for a helicopter by producing a shirtless calendar starring all the guys. Hopkins’ character, Will, takes exception to the idea and sparks fly. I laughed more than I expected and would watch this again.

El Camino Christmas (Netlfix)

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  • Starring: Tim Allen, Luke Grimes, Jessica Alba, Dax Shepard
  • Synopsis: A young man seeking the father he has never met ends up barricaded inside a liquor store with five other people on Christmas Eve. (IMDb)
  • Review: El Camino Christmas is an “alternative” Christmas movie. It is more like a crime caper that happens to occur at Christmas. If you want something different, this one is worth checking out. However, it does not have a happy conclusion and is actually rather depressing.

Cinematic Release

White Christmas (DVD/Netflix/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu)

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  • Starring: Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Danny Kaye
  • Synopsis: Singers Bob Wallace and Phil Davis join sister act Betty and Judy Haynes to perform a Christmas show in rural Vermont. (IMDb)
  • Review: I love this film. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are two of my favorite actors from the 1940’s and 1950’s. If you have never seen this film, I think it is worth watching for both the Christmas cheer and the cinematic history. The classic Hollywood films took a more nuanced approach to romance and spent more time on character development than the “instant” love trope of today’s movies. This approach results in a well-paced and fully developed storyline with memorable characters. If nothing else, the scene where Crosby and Kane sing Sisters is awesome.

Christmas with the Kranks (DVD/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu)

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  • Starring: Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Aykroyd
  • Synopsis: With their daughter away, the Kranks decide to skip Christmas altogether until she decides to come home, causing an uproar when they have to celebrate the holiday at the last minute. (From IMDb)
  • Review: Tim Allen is the king of Christmas movies. Based on John Grisham’s novel Skipping Christmas, this film explores what to do when the kids grow up and leave the family home. Luther (Allen) talks his wife Nora (Curtis) into going on a cruise. This causes tensions with their Christmas obsessed neighbor Vic Frohmeyer. I like this movie. It is sentimental without being sappy and manages to convey the spirit of the Christmas season in a fun and unexpected manner.

The Santa Clause (DVD/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu/iTunes)

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  • Starring: Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, David Krumholtz, Wendy Crewson, Eric Lloyd
  • Synopsis: When a man inadvertently kills Santa on Christmas Eve, he finds himself magically recruited to take his place. (From IMDb)
  • Review: Santa will always look like Tim Allen. This is essentially a Santa Clause origin story with a very unwilling participant. At this point, if you have not seen this film, I am not sure what you watched as a kid. Nostalgia plays a strong factor in my enjoyment of this movie.

The Santa Clause 2 (DVD/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu/iTunes)

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  • Starring: Tim Allen, Elizabeth Mitchell, David Krumholtz, Eric Lloyd
  • Synopsis: Scott Calvin has been a humble Santa Claus for nearly ten years, but it might end if he doesn’t find a Mrs. Claus.(From IMDb)
  • Review: Bernard! We are going to pretend that Santa Clause 3 never happened and the movies ended with this one. If you liked The Santa Clause, you will probably like this one.

It’s a Wonderful Life (DVD/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu/iTunes)

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  • Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore
  • Synopsis: An angel is sent from Heaven to help a desperately frustrated businessman by showing him what life would have been like if he had never existed. (From IMDb)
  • Review: My dad wants to watch this every year. This is a Christmas classic that appears on every television channel starting almost immediately after Thanksgiving ends. I have watched this so many times I could probably act out the whole film with my eyes closed. It is an enduring narrative about never giving up and appreciating those people in your life who need you more than you can ever know.

The Man Who Invented Christmas (DVD/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu/iTunes)

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  • Starring: Dan Stevens, Jonathan Pryce, Christopher Plummer
  • Synopsis: The journey that led to Charles Dickens’ creation of “A Christmas Carol,” a timeless tale that would redefine Christmas. (From IMDb)
  • Review: This is an entertaining look at how Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. Stevens does an excellent job portraying Dickens as he suffers through writers block, parental issues, and financial problems. If you enjoy A Christmas Carol, you will like this entertaining look at how writers move past personal obstacles and create enduring masterpieces.

Jingle All the Way (DVD/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu/iTunes)

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  • Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, Phil Hartman, Rita Wilson
  • Synopsis: A father vows to get his son a Turbo Man action figure for Christmas. However, every store is sold out of them, and he must travel all over town and compete with everybody else in order to find one. (From IMDb)
  • Review: Arnold takes a break from saving the world and conquers everyone’s worst nightmare: trying to buy a sold out toy before the advent of online shopping. This film required Arnold to show some emotional depth and he mostly pulled it off.

Christmas in Connecticut (DVD/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu/iTunes)

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  • Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet
  • Synopsis: A food writer who has lied about being the perfect housewife must try to cover her deception when her boss and a returning war hero invite themselves to her home for a traditional family Christmas. (From IMDb)
  • Review: I enjoy watching all the older Hollywood Christmas movies. This is actually a screwball comedy that happens to occur at Christmas. As with older films, the narrative relies exclusively on dialogue to drive the plot forward. If you want a more refined yet humorous Christmas movie, this is worth watching.

