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The Spruces and the Pines (2017 TV Movie)
9/10
A clever Romeo-and-Juliet feel-good Christmas family movie!
12 January 2020
Warning: Spoilers
Also known as "A Star-Crossed Christmas". Christmas is approaching. A Romeo and Juliet romance takes place among two commercially competing, and emotionally feuding New England Christmas Tree farming families. Against their families' wills, Julie Pine, daughter of James Pine (whose wife died almost a year ago), comes home from university, with only one semester remaining in her Horticultural degree, to help her father with the Christmas rush. Meanwhile, coming from Texas, where he had been a successful used-car salesman, Rick Spruce, accepts the invitation of his uncle, unmarried and childless Dave Spruce, to help his uncle at this busy season. Rick has been promised the opportunity to take over the spruce Christmas tree farm if he likes the work. Coincidentally, not knowing their family origins, Rick and Julie meet, several times and, after a few brisk and amusing sparks between them, begin falling in love. When they realise they each come from different sides of the bitter Pine-Spruce feud, Julie initially rejects Rick. But Rick has not grown up with the on-going feuding, which he thinks is nothing to do with him, or Julie, and he persists, and wins Julie around. They agree it is more than time that the feuding stop, but they realise that, for the time being, they are forced by their circumstances to hide their Yuletide relationship. Meanwhile, one of the big burly Pine workers, nicknamed "Bear", and one of the cute Spruce workers, Holly, have been secretly dating, despite knowing that their mutually antagonistic bosses would fire them on the spot if their relationship was revealed. In the nearby town, Martha Fuller, the unmarried owner of the only sweet bakery and coffee shop in town, realises what is happening, and, secretly, wishes she could attract bachelor Dave Spruce. She is clearly scheming to manipulate Julie, and the others, ... But only the two grumpy old men know what the feud was about, and each of them angrily refuses to discuss it. (Martha also knows, but feels unable to explain to Julie or Rick.) Happily, all of this is resolved, partly because Holly discovers some old photos from when Dave and James and Julie's mother before she married, and Martha were all happy friends together; and partly because Julie explores some of her mother's boxes of belongings, discovers the family's misplaced Christmas-tree topper - a large crystal star - and three letters written on her deathbed by Julie's mother - one to Julie, another to her husband, James, and a third to Dave Spruce. One scene is inspiring, if only for its unusual seasonal culinary interest: Julie Pine: Well, this is a Christmas tradition that every tree farmer should know. (Julie opens a canister) Rick Spruce: Are those pine needles? Julie Pine: Yup. Rick Spruce: You put those in the tea? Julie Pine: They are the tea. (Julie prepares the drink, putting a small sprig of pine needles in each mug, and pouring in about two inches of boiling water.) Julie Pine: My Mom would make this for us every winter. Here you go. (She passes one of the mugs to Rick.) Rick Spruce (uncertain): Thank you. Julie Pine (urging him): Go on, ... (Rick hesitates, but then, cautiously, sniffs, and then sips.) Rick Spruce: It's like Christmas in a cup! Julie Pine (pleased he likes it, and understands it): Cheers! Rick Spruce: Cheers! (They both happily drink!) Wikipedia's article on "Pine" tells us: "A tea made by steeping young, green pine needles in boiling water (known as tallstrunt in Sweden) is high in vitamins A and C". Also, other Wikipedia articles note that "pines" and "spruces" all belong to the botanical family Pinaceae, while the pines, as such, belong to the genera Pinus. By contrast, balsam firs, while belonging to the large family Pinaceae, are not members of the genera Pinus, but belong to the separate genus Abies. That is, firs are not pines! Despite this, early in the film Dave Spruce berates Rick for selling customers a hated "pine", a Balsam fir. Hmm, ... Julie, the horticulture student, could have corrected Dave! Once you get over the corny family names, Pine and Spruce, and forget the cheesy nickname "Bear" for a big burly smiling tub of a man (maybe not such a bad nickname after all), and accept that the story of ridiculously feuding families and thwarted star-crossed lovers is a happier variant on Romeo and Juliet, this is a good film. It naturally centres on "Christmas", because of the seasonal setting of the rival Christmas tree farms, but not for what Christmas is really about, such as, the Nativity, and/or Santa Claus. Instead it emphasises the importance of listening to your heart, and caring for others. But maybe that is not such a bad Christmas message, after all!
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Welcome to Christmas (2018 TV Movie)
8/10
Should a little town, down on its luck, but with a big heart, get a big new ski resort development?
9 January 2020
Warning: Spoilers
Sometimes to judge a film ahead of choosing to watch it, or not, it helps to know some of the details of the story and characters, and not just the opinions of reviewers -- so you can make up your own mind. Resort developer Madison Lane (cute Jennifer Finnigan) is tasked with finding a location for a new ski resort. Her preference is for the resort to be placed in Mountain Park, a big developed town with a shopping mall and much more. But her boss tells her to take a trip to Christmas, Colorado, a small hill town, to consider the location and the attractive incentive package they're offering. He thinks it could be cheaper to develop in a smaller town, and when the new ski resort boosts the town economy, the resort would benefit from the town's growth. On her way into town to meet with the mayor, Madison skids on some ice and knocks over the town's big Welcome sign, featuring Santa and the town's slogan, "Santa's favourite place, after the North Pole". (The town used to have a different name, but as its home-grown Christmas events grew, the residents voted to change the name to "Christmas". However, the economic downturn, and the closure of a major business in the town has meant that it can no longer afford municipal Christmas events - in fact, these have not occurred for many years.) Town Sheriff Gage McBride (rugged-looking Eric Mabius), a widower with two daughters, an enthusiastic pre-teen (pixyish Payton Lepinski, who played tragic Jonbenet Ramsey in Lifetime's "Who Killed Jonbenet"), and a grieving surly early teen (Lauren McNamara), gives Madison a ride into town so she can attend the meeting while the car is towed and repaired. Little does Madison know that the town is on a desperate mission to convince Madison that Christmas is the best place for the new ski resort. The town committee welcoming Madison spontaneously tell her she must stay to see the Grand Lighting of the Town's Christmas Tree and Town Square Lights, and invite her to be the one to press the big button. This forces the town community to rush to procure a tree, and collect as many Christmas decorations as possible from individual families. Eventually the town square is decorated - Madison remarks that the decorations are diverse and look like families' decorations, and Gage replies that this is the home-town touch that makes the Christmas display so special. A succession of other suddenly revived town Christmas events repeat this, nicely, including a Christmas ornament hunt, that is enhanced by Madison's own suggestion that the ornaments should have small discounts for local stores as part of the prize in the hunt. And there is the town's carol singing, which Madison also joins in, and enjoys. Along the way, another narrative and emotional complication is that Gage is considering whether to take a career-promotion and move to Denver. His aunt (Susan Hogan), who has come to live with his family and help fill in for his wife, is keen for Gage to find a new partner. His wife's best friend (sultry Sarah Edmondson) is also discretely interested in Gage. While stranded in the town (the auto repair shop concocts reasons for parts not being delivered, and later, as she gives positive reports on the town's Christmas events, her boss orders her to stay longer, and be more involved), Madison grows to love the community and the spirit of Christmas that runs throughout. She also helps Gage's teenage daughter switch from being cynical and touchy to being friendly and more cheerful, while the younger daughter is just ebullient all the time - and her enthusiasm is infectious for Madison! The light-hearted activities take a darker turn when the would-be girlfriend, the best friend of Gage's wife, reveals the news that, as she thinks, Gage is going to abandon the town and move to Denver. Somehow this is resolved positively, without rebounding on the would-be girlfriend, who had acted selfishly, and resentfully, but did not mean to be malicious. Eventually hard decisions have to be made. Certainly the people of Christmas think they want the ski resort development, but is adding a big new ski resort really the right move for the charming small town? Or would the town be better off keeping its family and community Christmas traditions unspoiled, and building on that in a natural way? Madison is torn. The Christmas community want the town to prosper, yet Madeline is reluctant to ruin it by over-development. But ultimately this is a Hallmark Christmas movie and, aided by some unexpected plot twists, there are satisfyingly logically, and emotionally happy endings all around!
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9/10
TV cooking contest + personal issues + family values!
7 January 2020
Warning: Spoilers
Other reviews of this film present opinions - of course - but with little explanation to support these views, mainly negative and dismissive. At the risk of minor plot-spoiling, I think it is essential for a good review to explain what the movie is about, the characters and their interactions, and then base some opinions on this evidence in the narrative. (If a film is good enough, the plot spoilers won't harm the viewing, especially predictable romances, Christmas movies, and Hallmark films.) The owner of an historic rural small town inn decides to enter a prestigious TV cooking contest to win funds for renovations and get free publicity, but she is a horrible cook. She recruits a renowned chef to help but the kitchen isn't the only thing heating up. This is based on the novel, "Recipe for Redemption", by Anna J. Stewart. We meet the heroine, Abbie Denning (Madeline Leon), when she sets the smoke alarm off because, yet again, she is burning something in the kitchen. (She is known as "Five Alarm Denning" for good reason.) She is young, and single, and a sparkling personality who can bring out the best in anyone, but she can't cook - neither could her parents, who had been running the inn. Abbie's grandmother owns the small-town hundred-year-old inn (hotel) in a small rural town. The inn's usual cook has gone away, perhaps for a while, and Abbie, who is running the inn for her grandmother, is struggling to find a replacement cook. On the other hand, the only thing she can cook is the Christmas pudding that is her family's secret recipe. She learned to cook it - perfectly! - beside her grandmother, Alice, who can cook. Sadly, Alice is in the early stages of Parkinson's Disease, and her future is not good. Sadly, we learn that Alice has been drawing on her own savings to supplement what the inn fails to earn, across several years, and now her money has run out and the bank is threatening to take over the inn, or force Alice to sell to a national hotel chain. The serious young man who discovers Abbie in the smoke-filled kitchen is Jason Corwin, a celebrity TV chef from New York. His lawyer-agent has booked accommodation at the inn to help Jason break free from the grief he feels over the recent death of his brother and celebrity-chef partner, David; and from the feeling of betrayal by a former colleague, Roger, who has exploited David's death and Jason's grief to win his own celebrity TV chef position. And it gets worse. Jason was also involved in an apparent episode of cheating in a TV cooking competition when another colleague, Marcus, helped him during the competition (against the rules), but later denied giving the help. Jason has become notorious! And sad. Then Abbie finds out that Jason's former TV cooking channel is going to hold a Christmas cooking contest in her town, and a local cook can possibly be one of the competitors, and, better still, the prize of $50,000 would cover the debt to the bank and save the inn - the only home that grandmother Alice has ever known, and now more than ever essential to Alice's physical and mental health! Exerting all her charm, Abbie succeeds in persuading Jason to be her crash-course cooking teacher, so that, in a few weeks of teaching, she can become a contender for the position of the local cook in the contest. Not only is Jason sad, but he is very serious about cooking, describing it as a privilege, preparing the best food for other people to enjoy. And he repeatedly tells Abbie that cooking is dangerous - sharp knives, just to start with. He is also a snob, and used to top-class city restaurants in New York. He tells Abbie he has never eaten in a diner - even though New York is full of diners that feed people well and keep them happy - whereas Abbie thinks her local diner serves a BLT (bacon and lettuce sandwich) that is "to die for". Jason would rather die than even go into the diner, any diner, let alone eat any BLT! By now we are about a quarter into the film, and the two main personalities, and their predicaments, are clear. Abbie is trying hard to learn to cook, and making mistakes, and Jason is warming to her, and the town, and softening in his intolerances. Abbie and Jason are beginning to succeed with Abbie's lessons, and beginning to know one another better - and finding out more about one another's issues. They are sympathetic characters, nicely cast, and well acted. The tension drastically increases when treacherous Roger appears in the town, organising the cooking contest, and generally threatening anyone who gets in his way. In particular, he threatens to destroy everything Abbie values if she does not let his favoured contestant win the contest. How Roger is thwarted, and what Marcus confesses about his betrayal of Jason, and why, and how everything turns out very well - this is a happy romantic Christmas movie, after all - is genuinely surprising, and plausible, and Roger gets some of what he deserves! The fact that Abbie, all on her own, is an expert maker of her family's secret recipe pudding is her personal ace in the pack! This is not a great Christmas movie, but it is a nice one.
