Wednesday, December 31, 2014

TV Special Review: Rudolph's Shiny New Year

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Good idea for a story and some fun elements
Cons: Stretched too thin to fill time
The Bottom Line:
Finding the New Year
Could have been a lot more fun
With a shorter length

Potential for a Shiny New Year Doesn’t Quite Happen

Apparently, I am trying to catch up on a couple more of the Claymation holiday specials I missed as a kid this year.  When I found Rudolph's Shiny New Year on TV the other night, I had to give it a try.  It had some great elements to it, but it doesn’t quite hold together.

Rudolph (voiced by Billie Mae Richards) and Santa (Paul Frees) are just back from that famous foggy Christmas Eve when Santa gets a message from Father Time (Red Skelton).  It seems Happy, the New Year’s Baby, has run away.  He has incredibly large ears, and people can’t help but laugh at them when they see them, and he has taken offense at that.  If he isn’t back by the stroke of twelve, the world will be stuck in a time loop on December 31st.

There is one creature who is happy about this possibility – Eon (Paul Frees again), a vulture who is set to be replaced in the new year.  So while Rudolph conducts a search of some magically time frozen islands, Eon is right there hoping to snatch baby Happy first.  Who will win?  Will they even find Happy or just keep missing him?

There is the potential for a good story in here, but I think the desire to stretch it out to an hour (less commercials) is what did them in.  These islands that Rudolph searches are where each year goes to retire, and their island is frozen in their year.  That was lots of fun, and I had a blast visiting those different islands.  Yet, can you tell me why we redid the Three Bears with Happy as Goldilocks?  Yep, makes no sense.  There were another couple of twists along the way there also felt like they were just there to expand the running time of the story.

Not to mention, why couldn’t Rudolph fly?  He had to get help from other animals along the way.  Mind you, they had punny names, and I liked them, but I never did understand why Rudolph couldn’t just fly where he needed to go by himself.  Again, I think it had to do with expanding the story.

None of this is the fault of the voice cast.  While a bit childish sounding, they certainly fit the parts well, and I liked how the brought the characters to life.  And considering the audience is kids, the childish part is about right.

I’m not the biggest fan of stop motion animation, but it works here.  (Although I do have to wonder why we got a flashback to Rudolph’s story as hand drawn animation.  Why not just reuse the stuff from the Rudolph special?)  It feels a bit dated and low budget, but I did enjoy it.

Speaking of dated, they make a point of welcoming in year 19Happy at the end.  I had to laugh as we are currently waiting for 2015 to come in.  Yes, the special is 40 years old, but that definitely dates it.

While little kids might enjoy Rudolph's Shiny New Year, older kids and adults definitely will find it dated and slow.  That’s too bad because some elements work, but they are just stretched too thin.

Reading Challenge Wrap Up: Mt TBR 2014

I just realized that, while I finished the challenge earlier this month and marked it off my current challenge status, I never did a wrap up post for the 2014 Mt. TBR challenge.  So here you go.

I originally signed up for Pike's Peak, which was 12 books, but I upped it to 24 when I'd reached that by mid-year.  So, how did I do?

1. You Cannoli Die Once by Shelley Costa
2. New Lands by Geoff Rodkey
3. Gladiator: A True Story of 'Roids, Rage, and Redemption by Dan Clark
4. Lost and Fondue by Avery Aames
5. Mayhem at the Orient Express by Kylie Logan
6. Murder Past Due by Miranda James
7. I Even Funnier by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein
8. Clammed Up by Barbara Ross
9. Gluten for Punishment by Nancy J. Parra
10. The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly
11. Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman
12. Clobbered by Camembert by Avery Aames
13. Melissa Explains it All by Melissa Joan Hart
14. The Reversal by Michael Connelly
15. Dead Man's Switch by Tammy Kaehler
16. Bran New Death by Victoria Hamilton
17. Death in Four Courses by Lucy Burdette
18. Drizzled with Death by Jessie Crockett
19. To Brie or Not to Brie by Avery Aames
20. The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy
21. Kneading to Die by Liz Mugavero
22. Topped Chef by Lucy Burdette
23. Foul Play at the Fair by Shelley Freydont
24. Do or Diner by Christine Wenger
25. Speaking of Murder by Tace Baker
26. Silent Knife by Shelley Freydont

The number of books read for this challenge definitely got smaller as the year progressed, so I'm glad I got that running start at the beginning of the year.

Reading Challenge Wrap-Up: Foodies Read 2014

Another challenge I still need to do an official wrap up for is the Foodies Read 2014.

I originally signed up for the Sous-Chef level, which was 9-13 books.  Then, a couple of weeks later, I decided to read two culinary themed mystery series, and as the year progressed, I found some others to read.  I read more culinary mysteries than I ever have before this year.  As a result, here is what my final list looked like.

1. You Cannoli Die Once by Shelley Costa
2. Murder with Ganache by Lucy Burdette
3. Lost and Fondue by Avery Aames
4. An Appetite for Murder by Lucy Burdette
5. Blackberry Pie Murder by Joanne Fluke
6. Inherit the Word by Daryl Wood Gerber
7. Clammed Up by Barbara Ross
8. Gluten for Punishment by Nancy J. Parra
9. The Pickled Piper by Mary Ellen Hughes
10. Death Runs Adrift by Karen MacInerney
11. Boiled Over by Barbara Ross
12. 'Til Dirt Do Us Part by Edith Maxwell
13. Clobbered by Camembert by Avery Aames
14. Bran New Death by Victoria Hamilton
15. Basil Instinct by Shelley Costa
15. Death in Four Courses by Lucy Burdette
16. Death on Eat Street by J. J. Cook
17. Drizzled with Death by Jessie Crockett
18. To Brie or Not to Brie by Avery Aames
19. Death of a Crabby Cook by Penny Pike
20. Topped Chef by Lucy Burdette
21. Maple Mayhem by Jessie Crockett
22. Well Read, Then Dead by Terrie Farley Moran
23. Do or Diner by Christine Wenger
24. Stirring the Plot by Daryl Wood Gerber
25. Days of Wine and Roquefort by Avery Aames
26. Death with All the Trimmings by Lucy Burdette

Wow.  I doubled the number of reads.

