Tuesday, December 27, 2011
This is my final message to you on this version of the site.
Over the last few months we at My Cinema have been working on the development of the central My Entertainment World site where we'll be joining with our current sister sites My Theatre, My TV, My Sports Stadium, My Bookshelf and My Music. The new central hub will feature highlighted articles from across My Entertainment World and a showcase for our biggest exclusive interviews as well as the most recent posts from all 6 existing branches (and our brand new venture My Games).
But never fear, My Cinema will live on with it's own page as a branch under the My Entertainment World umbrella. At www.myentertainmentworld.ca/mycinema you'll be able to find all the same content from this site brought to you by myself and your dedicated head writer Rachael.
Our annual My TV Awards and Nominee Interview Series are coming up soon so be sure to come with us over to the new site, you won't want to miss it.
Thank you all for your dedicated readership of My Cinema in the past few years, we love hearing from each and every one of you. I can't wait to show you our new and improved selves.
We launch www.myentertainmentworld.ca this week- get excited and I'll see you there!
All My Love,
Managing Editor, My Cinema
Posted by Kelly at 10:58 PM
Saturday, December 24, 2011
I have only repeated two movies since last year, even though it’s been very tempting to pull out some old favorites (I miss you, Elf! See you next year!). Those two repeats were my essential movies. Every year, the Christmas season begins with Love, Actually, and ends when my whole family gets together to watch The Muppets Christmas Carol. And if one year I missed Love, Actually, I’d probably feel sad, but I’d get over it. If I missed the Muppets, it wouldn’t feel like Christmas. Considering Muppets came out in 1992 (when we saw it in theaters) and probably came out on VHS by the next Christmas, I can estimate that I’ve seen this movie at least 19 times. My brother and I sing along to every song (and find it near impossible not to quote along with every line). Each person has their personal favorite parts (and least favorite, many times overlapping). It is as much a part of my Christmas season as trees, presents and inappropriately drunk relatives (just kidding, relatives). So I realize I’m not exactly impartial when I say that The Muppets Christmas Carol is not only the best version of the Christmas Carol, but probably the best Christmas movie period. Your favorite Christmas movie, like your favorite member of ‘NSync, says a lot more about you as a person than it does about the relative quality of your options*. I realize this, and therefore trying to convince you that The Muppet Christmas Carol is better, objectively, than whatever movie your family gobbed onto is probably a fool’s errand, but here goes nothing:
The Muppets Christmas Carol takes the themes of A Christmas Carol (love, kindness, redemption, tragedy, poverty) and translates them beautifully into its chosen motifs (Muppets, mainly). In performing this miraculous translation of dry British drama to the colorful, musical world of The Muppets, it manages to maintain the integrity and power of the original work while also providing new levels of Christmassy joy. A lot of adaptations, especially those aimed at children, soften the themes or lose the metaphor, but the Muppets heighten that drama with a fiery performance by Michael Caine and a healthy helping of astute observational humor.
Which brings us to my second point – it’s really funny. Not that I’d expect anything less from a Muppet movie that doesn’t have the word “Space” in the title, but The Muppets Christmas Carol has all the wit, joy, and over the top puniness that have made the Muppets classics for years.
Even the casting of the Muppets within the piece serves dual functions to the metaphor of the story and the humor of it (take, for example, Fozzy the Bear as Fozziwig. In the original text, Fozziwig is a kindhearted, semi-incompetent businessman whose early kindness towards Scrooge helps to melt his heart. The Muppets version casts Fozzy the Bear, a kindhearted, semi-incompetent jokester whose overwhelming kindness and goofiness is so persistent it can’t help but melt your heart. This makes his casting both funny and effective, since it automatically creates a wealth of characterization around Fozziwig without the movie needing to spell it out).
And to my third – The Muppets Christmas Carol is a really awesome musical, with numbers that range from beautifully evocative (“One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas” marvelously conjures the joy of the night before Christmas morning) to deeply piercing (the very funny and very trenchant “There Goes Mr. Humbug” sums up Scrooge more effectively than any amount of Gonzo-narration could) to the really joyful (the movie ending “Thankful Heart”). In true Muppet fashion, these songs are witty, well-composed, and perfectly suited to the movie.
And of course the fourth reason why The Muppets Christmas Carol is the best Christmas movie ever—because it’s mine. Our traditions, as I’ve observed time and again during this experiment, are often nonsensical and arbitrary, but they’re ours. We give them power because we believe that they mean something. And when our traditions fill us with joy and a sense that we should try and be a little better towards the rest of the world? Well then they’re worthwhile ones. That, more than anything, has been the meaning of the plethora of Christmas movies I’ve indulged in this year. Some of them were crappy (I’m looking at you, Christmas Cupid), and some were Jewish, and some were animated, but all of them were obsessed with the idea that this time of year, regardless of religion, wealth or life status, can be magical. Not necessarily because it was the time that Jesus was born (in fact, as previously noted, only a few of the movies even so much as mentioned the J-man), or because it was the time of the Maccabees, or because we give each other presents, but because we imbue the end of the year with a meaning that makes it transcend a date on the calendar. Like family, whether the one you're born with or the one you create or the friends you surround yourself with, Christmas time means a lot to us because we say it does.
