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Book Review: Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas by Alonso Duralde

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Good season entertainment is essential to me getting into a holiday frame of mind, which doesn’t seem to get any easier, the older I get. Typing “Christmas” into the satellite tuner’s search mode demonstrates how tough making good viewing choices can be; I got over 600 choices in the next few days when I did that search today.

Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas by Alonso Duralde, film critic from IFC’s The Grid (and formerly of the Rotten Tomatoes show), is a helpful resource for making the most of one’s limited pre-holiday mood elevation time. It’s also an entertaining read for film trivia enthusiasts, as Duarte’s Fun Facts are the highlight of many of the short film write-ups.

Each film summary includes an indication of the Christmas content, its nature and extent, a great help in making seasonal viewing decisions, in addition to clarifying the inclusion of such titles as Venus Beauty Academy and John Waters’ Female Trouble. The book is divided into categories —  like kid’s movies, tearjerkers, classics, and clunkers — that organize the listings conveniently.

Especially helpful to me is Chapter 7: A “Christmas Carol” On Film — devoted exclusively to versions of Dickens’ story, a film I’ve viewed in five or six versions during the holiday season. While I know to watch the listings for the ones with Mr. Magoo and Alistair Sim as Scrooge, I hadn’t known to avoid the “heinous computer animation” and “eerie human faces” of Barbie in A Christmas Carol (2008). In fact, Duralde’s cautionary advice is nearly as valuable to me as the glowing endorsements. When I realize how close I came to wasting a couple of hours waiting to see Barbie hoist Tiny Tim up on her shoulder, my blood turns to figgy pudding.

Like most film guides I encounter, this one also profiles unfamiliar films—such as The Store, a 1983 documentary shot at Neiman-Marcus’ Dallas flagship store during the Christmas season — that sound intriguing enough to track down. Duralde also reminds me of films, like About A Boy and Desk Set, that I haven’t revisited in years, and should.

The broad definition of “Christmas movies” allows Duralde to include trivia that he must have been stockpiling for years, such as Lady In the Lake (1947) being the first mainstream film told entirely from the POV of the main character, (so the other characters are always speaking to the camera as if it is Philip Marlowe), and that star John Cusack called Better Off Dead (1985) “the worst thing [he’d] ever seen,” ordering director Savage Steve Holland never to speak to him again. Duralde also digs up historical perspective on several holiday classics, including TIME magazine’s dismissive review of Christmas In Connecticut (1945) as “thoroughly moth-eaten.” His knowledge of film history contributes considerably to the book’s entertainment value.

As far as the films I’m familiar with, Duralde’s judgment usually seems sound, stamping One Magic Christmas (1985) as “wretched” and Polar Express (2004), “overbearing [and] unintentionally unsettling.” He must have been feeling the Christmas spirit when writing the book, however, to be so charitable to films as annoying and inferior as Tim Allen’s Santa Clause (1994), and his enthusiasm for The Box (2009) is simply baffling.

Despite a few lapses, as I see them, Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas is a handy, entertaining guide, one that will be useful throughout the year. The appendix lists movies Duralde didn’t include in the chapters, either because they were too bad or had too little Christmas content. Here’s hoping for a second volume so he can make the case for Man Bites Dog as a Christmas film!

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