I'm sure that was a fluke not to be repeated, but we'll just see, won't we?  I plan to sign up for the challenge again in 2015.  Look for that post tomorrow.

Reading Challenge Wrap-Up: Crusin' Through the Cozies 2014

Time to close out the year with a couple of completed reading challenges.  First up is one of my favorites - Cruisin' Through the Cozies.

I signed up to read to Level 4 in 2014, the highest level they had.  That was 20+ cozies.  Here's what I actually read.

1. You Cannoli Die Once by Shelley Costa
2. Murder with Ganache by Lucy Burdette
3. Mr. Monk Gets on Board by Hy Conrad
4. Lost and Fondue by Avery Aames
5. Cloche and Dagger by Jenn McKinlay
6. NYPD Puzzle by Parnell Hall
7. Killing Cupid by Laura Levine
8. Moriarty Returns a Letter by Michael Robertson
9. Mayhem at the Orient Express by Kylie Logan
10. Murder Past Due by Miranda James
11. Dummy of a Ghost by Sue Ann Jaffarian
12. City of Darkness and Light by Rhys Bowen
13. An Appetite for Murder by Lucy Burdette
14. Blackberry Pie Murder by Joanne Fluke
15. Inherit the Word by Daryl Wood Gerber
16. Clammed Up by Barbara Ross
17. Ghost of a Gamble by Sue Ann Jaffairan
18. Murder on Bamboo Lane by Naomi Hirahara
19. Gluten for Punishment by Nancy J. Parra
20. The Pickled Piper by Mary Ellen Hughes
21. Death Runs Adrift by Karen MacInerney
22. Death of a Mad Hatter by Jenn McKinlay
23. Boiled Over by Barbara Ross
24. 'Til Dirt Do Us Part by Edith Maxwell
25. A Sense of Entitlement by Anna Loan-Wilsey
26. Clobbered by Camembert by Avery Aames
27. Mr. Monk is Open for Business by Hy Conrad
28. Dead Man's Switch by Tammy Kaehler
29. Bran New Death by Victoria Hamilton
30. Basil Instinct by Shelley Costa
31. Death in Four Courses by Lucy Burdette
32. Death on Eat Street by J. J. Cook
33. A Tale of Two Biddies by Kylie Logan
34. Drizzled with Death by Jessie Crockett
35. The Good, the Bad, and the Emus by Donna Andrews
36. A Question of Death by Kerry Greenwood
37. To Brie or Not To Brie by Avery Aames
38. Death of a Crabby Cook by Penny Pike
39. Queen of Hearts by Rhys Bowen
40. Kneading to Die by Liz Mugavero
41. Bloom and Doom by Beverly Allen
42. Death Valley by Sandy Dengler
43. Topped Chef by Lucy Burdette
44. Maple Mayhem by Jessie Crockett
45. Well Read, Then Dead by Terri Farley Moran
46. Foul Play at the Fair by Shelley Freydont
47. Do or Diner by Christine Wegner
48. Mrs. Pollifax and the Second Thief by Dorothy Gilman
49. Speaking of Murder by Tace Baker
50. Legend of Sleepy Harlow by Kylie Logan
51. Stirring the Plot by Daryl Wood Gerber
52. A Biscuit, a Casket by Liz Mugavero
53. Suede to Rest by Diane Vallere
54. Acadia by Sandy Dengler
55. Bluffing is Murder by Tace Baker
56. The Job by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg
57. Hell on Wheels by Sue Ann Jaffarian
58. Days of Wine and Roquefort by Avery Aames
59. Death with All the Trimmings by Lucy Burdette
60. Silent Knife by Shelley Freydont
61. Mount Rainier by Sandy Dengler
62. The Nightingale Before Christmas by Donna Andrews

I think I made it!  Of course, I'll be signing up again.  Look for that post tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What's On Your Nightstand - December 2014

Can you believe it's the last nightstand post of the year?  We're almost to 2015!  Yikes!  But before we turn that page, it's time for the final What's On Your Nightstand of 2014.

Currently on my nightstand is Feta Attraction by Susannah Hardy.  This is the first in a new Greek restaurant themed cozy mystery series, and I've really been enjoying it.  I've got 90 pages left, which is a good thing since it is due for review on Monday, January 5th as part of a blog tour.  Come back then to see my thoughts.

It's also good because it means I get to move on to For Whom the Bluebells Toll by Beverly Allen.  I loved the first Bridal Bouquet Shop Mystery, so I'm really looking forward to reading this one.  I've got an ARC, so I will hopefully be posting this review on January 6th.  I've got to get reading if that is going to happen.

From there, I had hoped to have a theme for my reading this month of outdoor/exercise type books to go with the whole January resolution type of thing.  The three books I've got lined up to read for that are Zero-Degree Murder by M. L. Rowland, Scene of the Climb by Kate Dyer-Seeley, and Geared for the Grave by Duffy Brown.

The problem with this plan is that it doesn't allow for any new books that come out in January, and I've got several favorite series with new books coming out.  And there are the books I got for Christmas I'm dying to read.  Plus some Middle Grade novels I've had waiting to get read for forever....

Yes, it's a case of so many books so little time.  We'll just have to see what winds up being the priority over the next month, right?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Movie Review: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad/Fun and Fancy Free Two Movie Pack

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: All of the stories have their fun moments
Cons: Dated elements and slow pacing
The Bottom Line:
Two lesser known films
That aren't top Disney projects
Mostly for the fans

The DisNerd Way to Collect These Films on Blu-Ray

While many of Disney’s animated films are considered classics for very good reason, the package films aren’t usually in that list.  And with good reason.  The stories, while entertaining, aren’t as timeless or magical as the best known films.  Still, die hard Disney fans like me are always looking to upgrade their collection, which is why I jumped when I spotted this The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr Toad/Fun & Fancy Free combo set on Blu-Ray.

