Christmas movies Tag

Review: Elf

Elf (2003)

You’re going to need to bear with me here because I will get around to recommending that you watch Elf. But I first need to point out that it’s just not a very good movie.

 

The story is contrived and soulless, the casting—with one very obvious exception—is tone deaf, it’s badly shot, and the practical effects are so unconvincing that they would have been better off going with early-‘00s CGI instead.

 

Every character except Will Ferrell’s is one-dimensional and pretty much interchangeable. Any irascible middle-aged actor could have played the James Caan role, Mary Steenburgen is just there to be stereotypically empathetic, the kid that plays their son is just unpleasant, and a very anemic and kind of homely (before she went full Kabuki and became an “It” girl) 

Zooey Deschanel is just there to admire Ferrell—Nicoletta Braschi’s thankless job vis-à-vis Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful, although not quite that bad.

 

Everything about this film feels half-baked, like a Tim Burton movie. The ending is a completely botched deus ex machina, with every kind of contrivance thrown at the audience, all but forgetting about Buddy, ladling on a ton of fake drama because the filmmakers hadn’t been able to generate any real drama before then—the kind of thing that happens when the so-called creatives only have other movies to draw on for tactical support because they don’t have any bearings in real life.

 

It might seem misguided to beat up on a 17-year-old film, but I’m trying to make a point about why we watch Elf, and should watch Elf.

ELF AT A GLANCE

Elf isn’t so much a fully fledged movie as it is a 90-minute one-man show—but Will Ferrell’s performance is so brilliant that it’s worth making some time for over the holidays.

 

PICTURE     

Aside from some creepy crawlers whenever there’s a blown-out white patch, the movie looks surprisingly good in HD on Kaleidescape.

 

SOUND     

An unexceptional mix—but at least it never gets in the way of Ferrell’s schtick.

This movie has become a tradition because it’s great holiday wallpaper, meant to be played in the background during Yuletide celebrations, but liberally sprinkled with “O wait!” moments that momentarily draw your attention back to the screen—like “O wait! This is the scene where he eats the Pop Tarts with the spaghetti,” and “O wait! Here’s that thing where he gets attacked by the midget.” In other words, A Christmas Story, except made with some intelligence and a modicum of taste.

 

In retrospect, it’s obvious that Elf anticipated and helped create the current age of maximum repetition and redundancy where the last thing we want from a movie or a series is to be shown anything challenging or new. It’s meant to be big, warm, and fuzzy like a well-worn security blanket, something utterly predictable and familiar you can wrap yourself in so you don’t have to feel anything, except coddled.

 

What would seem to be the movie’s greatest vice is actually its saving virtue. Elf is ultimately nothing but a Will Ferrell vehicle—he doesn’t just carry the film, he is the film. And that’s not a bad thing but a great thing—a cause for celebration—because 

he’s able to pull it off, and in spades, turning an otherwise by-the-book studio hack job into a virtuoso one-man show.

 

Ferrell has Peter Sellers’ ability to make cartoonish, completely impossible, characters feel more real than than the more realistic characters around him. And his investment in Buddy is so complete that he’s able to rise above the incredibly tepid and inept script (which apparently everybody but the gaffers worked on) and energize enough scenes to make it worth tolerating all the many areas where the movie sags.

 

I know that’s a really back-handed recommendation, but it’s a very sincere one. It’s definitely worth anyone’s time to watch Elf and just hone in on and savor and sit in amazement of what Ferrell is able to bring forth. He makes Buddy so completely embody Christmas that Santa, the elves, the North Pole, and all the other traditional trappings seem not just threadbare but unnecessary.

 

Elf looks surprisingly good viewed in HD on Kaleidescape. I can’t see any point in rushing this movie into a 4K HDR upgrade—it would likely just make it look even more poorly executed than it already does. The only real flaw in HD is the crawling corpuscles that appear whenever there’s a bright white patch, like the 

Elf (2003)

blownout sunlight seen through the doors at Gimbels or the lighting under the kitchen cabinets in Caan’s apartment.