The Muppets Christmas Carol is the perfect season topper not just because it is the best (although it is), but because my family and I have decided it’s the best, so every joke, every song, every moment is imbued with that much more magic and joy. And in the age after Santa stopped delivering our presents, and cookies started reminding us of diabetes more than Christmas cheer, it’s the magic we create with the people we love that matters**.
• 99% Watch: If this isn’t the same as when Ron Paul was asked that question about letting the 30-year-old with no health insurance die – “If they’d rather die [than go to the prisons or poor houses] they’d better do it, and decrease the surplus population!”
• Additional 99% Watch: Good Scrooge sings, “and a promise to share the wealth.” Time to pepper spray him.
• Gonzo is still my favorite Muppet (by far), but I never get tired of Rizzo’s hilarious non sequiturs.
• Is it sad that the ghost of Christmas Future STILL terrifies me? Yes, probably.
*False. The best member of NSync is and was Justin Timberlake. But I like metaphor, so go with it.
**Aww, shut up Rachael, say something pithy and ironic: presents don’t suck either.
Friday, December 23, 2011
In The Bishop’s Wife, Grant plays Dudley, an angel who comes down around Christmas to answer the prayers of the titular Bishop, Henry. The Bishop is trying to get a new Cathedral built, and his desire to secure finances for the project has created distance between himself, his wife, his child, his constituents, and, not to overplay my hand here, God. Enter Dudley, who quickly wins over the Bishop's wife, child, and everyone else in his life.
The movie plays off of Cary Grant’s movie star ridiculousness. Grant, on his most casual day, looks debonair and sophisticated, the exact type of man who bursts in out of nowhere to sweep a girl off her feet, no matter whose feet hers are normally next to. And Grant’s charm (despite its Haye’s Code-inspired on-screen celibacy) has never been of the wholesome variety, so when Dudley starts showing intense interest in the Bishop’s undersexed wife, the film knows what you’re thinking. Despite his tendency to speak in bible verse and proclaim good will towards men, when Cary Grant locks eyes on your lady, you believe he’s going to, uh, “represent YOU with your wife.” So Grant struts around for most of the film, doing odd things to help the people around him while making googoo eyes at the bishop’s wife (Loretta Young). Like serious googoo eyes. And then, for no apparent reason there's a fifteen minute ice skating portion in the middle. It also features an extended gag where the Bishop’s pants are stuck to a chair. Then, Grant’s meddling gets Henry to realize he’s been taking everyone in his life for granted, and Dudley disappears. Wife and husband are back together and better than ever.
I’m not sure if it ever rehabs Grant’s playboy image, but our perception of Grant helps to play into the intriguing ambiguity at the core of his Dudley’s character. And in the end, that’s part of what rehabs Henry. The Bishop’s Wife, unlike a lot of the Christmas movies I’ve watched, dealt directly with the ideas of hypocrisy and Christmas. Henry wants a glorious cathedral, ostensibly for the sake of his religion, God, and Jesus Christ, but it’s obvious from beginning to end that his desire for the cathedral has more to do with pride and arrogance. Their church and their Christmas may have all the outward manifestations of beauty and righteousness, but it’s formed on a bed of crumbling faith and narcissism. It’s a critique many people make of Christmas in general, that all this frivolity, gift-giving, and shopping is nothing more than an opulent demonstration of our consumerist culture at its most shallow. As such, Henry’s descent into jealousy and materialism seem like a critique on the decadence of Christmas. But Dudley reveals the beating heart of Henry and of humanity is not about money or prestige, but about the people we love. Even the grumpy old woman who wants to turn Henry’s cathedral into a memorial for her dead husband is revealed to be an old, sad, slave to love just trying to recapture her ability to “act like a human being.” Henry goes from stick up his butt to loving husband and devoted pastor. And even Dudley gets his chance to experience the exquisite terror of loving another human (plus the righteous atheist goes to church, which I guess is the 40s equivalent of one’s heart growing two sizes).
Henry’s final sermon implores his church to remember the gift not under their Christmas tree, the gift of Jesus. And despite the Christian-specificity of such a message, it applies more broadly. It’s not as happy as White Christmas, nor as beautifully classic as It’s a Wonderful Life, but The Bishop’s Wife is one of the few movies I’ve watched to deal directly and sincerely with how to make meaning out of the trappings of Christmas, while accepting the too easy slide into materialism. The Bishop’s Wife is the exact opposite of the modern cynical Christmas films, and a parallel alternative to the wholesome “Ain’t Christmas Grand?” musicals like White Christmas. Instead, it’s a movie that takes head on issue with the darker side of Christmas and, with the unironic beauty that only a pre-1950s film can really bring, tears that darkness down.
• Apparently Angels and Murderers have the same faces.
• One of the kids playing in the snow in The Bishop’s Wife is the same as the young George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Christmas Serendipity!
• The angel has had “quite a bit of work to do in Paris.” Ha, take that Frenchies! “I’ve never before had to fight an angel, but I suggest you take off your coat and put up your dukes!”
Thursday, December 22, 2011
The movie basically revolves around young Ralphie’s overwhelming desire for a BB gun and the series of obstacles put in between him and his goal. The movie is a solid piece of 40s and 50s nostalgia, from the warm and fuzzy voice over to the goofy clothes and “simpler times” plot. And like a lot of these nostalgia films, it speaks to an inherent duality in the way we think about childhood: even while we’re nostalgic for it, we’re also aware how fraught with drama and disappointment it was (see also: Stand By Me, Sandlot). The movie is much more absurd than I remembered. It has more dream sequences than your average Scrubs episode. My personal favorite could be the Santa scene, in which sitting on Santa’s lap is transformed into a terrifying ordeal of tragic proportions.