Holiday Inn (DVD/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu/iTunes)

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  • Starring: Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds, Virginia Dale
  • Synopsis: At an inn, which is only open on holidays, a crooner and a hoofer vie for the affections of a beautiful up-and-coming performer. (From IMDb)
  • Review: Irving Berlin’s song White Christmas actually debuted in this movie. The set for the Holiday Inn is also the ski lodge from White Christmas, which debuted twelve years after this film. Holiday Inn is a fun film about two guys and two gals trying to find their way in the world. If you like White Christmas and Bing Crosby, you will enjoy this delightful film.

The Bishop’s Wife (DVD/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu/iTunes)

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  • Starring: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven
  • Synopsis: An angel in human form enters the life of a bishop in order to help him build a new cathedral and repair his fractured marriage. (From IMDb)
  • Review: Cary Grant plays an angel who helps a struggling couple reconnect. Grant is charming and quite convincing as a debonair angel. This is a Christmas story, a love story, a comedy, a drama and an all-around inspiring film. As you can tell, I really like movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Top 5 Book Series I Never Finished

Sometimes I start a series and then forget about the sequels. Here are the Top 5 series I have started since I began blogging but never completed. 

Firebird Trilogy-Claudia Gray

I read the first book, A Thousand Pieces of You, and forgot all about the story once I finished. The story follows Marguerite Caine, the daughter of a pair of brilliant physicists who invented time travel. Called “Firebird”, this invention allows people to jump into various universes. Numerous criminal organizations want the Firebird and will do anything, or kill anyone, to get ownership of it. The trilogy follows Marguerite as she navigates life and saving her boyfriend’s splintered soul across numerous universes. While the premise is promising, I lost interest in the story as soon as I finished reading. I actually forgot that the first book would have sequels. This is the type of trilogy you would read on a long flight or cruise too keep yourself amused but not recall afterwards.

Shadowfell– Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier writes excellent folklore fantasy. Her Sevenwaters series began as a retelling of The Seven Ravens­, a German fairy tale recorded by the Grimm Brothers. The Shadowfell Trilogy follows a similar thematic narrative. Sixteen-year-old Neryn is alone in the land of Alban, where the oppressive king has ordered anyone with magical strengths captured and brought before him. Eager to hide her ability to communicate with the Good Folk–Neryn seeks the legendary Shadowfell, a home and training ground for a rebel group determined to overthrow King Keldec.  All three books follow Neryn as she seeks to grow in her magic and work with the rebellion. While I think Marillier writes excellent stories, I struggled to connect with this series. I found Neryn indistinguishable from any of the magical, strong-willed heroines currently populating the YA fantasy genre. I had every intention of completing the trilogy but never got around to tracking down the other books. At this point, I do not think I will finish the trilogy.

Red Queen-Victoria Aveyard

For several years now the trend in Young Adult fiction is stories about young, stubborn, independent teenage heroines who discover they possess magical abilities. Naturally, their abilities threaten to upturn the whole world, rewrite history, and revolutionize society. In this world, blood controls everything. People with red blood, The Reds, are commoners. The royal family comes from the Silver elite who possess god-like superpowers. Mare Barrow, the heroin, is a seventeen-year-old Red girl from the poverty-stricken Stilts. While working at the Silver Palace, Mare discovers that she possesses a power of her own. Fearful of Mare’s potential, the Silvers hide her in plain view, declaring her a long-lost Silver princess, and announce her engagement with a Silver prince. Meanwhile, Mare plots to help the Red Guard to bring down the Silver regime. I gather the rest of the series deals with Mare coming to terms with her powers and the collapse and rebuild of the social order. Honestly, the narrative reads a lot like The Hunger Games, just with some blood voodoo and elves added into the mix. After reading the first book, I did not feel an urge to rush out and read the other additions. While I know other people like this series, I struggled to connect with the narrative.

The Remnant Chronicles-Mary Pearson

The Remnant Chronicles, focuses on a princess, Lia, who wants to escape her preordained fate. Born into a highly traditional society, Lia decides to run away from home and an arranged marriage. While on the run, she encounters the prince she was meant to marry and an assassin on a mission to kill her. The three bond as they explore new kingdoms, meet new friends, and make powerful enemies. Lia struggles to figure out her life while wrestling with love, family loyalties, and tries to forge a new destiny. I would have liked the first book a lot more without the love triangle. What is with the trend of love triangles in Young Adult Fantasy? These weird romances are never well written and feel like a Hallmark movie gone bad. I read the first book, The Kiss of Deception, and thought it was alright but never bothered to read the next installments. After reading the descriptions of the additional books, I do not think this is a trilogy I will finish.

An Ember in the Ashes-Sabaa Tahir

Apparently Paramount Pictures has optioned the film rights to this series. Based upon the brutal Roman Empire, this series explores the lives of Laia, a slave, and Elias, a soldier. Neither is free. Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother in poverty. When Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, she must make a life altering decision. In exchange for help freeing her brother, Laia will risk her life to spy for the rebellion from within the Empire’s greatest military academy. There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier. His and Laia’s choices will change the fate of the Empire itself. I liked the concept of the story but I read the first book during my last Young Adult reading spree. Every single story seemed to deal with a bunch of teenagers who struggle with existential angst and whose actions will change the fate of the universe! Other than the pseudo-Roman Empire setting, this series failed to make much of an impression on me. Out of all five series listed here, this is the one I will most likely revisit at a later date.