The first film is exactly what it advertises itself to be.  We get two stories, the first a version of The Wind in the Willows, the second The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  In the first, Mr. Toad runs afoul of the law and his friends when his obsession with speed leads him to get a motor car.  Along the way, he gets arrest and just might have lost his ancestral home, Toad Hall.  Then we follow Ichabod Crane as this school teacher sets his sights on the most eligible woman in the area only to run afoul of the local bully and the local legend about a Headless Horseman.

The reason this film isn’t as well known is obvious fairly quickly.  The pacing is uneven.  Yes, there are things that will make kids laugh along the way, but they will also tire as they wait to get to the next funny part.  This is especially true in the first story as we get a courtroom scene that, while important to the plot, slows things way down.  However, kids who stick it out will be rewarded with a very funny climax to that story.

The same is true of Fun and Fancy Free, which includes two more stories.  “Bongo” is the first one this time, and it tells the story of a highly trained circus bear who escapes from the circus and finds himself in the wild.  Will he be able to survive on his own, especially when he meets up with other bears?  Then comes “Mickey and the Beanstalk” which places Mickey, Donald, and Goofy in the role of Jack. 

The stories in this feature are slightly better than the ones in the first.  The pacing is faster and the gags are funnier.  There are still some dated elements, mainly from the storytellers.  Dinah Shore narrates and sings one of the stories, and the music is definitely from the 1940’s.  Then Edgar Bergman and his dummies are involved in the second, and their breaks actually slow things down as well.

But wait, there’s more!  If you act now and buy the Blu-Ray set, you can also get The Reluctant Dragon as a bonus feature.  (Actually, I believe this is just part of the two film set and not in a limited edition kind of way.)  Despite the name, this is more of a behind the scenes of animation kind of film from 1941.  In it, we journey with Robert Benchley as he goes from department to department seeing how various parts of animation is done.  Along the way, we glimpse characters from the not yet released films Dumbo and Bambi.  He is officially there to pitch Walt Disney the idea of the title story, but when he finally connects with Walt, he learns they've already made the film, and we get to watch it.  Along the way, we get the first of Goofy's "How To" shorts, in this case "Ride a Horse."  The title short itself, roughly 20 minutes of the hour plus running time, is fun as we meet a dragon who would rather discuss books over tea than capture damsels.  Again, the animated segments will probably interest kids, but the rest might bore them.

So, really, these are movies for the DisNerd, but they will be thrilled to have them.  Surprisingly, this is just a two disc set.  The Blu-Ray disc has all three of these movies on it, with The Reluctant Dragon listed as a bonus features.  It's also the only bonus feature, but given the overall popularity of the films, that's hardly surprising.  All three of the films look and sound good.  This isn't something that will show off your system, but most older animated movies aren't.  You will find the picture is full frame, in keeping with the original aspect ratio, but they do make limited use of full surround, usually just giving you music in the back speakers.  The second disc is a DVD, and it just features The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.  I'm a little surprised because there other two movie sets usually feature both of the films on their own DVD.  I guess in this case they decided that Fun and Fancy Free wasn't popular enough to warrant a DVD release.  In fact, you can buy The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad as a separate Blu-Ray/DVD release by itself, but this is the only way to get Fun and Fancy Free on Blu-Ray.

While the only people who will rush out to buy this set are Disney fanatics, they will rush out to get The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr Toad/Fun & Fancy Free.  I know I did.  While the most kids will enjoy parts of the stories here, they probably won't enjoy all of them.

Looking for longer reviews of these two movies?  Here's The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad and Fun & Fancy Free.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Book Review: Everblaze by Shannon Messenger (Keeper of the Lost Cities #3)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Amazing character growth in a page turning story
Cons: Could do a bit more to reorient us to Sophie’s world at the beginning.
The Bottom Line:
Danger and intrigue
Fantasy world that seems real
Super strong characters

More Trouble is Blazing Toward Sophie

I had hoped to make it to Everblaze, the third book about the adventures of Sophie Foster, much closer to when it came out in November.  I’ve already enjoyed the first two in the series and was looking forward to reading the next chapter.  However, maybe it was a good thing that I waited because now that I’ve finished, I have a shorter wait for the sequel.

If you’ve missed the first two books, don’t start here.  You really need the background.  See, Sophie lives in a world that is in the hidden parts of our Earth and ruled by Elves.  Sophie was raised by humans but she is really an elf herself.  However, there is so much more to the story than that, one you need to experience for yourself.

Sophie Foster’s life just never slows down.  Silveny, the alicorn, has just been relocated to the Sanctuary when she and Keefer get a call for help.  It seems the other alicorn has started attacking Silveny, and they need these two to come find out why.

However, what the two learn when they arrive is a shocking secret that involves Ogres.  Supposedly, there is a peace treaty between the Elves and the Ogres, but the peace is fragile at best.  The Council isn’t interested in what Sophie has learned, they have a job for her – something so controversial that it will leave the population divided.  Should Sophie go through with it?  What will happen next?

Honestly, my only complaint with this book is the same one I had with the second in the series.  It assumes we remember all the details of the previous book.  I might have to reread the last couple of chapters of this one before moving on just so I remember all that has happened and all that we have learned.  The book just jumps in, and I felt that year between books because I was fuzzy on some of the details.  But as I keep reading, I got more in tune with Sophie’s world, and I once again got caught up in the story.

And what a story it was.  For a seemingly simple set up comes all kinds of twists and suspense.  The book is around 600 pages, and I didn’t feel like any of it was padding.  Not only that, but things got so interesting, I read the second half in a day while finishing getting ready for Christmas and working my full time job.  Yes, that’s how badly I wanted to know how things would turn out for all the characters.  I saw a couple of the twists of the story coming, but several of them caught me off guard.  And I might have even been guilty of gasping a couple of times and cheering another couple.  (However, I’m not confessing to tearing up at all.  Nope, didn’t happen.  Not in the slightest.)  We even get a few answers to some of the bigger mysteries in Sophie’s world.  Not all of them, but some.

