It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Directed by Frank Capra) English 10

Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore, Beulah Bondi, Gloria Grahame, Ward Bond

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Classic. Immortal. Moving.

Clarence (Travers), an angel 2nd class, is given an awfully tough assignment: selfless, devoted family man, George Bailey (Stewart) of Bedford Falls, wonders if the world would be a better place if he was never born. Clarence gives George a glimpse of what that would look like. The quintessential Christmas standard, It’s a Wonderful Life is the best of Christmas movies for any lover of classic Hollywoood. James Stewart and Frank Capra were an awesome pair, and I’m not sure any one has looked more beautiful in a film than Donna Reed when she and Stewart huddle around a phone, trying to stay angry at one another. I’ve mentioned before people’s tendency to forgive overt sentimentality in older films. In fact, it’s what people love most about films like It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey’s life isn’t easy, or what he dreamed for himself, but in the end, he’s given the gift of seeing that he has a purpose. Aside: Like any true traditionalist, I prefer this film in black and white.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Christmas Challenge Film #11: The Santa Clause (1994, Directed by John Pasquin) English 6

Tim Allen was on top of the world in 1994. Hit television show, hit book, and hit movie; the latter being The Santa Clause, my 11th film for my Christmas film challenge. This is an intermediate film for me. It’s a Christmas movie I’ve seen numerous times, enjoy very much, but don’t love. That’s no great indictment. It’s a hopeful film with a definite sense of Christmas cheer, good spirit, and a strong message. It’s an ideal family Christmas movie.

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Tim Allen plays Scott Calvin, a mildly cynical, divorced father whose son, Charlie, would rather spend Christmas eve with his mother. Despite his wish, Charlie spends Christmas eve eating at Denny’s with his Dad looking around at a bunch of other unhappy children eating with their dads, but things pick up later that night. Investigating a noise coming from the roof, Scott accidentally kills Santa Clause. Not as dark as it sounds, this necessitates that Scott become the new Santa. Charlie and he finish the Christmas presents circulation, and are told the deal by an elf named Bernard once they arrive at the North Pole. Scott can return home to put his affairs in order, but starting next year, he’s full-time Santa. Naturally, Charlie is overjoyed. Scott is less enthusiastic. In fact, he’s convinced when he awakes in his own bed the next morning that the whole episode was a dream. This explanation becomes less likely once he physically begins to transform. This is one of The Santa Clause’s best moments as Scott goes through a less scary, more humorous metamorphosis than Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. The last third isn’t as much fun as it drives home the sugar and syrup.

The Santa Clause is a  fine Christmas film. It’s relatively witty, with a host of fresh ideas, and a nice message about faith and family.

(6-Good Film)

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Christmas Challenge Film #9: Elf (2003, Directed by Jon Favreau) English 9

Some films reveal their greatness on impact, others over time. When Elf was released back in 2003, it was a big hit, well-reviewed by critics, and I certainly enjoyed it. I had no idea, however, that I would be watching it every year, for fifteen years straight. Naturally, I included it in my, now, time-crunched quest to watch 25 Christmas movies before the big day. Elf comes in at number 9. Oy vey! I have a long ways to go, and very little time left. I still believe in myself. I can do it.

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Elf was SNL alum, Will Ferrell’s first great star vehicle. He plays Buddy, an orphan human, adopted as a baby and raised by Papa Elf (inspired casting in Bob Newhart), growing up among Santa’s little helpers in the North Pole. As he becomes older, he finds it hard to fit in, and, eventually Papa Elf tells him the truth: he’s a human. His mother is dead, but his father’s alive, and lives in New York. Buddy sets out from the North Pole, and heads to New York to meet his dad, whom he learns made Santa’s naughty list and is working as a children’s book publisher. The film then becomes a holly jolly fish-out-of-water tale. Buddy, with his intense cheer, comes across to New Yorkers, as delusional. The first part of Buddy’s arrival in New York contain the film’s best scenes. Buddy’s able to find his dad (played by James Caan) in his big office, but thrown out almost immediately. Buddy begins a job working in a department store under the purview of the unfortunately named Wanda (played hilariously by Faizon Love). There he meets pretty coworker, Jovie (Deschanel), before he’s ultimately able to reconnect with his father. I especially love this section of Elf.