Anastasia: 1997 Movie vs. Broadway Musical

  • Director: Don Bluth, Gary Goldman
  • Rating: G
  • Starring: Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd, Kelsey Grammer, Hank Azaria
  • Screenplay: Susan Gauthier, Bruce Graham, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White
  • Animation Adaptation: Eric Tuchman
  • Music By: David Newman
  • Film Editing: Bob Bender & Fiona Trayler
  • Running Time: 94 Minutes
  • Premiered: November 16, 1997

Anastasia: The Broadway Musical

  • Originally published: May 27, 2016
  • Composer: Stephen Flaherty
  • Lyricist: Lynn Ahrens
  • Playwright: Terrence McNally

Synopsis: The last surviving child of the Russian Royal Family joins two con men to reunite with her grandmother, the Dowager Empress, while the undead Rasputin seeks her death (From IMDb).

Review: The Russian Imperial Family came to a sudden and bloody end during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. This revolution dismantled the Tsarist autocracy and led to the formation of the Soviet Union. Tsar Nicholas II was the last Tsar of Russia. Nicholas was married to Alexandra Feodorovna and they had five children: Olga Nikolaevna, Tatiana Nikolaevna, Maria Nikolaevna, Anastasia Nikolaevna and Alexei Nikolaevich. Alexei suffered from hemophilia, in desperation Alexandra turned to the ministrations of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, a Russian mystic and self-proclaimed holy man, for comfort and moral support. Rasputin ended up wielding great influence in the royal court.

Tsar Nicholas and Alexandra spent most of their lives removed from the poverty and social unrest of their citizens. Numerous social and economic issues boiled over in the early 1900’s and the Tsar failed to act. His inaction and seemingly cold-hearted approach to governance did not endear the Imperial Family with the general population. The Bolshevik Revolution arose to counter the inaction of the Tsardom. In November of 1917, the revolutionaries invaded the Royal Palace and kidnapped the Royal Family. The Bolsheviks formed a provisional government and imprisoned the Tsar, Alexandra, and their five children in the city of Yekaterinburg. In 1918, a civil war broke out between the revolutionary Red Army and the White Army, the anti-Bolsheviks. As the White Army advanced on Yekaterinburg, the Bolsheviks ordered the local authorities to prevent the escape and/or rescue of the Romanov family. During the early hours of July 17, 1918 the Imperial Family died via execution through firing squad. Those members unlucky enough to survive the bullets died from multiple stab wounds.

However, a myth persisted for many decades afterwards that Anastasia and maybe Alexei escaped. This led to numerous young women coming forward claiming to be the lost Grand Duchess. A few years ago, new archaeological evidence revealed the bodies of both Anastasia and Alexei near the graves of their siblings. Anyways, the fairy tale of a lost Princess and a family fortune captured the attention of the public. Anna Anderson, a mentally unstable woman from Poland, is perhaps the best-known Anastasia impostor. Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman starred in a 1956 dramatic version of the Anastasia story. If you liked the animated film but want a more “adult/dramatic” version, the 1956 movie is exceedingly well done.

 I loved the animated movie growing up, even though the Rasputin character was quite creepy. The music is superb. Surprisingly, the animated movie was not a Disney film. Twentieth Century Fox produced the film and it was the most successful non-Disney animated film in the 1990’s. Given the talent involved and the wonderful musical score, the film holds up to modern audiences and presents a lovely fairy tale about loss, redemption, and revenge. In 2012 the writers of the animated film were approached to write a Broadway musical adaptation, they said yes. The Broadway Play follows roughly the same narrative arc of the film, however the setting is more historically accurate than the cartoon. Given the changes in tone, the opening scenes of the movie and the play differ quite dramatically:

Play Opening Scenes: In 1907 St. Petersburg, Russia, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna is getting ready to move to Paris, France. Her youngest granddaughter, 7-year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia, is saddened that her grandmother is moving. Before leaving, the Dowager Empress gives Anastasia a music box as a parting gift. The music box plays the opening chords of Once Upon a December. Ten years later in 1917, 17-year-old Anastasia attends a winter ball with her family when the Bolsheviks invade. As the Romanovs attempt to escape, Anastasia retrieves her music box, is shot, and presumed dead along with the rest of her family. The action than flash-forwards to 1927 and Gleb, the local Red Army military/government leader, announces that St. Petersburg is now Leningrad and that the Imperialist Era is over.

