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What I've Been Watching: June 2020

I recently binged an unconventional series from amazon prime video called Hunters, and it was an odd delight. On the one hand, with a talent like Al Pacino, the series has respectability. But on the other, the series does bizarre things like breaking the narrative, and even the fourth wall to throw in a two-minute mock, antisemitic gameshow clip.

The premise: a teen, working in a comic book store, gets pulled into a dark, secretive world of vigilante Nazi-hunting after the untimely death of his grandmother. While that is fantastic, Hunters pits the Nazi-hunting team, not only against German Nazi defectors, living in hiding in the US, but a sophisticated, clandestine organization of Nazis trying to reestablish their former power.

Sometimes the show is over-the-top. Many of the characters are exaggerated stereotypes, and it has an air of catharsis to it as the Nazis are slain, and viewers get an "oh wouldn't it be nice" sort of feeling of justice. But for all its quirks, it does weave a tangled web of suspense as the Hunters uncover more villains, the Nazi organization uncover the Hunters, and an FBI agent uncovers both. Whether it's the fantastic suspense or the fantasy aspect of the storytelling, it's hard to take your eyes away.
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What I've Been Listening to: February 2020

I saw an article about a unique concept album from Harry Nilsson called The Point! which was turning 50 years old. It was released in 1970. I'd never heard of it, but its release preceded my arrival on the planet by more than ten years. Still, it sounded odd and interesting, so I found it on iTunes and gave it a listen or ten. I love it.

It's sort of a mini-musical with both songs and narration, telling a simple but poignant story about a boy who suffers prejudice. It's offbeat, calm, and dare I say soothing in execution. It gives you pause to think about behavior, and comes to a satisfying resolution of improvement in the society of the story. The album is also simply beautifully sung and spoken, and the music is easy on the ears. On top of all this, it's full of well thought out word-play. I'd also say it has stood the test of time very well and is easily relatable to the world today. (Maybe anti-prejudice never goes out of style.)

I was familiar with Harry Nilsson, if for no other reason than his singing the main song from Midnight Cowboy (1969), Everybody's Talkin'. However, I'd not heard of this work. I'm so glad I came across it. If you don't know The Point!, give it a listen!

PS I've also found that an animated version came out in 1971 and that Dustin Hoffman lent his voice as the narrator for the first broadcast, and Ringo Starr later narrated the video release. I'm going to have to get my hands on a copy.  Odd, Nilsson sings Everybody's Talkin' for Midnight Cowboy in '69, which starred Dustin Hoffman in his iconic Ratso role. Nilsson released The Point! album in '70, after which Hoffman narrates the animated version of The Point! in '71. I wonder if there is a story behind that? We may never know.

PPS It seems to me, The Point! is ripe for Broadway adaptation. 1. It is already full of great songs. 2. It could be staged with both Ringo and Dustin Hoffman filling roles. 3. Nilsson has a vast inventory of songs with which the soundtrack could be reinforced if needed. 4. It could be visually fascinating with all these pointed sets. 5. It would be poignant to explore the current climate of prejudice with a bit of an update. - Who do I call to get this plan in motion?
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What I've Been Watching: Dec 2019

I started watching the new Watchmen series on HBO when it debut, however the Netflix age of binging may have gotten to me because I found waiting a week for a new episode lent to distractions. Thus, after a couple of episodes, I slipped away and came back when the season finished. Then I watched it in a couple of evenings.

If you're at all familiar, you'll know that the series ties into the Watchmen movie from 2009, which in turn was based on a comic book series of the same name from 1986-87. Though the new series is a sequel, largely set several decades after the movie's time period, the series also frequently jumps into the past, to the very start of masked vigilantes and even before that. The new series also introduces mostly new characters, and while their lives and the world acknowledge the characters from the movie, they are distinct, and the flashbacks serve more to develop the current characters than anything else.

I found the original movie, which was my first experience with the Watchmen universe, to be a compelling look at a more human and faulted version of superheroes. Not your Superman, or Batman, but truly multifaceted people. I love that. The villains aren't evil strawmen. The heroes aren't angelic. They're all just people, flawed, sometimes selfish, sometimes generous, and often egotistical as would be natural from having exceptional powers... people.