Elf endures as a classic because it’s funny, and it’s a sincere Christmas movie. The casting is perfect for every role; from Will Ferrell to Peter Dinklage to Faizon Love and Newhart whom I already mentioned. I look forward to watching it again next Christmas.

(9-Great Film)

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Christmas Challenge Film #8: The Christmas Chronicles (2018, Directed by Clay Kaytis) English 6

Filmmaker Chris Columbus is a slave to sentimentality and not much concerned with the visual aspect of  filmmaking. Despite his limitations, he’s responsible for some fantastic films: Gremlins, Adventures in Babysitting, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland,  Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, the first two Harry Potters. His newest film, which he produces, is The Christmas Chronicles, written by Matt Lieberman, directed by Clay Kaytis. It’s a solid production, and very likely the best Christmas movie made exclusively for Netflix yet. I’ve worked my way through the streaming service’s catalog of Christmas films, and they are all decent, good-spirited adventures, but the Christmas Chronicles is the only one with any sense of broader appeal. The fun for all ages slogan is mostly true here.

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The Christmas Chronicles begins with memories of the good times the Pierce family have shared during past Christmas seasons. As we catch up to the present, we see that the father, Doug (Oliver Hudson), has died (in the line of duty as a fireman), and the rest of the family is struggling to adjust: the mom, Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley),  works full-time as a nurse, and hardly has time to spend with her kids, 10-year-old daughter, Kate, is constantly getting in fights with her older brother, Teddy, who’s become a delinquent since his father’s death. It’s not an altogether original premise, but still proves effective. When Kate catches Teddy stealing a car with a group of his new criminal friends on camera (she’s an avid filmer), she blackmails him into helping her get an image of Santa Claus on tape, to prove he’s real, as Christmas Eve approaches. They wind up causing Santa Claus (Kurt Russell) a heap of trouble, and to atone, they work to help him get Christmas back on track so that he can deliver each present on time.

The real attraction is the headliner, Kurt Russell, and he makes for a wonderful Santa Claus. He’s boisterous, rowdy, fun, and versatile enough to move between comedy and some of the later dramatic moments with ease. I’d love to see him return to this role for another adventure. The children’s story is standard in many ways, but it’s mostly an excuse to get to the film’s more creative ideas: Kurt Russell’s take on the character and the elves.

Netflix has yet to put out a masterpiece (though I haven’t seen Roma yet), and The Christmas Chronicles isn’t one, but it is an entertaining holiday film for the family. There’s a cameo at the end of the film, that is entirely predictable, but very much welcome.

 (6-Good Film)

-Walter Tyrone Howard-



Christmas Challenge Film #7: The Princess Switch (2018, Directed by Mike Rohl) English 5

For my seventh film on my quest to watch 25 Christmas movies before Christmas day, I watched The Princess Switch. It’s also the third Netflix original movie I’ve watched during this challenge; A Christmas Prince and Christmas Inheritance being the first two. It’s nearly impossible to distinguish which of the three is superior. They are all par for the course. Sweet, competent, bright, warm, reliable, fairy tale, happy endings, family-friendly entertainment. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. Apparently there is a sizable audience for these films, since they keep making them. A Christmas Prince even has a sequel Netflix just released. I’ll probably watch it before my challenge is through. But back to The Princess Switch. It feels very much like a direct descendant of A Christmas Prince. A nice, pretty girl, not royalty, has a whirlwind romance with a Prince of a made-up country over Christmas. In fact, there’s a scene in this film of the main characters watching A Christmas Prince.

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Vanessa Hudgens plays Margaret, a talented baker, who struggles to do anything spontaneous. After an awkward meeting with an ex-boyfriend, she caves in, and takes her best friend, Kevin’s advice: a holiday trip to Belgravia where a prestigious bakery competition is held. Margaret goes with Kevin and his daughter, Olivia, but, once there, in what is, of course, a picturesque location, she gets separated from them, and meets Duchess of Montenaro, Stacy DeNovo. I’m never going to stop asking why the people from made-up countries always have British accents, because, once again here, they do. The Duchess, also played by Hudgens, is apprehensive about her upcoming arranged marriage to the Prince, whom she’s met a handful of times. She’d prefer to be an average woman. The Parent Trap or The Prisoner of Zenda are invoked. Margaret and Stacey switch places, fall in love with their respective leading men, and a small dilemma forms, then quickly gets sorted out. It’s that kind of movie, which we already knew going in, and are likely fine with. This is a perfectly satisfying piece of entertainment that will appeal to its audience. No Christmas classic, but fine Christmas time-waster.

