Tuesday, December 28, 2010

As Far Away From Christmas as I Can Get

I hope everyone enjoyed the second annual 25 days of Christmas films...but now that its over, I am so glad to bid the Christmas movies farewell.  And in honor of that, I figured I would try to get as far away from Christmas as possible with tonight's choice.  However, before we get to that, I'd like to give a shout out to my family and the wonderful gifts I received.  You guys know about the mixer and pizza stone my mom gave me...but my Dad upped the kitchen ante with a set of new high-quality pans and my Uncle Mike gave me a hot water dispenser.  So now I've got a kitchen full of new appliances and a cabinet full of new cookware.  The chef in me is squealing with delight...in fact I cooked up a storm last night.  It was a nice change this year, I only got a few movies.  Most of my new ones I bought for myself after the fact.  Tonight in fact, I'm going to talk about one of my new purchases.  It is a classic in both mystery and horror circles, and is always a chilling tale for newcomers.  Also, it ruined showers and motels for just about every skittish person in the world.  So dim the lights, lock the doors, and make sure to watch out for intruders as we revisit Alfred Hitchcock's and Robert Bloch's macabre Psycho.

Marion Crane is a real estate agent's secretary living in Phoenix who is dissatisfied with her life.  She has a wonderful boyfriend, but he cannot marry her due to his debts and his ex-wife's alimony.  Her job is dull and unfulfilling, and she never seems to be able to get a break.  However, the answer to her problems seems to land in her lap when her employer takes a cash payment of $40,000 dollars from his latest client and entrusts Marion with its deposit in the bank.  She skips out with the deposit and a claim of a headache and then heads home to pack her bags and leave town with the money.  It all seems like the perfect plan, but Marion is not the perfect thief.  She runs into her boss on the street on her drive out of town, gets followed by a policeman, and acts very suspicious when she trades her car for another one.  Suddenly stealing the money doesn't seem like a great idea, so when a small motel appears out of the dark rainy night, she sees it as a sign to stop and think about her choices.  While at the Bates Motel, she meets Norman Bates (owner and proprietor) and feels sympathy for his solitary existence and the way his mother treats him (she overhears them having a fight).  As anyone who's seen the film knows, I cannot say anymore lest I spoil the grand plot twists therein.

Psycho was a film that almost never happened.  Robert Bloch's original novel was thought of as a decent chiller by some reviewers at the time, but most thought it was simply a pulp work with no merit.  However, Hitchcock saw potential in the book and optioned it.  Then there were problems with the script.  The first draft by one writer was dull and boring (if you can imagine a boring telling of this story) and Hitch had to find someone to give the story the edge it needed.  Enter Joseph Stefano who made several changes to the story to make it work better as a film.  First, he changed Norman's character from a balding, overweight, pervert in his 40s to a young, mild-mannered man in his mid to late 20s to make the audience like him and identify with him more.  He also changed the beginning of the story.  In the book, the story starts with Norman and then introduces Mary (Marion in the film) before having a flashback explaining how she ends up at the motel.  For the film, Stefano begins with Marion's story so that the audience thinks the movie is about her and not that the story is about Norman.  When Hitch heard this approach he simply said "We could get a star to play that part," and Stefano knew he had the job.  The script is not the only thing that's good about Psycho.  Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins are still talked about today for their performances while Bernard Herrmann's haunting score still sends chills up my spine.  Its an excellent movie where every element works.  If you want a good thrill, turn this one on.  You'll love it.  (P.S. Leave your nasty comments about the remake at the door, I happen to like it too)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Day 25: Its What I'm Dreaming Of...

Well friends, another Christmas has come and gone and we are left again with the aftermath.  For some that means cleaning up the mess, for others it means sleeping off the dinner, and for others it means planning that ever important trip to the mall to take back or exchange those unwanted gifts.  None of us will begin planning for Christmas 2011 until well into next year and meanwhile we will ride the high of the holiday into either satisfaction or disappointment, but we still have time to watch one more holiday movie before the season is done.  Today's film is both a classic of the genre and it is an embodiment of what many people wished for today (some even got it...like my mom and sister).  It's also named after a very famous Irving Berlin song that you simply cannot avoid during the season.  It's old-fashioned and big, corny and heartwarming, and the perfect film in which to end our 25 days of Christmas movies.  Let's complete this year's round with White Christmas.


The story is about two World War II U.S. Army buddies, one a former Broadway entertainer, Bob Wallace, and a would-be entertainer, Phil Davis. It begins on Christmas Eve, 1944, somewhere in Europe. Captain Wallace is giving a show to the men with the help of Private Davis. During an enemy artillery barrage, Davis saves Wallace's life from a toppling wall, wounding his arm slightly in the process. Using his "wounded" arm and telling Bob he doesn't expect any "special obligation", Phil convinces Bob to join forces as an entertainment duo when the war is over.  After the war, they make it big in nightclubs, radio, and then on Broadway. They have a big hit with their New York musical, Playing Around. While at a Florida Theatre, they receive a letter from "Freckle-Faced Haynes, the dog-faced boy", a mess sergeant they knew in the war, asking them to audition his two sisters. When they go to the club to audition the act, Betty reveals that her sister, Judy, sent the letter.  Using "his arm" again, Phil gets Bob to agree to travel with the girls to Vermont for the holidays. They discover that the Columbia Inn in Pine Tree, Vermont, is run by their former commanding officer, Major General Tom Waverly, and it's about to go bankrupt because of the lack of snow and consequent lack of patrons.  In order to save the hotel, they decide to bring their musical to the hotel to spark buisness.  However, romance sparks and tempers flare during the production...will they successfully save the hotel?  Or will their show, and romances, be a tremendous flop?