Movie Opening Scenes: In 1916 Saint Petersburg, Tsar Nicholas II hosts a ball at the Catherine Palace to celebrate the Romanov tricentennial. The Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna (Angela Lansbury), is visiting from Paris, France and gives a music box and a necklace inscribed with the words “Together in Paris” to 8-year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia. The sorcerer Grigori Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd), a former royal adviser exiled for treason, interrupts the ball. Seeking revenge, Rasputin sold his soul in exchange for an unholy reliquary, which he uses to place a curse on the Romanovs. This curse sparks the Russian Revolution. During the siege of the palace, only the Dowager and Anastasia manage to escape with the aid of 10-year-old servant boy Dimitri. They make it the river before Rasputin confronts them. In a stroke of luck, he falls through the ice and the royals escape. The pair manage to reach a moving train, as Marie climbs aboard, Anastasia falls, hitting her head on the platform and suffering amnesia. The film then flashes forward to a new, communist Russia where everyone whispers about a missing Princess.

In the cartoon, Anastasia (Meg Ryan), Dmitri (John Cusack), and Vlad (Kelsey Grammer) must outwit the dastardly Rasputin and his sidekick, an albino bat named Bartok (Hank Azaria). The play version replaces over-the-top sorcery with political might and the conflicted Gleb, a rapidly rising military commander who represents Russia’s new political regime. Both Gleb and Rasputin fulfill the same function: attempting to prevent Anastasia from making it to Paris and claiming her birthright. They just possess different rationales for their actions. Rasputin wants revenge and the total annihilation of the Tsar’s family. Once they are dead, Rasputin can take over as the new ruler of Russia. Gleb, as the leader of a communist regime, views Anastasia as the last vestiges of an outdated regime who has the potential to embarrass the new Bolshevik government.

Different villains notwithstanding, both the play and the cartoon follow the same narrative arc. The Imperial Family dies and only the Dowager survives. Ten years later, whispers emerge that the Grand Duchess Anastasia survived the Bolshevik’s attack and is in hiding. In an act of desperation, the Dowager Empress offers a monetary reward for anyone who has reliable information about the whereabouts of Anastasia. Multiple women come forward claiming to the missing Duchess and the Dowager loses hope. Dimitri and Vlad, two starving con men, devise a scheme to escape Russia and claim the reward money: train a girl to pretend to be Anastasia. They hold multiple auditions but doubt they will ever find a suitable impersonator. Than Anya, a young starving orphan/street sweeper walks in. She has an uncanny resemblance to the deceased members of the Imperial Family and has no memories of her life before the orphanage. Dimitri and Vlad train her in the arts and refinements of an aristocratic woman. After they deem her acceptable, they leave Russia with forged papers on the last train out.

This is where the movie and play diverge, significantly. In the film, Bartok, Rasputin’s albino bat minion, notices that the dormant reliquary suddenly awakens due to Anastasia’s reemergence. This revelation drags Bartok into the “limbo” world between heaven and hell, where Rasputin, slowly decomposing, lives. Enraged to hear that Anastasia escaped his curse, Rasputin sends some of his demonic minions to kill her and her companions. Despite two attempts, the demons fail.  Determined to kill Anastasia, Rasputin and Bartok leave limbo and travel back to the land of the living. They “reunite” with Anastasia in Paris.

In the play, Gleb realizes that Anya/Anastasia has escaped. His superiors, skeptical that she is the escaped Duchess but also worried that she might be, order Gleb to follow her to Paris. They order Glen to kill her if Anya is actually the Duchess. If Anya is nothing more than a lowly street sweeper, he must escort her back to Leningrad to face a trial for treason. Apparently, Gleb’s father was a guard at the palace who sided with the Bolsheviks and was in charge of executing the royal children. Gleb talks about his father’s extreme guilt over this act and how he is expected to be his “father’s son” and finish the task. However, he finds the mysterious Anya beguiling and struggles with the morality of killing her in cold blood.

Once in Paris, Dimitri, Vlad, and Anya struggle with securing an appointment with the Dowager. Vlad, a former paramour of Sophie (Bernadette Peters in the cartoon)/Lily, the Dowager’s lady-in-waiting, manages to secure an audience. During the Parisian Ballet, Anastasia meets the Dowager. However, the Dowager refuses to believe that Anya/Anastasia is her granddaughter. In the movie, Rasputin attempts to kill her after the Duchess’ rejection and fails spectacularly. While in the play, Gleb sneaks into the Dowager’s apartments and confronts Anya/Anastasia in the parlor. He suffers an existential crisis and cannot find it in himself to kill her.

Anastasia tries one final effort to convince the Dowager and pulls out the music box. In the movie, the necklace the Dowager gave her as a child doubles as the key to open the box. The necklace does not feature in the play. Finally, the Dowager accepts Anastasia as her granddaughter. She then convinces Anastasia to follow her heart and stay with Dimitri. Both the play and the movie end with the Dowager announcing the end of her search for Anastasia. Rasputin slinks back to limbo. Gleb goes back to Leningrad and denounces the myth of Anastasia as a flight of fancy.

Overall, I think the movie had a better-developed villain. Rasputin was mean, motivated, and willing to do anything to kill Anastasia. Gleb felt like a hastily compiled character who fell apart in the second act. The character lacked three dimensions and his sudden infatuation with Anya/Anastasia felt unnatural. Both versions of this “modern fairy-tale” present the narrative in age-appropriate ways. The music is superb and the cast of the play sang exceptionally well. None of the stage actors struggled with the music. The “Once Upon a December” sequence is one of the best scenes in the play. If you were/are a fan of the Anastasia movie, I recommend seeing the stage play. 

