Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A New Year's Double Post for You

I haven't written in several days, mainly because I've been enjoying being off the grid of late.  I wanted to be by myself a lot of the time, and in the evenings maybe I wanted to see a friend or two.  I also got my stomach thing again earlier in the week, and stabbing abdominal pain tends to outweigh the joy of writing.  But I'm back in full form and ready to dish you two fab films from the 80s, both that figure heavily in both New Year's time, and also the career of Dan Aykroyd.

The first film I had never heard of until 1996, when Jamie Kennedy spoke about Jamie Lee Curtis in the film, Scream.  Someone asked if in Halloween, you ever got to see Jamie Lee's breasts, and Jamie Kennedy said no...not until she got a legitimate (non horror) role in 1983 where she played a street smart prostitute with a heart of gold and a huge rack.  That film was Trading Places, which while being notable for Mrs. Curtis' ample...eherm...assets is also well known for being one of the funniest comedies of the early eighties and Eddie Murphy's career.  It begins just before Thanksgiving in Philadelphia, PA where a successful commodities broker, Louis Winthorpe (Aykroyd) is enjoying a charmed life while Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy) lives a hard life on the street.  Winthorpe's two evil bosses, the Duke Brothers, in their rich boredom decide to have a heredity vs. environment experiment using the two men and wager a dollar that one or the other outcomes will be true if they switch the two men.  Everything that follows is hilarity (and boobs, for some reason the early and mid-eighties were full of boobs) and the ending, which takes place between New Year's Eve and the start of the new year, is a screwball and 'what-goes-around-comes-around' masterpiece.  Special shout outs should be given, not just to Jamie Lee who helps Winthorpe as he descends to poverty, to Denholm Elliott (Winthorpe's loyal butler Coleman) and Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche as the brothers Duke.  The supporting cast is just as brilliant as the leads and they are the glue that holds the story together.

The next film I offer to you is another of Aykroyd's well known roles...perhaps the role he is best known for all over the world, and it was the second time he would play that character along side his Second City buddies.  This character is also one of Aykroyd's most quoted...who hasn't heard Ray Stantz "One, two, three...GET HER!!!"  Yes friends, Ghostbusters II also takes place at the end of the year and its finale even takes place on the crucial last hours of New Year's Eve.  This films finds our favorite ghost hunters on the rocks and basically broken up because of being legally restrained from paranormal investigation after the events of the first film (New York City didn't look kindly on them blowing up a skyscraper and a big marshmallow man, that they themselves accidentally created) and Dana Barrett (the always lovely and luminescent Sigourney Weaver...can you tell I'm a fan?) having ghost trouble again.  It seems that malevolent spirit in a painting at the Manhattan Museum of Art, where she is working, has got his sights set on possessing her baby, Oscar, at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve so that he can take over the world.  This film had a lot of things working against it when it was released.  Not only was it considered more of the same (in fact there is a Youtube video that shows all the key moments in both films that mirror each other) and thus not as good as the first, but it also had the misfortune of being released at the same time as Tim Burton's Batman which squashed it both critically and financially.  Not that the film didn't make good money, the boys in gray were still quite popular...especially with kids who had been watching the cartoon for the five years between films...but it didn't do nearly as well as the studio hoped.  Thus, much hope for Ghostbusters III was lost because the studio couldn't justify spending more money on a franchise that would be expensive and open with no legs at the box office.  We may still see part 3, since the popularity of the franchise has resurfaced with the release of the new video game, but for now...Ghostbusters II is a fine film to entertain yourself with as the year comes to a close.

On a more personal note, I would like to add that my new Playstation 3 decided to start working properly today...I'm watching my new Star Trek II BD on it right now...and so it seems that I may not need to send it to Sony for service afterall.  I couldn't be happier about this...and yet apprehensive that the thing may still crap out on me when I let my guard down.  Lets all hope that it doesn't.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Two Gay Men Can't Be Friends...

...the Sex part always gets in the way.  No, I didn't invent this little bit of fact it wasn't even stated originally in a homosexual setting...rather it was an attempt to address the paradox in male/female heterosexual friendships.  The wisdom states that men and women can never be friends because the sex always gets in the way...regardless of how one feels about the other.  A man always wants to sleep with a woman he finds attractive, ultimately dooming the friendship to failure.  And if a man doesn't find a women friend attractive, you can probably assume that she finds him attractive.  A true paradox, though the same can be applied to gay male or the other is usually attracted to the other and thus the friendship is doomed to awkwardness and failure.  Who invented something that sounded so unPC, you ask?  Screenwriters Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner, that's who.  They attempted to explore this theme in their critically acclaimed film When Harry Met Sally... and this changed the state of romantic comedies for years to come (which was both a blessing and a curse).

For the two of you out there who haven't seen this film, it tells the story of Harry Burns and Sally Albright who happen to meet when driving from the University of Chicago to New York City (he needed a ride and she had the car).  Then they meet again five years later in an airport, still not hitting it off.  Then they meet another five years later and decide to become friends due to a connection over their recent lost relationships.  Everyone around them can see that they are perfect for each other, but Harry and Sally deny this attraction and attempt to just be friends. In doing so, they create one of the most natural and intimate relationships of any two romantic leads ever featured on film and makes us as an audience yearn for the climactic moment when they finally get together.  Also, unlike other romantic comedies since, both of the characters are delightfully flawed and feel like real people...unlike the super normal or cutely flawed caricatures that one sees nowadays.  Everyone is so pretty and perfect, where as Sally and Harry are fairly average in the looks department and quirky like people you might really know (example: they break into Surrey With a Fringe on Top at a Sharper Image when Harry finds a karaoke machine...its the kind of thing me and my friends might do out in public).  If all this weren't enough, there's also the winning dialogue and situations that Reiner and Ephron create that have become part of our culture ("I'm gonna be FOURTY!!"..."When?"...."....someday..." or the faking an orgasm scene).  Its a wonderful movie that still holds up today, I think.  And its New Year's ending makes it perfect for late December viewing.  If you haven't seen it, or haven't seen it for a while, pick it up and put it on the tube won't be disappointed.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Day 25: Good Grief

For our last film of our last of the 25 days of Christmas movies, I wanted to take a look back at one of the classics of the holiday season, as well as a classic in its particular film franchise.  This film premiered on television in 1965 and became a holiday staple on CBS for the next 35 years.  It starred one of America's favorite comic strip characters and tried to help us all discover 'what Christmas is all about' while also featuring one of the saddest looking Christmas trees ever put on animation.  This was what A Charlie Brown Christmas was all about...well, it was about more than that I guess.  Good grief, I can't be witty all the time.  As for the short, it was a wonderfully cute little yarn featuring the kids from "Peanuts" and with a bit of a holiday message to share.  Over the course of the film, Charlie Brown discovers that Christmas isn't about presents, getting cards, winning decorating contests, or even directing Christmas pageants.  Its about doing good deeds, spending time with friends and family, and helping out people who need it.  So as you wind down your Christmas Day and prepare for the last 7 days of 2009, try to find this one on the TV...I guarantee you won't regret it.

As for the actual Christmas Day, I'd say I had a pretty good one.  I spent it with family and we enjoyed our time together...talking, watching television, and of course giving gifts.  I received my PS3 which was both a blessing and a curse.  I was happy to get it, but it is apparently broken right out of the box.  It worked beautifully last night, but today it refused to admit a disc to be placed inside of it and we actually had to manually remove a disc that wouldn't eject.  So now we must have the machine serviced...which means it will probably take a week to get a replacement.  But you know...if it had worked I would have played with it all day, rather than interacting with my you could say that its a good thing that technical difficulties forced me to enjoy the real aspects of Christmas...the family.  Oh, and don't make fun of me for being sappy...praise me for finding my silver lining and not acting like a brat about a broken Christmas present.  I hope everyone else out there had a very Merry Christmas (or happy Hanukkah, or Kwanza, or Festivus, etc) and stay tuned for 7 days of New Year's films (and I warn you, I might not get in a full 7 days)...where we will look at such gems as Ghostbusters II, When Harry Met Sally, and Terror Train.  Are you as pumped as I am?  I sure hope so!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Day 24: Skipping Christmas

I can remember a year in my youth when Mom was seriously considering skipping Christmas...I can't remember precisely when or why...and that may be because it never actually happened...but I still can remember it.  When I think of such an idea, especially now on Christmas Eve, I can't help but have the kneejerk reaction of "what a silly idea"...and then I wonder, what would it be like to skip Christmas for a year.  I'd certainly save money, and I wouldn't need to rush around my holiday break trying to see every family member that I know.  Also, I wouldn't need to burden anyone else with buying gifts for me, so others would save money as well.  As one rationalizes it, it becomes a rather good at least try once.  Of course, then I'd be missing the family and the fun of Christmas, and that's the real point.  I think that's what John Grisham was thinking when he wrote his light, frothy comedy "Skipping Christmas" as a short novella that was entertaining enough to entice Chris Columbus to produce a movie based on the book, which was to share the same title but happened to come out in the same year as Surviving Christmas and they didn't want title confusion, so the studio changed the title to Christmas With the Kranks, which started the film adaptation rolling downhill.