 

The soundtrack is nothing special, just serviceable, but you can hear all the lines so I’ve got to give it credit for that. The extras? (of which there are many). Let’s not go there.

 

Nothing I’ve said here is going to make even the slightest dent in Elf’s reputation as a latter-day Christmas classic. But hopefully I can jog the perception of it just enough that it seems less like an obligation, like fruitcake, sweaters, and socks, and more like a genuine source of holiday cheer.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol

Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Let’s be honest with ourselves here: The Muppet Christmas Carol is not exactly the creative apex of the Muppets franchise. As the first film in the series to be made after the death of Jim Henson, it lacks a lot of the creator’s bohemian funkiness and marks the beginning of a transition period in which the Muppets became a little more kid-friendly and a little less clever. (Although, to be fair, you could just as easily level some of the same criticism at The Great Muppet Caper.)

But—and this is a pretty huge “but”—it’s still my all-time favorite interpretation of Charles Dickens’ literary classic, just nudging out Richard Donner’s Scrooged and the excellent made-for-TV version from 1984 starring George C. Scott. A lot of that can be attributed to Michael Caine’s performance as Scrooge, in which he seems completely oblivious to the fact that his co-stars almost all have hands up their butts. Instead, he plays the role straight, leaving the winking and nodding mostly to Gonzo the Great, who plays the role of Dickens himself.

 

There’s also the lovely soundtrack, with songs written by Paul Williams, who didn’t quite turn in as many memorable

MUPPET CAROL AT A GLANCE

The Muppets’ shockingly faithful take on Dickens’ oft-adapted holiday classic is a must-see for every Christmas season.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K version appears to be upscaled from the HD master, but HDR helps to soften any over-saturation, bringing some needed subtlety to the presentation.

ditties as he did for The Muppet Movie or Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, but still gives the movie an extra heaping helping of charm.

 

Oddly enough, despite the songs and despite the puppetry, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a shockingly faithful adaptation of Dickens’ book, abridged though it may be. And as such, it’s a must-see for me every Christmas season.

 

But as with It’s a Wonderful Life, one must ask whether or not this movie is actually worth owning. And for now—and only for now—I say probably not. That’s primarily because it’s available for free on Disney+—in Dolby Vision no less. The service was, as best I can tell, the first to offer The Muppet Christmas Carol in 4K, and although other digital providers have caught up, I 

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can’t imagine it looking any better on any of those services than it does on Disney+.

 

Honestly, the 4K resolution does very little to add detail or definition to the cinematography, and unless my eyes deceive me, the current 4K master wasn’t sourced from the original camera negative. It frankly looks like an upscale from an HD master taken from a print (or at best an interpositive), with the only noteworthy resolution differences coming in the form of enhanced (but very inconsistent) film grain.

 

The HDR does add a lot to the presentation, mostly by 

toning down the over-saturation seen in the HD version, leaving the most vibrant hues for those spots with pure primary colors, like the inside of Kermit’s mouth. The HDR also brings more consistency and subtlety to contrasts, making blacks a good bit more consistent and eliminating some crush.

 

So, yes, this is definitely the best The Muppet Christmas Carol has looked to date. But hang on. In recent weeks, it was actually revealed that the original camera negative for the deleted musical number “When Love Is Gone” had been 

discovered and would be included in a new ground-up 4K restoration of the film sourced from the original elements.

 

If you’re not familiar with “When Love Is Gone,” that’s probably because the song was cut from the theatrical version of the film at the insistence of Jeffrey Katzenberg and Disney, for fear that it was too emotionally sophisticated for a children’s film (something I can’t imagine Jim 

Henson ever allowing, but it was his son Brian’s cinematic directorial debut). The song was integrated into the LaserDisc and VHS releases, as well some DVD versions, but has disappeared from higher-quality releases due, one would assume, to quality concerns.

 

Whether you’re particularly interested in that song or not (for my money, it’s one of the film’s best, and thankfully it’s included as a deleted scene on Disney+ and elsewhere), the news that The Muppet Christmas Carol is getting a proper restoration is enough to warrant holding off on a purchase for now.

