NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Menace, Graphic Nudity, and Language

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Directed by: Tom Ford

Written by: Tom Ford

(based on the novel TONY AND SUSAN by Austin Wright)

Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson & Isla Fisher

On paper, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS sounds like a Hitchcockian psychological head-trip crossed with a pulpy crime thriller. While that description of the film is correct, things do stray into metaphorical and artsy territory more than initially expected. There’s nothing wrong with being an art film, just look at most of the output from Refn, Lynch, Cronenberg, and Von Trier. However, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS occasionally weaves dangerous close to becoming downright pretentious and also attempts to be a little too ambitious, consequently leaving one of its narratives far stronger than the other.

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Susan (Amy Adams) is an uppity art gallery owner who collects and displays bizarre pieces. These strange works of art include: nude morbidly obese dancers who guide us through the film’s opening credits, a cow with arrows sticking out of it that litters the background, and a so-so painting that obviously states one of this film’s main themes. When yet another nail is put in the coffin of her crumbling second marriage, Susan coincidentally receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Titled “Nocturnal Animals” (his nickname for her), Edward’s new novel tells a dark story of murder, madness and bloody revenge. As she becomes hooked on the emotionally damaging book, Susan finds herself remembering her failed relationship with Edward and begins to suspect that the novel might actually be a veiled threat.

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On a visual level, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS looks great. The cinematography is crisp and has a distinct attention-grabbing style. You might want to look away during certain scenes but will find yourself unable to do so, because the film displays its ugliness through the most beautiful lenses. If you want to be a stickler for details, this movie is technically composed of three narratives (though I read it as two). There’s Edward’s novel and then there’s Susan reading it whilst reminiscing (tying past and present scenes together). The tense revenge tale kept me completely engaged to the point where I forgot it was actually a book being read by the main character and this happened numerous times. Personally speaking, the failed relationship plot seemed far more scattershot and less impactful. I think many moviegoers are bound to latch onto one narrative over the other. Whichever one they prefer will likely hinge on the genre they gravitate towards the most.

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The scenes of Edward’s book feature Jake Gyllenhaal as protagonist Tony. Gyllenhaal does a brilliant job in the role (which was kind of expected from his previous work) and this character is made all the more fascinating when you tie him into Gyllenhaal’s performance as author Edward. There’s clearly a symbiotic connection between the real-life writer and his fictitious creation, with Gyllenhaal putting in two distinct performances. Amy Adams is believable as emotionally distressed, deeply depressed Susan. Her facial expressions and body language say far more than any ham-fisted dialogue that explicitly tells us how she’s feeling ever could. Michael Shannon delivers his best work in years as a grizzled vengeance-seeking detective in Edward’s novel. Meanwhile, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is positively terrifying as the psychotic villain of Edward’s book.

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The five main characters from four great performers aren’t where this movie’s acting talent stops though, because many big faces pop up in the sidelines. Armie Hammer doesn’t receive a whole lot to do, but still makes a strong impression as Susan’s disinterested second husband. Isla Fisher shows up as a character in Edward’s novel, resembling Amy Adams in a possible parallel of her. Michael Sheen has an all-too brief appearance as an interesting friend of Susan’s. Finally, Laura Linney shows up for one scene and becomes borderline over-the-top as a stereotypical rich aristocrat, though her small moment does feed into the story in a big way.

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NOCTURNAL ANIMALS seems to have a lot on its mind, with certain themes being rather obvious and others bound to be discovered upon repeat viewings. It’s a metaphorical piece of cinematic art that follows the formula of a tragic drama about a failed relationship and the motions of a grisly crime thriller. However, the latter far outshines the former in this humble reviewer’s opinion. I was expecting the film to tie everything together in more ways than it actually did. This movie certainly keeps the viewer thinking about it long after the credits have rolled and fans of dark, depressing arthouse cinema are bound to find something to love here. Without getting into spoilers, I will also say that the film’s conclusion is unsatisfying in the best possible way. I really liked NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. I think it’s a fascinating piece of work in many respects, but the disconnected difference in quality between the narratives kept me from loving it as much as I wanted to.