I decided to leave Vanessa Hudgens’ “British” accent alone, then changed my mind.

(5-Okay Film)

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Christmas Challenge Film #6: The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017, Directed by Bharat Nalluri) English 6

I intended to watch The Man Who Invented Christmas in theaters all last winter during its initial release in theaters, but missed it. My interest was only middling at the time, but it received strong reviews and I was confident that it would be a fine film. The subject is compelling. Set some years after the early success of Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens (played by Dan Stevens), hasn’t had a hit book in years. Many are quick to remind him of this, including William Makepeace Thackeray, humorously portrayed in this film as snide and gloating at every opportunity. Dickens’ run of flops hasn’t stopped him from spending, or rather, his family from spending, and now he’s at the point of desperately needing a successful book, but what should he write about? With Christmas approaching, Dickens has an idea for the basis of what would become his greatest hit: A Christmas Carol. The Man Who Invented Christmas follows his struggles in writing the novella and getting it published, while dealing with his peddler father returning for the season and the stress from the immense pressure he’s under. This Christmas film covers a lot of ground, and does so admirably. Flashbacks show Dickens separated from his family and sent to the workhouses. We also get an entertaining glimpse at what Dickens’ writing process might look like. As he works, he interacts with his prospective characters, mainly Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Christopher Plummer).

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Unsurprisingly, this is a warm, well-acted affair; a good story, well told. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s an engaging bit of fantasy. While showing how Dickens and his novel impacted Christmas convincingly,  I’m less sure about The Man Who Invented Christmas’ own status as a Christmas classic. Will we be watching it ten years down the line? Could it be some family’s Christmas tradition? Perhaps. I wouldn’t write it off. It’s a good movie. I just don’t think it’s a great one.

(6-Good Film)

-Walter Tyrone Howard-



Christmas Challenge Film #5: Christmas Inheritance (2017, Directed by Ernie Barbarash) English 5

So, in burgeoning media super power Netflix’s grand scheme to take over entertainment, to be all things to all people, a string of made-for-TV quality Christmas movies have cropped up, beginning last year with the apparently popular Christmas Prince, and continuing this year with The Princess Switch. Among this new line, I watched Christmas Inheritance as the 5th film in my challenge to watch 25 Christmas movies before December 25th. I’m largely behind schedule, but I wanted to watch a majority of the 25 after Thanksgiving anyways. Now I’m in the spirit and ready to build towards the day.

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Christmas Inheritance came out sometime last winter, as part of Netflix’s aforementioned  push for exclusive seasonal entertainment. It stars Eliza Taylor, from CW’S The 100, as Ellen Langford, kind, but spoiled, who has a reputation as a party girl. She also has a boyfriend who’s selfish and snobbish. Her father sends her on a mission to hand deliver a letter to an old friend in Snow Falls, and gives her a test to go with it. If she can deliver the letter, complete this trip with no more than $100 in spending money, and without revealing her status as heiress to a small fortune, he will hand her the reins to his company. She accepts. Once in Snow Falls, Ellen falls in love with the small town people, notably Debbie (Andie MacDowell), who runs a local diner, the pride she gets in helping others, and the handsome leading man, Jake Collins (Jake Lacy) she meets through a chance encounter.

You’ve seen this movie before, you know the ending, and all of the notes in between. It should be impossible to give “spoilers.” You know if you like this movie just by reading the plot line. Knowing full-well what’s bound to happen before it starts, does the film interest you? For many people, Christmas Inheritance will be a perfectly satisfying holiday romance. The stars are sweet, the setting idyllic, and the story comforting. I just happen to prefer a different kind of movie fantasy. The rogue hero bringing justice to the west. Barring that, I’m not above a cheesy rom-com. There certainly are some great ones I keep coming back to. Christmas Inheritance, however, is cookie-cutter and simply fine. It’s better than sitting in a dark closet doing nothing (a low-bar, but there are hundreds of films I can’t say that about). It’s better than not watching a movie. It’s okay.

(5-Okay Film)

-Walter Tyrone Howard-