The series does an excellent job of keeping that theme alive while introducing and developing new, distinct, fascinating characters, taking them and us viewers on exciting and action-filled stories, and still ties it all into the source material. The story draws from the original, feeds into the original through flashbacks, and adds layers to it as well.

This is way more than just a sequel series. It doesn't just continue the story; it builds to new heights on it's back.  I imagine that was the goal going in, and I say they nailed it, plus the acting is fantastic.

Do yourself a favor, go back and watch the 2009 movie, then dig in on the 2019 series. Otherwise, who's watching the Watchmen?
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What I've been Reading: Aug 2019

Someone recently compared my writing to that of David Mitchell. It's always flattering to be classified with a mainstream and successful author. However, I was only familiar with Mitchell to the extent of the movie adaptation of his novel, Cloud Atlas. Thus I decided to start there to acquaint myself better. It was a good choice.

Cloud Atlas interweaves six storylines, each from a different period spanning a few hundred years in the past to a few hundred years into the future. Each storyline bares intriguing characters and mounting conflict, but the intensity is only heightened by the books jumping from story to story. Just when you're getting to a climax, you jump away, only to get your appetite up for the next storyline, only to be pulled away again. Literary edging at it's finest.

On its face, the book's plot and characters are fantastic. No two storylines or characters are too similar, and they're all compelling. But what is perhaps the most exciting about the book is its consistent themes and overarching message. Criticism of slavery, or in more general terms human exploitation, run throughout the book. Michell also endeavors to remind us of our interconnectedness with others. This is never more prominent than in the connections tieing one storyline to the next, even across the expanse of time.

I loved this book, and if you love seeing people who abuse their power toppled by the oppressed, then you might like it as much as I did.
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What I've been Watching: Aug 2019

I saw the movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas back when it was in theaters. I found parts interesting but wasn't totally impressed. After reading the book recently, I decided to give the movie another look. It was worth it.

I'm not sure if I simply missed a few important details which undermined my first viewing. I consider myself an attentive viewer, but I actually watched Cloud Atlas the first time at the wonderful Bear Tooth Theaterpub in Anchorage, Alaska. At the Bear Tooth, you get to enjoy gourmet pizza, local brews, and other fare while watching your movie. I loved the food there, but I have some qualms with movie theaters that serve restraunt-like food. I find the food service is often a distraction. It's not bad for a high octane action movie, but for any sort of thinking piece, I find it a huge pitfall. Thus, perhaps my lackluster feelings for Cloud Atlas the first time were rooted in the venue.

Alternatively, it is also possible that the layers of Cloud Atlas, of which there are many, only become apparent upon repeat viewings. It's a complicated movie which jumps from storyline to storyline every few minutes.

Whichever the case, on my recent second viewing, I found the movie far better, more engaging, and profound. I recently read the novel, which I praised in my book review for its overall themes criticizing human exploitation, and praising human connections. The first time I watched the film, I definitely missed these elements. The film inevitably had to compact the stories of the book, but it retains the consequences and more importantly, the point of the story. Plus what the film loses in quantity, it makes up for in the power of cinema. Unlike the book, the film can overlap stories. Rather than just jump between them, we can hear a character speaking from one timeline, while we start to see the action of another, further cementing the connection across time.

The movie also cuts between the storyline more frequently and freely, thus bringing parallel crescendos to a climax simultaniously. The Wachowski siblings, directors on this film, are masters of their medium and they use what is unique to the cinema to accentuate rather than simply to bring a book to the screen. If one wants to make a case for movie adaptations or to see a good example of how to do it, look no further than Cloud Atlas.

If you've never seen it, I recommend giving a watch. If you have, I recommend giving it a watch again.
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What I've Been Listening to: Aug 2019

I'd heard Lizzo interviewed on NPR a few months ago. Issues of gender, body image, and self confidence where all topics of her discussion. She is a larger woman who both figuratively and literally bares all on her recent album. All of this was interesting, but my attention wasn't thoroughly captured until I attended a wedding recently. Her music showed up on the rental car radio, in the club during a pre-wedding party, and even on the dance floor at the reception. She's a unique person with equally unique music, and I'm impressed.

The music starts with toe-tapping beats but where it stands apart is in Lizzo's willingness to push the limits of convention, which she does in three ways. First, in subject matter, the meaning in her lyrics are bold, critical of social norms, and unapologetic.