The exaggerated nature of A Christmas Story, mixed with its dedication to an awkward sort of nostalgia, allows it to seem at once universal and absurd. It’s impossible not to see little pieces of your own strange holiday traditions in A Christmas Story. Ultimately, for all its tomfoolery, it's about the simple joys of making ridiculous holiday memories with your family, whether they be based on lying to them or having fun despite everything going wrong.
• Did any one out there hear “There’s starving people in China?” when they were a kid? It’s not inaccurate, but I feel like I always heard “India” or “Africa.”
• I feel like this movie did more to combat idiot children getting stuck to poles than a thousand public service announcements. Or caused idiot children to get their tongues stuck to poles. Not sure which.
• Although set in the 40s, the movie was clearly shot in the 80s as evidenced by The Mother’s hair.
• “The old man loved bargaining as much as an Arab trader?” Were you allowed to say shit like that in the 40s? Or the 80s for that matter?
• Totally legit child care in the 40s = putting soap in your child’s mouth to make him stop swearing. Totally indefensible child abuse in the 2010s = putting soap in your child’s mouth to make him stop swearing. Also not child abuse in the 40s? Beating the crap out of your kid.
• 99 % Watch: Ralphie thinking he’s decoding a secret mission from Little Orphan Annie only to find out it’s a commercial for Ovaltine is a perfect metaphor for the disillusionment many of us feel with politics these days.
• I’d complain about the random racism of the Chinese Food Restaurant scene, but a) it was the 80s and racism hadn’t been invented yet and b) it was funnier than a season’s worth of 2 Broke Girls.
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
One of the most endearing parts about Adam Sandler has always been (at least for me) his SNL-featured Hanukkah Songs. It may seem clichéd at this point to say that it’s rough growing up envying the pop culture prominence of Christmas, but it’s nice to have something to sing while lighting the menorah besides dreidle dreidle dreidle. Even worse is the dearth of Hanukkah movies. And so it’s obvious that when Sandler decided to make a bizarrely crass, animated Hanukkah movie he made it with a sincere intention of helping to right the injustice done to Jewish kids forced to sneak Rudolph under their disapproving parents’ noses.
And to a large extent, he does a good job of co-opting the Christmas movie traditions that are so prevalent. From the cheesy, after-school special animation to the “bad guy turns good” plotline to the over-the-top narration, 8 Crazy Nights does a good job of creating a holiday narrative that uses the themes and traditions of Hanukkah as effectively as movies like A Christmas Story play on Christmas.
Unfortunately, this is also a really gross and weird Adam Sandler movie. The same off-putting mixture of sentimentalism and gross-out humor that has characterized some of Sandler’s worst offerings plays awkwardly within this otherwise conventional holiday tale. It’s hard to enjoy the Hanukkah goodness, or even the actually moving tale when you’re also forced to endure disgusting body hair, jock-strap eating, and absurdly offensive stereotypes.
Anyway, the plot: Davey Jones (Adam Sandler) is an all around awful guy. He drinks and drives, does horrible things to the people around him, and hates other people almost as much as he hates himself. He is saved from jail time by Whitey, a four foot tall volunteer basketball ref who is as over-the-top nice as he is often disgusting. Whitey tries to rehab Davey’s broken spirit, while Davey tries to seduce a single mom who used to be his childhood sweetheart. Actually, rehabbing Davey turns out to be surprisingly easy, and basically consist of having him help Whitey and his bald, crazy sister clean cobwebs and play practical jokes on each other.
For Jewish parents looking for a happy-go-lucky movie to show their kids how cool Hanukkah can be, this movie is probably as ill-fated as the Hanukkah armadillo. Unless their idea of Rankin/Bass special is filled with poop, sex jokes, and alcoholism. But if you occupy the sweet spot of being Jewish or at least sorta Jewish, and between the ages of 9 and 16 (as I was the first time I saw 8 Crazy Nights), it’ll help tide you over until you realize that most Christmas movies are actually written by Jews, and that at the very least we’ll always have Seth Cohen.
• 99% Watch: Whitey is an impoverished nice guy, I guess, but this is about as close to the 99% watch as I’m getting with this movie. There’s no bad guy rich guys, no greed-destroying lives. I’d make a joke similar to that “Christmas presents at Hanukkah prices one,” but that’s anti-Semitic and far too easy.
• Adam Sandler once played the son of the Devil, but early-movie Davey is definitely the closest he’s been to pure evil
• People who should be offended by this movie: Short people, Asians, Reindeer, Fat people, bald people, parents, Jews, the footlocker.
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Until 2003, there was never really a family on TV that seemed like mine. But in 2003, onto the scene came a young, comic-book-obsessed, fast talking half-jew and his loving, tradition-obsessed family. And although they were far more dramatic than mine could ever be, The Cohens (and specifically son Seth) seemed more like reality than I had ever seen before. This was true before the seminal episode “The Best Chrismukkah Ever,” but it was surreally true after. Despite my adoration of Christmas, I always felt sad that the full extent of the family traditions I experienced every year were not reflected in the Yule tide joy I saw on screen. But Seth’s singleminded obsessiveness in the face of Chrismukkah (his combined Hannukah and Christmas celebration) was exactly what I experienced every December.
