Written by Musgo Del Jefe
Let it be said first and foremost, in the spirit of full disclosure, that Musgo loves film guides. It really borders on an obsession. My love of reading about films dates back to my youngest days and the TV Guide. One of the best sections of the non-listings was “This Week’s Movies” by Judith Crist. I remember the subtle way the movies were described and reviewed at the same time in very conversational paragraph form – letting you know which of the 8-10 movies airing on network TV would be worth watching during the week. I can see today how that style has overtly influenced my own writing about film.
As my movie-watching possibilities expanded with the arrival of cable and VHS, my movie-review reading increased also. The local video store was full of potential favorite films but I needed a way to see beyond the hype on the covers of the packages. That’s where my obsession with film guides began. There are two distinct types of guides in my collection – the comprehensive guide (one that lists the movies with brief descriptions and maybe a star rating) and the depth guide (one that compares fewer movies – often limited around a theme and offers a more in depth review). Each of them have their place and time.
For years, my basic go-to book was the simple Leonard Maltin yearly guide. I remember the years when it jumped from 750-800 pages to up near 1000 pages and now way beyond. Not much on cross referencing but for basic info about a film and a very brief review, it couldn’t be beaten. In the years since – I’ve grown to love both the Halliwell guide and the Videohound Golden Movie Retriever guide. They approach the films the way I like to use the books – with lots of lists and indexes. If I like an actor or director or movies about alien cops – I want to be able to find other similar movies and read quick little reviews.
So when the opportunity to branch out and review a book came Musgo’s way and it was a film guide, I jumped at the offer. This holiday season, Limelight Editions has released a guide to Christmas-themed movies – Have Yourself A Movie Little Christmas by Alonso Duralde. He has put together an interesting more in-depth guide – covering around 125 movies with each listing having roughly a page-long descriptive review of the film followed by some Fun Facts. The author tries to find a unique niche by expanding the traditional definition of a Christmas film to include films that are set or even only partially set around the holidays. Each chapter is built around a theme – Christmas Comedies, Holiday Horror, Christmas Classics, etc. The best way to review a book of reviews is to take a look at a couple examples.
Christmas Holiday (1944) (reviewed in “Movies For Grown-Ups”) I will give Mr. Duralde instant cred for including this often forgotten film in his reviews. As he states, based on a W. Somerset Maugham novel, it is a great film noir holiday film. Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly play against type in this more serious film but the “holiday as healing” theme is still universal. I agree with the author that a DVD release is due and that’s what a good film book can do – put that bug in your mind until you see it come available years from now.
Less Than Zero (1987) (reviewed in “Movies For Grown-Ups”) Less impressed at this addition to the same section. The movie is set in Los Angeles over a Christmas vacation from college for the Andrew McCarthy character. But unlike other films set during the holidays, none of the film’s themes revolve around the spirit of the holidays. I don’t even recall the scenes of Christmas in L.A. to be particularly memorable.
Love Actually (2003) (reviewed in “Christmas Comedies”) I appreciate the inclusion of this film as a holiday comedy. It is set during the Christmas holidays in London but the strong British cast and director Richard Curtis (Bridget Jones’ Diary, Four Weddings) often makes people rank this as a Chick Flick or love story over a Christmas film. The movie is either loved or hated by many – for such a polarizing film, I would have liked the author to take more of an opinionated stand. Here he simply admits that while being “arguably indefensible” that it’s “shamelessly entertaining”.
Meet John Doe (1941) (reviewed in “Holiday Tearjerkers”) Another movie that seems to have left the holiday genre over the years. This Frank Capra flick starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck compares favorably to even It’s A Wonderful Life in the way we are left with the carry the spirit of Christmas with you throughout the year message. Once again, a good review book will remind you of a film that you may long have forgotten and need to see again.
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971) (reviewed in “Holiday Horror”) This film is another reach for a holiday film. It happens to be set with the background of a group of orphans spending the Christmas holiday at the Forrest estate – run by the totally crazy Shelley Winters. It’s a really great creepy film that plays better at Halloween than at Christmas. I don’t recall Christmas being more than a catalyst to move the plot forward. That doesn’t take away from the genius of the film and its watchability. But it’s hardly fair to put it up against Silent Night, Deadly Night or Black Christmas in the genre.
The book has an Appendix of recommended Christmas films not included in the main part of the book. Some of these I’m left wondering what connection to Christmas they may have in any way. There is an index of names and of titles, in case you are trying to find a specific listing.
Does it all work? A little but it leaves you wanting more. There are far too many films with direct relations to the holidays that could be reviewed with more common standards. As I read a number of the reviews – especially within a sub-genre – I wasn’t sure that each film was being judged against the others. Instead it felt as a detached group of opinions. If multiple people were reviewing these films, that would make more sense. The fun of reading a book of reviews by a single person is getting to know their standards and how they compare to your own. It is hard to compare Eyes Wide Shut to Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, but if you have set forth your criteria in a series of reviews it can be done. I like the Fun Facts section but I’d love more pictures and maybe more info on DVD or Blu-ray releases of the films. Instead of an Appendix at the end of the book that seems disjointed – I would have offered a list at the end of each chapter of films not included under each heading and which ones were noteworthy.
As a whole, it’s not a bad addition to your film guide library. It’s not the last holiday movie guide you’ll need but it has its place.