Second, she pushed the boundaries of what lyrics will fit in the song. Most of the time, singers strive to stay on beat with their music, but sometimes singers have too much to say to be limited this way. My all-time favorite band, Steely Dan operated this way. If there were too many words for a particular line of music, but they were profound, well they went ahead and jammed them in. Lizzo operates this way, and I love it. It grabs the listeners attention. When you hear her trample over her own beat, you have to ask what happened and pay closer attention to what she has to say.

Finally, Lizzo pushes the limits of her own voice. Now I'm sure she has a lovely singing voice when that is her aim, but on what I've heard of her music she often goes higher and lower than her range, cracking and losing pitch along the way. She holds notes she can't sustain and just keeps going. It gives power to her music, as if to say, yes this could be all fine and polished without so much as a blemish in the vocal execution, but it's too powerful and too relevant to worry about all that.

Lizzo won't be contained or held back by convention.
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What I've Been Listening to: July 2019

A friend tried to get me to listen to the Mountains Goats about a dozen years ago. For whatever reason, they didn't grab me, and I probably forgot all about them until recently. I saw a clip of Stephen Colbert jumping on stage and singing with the band on facebook, and gave it a listen. I liked it, so I pulled them up on iTunes, and I have to say I was immediately captivated.

Musically, they're pretty good, but the themes and lyrics are origianl, sometimes off-the-wall, often socially critical, and frequently sardonic. In this aspect, the Mountain Goats remind me of my favorite band, Steely Dan. A few of their songs took me back to when my friend tried to get me to listen, and I wish I had.

Their sound is more folksy, which has not historically been my favorite. My guess is that I wasn't hearing the lyrics well enough and snap judged their sound as not up my alley, but that was a mistake. I say, go give them a listen, listen close, and then listen over it again.
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What I've Been Watching: May 2019

I found the first season of True Detective compelling, surprising, well cast, and deliciously gritty, but like many, when the second season came out a year later, it failed to capture my interest or live up to its predecessor, in spite of boasting an intriguing and veteran cast itself. For those who aren't familiar, each season of the show functions as a mystery mini-series with a new case and independent characters. Then, after over three years, the third season premiered in January of this year and starred the ever-engaging Mahershala Ali. It piqued my interest, but with the dig of season two, I didn't race to my TV to get started…I should have.

Season three begins with the disappearance of two children in a small Louisiana town, and we're quickly introduced to Detective Wayne Haze (Ali) and his partner Roland West portrayed by Stephen Dorff, who I'd always considered more of a B actor and wasn't even aware was cast in the series until I started watching. Ali is excellent from the start as a solemn, tortured soul, but a dedicated detective who puts his whole self into his work, particularly this case. What surprised me early, however, is that Dorff matches Ali's chops beat for beat even though he plays more of a supporting role and we don't follow him nearly as much off the job as we do Ali's character. Whenever Dorff is on screen, the two detectives' chemistry and partner loyalty are evident along with palpable strife that feels akin to the bickering if a married couple which comes off as wholly believable.

Dorff wasn't the only surprising stand out of that cast. Carmen Ejogo, who plays Detective Haze's wife, Amelia Reardon provides a counterpart with whom Haze brings his work emotions home to, causing inevitable relationship pressures. But Ejogo and her character go a step further, as she is an author, who is separately endeavoring to write a book about the same missing children case. The character proves to be a shrewd investigator herself, and thus not only do Haze and Reardon butt heads in their home life, but they also step on one another's toes in their respective investigations as well.

Finally, and perhaps the most fascinating layer of complexity which season three brings to the table is jumping in time through the life of Detective Haze at three points in his life, all tied to the same investigation. We see him as a young detective when he first caught the case, about ten years later when the case resurfaces and he gets involved again, though he is a family man by then, and finally, another twenty-five years later, when he is retired, and the case rears its ugly head once more. I don't want to spoil a great deal. The show creates moments of mystery in Haze's life by showing how one timeline leads to what we see in another. One aspect worth sharing is that the oldest version of Haze, in his seventies, is suffering from significant memory issues, as many aging people do but more severely than average, and thus his best chance for finally laying all the aspects of the case to rest, comes to him only when his mind is at its weakest.