 

But if you’ve got Disney+, you should still add the movie to your holiday viewing rotation this year. For all its flaws, it’s an incredibly charming children’s classic with tons of genuinely funny moments and some wonderful performances throughout, from humans and Muppets alike. And for what it’s worth, it’s the only cinematic adaptation of A Christmas Carol that has genuinely made me shed a tear over the death of Tiny Tim.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: It’s a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s a Wonderful Life is such a pervasive presence on broadcast TV during the holidays that one almost has to wonder if there’s actually any value in owning it. It has been in USA’s rotation since Thanksgiving and will air there and on NBC as well right up until Christmas Eve. If you care at all about this beloved Frank Capra classic, you have ample opportunity to view it for free, and if you don’t, it almost seems hard to escape this time of year. So why would you spend your hard-earned money to make it part of your permanent film library, when—let’s be honest with ourselves here—you’re just going to ignore it again until your next big tryptophan overdose in late 2021?

Kaleidescape’s 4K HDR download of It’s a Wonderful Life provides a pretty compelling answer to that question, actually. Because I promise you, whether you’ve seen the film once or you binge it like the sugary confection it is, you’ve never seen it looking as good as it does here.

 

Working with the best elements they could get their hands on, the Paramount Pictures Archive restored the film in 2019, which was no easy task given that only 13 of the film’s 14 original camera-negative reels survived, all with significant deterioration at the ends. The team also had two complete fine-grade nitrate prints from 1946 to work with, which they used to fill in the gaps.

 

The result is quite frankly astonishing—rich in detail and organic nuance, with a healthy level of very fine grain but none of the noise that often plagues nitrate films of this 

WONDERFUL LIFE AT A GLANCE

An impressive restoration and a 4K HDR upgrade turn this once-a-year holiday ritual into a movie collection must-have.

 

PICTURE     

The restoration, coupled with a subtle application of HDR, results in impossibly gorgeous imagery throughout.

 

SOUND     

The two-channel mono soundtrack’s limited dynamic range can be occasionally harsh and have an impact on dialogue intelligibility, but this is still the best the movie has ever sounded.

era, especially those sourced from multiple generations of assets. The movie has also been given a very subtle but effective HDR grade, the likes of which you certainly won’t see on broadcast TV.

 

Comparing it to the standard-dynamic-range HD release (sourced, I believe, from the same restoration), you won’t notice much by way of enhanced highlights, even from the neon lights that line the streets of Potterville toward the end of the film. But what you will notice is a broader and smoother range of midtones, as well as enhanced shadow detail and depth closer to the bottom end of the value scale.

 

This really stood out to me in one scene in particular, when George Bailey sits with his father at the dinner table discussing the future. In the HD transfer, George’s jacket is a medium gray, since taking the image much darker would have swallowed 

the folds and details in the fabric. In the 4K/HDR transfer, the jacket is very nearly black, and yet all of the subtle textures and contrasts that give it shape shine through, despite the overall darkening of the image here. The effect is to give the scene a greater sense of intimacy, to make it look and feel more like a family dinner than a brightly lit movie set. And you can see that sort of benefit from HDR throughout the film. Never does the image get much brighter than you’ve 

seen it before, but HDR allows it to get properly darker in places without losing any detail or crushing any blacks. It simply gives the film a more consistent look from beginning to end.

 

There are times, by the way, when I suspected I could see where the second-generation nitrate prints had been substituted for the original camera negative—the sort of thing you can normally pick out much more easily in HDR. A few shots here and there are ever-so-slightly plagued by diminished midtones and a loss of highlights. The occasional camera angle looks a little more dupe-y, a little less pristine.

Watching the excellent 13-minute documentary about the restoration process, though (included on the UHD Blu-ray but not available on Kaleidescape, sadly— but embedded in this review, above), I’m inclined to believe I was mistaken in blaming these very minor issues on the restoration. You can see in the doc, especially at right around the 7:45 mark, that the second-generation elements were so seamlessly integrated into the original camera negative that it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart unless you know exactly where the splices are. So the occasional second or two of subpar imagery in the movie must be an artifact of the original production. And I’m even more inclined to believe that given that every shot of Donna Reed looks like the lens was slathered with five pounds of Vaseline before “Action!” was called, something that’s even more noticeable given the enhanced resolution.