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Coming Home for Christmas (2013 TV Movie)
8/10
Family dramas leading to Christmas, plus some singing -- nicely done!
6 January 2020
Warning: Spoilers
The movie begins with two happy girls enjoying winter, snow, family, and Christmas. We see them growing up, and, perhaps oddly, at one point burying one of the girl's favourite dolls, a pretty string-puppet, in a large tin can. A time-capsule? The parents are helping with the burial in the snow, and it seems a bit of a joke. (The voice-over narrative was not clear in these early scenes.) But later this contributes a key moment in the whole story. Then we see the younger sister, who has just graduated from high school, about to get married. The older sister, waiting to be the chief bride's maid, happens to see the groom misbehaving with another bride's maid, and when she tries to warn her sister, but can't stop the wedding, she walks out! Now the real story begins, five years after Kate (Carly McKillip) walked out of her younger sister Melanie's (Britt McKillip) wedding, marrying her high school sweetheart straight after finishing high school. This wedding-rift has torn the family apart! (In real life, sisters Carly and Britt McKillip are Canadian musicians who sing and perform together in the group called One More Girl, in a country and western pop gospel style. Later we hear, and see, Kate-Carly singing a gospel-tinged version of "O, Holy Night", while pretending to play the piano. The father in the movie is played by George Canyon, a successful Canadian country and western singer and actor, and he sings the final song, his own composition, "Home for Christmas" with the girls and another character.) With the sisters not talking and living separately, their parents (Amy Jo Johnson, George Canyon) are struggling emotionally, and financially. The father lost his job in the economic recession, and the mother has started a small pre-school child care centre to pay the bills. (The pre-school children are compensations for losing contact with her estranged daughters.) When the father buys a puppy on a whim, and the pre-school children are allergic to dogs, it is all too much, and the parents argue and split up. Because the father had been out of work, they could not make the mortgage repayments and had put their big family home up for sale. The family home is eventually bought by Mike (Ben Hollingsworth), a handsome single ex-Marine (with a personal secret) who served in Iraq, and whose best friend died in Iraq. The friend's young son hasn't coped well with his father's death, so Mike has offered him a job in his new carpentry and repair shop, and tries to provide substitute-fatherly guidance. (Later his friend's attractive widow appears in the story, complicating matters for a while, ...) Meanwhile Kate has found her dream job as a book editor in a thriving publishing company. However the sentimental family story she is now editing does not correspond to her own experiences of family problems and breakings up, and she is struggling with a pre-Christmas deadline to publish the book. At this point, everybody is estranged and bitter. Melanie is hiding the fact that her faithless husband has left her, leaving her alone, unqualified for any job, and forced to paying her bills by selling off the expensive furniture eventually she is reduced to living in an almost empty house! When Kate finds out that her parents have separated, and her mother has been torn by regret, and every day drives to look at the old family home while it was still for sale, Kate visits the home, herself, meets Mike, and then tries to reunite the family at the old house for Christmas. Coincidentally, some of the family's old Christmas decorations are still in boxes in the attic of the family house. All of this leads to a series of mishaps, misunderstandings, and small on-going hints of romance developing between Mike and Kate. Moreover, the family used to spend Christmas evenings sitting around singing and playing piano and guitar. Kate is, or was, a song-writer. Mike tells her she is lucky to have experienced happy family life family Christmases. He says, without detail, that he came from a big family, but, he adds, "it's complicated". Surprisingly, he never experienced a family Christmas, ... The ending is predictable and happy for everyone: young romance, and estranged parents reunited, and angry sisters reconciled, ... and a puppy! This is not a great Christmas film, and Christmas is no more than the focus for a very happy annual family get-together. But it is a pleasant and thoroughly plausible story, capably acted, and sung, and with likeable characters who seem ordinary folk, with some talent, rather than unrealistically handsome Hollywood stars. They are always sincere. It is thoroughly re-watchable, which is a good criterion for judging Christmas, and other, movies!
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Marry Me at Christmas (2017 TV Movie)
9/10
Christmas movie with attractive stars and a story with heart
5 January 2020
Hmm, ... synopsis doesn't quite get this right, and other reviews don't explain clearly or fixate on silly details, such as the hairstyles. In a small mountain skiing town, Madeline / Maddie and her best friend, Isabel, are struggling with their bridal wear store. When pretty Ginger Blake, and her mild-mannered medical resident (student) boyfriend, Oliver, enter the store, looking for a wedding gown, they are also wanting to marry, quickly (before Oliver takes up a medical residency in Cambridge University, England), in this little country town, preposterously named Fool's Gold. (On the other hand, the novelist who wrote the book this movie is based on wrote an entire series of romances set in this trash-named town!) Madeline is quick to offer advice, and, soon, although she has NO experience as a wedding planner, Ginger likes her, and her enthusiasm, and wants Maddie to plan her wedding on Christmas Eve. Maddie is still emotionally bruised from a relationship breakdown three years earlier, and deeply distrustful. (This is not helped when her ex and his new partner wander into town and coincidentally encounter Maddie! But that is a blip in the story rather than a major event.) Suddenly we learn that someone called Johnny Blake is Ginger's older brother, and a famous star in popular action movies. Although his pushy and basically obnoxious Hollywood agent is almost forcing him into a sequel adventure movie, Johnny is refusing to read the script, and uses the back page to draw doodle-pictures. Persistently ignoring his agent, Johnny has suspended his Hollywood career and moved to the little town (which fortunately is a car-trip away from Los Angeles) to help organise and pay for Ginger's wedding. We learn that Johnny and Ginger's parents died when Johnny was finishing high school, and he has been looking after her ever since in a parental way - he is a caring, protective big brother. We also begin to realise that Johnny likes drawing, and he is often seen (secretly!) sketching the Christmas scenes and people around the little town. Very quickly, Johnny is impressed by Maddie's energy, and natural charm, and he becomes emotionally interested. But Maddie is much more cautious. The story is complicated when Maddie sees Johnny on a celebrity TV channel seeming to be involved with a Hollywood starlet, reminding her of how she was betrayed, suddenly dumped by her previous boyfriend. On the other hand, Johnny feels used by Maddie when his celebrity-face is splashed across the bridal store's web-site - in fact, this exploitation of Johnny's stardom was secretly done by Isabel, foolishly, trying to use Johnny's stardom to promote the bridal store. At one point, the town's usual Santa Claus has not arrived in time for the town Christmas market, to meet the children in the usual way at Santa's Workshop. Johnny happens to be at the Christmas market and spontaneously and generously offers to put on the Santa costume, and he very quickly shows, being an experienced actor, that he can play the traditional role of Santa quite convincingly. But he reveals his truly sensitive nature when a boy hops on Johnny-Santa's lap, and tells Santa that all he wants for Christmas is for his father to come home. Naturally Santa asks where the boy's father is. Waiting for Johnny's response, watching this, we immediately think of a divorced or broken family, or a dad working far away, or posted away in the military, or even, perhaps in prison "He's in Heaven," says the boy, sadly. Johnny-Santa is initially stunned, but very quickly says exactly the right, compassionate and consolatory things to the boy. He asks the boy if he talks to his father when he goes to bed. "Yes, every night," the boy answers. "If you do that every night," Johnny-Santa says, "your father will always be with you." (This is tiny episode is close to the beautiful exchange between Santa-Claus and the sad, adopted-child in Miracle on 34th Street, both the classic Edmund Gwenn, and the modern Richard Attenborough versions!) Later, when Maddie, who overheard this, asks Johnny about this, he admits he had been thinking of himself and his grieving for his own father. (Johnny is not just an action-movie hero with a big square jaw and a hairstylist's surf-wave of hair! Actually, Johnny has the exaggerated handsomeness of Channing Tatum, for example.) Because this is a Hallmark Christmas romance, everything is eventually happily resolved, but Johnny has to try very hard, and very patiently, to soften Maddie's scarred feelings!! (Perhaps there is a hidden metaphor in the fact that Oliver, the bridegroom, is a cardiothoracic specialist - a "heart guy" - and arranges for his groom's cake, an alternative that is served alongside the traditional couple's wedding cake, to be in the shape of an oversized physiologically realistic human heart! This tradition of the groom's cake as a second, different wedding cake, is not widely known outside Southern states in the USA, even though it originated in Victorian England, when modern wedding traditions were being invented. Fortunately, we only glimpse this groom's cake through the top of the box: dark red and meaty, with darker wiggly arteries curling around it, ... erk! In the movie Steel Magnolias the groom's cake is in the shape of a giant armadillo!) Well cast, well acted, and with some witty moments in the script. For example, Maddie is happy to spend the evening going to a restaurant with Johnny as long as he agrees it will not be a "date". Eager to reassure her, and take her out, he suggests it will be an "outing" between friends! Similarly, when they find themselves beneath a bunch of mistletoe, they almost kiss, according to the usual tradition. But Maddie asks what FRIENDS traditionally do beneath mistletoe. Johnny reassures her that friends do a high-five! And there are some touching moments of heightened emotion - and gentle romance! The key relationship issue is that Johnny and Maddie have to trust one another, rather than leap to negative conclusions if something doesn't seem right. Can Maddie trust Johnny if he goes back to Hollywood? Can Johnny trust Maddie to accept his art? Maybe this in not one of the GREAT Christmas movies, nor one of the great Hallmark Christmas movies, but it is certainly a good one! You can enjoy this repeatedly -- because it has heart!
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Snowbound for Christmas (2019 TV Movie)
8/10
Office connections, business weekend connections, and a scheming rival
3 January 2020