The story goes as follows: Luther and Nora Krank are depressed this holiday season because their daughter, Blair, is joining the Peace Corps and won't be home for Christmas for the first time since...well....ever.  Nora intends to keep on truckin' with the Christmas plans, but Luther begins to actually think about what they spend on Christmas each year (he's an accountant).  When he tallies the numbers and compares it to what they might spend on a Christmas cruise instead, he finds that they can save money if they simply skip Christmas and spend the cash on a cruise.  Nora thinks this means just not doing presents and a party...but for Luther it means a total boycott.  No charities, no tree, no decor, no calendar, nada.  Nora talks him down to the cruise and the charities and they agree to skip Christmas (afterall, no one will be around anyway).  But when their friends and neighbors hear of this, they are concerned and confused...and the situation escalates as the neighbors try to convince the Kranks to put out their decorations and Luther fights them on it.  It slowly dissolves into a chaotic and satricial look at how we treat people who don't celebrate Christmas, as well as a skewering of how people easily overlook the real core ideals of Christmas.  Of course, most of this is gold in the book and in the plays merely ok.  The title change is the first misstep, and a lot of the slapstick is over done in the film as well.  The secondary characters become two-dimensional Christmas nazis and the ending never seems like a surprise (except for the VERY end, which makes little to no sense).  I still like the movie, because it does keep a lot of what's right about the novel...but the filmmakers missed the mark on what should have been a subtle satire and became a loud and obnoxious farce.  Still, its Christmas Eve and if there's anything this story tells me, its to give those you don't necessarily see eye-to-eye with the benifit of the doubt.  So I shall watch Christmas with the Kranks tonight with an open-mind and will chuckle at Jamie Lee Curtis and Tim Allen who are a perfect Nora and Luther...even if the rest of the film around them is less that perfect.

Day 23: Knowwhutimean Vern?

For the day before the day before Christmas, I thought I would focus on yet another film from my childhood, one I don't think I've seen since before I turned 10. This was a film spawned by the popular television appearances made by the late Jim Varney in his most famous character alter-ego, Ernest P. Worrel. This film was to be called Ernest Saves Christmas and it is one of his most popular and humorous film outings in his repetiore.  In this film, Ernest has the good fortune to pick up Santa Claus at the Orlando Airport in his taxi and thus begins a crazy adventure where he must help Santa convince both a cynical teenage girl, and a middle aged nice guy that he does in fact exist.  The man is the important one to convince, as Santa wants him to take over the business so that he can retire, but the girl becomes a factor when she steals Santa's bag for her own use.  Its a cute film, and one that I can't really find too much fault in (unlike the less funny and more silly outings like Ernest Goes to School and Slam Dunk Ernest).  Its a sweet story about the innocent love of Santa and Christmas and how the magic of Christmas is in all of us.  It is also notable that this is the only film (that I know of) that features Vern, the offscreen pal of Ernest.  Ernest, of course, destroys Vern's house when he tries to decorate it and so its understandable why Vern would slam the door in Ernest's face.

There's not much else to say about this entry, and its perfect for pre-Christmas family viewing.  No gross out humor, not too much slapstick, just good old fashioned 80s fun.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Day 22: The Story of an Uncommonly Gentle Man

Now I know that there are some of you out there who won't agree with my inclusion of this film as a Christmas movie in my 25 days because it does not seem synonimous with the holiday.  Many of you will even go so far to say that it isn't even about Christmas...and no, it isn't, but it does feature the holiday in both its prologue, third act, and coda and frankly that's good enough for me.  Also, it deals with a very important dramatic question for any Christmas loving child...."where does snow come from"?  And thus, we are launched into the narrative of Edward Scissorhands, one of the most touching and personal films that Tim Burton has ever made.

For those of you who don't know the story, it is a modern day fairy tale (that a grandmother tells to her granddaughter in the film no less) that takes place in today's peasant kingdom...suburbia, and how those that live there react to an outsider who is brought into their midst.  Shy Avon lady Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest), frustrated with being unable to sell any cosmetics that day, wanders up to the old mansion on the hill hoping to find a customer.  What she finds in the decrepit mansion is Edward (Johnny Depp), an artificial man with scissors for hands.  At first Peg is afraid, but then she sees how gentle and alone Edward its, her heart melts and she takes him home with her so that she can take care of him.  There he meets the other members of the family including Kim (Winona Ryder), Peg's daughter (whom he falls in love with) and the neighbors.  At first everyone is impressed with Edward's talent for topiary work (bush trimming) and hair styling, but when he is framed for a robbery and spurns the affections of the neighborhood ho he becomes reviled and mistrusted by the neighbors.  The ending is bittersweet and always makes me cry, mainly because of the interesting way that Burton and screenwriter Caroline Thompson wrap up the story and also because of the themes present (the reviled outsider, the fear of the unfamiliar, and love).

This was often described as a pet project for Burton, indeed the character of Edward in many ways reflects the person that Burton was in high school (odd, quiet, and misunderstood)...he even gets revenge on the school jock in the end.  In such a way, he makes Edward someone that many of us can relate to (we've all been picked on or left out at some point in our lives).  I know that he's the character I most identified with when I was younger...but I think now I relate more to the motherly Peg.  Dianne Weist plays her with an honesty and sincere sweetness that never seems false or condescending.  She is simply a kind person who gives everyone the benefit of the doubt, even though sometimes it allows her to be walked over by her neighborhood friends.  The reason I say that I relate to her is that I often play the caring, kind friend to people I know.  I'm sometimes nurturing and protective, and I no longer feel as though I don't belong...I'm more like Peg...I exist amongst similar people and we coexist as if we are the same, but at a deep level I know that I am my own different person and that I will never be fully one of them.  I'd be the person to take in an Edward and would try to help him if I could and would never fear him because of his differences.  I'm not perfect, mind you...and Miss J will be the first to tell you how non-nurturing and un-motherly I can be.  But I know that some of that person exists in me, and its nice when he gets to show himself and pushes aside the grouchy cynic.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Day 21: It's Ours This Time...

I realized the other day, as I was stuck in WV under mounds and mounds of snow that, in all the careful planning and organizing of Christmas movies for each day of this blog, I had nearly forgotten one of the best ones of the darker persuasion.  It is a film that I took to at a very early age, upon its original release in 1993, because I had always enjoyed things of the macabre nature...especially the dark things which this artist constantly seemed to be thinking up.  The film itself wasn't hugely successful as a children's film (mainly due to its macabre nature) but it did manage to be successful enough to be memorable...and would eventually be made more successful after the fact by the goth and emo crowd who seemed to relate to its outcast leads.  The film is, The Nightmare Before Christmas, which began life as a Tim Burton poem (with illustrations) when he worked as an animator at Walt Disney Studios, and was finally given filmic life when he became a household name following the success of Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman Returns.