For a while in the mid 2000s, The OC was a large part of the pop culture zeitgeist. “The Best Chrismukkah Ever” is a perfect demonstration of why. It has it all. Dorky references and indie bands (which would, after this show, become the norm for cool TV shows)? Check. Romantic drama? Check. Seth fast talking? Check. Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows? Check. But what really made The OC more than just a latter day 90210 ripoff with a better soundtrack was Seth Cohen. In the dark days before Chuck and The Big Bang Theory, geeks on TV were mostly relegated to quirky side kick and punching bag. Even when Dawson Leery was supposed to be all-sensitive indie boy, he was never really a dork. But Seth? Despite looking like Adam Brody, he was an outcast, comic-obsessed nerd boy without a friend to call his own before the arrival of Ryan Atwood. While a lot of his most endearing qualities would become characicatures by the end, “The Best Chrismukkah Ever” has them all at their endearing best. He’s awkward, believably so, and his reaction to Summer’s “gift” is the most believable thing about it. And he’s so intensely into Chrismukkah that you want to share his joy AND his holiday (so much so that a lot of my non-half jew friends wanted to join in on the goodness I had been getting since year one).
“The Best Chrismukkah Ever” was also a huge turning point for the show, acknowledging Marissa’s problems, hurdling the Seth-Summer-Anna triangle towards its early resolution, and bringing the Sandy-Kirsten-Caleb drama to a rolling boil. And though the episode ends with Seth getting turned down by both Summer and Anna, and Ryan frustrated with Marissa, it also ends with Ryan finally giving himself over to the Cohen way of life and putting his stocking up over the fireplace. At the end of the day, despite all the booze and the romance, that decision to include Ryan in this idealized family was the beating heart that makes The OC work. And it is the reason why this little half Jew Christmas obsessive has made “The Best Chrismukkah Ever” an essential part of her holiday routine.
- I may love this episode, but I still can barely stand Marissa Cooper.
- 99 % Watch: Sandy tricks rich real estate magnate Caleb into giving him a land trust for $1.00 after Caleb tries to take advantage of him.
- “If there’s drinking, crying and cops, well then it must be Christmas.”
- “Hang on a second, Ryan, it seems to me that what we have here is a Chrismukkah miracle. Thank you! Think about this for a second, the old Ryan Atwood what woulda happened? He woulda got busted, for sure, but this time ya had Jesus workin' for ya, right, and then you also had Moses, workin' together, the super team, fightin' for you to keep you safe and give you a second chance!”
- Oh my goodness, this is the episode that started the Oliver arc. Chrismukkah. Miracle.
Monday, December 19, 2011
Die Hard follows the story of John McClane, a New York City cop visiting California to see his estranged wife, Holly, and kids. He decides to surprise her at her office, and while cleaning up in the bathroom, inadvertently manages to hide from the Scandinavian terrorists taking over the building. These terrorists are led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) who is at turns menacing, genteel, and maniacal. The terrorists are not really terrorists; they’re thieves, and they would like to steal from Holly’s firm’s corporation.
In a way, Die Hard is a grown up Home Alone. Alan Rickman is Joe Pesci, Bruce Willis is Macauley Culkin, and Holly and all of her coworkers are the McCallister’s house. It’s all in the name of Christmas, and bringing his family back together. Along the way, Kevin/John McClane has to lay a series of traps, outsmart the bad guys, and crawl around using the absurdly serendipitous tools at his disposal. I’m not sure who Carl Winslow’s Sergeant Al Powell is; maybe the creepy, semi-homeless guy Culkin befriends. Our hero even maintains his sense of whimsy, like Kevin using the old gangster movie to trick the robbers, or McClane putting a Christmas hat on and painting “Now I Have a Machine Gun Ho Ho Ho” in blood on a dead robber’s sweatshirt. Now, Kevin may never have killed the robbers by hitting them in the face with a gun and then throwing them down a flight of stairs, but I bet he would have if he’d had the training. Gruber tears apart McClane by saying he is “Just another American who saw too many movies as a child; another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne.” If that’s not an apt description of Kevin McCallister, I don’t know what is.
Die Hard works so well because the characters all make pretty much logical and believable decisions. John doesn’t rush in to fight the robbers with nothing but his sense of his own badassdom. He tries to contact the authorities and gets as much back up as possible. Holly doesn’t huddle in fear OR try ridiculous amounts of heroics. Instead, she works her hardest to keep people safe and comfortable inside. The generic cops may make stupid decisions (like storming the building with SWAT team members with the mistaken belief that clearly there aren’t any hostages and the dead dude on the cop car was just a “depressed stock broker”), but Seargant Al Powell remains the human face of police officer sanity.
A really great movie is one that manages to humanize every character. In Die Hard, everyone from Seargant Al Powell (whose fully-realized back story provides an emotional anchor to the film’s final act) to Hans Gruber to John and Holly McClane are full people capable of emotions, motivations and character arcs. That’s a lot to ask from an action movie with this many shoot outs. As the conflict escalates between the Thieves, McClane and the LAPD, the sense of reality should fly out the window. Instead, Die Hard cleverly walks the realism line, at least as far as an 80s action movie can. When cheesy 80s yuppie Ellis tries to negotiate as douche-ily as possible with Hans Gruber, and earns a bullet in the head as a result, the real life consequences of all the Home Alone-style theatrics are brought carefully home. Gruber and McClane start an epic cat and mouse game, the highlight of which is when McClane stumbles upon Gruber crawling around the ventilation ducts, and Gruber pretends he’s a hostage. The tension-riddled scene where the two talk without full knowledge of the other’s story, with Gruber trying to needle out information from McClane, is probably one of the greatest moments of relative calm in a movie full of bloody action sequences.