It is approaching the Christmas season and Rachel Carter has just landed her dream job as a marketing director in a real estate development company. She is eager to impress her boss, Adrian Blackstone, and when a new project arises, redeveloping a villa in Tuscany, she burns the midnight oil to create a presentation an impressive marketing video. This earns her a spot on her boss's small team heading to a resort - which is about to open for a much bigger presentation to the Tuscan clients. While there, an unexpected snowstorm moves in, trapping Rachel and Adrian at the resort. They get to spend some quality personal time together realizing there may be more to their relationship than just business. (The maitre-d' of the resort, with a silly French-Canadian accent, fusses around the two of them. Because of the snowstorm, none of the scheduled several hundred guests of the resort arrive.) But Diane (or Diana, with a slight European accent), an architect in the same company, and part of Adrian's larger team, had had a brief relationship with Adrian some while ago. She is now jealous of Rachel, and scheming to pair up with him again. However early in the first full day at the resort, as the company architect, she is sent to assess possible re-development of remote cabins on the resort grounds. Then, during the snowstorm, Diana is herself snowbound in a distant primitive cabin, with her local driver. At this point, the story alternates between the extreme luxury Rachel and Adrian are enjoying, as the only guests at the resort (which Adrian had refurbished in a previous project), and the hardships Diana and her reluctant companion are enduring in their icy cabin - can they get the pot-bellied stove burning to heat the cabin? can they survive on cans of Spam? can they tolerate one another? Diana then schemes to set up a big presentation pitch (the first had been abandoned because of the snow storm) at Vale, with Adrian, alone. Diana, dismissively, says she can get all of Rachel's input from a thumb-drive. Later, Rachel is assigned the minor task of organising the company's Christmas party. During the party, Diana, smirking, and returning from Vale, tells Rachel that she and Adrian have reconnected. Rachel is bitterly disappointed. On Christmas Eve, alone in her apartment, she is consoled by her parents arriving unexpectedly, to spend Christmas with her. Then Adrian arrives, confused by Rachel's gallant rebuffs. When Rachel's father, defending his daughter, blurts out about Diana's claims on Adrian, Diana is revealed as a liar - and happy endings ensue. The movie closes with snapshots from what is almost certainly Rachel and Adrian's honeymoon in Hawaii, or some other tropical paradise! Well cast, and pleasantly acted, although the minor characters are more like caricatures, the final result is predictable (of course) but OK. Incidentally, Christmas is not really the theme, only the setting for this workplace romance.
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Holly's Holiday (2012 TV Movie)
9/10
Hoping for a "perfect" romance turns into a not-so-perfect experience
13 January 2018
Warning: Spoilers
This film has two titles. "Holly's Holiday", and "A Perfect Christmas". Paradoxically, each title is ironic (actually meaning the opposite), and yet also literally correct. The film is about Holly's "holidays" or seasonal experiences, and these experiences are a kind of holiday (actually a dream, but I'm getting ahead of myself). Equally, the film is about a "perfect" version of Christmas, but that is actually far from being an ideal Christmas, or even a real Christmas. The film begins with Christmas music and close-up shots of shop-window mannequins, and a reindeer, being assembled and dressed in a store's Christmas display. Then we cut to a shot of a young woman, Holly, hurrying past a group of street carollers, in Dickensian costume, getting to her New York job in an advertising company. We meet Holly's mild-mannered younger personal assistant, her eager-beaver African American supervisor, her grumpy boss, and others in the firm. Holly is suddenly told to develop a new advertising campaign for a new client - jewellers. She starts thinking of all the perfect romantic moments (perfect kiss, proposal, marriage, ...) when jewellery (engagement rings, and so on) may feature, arguing that men and women aspire to such moments of perfection. Her close colleague and camera man, Milo, argues that such perfection can only be glimpsed as moments within the complicated messy reality of human relationships. Holly pauses, in a street, to admire a handsome window-mannequin. Later, hurrying to get to work, pushing past some costumed street carollers, Holly trips, falls, blacks out, and as she wakes up again, lying on the sidewalk ... she sees that the person coming to her aid is a human version of the handsome store-window mannequin she had been admiring. Here is her "perfect" man and the "perfect" first meeting. She feels she has seen him before. He explain s that he works nearby, and he has often watched her going past in the street. (Often, what Beau says is literally true, for a store-window mannequin, but seems to mean something else.) Incidentally, we know, almost as soon as Beau/Bo appears that the handsome store-window mannequin is no longer in the store-window. Moreover, his glamorous store-window partner now stares alone out into the street, seemingly waiting for something ... Much, much later, we eventually find that most of the story we see from this point, with the handsome perfect man, Bo (according to someone's typing in IMDB, or should that actually be "Beau"?), and his ridiculously "perfect" parents, has been Holly's black-out dream while she has been recovering in hospital from her fall and concussion. The story continues for most of the film, with Holly and Beau/Bo becoming romantically involved. Step by step, Beau seems to be "perfect". But step by step Holly starts to see that "perfect" is not really something she wants, or needs. As noted, along the way, frequently the lines spoken by Beau (or Bo) have a double-meaning, with one of the meanings referring to his "life" or "working life" as a store-window mannequin, while the other meaning sounds quite different - clever! For example, Beau/Bo asks Holly what she does, and she says she works in advertising. "I love advertising!" enthuses Bo. Then when Holly asks Bo/Beau what he does, he replies, "I was in retail." Later we are introduced to Beau's parents, who are, we realise, also store-window models, but modelling older styles of clothing, although now they don't work so much, they say. Beau encourages them to show Holly some of their best positions. One position after another they show how they stand together (as a couple of dressed-up store-window mannequins) for Presidents' Day, for Hallowe'en, for Easter, or whatever the calendar/sales event. Amusingly, all the poses are the same, although the couple behave as though the poses are different. "Zoolander" strikes again! Very funny! But before the plot-twisting revelation near the end of the story, we see Bo/Beau becoming increasingly domineering, insisting he knows what Holly really wants and what is good for her. Much later, as Holly and Bo/Beau share more time together, and Holly struggles with the new advertising campaign, the female mannequin also comes to life. "Who is she?" asks Holly. "My ex," explains Bo. The jealous mannequin-woman totally disrupts a tacky photo-shoot for the campaign. Just when things seem to have gone as horribly wrong as they possibly could, and the photo shoot is a disaster, and Holly will maybe even lose her job, Holly rebels, and dumps Bo. Realising that Milo had been right all along, that real life, and real love is often complicated, messy, even sloppy (like a first kiss), Holly runs desperately to catch up with Milo who thinks he has been discarded, and suddenly as she is running Holly trips, and blacks-out and ... wakes up in hospital where she had REALLY been taken immediately after the first tripping. (Milo has pretended to be her husband so he could stay in the hospital to care for Holly. Sweet!) Happily, the film then ties up the loose ends, and Holly accepts that "perfect" is a misguided aspiration. And the photo-shoot is redeemed, and the advertising campaign is a huge success! Incidentally, the story is set NEAR Christmas, but it is not really a film with a properly developed Christmas theme. The film is often very funny, and realistically and fantastically romantic, and sentimentally touching. (The use of Christmas carols as background music is also good.)
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My Christmas Love (2016 TV Movie)
10/10
The Mystery of the secret giver of gifts from the Twelve Days of Christmas
30 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Cynthia is a small-town girl living away from home in a big town. She is a children's book author, having published several titles about a character called "Felicia": the next book is due with a looming deadline. Her illustrator colleague and friend, Liam (who sometimes describes Cynthia as "his boss"), is secretly in love with her. As Christmas approaches, Cynthia's boyfriend dumps her, giving her a goodbye-Christmas present of two Christmas tree ornaments: a pair of white doves. Meanwhile, her older sister, Janet, who lives at home, is getting married on or very close to Christmas, so Cynthia goes home, with Liam in tow, to work together on the book, and, suddenly single, as Cynthia's partner for the wedding. Cynthia's father, Tom, is a widower, although it is unclear how recently his wife died. Their marriage had a romantic intensity that Janet and Cynthia recognise, and Cynthia hopes to find in her life. But Janet, having seen what the loss meant to her still-grieving father, tries to avoid romantic events, and is marrying a seemingly strait-laced accountant, with the plainest of ceremonies, and no honeymoon away from her family home. While driving from the city to her small home-town, Cynthia meets her first boy-friend, Scott, now a town policeman, and still interested in her. Later, as Cynthia begins to decorate her family home for Christmas (something her mother used to do with gusto, but that Janet and their father, Tom, have not considered this year, because it would remind them too much of their loss), she meets another old boy-friend at the Christmas tree and wreath shop. Then, suddenly, a small van comes to the family house, a Christmas-dressed woman gets out, sings the first line of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and gives a partridge in a pear tree (in a cage) to Cynthia, apparently. (Instantly, Cynthia, the romantic, believes it is meant for her.) There is an unsigned mysterious note attached to the cage. Cynthia is intrigued, believing she may have a secret admirer. Days pass, and the presents from the "Twelve Days of Christmas" continue to be delivered, line by line. (The "six geese" are embroidered images on cushions. The "seven swans" are seven bottles of champagne with swan-logos on their labels. The milkmaids are like movie extras in costumes, as are the maidens dancing, the lords a-leaping, the pipers piping - Tchaikovsky's "Chinese Dance" from "The Nutcracker" and drummers drumming.) After the first two gifts arrive, Cynthia sets out to solve the mystery. Investigating close to home, she discovers that the matronly owner of the local pet shop knows nothing about the partridge or turtle doves. But it is obvious she is very fond of Cynthia's father. After other attempts also fail to discover the source of the gifts, Cynthia decides it must be Scott, the policeman, and she agrees to begin going on dates with him. Along the way he implies that he is actually the gift-giver - although towards the end it is revealed he doesn't know the song properly, and Cynthia, outraged, promptly dumps him. Meanwhile, from the outset, Cynthia's father sees how Liam feels, and how Cynthia ignores this, and he indirectly tries to get each of them to realise how they feel about each other. After several other complications within the family, and with Liam, when the twelfth gift is delivered, the note reveals that the twelve days of gifts have all been arranged by Cynthia's mother, before she died, as a demonstration to her husband that romantic fancies are important. The final note, a thoughtful letter to her husband, explains this. Fortunately, Cynthia comes to her senses, and professes her love to Liam, and he reveals his feelings, also, and several other romantic threads are also warmly (however predictably) tied up during the dancing after Janet and Roger's wedding. A nice film with several touching, unpredictable moments, and considerable heart-warming whimsy. (Cynthia's voice and zaniness may take some getting used to, as initially she seems to be channelling a blend of Meg Ryan and Zooey Deschanel - but eventually it is just part of her zestful character!)
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Marion (1974)
10/10
Neglected Australian mini-series about a young teacher in a small rural town in 1943
13 July 2017
"Marion" is a prize-winning ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) TV mini-series broadcast in 1974. It consists of four self-contained but consecutive plays, each slightly less than an hour long, written by highly awarded screenwriter, Cliff Green. The episodes explore the experiences of a young school teacher – Marion (played by Helen Mirren, later famous as Miranda the lead school girl who disappears in "Picnic at Hanging Rock", also scripted by Cliff Green) in a small school in rural Australia during the Second World War.