I've known a lot of people who didn't take to the movie, which isn't surprising.  A truly discriminating viewer will notice plot holes here and there, they might also wonder why the leader of Halloweentown is such an emotional sap rather than being someone fearsome and ghoulish, and they also might be put off by the techniques of stop-motion animation.  Whatever the reasons, these people just don't care for this movie.  I'm not going to tell them their wrong...that will be as silly as someone trying to convince me why I shouldn't like it as much as I do.  I would like to say that I'm not one of those emo kids who brought it, I liked it way back when I was 9 and it was new.  It was something a little different and a little dark, which was nice next to all the bright and happy animated musicals that the Mouse House was producing at that point.  Oh yes, this dark little fairy tale is definitely a musical...with wonderfully clever tunes written by (and in several instances) sung by Danny Elfman.  The story, I think, is rather ingenious.  It first invents the idea that every holiday inhabits its own world where its preparations take place for an entire year, and we are first shown Halloweentown, where everything is dark and spooky and it is run by Jack Skellington...the Pumpkin King.  Jack is a very talented scaremaster and everyone in Halloweentown adores him (despite his nemisis, Oogie-Boogie)...but yet, Jack is bored and unsatisfied with his life.  It seems that all he ever does is the same old thing, and he feels empty inside...but soon he comes across the different entrances to the different holiday towns and stumbles into Christmastown...where he becomes enamored with the secular trappings of the treasured winter holiday.  After trying to make some sense of why it makes him feel so strongly, he decides to hijack Christmas from Santa Claus and run it himself.  Not out of evil intentions mind you, just because he wants to be a part of all the joy....unfortunately, things go horribly wrong.  Its a grand modern fairy tale and one I enjoy revisiting every year (though usually as a transitional film to get from the Fall holidays into I'm a little late this year)...I hope I get to share it with children of my own someday.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Day 20: Something with Muppets

Here, buried under snow at the old homestead, Mom, Mr. and Miss J, and I revisited a family Christmas classic together on the was all very Better Homes and Gardens...if Better Homes and Gardens ever showed a family with grown up children, one of them gay, and a single mother.  Wait?  They did?  Show's how out of the loop I am.  Anyway, the film we watched was Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas, which began its life as a short story and then was made into a HBO Christmas special in 1977.  Its a very touching tale, lovingly rendered on celluloid by Jim Henson and his puppeteers and given musical life with songs by Paul Williams.  It tells the story of river folk, specifically Emmet Otter and his Ma, who are trying to give themselves a nice Christmas despite being poor.  We used to watch it all the time when Miss J and I were kids, and now that its on DVD, we watch it every year...because our old Christmas tape has vanished in the shuffle.

One thing that's really great about this film is its focus on the relationship between mother and son, and how they use music to get them through their dreary, dead end lives in high spirits.  They use this musical talent to try to win a contest, and both have to sacrifice something in order to enter (in a very "The Gift of the Magi" kind of way) and it makes for a very surprising ending.  Who will win?  Will they get the money for Christmas?  What's really nice about this special is that it focuses less on making sure everything works out for the best and instead examines how to make the best out of any given situation...something that we don't do that well in our daily lives.  I know I don't...I always mope about how things didn't go my way, rather than trying to figure out how I can make something better.  My only regret about this film is that there isn't a CD available so that I can keep listening to Paul Williams' music.  Thank god for my Bugsy Malone album.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Day 18 and 19: A Small Town Double Feature

I need to catch up after missing yesterday's post...I was detained.  How so, you ask?  Well, I had to drive to southern WV to visit family for an early Christmas and got stuck in the worst snow storm to hit WV since the 2003 winter wallop.  It began to rain as I was getting close to Charleston, and once I passed Charleston the rain turned to snow.  I had hear that the storm would be bad, but I had high hopes that it wouldn't get BAD bad until I got to the house.  Unfortunately, it began to gunk up the roads quickly and by the time I got to my exit we (the cars on the highway) were all going 35 in a 70 zone...and slowly decreasing speed as it got hard to steer and control.  I got on a main street through town...and was stuck there in stop and go traffic (mainly stop) for two extra hours.  My trip should have taken 3 hours, but it took me 5...mainly taking 2 hours to do the last 15 miles.  But I made it.  I actually kissed the floor of my mother's home when I arrived...and my sis supplied me with a big glass of wine to steady my nerves.  Then we opened presents, which was great.  I got all kinds of fun stuff.

So lets get on with yesterday's and today's movie posts.  In honor of showing this particular film to my class this week, I decided to do Friday's post on Frank Capra's heartwarming classic It's a Wonderful Life, a film that never fails to make me cry.  Its rather amazing that a film made in 1948 can still touch us today, since most of the time older films become dated over time, but even my kids fell in love with this film this week (many of them had never seen it).  I think the reason that people still love this movie is due to our ability to relate to its protagonist, George Bailey.  George is an average guy who would help anyone out if they needed it.  He gives up a lot to keep his father's business going, to keep his family well supported, and even to help individuals in town own their own homes.  He doesn't think of what he's doing as heroic or even out of the ordinary...its just the right thing to do.  What he doesn't realize is how much he changes the lives of those people around him, which is why an angel gives him a glimpse of what his life would be like if he had never been born in order to keep him from committing suicide.  The point is that even the most ordinary life is wonderful because of all the other lives that touch it...and setting the ending at Christmas just gives it that extra oomph of small-town goodwill that the film needs.  If you haven't seen it, just turn on your TV this holiday might be on.

Today's film, interestingly enough, is often called the anti-It's a Wonderful Life due to its similarly picturesque small-town Christmas setting, similar small-town characters (average leading man, innocent girl, evil old rich person, etc.), and contrastingly violent nature of its central conflict.  What central conflict, you ask?  A Christmas Eve in ruins at the hands of little green monsters.  Yes friends, I'm talking about Gremlins, one of my favorite Christmas movies and a standby for Christmas Eve night viewing as it removes the taste of ever so much heartwarming viewing by that point.  Also, Gizmo is cute (a friend got me a Gizmo doll for Christmas).  I mean, what's better on Christmas Eve than watching devious little creatures tearing apart small town America as George Bailey left it?  Yes, it gets a little scary at times (the section with Mom in the house alone with the gremlins is pretty intense) but for the most part, its a dark comedy with wonderfully slapstick and silly elements as well as some sneaky wit (Robbie the Robot and the Time Machine at Dad's inventor's expo).  Of course, some may object to the violent content but you can do a lot worse (remember, I covered Silent Night, Deadly Night last week) and this film still has a very cute puppet center stage that will make the kiddies happy (and you can try to keep them from acting like gremlins...but they probably will anyway).  I watched it when I was under 10, and I turned out fine...any rumors you hear otherwise are completely baseless and untrue.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Day 17: How to use Scrooge as a Verb

Is there a Christmas story that has been adapted as many times as Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"?  I don't think so.  This month's blog has had two versions of it featured already, and we're about to see a new one tonight...well not new, but more contemporary in release date and setting.  1988 brought us a lot of things...several horror sequels and original work to boot (it was almost as good a year as 1984) and by this point Bill Murray was box office gold.  So when Paramount Pictures decided to produce a modernized version of Carol for the 80s, who better to cast as a Scrooge replacement than Murray, who had already proved that he was a great smarmy bastard in films...and he worked well with ghosts.  Add in some wonderful supporting cast members and spot-on direction by Richard Donner and you get Scrooged, a Christmas Carol that not only reinvents the story to exist in modern day America but also self-reflexively acknowledges that Carol already exists in our collective consciousness.

It works so well, not only as an adaptation, but as its own story as well.  All the main players are here,  Murray as the Scrooge character, the four ghosts, Alfre Woodard as Murray's Cratchet-like assistant, and Murray's real life brother filling in the part of the Christmas loving relative.  There are other additions, such as Murray's underlings at his job (he's now Frank Cross, a television executive) and the fleshing out of the old lover, who in this version is played by Karen Allen and reappears in Murray's life (unlike the original tale where Scrooge's love dissapears after the past segment is over).  The comedy is great here too...its deliciously dark and full of witty one-liners and slapstick violence (the constant bludgeioning of the network censor is wonderful, as well as Carol Kane's psychotic fairy godmother version of The Ghost of Christmas Present...."The bitch hit me with a toaster...").

Some find the humor in this story much too broad, and the modernization of the story to be much too obvious, but I think it works great.  I mean, we all know this story and this script makes no bones about it.  That's why Murray is producing a TV version of Dickens' novel while all of this is going on.  The script might even imply that everything that happens to Murray is a delusion brought on by stress and he simply places himself within the Scrooge template because he's so immersed in it due to the project.  But of course, all of us who know and believe in the story know that what's happening to Murray is real.  And if could happen to me or you as well, if we ever lose sight of the true meaning of Christmas...I promise that I'll never stop loving it.  Afterall, I don't want Carol Kane to hit me with a toaster.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Day 16: Love Actually is All Around...