Grade: B+

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence

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Directed by: Dave Green

Written by: Joseph Appelbaum & Andre Nemec

(based on the TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES comics by Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird)

Starring: Megan Fox, Stephen Amell, Will Arnett, Brian Tee, Tyler Perry, Brittany Ishibashi, Laura Linney, Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Tony Shalhoub, Gary Anthony Williams, Sheamus & Brad Garrett

Though it didn’t jive too well with hardcore fans and most movie critics, 2014’s TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES was a box office success. Of course, this meant an inevitable sequel was on the horizon. Two years later, we have TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS, a follow-up that noticeably improves upon its bland predecessor and yet still falls victim to a couple of the reboot’s shortcomings. It should be noted that I’ve never been a big TMNT fan, so I’m not exactly a person to ask regarding if this film delivers for fans of the comics, cartoons, and franchise as a whole. Strictly taken as PG-13 family fun and a big dumb summer blockbuster, OUT OF THE SHADOWS is by-the-numbers entertainment driven on a handful of cool moments and lots of questionable writing.

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A year after the turtles saved New York from the evil Foot Clan, Shredder (Brian Tee) remains in police custody and cameraman Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett) has taken credit for the ninja turtles’ heroic deeds. The teenage turtles (composed of: leader Leonardo, aggressive Raphael, geeky Donatello, and fun-loving Michelangelo) live in the sewer and observe the world from the shadows (hiding in the Jumbotron at Knicks games, stealing pizza from delivery drivers, etc.). When Shredder breaks out of police custody, it appears that the four turtles have their work cut out for them. It’s going to be harder to take Shredder down this time around, because he’s being assisted by warthog Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and rhinoceros Rocksteady (Sheamus), and has also formed a world domination plot with tentacled alien Krang (Brad Garrett). To throw even more problems into the mix, Shredder has acquired a purple ooze that could possibly turn the teenage mutant ninja turtles into humans, which causes personal conflicts to emerge within the reptile team.

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OUT OF THE SHADOWS is the first TMNT movie to feature Rocksteady, Bebop, and Krang. Even though I vaguely knew of these villains, I was pretty excited to see them on the big screen. Shredder is actually made into a real bad guy this time around and doesn’t look like a giant silver Transformer, all while Rocksteady and Bebop inject a sense of humor into the movie. You’d think that a film revolving around giant pizza-eating turtles who practice martial arts wouldn’t take itself so seriously, but you’d be surprised. Rocksteady and Bebop alleviate the brooding self-serious tone by being two goofball henchmen. They’re silly cartoon characters brought to life through computer effects, one happens to be a pig and the other is a rhino. Don’t worry about their origin story because it is given, albeit in a half-assed way.

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As for Krang, I was mightily disappointed with his lack of screen time in this film. Even though the script sets him up as the main antagonist, Krang receives a total of two scenes (one of those being the finale). He only shows up to make a bad joke about his tentacle mucus to Shredder and eventually returns to fight the turtles. The final confrontation between the turtles and this gooey pink alien is fun to watch, but I wish this villain had more of a presence in the overall scheme of things. As a result, I cared more about Shredder, Rocksteady and Bebop than Krang…and this finale felt like an afterthought.

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The 2014 installment focused on a convoluted and silly origin story, but the turtles are actually far more developed in this 2016 sequel. In the reboot, their only discernible differences were different colored masks. This time around, they’re given distinctly noticeable personalities from the opening frames. I was able to understand their differences better and the personal conflicts between them actually made sense, even if the story was repeating similar scenes from the first film. Because this sequel focuses on the turtles, the human characters are shoved aside as walking plot devices.

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Megan Fox’s April looks sexy and gets info for the turtles, while never becoming the damsel-in-distress that she usually was in the cartoons. Will Arnett’s Vern is underused, but supplies one of the funniest scenes in the entire film. Tyler Perry isn’t bad as mad scientist Baxter Stockman and if they make a third installment, I’m positive that we’ll be seeing more of him. Stephen Arnell is boring and forgettable as masked vigilante Casey Jones. I guess this character is a huge fan favorite, but he seemed like a generic bland sidekick to me. Maybe, this movie just screwed up the character of Casey Jones? On a side note, Laura Linney seems noticeably embarrassed to be starring in this film.