The characters are the strongest they’ve been in the series, too.  They have grown in the course of all three books, and I just love seeing how they’ve advanced for the better here.  I can think of a couple who have changed the most, and I like the direction they are heading.  Not that I liked all of the characters all the time, but when they did something I didn’t like, I still understood the reason behind it.  One scene in particular truly showed me Sophie’s backbone, and it was amazing.  (This was one of the scenes where I wasn’t crying.  Honest.  It was a trick of the light.)

Since the book is aimed at Middle Graders, I found it a slightly faster read than the books I normally pick up.  Even so, the 600 pages was a little intimidating.  But it was completely worth it.  Kids will be delighted to plunge themselves into this fantasy world, and adults who go along on the ride will be rewarded as well.

Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about Everblaze.  The characters and story are progressing so well and are so real I’m going to have a hard time waiting to see where Sophie’s journey takes her next.

This book is part of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday hosted by…Shannon Messenger.  Not that this is influencing my review of the book in the slightest.  It really is this awesome and you really do need to read it.

To fully get into the world that Shannon has created, it's best to read the Keeper of the Lost Cities in order.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Ornament Review: Simon - 2014 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Captures the toy, complete with sound and light
Cons: Mostly a nostalgia piece, but that audience will love it.
The Bottom Line:
This electric game
Designed for 80’s children
Nostalgia for tree

Let Simon Beep and Flash on Your Tree

While I never had the game Simon as a kid, I had friends who did, so I know I played the game a time or two.  Still, it wasn’t quite as embedded in me as a warm childhood memory, so I thought a little while before I snagged Hallmark’s ornament version of the classic.  Just before my favorite store sold out, I caved and got him.

If you are familiar with the electronic game, then you pretty much know what to expect with the ornament.  It’s a black circle.  Okay, so it’s more than that.  It’s a black circle with four buttons of different colors on it and a few other controls in the middle.

The idea of the game was sort of like “Simon Says.”  The game would create a sequence by flashing a light and a different tone under the four different colored buttons.  Once it finished, your job was to repeat it back correctly.  Each time you got it right, it would increase the length of the sequence.  My memory for this kind of thing being what it is, I was never very good at it.  Then again, maybe it I’d had my own I would have done better.

The reason I explain the game is to explain why the magic portion of this ornament is so cool.  If you press any of the buttons in the middle of this ornament, it will play one of three sequences.  The first one is short with only four beeps, and the other two get increasingly longer, the third ending with a miss.  Obviously, you can’t repeat the sequence back like you could with a real Simon, but this is still a fun feature.  To make it work, you do need to install two button batteries in the back of the ornament, but your first set comes with it.

Like the original game, the back of this ornament is flat.  Of course, when you lay the ornament down that way, you don’t really get to see the details on the front that make this ornament.  As a result, I recommend hanging it from the hook at the top of the circle.  Yes, there is a top thanks to the writing on the game.  It’s really no surprise since we are hanging a circle to find that the ornament hangs straight.

Even though I never had this game, I still know enough to know this is exactly what the game looked like.  The little details of the game start buttons, the skill levels, and the writing make this a fun ornament for anyone who loved to play the game.

Since I never had one, buying the Simon ornament wasn’t as big a trip down memory lane for me, and I almost passed it up.  Still, I’m glad I caved since it is a fun way to capture a classic toy from the era of my childhood.

Original Price: $19.95

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas!

I just wanted to take a quick moment to wish you a Merry Christmas.  I'm enjoying the day with my family, and I hope you are surrounded by those you love as well, be they family or friends.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Movie Review: Home Alone

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Entertaining story with laughs and tender moments
Cons: A little slow in spots, a little too brutal at the end
The Bottom Line:
A boy left behind
Believable and funny
Not perfect but fun

“I Made My Family Disappear.”

If you followed pop culture at all in 1990, it was impossible to miss the phenomenon that was Home Alone.  Everyone was talking about it and clips were everywhere.  I didn’t go to the movies much back then, so I missed it at that time, and I’d never gotten around to watching it.  I finally decided to fix that this year, and I can see why the film was so popular back then and many people still love it today.

The McCallister family is heading to France for Christmas.  The day before they are set to leave, everyone arrives to stay with Kevin’s family outside of Chicago.  Between his siblings and his cousins and the adults, there is a house full.  And everyone is dumping on poor 8-year-old Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), the youngest of the family.  When he loses it, he is sent up to the attic for the night.

In the rush to leave the next morning, the family misses Kevin, and he wakes up to find out his wish to be alone has come true.  While his mother (Catherine O’Hara) frantically tries everything to get back to him, Kevin revels in his freedom.  That is, until he figures out that two burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) are planning to rob his house.  Can he stop them?

I’ve got to say from the start that I was very impressed with this film.  It set things up so well that the premise and complications Kevin’s family faced along the way trying to get in touch with him were completely believable.  I was expecting to have to go along with the premise just as a set up to the film, but it actually worked and made sense.  Likewise, the now famous climax is set up well early on as we are told about some of Kevin’s earlier antics.

Likewise, there are some very good quiet, tender moments late in the film.  Nothing to make you cry, but definitely showing some character growth.  A sub-plot involving Kevin’s neighbor was great, although it did feel like it was in there for filler.

Of course, this is a comedy.  As it was billed at the time, this is a family comedy without the family.  While I don’t know that I laughed outright at it, I certainly smiled at some of the things that happened.  This was especially true when Kevin was reveling in his freedom or later when he was trying to act like a grown up.  Even the scenes with the rest of his family were fun if not quite at the level of the scenes with Kevin on his own.

I do have two minor complaints with the film.  It starts out a little slowly, especially if you know what is going to happen.  Yes, they have to set things up, but it feels like they could have been a little quicker about it.

The other complaint is the battle.  While I know they were going for slapstick comedy, this one just seemed to venture on the side of painful instead of humorous to me.  Yes, some of it was pretty funny, but at the next moment I’d cringe.  And, honestly, why didn’t the burglars just leave?  If I were them, I would have.  That’s the only point where the premise of the movie falls apart.  Too bad, too, since they’d set the rest up so well.