 

This handful of visual booboos is hardly a distraction—nowhere near the level of something like The Blues Brothers Extended Edition—and they’re only worth nitpicking at all because the rest of the film simply looks so impossibly gorgeous. What can be distracting at times is that the dynamic range of the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack (labeled as stereo, but in actuality two-channel mono) is so 

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

limited that, especially in louder scenes—like Harry Bailey’s graduation party—the sound can get a weensy bit harsh, and dialogue intelligibility suffers in spots. But this is still the best the film has ever sounded, so it’s hard to complain.

 

So, should you buy It’s a Wonderful Life in 4K? If you care at all about the film, I say yes. Absolutely. I’ll admit (whilst hiding behind some protective cover) that I’ve always been a bit “whatever” about this Christmas mainstay. But watching it in 4K with the benefit of HDR, once I got past the insufferable scenes with the kids in the drug store early in the film and the laughably bad outer-space sequences, I enjoyed it in a way I never have before.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)

One night about eight years ago, right around this same time of year, I had just introduced a five-year-old girl, a seven-year-old boy, and a prematurely jaded 20-year-old film student to some classic Max Fleischer cartoons and they were clamoring for more. I couldn’t find any other good ones on YouTube, so I decided to follow a train of thought—and take a big gamble—and introduce them to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse via the Christmas special.

 

All three sat rapt throughout. I was surprised that almost every big laugh landed and nobody in that rag-tag group was thrown by the show’s fever-dream take on the holiday. The only real comment came from the five year old, who reacted to Pee-Wee 

running around the playhouse screaming “It’s snowing! It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” with a vaguely admiring “He’s crazy.” I couldn’t disagree.

 

The Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special is by far the best thing Paul (Pee-Wee Herman) Rubens ever did. The early seasons of the Playhouse had their flashes of brilliance, but seemed more daring than they were mainly because they were being shown on Saturday morning on CBS. By the time of the Christmas special, the series had run its course, having become a little too educational for its own good. There was really no reason to expect anything great out of this primetime offering, let alone an act of genius.

 

It’s no longer possible to appreciate just how bold the Playhouse Christmas was, unapologetically deploying just about every aspect of the gay subculture to challenge the hegemony of the safely patriarchal Bing Crosby/Perry Como

PEE-WEE AT A GLANCE

An exercise in inclusiveness before that notion became a divisive edict, as sweet as it is funny, Paul (Pee-Wee) Rubens’ genius effort might be the best holiday special ever.

 

PICTURE     

Far from state of the art, and about the best you can expect from late-’80s network TV, the show looks surprisingly good on Netflix.

 

SOUND     

Again, we’re talking 1980s TV here, but the audio does a good enough job of reproducing the dizzyingly eclectic soundtrack.

portrayal of the holiday. But the show didn’t spring from the rage, resentment, and overweening pride that mars practically every contemporary effort along the same lines, instead portraying a world of others where everyone gets along out of mutual tolerance and respect.

 

Just as importantly, Rubens also managed to honor longstanding comedy traditions—the show is practically a textbook of classic schtick—and the comfortable conventions of the network holiday special while doing the best job since Charlie Brown of actually capturing the feel of the season, which is why it’s as strong today as when it debuted in 1988.

 

It’s easy to figure out if the Pee-Wee special is for you: If the opening doesn’t have you convulsed with laughter, you’d be better off watching the Hallmark Channel or Die Hard instead. The beautifully modulated series of gags in this off-the-charts

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)

production number rivals the pacing of the comic revelations in the best Chaplin shorts.

 

There’s little point in recounting the standout bits—although Little Richard on Ice, The Billy Baloney Christmas Special, Grace Jones in a crate, and Hanukkah with Mrs. René are all classics. And it’s hard to get enough of Larry Fishburne as a very urban Cowboy Curtis. That’s not to say that the show doesn’t occasionally sag, but the cameos by Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Joan Rivers are all mercifully held to about 15 seconds each. The only truly

painful moment is K.D. Lang’s incredibly misguided take on “Jingle Bell Rock,” which she clearly meant as a goof but was unable to goose above the level of a high-school talent show.