That's the message of Richard Curtis' 2003 romantic comedy behemoth, Love Actually, which showcased no less than 13 celebrities in starring and supporting roles and also featured at least 4 or 5 separate romantic storylines that interweave in and out of each other.  Curtis wanted to show that, even in dark times like ours when events like 9/11 can make us doubt that the sun will shine again (yes, I'm being overdramatic for a purpose), love is everywhere if you look for it.  And this film, set in the weeks leading up to Christmas in London, has almost all of it.  Young love, old love, wounded love, lost love, parent/child love, first love, family love, etc.  You name it, its there.  Yes, some of the tales are just so precious you might want to brush your teeth afterwards from all the sweetness, but conversely some of the stories are bittersweet and/or complete failures (such as Laura Linney's thread with her sexy co-worker or Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman's tiny saga) and in doing this, Curtis creates one of the most realistic romantic comedies ever made.  I don't mean realistic in that in real life anytime you walk around the corner love could run right smack into, but it is difficult to deny that somewhere around you, someone is expressing love.  And its not just romantic love.  We love our friends, we love our pets, we (sometimes) love our jobs, and we love our family.  Love, contrary to what some films show, is not just about falling in love with a mate.  Love is also the small kinds of things that we take for granted in our everyday lives.  And yes, Curtis does develop the romantic plots a little more than the other subtle love plots, but he kinda has to.  I mean, that's what we came to see.  However, one cannot scoff at love the way it is used in the film because he really has tried to include so many varieties of it.  Its rather a corny concept actually and I'm amazed that he got it made...but the finished product is one of my favorite feel-good experiences.  And what better time is there to feel-good than at Christmastime?

Actually, I think the Christmas setting really helps the story because it hypes up the love.  We all express love in very concrete ways at Christmas, with our gifts for each other.  Everyone buys something for someone (except in really sad cases...sorry) and we often do it without thinking.  Its just what's done at Christmas.  In this way, we express love for our friends and family (and sometimes spouses or long-term partners) as well...we do it without thinking...because its what we're supposed to do.  It gives the story a wonderful backdrop to play against and also allows Curtis to poke fun at certain Christmas traditions (such as the school holiday pageant and department store gift wrapping services).  Most of the time you forget that the film is even happening at Christmas but I think that if this story had taken place at any other time of year, it wouldn't have been as effective.  I think its because at Christmas we get that special charged feeling inside, like something wonderful is happening or about to happen.  We can smell it in the air.  Maybe...just maybe...what we sense and feel inside isn't excitement for the holiday...maybe its love.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Day 15: A Magic Train

It seems odd that of all the Christmas stories I experienced as a child, the most magical one wasn't about a flight in a slay, a ride on a donkey, or even a romp with a was about a ride on a train called The Polar Express. I remember hearing the story the first time in grade school and being completely enchanted by it. It was a wholly original tale that reinforced my belief in Santa Claus for yet another year and made me completely certain that, if I happened to be awake at the right time on Christmas Eve, that I might get to make a trip to the North Pole. Christmas Fable by Chris Van Alisburg captured the childhood wonder and the mystery of Christmas perfectly and taught us to simply believe...regardless of what people tell us about it. It insists that Christmas is about a feeling, and that its not nearly as magical or fun without that feeling.  I recall having a dream after reading the book that involved me going on the Polar Express was almost like being there.  From that moment on, I dreamed that someday there would be a movie of it and as I grew, my inner child held onto that dream for a long time.

In 2004, Robert Zemeckis released an animated film using motion capture computer animation technology. His choice for the story of the project was Alisburg's book and thus...The Polar Express was born.  The film takes the story of the book and expands it slightly in several places so that it can sustain a feature-length timeframe...but the plot remains the same.  It tells the story of a young boy who is given an extraordinary adventure at a crucial moment in his development.  He has begun to doubt Santa's existence and before he can make a decision about it, he finds himself whisked away by a magic train called The Polar Express so that he can visit the North Pole and see Santa.  This film was a pretty big deal for me then (I always thought it would make a great movie)...though it would have been a bigger deal if it had come out when I was still a kid.  The film itself isn't bad, its quite cute actually.  But it doesn't have the same magical quality that came with the book when I first read it.  It may be that there's something in the book that the film just didn't know how to capture...or maybe, unlike the boy in the story, I've gotten too old to believe in magic anymore.  As I watch the film now, however, I still have a fond feeling for it that goes deep to the core.  It must be my inner child's refusal to ignore a treasured Christmas memory.  Can you blame him?  Some days, he still wants to believe in Santa inner adult tries to tell him how silly that is...but he doesn't care.  Santa isn't about logic or reason...he's about magic (if you'll excuse the cliche) and that's language my inner child understands.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Day 14: The First Mouse House Version of "A Christmas Carol"

Tonight's post is going to be a short one, as I have little time and patience tonight. It wasn't a bad day, just long one and I'm glad to be done with it. I just want to make sure that I get a post up before bed. Anyhoo, before Robert Zemeckis used motion capture to capture Dickens' beloved Christmas tale on celluloid, Disney conceived another version of "A Christmas Carol"...this one with its animated stars at the front. Yes friends, tonight I am giving Mickey's Christmas Carol a shout out.  Its classic Christmas, comes straight from my childhood days, and its short which makes it even better.  It was actually the first version of "A Christmas Carol" that I ever saw and it still ranks as one of my favorites (because nostalgia is a sweet, sweet mistress).  Most of us already know the story, but for those who don't (all two of you) I'll summarize: A greedy old man, Scrooge, finds himself haunted by his old business partner and three ghosts of Christmastime (past, present, and future) so that he can learn to become a nicer, more generous, Christmas loving man.  I'm oversimplifying A LOT in that summary...but you can't get all the subtle nuances of a story into a summary.  Anyhoo, this version of Carol stars Disney's favorite kind-hearted miser, Scrooge McDuck, as the cantankerous Scrooge, Mickey and Minnie Mouse as Bob and Emily Crachet, Goofy as the dead Jacob Marley, Jiminy Cricket as Christmas Past, The Giant from Mickey and the Beanstalk as Christmas Present, and Peg Leg Pete as Christmas Future.  It works very well as a short, actually, and one wonders why they didn't make it a feature.  Then again, perhaps people give it more respect because its a short and thus, it doesn't have to try as hard.  It certainly tells the story in a breezy and quick way (not unlike Zemeckis' Carol, which was an hour longer...covered the same story...and still felt rushed) and never feels like its butchering the story.  Sure, a lot is left on the cutting room floor, but what's here is a charming short worthy of the Mouse House's glory days (which seem to be back with The Princess and the Frog....go see it, I'm telling you).  So if you want a classic story and a nostalgic walk down memory lane, give Mickey's Christmas Carol a whirl.  You'll like it, I promise.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Day 13: You'll Shoot Your Eye Out

Is there a Christmas movie in America that needs less of an introduction than A Christmas Story?  I mean, its been considered a classic for years, it was ranked as the #1 Christmas movie of all time by AOL, and they even play it for 24 whole hours on TBS at Christmas Eve because of its popularity.  There are some who don't like the film (Miss J for one) of course, like any film, but the majority of the country thinks that it is comic gold.  I myself didn't like this film for a long time, I actually had to get older before I could enjoy it.  Now I watch it every Christmas and never fail to get a few good giggles from it.  No, its not gut-bustingly funny...but it does seem to capture the childhood experience of Christmas in a way that few other films have.  Most of that is due to the very witty writing of author Jean Shepard and his eloquent way of making the trivialities of childhood seem as serious as adult life...because frankly, when you're a kid, it is.  I think that's why I didn't like the movie until I was much older, because there's an element of nostalgia in listening to Shepard's words which makes you think about the way you remember childhood...not how it actually was.

For those who don't know, A Christmas Story is based on several short works by Shepard which come from his book "In God we Trust, All Others Pay Cash" and it tells the story of Ralphie, who spends the entire Christmas season avoiding bullies, attempting to get good grades in school, and most importantly...trying to get his parents to get him a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas despite the obstacle of everyone reminding him that he'll shoot his eye out.  Everyone can relate to the memories of Christmas and making sure that you got that one important gift from either the parents, or from Santa Claus...which is probably another reason why the story is so popular.  The narrative is also chock full of random comic bits (the Leg Lamp anyone?) that just serve to enrich the tapestry of the story.  Bob Clark, the director, certainly had come a long way from his first Christmas movie...Black Christmas...and it shows that the man can not only do good horror but that he can also do good comedy.  So pull up a chair and pop in the film...or wait for the marathon...and enjoy this little gem for the first or the millionth time (unless you're Miss J...then you should watch The Grinch because..."it's joyful AND triumphant!").