The movie made a star out of Macaulay Culkin.  I felt he was a bit over the top early on, but as the movie went along, he really settled into the part and helped make Kevin believable.  Since so much of the film centers around him alone in the house, that’s a very good thing.  He certainly made many of those scenes fun.  The rest of the cast was great, especially Catherine O’Hara, who was believably frantic in a way that was funny without ever going over the top.

While it’s easy to nitpick here or there, the overall movie is still quite entertaining.  While Home Alone might never be part of my Christmas staple movie list, I’m glad I watched it and would certainly enjoy seeing it again.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Ornament Review: The Bare Necessities - 2014 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Perfectly captures a great movie moment with looks and song
Cons: None
The Bottom Line:
Classic Disney scene
Captured for your Christmas tree
With song included

Fans of The Jungle Book Will Consider This Ornament a Bare Necessity

Hallmark has quite an unofficial series of Disney song ornaments going, and as a fan of Disney music, I love it.  I’ll be even happier if one of the three (yes, three) ornaments in this unofficial series released this year becomes a trend.  The Bare Necessities is from The Jungle Book, not a movie that Hallmark regularly makes ornaments from, so I was thrilled when I learned about it.  I love this scene in the movie, and as a result, I love this ornament.

The ornament features Baloo and bear and Mowgli the man cub as they float down a river.  Baloo is on his back, and Mowgli is lying on top of him.  They are both smiling.  And when I said that earlier about floating down a river, I meant it.  There is a light blue plastic oval surrounding them with little white squiggles representing the water flow and even a pink flower floating by.

As I said, this is one of my favorite scenes in the movie, and I love this ornament as a result.  Honestly, the water really makes it.  I’d like it without that touch, but it’s that added detail that really makes this ornament special and jump out at me as a must buy as soon as I saw it.

Of course, having the song certainly helps.  The ornament requires two button batteries that pop into Baloo’s back on the underside of the ornament.  When they are installed, you can press the button on Baloo’s right leg and hear about 25 seconds of “The Bare Necessities” from the movie.  It’s at the end of the song, so both Baloo and Mowgli are singing at this point, and its just a fun little clip sure to make you smile.

Yes, I did say that the batteries go in Baloo’s back.  In another touch that is so wonderful, Baloo’s back actually sticks down below the light blue water line.  That really helps with the illusion that he is floating in water.  On the other hand, it also makes the ornament a little harder to display year round.  It doesn’t really have a flat enough base to set out on a desk or shelf.  It’s a trade off, but they absolutely made the right decision in this case.

Which means it’s best to hang this ornament, and you’ll find the loop to do so in Mowgli’s back.  Slip a hook through there, and you’ll be delighted to find that Baloo and Mowgli float, I mean hang, level.  After all, it would be a shame if the water spilled all over the place when you hung it, right?

This really is the perfect ornament to capture this scene in the movie.  As I already said, I hope that The Bare Necessities is an indication of things to come as Hallmark creates more ornaments from Disney songs.

Original Price: $17.95

Monday, December 22, 2014

Movie Review: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Some funny scenes and bits
Cons: Overall, the events overwhelm and just grow to be too much
The Bottom Line:
Many people love
I found amusing but not
Funny like they do

Too Much Chaos for Christmas

There are a couple of more modern Christmas classics I had never seen, and I decided this was the year to fix that.  After all, everyone always references them, so I should know what they are all about.  Up first was National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.  It had its moments, but overall, I was okay not having seen this one.

The story follows the adventures of the Griswold family.  Instead of going somewhere for the holiday, they are hosting Christmas for their extended family, and Clark (Chevy Chase) wants to make sure it is the best Christmas ever.  He’s got big plans for his Christmas bonus as a surprise Christmas present he’s even keeping from his wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo).  And he is going to include his family in all the traditions whether kids Audrey (Juliette Lewis) and Rusty (Johnny Galecki) want it.  That includes getting the Christmas tree and putting a ton of lights on the house.  But as the family staying in the house grows, will anyone really have the Christmas spirit?

The movie just didn’t quite work for me, and I’m not completely sure why.  Several of the scenes are funny in their own right, but I think it was the combination as bad thing after bad thing kept happening that overwhelmed me.  Plus we were supposed to be laughing at poor Clark as he kept trying but making a fool out of himself.  As I said, not too horrible, but definitely not my first choice for humor.

Then there were the scenes that did bother me as Clark was drooling over a very attractive woman or got into a war of words with his neighbors.  Not at all funny but very crude and just wrong.

The cast is all definitely great in their parts.  Notable names in addition to the ones I mentioned earlier are Doris Roberts as one of the grandmothers, Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in one of her first roles as one of the neighbors.  As I said, a great cast that plays the humor for all they can.  I just don’t find much of it that funny.

There are lots of stunts and things exploding in this movie, and they pull it off perfectly.  Since the movie came out in 1989, they had to use actual effects, and it shows, but in a good way.

Speaking of the time, the styles date the movie more than anything else.  You’ll definitely get a laugh out of some of them.

I know I’ve been harsh on National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, but that’s because it is easy to point out the flaws.  I have a feeling if I’d watched it younger or with friends who loved it more the first time, I’d probably appreciate it more than I do.  But for me, it’s just an average film.  Now that I’ve watched it, I can skip it in the years to come.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Music Review: Christmas, Volume 1 by Shaun Groves

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: New songs and arrangements make this a great buy
Cons: Only five songs (but priced accordingly)
The Bottom Line:
In just these five tracks
Shaun gives us great new music
Christmas spirit filled

Good Things Come in Small Presents with Shaun Groves’s First Christmas Project

Earlier this year, I caught wind that Shaun Groves was using Kickstarter to find a Christmas project.  Since I love his music, I jumped at a chance to be involved, essentially pre-ordering the music.  Because he was working on a budget, Christmas, Volume 1 is only five songs.  But it is priced accordingly, and with tracks like this, it is more than worth it.

There are only two traditional carols on the disc, and the first one even then isn’t super traditional.  The disc opens with “Joy to the World (All Creatures)” which is a combination of “Joy to the World” and the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King.”  Since that second one isn’t a Christmas song, I wouldn’t have necessarily thought to combine them, but it absolutely works.  He’s even mixed a little of the “Hallelujah Chorus” in there.  The song is an appropriately upbeat way to start the song, and it will have you tapping your toe as you sing along.  And choir behind him is a wonderful touch, and you’ll be focused on God in praise before it is over.