Movie Review: First Man

  • Director:  Damien Chazelle
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler
  • Screenplay: Josh Singer 
  • Based on the Book by: James R. Hansen
  • Music By: Justin Hurwitz
  • Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
  • Premiered: October 12, 2018 (USA)
  • First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, 2005, Simon & Schuster

Synopsis: A look at the life of the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969. (From IMDb)

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Review: Have you ever looked up into the sky and wondered about what lies above? Somewhere, beyond the stars, a whole universe of wondrous discoveries lay waiting for someone to stumble upon. Back in the 1960’s, America needed a morale win. The then United Socialist States of Russia, modern Russia, launched Sputnik-1 in 1957. This sparked major concerns in America over the Soviet Union not only conquering space first but also the possibility of weaponized satellites. In a world growing increasingly smaller, only space remained as the last great frontier for countries to conquer.

On May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy announced his intention for America to send a man to the moon before the end of the decade. A number of political factors affected the timing of this decision. Kennedy felt incredibly pressured to have the United States overtake the Soviet Union in the “space race.” Four years after the Sputnik launch in 1957, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on April 12, 1961. This greatly embarrassed the U.S. when Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5. However, Shepard only completed a short suborbital flight instead of orbiting the Earth like Gagarin. The Bay of Pigs fiasco in mid-April tarnished Kennedy’s reputation and he wanted a task that the U.S. could achieve before the Soviet Union. After consulting with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, NASA Administrator James Webb, and other officials, Kennedy concluded that landing an American on the Moon would be an incredibly challenging technological feat. Putting a man on the moon was one part of space exploration where the U.S. could overcome the Soviets. Many historians view the massive growth of NASA in the 1960’s as an extension of the cold war.

First Man takes place between 1961 and 1969, the height of the space race.  In 1961 Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) worked as a test pilot in California. While Neil is flying planes in the Mojave desert, he and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), lose their second child, Karen, to brain cancer. Shortly afterwards, Neil is hired to join NASA’s space program in Houston, Texas. There, he and Janet befriend the other astronauts chosen for the moon mission: Ed White (Jason Clarke), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber), and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stall). The families bond as the men embark on often dangerous missions leading up to Armstrong becoming the first man to walk on the moon in 1969.

Damien Chazelle chooses to focus on the life of Armstrong and how the NASA program shaped his life. Armstrong suffers greatly from the death of Karen. Her cancer was the one thing he could not solve, despite trying desperately hard to solve the equation. Gosling does an excellent job of portraying a deeply feeling man who compartmentalizes his emotions to an extreme. Unsurprisingly, Karen’s death deeply impacts Neil’s relationship with Janet. The NASA program presents a fresh start for the family and a way to move past the tragedy of Karen’s death.

Since no one had ever attempted to land a living, breathing human on the moon before, NASA needed to perfect several scientific innovations in order to make sure the launch vehicles were safe. As a result, Armstrong single-mindedly  dedicates himself to his job. With outside pressure from the government and protesters, NASA attempts to be first to the moon – through any means possible. This massive undertaking involved writing new science just to figure out how to safely launch a vessel out of the atmosphere and back again without killing anyone.

 The main narrative arc follows Armstrong’ struggles to balance his professional and personal responsibilities. While he uses work to distract himself from the pain of Karen’s death, he increasingly grows distant from his family. Singer, the screenwriter, strikes a delicate harmony between the two aspects of Armstrong’s life: the raw, emotional examination of the Armstrong’s’ home life and the high-stakes world of NASA where death and danger hang in the air. Both aspects are given equal time to shine and paints a fascinating portrait of the man at its center.

Gosling provides another strong and understated performance. His version of Neil is a focused and introverted man haunted by the past and driven by the future. At times, Neil comes across as distant and cold, but moments of touching humanity woven throughout make Neil feel like a complete person. Claire Foy has the more relatable role and serves as the rock of the Armstrong family. However, her dreams of a “normal” life quickly dissipate as Neil becomes more involved at NASA. In lesser hands, Janet would have come across as a cliché, but the script gives Janet a lot of autonomy and she asserts herself to great effect several times. Foy portrays Janet masterfully and is responsible for delivering some of film’s most heart-wrenching scenes when confronting the harsh realities of Neil’s job.

While Foy is an excellent actress, her attempts at an American Midwestern accent came across as extremely affected several times. Her British accent appeared a couple of times throughout the film, especially during the emotional sequences. However, this in no way dampened Foy’s performance. But the occasional slip-ups did make Janet feel a little less “real”.

The film opens with a dizzying test flight on the rocket-powered X-15 — a scene that Chazelle juxtapositions with the heartbreaking sequence of Karen deteriorating. After her death, Neil does not allow anyone to see him break down. This stoicism continues throughout his life as he survives the death of fellow pilots and astronauts. Armstrong does not comes across as some kind of space cowboy or an ambitious jerk. Instead, he is humble and hardworking. Given his emotional distance, Armstrong is not an infinitely likable. However, his strength of character and remarkable achievements far outweigh the negative aspects of is personality.  

