2020 Holiday Movie Challenge Part 2

Resistance is futile.

This post was sponsored by Overthinking It’s 2020 holiday fundraiser for The Actor’s Fund. Thanks to all who donated. We hope these pieces on seasonal entertainments remind us all that this is a season that gives, over and over and over.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

available on YouTube
By Mark Lee

I’ve long been aware that this movie is an important holiday entry in the cult canon, so I was excited to finally watch this and see what the fuss was all about. Reader, I was disappointed. I had imagined a gonzo sci-fi story involving Santa literally conquering Mars, like a 21st century Cortez enslaving a vast alien population with his laser sled and cybernetic reindeer army. Instead, I was treated to a surprisingly straightforward and pedestrian story about Martians kidnapping Santa to bring joy to their children…and Santa doing precisely that. Santa gives toys to Martian kids for Christmas. That’s it, that’s the plot.

And the worst part about it all? The story and execution are, relative to very low expectations, not even that terrible. There are even some borderline interesting themes at play: Cold War paranoia, Santa’s anxiety over the value of his artisanal methods in a world of automation and mass production, and most curious of all, parents’ anxiety over the loss of pure and innocent childhood, which feels much more 2014 than 1964. With some spit and polish, the story and themes could easily become an animated feature from the likes of Illumination.

It’s a historical curiosity, sure, but far from a so-bad-it’s-good classic along the lines of the unsurpassed and unsurpassable Troll 2. Maybe watch it on YouTube if you’ve truly reached the bottom of the Christmas barrel; it’s public domain and free to watch. Speaking of public domain: folks at Illumination, this is pre-existing IP ripe for the taking, and you can even have my pitch for free.

Magic: ★★☆☆☆

Santa exists, and his power to bring joy to sentient beings extends to Martian boys, girls, and robots.

Family: ★★★★☆

Martian parents across their planet reconnect with their children after years of… alienation.

Romance: ☆☆☆☆☆

It’s a kid’s movie. None of that mushy stuff.

Actual Conquest, at Least How Mark Wanted to See Conquest: ★☆☆☆☆

Upon further reflection, perhaps Santa “conquers” Mars insofar as he extends his sphere of influence, Cold-War style, over new territory.

Love, Lights, Hanukkah! (2020)

By Matthew Belinkie

As both a longtime fan of Hallmark’s cookie-cutter brand of Christmas movie and a dreidel-carrying Jew, the news that they were finally producing a Hallmark Hanukkah movie had me kvelling. The movie stars Mia Kirshner, best remembered at Mandy on 24. She plays Christina, the chef/owner of an Italian restaurant she inherited from her adoptive single mother. This is Christina’s first Christmas without her mom (something she mentions in every conversation) and she’s dealing with her loneliness by overdecorating her house with Christmas stuff (when the other characters in a Hallmark holiday movie tell you you have too many decorations up, you have a problem) and taking a DNA test to see what her heritage is.

Turns out she’s half-Italian, half-Jewish (I’m not sure if DNA tests work that way but whatever) and there’s someone nearby who might share some of her genes. She soon meets Ruth Berman, played by 1970’s comedy icon Marilu Henner, who reveals that she had a short-lived marriage to an Italian soldier and gave a baby up for adoption. (Her adult children, who had no idea their mom was previously married before their dead dad, get used to this idea pretty quickly.) The “conflict,” insofar as there is one, is Christina’s desire to get close to her new family while keeping the memory of her dear departed madre mia alive. But spoiler alert: she finds wall space for a brand new set of holiday decorations and problem solved.

But since every Hallmark Christmas movie must include romance, enter David, played by Ben Savage (insert “goy meets world” joke here). David is a close family friend of the Bermans, so close he is present at every family event. He’s also a restaurant critic who once gave Christina’s lasagna a bad review (awkward) and has a particular passion for cross-cultural dishes (wink wink). (Side note: I’m always amused at the Hallmark Channel’s puritanical streak. In this movie they agree to move in together before they have their first kiss.)

So as a Jew, I’m impressed with the number of Hanukkah boxes that get checked here. The entire cast sings the Hanukkah blessings, and then Christina tries to learn but struggles to get the “ch” sound phlegmy enough. Ruth explains what the letters on the dreidel actually mean (“a great miracle happened there,” she says, looking at Christina with tears in her eyes). They work in a rendition of the traditional Hanukkah song “Ma’oz Tzur.” Jewish foods eaten onscreen include not just latkes and kugel, but the more obscure sufganiyot (jelly donuts). Perhaps the most realistically Jewish thing about the movie is the way the Bermans aggressively encourage Christina and David to date, no chill whatsoever.