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Day 12: NAUGHTY!!!!

So its come to this...time to examine one of the most controversial and talked about Christmas horror films of all time.  A film so shocking that it was banned from the theaters by the PTA!  A film so horrifying, that it's promotianal materials were banned from theaters!  A film so revolting that Siskel and Ebert initiated a angry-letter-writing campaign to have it erased from all consciousness!  Yes friends, I'm talking about the Santa Claus slasher...Silent Night, Deadly Night!

Ok ok, so maybe the history isn't as spectacular as all that, but it isn't far off either.  The PTA did try to have it banned due to its storyline, Siskel and Ebert read the film's production credits on air and said "shame, shame", and once crowds started to protest the film, Tri-Star pulled all the promotional materials and the film itself after a while.  It wasn't until the film was picked up by an independent distributor, Aquarius Films, that it received another release and its new promotion capitalized on the controversy.  Not surprisingly, teen crowds showed up in droves to see the film that was 'too shocking for theaters'...and the film was a huge success (and yet people still protest things...don't they know that when you do that it just creates free publicity and makes even more people show up to see them?).  Frankly, I don't see what the big deal was.  It was no worse than the 4 Friday the 13ths that had been released at that time, 1984, and actually dealt with a fairly original idea at the time...which was that our main character that we start the film with as a boy, ends up becoming a ax wielding killer by the end of the film.  It's rather Macbeth in a way...the tragic foil who never had a chance at redemption.  But the idea of a killer in a Santa Claus suit really ticked those parents off...I guess they didn't notice the first killer-in-a-Santa-suit-movie back in 1980, Christmas Evil.

Here's the plot in a nutshell, Billy, a young boy, is driving with his parents to the nuthouse on Christmas Eve to visit his grandfather.  While there, grandpa tells the boy that Christmas Eve is the scariest night of the year and that Santa is going to punish him for being naughty. On their way home, the family happens to run afoul of a criminal dressed as Santa Claus who murders the parents and severely traumatizes poor Billy.  Years and years later, after living in an orphanage and being abused by the Mother Superior constantly, Billy (now 18 and huge) begins work at a toy store.  All seems to be going well and Billy appears to be doing great at his job and with his co-workers...that is, until Christmas rolls around.  When the store Santa calls in sick on Christmas Eve, Billy is placed in the suit.  Little do they know about Billy's morbid fear of anything Christmas or Santa related and it isn't long before the poor boy snaps and kills everyone in the store...and then heads off on a murder spree with the intent of returning to the orphanage to kill the Mother Superior.

Sounds like a bloody good time no?  Actually it ends up being a fairly average film that really doesn't earn its controversial reputation, but that's not to say that its not a good time for someone who enjoys horror.  You could do a lot worse as far as horror goes, especially Christmas horror (the remake of Black Christmas springs to mind).  For the rest of you...those of you who don't like horror...I give you permission to steer clear of this one (unlike the original Black Christmas, which is a great chiller for everyone).  Its gory, foul, and mean-spirited and sure to ruin your holiday cheer.  For you people like me, who like a little horror with their peace on Earth, I give this one a hearty thumbs up.  Enjoy the trailer below, if you DARE (BWA-HA-HA).

Friday, December 11, 2009

Day 11: A Nutty Little Ballet

As promised, I plan to discuss Tchaikovsky's  "The Nutcracker"...but wait, I can't discuss it yet...I haven't even gone to the theater to see it yet.  It doesn't actually start until later tonight when the dancers and sets are ready for places.  What is this madness?????  Actually, for those of you who might not be aware, The Nutcracker ballet has been adapted to film numerous times in both theatrical and television versions and if you know me (since I am a movie lover) you know that I've definitely seen at least one of them.  In fact I'm going to be discussing a version called Nutcracker: The Motion Picture which was released theatrically in 1986.  This production was very much a filmed version of a stage production which was produced by the Pacific Northwest Ballet of Seattle, Washington in 1983 and was so popular that it was decided that the production would ban entertaining movie.  This version differs greatly from other versions as it omits the Sugar Plum Fairy (who has an entire dance written for her) and The Kingdom of Sweets and replaces them instead with a harem run by a sultan who resembles Uncle Drosselmeyer greatly.  Also notable was that the production's sets and costumes were designed by Maurice Sendak (author and illustrator of "Where the Wild Things Are") and its staging stays much truer to E.T.A. Hoffman's original fairy tale (which was much darker and ominous). Also interesting was that the production was staged with two Claras.  One who represented Clara as an actual child, and another who was meant to be 'Dream Clara' and would dance and be a part of Clara's dream world.  Clara also seems to share a strange love/fear relationship with Drosselmeyer which adds another aspect of depth to the proceedings, especially when the Drosselmeyer sultan shows a desire to compete with the Nutcracker Prince for Clara's affections and nearly causes their demise at the end of the film as they freefall away from each other...causing Clara to awaken in her bed as the curtain falls.

It is a sumptuous and lively production and will always be one of my favorites to see every year, even though one cannot watch it on DVD as yet.  You can, however, see it here on  I haven't seen the Columbus production since I was small, so I can't say if it will move me the same way this one does...but regardless, there's nothing like seeing The Nutcracker live on stage at Christmas...but with this version, you get pretty close.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Ok, I won't be talking about the Simon Pegg film of the same name...this is more of a personal post today because I believe I managed to alienate a possible new friend last night online. First, I would like to preface this with my attitude with online conversations. I've learned to be friendly, honest, and blunt/clear in my responses to minimize confusions and misunderstandings that pop up in IM conversation, but I've also learned to be on the defensive as far as opinions go. Lets face it, I do not share the conventional opinions of people of my generation in the particular circles that I travel in. In film circles I'm an outcast because I don't care much for Apocalypse Now and I like both versions of Psycho.  In theater school circles I'm an outcast because I held on to my love of musical theater and popular shows.  In politics, I'm more of a moderate (as opposed to how gay men are supposed to think) and so I don't relate much to the inflammatory ones or the conservative ones.  I'm not saying that I'm better that these people, I'm just saying I'm different.  I always have been and I always will be, and I've learned that in most cases I have to defend that difference quite adamantly in order to be taken seriously by anyone in said circle.  Also, I tend to be attracted to men who fall into these circles because I admire intelligence, ambition, and wit (and these people happen to gravitate in the same spheres) and I have lost possible boyfriends in the past due to me being 'different' of you can understand how I might learn to be constantly on the defensive.

Which brings me to last night.  I was talking to a new guy, The Bloke we'll call him, last night and I had noticed over the past few evenings that conversations had been waning.  Just as I was about to mention it, The Bloke happened to say something along the lines of "Conversations are getting thin here...this doesn't look good."  This was both a confirmation to me that he was sizing me up as a possible date, and that he was getting as frustrated with the slim conversational offerings as I was.  To go off topic for a moment, I've noticed in the past years that I'll meet someone through email and we'll have excellent chemistry in our messages, and then when we move to IM it seems like all the chemistry dries up.  I don't know if its because we want the other person to speak more than us, or to ask us questions about ourselves, but we just freeze up after those first few adrenaline charged online meetings and find ourselves wondering what we ever saw in this person to begin with....and we never even give ourselves the opportunity to really MEET the person!  Anyway, we had reached this point I think and knew it.  So, I think I attempted to rescue the conversation by talking about my give him something to bounce off of.  I mentioned that I had hosted a joint Gay Straight Alliance/Thespian Club meeting in my room so they could watch Rent...and he began to talk about how he hadn't been able to get into it.  So our conversation drifted from that into musical theater and he began to talk about musical films he liked...Damn Yankees and Cabaret...both which I found underwhelming.  So I said so...and then immediately launched into my dissertation on why (remember how I said I've had to really defend myself in the past to be taken seriously) thinking that he would immediately jump on my case about not agreeing.  When I got silence, I attempted a slightly apologetic comment about how I always explain myself, and how people who don't explain why they don't like something very well (something that the elitist gays never seem to feel like THEY have to do) get on my nerves. 

