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Capsule Movie Reviews Vol.2020.12

Published by marco on

These are my notes to remember what I watched and kinda what I thought about it. I’ve recently transferred my reviews to IMDb and made the list of around 1600 ratings publicly available. I’ve included the individual ratings with my notes for each movie. These ratings are not absolutely comparable to each other—I rate the film on how well it suited me for the genre and my mood and. let’s be honest, level of intoxication. YMMV. Also, I make no attempt to avoid spoilers.

The Alienist: Angel of Darkness S02 (2020) — 8/10

Season two of this show set in late 1800s New York follows the adventures of alienist Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), journalist John Moore (Luke Evans), and private detective Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning). They’re on the trail of the “Angel of Darkness”, a person who’s kidnapping and killing babies.

Libby Hatch (Rose McEwen, in her first TV role) is excellent as the “angel”, as is her boyfriend Goo Goo Knox (Frederick Schmidt). Both bring a bit more nuance to their monstrous roles—Libby has been driven made by her mother’s and society’s expectations and treatment. Goo Goo is a thug, but exhibits a capacity for tenderness and dedication to Libby.

The always excellent Ted Levine is (ex-)Chief Thomas Byrnes, who’s now a for-hire henchman working for William Randolph Hearst (Matt Letscher), the newspaper magnate who’s more interested in bending events in a way that benefit his circulation numbers than in helping the police solve cases. He’s also trying to marry off his daughter Violet (Emily Barber) to John. There is tension there because pretty much everyone knows that John’s hot for Sara—and vice versa. “Hot” as defined by a society obsessed with Victorian morés.

They end up chasing Libby—who’s now kidnapped a Vanderbilt baby—across the East River to Brooklyn. She and Goo Goo leave a trail of destruction wherever they go. She is arrested in the end, ending up in prison with her demons.

John and Sara do not end up together. Laszlo is reinstated at his institute, and Sara continues her work at her thriving agency.

Christmas Chronicles (2018) — 7/10

This movie takes a while to get going, spending a good amount of time introducing us to Kate and her older brother Teddy, two kids who’ve recently lost their father. He used to videotape every Christmas and Kate discovers a clue that Santa actually exists on one of the tapes.

With their mother called in unexpectedly to work on Christmas Eve, the two kids call an uneasy truce and spend the evening in a spying nest, ready to capture Santa on camera. It turned out not to be too hard, as he’s right there in the living room at 22:30 or so, with his sleigh hanging in the air above the street outside, complete with reindeer.

Kate and Teddy sneak into the sleigh and Santa (Kurt Russell) takes them with him, unwittingly flying them to Chicago before getting so surprised by the two kids that he loses his magical hat and his reindeer and Christmas is in danger. He enlists the two kids to help him get things back on track. The best scene of the the movie is the one in the diner, where they try to enlist help from skeptical diners.

There’s a musical number in the jail where Santa’s being held. Russell is very good as a wise-cracking and down-to-Earth (though still magical) Santa. He knows everyone’s name, which is used to decent comedic effect. It takes quite a while to get everything back on track but, of course, they manage to finish delivering presents in the nick of time (yeah, I noticed).

It’s a decent Christmas movie, buoyed almost entirely by Russell’s performance as an insouciant and earnest Santa. It’s no Four Christmases, Fred Claus, or Bad Santa, but it’s decent if you’re forced to watch a schmaltzy Christmas movie.

Christmas Chronicles 2 (2020) — 6/10

The sequel sees a return of all of the main characters from the original. It’s a bit cheesier than the first one, although Goldie Hawn as Mrs. Claus plays a larger role than her tiny cameo at the end of the first film.

Kate and Teddy’s mother has moved on from their father and the family is vacationing in Cancun for Christmas with her boyfriend Bob (Tyrese Gibson) and his son Jack (Jahzir Bruno). Kate’s teenage tantrums drop her into the grasp of fallen elf Belsnickel (Julian Dennison), who deposits her and Jack at the North Pole, leaving them as prey for Santa to rescue. He, of course, does so, simultaneously granting Belsnickel access back to Santa’s village.