Of course, the ending is suitably over the top, the douche FBI guys are suitably callous, and McClane’s particular brand of stalwart heroism comes out on top, bloody, bloody top since by the end of the movie he has no shoes or shirt, and is constantly falling through glass. But, like in all good Christmas movies, McClane bucks the system that tries to keep him down, reunites with his family, and ultimately has hope for another year of overtly American badassery, all set to “Let It Snow.”
• 99% Watch: The whole movie sets up a contrast between blue collar John McClane and the obnoxious, cocaine-soaked 80’s yuppies who uselessly populate Holly’s firm.
• “You’ll have to forgive Ellis. He gets very depressed this kind of year. He thought he was God’s greatest gift.”
• Die Hard is one of those pre-2000 movies where the entire plot would have to be rewritten today due to cell phones.
• Important lessons learned from Die Hard: All blond men are liars, and blond men with long hair are the worst. You should never trust somebody in a sweat suit. Don’t take off your shoes at an office party, because at some point you WILL have to walk through glass. Also, the FBI are mostly d-bags.
*I feel there may be a drinking game to be played while reading these reviews, whereby every time I describe something as “nothing more Christmasy” or “The true meaning of Christmas,” you take a shot. This game would be dangerous to your health, and I in no way endorse it.
Sunday, December 18, 2011
The story of a make-shift family’s heartbreak and hope is exactly the kind of crap that Christmas movies were made for. The momentary triumphs, abject horror, and desperate yearning for meaning in a world that can seem heartless and cold are the most moving tropes that I have experienced throughout this whole experiment. And this particular group of ragtag misfits, compiled of society’s castoffs, is profound in their devotion to the idea of their family.
During the non-Yule Tide part of the year, I find Rent’s politics incredibly frustrating even as I find the songs obscenely catchy. But during Christmas time, I think that tenants SHOULD be allowed to stay in their apartments rent-free and with ample provisions in terms of electricity. There’s a very traditional sense of “goodwill towards men” that Rent embodies, despite its seemingly fringe setting, that fits in perfectly with the pantheon of It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. If Angel, dressed up as lady stripper Santa, singing a song about murdering a dog and giving money to people, isn’t the Christmas-iest thing you see this year, then I don’t know how to talk to you.
Rent tells the story of 7 friends in late 1980s New York, ravaged by AIDS, poverty and drug abuse. Along the way, it touches on love, friendship and loss. The movie adaptation is occasionally given to histrionics, and it definitely loses a lot of the original play's kinetic energy, but that cast and the emotions remain strong (although this movie is the one that made me hate Idina Menzel for about two years). And belief in the idea of love as transcending the seasons that a life goes through, while cliché, is particularly moving when accompanied by so many varied depictions of what love means.
• Doing a 99% Watch on a film that's whole premise is about a group of un and under-employed young kids unable to pay their rent and being pushed out of their homes by an uncaring real estate magnet is a little absurd; but suffice it to say that from the opening number of “Rent” and the immediate appearance of Taye Diggs saying “get your ass off the Range Rover,” to the huge protest about homeless rights, this movie is more socialist than the Muppets.
• My mom’s summary of Rent: “Christmas Eves are the bookends, held together by heroin and Aids… Merry Christmas.”
• The movie’s take on love: you can find it if you’re gay (Angel and Tom), if you’re a lesbian (Maureen and Joanne), if you have AIDS (Roger and Mimi), but not if you're a heterosexual white dude with no discernable medical history.
• Why do musical characters all think that Santa Fe is the promise land?
Saturday, December 17, 2011
From the first chords of Vince Guaraldi, you’re 100% into the existential despair that Charlie Brown finds himself in. It’s sort of strangely appropriate that I find myself watching a movie all about finding the meaning of Christmas when I’m right in the middle of this little experiment and experiencing, I’ll admit it, a bit of Christmas movie fatigue. “I feel depressed, I know I should be happy, but I’m not,” says Charlie with aching sincerity. He’s caught in the middle of a glorious winter landscape, and surrounded by people full of Christmas Cheer, but he’s feeling empty and lonely and lost. Anyone over the age of 10 has had this moment, staring at all the Christmas lights around the house and wondering why it doesn’t hold the same joy it did when they were young. He sees the commercialism and hollow ritual that can seem to overwhelm any real gestures of “peace or goodwill towards men.” And the more disconnected he feels from the people around him (even when he’s helping them by directing the Christmas play), the emptier the whole ritual of Christmas seems.
One of the joys of Peanuts has always been the contrast between Charlie’s functional depression and Snoopy’s imaginative tomfoolery, a kind of metaphorical representative of the dichotomy between how terrifying and lonely being a kid can be with how freaking exciting it can be. Here, that dichotomy is represented beautifully by the contrast between the omnipresent “Christmas time is here” score and the hyperactive music that represents the play. And just like childhood, Christmas is a time of great contrasts. Of loving our rituals while feeling trapped by them, Of seeing relatives and friends whom we have missed while simultaneously finding them kind of annoying. Of trying to find the perfect representation of what Christmas means to us while also trying to make that representation run deeper than just the surface.