I would recommend seeing First Man in theaters. The amazing cinematography, especially the space and rocket sequences, really shine on the big screen. Like Interstellar, the space and planet/moon sequences fill up the screen and transport the viewer literally out of this world. While this is a story about the NASA space program, Chazelle keeps the film tightly focused on the two Armstrongs and does not attempt to capture every major event or figure involved.

Unlike other movies made about this time period, which superficially include the astronauts’ wives as an attempt at character development, Chazelle gives Janet plenty of screen time. Just like in war, the wives must keep the home front running, maintain the house, tamper down nerves, and hope that the men do not die in an explosion. Even though we all know Armstrong makes it to the moon and back, the tension keeps you on the edge of your seat.

After numerous failed missions and several horrific deaths, NASA making it to the moon feels like a lost cause. Then, just when it seems impossible, the rocket launches with Aldrin and Armstrong safely cocooned inside. They make it to the surface and take one giant leap for mankind.

If you want a snapshot of how Sputnik-1 and the NASA program affected and influenced the younger generation, I recommend Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam Jr and its movie adaptation October Sky

Top 5 Movie Soundtracks of 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody

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Why it is great: Who does not enjoy rock n roll music? My first introduction to Queen’s music came from the movie The Mighty Ducks where they sang We Are the Champions. Produced by Jim Beach (Queen’s Manager), Robert Taylor (the drummer), and Brian May (the guitarist), the soundtrack includes cuts from the movie and remastered versions of Queen’s original releases. This is not a greatest hit album, it is a collection of the songs that made Queen famous and beloved. Rock n roll music today bears little resemblance to the aggression and complexity of the songs created in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Best tracks: “We Will Rock You, We Are The Champions”, “Radio Ga-Ga” “Hammer to Fall” “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Available at (On November 30): Spotify, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, etc…

Bad Times at the El Royale

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Why it is great: Music from the 1950’s and 1960’s remain quite popular in Hollywood films. For instance, the Guardians of the Galaxy films utilize hits from the late ’60s and early 70’s to great effect. Bad Times takes place in the mid-1960’s during the time of Vietnam War protests and the Charles Manson murders. The music on the soundtrack draws from the juxtaposition of optimism and cynicism that existed in popular culture at the time. If you are a fan of protest music and the Motown sound of the ’60’s, this soundtrack includes a nice snapshot of the era.

Best tracks: “Baby I Love You” by Tommy Roe, “He’s a Rebel”  by Alana Da Fonseca, “This Old Heart of Mine” by The Isley Brothers, “Bend Me, Shape Me” by The American Breed

Available at: Spotify, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, etc…

Black Panther

Why it is great: Two soundtrack exist for the film: Black Panther (Original Score) by Ludwig Göransson and Black Panther: The Album by Kendrick Lamar. Both albums are excellent. First with Ludwig Göransson. His score focuses on traditional African music with a hip-hop flare composed for an orchestra. Göransson actually visited Africa in order to research traditional and modern African music. Most of the songs in the score use talking drums and tambins in the composition, both are traditional African instruments. When combined with the classical orchestra, the result is amazing. Kendrick Lamar, the Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper, wrote original songs for the film. He also contributed vocals to every track, including those where he did not sing lead.  Additional collaboraters include Khalid, Vince Staples, Jorja Smith, SZA, Future, and James Blake.

Best tracks: “Black Panther” by Kendrick Lamar, “Wakanda Origins” by Ludwig Göransson, “Wakanda” (featuring Baaba Maal) by Ludwig Göransson, “The Great Mound Battle” by Ludwig Göransson, “Opps (with Yugen Blakrok)” by Vince Staples, Yugen Blakrok, and Kendrick Lamar

Black Panther (Score) Available at: Spotify, Amazon, Barnes & NobleiTunes, etc…

Black Panther: The Album Available at: Spotify, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, etc…

Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Why it is great: Star Wars is synonymous with John Williams. The Imperial March and the Star Wars Theme are two instantly recognizable songs, no Star Wars film feels complete until they appear. Haunting, intimidating, and inspiring all at once, Williams mastered the art of soundtrack perfection. Despite your thoughts on the Solo Movie, the soundtrack lives up to the excellence of the original sound. While Williams did not compose the entire soundtrack, his iconic songs feature prominently.  John Powell, the composer behind How to Train Your DragonHappy Feet, and Shrek, composed the majority of the music. Powell weaved his own unique sounds between Williams’s signature orchestral compositions.

Best tracks: “Chicken in the Pot” by John Powell, “The Adventures of Han” by John Williams, “Lando’s Closet” by John Powell

Available at: Spotify, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, etc…

Ocean’s 8

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Why it is great: While I did not really enjoy the film, the soundtrack included some great music. Like most modern movies nowadays, the film has two “soundtracks”. The original score contains tracks written and composed by Daniel Pemberton and the other one is a selection of popular music used throughout the film.  The selection of “popular” songs varies wildly in tone and genre; Bach’s “Fugue In D Minor” is slightly different from “Hypnotize” by The Notorious B.I.G.. All together, the song choices help to accentuate the various dramatic and humorous moments in the narrative. Surprisingly, neither Rihanna nor Awkwafina contributed a song or a cover to the soundtrack.