Belsnickel attacks with the help of his evil elf companion Snick and Jola, a snow leopard, who’s there to take care of the reindeer. Belsnickel is after the star powering Santa’s village. He manages to steal it, but is caught on the way out. In the struggle with St. Nick, they destroy the star. Belsnickel escapes on a drone.

The second act has Mrs. Claus stay in the village with Jack to heal Dasher, who’s been badly wounded by Jola, and to heal the elves, who’ve been dosed by Belsnickel with Elfbane. Santa Claus and Kate go back to Turkey—where he started off 1700 years ago—to get a new star to power his village.

In Turkey, Santa and Kate meet Hakan (Malcolm Mcdowell), leader of the Turkic Elves. They agree to build a new container for the star. On the way back, Kate and Santa are waylaid by Belsnickel in his weirdly powered and designed sleigh. He sends them back in time with a shoddily powered device leading them to a new mission at an airport in 1990.

Kate’s mission is to power up the time machine again, while Santa needs to “bring up Christmas spirit” in order to get his reindeer off the ground again. Cue musical number. Kate meets her father in 1990, able to see him once again in one of the only ways possible (given time travel).

They get the star back from Belsnickel pretty easily, chasing each other back to the North Pole before Mrs. Claus drops them both out of the sky. Things happen and everything is OK in the end, with a less confrontational Belsnickel getting a present from Santa, growing his heart three sizes that day.

It’s pretty heavy-handed, what with Jack conquering his fears and Kate learning to appreciate her family (like literally saying it out loud, telling rather than showing). The story is also much more fantastical and modern-child-pleasing than the original, with CGI pyrotechnics galore—none of it adding to the story.

As in the original, it’s Russell who carries the film, somehow managing to strike a balance between cheesy and cool. Goldie Hawn’s not bad, either. Julian Dennison is also pretty good—he was good in Deadpool, as well.

The Witcher S01 (2019) — 9/10

Henry Cavill stars as the supernatural, monster-slaying nomad whose character was developed through the enormously popular books of the same name. The story comes originally from a Polish author, writing in the 1980s and 1990s—and some of the political sensibilities clearly come from that era.

The backdrop is a war between the merciless Nilfgaardians, who are trying to take over the continent, and Cintra, a kingdom with a ruthless queen. Cintra is on the back foot and gets nearly eradicated. The princess of Cintra is Ciri (Freya Allan), who’s on the run across the countryside for much of the first season. She has banshee-like powers but no control over them.

Her mother had these powers as well, but her grandmother (the aforementioned ruthless Queen Calanthe (Jodhi May) of Cintra) did not. Her mother was pledged to a hedge knight as part of an oath to satisfy a Law of Surprise. Ciri is pledged to the Witcher Geralt (Henry Cavill) in a similar oath. This type of oath means that the granter bequeaths an at-the-time unknown “surprise” to the power to whom they owe a debt. The “surprise” refers to something of value that the debtor has, but of which they are unaware and that the creditor may claim. In both of these cases, the surprise was a child.

We follow Geralt on his monster-slaying adventures in one plotline while, in another, we meet Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), an up-and-coming mage at the Mage University. She learns about how there is no good and evil, but many shades of grey. She thirsts for power, interested mostly in her own needs—and definitely not interested in using her power to help others less fortunate (at least until the end). She started off life as a misbegotten hunchback for whom life was misery until she was able to use her power—grown under the tutelage of Tissaia (MyAnna Buring)—to give herself long life and a spectacularly straight body.

This is a big theme in this show: Geralt is neutral chaotic but basically a fair and just force for good (more or less). Yennefer takes longer getting there, but also bends toward good, though with a lot of character complexity mixed in. It’s unclear which side to “root for” in the war—probably neither is worth the effort. Neither has the ethical high ground, really. In the mix is a species of elves that is subjugated as inherently evil by both sides. They are nothing of the sort—not evil, but also not shining good. A mix like everyone else.

Cavill’s acting really carries the show for me, but the acting in general as well as the dialogue, sets, and effects are all top-notch.