And so Charlie finds himself becoming obsessed with a pathetic little survivor of a Christmas Tree, as alone and unable to fit in as Charlie himself. But in the spirit of the season, and with the magic of a great Christmas special, the other people come together, creating a makeshift family for Charlie and the spirit of togetherness and joy that he was searching for. Not to get all film-major-y, but the use of sound in this movie really blew me away. The contrasts created by the ample use of silence, and the slightly echo-y quality to the voices, makes for a movie that feels like an avant garde film that just happens to feature characters who regularly show up in the funny pages of your local newspaper. And the great crescendo of this cacophony of sound and silence is the movie ending sing along with all the characters “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” a song that perfectly encapsulates the spiritually wandering Christmas offering. “I know nobody likes me, why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?”
Friday, December 16, 2011
As anyone whose seen Hugo will appreciate, film is a superbly moving medium with a rich history and millions of facets. Nothing captures just how much the films of 2011 have spoken to that fact quite like this brilliant YouTube montage celebrating 143 of the best, the worst and the most diverse films of the year. Enjoy.
The plot follows Wallace (Crosby) and Harris (Danny Kaye), a two man musical super act that starts when Harris saves Wallace during World War II. Harris is just enjoying the spoils of being a superstar, but Wallace’s bachelor-derived seriousness gets in his way, so Harris concocts plans to try and get Wallace hitched. When two sisters, Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy, trick them into seeing their show, Harris sees the solution to his problem in the person of Betty. Through a series of hijinks, Harris maneuvers himself and Wallace onto a train bound for Vermont with Judy and Betty. Judy and Betty head to the Inn where they are meant to perform, but Vermont is oddly snowless and the Inn is deserted. Just as they’re ready to leave, Harris and Wallace run into General Waverly, the owner of the Inn and their personal hero. When they find out the Inn is close to bankruptcy, they decide to perform a huge show there to try and raise its profile. As they get ready for the show, they flirt with the sisters, hatch plans to rejuvenate the General’s moral, and generally enjoy a pre-60s bromance of the greatest variety. But after a misunderstanding, Betty becomes convinced that Harris and Wallace are just using the General for publicity and, rightfully, chews Wallace out. Meanwhile, Judy and Harris decide to fake an engagement. Pissed off, Betty takes off for New York, and Wallace has to go to beg her to come back, while simultaneously trying to convince everyone they knew to come to Vermont and save the General’s inn and pride.
Rosemary Clooney, with her broad shoulders and deep, soulful voice, is fantastic. She’s fiery and a subtle sort of sheltered awkward. And Bing Crosby, despite his painfully painted-in blue eyes, is suitably charismatic as Wallace. But I gotta say, I fell in love with Danny Kaye’s goofy Harris, who is probably the world’s most incompetent wingman, and who struts around with the manic energy of Cosmo Kramer and the ginger effervescence of a Weasley sibling.
As for the plot, it’s the kind of semi-screwball romance that the 40s and 50s excelled at. The dance numbers are more impressive than the singing (and a lot of the ballads are a little too long and serious for me), and despite the title, the movie is surprisingly light on Christmas. But damned if it’s not a beautiful moment when the General walks into a crowded ballroom on Christmas Eve to find it filled with all the men who are grateful to him for their lives. The final dance numbers, during the General tribute show, from “I Wish I Was Back in the Army” (my personal favorite) to the opulent version of “White Christmas” are what really make the movie (or, as my Dad put it, “the made whole movie just so they could sing this song.”) And the film smartly contrasts the beginning melancholy version with the ending joyful one to bring a sense of closure and, well, Christmasy cheer.
In all, White Christmas was exactly the sort of surface-ly cheerful good time that it’s candy-colored, overly sincere box suggests. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
• 99% Watch: Small Business Owner (and honored war veteran) General Waverly struggles to keep his business afloat in a tough post-War economy
• “What would be a novelty here in Vermont?” “Maybe we can dig up a Democrat?” 50s politics were funny
• Less funny? The extended number about the joys of minstrel shows (at least they weren’t in black face)
• Vera-Ellen, who plays sister Judy, is too skinny to watch, even by today’s standards
• Fun side note: Danny Kaye is Jewish.
• According to this movie, men want to be in the army because they don’t have to think about their clothes and they get free food, women want to be able to pick out men based on age, weight and size. Actually, I wanted to make a feminist complaint, but that sounds about right.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Now that’s more like it.
From the first frames of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (fake newsreel footage of kids trying to get ready for the arrival of Santa Claus), I was sold. It’s filled with lush claymation landscapes, witty songs, a surprisingly complicated original plot, and themes that range from trying to be the best you can be to the power of being kind to people around you (no matter how weird, mean, or cruel they mean seem, or how comically weird their name may seem). It is also an enormous Nazi analogy, mixed with a Robin Hood story, but more on that later.