Cliff Green devised and scripted the series. He had grown up as a school boy in small country schools during the 1940s. He had become a school teacher during the 1960s, working in similar small country schools. "Marion" is not Cliff Green's story, but it draws on aspects of his own life, and the rural communities he lived in.

"Marion" has never been converted to DVD. If it was ever released as a VHS video cassette, I have found no copies or record of it, and it would be long out of print. I do have a copy of the book of the four plays, "Marion", by Cliff Green (Heinemann Educational Australia, South Yarra, 1974), with Cast listings, and related production and background information – also, a book now long out of print!

The title and incidental music is by George Dreyfus, one of Australia's leading film composers of that era, and a German refugee and, now, grand old man of Australian music.

The cast (more than 40 speaking roles) includes Helen Morse, Terry McDermott, Frank Wilson, Graeme Blundell (who also contributed an Introduction to the book), Kerry Dwyer, Elspeth Ballantyne, Anne Pendlebury, Tony Bonner, Gus Mercurio, Maurie Fields, and Kerry Armstrong – all famous Australian stage and television actors of that time, and later.

The four stories are superficially simple. In the Australian autumn (or fall) of 1943, a young woman beginning teacher arrives in a small town, Clearwater Creek, in rural Victoria, ostensibly in the Gippsland region, but actually filmed on locations in other parts of Victoria (Strathewan, Kinglake, Yarra Glen, and Warrandyte, plus beautifully realised interior sets), with the set design by Lauri Johnston, and the technical supervision of an extremely experienced school teacher and educational historian, Os Green, who also created the classroom curriculum and blackboard lessons used by Marion – this is stunningly authentic!

(In his short essay, "How Marion Was Made", at the end of the book, Cliff Green mentions, "Talking to a Stranger", a comparable, and at the time, 1966, a ground-breaking set of four connected television plays by John Hopkins about the same characters and a shared weekend, a "Rashomon"-like exploration of relationships, individuals, and points of view. "Marion" also loosely resembles R.F. Delderfield's large 1972 novel, and large 1980 television mini-series about a man returning from the horrors of the Western Front and stumbling into a career as a school teacher in England. As a mini-series, Cliff Green's "Marion" is in good company. However, where Hopkins' plays cross-examine a dramatic and tragic weekend that focuses on the unexpected suicide of a mother, and Delderfield explores a generation and other social upheavals between wars, Green presents four brief "snap shots" in a teacher's early career, and independent adult life, within an insular male-dominated community, during a time of global conflict – powerful in its own understated way.)