The Hollow (1970) — 7/10

This is a documentary about two families in the lower Adirondacks who, instead of returning to “civilization” when the State decides to flood their towns to make a reservoir, flee deeper into the hills to “The Hollow”, where they live in nearly abject poverty and intermarry to their heart’s content. The short film (just over an hour) is mostly interviews with various residents, letting them talk about whatever they want, without leading them on with questions very much.

Their accents are thick and some are nearly incomprehensible (you have to listen really closely). They discuss mostly local and family topics. I added a point because this documents the area where I grew up in upstate New York, only a couple of years before I was born.

Big Mouth S04 (2020) — 7/10

The kids from the previous seasons find themselves at a sleepaway camp for the summer for the first third of the season. Nick (Nick Kroll) is ostracized while Andrew (John Mulaney) is lauded. Jessi (Jessi Glaser) becomes friends with a transgender camper. Connie (Maya Rudolph), Maury (Nick Kroll), Rick (also Nick Kroll) and Mona (Thandie Newton) are back as the various hormone monsters.

Now in the eighth grade, the kids are settling in and pairing off—but Nick and Andrew don’t have anyone. Jessi has moved to New York City with her mother and has an older boyfriend named Michaelangelo. Missy (Jenny Slate) is a newly independent black girl, more aware of her identity. Jay (Jason Mantzoukas) and Lola (Nick Kroll) are a surprisingly solid item.

Nick spins out of control, getting meaner and meaner, until the kids are forced to make him confront his inner demons and come out the other side a better person.

This season is noticeably raunchier than the other one—which is saying something. Sometimes it’s hilariously appropriate—but a few times, it really felt like they were forcing it for a joke that wasn’t going to land. For example, Andrew’s “poop babies” in the camp story arc is a bit lazy and trying too hard. If you liked the other seasons, you’ll like this one, too. It’s a good show.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (1964) — 6/10

Sam the Snowman (Burl Ives) introduces us to “Christmastown”, at the North Pole, where we also meet Santa (Stan Francis) and Mrs. Claus (Peg Dixon). Santa’s at dinner by himself and she’s berating him and body-shaming him for having lost weight. With angry eyebrows, she promises to “have him fattened up again” by Christmas in what is, quite frankly, a threatening tone.

Next up, we meet Rudolph (Billie Mae Richards), son of Donner and Mrs. Donner. His nose whistles when it lights up. The body-shaming theme continues as Donner tries to cover up his son’s “nonconformity”. We also meet the Abominable Snowman, who’s always angry. To continue the theme of the ostracization of the other, Hermey the Elf is next ridiculed for wanting to do anything other than make toys. He wants to be a dentist—and is threatened that he’d better work through his break or he’s fired. As Sam sums up: “Ah, well. Such is the life of the elf.”

In the next scene, Donner threatens his son that he’d better wear his proboscis prosthesis “if he has any self-respect”. Rudolph meets Fireball (Alfie Scopp) and they start macking on the does, whose only contribution rhetorically is tittering and batting their eyelashes.

Next up, the elves are back on trial: they sing their song for Santa, who’s very unimpressed, and leaves with a noncommittal comment, passive-aggressively shooting down the whole troupe.

Fireball is really, really avid about Rudolph’s chances with “the does”, exhorting him in no uncertain terms that he better get with Clarice. Rudolph sounds like a toddler, which makes the whole scene creepier than it needs to be.

Rudolph loses his prothesis and everyone makes fun of him for being different, even though he flies better than any of them. Santa agrees that his flying skills are enviable, but that his deformity obviates it unequivocally, leaving Rudolph to be psychically torn to shreds and forbidden from “playing any more reindeer games”.

Clarice, that old horndog, likes his nose, though, singing him a song and then gets reamed by her racist father, who sends her home and forbids the relationship in no uncertain terms.

Hermey and Rudolph meet and agree to “be independent together” (on Santa’s trash heap of discarded nonconforming employees). During this next song, Hermey throws hands at an effigy he builds of his boss out of snow. They strike off into the night.