Magic: ☆☆☆☆☆

The only magic here is the specificity of the DNA test.

Family: ★★★★★

So much family, guys. We get the Bermans, Christina’s constant talk about her deceased mother, and even a third act reveal of her Italian dad.

Romance: ★★★☆☆

David is clearly smitten with her from the moment they meet-cute over the kosher pickles, but she keeps him at arms length for most of the movie out of residual saltiness over his negative lasagna review.

Legitimately Brilliant Culinary Idea: ★★★★★

The Bermans’ deli features “Eight Crazy Latkes,” which includes dishes like the “enchilatke” and the “choco-latke.” Paging Alton Brown.

Christmas Ever After: Love Is a Thing You Do (2020)

By Peter Fenzel

I didn’t know how much I enjoyed the Lifetime Original Movie Christmas Ever After until I described the plot to my wife:

But the romance novelist has lived so long in her writing without being in a relationship herself that she can’t give her male love interest real flaws! That’s going to be a problem! So while she usually goes to this special bed and breakfast for Christmas, this year she can’t go. I know, right? She’s on a deadline and has to finish her book. Only she finds out it’s the last year the bed and breakfast is operating, because the owner is retiring, so she takes off with her book in tow to finish her story, thinking the solace of holiday surroundings will spark her creativity. What she doesn’t realize is she’ll find a spark where she least expects it—only he has a daughter, and at first you think the daughter is with this one woman, but then…

Like so many stories of its kind, the events in this movie hit like a shot of Jameson: expert, but direct. Very direct. Characters rattle off what they have to do and why, who they are to each other, the specific circumstances of the local Christmas light competition run by the Town Board, all in brassy, naked confession of the kind of movie you’re watching. The meet cute involves a near car crash.

It all says, “We are not messing around. We are in getting up to our elbows in holiday romance, and we know you love it.”

Sometimes, Christmas Ever After seems like a later season of 24: the progress of events is breakneck, but sure-footed. The twists land predictably, but with gusto. And like 24, it’s defined by its one-of-a-kind star, Tony-award winning stage actress and Glee Project finalist Ali Stroker.

The real strength of Christmas Ever After is the grounded, earnest energy of its romantic motives. In a miniature, memento-shop mirror of Stroker’s Broadway performance that redefined the psychosexual vocabulary of Oklahoma!, her meta-turn as the self-critiquing romance novelist Izzy puts the question to all seasonal romance. When we romance, what are we doing?

We’re savoring our attractions, sure. We’re dancing with prospective partners in words and actions to try them on, so to speak. But in looking for “our person,” we ought to remember what it’s like to be a person, for both of us. We all have things going on that are important to us. We all need things. When we romance, we are finding ways to help each other, and finding ways we need to be helped ourselves.

The themes can get heavy, but no heavier than you might lift with both hands. I won’t spoil the surprises and twists of the plot, but barring an unfortunate but necessary third-act overreaction, Christmas Ever After struck me as one of the few romantic movies I’ve seen that gives good dating advice, and shows attraction in a plausible way, with realistic stakes: That yes, you can like someone, and be liked in return, but it is what you do with them, and for them, and together, that defines a relationship.

Of course this is a Christmas movie, so a lot of the doing is seasonal: there’s a cookie-making montage, the aforementioned Christmas light contest, and some honest-to-got wassailing of a predictably high caliber, because when you hire a world-class singer, why not have her sing?

But when the plucky coffee shop waitress, who happens to be the mysterious handsome-man-from-out-of-town’s sister (there’s that giddiness of relaying the plot again), lists the Christmas activities Izzy has helped with, it can’t help but feel like an admonition:

Audience, when this is over, you will wonder whether you actually watched a Christmas movie, or just a TV movie about love. Allow me to recap the thirty solid minutes of mainlined Christmas that was part of this, so you don’t forget.

Overall, if you enjoy shameless romance, and thus won’t mind the exposition, and would appreciate the convention of the romance novelist and editor critiquing the romantic movie they are currently in, I’d recommend Christmas Ever After. But I’d watch it somewhere cozy, alone or with someone special, rather than blast it in the living room for ironic enjoyment. You might just take something personal from it. And if not, hey, holiday calories don’t count.