Best tracks: “Me and Mr Jones” by Amy Winehouse, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” by Nancy Sinatra, “Superfly” by Curtis Mayfield

Available at: Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Spotify, iTunes, etc…

Jane Austen-Pride & Prejudice

Themes Explored: manners, societal pressures, matrimony, pride, prejudice, love, loss, sibling rivalries, sibling relationships, social critique, reputation, marriage, parental approval, British aristocracy, femininity, class, family, virtue, honor, purity.

Synopsis: Originally published in 1813, this romantic novel charts the life and times of Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters as they navigate society.  

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”

Review: Pride & Prejudice remains one of the best satirical and social critiques of the social pressures and expectations of women in the eighteenth century (Jan 1, 1701 – Dec 31, 1800). The story endures due to the clear writing and the universal themes of love, loss, and second chances. During the eighteenth century in England (and the rest of the civilized world at the time), a woman’s main marriage currency were her reputation and femininity. Lose your reputation and you squander your only shot at securing a decent husband with a steady income. Women, especially members of the aristocracy, had to adhere to certain rules and behavior in both the private and public sphere. Several of the Bennet sisters step outside of these restrictions in ways that harmed their whole family’s reputations.

Mr. Bennet, Esquire, the patriarch of the now-dwindling Bennet family married Mrs. Bennet, the daughter of a Meryton attorney, Mr. Gardener Sr. Together the couple produced five daughters: Jane, Elizabeth (“Lizzy”/”Eliza”), Mary, Catherine (“Kitty”), and Lydia Bennet. At the beginning of the novel, none of the girls are married or engaged.

Mr. Bennet owned an entailed estate, which meant that he had no sons. As such, all his property and money automatically goes to the closest male relative in the event of his death. In this case, Mr. Collins, a paternal cousin. All the girls would receive a modest dowry but could not inherit Longbourn House. However, Mr. Collins’ would lose his inheritance if one of Mr. Bennet’s daughters gave birth to a son before his death. This grandson would then become the new heir presumptive by virtue of being Mr. Bennet’s closest living male relative. Entailments only passed through the male line. If Mr. Collins married one of one of Mr. Bennet’s daughters and fathered a son, he would guarantee inheriting Longbourn.

Within the hierarchy of British Aristocracy, the Bennet family existed on the lower end of high society. While Mr. Bennet was a gentleman, he was not directly related to the peerage. Landed gentry, like the Bennet’s, is a distinctive British social class between the peerage and the common man. The gentry consisted of landowners who could live entirely from rental income and/or the proceeds from a country estate. Socially, the gentry socialized “below”, the aristocracy or peerage, although some of the landed gentry possessed significant more wealth than the peerage and many gentry were the younger sons of the aristocrats. Since their fathers’ possessed money, many women from the landed gentry social class could marry “up” into the peerage due to significant dowries. At this particular period, a lot of the aristocracy were land rich but cash poor. Marrying a woman who came with a significant dowry (50,000 pounds+) could solve many problems.

The Bennet sisters suffered on the marriage market since they only had a dowry of between 200-500 pounds apiece. Mr. Bennet only pulled in an annual income of 2,000 pounds, a decent income but not enough to allow five daughters to make advantageous marriages. Lizzy and Darcy, socially, belong to the same social class. However, Darcy’s family descended from the peerage, so has higher standing in aristocratic circles.

In the eighteenth century, a household of five girls with no advantage other than good looks and feminine accomplishments, presented many challenges. Yet Mr and Mrs Bennet failed to prepare their girls for the marriage market. Mrs Bennet, a rather unrefined woman, repeatedly made a spectacle of herself, incapable of realizing that crude manners would deter any rich, eligible young man who noticed any of her daughters. Mr Bennet only married Mrs Bennet for her looks and later realized that he disliked her personality. He became an indifferent husband and gave up on reining in his wife’s and younger daughters’ embarrassing behavior.

All five girls acted in accordance with the education they received. Jane and Elizabeth, the two eldest and prettiest, show irreproachable conduct and have their father’s respect and appreciation. Mary, the third oldest, displays intellectual and musical pretensions but possess few looks. Kitty and Lydia, the two youngest, run wild under the rather careless supervision of their mother.

Extended members of the Bennet family include Mrs Bennet’s brother and sister – Mr. Gardiner and Mrs. Philips-and the pompous and foolish Mr. William Collins. Mrs. Philips and Mr. Gardiner  contribute significantly to the progress of the story and act as surrogate parental figure to Jane and Lizzy in their times of need.  Mr. Collins’s provides a link between the gentry of Hertfordshire and the incredibly wealth Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her nephew, Mr. Darcy.