In the morning, they meet Yukon Cornelius (Larry D. Mann), who only “thinks about silver and gold” (licks ax: “Nuthin.”). Cue a song—Silver and Gold—by Sam the Snowman. More animals that don’t belong at the North Pole show up. We’ve already seen cardinals, raccoons, rabbits, and, now, squirrels who, inexplicably, collect gold nuggets.

The Abominable Snowman catches up to Yukon, Rudolph, and crew and they escape. The ice floe crashes in the fog into the Island of Misfit Toys, where they are greeted by Charlie-in-the-Box (Alfie Scopp). Cue, of course, a song—Christmas Day is Here. They meet the king of the island, Moon Racer (Stan Francis), who gives them a mission of finding homes for all of the toys on his island. The little polka-dot elephant is adorable.

Donner heads out to find them, denying Mrs. Donner’s help, saying, “No. This is man’s work.”, provoking inevitable tears from the weaker sex. Rudolph wanders around, growing up and “existing”, eventually coming home to find his parents gone. They, along with Clarice, have been kidnapped by the Abominable Snowman, who clobbers Rudolph in a fight.

Yukon and Hermey find them (quite fortuitously) and lure the beast outside. Hermey rips out out all of its teeth, rendering it completely harmless before Yukon drives the confused beast backwards off of a cliff, a fate perhaps better than the lingering death by starvation that faced it otherwise. Yukon pitches after it into the abyss.

They both reappear the next day, with a triumphant Yukon leading the beast on a leash, consigning it to a life of indentured servitude at the North Pole. The storm rages on outside and Santa has to cancel Christmas. Then Santa realizes that Rudolph’s messed-up deformity of a glowing face could be put to good use, so they all change their opinion of him. Cue a song: “Holly, Jolly Christmas”.

One song later and Santa is now super-fat, just like Mrs. Claus wanted. Also, Donner’s a real sonofabitch.

The misfit toys are huddled over a fire, lamenting another missed Christmas. When Charlie tells them to dream of next year, Doll (Corinne Conley) intones darkly, “I don’t have any dreams left to dream,” leaking tears down her stitched face.

Santa and Rudolph and the other reindeer show up, collect all the toys and head off into the night. The end.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) — 8/10

This is the story of a bald child named Charlie Brown. He is depressed as Christmas approaches, worried that he is unable to enjoy anything. He complains to his more balanced friend Linux, who sucks his thumb and takes a security blanket everywhere he goes. Linus’s sister Lucy is the class know-it-all.

Lucy diagnoses Charlie Brown as needing a proper distraction—like directing the school’s Christmas play. Part of Charlie’s inadequacy may be due to his having a dog who is cooler than him and better at everything (e.g. skating and throwing snowballs).

Sally is Charlie’s little sister who, like Snoopy, has lost her soul to commercialism. “All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.”

Charlie takes over the play’s production, taking it seriously with a crew that has no faith in him, whatsoever. They dance to Vince Guaraldi’s glorious soundtrack, infuriating Brown. Lucy (the script girl) hands out roles to Frieda, Pigpen, Shermy, Snoopy, Linus. Surprisingly, Lucy is very supportive of Charlie Brown, threatening many with violence: “I oughta slug you”.

Sally is nominated to be Linus the shepherd’s wife, which suits her just fine, as she has a crush on him. Lucy wants to be Christmas queen and leaves in a huff when Charlie Brown doesn’t immediately thrill to the idea. The players continue to do what they want, ignoring his direction.

At this, Charlie decides that he needs a big tree for the stage. His cast is less than confident. “Do something right for a change, Charlie Brown”. The lot is full of technicolored aluminum trees. One tree has almost no branches and loses half of its needles on being disturbed, but it’s real and Charlie grabs that one, despite Linus’s reservations that the cast will be disappointed.

In the meantime, Schroeder plays Beethoven and jazz piano (Guaraldi again), with Lucy all the while admonishing him that he “doesn’t get it at all”. Lucy’s got eyes for Schroeder.

Linus and Charlie bring the tree back and he collects opprobrium from all of the children—primarily the little girls, but the boys (and Snoopy) join in. The little tree is insufficient for them because it’s tiny and pathetic. Brown cries “Doesn’t anyway know what Christmas means?” to which Linus responds with a Bible-heavy explanation that ends with “good will toward all men.”

