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Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Casual Critic — Richard Paul Evans' A Christmas Box

Though it comes close to being overly sentimental, A Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans holds enough of a
story to be an entertaining holiday read. It deserves credit for avoiding the typical Christmas morning happy ending, perhaps even more than I’m willing to give it, but doesn’t offer anything that would be too surprising to a reader who sits down to read a book with a plot surrounding the holiday season.

Richard and Keri, along with their young daughter Jenna, move into the widow Parkin’s mansion as caretakers. They soon realize the elderly woman was looking for a family to share life with as much as to fill any needs she had around the house. Richard’s discovery of a box filled with letters to a lost love of Parkin, combined with her being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, leads the driven-to-suceed Richard to learn lessons about the first gift of Christmas.

Before rolling your eyes too much, there’s some valuable elements here that won’t be completely predictable. Richard isn’t a perfect narrator — meaning the reader sees his flaws before he does — so his counterpart in Parkin, who could’ve been seen at least at first as an annoying old woman, offers a nice balance. Her story, too, though no shocker, won’t be completely apparent early on. And, again, the ending isn’t the all-is-wonderful type expected in such stories.

On the other hand, the mention of teared-stained pages of a Bible is just one example of too much sentimentality. There were also a few missed opportunities to create a bit of tension that this novel desperately needed. Afterall, Richard is a bit of a snoop, and Parkin is fairly free with her advice. Yet, the two never really irritate each other. And, though its learned without too typical of an ending, Richard’s lesson isn’t exactly a new one.

A Christmas Box isn’t quite worth making a yearly tradition or anything. But, if you like Christmas stories, this one’s more than just entertaining.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Casual Critic — The Vince Guaraldi Trio's A Charlie Brown Christmas

Living in the Philadelphia area, we have not one, but two, radio stations playing Christmas music 24 hours a day this time of year. One of them started before Thanksgiving. I like Christmas music just fine, but playing it 24 hours a day starting before Thanksgiving is a bit insane. By the time the holiday rolls around, one more “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” might set off a riot abused radio listeners.

Nonetheless, if you’ve managed to avoid being inundated with the holiday spirit, it does help to have some Christmas tunes handy. Besides, there’s a few songs I think we’re all legally obligated to hear at least once a year.

A few years ago, after learning how to convert CDs to mp3 files, I loaded a bunch of Christmas albums onto my hard drive. It’s the only type of music that allows you to admit you own a Barry Manilow album. His Because It's Christmas, which includes a fun duet with K.T. Oslin of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and a unique version of “Silent Night,” subtitled “I Guess There Ain’t No Santa Claus,” isn’t bad. The Time-Life Treasury of Christmas series has plenty of the stand-byes, as does something called Happy Holidays Volume 32 and The Ultimate Christmas Album.

But, so far, every year A Charlie Brown Christmas stands out as my favorite. One of the best things about the album is that it has a lot of the classics without any celebrities trying to make “Drummer Boy” or “Joy to the World” a top 40 hit for a month. Until I sat down to write this review I didn’t even know the album is credited to the Vince Guaraldi Trio, and that is a great part of the album. You can really just enjoy the songs. There’s even a few all-music versions of songs like “Oh, Holy Night” and “O Tannenbaum” that are perfect to have on in the background at a dinner or party. “Christmas Time Is Here” is on the album as both a musical and vocal.

Of course, listening to the album will bring back memories of watching the CBS special A Charlie Brown Christmas, which first aired 40 years ago this year. You may not recognize some of the titles — “Linus and Lucy,” “Skating,” and others — but they will certainly ring a bell, and are worth listening to as part of your Christmas collection.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Casual Critic — The Polar Express

Is it sacrilegious to suggest a film has too much Tom Hanks? I mean, did he really need to do the voice for every key character of The Polar Express? Of course, this wasn’t the biggest problem with the film, but giving ol’ St. Nick the same voice of a bunch of other characters was definetly disappointing.

I thought The Polar Express had a chance to be one of those Christmas movies worth checking out each holiday season. Despite the incredible animation, which is offering character movements that are almost too smooth if you ask me, the film just doesn’t reach those lofty heights.