In the first episode, "It's What You Make of It", Marion establishes herself in the multi-age school room, and then establishes herself with the local publican and his family (where Marion is boarding), and also with the local community. These are hard times. Australia had suffered greatly during the Great Depression, and with war-time rationing and many men, single and married, away at the war, life is still difficult. This is nicely captured by an exchange between Marion and one of her young students (from the end of the episode), a difficult boy who has come to respect Marion despite their angry teacher-and-student conflict.

RON (played by Martin Foot): I thought I'd better tell yer, miss. It's me birthday …

MARION: Happy birthday.

RON: Thanks, miss. I won't be at school tomorrow.

MARION looks at him.

I turned fourteen today. I won't be at school tomorrow. I'll be helping Dad on the farm from now on.

In the second episode, "Time to Adjust", Marion must deal with a difficult seven-year-old boy who has not yet started school, and is being babied by his over-protective mother.

In the third episode, "Passing Through", Marion has to deal with a young illiterate girl who roams the countryside with her widower father, eking a living from shooting rabbits (a feral pest in Australia, often in plague proportions).

In the final episode, "There is a War On", Marion becomes interested in an Italian POW (Prisoner of War) who is working on a local farm. This angers some in the community, especially one angry man whose friend has been killed in the war. The local immigrant Italian family (who have assimilated into the community, despite the possible suspicion and prejudice directed at people from an enemy nation) are powerless to help, and have their own problems.

Seemingly, little happens across all the episodes. But, in fact, we learn a lot about Marion and the adults and children around her, and about the way people lived, at that challenging time, and in that kind of isolated inward-looking community. It is a story, and a collection of sometimes prickly and sometimes attractive characters, that we grow with, gaining deeper and deeper insight and affection – with the result that, despite appearances a great deal happens, in many interconnected little ways. It is a mini-series that seems to capture real life!

This series deserves to be digitised and issued as a DVD!!
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10/10
Brilliant Australian bush mini-series based on Henry Lawson's classic short stories
12 July 2017
"Lawson's Mates" is a TV mini-series consisting of six television plays, scripted by Cliff Green (a great Australian scriptwriter, short-story author, and novelist) from the stories of Henry Lawson (arguably one of Australia's greatest short story authors, admired by Ernest Hemingway, and many others: Lawson wrote around 1900: he was one of the major literary figures in Australian literature after the Gold Rushes in the mid-Nineteenth century, before World War I – the era of the "Bush Ballad" and "Bulletin" magazine poets, of whom Lawson was also a major figure).

Cliff Green may be best known for his film script for "Picnic at Hanging Rock". But his TV series "Marion", about a country school teacher, and the film script of his novel, "Break of Day", about a veteran of the Great War meeting a bohemian lady artist in a remote rural and disapproving community, also deserve attention. He also scripted "Boy Soldiers", "All the Green Years" (a dramatization of a great Australian novel by Don Charlwood, about a young boy growing up in the 1930s: with a "Tom Sawyer"-like quality, Summerfield (a neglected film noir mystery drama), "Let the Balloon Go", a film version of the classic novel by Ivan Southall about a disabled boy challenging his disability, "I Can Jump Puddles", based on the prize-winning autobiographical stories of Alan Marshall, one of Australia's finest writers and a polio survivor whose ability to use his crutches to leap over puddles explains the title, and "Power Without Glory", a dramatization of the epic novel by Frank Hardy, about police corruption and a major criminal in Australia in the Twentieth century, based on real-life characters and events.

The mini-series, "Lawson's Mates", was made by ABC TV (Australian Broadcasting Commission, later, Corporation) in 1980. The stories, or episodes, are essentially independent of one another, but some characters recur. The whole series forms a "discontinuous narrative" – an open and flexible narrative style which was typical of, and pioneered by Henry Lawson's work –- and others, such as O. Henry, whose "Zorro" stories loosely connect, for example.

Episode 1 Bob Brothers Bob, a young country bumpkin with a heart of gold, is always helping people in distress. He is attracted to Hannah, a pretty, young Salvation Army girl, but she is clearly disapproving of his friendship with three prostitutes who pay a visit to the town. Hannah, however, is not all she seems to be, but Bob is not one to censure, nor abandon his generous ways.

Episode 2 Steelman and Smith The heroes of this tale are professional itinerants — con men whose lifestyle is usually maintained at the expense of others. Steelman, the brains and manipulator, dominates the cringing Smith. After a series of misadventures Smith takes matters into his own hands for the first time and leaves Steelman high and dry. But he has not taken into account Steelman's tenacity.

Episode 3 Joe Wilson (Joe Wilson is a recurring character in several of Henry Lawson's short stories) Young bush carpenter Joe Wilson marries pretty Mary Brand, and they go to live in a slab hut (an Australian rural design loosely comparable to a North American log cabin, but with logs sawed into slabs) miles from the nearest neighbor. The isolation and harshness of bush life are almost too much to bear for Mary (a common theme in Lawson's writing, especially his classic short story, "The Drover's Wife", which inspired Mary's narrative) who is used to all the comforts. Joe makes a purchase which could provide the solution.

Episode 4 Swampy and Brummy Swampy was born a layabout (a lazy good-for-nothing), and takes great pride in it: on the other hand Brummy drifted into a life of loafing and is consumed by the memories of long years wasted in honest work. After years of relying on each other, they go their separate ways, but a strange quirk of fate brings the two together again. (The nickname, "Brummy" is Australian slang for things which are shoddy or of poor quality.) Episode 5 Tommy (synopsis not available) Episode 6 Dave Regan and Party Dave Regan and his best mate, Jim Bently, are well-known in the district as horsemen and odd-job men who can spin a good yarn (a bushman's story) with the best of them. When Ma Middleton's husband passes away they hit on the grand idea of digging for gold underneath his grave, which just happens to be above a rumored mine-shaft. When Ma discovers the plot she is outraged.

The theme-tune for "Lawson's Mates" is a profoundly wistful string orchestra piece, composed by the Twentieth-century Australian composer (a refugee from Nazi Germany), George Dreyfus (also famous for his TV theme for the Australian series "Rush", set in the mid-Nineteenth century Gold Rushes – the stirring theme for "Rush" is based on an Australian folk ballad).