Brown carries his tree outside and says, “Linus is right; I won’t let all of their commercialism ruin my Christmas.” Snoopy won first prize in the “best-decorated house” competition—the children cannibalize Snoopy’s house to decorate their tree, which miraculously doesn’t collapse under the strain.

The credits thank a list of people for “graphic blandishment”, which is pretty hifalutin.

Dr. Suess’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) — 9/10

This is the original cartoon adaptation of the children’s book. It is the story of the town of Who-ville, a town of indefatigably chipper residents of Whos who raise their voices in joyous song to celebrate Christmas.

Their neighbor to the north in the mountains is “The Grinch”, voiced by Boris Karloff (who also narrates). The Grinch hates Christmas. Like every year, they annoy him with their joyful noise. This year, he decides to “find some way to keep Christmas from coming.” He hates the noise. He hatches a plan, dragging his reluctant dog Max into it. He must stop the noise of Christmas morning and, most of all, he must stop the singing.

His plan is to make himself a Santa suit and steal Christmas. Cue a montage for costume creation accompanied by Boris Karloff’s dulcet tones. Max gets an antler strapped to his head and is tied up to the front of the sleigh, after briefly and happily thinking he was just going for a ride. They rocket downslope to town.

The Grinch and a very-reluctant Max slink from house to house, robbing the Whos blind—every last ornament, every crumb of food, every candy cane. Montage time again. Cindy Lou Who wakes and catches him at work—he smoothly lies to her and makes off with the rest of the decorations and presents. In the following montage, he takes ice cubes and light bulbs.

The sled is massively overloaded when he exhorts Max to tow them back up the mountain—10,000 feet up the side of Mt. Crumpet, “he rode up with his load to dump it”. Max is incredibly strong. The Grinch is triumphant. He glories in the expectation of their suffering—and silence. But they’re singing, just like every Christmas, the damned saps. Somehow, they’re happy without their presents and decorations and food—how can that be? “It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes, or bags.”

In this moment, fate decides to tip the sleigh off of Mt. Crumpet and the Grinch no longer wants it to. He catches it, his heart grows three sizes, he has the strength of “ten Grinches, plus two”, and rescues the sled. He and Max ride triumphantly back into Whoville to return their purloined goods and to feast and make merry with the Whos. The End.

The animation, narration, and music are all brilliant.

The Year without a Santa Claus (1974) — 6/10

This is stop-motion animation of a Christmas where Santa (Mickey Rooney) calls off Christmas due to exhaustion brought on by incipient depression. He takes to bed, moping around that no-one cares about Christmas anymore. Mr.s Claus (Shirley Booth) tries to perk him up, to no avail. After briefly considering taking over the job herself—which is discarded as a silly idea because…a woman? Really?—she sends two elves, Jingle (Bob McFadden) and Jangle (Bradley Bolke), with Vixen to South Town, USA, to find people with Christmas spirit.

The pair, riding Vixen, fly between the brothers Heat Miser (George S. Irving) and Snow Miser (Dick Shawn), who almost shoot them down. Santa takes off after them, sick as a dog, riding Dasher. The two elves continue to South Town, where they meet children who don’t seem to believe in Christmas and Vixen is caught by the dogcatcher. Santa is hot on their tail, singing all the way, staying with a family for a bit, then rescuing Vixen and carrying her home.

In the meantime, Mrs. Claus goes to meet Heat and Snow Miser to get them to cooperate and let it snow in the south to convince people to have a Christmas spirit. The two refuse to cooperate until Mrs. Claus gets their mother: Mother Nature (Rhoda Mann). She sets them straight and Christmas is saved. Santa gets his break and the people of the world chip in to make Christmas on their own.

However, some whiny chick—the Blue Christmas girl—sends him a letter about how sad she is without Santa Claus. The other kids made him a bunch of gifts, but Blue Christmas girl guilted him into going back to work, even though his body is wrack and ruin. He pretends his ills are healed by the “goodness of the children of the world”, but I’m sure his surly doctor (Bob McFadden) would disagree.