Suffice it to say, I loved this season of the show. It's compelling, at times gut-wrenching, and totally worth the watch.

Furthermore, I said that I started and never finished the second season of the series, however as I looked up some actor names and such on IMDB, I noticed that the episodes of season one of True Detective all carry around a 9.0-star rating out of 10, which is fantastic. The season three episodes carry about an 8.5, which is still great and comes as no surprise, but season two actually has a better than 8.0 rating across all the episodes, which is surprising.  Thus,  I tempted to give it another chance. Maybe it picked up interest a few episodes in, and perhaps I let some early negative reviews in the press affect my opinion a bit too much. Who knows? Maybe I'll write about it in

Final thought: Besides murder, there's another element that appears in all three seasons, ethyl alcohol. If you didn't already suspect as much, all the seasons of True Detective drive home one consistent notion, murder detectives are booze hounds, big time. Now, don't you forget it.
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What I've Been Listening to: March 2019

Around the time I finished college, I became aware of and subsequently a fan of Andrew Bird. I even saw him perform at eh Englert in Iowa City, in 2007. But for some reason, I stopped following him a year or so after that. Then, earlier this month, without any provocation I'm aware of, Andrew Brid came to mind. Thus, I pulled him up on my unlimited iTunes and set to rediscover him. It has been delightful. It's also made me think about art and performance in general.

For me, Bird's older stuff seemed experimental. It showed tremendous command and musical proficiency, originality, as well as being downright obscure. No one else I was aware of was using violins and whistling consistently in their music. Pretty cool for a just-out-of-school, would-be writer.  But, Bird's newer offerings, at least what I've managed to hear so far, seem to have given up some of the experimental and obscure factors in favor of more traditional lyricism and what I'll call flowability, as in ease of listening even though there's still whistling aplenty.

Now I could see where one might survey the two and come to an opinion that Bird has leaned more mainstream, and perhaps see that as a criticism. "I liked his older stuff," nay-sayers, if-you-will. To which I would praise the heart and emotion which seems to have developed in course.  And thus we come to a more general thought on art and performance.

Technical proficiency and a willingness to draw in new elements have merit, and certainly, have a place in art, but can those alone sustain an artist? And my thinking is that, no, they can't. Imagine, if you will, a painter who can paint such lifelike portraits that one couldn't tell the difference between their painting and a photograph. One one hand you could say that the artist was a master or the medium, but one could also argue the artist wasn't providing anything which a photograph can't: no emotion, no opinion, no feeling outside of what we get from the photo. Seeing such an artist would be a neat parlor trick, but I don't think it sustains much artistic praise.

Separately, let's consider a musician who plays the rims of glasses of water, stroking their finger around the glass to produce notes. This instrument would be obscure, maybe experimental, and it would be a cool trick to see them play Beethoven or Mozart on the glasses, but I'll go out on a limb and assume no glass-rim musicians have ever cracked the top 40 with their latest track. Listeners would prefer here someone bring a new feeling or at least pour their emotions into a piece than to hear it played in an obscure way for the sake of obscurity.

So, back to Bird. Yes, he's left some experimental sounds and glorious proficiency behind, but he's gained so much more, a real voice, an authentic style. Perhaps all that experimenting paid off in developing this mature style. The result may be more mainstream, but I find Bird as enjoyable to listen as ever.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening to: Jan. 2019

Reading:

Earlier this month I sat down and read Lovecraft's Herbert West - Reanimator stories. I'm working on a new story which has some similar themes, and I wanted to be sure I wasn't inadvertently overlapping with characters or plot. I'd seen the movie years ago but never read the original literature.

In short, I loved it. It was dark, mysterious and thought-provoking. I enjoyed the almost Dracula-esque point of view in the how Lovecraft told the story, which offers more of a second-hand accounting of the plot by the Herbert West's (the main character's) associate and frequent assistant in his work. The style made West's motives as mysterious as his actions. While that might have proven a shortfall for a full novel, in the short format, it added a compelling layer.

I also rather liked the cliffhangers and omitted plot points that came inherently through the short series format of the pros. Rather than one novella, the story was originally published as six novelettes. Between each, there is a lapse of time, sometimes it's short, other times its years. Again,  I don't think this would have worked well in a novel, or a more directly narrated story, but coming from West's peer, it is believable that he might only address the story when something new and noteworthy has arisen.