The other traditional song closes out the disc.  “O Holy Night” is appropriately slow, and it’s a simple arrangement, the focus being on Shaun and the piano.  Honestly, this is probably the weakest track on the disc since there isn’t much to set it apart from the other versions we have.  It’s not bad, but it’s not that special or exciting.

That leaves us with the three new tracks in the middle.  Well, actually die hard fans will already have “God of Us” since it was part of Shaun’s second disc, Twilight.  Honestly, I’m glad to have it on this disc since I’ve always tried to include it in my Christmas music anyway.  While the song is still slow, it’s definitely a faster version than the original but it’s still simple with just Shaun, a guitar, and some simper percussion for most of the song.  Shaun’s tweaked it a bit here and there, but the lyrics are the same, which is wonderful.  If you were a fan of the original, you’ll like this one, too.

As you’d expect, “Gloria” is a song of praise for the wonder of the babe in the manger who has reached into our lives and our world to meet us where we are.  The choir is back as the song builds after the first chorus, and the bells are a nice touch as the song builds, too.

“Better Days” brings the hope of Jesus becoming man to our modern world as we hope and pray for better days because of the love and forgiveness we can get from God.  I feel like of all the tracks on this disc, this is the most classically Shaun.  It’s fun upbeat soft rock that would fit in on any of his previous releases.  Not that his fans won’t recognize his style on the others, but this just feels the most like his stuff.

With only these five tracks, this is a short disc at just 20 minutes, but it is completely worth buying because these songs are so much good.  I’ll be working this into my Christmas rotation each year, and I bet you will do the same.  I just hope Shaun makes good on the promise of the title and this really is Christmas, Volume 1.

CD Length: 20:00
1. Joy to the World (All Creatures)
2. Gloria
3. Better Days
4. God of Us
5. O Holy Night

Saturday, December 20, 2014

December 20th's Weekly TV Thoughts

TV is winding down for the year for me.  In fact, looks like I won't be making this post for the next two weeks.  Nothing I watch is going to be new.  Considering I have some Christmas movies and specials to watch over the next few days and some other things also on the DVR, that's probably a good thing.  Plus one roommate and I are planning on an I Love Lucy marathon.  We'll see if that actually happens.

Anyway, here's what I did watch this week.

Once Upon a Time – I’m glad they showed us a happy ending for the Frozen gang, but I’m also glad that part of the season is behind us.  It just didn’t mess into the overall story of the show very well.  This episode was great, and I’m anxious to see how they pick up from here in the future.  As always, you can read my full recap here.

The Sing-Off – Why did we only get one show this season instead of the usual two or three week event?  I wanted more!  Having said that, I’m glad a college group finally won since I’m always rooting for them.  These guys certainly seemed super talented, too.

Survivor – I know I’ve been railing against Natalie all season just because the “twinnies” were so annoying on The Amazing Race.  But I’ve got to hand it to her, she deserved to win because she made several big moves.  Plus she wasn’t that annoying without her sister around.  I think that really helped her out in my eyes.

White Collar – I knew Neal wasn’t dead.  It was more elaborate than I expected, but they would never end the series that way.  I was always rooting for Neal to turn into a good guy and leave his conman life completely behind him, but I figured we’d never get that ending.  As a result, I’m okay with what we got.  And it was certainly better than some of my fears from the teases the stars have been giving for months.

Covert Affairs – They rush some things, drag others out too long.  I mean, Annie’s known this guy for how long?  They’ve actually been dating for even less time.  And yet they are talking about marriage?  Sorry, but I just don’t buy it, and that’s not because I’m a diehard Annie/Auggie shipper, either.  A little surprised the prostitute isn’t dead, but that storyline still went exactly where I thought it would go.  All in all, we’re back to the less than stellar seasons of the show.  If it ended now, I wouldn’t be too upset, although I would probably come back for more if it got renewed.

The Amazing Race – Well, I was disappointed that Adam and Bethany didn’t win.  Sounds like he might have been better on that final challenge.  Still, if they couldn’t win, I’m glad the scientists won.  And to think, they came in last on the last leg.  That’s got to be killing the wrestlers, especially the female.  It seemed no one had to go out again and they remembered all the numbers.  I was surprised it didn’t take people who didn’t remember the proper order longer than it looked like it took them to finish up that task.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Movie Review: Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Fun characters; story good once it gets going
Cons: Very slow start; new songs are bad
The Bottom Line:
Christmas characters
In made for TV sequel
That could be better

Classic Characters in a Not So Classic Story

I’d heard for years about the made for TV movie Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July, but I’d never gone out of my way to watch it.  Since I do like the original specials with these two characters, I decided it was time to change that.  It wasn’t bad, but I think once every forty years is quite adequate.

The story opens in June at the North Pole where Rudolph (voiced by Billie Mae Richards) and Frosty (Jackie Vernon) as well as Frosty’s family, wife Crystal (Shelley Winters) introduced in Frosty’s Winter Wonderland and their two kids, are enjoying a balmy summer day (10 below).  However, what they don’t know is that the ancient master of the North Pole, Winterbolt (Paul Frees), has just awakened from a cursed sleep he’s been in and is determined to retake the land.

He sees his chance when Rudolph and Frosty’s friend Milton the ice cream man (Red Buttons) stops by to pick up more of his merchandise.  He tells the tale of his friend who works for a circus that is about to go bankrupt.  Maybe Rudolph and Frosty appearing will draw in the crowds needed to save it.  Will the plan work?  And how does that fall into Winterbolts’s plans to take over the North Pole?

This movie is stop motion animation, and it is actually quite interesting seeing the hand drawn Frosty become stop motion.  Even a couple of the scenes from his specials are recreated briefly in this new media.  I’m not the biggest stop motion animation fan, and this isn’t going to change any minds.  It’s okay, but nothing else.

The story starts pretty slowly, actually, giving us back story on characters we don’t much care about yet.  We need the background, but surely it could have been worked in better later into the story.