I have not seen this series since its debut Australian TV broadcast in 1980 (approximately). But it haunts me even now. (I still remember the theme for "Lawson's Mates".) It has, as far as I know, never been released on VHS, or DVD, sadly! Cliff Green is a brilliant script writer, and excelled himself with Lawson's Mates". Drawing on several of Lawson's originally loosely connected and separate stories, Cliff Green has recreated the Australian "bush" (hinterland) world of the 1890s, a post-Gold Rush era of economic depression (a global economic depression struck Australia hard during the 1890s), and general hard times, and battling rural folk. As I recall, the casting, and acting were outstanding. This is –- if only you could see it –- a TV mini-series of such quality that you would be captivated, amused, and, from time to time you would have your heart broken. (Think, for example, of the near-tragic and ironic twists of O. Henry's great short story, "The Gift of the Magi".) This MUST be re-published as a digitally enhanced DVD / BlueRay edition!
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Halifax f.p. (1994–2001)
10/10
Outstanding Australian murder mystery series
21 March 2017
Here is an Australian crime mystery thriller series to stand alongside "Morse" (and "Endeavour" and "Lewis", also), "Inspector Frost", "Vera", "Inspector Lynley Mysteries", "D.C.I Banks", "Shetland", "Foyle's War", "Midsomer Murders", "Colombo", "Jesse Stone", "Wallender", "Poirot", "Miss Marple", "Silent Witness", "Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries", … you get the picture. Jane Halifax is a Forensic Psychiatrist, often working for lawyers (attorneys) or their client, or as a psychological profiler or police. She is an expert, highly professional, beautiful, single, and complicated. (Brilliantly acted by Rebecca Gibney). The series is created by one of Australia's great television series and mini-series production team, Simpson, LeMesurier, and others. The script writers and directors are some of Australia's best. The cast, varying across successive episodes, but with plausible sequential life-story development centred (naturally) around Jane Halifax (Rebecca Gibney), includes a pantheon of the best Australian film and television actors, such as Hugh Jackman, Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Robyn Nevin, Steve Bisley, Colin Friels, Ben Mendelson, Gary McDonald, Essie Davis, William McInnes, Sophie Lee, Deborah Lee-Furness, Bruce Spence, Richard Roxburgh, Frankie J. Holden, Kerry Armstrong, Brett Climo, Damian Walshe-Howling, Lewis Fiander, Vince Colosimo, Angela Punch McGregor, Asher Keddie, Marta Dusseldorp, Michael Veitch, Rhada Mitchell, Alan Hopgood, … The stories are strong, and well-written. Through each episode we meet the new team Jane Halifax is working with, and the investigation, and possible suspects. The mystery, and drama develops slowly, but with increasing tension as red herrings are progressively dismissed, and the target criminal eventually comes into view, … leading to a rapid, dramatically striking climax, and the a finale, sometimes ambiguous, sometimes consolatory. Each episode was given a substantial budget, and the stories are colourfully set in and around Melbourne, the state-capital of Victoria, in the south of Australia. The cinematography is flawless. The sets and landscapes are vividly convincing. Mood music sets off characters and developing events and tension. Narrative themes include undiscovered twin brother, serial rapist, psychologically damaged serial sex-murderer, psychopathic mass murderer, suicide of a parent, … From 1994 to 2002, twenty-one episodes of 90 or 102 minutes were produced – clearly a substantial body of work! Halifax F.P. is a classic series that deserves to be much better known. John Gough – Deakin University (retired
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Starting Over (2007 TV Movie)
10/10
Scottish aristocratic family confronts family tragedy and hard times
3 March 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Robin Pilcher's "Starting Over" -- I bought this as a two-movie DVD set with "A Risk Worth Taking", and was amazed that the DVD cover-synopsis failed to match the story I watched. Having checked some web-sites, it seems that the FILM used the names of the characters in the novel, but NOTHING else. Here is the FILM's synopsis. Aristocratic Liz (descendant and inheritor-owner of a grand Scottish estate -- VERY picturesque!) is profoundly distressed when her younger brother (who she has cared for an raised since her father died when she was young) is killed in a riding accident, racing with her husband. (Her husband and her brother have always been friends, but competitive.) Blaming her husband, she banishes him to the estate's gate house. She feels numb and is also suffering from the natural (apparent) weakening of affection with her husband of many years. The dead brother had bungled finances, and the result is that his debts and the mortgage on the estate COULD be reason for the family's bank to intervene. The family's self-serving and unscrupulous financial adviser tries to take advantage of the situation, manipulating the bank so it exerts pressure on the confused wife to sell part of the estate to a crass property developer. This financial adviser also manipulates a still-besotted, but financially vulnerable early girl-friend of the estranged husband, hoping to distract, manipulate, and ensnare him. Meanwhile, struggling in his undergraduate studies, the son of the estranged couple uses an obscure out-of-print book as a source in one of his university essays. When his footloose bachelor American Classics professor queries this, the son explains that his grandfather collected old travel books, and the son used one of these from the estate's private library. Intrigued, the professor arranges to visit the estate, inspect the family library, and meet the unhappy wife, ... There are, eventually, obvious, but very satisfying romantic, and economic resolutions. John Gough -- jagough49@gmail.com
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A Risk Worth Taking (2008 TV Movie)
10/10
The film is NOT the novel
3 March 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Robin Pilcher "A Risk Worth Taking" movie I bought a two-movie DVD set of Robin Pilcher (stupidly confusing the son for his mother Rosamunde). I watched "A Risk Worth Taking" and was PLEASED, and ASTOUNDED. Pleased because it was a heart-warming film. Astounded because the plot-synopsis on the DVD cover had NOTHING to do with the actual film. It seems that Robin Pilcher wrote a novel, with this title, and, although the DVD credits Robin Pilcher, and has the same title, the FILM is NOT the novel. Whoever compiled the plot synopsis for the DVD cover simply borrowed the plot of the novel – if the novel's plot at various web-sites is correct. But the FILM tells a very different story!! (!!!) Here is the FILM synopsis. The film is set in Scotland it is picturesque, and contains a mildly amusing sub-plot about a nasty scheming restaurant rival: but that is just light relief. A married man (James Wilby) has a Motor Neurone Disease that will soon kill him, and is crippling him. But he struggles to continue running his thriving seafood restaurant. His wife (Muriel Baumeister), wanting to support him, decides to sell her own thriving boutique fashion-design business, but needs legal advice. Her husband suggests asking his old friend (Tim Dutton), who has just quit his own job. The friend's wife died more than 8 years ago, and he has just begin to recover from his loss, along with his daughter, now a young woman. The friend comes to help. The restaurant loses its waitresses, and the friend's daughter (Olivia Hallinan) offers to work in the restaurant. She meets, and begins a promising romance with one of the male waiters. The sick man is unable to tell his young daughter he is really dying, and instead he distracts her with talk about deep-sea diving for a fabulous treasure. But this is loosely based on the special experimental forlorn-hope oxygen therapy he regularly undergoes. The sick man's wife is deeply distressed. The friend is sympathetic. Emotions of the friend who begins to fall in love with the sick man's wife, and the sick man's confused young daughter, and the distressed wife of the sick man, and friend's daughter who is afraid she will lose her father (to the affections of the sick man's wife, just as she lost her mother), and the sick man himself – all of these emotions swirl ... Death can NOT be postponed not indefinitely. Despite this, and to the film's great credit, there are many happy reconciliations to the otherwise sad circumstances. In particular, the MND husband faces his death with grace, humour, profound courage, grim practical resolve, and deep sympathy and understanding for his family and friends who will survive him. This is a deeply satisfying story even though the ending is sad AND happy in multiple ways. John Gough -- jagough49@gmail.com
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An Old Fashioned Christmas (2010 TV Movie)
9/10
Sequel to "An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving"
28 December 2015
The other brief reviews do not make clear what this film is about: period drama, in a Henry James, or Merchant-Ivory way. "An Old Fashioned Christmas" is a SEQUEL to 'An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving' which is set in the latter 1800s, a while after the American Civil War, and based (apparently only VERY LOOSELY based, using the title, the character-names and general setting, but with a strong period feeling of Alcott!) on a short story by Louisa May Alcott (the famous author of 'Little Women'), in which a daughter and estranged mother argue over family ties. The Amazon (USA) plot summary says: 'Isabella Caldwell is a high-society woman in late-1800s New York. When Isabella's estranged daughter Mary becomes ill and is too proud to ask her mother for assistance, Mary's daughter, Tilly, takes it upon herself to contact her grandmother and plead for help. Isabella's arrival causes an upheaval in many lives, but may also lead to reconciliation within the family.' One reviewer adds: '(include) a little romance, a disapproving neighbour, sisterly jealousy, a scandalous past, poverty, scarlet fever, and a rambunctious little boy, all woven around the Thanksgiving season and you have a story that will hold your interest. In one scene the young widow accuses her mother of having married her father (who was quite a bit older) for his money and only had a child (herself) so that his older children from a previous marriage could not contest the will.' Both films star Jacqueline Bisset as the grandmother, Isabella, and Kristopher Turner as Gad, the love-interest for Tilly. Most reviewers prefer the 'Thanksgiving' film. 