Finally, I found the literature much more serious than the movie. Now, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie way back when. I loved Jeffrey Combs' performance and the interpretation of the re-animated creations, which were a little off-the-wall. However, in Lovecraft's original, the character is presented more seriously, and we see very little to nothing of the creatures he created. Instead, we see mostly the damage they have done and hearsay of the horrors. Altogether it is much more mysterious and again makes me think of Dracula. This is a wonderful difference between the movie and literature, as it gives both pretty unique reasons to be liked.

I have to admit that this was my first Lovecraft read (don't tell the Horror Writers Association), but I am likely to return to his ample body of eerie works.

Watching:

After over a year of trying to catch it, I finally watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. I was not disappointed.

While it was a great, gut-wrenching movie, I think what I liked best about it was how many totally unforeseen elements and dynamics there was to the film. In fact, the movie probably spent as much time examining them as it did advancing any sort of plot. One example, which is a bit of a spoiler but one revealed in the first 10 to 20 minutes, is that while the main character (Frances McDormand) is putting heat on the town Sheriff (Woody Harrelson) to solve her daughter's murder, we find the Sheriff is dying from cancer.

Another is just the presence of Peter Dinklage's character as the town midget (the movie's words) who interacts with the main character, with her ex-husband, with the Barney-Fife-esque deputy (Sam Rockwell) all with profound character implications on both sides of the dynamics, and all without any particular consequence on where the story advances too.

This movie was almost a clinic on character development and diversity, and delightful refreshing as such.

Listening to:

When I'm really hitting my stride on the first draft of a new story, I have a few go-to artists or playlists which I believe to be perfect, creativity-propelling background music, and that is what I've found myself listening to this month, mostly to Frank Zappa.

Now let me explain a bit. The ideal music for jamming to while writing, for me, should move a bit but not too fast, get your head bobbing when you pay attention to it, but not demand attention. It has to be somewhat genre fitting, so eerie when one is writing horror, etc. However, most of all it has to be un-intrusive. One time I tried getting some writing done while listening to Rage Against the Machine and found my heart and body getting so pumped I was hitting the keys on my keyboard like I was going to poke them through the plastic if I could even keep my attention on what I was doing at all. On the other end of the spectrum, I wouldn't want something so chill, it might put me to sleep.

So now you might be thinking, Zappa?  Not exactly synonymous with "un-intrusive." That's true, and while I like to give an occasional listen to Zappa's definitive tracks, the album I have on standby for writing sessions is Shut Up and Play Your Guitar. It moves, but not with hard rock. It doesn't have any complex or outrageous Zappa lyrics to unpack and pull your attention, and yet, if you come to the end of a though and your attention does drift to the music, there will undoubtedly be an impressive guitar riff, showing off a superior artist's proficiency, basically every moment of each song. Give it a try.
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The Seed of a Story


It’s a none-to-uncommon question for authors, “where did you get the idea for your book?” But it’s not always an easy question to answer. I wonder if we can do a little better?
For me, I have many ideas swimming around in my head. Sometimes it’s a character, but I’m not sure where I’ll use them. Other times it’s a setting, a plot twist, or just a moment of intensity all without corresponding context. Once in a while, with a little luck, a bunch of these ideas come together and form something bigger, a foundation. Who’s to say which of that cluster was first, or even where it came from?
With my recently released novel, “Until the Sun Rises – One Night in Drake Mansion,” I similarly can’t put my figure on any single element as having spawned the rest of my tangled web. However, I can recall the very first scene from the story I began developing.
The majority of the novel is set in the present, but a portion takes place in the past. The first past section involves a mysterious, secret, and very thematically dark magic show which adds to the mystery set in the present with a parallel mystery to unfold in the past. Essentially, it’s a tangential story line, a secondary mystery that draws the reader to learn about certain characters pertaining to the primary mystery and plot. It adds character depth, intrigue, and plot layers. Of course the two plotlines intersect explosively, but it’s interesting in retrospect for the secondary plotline to have been the genesis of the main story, converse to what one might expect.
This magic show moment and its characters were first. From there, I created scenes to give readers background on the characters, to get you acquainted. Next, I developed plot that puts the characters into that moment. After that, I developed additional scenes to give that moment direct consequence, and more to show readers what those characters do after that moment, how it impacted them.  With this thread woven, I stepped back and asked, “how can I make this even deeper, even more consequential, intriguing, captivating?” The answer came with adding what eventually became the primary plotline, which underwent it’s own similar development.
Returning to the question, “where did you get the idea?” It feels like I just had that first moment in my head. Did I see a weird magic show that made it dawn on me? Not that I recall? Did I base the characters on something I saw, read, or heard? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe I invented the scene and the character specifically because I’d never seen anything like that scene before. The rest was created to give others a chance to find it as interesting as I did.
Perhaps in the future I’ll read an article and it will directly inspire a new story. Certainly that occurs with non-fiction, and I can imagine the same for fiction - where a real life story inspires a similar, but even more intriguing scenario. That just hasn’t been my experience. In the mean time, perhaps a better go-to question for authors is, “what part of your story did you explore first?” This might cut to the desired incite into the creative process even faster.
Authors, what part of your story did you explore first?
Originally Posted at the "Omni Mystery Blog,"  June, 2015.
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Repetition of Story (It's Christmas)