A promising beginning suggested a decent twist on the exhausted Christmas theme. Kids on the edge of not believing in Santa Claus take a Christmas Eve train ride to witness the wonder of Santa leaving on his yearly trek around the globe. The problem was that the film continuously went for the “awe” effect, which never really materialized — at least on the small screen.

The story also travels its course through a series of “accidental adventures” on the train. While it may work well for kids, adults may find themselves wishing the kids would just sit still and learn how not to put small things in the pocket with a hole.

The film’s version of the fictional North Pole didn’t offer anything special. It wasn’t bad, but I expected more considering the hoopla that surrounded the movie. Possibly the big screen did the film more justice. But I think it’s worth repeating that Santa needed another big-time voice, instead of being another Hanks character.

There are some nice moments between the kids that take the train, and the film offers a cute ending. This one doesn’t cross the “good for adults too” line, and I’m guessing the kids will find it just entertaining.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

The Casual Critic — Mary Higgins Clark’s Silent Night

Mary Higgins Clark’s Silent Night has become a Christmas decoration in our house — it’s bright red cover with white lettering adds a little more ambience to the foyer. After all these years, I decided it was time to find out whether or not it was worth more than just a decoration. It was also a good excuse to read one of best-selling authors that the literary world scoffs at, and try to learn exactly why these little gold mines are seen as less than worthwile.

Catherine Dornan has brought her two young sons to New York to be with their father during the Christmas season after his surgery to remove his cancerous cells. A trip to Rockefeller Center for a break from the stress leads to her wallet — which holds a St. Christopher medal the boys have been assured will save their father — being stolen. The youngest boy follows the thief on his own, and eventually is caught in a race to the Canadian border as the hostage of the sympathetic thief’s ex-con brother who is on the run from the law.

While all of the expected problems are present in this novel, I can’t find any reason to completely trash Higgins based on Silent Night. The story has a nice pace to it, and if you temporarily suspend your desire for realism, there’s nothing that will cause you to roll your eyes enough to stop reading.

That said, the English major, serious writer wannabee in me can’t help but point out the flaws. Though most of the dialogue is easily passable, it dips into the hokey more than once. The combination of inner thought and occassional use of Christmas song lyrics makes the stomach almost start to churn. Character development is barely noticeable, and the ending is pretty clear about 10 pages in.

The inside cover suggests Silent Night is Clark’s Christmas gift for “readers of all seasons.” I think they were going for readers of all faiths, but you get the idea. And if that’s enough for you, read it for fun while looking for something better.

Thursday, December 1, 2005

The Casual Critic — A Christmas Carol

“Spellbinding special effects” was not what I wanted to see on the back of the new DVD of A Christmas Carol that I’d just been given by my mom last Christmas. Neither was the “TNT Original” logo.

I absolutely love A Christmas Carol. The 1951 version, A Christmas Carol (Original B&W Version), starring Alastair Sim airs around midnight every Christmas Eve on PBS, and you better believe I’m always watching. The pop of the old film, the at times terrible lighting, sound that most high school production teams would cringe at these days . . . it’s all part of the film, and I wouldn’t change a thing. Sim is Scrooge, his nearest rival a distant George C. Scott in the 1984 CBS made-for-TV version of A Christmas Carol.

So, I had to paste a smile on my face when I got the DVD. I mean, spellbinding special effects? TNT? C’mon.

Well, maybe mom really does know best. Patrick Stewart staked his own claim to the role of Scrooge with this performance. The special effects used mostly to get in and out of scenes only enhanced the film.

Joel Grey added to the film with a great Ghost of Christmas Past, though makeup deserves a lot of credit. There’s something freaky, almost oddly feminine about his portrayal that adds to the ghostly presence. Richard E. Grant’s slightly awkward Bob Cratchitt works well.

A Christmas Carol is quite possibly my favorite movie of all-time. (If Meg Ryan wasn’t so damn cute in You've Got Mail there’d be no debate.) I’ve seen almost every version available. So, it is only after plenty of consideration that I give TNT’s version my first can't ask for more to a movie. Make it a part of your holiday traditions.