Apparently, I unintentionally scorched him in the manner of Julia Sugarbaker from"Designing Women" and, after receiving his reply on how he felt that differences are natural and don't need explaining, how my thinking I was better because I was good at explanation and debate was offensive, and that our personalities most definitely did NOT match, I realized how elitist and superior I had sounded.  I had unintentionally become one of those gays that always angered me in the past.  It had never occurred to me that he might think "oh, he's got a different opinion than" and be done with it.  I felt like a fool.  Here is a guy who thinks the way I do about differences in opinion, that they should just be shrugged off, and I nuke him with my big-mouth (in print anyway).  He explained that he didn't think this could go anyway...and so I racked my brain for a way to repair the situation.  I said that I thought that was fair, though its hard to tell before really meeting someone...and then acknowledged my accidental elitism (I tried to explain my position a little, but for the most part I was simply owning that I had been wrong and shouldn't have debated until engaged in battle) and I said that all I could really say to show my humble acknowledgment of wrongdoing was "....oops".  He seemed to like this and laughed a bit...then I went on to explain that I can't debate to save my life in reality.  I have a mental block when I'm speaking between my brain and my mouth, so when someone takes me on offensively I tend to become a babbling idiot.  He laughed and said that I should get over it because I'm a teacher.  I said, well on subjects I know (when I'm on the offensive) I'm fine.  When someone gets in my face about something and I'm on the defensive...(such as when handing out detentions)...I have little recourse but to say "The discussion is over."...which every student knows means the same thing as "Because I said so"...that you are at a loss for words.  He enjoyed this, and I didn't press the matching-up aspect at all after that.  I didn't want him to think that I only changed my tune because I wanted him to like me.  I mainly wanted him to understand that my front shouldn't inform his opinion of me...and if he wants to meet after this its his own decision.  Personally, I think its going to be a miracle for him to ask me now.

Though I'm not sure that I want him to.  Yes, I was in the wrong and I own that...but at the same time, I don't know if I want to be involved with someone who would have a knee jerk reaction to something that was typed in IM, knowing that misunderstandings abound from that kind of conversation.  Of course, if I could erase last night completely, would I still want to meet him?  Yes.  So I don't know if its a big deal or not.  And as I said, you really don't know a person until you've spent time with them in the flesh.  So, I think I've made my decision...I still want to meet The Bloke, because based on what I already know...I think we're more alike than anyone I've met in the past year and chemistry doesn't lie.

The film posting for Day 11 will be up later today.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Day 10: The Wrong Man at the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time...

Its time for another holiday sequel this evening, featuring our favorite everyman action hero John McClaine.  Yes friends, tonight I'm viewing Die Hard 2 which truly does, though you may not believe it, take place on Christmas Eve.  Yes, yes, I know that this film is yet another example of a sequel that simply repeats the formula of its predecessor almost to the letter...terrorists in an isolated area in total control vs. John McClaine on Christmas Eve with some fat headed obstinate cops thrown in for good measure...oh and Reginald VelJohnson, Bonnie Bedelia, and William Atherton reprise their roles as well.  Talk about convenience right?  Its almost too perfect...the kind of perfect that only the movies can do.  There are a lot of people who really hate Die Hard 2 because it merely repeats its formula and does little that is new or different...they also hate how the writers manage to conveniently reunite characters from the last film in ways that would never happen in reality (so they say).  Oh, and they think the airport control plot is much too complicated to be realistic.  I think these people are missing the big picture the same way that people missed the big picture with Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (oddly enough, also from Fox).  Audiences wanted more of the same...and then when they got it, they criticized it for being the same.  Frankly, I think that while part 2 shares a great deal of common factors with part 1, it offers enough new suspenseful situations for us to be involved in to make me enjoy the film as a popcorn action film.  I think its fun and plausible (aside from the icicle death in the 3rd act...which I'm sure is possible, but my mind wants to reject it anyway) and a fair enough diversion as a sophomore sequel.  Sure the 3rd and 4th films are better, but you could do a lot worse as far as action films are concerned (Van Dahme or Segal anyone?).  Bruce Willis can just about carry any film anyway. (Watch for Robert 'T1000' Patrick as one of the terrorists in a gun battle).

Unfortunately there just isn't much more to say about this movie...everything I said about the first part mostly applies to this one.  Tomorrow's post will be longer and better, as I will be not watching a film but actually seeing a Christmas classic on stage in the big city.  Yes friends, the Midwestern Movie Addict is going to see "The Nutcracker"!  Who's excited?  I sure am.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Day 9: Two Cartoons to bring Christmas Cheer... young and old, far and near.  Oh no....I'm speaking in rhyme!!!!  But seriously folks, its simply not Christmas until one has watched Dr. Suess' How the Grinch Stole Christmas...the original cartoon anyway.  Oh, I have nothing against Ron Howard's live-action version (in fact, it will probably make it into this film roundup before day 25 is through) but the first Grinch cartoon is so classic and such a part of so many holiday traditions that it simply must be mentioned first.  Plus, after the day I had today...I really could use something short to watch. 

It all began last night after I got done watching Black Christmas.  I put a disc of Stargate: SG1 into the player to watch (I got the 1st season from the library) and suddenly the player decides that it cannot play the disc.  I'm not shocked, as the library discs usually look like they've been used as coasters.  So I switched it out for the next disc...still nothing.  Then I switched it with something that I had just watched with it.  The horror suddenly dawned on me...none of my discs would play in the DVD player.  I turned it off.  I unplugged it.  I tried it all again, still nothing.  I waited till this morning before work...nothing.  I tried again after school, nothing.  The DVD player...had either malfunctioned or died.  So I started switching it out with a portable DVD player that I use for trips.  I hooked it up to my audio reciever to the best of my ability and....nothing.  Shit.  So I pulled everything out and went at the problem again.  30 minutes later, and several cords undone, I managed to get picture out of the portable...but not sound.  Fuck.  So I started playing with the cords more (mind you, this is not something you should do if you don't know your receiver controls backwards and forwards) and still nothing.  It had been an hour since I had started working and I was really royally pissed.  I decided to turn on the Wii next and due to my futzing with the picture from the Wii.  GREAT!  Now I had DVD with no sound, and Wii with no picture.  I uttered a phrase not unlike this one "fuckbadgerbasketcasebitchpig!" (and no, I'm not imitating the great Julie Powell...I really do curse like Regan from The Exorcist sometimes), stopped myself from throwing it all out in the garbage and went to go cool down.  Several hours and four episodes of Star Trek: Voyager later, I went back to the reciever and found my mistakes easily and fixed them.  I now had the Wii back to normal and sound from the DVD...though the sound is still only coming from one speaker it seems.  Oh, did I mention I gave my dad a real hard time too?  I called him to talk about it, and was very grouchy and brash with him.  It kinda forced him to admit that he got me a PS3 for Xmas and none of these tech problems would matter after that...and so I had to admit that I already knew and thus completely ruined his big Xmas surprise for me.  I felt doubly guilty after that.  I'd get coal for Christmas if Santa still visited.

So you can see why I'd need something as short and sweet as The Grinch to get me to bed in a decent mood.  Those of you who are in the mood for great old Christmas cartoons should also check out another favorite of mine that I watched on Saturday...The Bernstein Bears Christmas Tree.  Its a funny and sweet little romp through bear country, following Papa, Sister, and Brother Bear as they search for the perfect Christmas tree and in the process learn to think about others during the holidays.  Two nostalgic thumbs up from this movie lover!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Day 8: The Darker Side of Christmas (or, Agnes....It's Me, Billy...)

I thought I would write about what I'm GOING to watch tonight rather than about what I've already watched...since by all intents and purposes, I haven't watched it yet this year, but I have watched it before so technically I think that counts. And if by some horrid twist of fate I do NOT get to watch it ever watchful bleeders out there can stone me in the street. I swear to you I'll watch it though, mostly for fear of 'Billy' coming after me if I don't. Some of you out there may not know who I'm referring to, but classic horror fans definitely will.