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There’s not a moment in OUT OF THE SHADOWS where you can’t fully predict the entire movie from start to finish. The script hits a series of expected beats and follows a familiar road that’s been seen in plenty of other movies, just not ones featuring giant talking turtles. The narrative is brainless, but the set pieces and effects are entertaining. I really enjoyed this sequel’s CGI, which looked like a monumental improvement over the first movie’s effects. The action scenes are mostly fun, but also get bogged down in distracting shaky cam. As a film made for families and people who want to watch ninja reptiles, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS is throwaway entertainment. Kids will love it. Fans of the series are likely to catch details that casual viewers will miss. SHADOWS is a step above its mediocre predecessor entry and there’s something to be said for that.

Grade: C+

MR. HOLMES (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Thematic Elements, some Disturbing Images and incidental Smoking

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Directed by: Bill Condon

Written by: Jeffrey Hatcher

(based on the novel A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND by Mitch Cullin)

Starring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy & Roger Allam

Sherlock Holmes. Whether you’re fan of his stories or not, you’ve definitely heard of this fictional detective at one point in your life. This might be a slightly unpopular opinion, but I’ve never exactly been a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. I enjoy the two Robert Downey Jr. blockbusters, Disney’s take on the character (THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE) and even read THE HOUND OF BASKERVILLES in school. Other than that, I’m not a big Holmes aficionado. As a result, the announcement of MR. HOLMES (a film adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s novel) left me with an apathetic “meh.” I wasn’t planning on seeing this film in theaters and if I were to eventually review it, it would probably be far down the road. However, due to the urging of a few friends, I decided to give this small, little British movie a look.

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Set in 1947, Sherlock Holmes is a 92-year-old retired detective living in a countryside home with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, and her son, Roger. Sherlock’s final days are passing him by and are filled with past regrets and memory loss. When Roger takes an interest in Holmes’s final mystery (which resulted in him retiring to the countryside), the elderly detective strains his memory for clues to the forgotten full story of that case. The only mystery here comes in Sherlock Holmes’s memories and the story is mainly played as a straight-forward drama. This is a most unusual Holmes movie and made all the better because of that.

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It should surprise absolutely no one that Ian McKellen is great in the title role. I cannot think of a single bad scene featuring this brilliant British actor and this film is yet another in a long line of memorable performances. Aiding McKellen’s portrayal of the world-famous detective is a purposely unconventional approach to his character. While other movies and books portray Sherlock Holmes as a pipe-smoking over-the-top genius, McKellen plays a more grounded Sherlock. In this fictional movie universe, Holmes is a more cynical man and has disdain for his exaggerated pop-cultural portrayal (shown in a brilliant scene where the elderly Holmes visits a movie theater showing a film based on one of his mysteries). The storyline is a blend of bittersweet drama and compelling mystery. The former comes in Holmes suffering through the trials of old age and a feeble body, while the latter arrives in Holmes’s flashbacks/memories. The mashing of these two different tones makes for an intriguing one-of-a-kind experience.

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Though the film has two distinct tones, there are technically three storylines at play. The main one is Sherlock’s struggle with old age and his tender friendship with Roger. The secondary plotline is the forgotten mystery that Holmes is trying to remember. The last (and definitely least) is Holmes visiting Japan to look for a medicinal plant that might aid his memory. These three plotlines weave in and out of each other with skill. Whenever one plot thread begins to overstay its welcome, the movie whisks us away into another. MR. HOLMES wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable or effective if it played out in chronological order, but its non-linear storytelling turns the film into a bit of a mystery in and of itself. Like the best mysteries, you never quite know where things are going either. Though I have issues with a couple of minor plot details, this movie had my full, undivided attention from the first frame to the end credits. That’s a pretty big compliment, seeing that I’m not necessarily an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes.