Santa Claus is Coming To Town is probably the least well known of the classics by Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass (who also did Rudolph and Frosty). But here are the bare bone facts: Fred Astaire sings, dances and narrates the piece as a postman who knows everything about Santa. Mickey Rooney voices Santa. The movie features a character named Burgermeister Meister Burger who lives in Summertown. Basically, it wants to tell the story of Kris Kringle’s transformation into the one and only Santa Claus. Santa arrives at Burgermeister Meister Burger's as an orphaned baby, but he’s sent away. Then, a crazy wind pulls him towards the lair of the Winter Warlock (who is 17 kinds of evil), so the animals save him and bring him to the Kringles (specifically, Dingle Kringle, which is the greatest name I’ve ever heard, until you hear his brothers’ names). The five brothers bring him to the Elf queen, who lets him live with them (and names him Kris).
The elves can’t get their awesome toys to the little boys and girls because of the awful mountain, but Kris promises to do just that when he grows up. So grown up Kris (who’s a ginger, natch) tries to walk to the other side of the mountain to deliver toys and on the way encounters a penguin, thus confirming that penguins are indeed the Christmas bird. Kris and the penguin (Topper) arrive in Summertown, but Burgermeister Meister Burger has outlawed toys (in an Alan Menken-esque musical monologue). But Kris comes in, all red-trimmed and exuberant, and gives toys to all the girls and boys if only they’d stop pouting. But when Burgermeister Meister Burger is ready to put the kibosh in the whole communist love-in, Kris and Topper have to take off, and Kris suddenly turns out to have all the nonconformist agility of Aladdin and ends up right in the grasp of the Winter Warlock. But Kris’s kindness, and desire to give the Winter Warlock a toy, causes Winter’s heart to melt. Winter helps Kris start making a list (to check twice) of all the children to help him deliver illicit presents.
Burgermeister Meister Burger is, understandably, unhappy and he and Kris start a nice little covert war that actually kind of reminded me of communications in the Warsaw ghetto. Actually, the whole series of scenes of herr Bergermeister with his German accent tearing apart people’s homes to try and find the illegal toys puts Santa in the odd position of playing the role of the Jews in this World War II homage. Or maybe he’s more of a toy-ferrying Harriet Tubman. Either way, he is captured by Herr Bergermeister, who lights their toys on fire and HOLY CRAP this is a Nazi analogy, I’m not just being overly flippant. This is totally intentional.
Anyway, Kris’s lady love (distressed about Kris’ arrest) starts singing an acid-trip-styled ballad about being changed by Kris and fascism (or something), which also causes her hairstyle to change from uptight bun to flowy hippie locks. At this point, it is abundantly obvious that this movie wants more than just to tell the story of Santa. It’s actually providing trenchant political analysis about greed and fascism being overcome by kindness and generosity. Also that hippies have better hair.
Badass Jessica then frees Kris and his friends using magic reindeer. Kris grows out his beard (like a dirty hippy) to hide from Burgermeister Meister Burger, and then changes his name to Santa Claus, before marrying Jessica “in front of the lord.” The Winter Warlock (who has been losing his magic throughout the movie) summons up one last ounce of magic and lights the first Christmas tree. The movie ends with the beginning of the tradition of exchanging presents with the people you love on Christmas. A now-married Santa Claus takes on the task of giving out secret presents every year to the boys and girls. Thus Santa is recast from lovable philanthropist into the role of exiled revolutionary building his own castle outside of the society that banished him.
After the Burgermeisters fall from power, cool guys in jeans come and throw out their paintings and Santa is revered as the nice guy he truly is. But Santa gets old, and can no longer go out all the time delivering gifts, so he has to switch to just Christmas (because it is the holiest night of the year).
Even more than Rudolph, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town takes abundant advantage of the expanse of claymation. Every scene is full of countless awesome little details, and the characters are full of little visual quirks. And from the Nazi analogies, to the movie-ending monologue begging us to “learn Santa’s lesson” about peace on earth and goodwill towards man, no one can accuse this movie of being paint-by-numbers. It is the rare childhood classic that actually grows in estimation when watching it as an adult.
• Does Kris Kringle look like the brothers in 7 Brides for 7 Brothers to anyone else? I half expected him to throw some ladies over his shoulder and bring them back as his bride.
• “Watch out for the doll. She’s a hardened criminal I hear.” This movie is freaking adorable.
• “Why look here, changing from bad to good is as easy as taking your first step.” Who knew this movie was actually super helpful for New Year’s Resolutions as well as Christmas Cheer?
• Jessica kind of looks like Joan from Mad Men. Just sayin’.
• 99% Watch: Besides Santa’s intense Socialist values, disregard for property laws, and distrust for authority (especially law enforcement), there’s actually less overt class warfare references here, just a general disdain for tyranny, except when it comes in the form of jolly men with beards.
• The point by point Santa explanations (“and that’s how he started going down chimneys”; “So that’s how he got the red suit!”) should be annoyingly on the nose, but they’re just so cute, I couldn’t get annoyed.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Shorter and less revolutionary than its reindeer brethren, Frosty looks less like Coraline and more like a classic Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon.
A bunch of kids get together after school on the day before Christmas to make a snowman. A magician’s magic (and very argumentative) hat falls on old Frosty’s head and he immediately comes to life. The kids and magician accept this remarkably quickly. Frosty is much more of a goofy children’s special, with very little to recommend itself outside of nostalgia and painfully catchy musical numbers.