What's this you say? Horror?? At Christmas??!! Are you mad!!?? Well, perhaps I am...but we all go a little mad sometimes. And that's what Bob Clark's Canadian chiller Black Christmas (1974) feels like, a Christmas tale gone mad.  It is a simple little yarn about a sorority house besieged by crazed phone calls and strange disappearances over the Christmas holidays and one could almost say it follows Halloween's template to a T...that is, if Halloween had come first.  No friends, Black Christmas is the original holiday slasher film (if it can ever be qualified as a slasher...its hardly bloody) and it certainly inspired Mr. Carpenter to make his first opus.  Oh, and just to clarify, the crazed caller of the house is known only as 'Billy' and we only know this from his cryptic last line of the picture..."Agnes....Itzme...billy".  Who is Agnes?  Who is Billy?  Does the film answer any of these questions?  Hell no, and why should it?  The film is only concerned with terrorizing its cast of female characters (which includes Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and Andrea Martin) and getting us out before too much of the mystery is given away.  Its really quite remarkable, though I can say that everytime I watch it I do get a case of horror blue balls.  I want to know who Billy and Agnes were, and what's with the baby they keep talking about?...which seems to be linked to the idea that Olivia Hussey's character wants to a) have an abortion and b) has a whacked out boyfriend.  Is he Billy?  No he couldn't be because....and then there was the...and the....wait, what???  Yeah, that's kinda the feeling you get at the end...but you know what, its kind of a genius stroke.  Every time I watch this movie I'm left in agonizing suspense because I don't know what's going on, or if Olivia is really safe at the end and it gives you a reason to get the willies right before you turn out the lights to go to bed.  Some crimes are never solved and explained in life, and I believe that's what this film is trying to tell us (either that, or they held out for a sequel that was never made).  The remake in 2006 attempted to answer these questions (and did a fine job I think) but not without sacrificing the original's tightly plotted tenseness with cliche-ridden and nonsensical shenanigans.  Some people try to play the remake off as a black comedy, like its supposed to be bad and cliche ridden to make us have fun, and I've seen it twice now and to me it just plays as a bad movie...and not one that's trying to be bad for the sake of fun.  However, that's just my two cents.  Get freaked out by the trailer below and watch for an edit tonight where I tell you how spooked I am.  Also, I really hope it snows tonight...there's nothing spookier than watching this movie at night while outside snowflakes fall softly and silently.  Gotta love the juxtoposition of the silent and the violent (ew, I just rhymed).

Late update: I'm sitting here as the credits roll and the phone on the screen continues to ring...telling us that Olivia Hussey still isn't safe from her attacker as Black Christmas ends.  Its amazing how you can watch a movie several times and still be affected by it...and this is no exception.  I will probably have chilling nightmares! :)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Day 7: There Goes Mr. Humbug!

Just a quick update for today.  Tonight's film was one of the best Muppet movies and at the same time one of the best adaptations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas always puts me in a Christmasy mood when I watch it.  This film is The Muppet Christmas Carol and features Michael Caine as Scrooge, Gonzo as Charles Dickens, Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchet, Miss Piggy as his wife Emily, and Robin the Frog as Tiny Tim.  Fozzie Bear plays the chipper Fozziewig, and Statler and Waldorf play the dead Marleys.  It really is an inspired production that shows that the Muppets...when the script is good...can do anything.  This film was so popular and successful that it inspired a slew of Muppet adaptations from Muppet Treasure Island to The Muppets Wizard of Oz.  I'm still holding out for The Rocky Horror Muppet Show with the token humans playing Brad and Janet and Kermit the Frog as the Sweet Transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania...but that has nothing to do with Christmas.

One of the things I love about this version of Carol is it's score and songs.  The Muppets sing and dance to several very well written tunes that range from "Scrooge" to "Marley and Marley" that set up production numbers like "It Feels Like Christmas" and "With a Thankful Heart".  I also enjoy how close an adaptation this version is...of course there are deviations from the source novel (it is the Muppets for crying out loud) but these are few...and it manages to be a much more entertaining experience than other adaptations, though it isn't my personal favorite (that one we will cover later).  In any case, this is another classic of Christmas film that should not be missed if you're looking for something heartwarming and traditional (with a little wit thrown in for good measure).

Days 5 and 6

Ok, so I didn't post this weekend but you guys already know I don't blog on the weekends. I've usually got too much to do to think about sitting down at the computer and typing up this and that on a Saturday or a Sunday. For me, blogging is a fun escape during the work week rather than something I do everyday.  I hope everyone was well this week and that you were simply dying to know what I watched Saturday and Sunday.  I managed to get in two late 80s Christmas classics, and both can be summed up in iconic quotes.

"Yippie Kay Yay, Motherfucker!" - Those of the immortal words of Detective John of action's premiere characters and the star of the surprise hit of 1988, Die Hard.  Most people probably don't think of Die Hard as being too Christmassy, what with the explosions and blood squibs blasting out our surround sound speakers, but the film and its first sequel both take place on Christmas Eve...allowing the film to transcend preconceptions of what can happen in a Christmas movie, or what a Christmas movie can actually be.  Families all over the USA have written to movie magazines when polled on their favorite holiday films, and have said that Die Hard is one that they watch every December, sometimes even on Christmas Eve.  You may be scratching your heads and wondering why, but honestly few violent action films have ever truly been as FUN as Die Hard manages to be, and I think that is the reason for it becoming a holiday mainstay (besides its Christmas Eve setting).  This fun is due to director John McTiernan's handling of the material.  Yes its violent and yes its upsetting that terrorists would hold a bunch of people hostage on Christmas Eve (Alan Rickman's Hans has some truly cold and heartless moments) but at the same time, he has McClaine cracking wise, winning against insurmountable odds, and has cast several very amusing secondary characters such as Arguyle (De'voreaux White), Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) and Holly McClaine (Bonnie Bedelia) that we are rooting for in the process.  McTiernan once said that the film was so dark that he wanted to be sure to put the joy back into it, the fun if you will.  This is why you hear the Ode to Joy in the score periodically.  Needless to say, this is one of the best action films of contemporary times and its one I always see every December.

"Where do you think you're going? Nobody's leaving. Nobody's walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We're all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We're gonna press on, and we're gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat white ass down that chimney tonight, he's gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse!"

This quote sums up not only this madcap Christmas classic, but also the psychosis of its leading man...a man who had been trying to have the perfect vacation for two films already and was now pushing forward with his third.  Friends, I give you National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.  Is there anyone who hasn't seen this movie at least once?  This became a Christmas staple in our home before my sister and I had even seen the first two Vacation films and we still watch it each year because it is such a laugh riot.  There are so many quotable lines and relate-able passages that its easy to look past the slapstick surface and into the darker truth underneath...that the holidays really can be hell when you try to do it all.  I think that's why America found this film so funny, from the flaming tree, to the annoying relatives, to the bad food, and yes even to the SQUIRREL!!!!  Its big and over the top and often very hard to believe...but then I've had some Christmases where I've felt like I was in a zoo as well.  Chaos reigns over Christmas Vacation, and even more so in the film version of it. Watch for a young Johnny Galecki ("Roseanne" and "The Big Bang Theory") as Clark Griswold's son Rusty.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Day 4: A Double Feature of Christmas Spirit...and Pain

I sure hope that blog title got you thinking, or perhaps it didn't.  Some would say that Christmas and pain go hand in hand...whether its the pain of anticipation and waiting for the day to come so we can rip into the presents, the pain of lonliness and having no where to go for those with little options, the emotional pain involved with having lots of relatives in the house, or even the simple pain of not being able to figure out the perfect gift for a special person.  I think a lot of people underestimate how much pain goes into the holiday season, as we are socialized to think that December is a time for us all to be generous, loving, and giving and to believe that everyone has someone to spend it with.  We tend to forget (whenever the TV and radio will let us) that there are people out there who are less fortunate than us and don't have someone to spend the big day with or they can't afford what the big day costs (cause Xmas is expensive when you do it right).  Oh, and lets not forget those of us who don't celebrate Christmas and celebrate Hanukkah or Kwanzaa...or something else entirely. But wait a minute, I've gone and gone off on a tangent.  What I wanted to talk about was Christmas and physical pain.