'An Old Fashioned Christmas' happens to be set around Christmas, and ends with a Christmas dinner and includes some carol singing (including "Jingle Bells" that had not been written at this time!), although NOT the Christmas dinner that had been planned. (However this is a green-leafed, sunshine-filled summery version of late-December in rainy Dublin: the film was NOT made in the actual season. Alas.) But the story is NOT about Christmas. Instead it is a Henry James-like tale of American wealth, democracy, and no-nonsense, versus traditional British, classism, complicated by an Irish setting. Wealthy American grandmother, Isabella, invites herself to visit and spend Christmas with the Earl of Shannon, the Irish Poet Laureate. She hopes he can help her granddaughter, Matilda, known as Tilly, progress in her attempts to become a writer. Unfortunately, the Poet Laureate has suffered a stroke, and although his intentions are good, he is unable to do or say much. He spends his time sitting and reading, and making quiet negative noises about his scheming wife and rascal son. However, when Isabella shows some of Tilly's journals to the Earl, although at first he says he is unable to help her because he has lost contact with publishers, following his stroke, he recognises Tilly's talent as a writer, and gives his encouragement for her to pursue this as a serious career or vocation. (Tilly quotes poetry, and is besotted by Lord Byron's life and poetry. But it is not clear, apart from her travel journal, what she is writing, or might write.) The Earl's wife, Lady Shannon, however, has spent the Earl's money. She has accepted Isabelle's request to visit the Earl, and have Christmas at the castle, because she hopes that her handsome devil-may-care, wastrel, playboy son and heir will marry heiress Tilly, and her money will restore the fortune of the earldom. The earl's son tries to romance Tilly, and she finds him attractive. But she has been engaged for the last 2 years to an American, known as Gad, who has been patiently waiting for Tilly to end her European travels. Moreover, she is the daughter of Isabella's daughter and a stable boy, the (relatively) poor son of an Irish farmer. Angry that her daughter would marry for love, and marry beneath her social status, Isabella had cut all ties with her daughter and husband. But after the Irish husband dies, Isabella intervenes, taking young adult Tilly away on her Grand Tour. Tilly writes letters to her mother, in America, and hopes, while she is in Dublin, to find and meet her Irish grandfather, and establish a reconciliation between Isabella and her grandfather. With the help of the Earl's son, who has admitted his mother's would-be marriage schemes, this is (surprisingly easily) accomplished, but Isabella and the Irish grandfather quarrel. She thinks he is a mere farmer, and he blames her for being snobbish and hurting, instead of helping, his son and his family. Meanwhile, Tilly's American fiancé, Gad, is in Manchester, and, with some complications, is invited to spend Christmas in the Irish castle with the Earl. Rivalry quickly erupts between the Earl's son and Tilly's fiancé, and they come to blows. Tilly is unable to make up her mind, and the fiancé leaves. But with some encouragement from her Irish grandfather, Tilly speaks her mind to scheming Lady Shannon, resists the marriage proposal from the playboy son (who sees Tilly as a possible muse for his own writing, rather than wanting to encourage Tilly to be a writer), and … … the Christmas dinner is NOT at the castle but at the farm; not with the Earl's family, but with newly established warm feelings between Isabella and the grandfather, and with renewed marriage intentions between Tilly and her fiancé. A multiplicity of happy endings. John Gough (Deakin University – retired) jagough49@gmail.com
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9/10
Charming Christmas romantic comedy full of the meaning of Christmas
27 December 2015
Warning: Spoilers
This is a very pleasant film that quietly reminds us of several others. The title hints, of course, at You've Got Mail (the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan romantic comedy that itself hints at The Shop Around the Corner the Ernst Lubitch 1940 romantic comedy with James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan). Once you accept the idea that the National Postal Service would hire someone for the few weeks leading up to Christmas to reply to children's letters to Santa Claus, almost everything else in the story follows logically. The best person to give this job to is a person who lives and breathes Christmas – Kristi North, a mysterious and innocent young girl with nothing in the world except her small suitcase (which seems to be crammed with brightly colored Christmassy clothes and decorations, and hot chocolate mix) and a large patient pet dog, called Rudi. (The scenes of the busy mail room and letter sorting machines, and the large mail sacks filled with children's letters to Santa, naturally remind us of Miracle on 34th Street, that great classic Christmas story that eventually places the national Post Office front and center.) We know very little about Kristi, until she explains (when she is telling orphan Emily a bedtime Christmas story, and we immediately guess the story is about her) that she grew up in a faraway snowy place that was like Christmas every day of the year. But when she grew bigger than all her friends she had to move away. (Here we are reminded of the Christmas documentary about life at the North Pole, Elf. At other places Kristi seems to know about reindeer and their ways, also. But the dialogue is sometimes quick, and quiet, and there are no subtitles to help.) Since then, living as an independent adult, an innocent a long way from "home", Kristi has kept moving every year, from job to job, but always only for the few weeks when she is the person who replies to Santa letters. Kristi is also in occasional phone contact with "Dad" – who is presumably, but not stated to be, Father Christmas. Contrary to another reviewer's remark, the film says (as far as I saw) nothing about Matt having had a fiancé who had died. But Matt had been part of a successful rock band, until he was named in his sister and brother-in-law's will as "the best uncle ever" and ended up with custody of Emily. Moreover, the band is about to reform, make a new record, and go on tour, and Heather, the attractive female member of the band, vocalist and leader, wants Matt to re-join and go on tour. (The other male members of the band are the weakest element of the whole film, giving little evidence that they could ever have been musically successful. But that is a minor flaw in the story. The female leader, Heather, will clearly lick them into shape!) Meanwhile, the manager of the local branch of the National Postal Service, Richard Fuller, is behaving like David Brent (the obnoxious, conceited, and self-deluded office manager in the TV series Office, created and played by Ricky Gervais). Richard Fuller believes (the conceit of the man is staggering!) he is going to be promoted, but (with clear signs of paranoia) thinks that mysterious forces higher up in the NPS have secretly sent someone to check on him, and he suspects this is Kristi. So he picks Matt, initially a mild-mannered mailman who we see collecting and delivering letters, as an unwilling stooge to spy on Kristi and find out her background, and her purpose. Later, Fuller even believes that Kristi is covertly sabotaging the efficiency of "his" branch office. This leads to the crisis of the film, which is, happily, resolved, at the end, with a hint of sparkly-light Christmas magic – everything else in the film is totally realistic. Matt begins to pay attention to Kristi, and finds her to be absolutely delightful. Indeed, Kristi is! When Matt has Chinese food delivered for a picnic, she is not only good with chopsticks but speaks fluent Cantonese to the Chinese delivery man, and can also speak Mandarin – because she had previously worked for a few weeks in Hong Kong, and because, as a Santa Letter Replier she has to be able to write in other languages apart from English. (This hints at the touching moment in Miracle on 34th Street when, in the original version, Kris Kringle speaks fluent Dutch to a sad and lonely Dutch war refugee girl!) Meanwhile, Matt's orphaned niece, Emily, has sent a letter to Santa Claus asking only for her uncle Matt to be happy and find a friend. (Here we are reminded, of course, of the other great Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle!) Kristi replies, writing as Santa, and Emily sends further letters, and gets more replies, and we see some amusing attempts by Emily to set Matt up with a possible romantic interest. (More Sleepless in Seattle!) Eventually, happy endings all around, and, implicitly, a ringing endorsement of the goodwill and love that is one of the core values of Christmas! Not perhaps a GREAT Christmas film, but a VERY GOOD one. John Gough (Deakin University, retired) jagough49@gmail.com
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10/10
Simple gifts lead to unexpected goodness
23 December 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Other reviews praise the film, briefly, or are scathingly dismissive. If you know some gritty details of the story you can make up your own mind. PLOT SPOILER!! I think "A Christmas Tree Miracle" is simply lovely. (But I think the original "Miracle on 34th Street" is a BEAUTIFUL film that ought to be watched every Christmas.) "A Christmas Tree Miracle" is a film of redemption, and the rediscovery of clarity and fundamental values. Structurally, the script has a deeply satisfying succession of gentle, touching moments of tiny good-deed now and unexpected natural-consequence later. It is about how to make sense of bad things and survive, and do good in the world. First we see, in black-and-white, a family in a church pew. A child's voice-over explains her family has nothing, but she knows this is going to be their best Christmas ever. Then we cut to the earlier beginning, in color. The family is squabbling as they line up, reluctantly, and distractedly, to be professionally photographed for their family Christmas card: mother-organizer, father-busting-to-finalize-a-deal-on-his-cell-phone, high-school-son-eager-to-meet-up-with-his-girlfriend, high-school-daughter-endlessly-texting-her-friends. The 6-year-old daughter is the only one smiling, as she clutches her cello. (Later we hear the father, David George – memorably, "the man with two first names" – has been estranged from his father for years; the mother did little to help her sister cope with their own mother's decline into old age, …) Rushing to get their children to school, the mother, Julie George, forgets to bring tinned goods to the school's Christmas charity drive. Fortunately the little girl, Nina George, has brought a can of peas, and written a marker-pen-message: "You will have a Christmas miracle". Later, the George family hurries to the young girl's school concert. She is scheduled to play the old Shaker hymn, "Simple Gifts", but the daughter, Nina, sees the other members of her family paying her no attention at all. She quietly leaves the stage without playing a note. In the ladies' restroom, the mother, Julie, overhears sobbing in a cubicle. She tries to help the distressed woman the wife of an obnoxious local senator who is at the Christmas concert to smoodge potential voters – his endless campaigning and conceited self-preoccupation has brought his wife to tears. Julie consoles her. Shortly before Christmas, David (the dad) goes to work. He is suddenly fired! He is told the owner is at his wife's funeral. Clearing his desk, he signs a copy of his family-photo Christmas card for the company owner, saying, "Sorry for your loss". Then, in a coffee shop, David overhears a shop assistant hassling an old man – buy something or get out. Could the old man be living on the street? He explains, with a radiant smile, it is cold outside. He wanted to get warm for a few minutes, and think. "Thinking is free, isn't it?" David GIVES the old man the cup of coffee he has just received, and the old man stays. Confident that he will soon get another job, David and Julie act and spend as if nothing is wrong. On Christmas day, the older daughter, Natalie, hates the brightly colored jacket she had asked for. "Give it away!" she says in ill-temper! But David