Christmas is nearly here and with all of it’s activities, I find it also a unique time to analyze the repeating, or perhaps recycling of stories.  Of course story ideas are recycled all the time not just at Christmas, however as a lover or originality I find myself more forgiving this time of year, and I must wonder why.
Simply take a look at TV programing schedules around the holiday and you’ll see what I mean. Be it reshowing of holiday classics, like A Christmas Story (1983) being shown for 24 hours straight; remaking holiday classics, like A Christmas Carol every few years; or recycling a narrow field of storylines into new, slightly parodied, stories, like your standard made-for-TV Hallmark holiday movie, everywhere you look you stand to see the repletion of a story.
One could argue that most stories released, be they movie, book, or other, are derivative of earlier stories in some way, but to me, at Christmas time it is far more prevalent, and far more transparent than the rest of the year.
Christmas is a time when those of us who observe the holiday tend towards that which is familiar. We like to see the same plays, the same ballet, and yes the same movies as we have for years, decades even. Perhaps it is our desire to relive our childhood, to relive and recreate memorable moments from our lives that makes us, or at least me, particularly receptive to the rehashing of a familiar story.
It’s also a time when we’re short on time. After the presents are opened and when we have an hour to kill before heading off to Grandma’s, we flip on the TV, and there we find that oh-so-familiar story. Maybe we missed the first half hour, and maybe we’ll have to leave before it’s over, but that won’t matter. We know the story so well; we’ll enjoy it just the same.
While they’re arguably not high cinema, I must admit to taking in a holiday-esque, overindulgent sized portion of them. They’re perfect for throwing on while engaging in other Christmas perpetrations – baking cookies, decorating the tree, wrapping presents, addressing holiday cards, or if you’re like me and my family, assembling our Lego holiday village for prominent display.  
When it comes to story, they’re typically very simple. That’s what makes them perfect for uniting with other activities. They set the mood, but if you have to walk out of the room a dozen times, you still never fall behind in the story. I personally praise originality to a fault, and strive for originality in every nook of my own work but this observation comes without an ounce of criticism, that is honestly and truly why I like them.
It may be true that the storylines lack on variety. In my estimation, holiday films generally fall into about five basic storylines. With the most popular being the main character has lost the Christmas spirit due to prioritizing their high-power career, sales at a store, or simply making money, over family, friends, and Christmas, (e.g. A Christmas Carol) only to have a twist of fate, and often a new romance restore their priorities and their Christmas spirit. Also popular is the main character’s loss of a loved one having soured their Christmas spirit, but through a twist of fate and yes, a new romance, their Christmas spirit is revived. (Note, I’ll admit that the more basically you describe a story, naturally, the easier it is to group a wider range of stories together.)
Our familiarity as viewers with the core storyline is in fact what allows us to so easily digest the stories, even when only casually paying attention, which I mentioned before is paramount to the enjoyment.
Is it fine cinema? No. But tree shaped sugar cookies aren’t fine cuisine and I’m still going to eat a few dozen before the New Year. So to shall I indulge in recycled Christmas tales, and worry about my mental-waistline in January.
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