Its probably hard to imagine this festive time offering up much more in the realm of physical pain than a burn or cut in the kitchen (you can count on one of each for my mother every year) and the occasional 'putting together a present' accident.  However, for a few years in the early 90s, Christmas was synonymous with physical pain for two men named Harry and Marv because they happened to have the misfortune of crossing the path of one Kevin McCallister...twice.  Yes friends, tonight I am watching Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York back to back.  Some might ask why I would endure such punishment...Home Alone hasn't been a hit since those first two films (and the second had a good hand in removing the love of it for some people)...but I find it difficult to watch one without the other.  The first film is a great offering by screenwriter John Hughes which presents a holiday travel 'what if' situation that at times, feels very realistic and offers many opportunities for comedy (especially that of the slapstick know what I'm talking about) and then there's the second film. The second film commits what has come to be regarded as the cardinal sin in sequel-making, rehashing the first film.  What's interesting about this sin is that, before a film comes out, you can literally see and hear people hoping that it will be the same as the first and as much fun...and then when it is released, they complain about it not being different enough.  I'm not sure what the cause is of this psychological double standard with film, but I think it would be worth a research grant to figure studios might finally be able to really find out what audiences want for a change.  However, all that negativity aside...I actually prefer the second film to the first.  I know its a rehash, full of flat jokes, and too long, but I think the whole outweighs the sum of its parts.  The fact that the film works New York City into the equation, and manages to get some great actors to fill the shoes of the new supporting characters is cool in itself.  But upping the ante with the traps was a hit with me too.  Home Alone was to booby traps as Friday the 13th was to murder set pieces.  I mean they sold the entire franchise on the 'bigger and better and more elaborate' concept in each case.  I feel that the traps in part one were more of an after thought to show how our pint sized hero had learned to be clever and independent...but the traps in part two are like Olympic events.  Part of the fun of the second film is the anticipation leading up to them...though some people thought that getting there took too long.  To those people, I say "enjoy the character development for a change...the pigeon lady stuff is classic!'

I don't expect anyone to share my steadfast love for Home Alone 1 and 2 (I don't share the same love for parts 3 and 4....oh yes, there is a 4 sadly) but I always watch them at Christmas because they fall somewhere between holiday sentimentality and senseless violence...and perhaps in that way they mirror the real season.  We get sappy and sentimental when were with our loved ones, watching them open our gifts and saying the toast or prayer at dinner...and then we trample people at Wal-Mart on Black Friday and steal a scarf from an old lady because it will be just perfect for someone we know.  Overanalysis?  Maybe, but you can't deny the parallel if you really think about it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Day 3: A Bit of a Cheat

 Ok ok, I know this isn't really a Christmas movie per se...but it does start at Christmas and goes through the wintery months to Valentine's Day.  And I did watch it during my month of Christmas movies, so technically I think that counts...and for those of you who don't agree, you can eat me cause I didn't have time to watch anything more Christmasy today.  Oh, I guess I should tell you the movie before I go about insulting anyone out there who reads this (which my counter tells me isn't many).  That movie is Sleepless in Seattle.  Yes, I can hear you shouting foul already, but it does indeed take place at Christmas to start and features some Christmassy things while Meg Ryan visits her family and listens to Tom Hanks on the radio.  There are other Christmas films that are romantic comedies as well, like Love Actually, because afterall...what better time of year is there to fall in love than the season of giving?  I can only hope the same may be true for me this season.  Actually, I don't know who I'd fall in love with if I planned to do it this Christmas...but that's neither here nor there.  Sleepless is not my favorite Nora Ephron chick flick and its certainly not her best work, but it is still deliciously witty like most of her work (yes even the lesser liked stuff like Bewitched) and I love the running gag of women loving An Affair to Remember and guys not understanding it (I, myself, am on the side of the men here...I thought it was completely vapid).  I especially love that Nora merely mentions this and shows both sides of it so that we can make up our own minds on whether to like it or not...and she gives Rosie O'Donnell a great line about Meg not wanting to be in love in real life but that she wants to be in love in a movie.  We base a lot of our ideas on love on the movies, rather than real experiences...not that we have many other ways of experiencing it without actually being involved in the act of love.

Anyway, enough babbling...I can't get Meg Ryan's singing of Sleigh Ride out of my head.  "horses,horses,horses,horses...!:  She doesn't work enough anymore...but then again, I guess she's not cute anymore either.  Not that she isn't pretty or anything, she's just not cute young Meg anymore.  And she;s tried so hard to break her cute image so I don't see her going back to it so soon.

Anyway, that's the movie for Day 3...I'll do better coverage tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Day 2: Another Santa Movie

Today it going to be a good day.  I can feel it.  Its not because I have anything really planned for today or something fun to do, its just a mind set that I am trying to have.  I've found something for the students to actually do, rather than something for them to LISTEN to me do. I love when that happens.  They still want to be chatty, but there's not much to be done with that at this age.

Today I'm doing a second Santa movie, this one considerably more famous than Santa Claus: The Movie.  In fact, this one spawned 2 sequels and made quite a bit of money for Disney.  I am of course referring to The Santa Clause, a film I saw as a child and which made me believe in Santa Claus least figuratively.  I thought the idea of the film was very clever.  A man, who accidentally causes the real Santa to fall off the roof and die, puts on Santa's suit and delivers the rest of the presents that evening with his son.  He thinks this is a random act of kindness that will not haunt him later...but when he begins to gain weight and grow a full beard, he realizes that he has inadvertently become the new Santa via the 'Santa Clause' which states that anyone who puts on the suit, becomes Santa.  This creates drama for everyone in his life, including his ex-wife, who believes he is going crazy and is an unfit father for participating in this delusion.  I think the film handles this conceit very well, considering the improbability of the proceedings, and it manages to feel completely grounded in reality by adding the complications of family law, school, work, and relocating to a new life.  I think the sequels lost this when they were made, and that is why they feel more fantastic and artificial (in my opinion).  There's a reason why this movie was successful in the first place, its a Christmas movie that adults and children can both enjoy.  (I apologize for the trailer...I couldn't find the theatrical for some reason).

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Day 1: The Month of Christmas Movies Has Begun

I'd rather not get into how class was seems like I more bitching and less actual happy talk about my job and I think its disproportionate to how I really feel about teaching.  I'll just say that the kids were behaving about as expected after being on a long break.  They'll mellow out in a few days for sure.  Today I'd much rather talk about something I've been looking forward to since I started this blog.  Yes friends, just as some people haul out the tree and decorations and begin to start playing Christmas music ad nausium till December 25th is over, its time for me to start watching Christmas movies again.  I certainly have enough to get through an entire month and I plan to focus on one a day until Christmas is over (and then I'm going to go through one New Year's movie a day until New Year's Day).  Can he do it?  Well if Julie Powell can do 536 recipes in 360 days, I can certainly do 31 movies in 31 days.  Have I mentioned what a fan I am of Mrs. Powell?  I believe I have, and I probably will again.

Tonight we are watching a Christmas classic from my childhood.  I can remember watching this all the time growing up...I believe we recorded it from Showtime or HBO or something back when my father believed in paying for cable (now he doesn't even believe in going to the movie theater anymore...not that I blame him) and it kept me believing in Santa Claus probably a lot longer than I should have.  The 1985 film I'm referring to is, of course, Santa Claus: The Movie.  Opening to successful European crowds and decent American box office, the film was considered the next Christmas classic...despite the fact that it got almost universally negative reviews.  Its not hard to believe really, the film (which was produced by the Salkinds, who were behind Superman: The Movie) follows essentially the same structure of Superman begins as an origin story, explaining how Claus and his wife Anya first came to the elves in the North Pole and how they got him into the toy business and then moves into a contemporary tale involving a rouge elf working for an evil toy maker (much like how Superman moved into a contemporary take with a villain and a sinister plan that the hero must start).  The production design reeks of Superman as well (part III anyway) in that it all looks rather cheap and yet bold at the same time.  The adult actors all do credible jobs, with David Huddleson as Santa, Judy Cromwell as Anya, Dudley Moore as Patch, the fallen elf, and John Lithgow as B.Z. the evil toy tycoon.  The child actors are pretty flat though, as is the norm with movies from this time.  Then again, many people maintain that child actors have gotten worse since then (something I disagree with).  Of course, with all this negativity flying around, you'd probably think that I hate the movie now.  I probably should, but I simply can't.  There's something about watching it that makes me happy in the part of me that still houses my inner child and I think it always will.  If I ever have kids, I hope they enjoy this movie as much as I did.  The trailer is attached below...try not to be too hard on it.