As the title suggests, prejudice forms one of the main themes of the novel. Prejudice is one of many obstacles that gets in the way of Lizzy and Mr. Darcy from connecting. Mr. Darcy judges Lizzy harshly based upon her lower social standing and the uncouth behavior of Mrs. Bennet. He does not immediately notice her strength of character since he is above her in class and believes himself superior. This prejudice also influences why Darcy dissuades Bingley from pursuing Jane, even though they complement each other in every way despite the differences in social standing.

On the other side, Lizzy’s pride causes her to misjudge Darcy and treat him poorly in subsequent meetings. Jane Austen believed firmly in the importance of love in a marriage. In Austen’s view, Lizzy rejects Mr. Darcy’s first proposal because she neither loves nor respects him. Lizzy wanted a marriage where she can respect her husband and he respects her, unlike the example of her parents. This is in direct contrast to the union of Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins. Charlotte only accepted Collins’ proposal because she needed the respectability and security of marriage. Otherwise, she risked becoming a burden to her brothers upon the death of their father. However, Charlotte neither loves nor respects her husband. Collins merely presented the only way for Charlotte to secure her future.

The lines of class remain strictly enforced by the characters. Austen satirizes this class-consciousness, particularly through Mr. Collins, who spends his time flattering Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Several other characters, including Mr. Darcy, share Collins’ extreme conscience of class. Miss Bingley and Wickham will doing anything required to raise their social standing. Mr. Collins’s views are merely the most obvious.

In the depiction of the Darcy-Elizabeth and Bingley-Jane marriages, Austen displays how love and happiness can overcome class boundaries and prejudices. The underlying implication being that such prejudices are hollow and unnecessary. On the other hand, one critique of Austen is that she is also a classist, as she does not represent anyone from the lower classes. Those servants she does portray are generally happy with their lot. While Austen does criticize class structure, her critique solely focuses on the differences housed within the upper segments of society.

Austen is certainly critical of the gender injustices present in English society, particularly within the institution of marriage. Many of the women in the novel must marry to secure their financial security. Through the characters of Lizzy and Jane, Austen shows that women possess equal intelligence and capabilities as their male counterparts. Jane herself went against convention by remaining unmarried and earning a living through writing. In her personal correspondences, Austen advised her friends to marry for love. Lizzy’s happy marriage reveals Austen’s belief that a woman should remain independent until she meets the right man. Pride & Prejudice remains a popular novel as the themes of class, love, marriage, and societal responsibility still exist today and shape people’s behavior and preconceptions.

Pride & Prejudice, 1813, Modern Library, ISBN: 9780679783268

Jean Lee Latham-Carry On, Mr Bowditch

Themes Explored: masculinity, apprenticeship, growing up, sailing, historical fiction, classic literature, children’s literature, biographical fiction, Newberry Medal Winner, America, navigation, hero, strength, ingenuity, perseverance

Synopsis: Nathaniel Bowditch grew up in a sailor’s world—Salem in the early days, when tall-masted ships from foreign ports crowded the wharves. Nat did not have the makings of a sailor; he was too small. Nat may have been slight of build, but no one guessed that he had the persistence and determination to master sea navigation in the days when men sailed only by “log, lead, and lookout.” Nat’s long hours of study and observation, collected in his famous work, The American Practical Navigator (also known as the “Sailors’ Bible”), stunned the sailing community and made him a New England hero. (Adapted from Goodreads)

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Review: I have always harbored a dream of running away and sailing the world. Sadly, I suffer from seasickness. Growing up I loved to read adventure stories, especially ones focused on sailing and exploring faraway lands. Sailing always seemed like an exciting way to live. Carry on Mr Bowditch explores the birth of modern navigation through the eyes of the Nat Bowditch.

Nathaniel “Nat” Bowditch, grew up in a poor household as the younger son of a cooper, a maker of wooden barrels.

Nat loves school, especially mathematics, and dreams of attending Harvard University. Due to economic hardship, he quits school to make barrels with his father. He eventually ends up as an indentured servant to a ship’s chandler (a store specializing in supplies or equipment for ships). Determined to continue his education, he teaches himself Latin. After nine years, his indenture is complete and Nat goes to sea.

During his sailing adventure, Nat discovers that the navigational sources used by the ship’s crew contained extensive and dangerous errors. He decides to compile a new book of navigational information. This book, The American Practical Navigator, is still in use today. Eventually Nat becomes a captain himself. Thanks to his work on improving navigational understanding, Nat received an honorary Master of Arts degree from Harvard.

This book contains everything you want in a children’s story: action, adventure, perseverance, hardship, success, and an unflagging sense of purpose backed up with sheer determination. Nat wanted more out of life than making barrels or twisting rope. Since he needed an education to move up in the world, he used the resources available to educate himself.

Narrative wise, the book covers approximately twenty years in under three hundred pages. Themes like death, loss, romance, and love appear throughout the story but never become the focal point. The narrative focuses on a young man trying to improve his life and letting nothing or no one dissuade him from his path. If you are looking for a solid children’s book that teaches some American history in an enjoyable manner, check out Carry On Mr Bowditch. You will all want to sail off into the horizon after finishing this fabulous book.

Carry On Mr Bowditch, 1955, HMH Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 9780618250745

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