 

The Christmas Special is from the late ’80s, before TV started aping film-production techniques, but Rubens turns all the various shortcomings of that deeply and permanently flawed medium into virtues. The playhouse is unapologetically set-bound, which reinforces the idea of a man-child living completely divorced from the outside world. (That the Pee-Wee character only really worked within the artifice of a children’s show helps explain why he never translated well into movies, and why his TV incarnation is way less retrograde and offensive than all the other man-children who overran the ‘80s—and plague us still.) The primitive computer graphics still work because they don’t try to be anything more than what they are—the projections of a child’s imagination. The now legendary puppetry and stop-motion animation remain brilliant.

 

I was surprised by how good the show looks on Netflix. But you first need to get beyond the opening animation, where a welter of artifacts makes the snowfields look like they’re covered in soot. You can’t expect a TV production from 30-plus years ago to have contemporary sharpness or subtle gradations of color—which would be way out of place here anyway. Everything is appropriately vivid and cartoony, and while there’s the occasional soft frame, there’s never anything egregious enough to pull you out of the show.

 

Watching the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special is like listening to ‘20s small-group jazz—it’s impossible not to feel good. A lot of Christmas shows cynically try to nail the feeling of holiday cheer in an effort to spur a nation of knee-jerk consumers to buy yet another round of crap they don’t really need and on the outside chance the show will become up a perennial and rack up some ill-gotten residuals. But the Pee-Wee special has something sincere about it that reminds me a lot (and don’t let this creep you out too much) of Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You—another genius effort from an outsider looking for redemption in the pop-culture heart of the holiday.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

The Cineluxe Ultimate Holiday Movie Roundup

The Cineluxe Ultimate Holiday Roundup

As with our roundup of Halloween films, the goal here was to select movies that, if you decide to enjoy an evening of holiday fare, will create a consistent mood of good cheer. Each of these films is meant to evoke the Christmas spirit without wandering into the more cynical and gratuitous offerings that have encroached upon what should be a time of affirmation and celebration. 

 

Sadly, far fewer Christmas than Halloween movies are available in 4K, but we’ve ensured that everything here will look and sound great on a quality system no matter the format. 

 

To read the original review for each film. click on the image or its title.

Elf (2003)
ELF

AVAILABLE ON

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Amazon Prime (HD/5.1) / Apple TV (HD/5.1) 

Fandango Now (HD) / Google Play (HD)

Vudu (HD/5.1)

Klaus

AVAILABLE ON

Netflix (4K HDR/Dolby Digital+ 5.1)

Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL

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 Google Play (4K) / Vudu (4K)

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)
PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE
CHRISTMAS SPECIAL

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Netflix (HD)

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

AVAILABLE ON

Kaleidescape (4K HDR/DTS-HD Master Audio stereo)

Apple TV (4K Dolby Vision) / Vudu (4K HDR10)

Amazon Prime (4K) / Fandango Now (4K)

Google Play (HD)

AVAILABLE ON

Kaleidescape (HD/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1)

Amazon (HD/Dolby Digital+ 5.1) / Apple TV (HD/Dolby Digital+ 5.1) / Vudu (HD/Dolby Digital+ 5.1)

Fandango Now (HD/5.1) / Google Play (HD/5.1)

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS

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Amazon Prime (HD/5.1) / Apple TV (HD/5.1) /

Disney+ (HD/5.1) / Fandango Now (HD/5.1)

Google Play (HD/5.1) / Vudu (HD/5.1)

"White Christmas": Much More Than Just a Christmas Movie

AVAILABLE ON

Kaleidescape (HD/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1)

Amazon (HD/Dolby Digital+ 5.1) / Apple TV (HD/Dolby Digital+ 5.1) / Netflix (HD/Dolby Digital+ 5.1)

Vudu (HD/Dolby Digital+ stereo)

Fandango Now (HD) / Google Play (HD)