Likewise, the songs slow things down.  Yes, we get the classic songs with these characters, which are fun.  However, the rest of the songs do nothing for the story.  Fortunately, there aren’t too many of them.  Since this is a two hour (minus commercials) special, it’s something that could easily have been cut to lower the running time.

And yet, as the movie kept going, I found myself drawn into the story and wanting to know how exactly our heroes would prevail.  It helped that the pacing picked up as the store progressed even if the overall cheese remained.  It wasn’t enough to make this into an annual tradition, but it was enough to make me glad I watched it once.

The voice cast is back to voice the parts they’d done in past specials.  Whether well-known or not, they all do a great job as do new comers who take on new characters here.

Maybe I’d feel differently about this if I’d watched it as a kid.  I know nostalgia helps with some of the other specials I love to watch each year at Christmas.  But since this special doesn’t have that on its side, I won’t go out of my way to watch Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July again.  It’s not bad, but it’s just not that great either.

December 19th's Book Beginnings and Friday 56

Less than a week until Christmas.  Are you ready?  I'm working on wrapping presents myself.  But I'm taking a break for this week's Book Beginnings and Friday 56.

This week, I'm working on Everblaze, the third in the Keeper of the Lost Cities middle grade fantasy series by Shannon Messenger.

I know, breaking out of the cozies I've been reading almost two months.  It's nice to be reading something different for a change.  I love my cozies, but I need a break over so often, and this series is always fun that way.

It gets off to a great start, too, with a great first line:

"What are you waiting for?" Keefe shouted over the howling wind and the roaring sea.  "Don't tell me the great Sophie Foster is afraid."

Page 56 finds the same two characters and this line from Keefe:

Keefe groaned as he sat up, rubbing his left shoulder.  "I think we need to work on your landings, Foster."

Keefe is always good for a quote, obviously.

Since I won't see you before, have a Merry Christmas.  And in case I don't get away from time with family to play next week (which is a very real possibility), Happy New Year as well.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book Review: The Nightingale Before Christmas by Donna Andrews (Meg Langslow #18)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Josh and Jamie, other fun characters and fun mystery
Cons: One thread from previous book only brought up in passing
The Bottom Line:
Decorating home
With an unexpected corpse
Complicates Christmas

All Through the Show House, a Murderer was Stirring

This year, I set out to read four Christmas themed mysteries in December.  The Nightingale Before Christmas wound up being the last on the list, and it was a great one to end with.  As always with this series, there was lots of fun to be had on our way to solving a murder.

If you’ve missed the Meg Langslow series, you are really missing out.  Meg and her extended family star in this humorous series that finds her involved in all kinds of wacky groups.  Often, her organizational skills have put her in charge of these groups.  And she just can’t help snooping for clues when a dead body or two show up along the way.

Once again, Meg has found herself roped into a project at Christmas time.  This year, she’s coordinating a decorator show house that will help raise money via ticket sales for local charities once it opens on Christmas Eve.  Also, it will hopefully help the decorators get new clients.  Each decorator is responsible for a room or two, so the styles are as different as their various personalities.

As you might expect, that many strong personalities in one house is cause for conflict.  However, the worst offender is Clay Spottiswood, a man who seems to go out of his way to set others back in their efforts to finish their rooms by the deadline.  Going back late to lock up one night, Meg finds the man shot to death in the master bedroom he was decorating.  Is one of the decorators a murderer?  Or has something from Clay’s past caused him to be murdered?

Now I will admit that the show house is not the strongest Christmas element I’ve seen.  Honestly, this set up could have been done in any other season.  The decorators are adding Christmas touches to their rooms, but that’s about all as far as the main plot goes.  However, there are several scenes set around traditions we know about from the previous Christmas books in the series as well as Meg and her plans for the holiday.  Trust me, you’ll definitely get in the Christmas spirit while reading this book.

In fact, one of my favorite sub-plots, involved Meg’s twins, Josh and Jamie, trying to figure out what to get their mother for Christmas.  Their suggestions are pretty funny.  Frankly, they stole every scene they were in and made me laugh out loud on a few occasions.  It might help that my own niece is the same age, so I could recognize the behavior.  Still, they are an absolute delight.

Not that the other characters weren’t up to their usual standards.  I always enjoy getting to spend time with the regulars, and they were delightful as always here.  My only disappointment in the character department involved a thread from the previous book in the series I hoped to see followed up on here.  It was mentioned in passing, so hopefully we’ll get my wish with the next book.  The cast of decorators (aka the suspects) were fairly good.  I had a hard time keeping a few of them straight, but we quickly got a reminder of who was whom when they walked on stage, so it never hampered my enjoyment of the story at all. 

Speaking of the story, I was sure I had the entire thing figured out with 100 pages to go.  I was wrong.  I’m not going to say any more on that subject so I don’t give anything else away.  The pacing was perfect with clues and events happening on a steady basis.  I’m not in to decorating at all.  (What can I say, I’m a guy.)  However, we never got so lost in that world that I was bored.

Even if you read this book during the rest of the year, you’ll find yourself enjoying The Nightingale Before Christmas.  This is a delightful mystery anyone looking for a fun book will enjoy.

And if you want to catch Meg's earlier adventures, here are the Meg Langslow Mysteries in order.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ornament Review: Fire Station - Noelville #9 - 2014 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Lots of parts that light up, some fun touches
Cons: Could use more decorations overall
The Bottom Line:
This fire station
Is pretty when lit but could
Use some more color

Putting Out that Roasting Gingerbread

When coming up with ideas for the ornaments in a town, I don’t know that a Fire Station would have been one that would leap out to me as a logical one to do.  I’m not sure why, but it just wouldn’t be.  And yet that’s exactly where we go for this year’s Noelville ornament, and it’s a good choice.

The Fire Station is a two story square building.  The walls are brown, naturally, since Noelville is a gingerbread house town.  There’s an arch up above the second story with Noelville Fire Station written on it and a peppermint where you might expect a round window to be.  There’s a wreath in the middle of the second story with windows on the sides.  And on ground level, the door is open to see the fire truck with a gingerbread fireman and a small Dalmatian out front waving at us.  There are a couple of candy pine trees over to the other side, and plenty of hard candy creating the roof.