doesn't get a new job. The children leave their expensive private schools and go to public schools. At the school lockers, Nick sees two nasty boys picking on a weedy lad. He warns them that his dad is a policeman (he isn't). The bullies leave. The victim is thankful: the bullies were not just taunting, they smashed his cell phone – again! – the third phone smashed! Nick gives him his own cell phone: has no use for it, and he doesn't know why he still carries it, because it "has no service". The bank forecloses on their double-mortgaged mansion in the swanky suburb. With no money coming in, David, foolishly, prevents Julie from getting a tutoring job: her salary would be like using a water-pistol on a house fire. He stubbornly claims it is HIS responsibility to care for the family. When they can't pay the next week's rent at their cheap motel, where they have relied on charity food, they are suddenly evicted in the middle of the night. Desperate, they go to their local church, and fall asleep. So far, overall, the George family (except for cheerful, innocent little Nina) have all been generally unpleasant. Deserved, or not, watching their social and financial humiliations has been rather harrowing, so far. But this is where the story turns. For the good. Unexpectedly. There are many heart-warming twists. They are woken in the night by a strange old man who is delivering an early Christmas tree to the church. He remembers David as the kind man who gave him a cup of coffee, months ago. He shows them where the church has charity food and offers them to come to live with him, and help him with his unusual job. He owns a huge Christmas tree farm, where he GIVES trees to anyone that needs one – because, he explains, he wants to GIVE people Christmas! This is not the end. It is a CHANCE for a new beginning. (This is not "Les Miserables", or "Oliver Twist", or any other GREAT work of literature with a central theme of redemption. But it is as good as "A Christmas Carol", and "It's a Wonderful Life"!) Yes, it is predictable, sentimental, … But it is well made, well cast, well acted, and thoughtfully scripted. However far-fetched some of it may seem – a Christmas tree farm that GIVES away its trees!!! – NOTHING happens that could NOT logically happen. There is no magic. No angels. No Santa Claus. No wishes that miraculously come true. But there is a kind of miracle, and an abundance of the good will that you would hope for in a GREAT Christmas film. John Gough – Deakin University (retired) – jagough49@gmail.com
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9/10
Heartwarming story of fresh hope and love
19 December 2015
Warning: Spoilers
This family-orientated Christmas movie begins like "Silver Bells", that other great Christmas novel and movie about a Christmas tree farmer and a city photographer. It begins with a vignette about Molly, a girl (who wants to be a writer), and Lucas, a boy (who wants to be a photographer) finding ONE Christmas tree in the girl's family's tree farm, and choosing it to be "Molly's tree". But the tree is spindly, and growing too close to the farm access-road. It is about to be cut down – "weeded" – to give other trees room to grow. Molly saves it, just in time, binding its saw-cuts with tape and tree-balm. Twenty years later Molly (played by Lacey Chabon, the former youngest child in the TV series Party of Five) lives in New York, still writing quirky, unpublished short stories, working as an under-appreciated gopher for a workaholic publisher, a widower who is neglecting his two young-teen daughters. Used as an occasional baby-sitter, the daughters really like Molly. Meanwhile, back in Vermont, Molly's parents have been struggling with hard economic times, fallen behind in payments on a second-mortgage on their Christmas tree farm, and the ruthless, embittered local bank manager is scheming with money-grubbing developers to foreclose, and destroy the farm, to make an Eco-friendly golf resort. Nasty man. His son, Molly's old school friend, gave up his dream of photography to work for his father. But when Molly and her brother (now an architect) come home for, possibly, the last Christmas on the family farm, Molly's banker-photography ex-friend realizes he should never have broken up with Molly, and the loss of the tree farm will damage the whole community. Meanwhile, also, Molly's New York boss comes to Vermont because his daughters prefer spending time with Molly than spending the holidays in a tropical paradise resort. The scene is set for the local community to be rallied by Molly and her brother, for old emotions to rekindle, for a knight in shining armor, and for … Like the best family Christmas movies, this is predictable, sentimental, romantic, and full of satisfying happy endings. It may not be among the truly GREAT Christmas movies, but it is certainly (in my opinion) a good one that will stand years of re-watching!
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Christmas with Tucker (2013 TV Movie)
9/10
Explaining the story defends the enjoyment
18 December 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Other reviews complain about the (alleged) wooden acting, and poor script, and predictability. Surely no one watches Hallmark-type Christmas films for the adventure or suspense. They are meant to be heartwarming celebrations of good will and the broad meaning of Christmas. This film does not disappoint, but its limitations need to be accepted. SPOILER ALERT I will try to explain why this is a good Christmas film for the family by outlining the story. The story begins in "the present" but quickly jumps back to 10 years earlier. Occasional vice-over narrative fills some of the gaps and adds commentary. A boy (about 12, in the main narrative of the flashback) is living in rural Kansas (actually filmed in Canada) with his grandparents at Thanksgiving, several months after his father was killed in a freak accident. The boy's mother has not coped well with the loss of her husband. She has gone to live in Minnesota with her older daughters who are at college. A neighbor who has a dubious past is convicted of drink-driving again, and put in gaol. The grandparents agree to help him by looking after his dog, who, usually, is left in the front yard of the man's house, with nothing to do except bark wildly at the passing yellow school bus. But as soon as the boy and dog see each other the dog shows his good nature and pleasure at having company and play. The dog seems to have no name, so, when he is seen all tuckered out after romping with the boy, he is named "Tucker". But then the neighbor is released and he takes back his dog. The boy is sad, but this was inevitable. Meanwhile the boy decides to ask the neighbor if he can have the dog for himself. The neighbor refuses, curtly. The boy's charming girl bus-companion points out that you can't get something for nothing, so the boy scrapes some money together, with the girl's eager contribution (she says she had been saving her pocket-money to put herself through law school: she is a delight, but without subtitles is often hard to follow in her soft fast speaking.) As snowing increases the grandfather (a dairy farmer) has extra duties as a snow-plow driver, keeping roads clear, safe, and drive-able. To cope with the heavy snow he trains the boy to use the snow-plow. This includes checking that neighbors are OK in the bad weather. The boy discovers the neighbor with the dog is "ill" and the boy is asked to get some "medicine" from an even nastier neighbor who lives in a trailer (caravan). This is obviously moonshine alcohol, but the boy only guesses at the murky jars he collects and delivers. Then on the next welfare visit he finds that the neighbor is comatose. The boy calls his grandmother by radio, and she calls an ambulance. The moonshine was a bad brew and seriously toxic and the man nearly died. Meanwhile Tucker had, as usual, been left outside, and nearly froze. Again, while the neighbor is in hospital, the boy looks after the dog, and when the neighbor is discharged from hospital, the grandfather tells the neighbor (rather abruptly, and on no official authority) they will keep the dog. But so far only the boy knows he delivered the moonshine, and where it came from. His conscience is troubled. Worse still, the bootlegger threatens him and the dog if he tells anyone what happened. When, guiltily, the boy confesses his part in getting the moonshine, his grandfather thinks (rather harshly) that this is a bad act, and insists that the dog goes back to the neighbor. Meanwhile we learn, as the boy finds some old photos of his father when he was a young man, that his father and the neighbor had been friends and had been naughty young men, occasionally. But the father had given up his bad behavior, and the neighbor had got worse. Eventually, the whole family comes together for Christmas. The mother realizes she had run away from memories of her husband at the farm, and that her older daughters are independent of her in their Minnesota college, so she will stay at the farm – which the boy had just asked her if he could also do. And, when the repentant neighbor visits on Christmas Day he gives Tucker to the boy, with the grandfather's approval, partly because the neighbor is turning over a new leaf and will be taking a job that will keep him away from his home for long times. Overall, the film is predictable, sentimental, occasionally annoying (the grandfather's high principles are too tough on the naive and well-meaning boy, and high-handed when he deals with the neighbor – but to some extent that reflects his age, and his grandparent and parent role within the story), but thoroughly satisfying. The whole story is told in flashback, from 10 years after encountering the dog, and at the end we see how, 10 years later, the family has progressed, all very positively. Well made, and (for me) touchingly acted, despite the predictability. Indeed, predictability in some films is part of their charm.
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The Buccaneers (1956–1957)
9/10
The Buccaneers theme song
1 April 2014
Let's go a-roving, / a-roving across the ocean. / O, let's go a-roving, / And join the buccaneers!

The theme-tune was jaunty. They all were, for these classic children's TV shows. (Did adults ever watch them? By contrast, children and adults happily watched the American series such as "Tales of Texas Rangers" a Western that alternated modern and old stories, "Whirlybird" about a charter helicopter service, "Seahunt" about frogmen, and "Cannonball" about long-haul big-rig trucking.) The pattern for these British historical TV series had been set by "Robin Hood", starring Richard Green. "Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen. Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men. Feared by the bad, loved by the good, Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood". There were verses, about vowing to serve his king, and still having plenty of time to sing ... Chorus, repeats. Memorable.

"The Buccaneers" was great fun, as long as you ignored the serious side of piracy, law, fighting, ... But serious violence was not the issue. Zorro carved his "Zee", and occasionally pinked an opponent in a furious fencing duel. The good cowboy shot the gun out of the hand of the bad cowboy. The buccaneer with the heart of gold punched his opponents, knocked them out with a belaying pin, or tossed them overboard.

Plots were mainly about uncovering dastardly plots, righting wrongs, defending the vulnerable, and generally proving that a former pirate was really on the side of the angels.
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