Magic: ★☆☆☆☆

There is a one huge coincidence, but otherwise this is a grounded, real-world Christmas movie.

Family: ★★★☆☆

Not a dominant concern, but intensely relevant.

Romance: ★★★★☆

This is what it looks like when adults who are attracted to each other end up hanging out together while they are both trying to work. Take notes. Also this movie had a top notch “oh no he’s with the other woman already” mistaken identity sequence in terms of melodrama.

Wassailing: ★★★★★

“Christmas carols?” Pssht, If it isn’t at least 300 years old I’m not into it.

Fatman (2020)

available for rental on Amazon Prime
By Matthew Belinkie

Back in 1999, The Simpsons began its 11th season with “Beyond Blunderdome,” in which Homer encourages Mel Gibson to embrace his tough guy action movie roots. Together, they create a new ending for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in which Mr. Smith slaughters every member of Congress. I couldn’t help thinking of that as I watched Fatman, a dark comedy in which Gibson’s Santa Claus is as comfortable with a revolver as he is with the reigns of his sleigh.

This is one of those movies where each individual scene works but it doesn’t quite gel for me. Half of it is about a psychopathic rich kid who hires an assassin to take out Santa as revenge for a box full of coal. The scenes with the kid are cartoonishly over the top (he oil paints images of a dismembered Santa while wearing a bow tie). The scenes with the assassin (played with Nicolas Cage energy by Walton Goggins) are more quirky. He takes a pet hamster with him on his mission, and at one point he interrupts his drive to Alaska to buy and install a hamster wheel in the passenger seat of his car.

The half of the movie that actually involves Gibson as Santa feels more grounded, which is a weird thing to say about an immortal, omniscient guy with a barn full of elves. But this take on Santa is refreshingly blue collar. He’s got the sleigh and the reindeer, but his daily ride is a beat up Ford F-150 (red, of course). Gibson’s Santa comes off as a struggling small business owner, desperately cold calling old contacts from his rolodex as a stack of past due bills piles up on his desk. “I bid on everything from mainframes to Pez dispensers,” he tells his wife glumly. “Everybody’s outsourcing. They got six-year-olds pulling twelve hour shifts in bare feet for two sticks of bubble gum. It’s heartbreaking.”

So Santa gets all the elves together to explain how they will be producing military components for the US government to make ends meet. It’s a decent idea for a Saturday Night Live sketch, right? Except when Gibson plays it, you can see tears in his eyes and hear the anger and self-loathing in his voice. He doesn’t treat it like a joke, and suddenly it pushes straight through farce and becomes a scathing indictment of late stage capitalism. Santa’s Workshop is the ultimate Mom & Pop operation, and it’s circling the drain. That’s the movie’s most interesting angle and I wish it explored that more.

Much like Home Alone, the movie hums along on the promise that the third act is going to deliver bloody mayhem. But when the action movie stuff kicks off, it’s not as silly and over-the-top as I expected. It feels gritty, more No Country For Old Men than The Expendables. Watching these two men bleed into the snow just made me sad, which might have been what the directors were going for but feels like a strange way to approach this zany a premise.

In the end, I wished the directors had either ditched the violence entirely and just told a story about Santa struggling to adapt, or embraced the silliness of Santa flying through the air in slow motion double-wielding Uzis. As it is, I was entertained but ultimately left as cold as Mel’s icy blue eyes.

Magic: ★★★☆☆

Santa is real and he does know the secret deeds of every single person in the world, but this is the least magical version of that character you’re ever gonna see.

Family: ☆☆☆☆☆

The spoiled rich kid’s parents are absent and enabling, and the assassin’s parents were abusive.

Romance: ★★★★☆

Santa’s wife Ruth is a true partner, helping him run the business and reminding him of why they do it. And they have a very sweet love scene.

Elf Nutrition: ★★★★★

We learn that elves eat only candy which seems about right.

One Comment on “2020 Holiday Movie Challenge Part 2”

  1. John C Member #

    It’s been years since I’ve seen the movie, but I share the disappointment in what could have been–needs to have been!–War of the Worlds (or Edison’s Conquest of Mars) with reindeer. That song, however, still haunts me…

    I’m glad to hear that Hanukkah stories are going mainstream, though. Even as someone who isn’t Jewish, it’s been frustrating to see decades of holiday movies where the only acknowledgement of anybody else in the universe is a rare, passive-aggressive “and a Happy Hanukkah” in response to wishing people Merry Christmases.


Add a Comment