When I first saw the picture of this one, I was happy.  It looked nice with some good detail and the potential for lots of light shining through it.  However, reality hasn’t been quite as kind to this ornament.  When you really stop to look at it, you realize how plain brown it is.  Yes, there are windows on three of the sides and the front looks good, but overall, it looks brown.  It’s still not as detailed as the first few ornaments in the series were.  Don’t get me wrong, I like what is here.  It’s just not quite as great as it could have been.

As I hinted above, this ornament has a hole in the back, and you can stick a Christmas tree light in the back to make the windows of the ornament glow.  Actually, more than the windows glow – the roof, the trees, and the fire engine glow as well.  Sadly, the arch hides most of the roof’s glow.  That’s a minor complaint, however, since I love this series for the glowing the pieces do, and this one lights up pretty well.

Being a building, there’s a nice base under it, so you can set this out and create a town if you have the entire series.  Some year, I’m going to do this instead of putting my churches out.  Some year.  You’ll also find the 9 in a Christmas tree on the base indicating its place in the series.

For the time being, I’m hanging this ornament on my tree like I do with the rest of the series I display.  The hook is at the top of the ornament’s roof pretty much in the middle, so it’s no surprise that the ornament hangs straight side to side.  With the stuff out front, the ornament actually tips a little bit to the front, by with mind on the tree and attached to a light, I hadn’t hadn’t noticed at all.

The series is beginning to recapture the glory days of the first few ornaments, but it could still use a bit more detail and color to the pieces.  Even so, fans will be happy to add the Fire Station to their Noelville village.

Be sure to check out the rest of the Noelville series.

Original Price: $19.95

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

TV Show Review: Enlisted - The Complete Series

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Silly laughs and tender moments in one great show
Cons: Episodes aired out of order, low audience so already canceled
The Bottom Line:
Army comedy
Filled with laughs, tender moments
Deserved audience

"Be a Man.  Wave Like a Princess."

Every so often, I stumble across a little watched gem, and I just fall in love.  That was the case this last spring for me with Enlisted.  I started watching because of a couple of members in the cast, but I kept watching because I loved it.  Fox aired it on Friday nights, and the resulting ratings were poor, as expected.  But the laughs were rich.

The show focuses on the Rear D (that’s Rear Detachment) at Fort McGee, Florida.  These are the army soldiers who might not make it in the field (at least that’s the case in this show), but they are given jobs to help keep the base running smoothly.  Unfortunately, they are extremely undisciplined.

The show starts when Sergeant Pete Hill (Geoff Stults) is put in charge of one of these regiments.  He’s just returned from a stint in Afghanistan after almost being killed.  Honestly, he doesn’t think he deserves this post.  He’s just too good.  Adding to his problems is that he is now over both of his brothers.  Middle brother Derrick (Chris Lowell) is just lazy and doesn’t take anything seriously.  Meanwhile, youngest brother Randy (Parker Young) tries hard, but he’s just not that good at stuff.  And these are the best people in Pete’s new regiment.  Even worse, their rival regiment, led by the beautiful Jill Perez (Angelique Cabral) always beats them at any competition.  Overseeing both groups is Donald Coby (Keith David), a family friend who has taken all of the Hill brothers under his wings.

So what happens over the course of these thirteen episodes?  Pete has to break up with the girlfriend he had before he left for Afghanistan.  A break war between Pete and Jill’s platoons gets out of hand.  Meanwhile, Pete tries to whip his soldiers into shape when an Inspection is coming.  Derrick finds himself falling for the bartender at the gang’s favorite watering hole, which leads to a several episode sub-plots.

I haven’t gotten into the single camera comedy craze.  Most of the times, I feel the shows try too hard for laughs.  However, I found myself laughing at this one just after the pilot had started, and I kept right on laughing as the series unfolded.  Yes, one or two episodes weren’t as good, but the writing and characters were so sharp you couldn’t help but laugh.

But the show wasn’t just laughs.  They still managed to provide tender moments along the way that added depth to the characters.  Honestly, that just made the jokes stronger.  At times, the comedy could be pretty broad and silly, but these tender moments kept the laughs grounded.  And no, the more serious moments were never forced.  The writers managed to balance those tones perfectly.

While this is a single camera comedy, this isn’t one that has the characters talking to the camera.  The fourth wall is never once broken.  Frankly, I’m glad because this is something else that bugs me in most shows that try it since it rarely works well.

The acting is uniformly great.  The plots call for some pretty crazy things at times, but everyone pulls it off and makes the absurd seem plausible and believable.  Even more importantly, the acting makes the tender moments work.  The best writing in the world can fall apart with bad acting, but that’s not the case here at all.

One thing I heard leveled at the show from the pilot is how many mistakes they made with military life.  Personally, I don’t know anything about military life, so I never found them.  Still, I know some people were turned off by this.

What did bug me is something I think has more to do with Fox than anything else.  In the multiple episode sub-plot I mentioned earlier with Derrick and his girlfriend, the story seemed to jump around in their relationship.  I have a feeling the episodes were aired out of order.  It’s a shame because that is pretty much the only thing that required an order to the episodes at all.  If it weren’t for that sub-plot, I never would have known.  Even so, it really did bug me.

Fox has released this as a MOD (Manufacture on Demand) set.  As a result, we get all 13 episodes of the comedy, but no extras at all.  Honestly, for a show that was canceled after so few episodes, I’ll take anything they want to give us.

Enlisted was wacky and fun.  It never took itself too seriously, which allowed us to sit back and laugh along with it.  Yet when it wanted to slow down and be tender, it worked just as well.  If you missed this gem of a comedy, watch it today.

1. Pilot
2. Randy Get Your Gun
3. Pete’s Airstream
4. Homecoming
5. Rear D Day
6. Brothers and Sister
7. Parade Duty
8. Vets
9. Paint Cart 5000 vs. the Mondo Spider
10. Prank War
11. The General Inspection
12. Army Men
13. Alive Day