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For some reason, certain movie theaters have advertised MR. HOLMES as a family friendly outing sure to warm the hearts of every age. This could not be further from the truth. Younger viewers will likely be bored stiff through this melancholy drama, but I imagine that most cinema-loving adults will be pleased with this deliberately paced final chapter to a classic fictional character’s legacy. MR. HOLMES is one of the most unusual films that I’ve seen in quite a while and also one of the bigger surprises I’ve had this year. Those looking for satisfying closure to the celebrated fictional detective need look no further.

Grade: A

THE FIFTH ESTATE (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 8 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Violence

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Directed by: Bill Condon

Written by: Josh Singer

(based on the book INSIDE WIKILEAKS by Daniel Domscheit-Berg)

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Moritz Bleibtreu, Alicia Vikander, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney & Carice van Houten

THE FIFTH ESTATE is one of those films that quickly entered and then just as quickly exited theaters in 2013. It was hyped up as a potential Oscar contender and even premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in hopes of gaining early praise. However, a middling response from critics and outright disinterest from audiences (the film debuted at number eight in its opening weekend and then vanished) did this whistleblower thriller a massive disservice. THE FIFTH ESTATE is a movie for our current age regarding information available online and serves as an important analysis of a touchy subject. That subject is WikiLeaks and its two founders (Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg).

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In 2007, a German journalist (Daniel) meets an Australian hacker (Julian) at an international hacker convention. The two quickly form a friendship and Daniel expresses interest in working with Julian. The pair begin constructing a website called WikiLeaks. This site is devoted to releasing confidential information (regarding corruption or other hidden problems from all over the world) to the general public. However, WikiLeaks becomes a double-edged sword as it becomes difficult to maintain anonymity for the whistleblowers releasing the information and tensions between Julian and Daniel rise. When they receive a profound amount of secret military information from U.S. soldier Bradley Manning, Julian and Daniel are forced to make wise, critical decisions that could make or break their site, their lives and the lives of many others…

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Before he was nominated for playing Alan Turring, Benedict Cumberbatch wonderfully brought the twisted personality of Julian Assange to life. The best way of describing this person (I won’t call him a character, because he really exists) is to call him a pompous dickhead that has done us a great service. The fact that Assange was so opposed to this film (as well as direct quotes from him) sort of hint to Cumberbatch’s portrayal being somewhat accurate (sort of like Mark Schultz’s opposition to his portrayal in the recent FOXCATCHER). You have to admire certain aspects about Assange, but also find other actions to be repugnant and hard-headed. He’s a deeply flawed genius of sorts and that’s what Cumberbatch flawlessly brings to the screen. Daniel Bruhl is fantastic as Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Daniel admires Julian’s cause, but also (as his girlfriend points out) seems to ignore the flaws in the man until it becomes startlingly clear that Daniel may have to break his whistleblower union with Assange. Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney, and Stanley Tucci all appear as U.S. government officials and (though slightly underused) make the most of every scene they have. David Thewlis is equally stellar as a reporter for The Guardian who sympathizes with Julian and Daniel’s cause.

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What I really admire about THE FIFTH ESTATE is that it remains neutral on its topic. It shows that while people have a right to the truth, there might be limits on how much information should be readily available. In one tense confrontation between the WikiLeaks founders, Daniel points out that by revealing informants’ identities they are betraying “sources fighting for the very thing that we’re fighting for.” It’s sort of depressing that THE FIFTH ESTATE bombed so badly in theaters and failed to make an impact with audiences, because it’s a stellar conversation starter about complex issues. I hope that the upcoming SNOWDEN doesn’t befall the same fate.

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Another really impressive aspect that THE FIFTH ESTATE brings is in its style. What essentially boils down to a story of different people having conversations and typing on computers is brought to life with flare and creative visuals. For example, we’re given an imaginary endless office that we see Julian and Daniel working in throughout the film. Add a good soundtrack as well as fantastic-looking locations (we don’t merely hear about stuff happening in other countries, we see pieces of it happening) and you’ve got yourself one hell of a whistleblower thriller. THE FIFTH ESTATE is one of the biggest hidden gems to come out of the last three years and I highly recommend it. If you’re watching it with friends, plan for a long night because you’re bound to get into a lengthy conversation about the touchy subject matter and mixed messages afterwards.