With a dastardly, mustachioed magician, a wily bunny rabbit, and a precocious blond sidekick named Karen, dimwitted Frosty makes his way to North Pole salvation and encounters a series of trivial obstacles and adorable woodland creatures’ Christmas. Along the way, he seems to hit about 1,000 lame children’s movie clichés. Then Frosty melts, and the children cry, and the jazzy/bluesy theme comes on, and Santa has to console poor abandoned Karen. Here, the movie gets as close as it comes to metaphor, talking about how “Christmas snow” is always around us, even when it seems like Spring or Summer.
Now, it may seem grumpy or un-Christmas-like to complain about a lack of substance in a half-hour animated special designed for children. But if I’ve learned anything throughout the other installments of this series, it’s that Christmas makes for particularly ripe creative ground, home for all sorts of stories about love and acceptance. So, as somewhat nauseous as it makes me to admit it, I’ll say it – Frosty kind of sucks. It’s not a particularly substantial story to begin with, but the animated special could be more fun to make up for its lack of real stuff. Instead, it feels surprisingly paint by numbers.
• I love that the movie felt the need to make clear to children that it is only okay to steal a hat from a mean old magician man (even if you are an adorable bunny rabbit)
• “Those silly snowmen, once they come to life, they don’t know nothin’.”
• 99% Watch: The children and Frosty’s lack of money keeps them from getting him to the North Pole, but some clever Robin Hood’ing by Frosty (jumping a refrigerator car on a train, naturally) gets him there anyway.
• Maybe Karen is so cold because she’s not wearing pants.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Narrated by Sam, the talking Snow Man, Rudolph starts with the devastating news that bad weather is threatening the celebration of Christmas. Luckily, as the narrator Snow Man tells us, Santa has Rudolph. We don’t know how, yet, but we know that plucky little reindeer is going to save the day.
The first thing I noticed was how gorgeously old school this animation is. Since it’s been a while since I’ve sat down with originals, my most recent memories of this particular school of animation were from Community and It’s Always Sunny. But on this old school track, you can see every tuff of awkwardly constructed reindeer hair. You can see the precarious puppetry behind surprisingly Trotsky-looking Santa. And you can really see how adorable Rudolph is. The story of how Rudolph became the savior of Christmas is, as you probably remember, the tale of “nonconformist,” red-nosed Rudolph becoming accepted for exactly what he is by the reindeer and the surprisingly mean and judgmental version of Santa. There’s also an awesome abominable snowman who traipses around Christmasland, scaring reindeer, elves and Santa alike. Then, there’s also the goofy Herbie, an “unhappy in his work” elf who is messing things up at the Elf factory because of his desire to be a dentist.
In this version of the North Pole, apparently Santa is a conformity minded task master who grooms reindeer to do his bidding while oppressing his elven workers (99% WATCH). After the elves put together a beautiful musical number for Santa, he dismisses them with a “well it needed work” and then jets off to go judge (overly harshly) the reindeer. In fact, increasingly as I watched Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, I was reminded of the fact that this movie came out in 1964, and it feels intensely like a product of that time. In fact, the reindeer flirting scenes seem taken straight out of a cheesy 50s beach party movie. Comet the reindeer seems like the quintessential 60s era overbearing sports coach. And if Donnor, in the role of Rudolph’s father, had started talking about fighting the Japs in WWII, I would not have been surprised.
And there’s an intense counter culture vibe running through this. I’m not kidding, by the way. Rudolph could be one of the most subversive movies to ever feature an extended musical number with singing snow bunnies. While being a dentist and having a red nose may not seem like counter culture statements, the whole theme of “independence” and being a misfit and going against society’s rules, especially in view of the movie’s early 1960’s release, is pretty profound. It’s even kind of feminist, with douchebag Daddy Donnor trying to keep Mama Donnor in the house, to which she basically says "screw you" and heads out with Rudolph’s future gal pal, Clarice, to search for her missing toy*.
And that’s all before they get to the Island of Misfit Toys, where hundreds of toys sit alone and abandoned due to manufacturing defects. A thriving subculture develops (complete with carefully harmonized musical numbers!) among Santa’s rejects, who nonetheless spend their time yearning for the Christmas day that will never be theirs. It’s a case study in thwarted desire and the beauty of solidarity among society’s cast offs. Substitute misfit toy for any oppressed subculture, and the movie sounds even more radical. After all, this is a world in which even the abominable snowman, when shown some understanding, wants to come in and help decorate the Christmas tree. Eventually, the elves, reindeer and Santa realize they were being jerks and welcome Herbie, Rudolph, the abominable snowman, and Yukon Cornelius into their midst, just in time to take advantage of the things they once hated about them.
And so Reindeer and his glowy nose guide Santa and his sleigh straight to the Island of Misfit toys. They rescue the misfit presents, and then bring gifts to all the good little boys and girls the world over. And thus, in the minds of millions of little boys and girls the world over, was planted the idea that the weirdo you made fun of in gym class is one day going to totally beat you at your own job. And if only they’d taken that lesson to heart, instead of getting distracted by the cute fawns across the way, then the 80s would have never seen the Revenge of the Nerds franchise.
• “Why am I such a misfit? I am not just a nitwit.” I DARE you not to feel bad for the sad little Rudolph.
• The name Clarice has been ruined by The Silence of the Lambs.
• “From now on, gang, we won’t let Rudolph join in ANY reindeer games, right?”
* Okay so maybe I overstated the feminism, since very quickly thereafter: “of course, they were very sad about the loss of their friend, but they realized the best thing to do is get the women home safely.”