Grade: A-

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some mild Rude Humor

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Directed by: Sarah Smith & Barry Cook

Written by: Peter Baynham & Sarah Smith

Voices of: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Marc Wootton, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Ramona Marquez & Michael Palin

Aardman Animation is primarily known for their Claymation (WALLACE & GROMIT, THE PIRATES!), but have dipped their hands into computer animation back in 2006 with FLUSHED AWAY. That flick didn’t exactly impress. This past iffy effort and poor marketing are why I was turned off from watching ARTHUR CHRISTMAS for about three years. Turns out that I was cheating myself out of a modern Christmas classic. ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is one of the best animated films to come out of the new millennium that doesn’t have the Pixar label attached to it. Combining imagination, lovable characters and a heartwarming sense of childlike wonder make for a phenomenal film that is sure to become a holiday tradition.

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Santa Claus is very real, but not an immortal jovial old man flying around the world in a single night. There’s a dynasty of Clauses living in the North Pole and they are aided by tons of elves. The current Claus family has three completely different generations of Santas. There’s the retired grand-Santa, the active Santa, and his two sons, technologically advanced Steve and bumbling Arthur. Santa and his elves are in charge of delivering presents and Steve is in charge of the S-1 (an enormous computer-powered sleigh), but Arthur is in charge of reading the letters of children around the world. After a child’s gift is mistakenly undelivered, Arthur takes the initiative and journeys across the world to make sure that one little girl has a merry Christmas. Since Arthur isn’t exactly a trained Santa, his race against time goes a little awry to say the least, which causes conflicting views in the Claus family to butt heads.

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One special factor that makes ARTHUR CHRISTMAS unique from other family films of this kind is that there’s no real antagonist. The family members have conflicting viewpoints causing friction in their relationships, but nobody is perfect as each generation of Santa has their own flaws. Grand-Santa glamorizes the good old days and yearns for the fame he once had. The current Santa is too self-centered to realize that he’s hogging glory that should rightfully be passed down to his sons. Steve is so obsessed with the technical side of Christmas that he neglects the pure emotion surrounding the season. Arthur is a clumsy and cowardly guy who’s sort of roped into this quest.

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These characters are all essential pieces in a brightly colored world that’s filled with imagination around every corner. The visuals here are crisp and vibrant. There’s a warm holiday glow around the environments, but each location is given a unique flare. Let’s just say that England isn’t the only place that Arthur rides a sleigh through. Vocal talents of big actors bring these various Santas to life. James McAvoy’s voice disappears into the overly eager Arthur. Bill Nighy nails it as Grand-Santa and Jim Broadbent plays the current Santa. Hugh Laurie is excellent as Steve. Finally, there’s my favorite character, Byrony. This punkish elf (complete with unique hair-style and facial piercings) provides the biggest laughs in the whole film. She’s in charge of wrapping presents and accompanies Arthur on his trip. Not to mention that’s she is just plain adorable. I want a stuffed Byrony and I’m a grown-ass man.

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Another top-notch quality that seals the deal in ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is a brilliant sense of humor. There are jokes being thrown out at a mile a minute. Running gags pop up frequently and one of them (involving wild life that gets in when you leave the door open at the North Pole) absolutely cracked me up on multiple occasions. There’s plenty of witty banter among the characters and the script is far more clever than one might initially expect going into this film.

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The best thing about ARTHUR CHRISTMAS that separates it from many other holiday films and animated family fare is that a lot of heart was clearly put into this whole movie. The story is funny and imaginative, but also has the genuine sweetness that makes beloved Christmas classics worth watching year after year. It’s simultaneously heart-warming and hysterical, which are two good qualities that go great together.

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I’ve said before and will say again that the best children’s films are the ones that make adults feel young at heart as well as delighting younger viewers. These movies respect the intelligence of the audience, in spite of supposedly being constructed only for kids. ARTHUR CHRISTMAS nails every quality that matters in a story like this and manages to be perfect all around. I don’t have a single complaint or problem with any part of this movie. The feeling that ARTHUR CHRISTMAS leaves is specific to the holiday season should be cherished by viewers of every age. ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is a modern, magical holiday classic that I will watch repeatedly for years to come.

Grade: A+

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