White Christmas is the kind of thing that classic movie-musicals are made of.  It's a love-it or hate-it kind of movie that has plenty of contrived situations and two-dimensional characters along with predictable scenarios and way too many song moments...but that's what makes an old-fashioned movie musical an old-fashioned movie musical.  Critics and sophisticated people will tell you that the last thing you want from a movie are these elements...but in reality we love to see them in these kinds of stories.  It makes them more accessible and easier to digest and allows us to focus on what we came to see...the songs, dances, and the romantic comedy.  Trust me, this film has them in spades.  Sure, its not for everyone and there are better musicals, but for pure holiday cheer and fun you really can't beat it.  Its the perfect film to watch with the whole family on Christmas Night before you all retire to bed to count down the end of the year.  Watch it and enjoy.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Day 24: A Small Town Double Feature (Archive Post)

Well, Christmas 3 of 3 has come and gone and I couldn't be happier with how it turned out.  Not only did Dad and Mommom enjoy their gifts, but my Uncle Mike liked my gift for perhaps the first time in years.  I got him a boxset of Zatoichi films (which he very much enjoys), and my sister did as well (after stealing/borrowing the idea from me).  Myself, I received a set of 8 really nice All-Clad LTD2 pans (the chef in me squealed with delight), a a water boiler/dispenser, and two blu-rays (Tremors and Charade).  So it was a very good Christmas for me as well.  I plan to arrange some kind of dinner party when I get home so I can show off all my new cookware.  Now we are watching the first film in the Zatoichi series while the dishwasher rumbles with the splash and clank of the dinner dishes, and while a fire roars in the fireplace.  Its rather cozy, like an old-fashioned small-town Christmas.  That put me in mind of a post I wrote last year and decided to repeat for this Christmas Eve.  So enjoy the following post and, if you can, watch one or both of the films I mention:

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 season...it 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 23, 2010

Day 23: A House to be Seen from Space...

Christmas decorating, we've all done it at some point and we've all seen others do it.  In fact, we've probably seen many people OVERDO it.  Like the folks who cover their homes in tinsel and lights, have the lights blink in rhythm, and then synchronize all of it to music.  And then there are the people who cover their houses in those ugly inflatable decorations (I really hate those, sorry if anyone reading this owns them).  All of it is done to celebrate the season, and few people seem to really take passion in it anymore, so I suppose I can't fault those who go overboard.  If you haven't already guessed, tonight's film has to do with Christmas decorating and the problems it can cause both between neighbors and within families.  It's also yet another one that's named after a song.  So, sing along if you know the words, cause we're gonna Deck the Halls.

Local eye doctor and Christmas expert Steve Finch wants his kids to have a great Christmas, packed with Steve's tried and true traditions, such as using an advent calendar, taking Christmas card pictures in matching sweaters, and getting a large tree. At night, he hears noises. He looks out his window and sees a moving truck. He and his wife Kelly immediately know that "the new neighbors are moving in." In the morning, when Steve goes to get his paper, he is startled to see someone on his doorstep, stealing the paper, which causes him to spill coffee on himself. The stranger is his new neighbor Buddy Hall, a car salesman. Steve and Kelly also meet Buddy's wife Tia. Later that day, Kelly, her daughter Madison and son Carter go to the Halls' house, where they meet Tia and Buddy's teenage twin daughters, Ashley and Emily. Tia and Kelly immediately become friends, as do Ashley, Emily and Madison. That night, the Hall sisters discover a website called MyEarth, which shows satellite images of any place from space. The Hall house is not visible, so Buddy decides to make it his mission to be able to see his house from space, and to do it, he plans to use Christmas lights. Due to his lights,Buddy soon becomes known as the new King of Christmas around town, much to Steve's dismay, and thus begins a war between them that gets real ugly, real fast.

This film was released in 2006, with stars who were long past their box office prime (Matthew Broderick and Danny DeVito) and there was little in the advertisements to make the film look appealing.  I myself did not see it until it was on television last Christmas, and while it had a cute concept, I simply could not say that the film was 'good'. In fact, based on the writing and the effects work done for Buddy's house, the film seemed like a Lifetime television movie that had been repackaged for the big screen...with no real good reason why.  There isn't much to the movie and it honestly feels like a story that could have been told in 45 minutes rather than in an hour and 33 minutes.  Its really sad too, because making a movie about Christmas used to be a sure thing...and now its become almost as bad as making a remake or a sequel.  This is just another dud in a string of increasingly bad holiday films (with only a few contemporary gems).  Oh well, if you catch it on television this season I'm sure you will finish it...kinda like how you can't take your eyes off a train wreck.

Day 22: You Know Dasher and Dancer and...

There are a lot of movies having to do with reindeer and their relationship to Christmas.  Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is the most common title of these, but there are also films like Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, also based on a song, and several films about Santa Claus that feature his flying horsepower.  So it makes sense that one of the most popular holiday films of the late 80s would focus on a reindeer, one of the most important ones in Santa's lineup of fliers.  It has become somewhat forgotten in recent years...but if you mention it to a group of Generation X'ers, most of them will shout out "Yeah! I remember that movie!"  So let's let our imaginations wander as we revisit Prancer.

Jessica Riggs is a simple farmer's daughter in a poor town who manages to keep a very positive attitude toward her life despite the inadequate care of her father, John, and the recent passing of her mother.  Her mood cannot be hindered by this of course, because Christmas is coming and Jess is completely excited.  In fact, her mood is so buoyant that her school teacher even has to ask her to 'hold back' during the Christmas pageant.  The story kicks into gear however when, on the same day that she witnesses a plastic reindeer fall from a display in town, she discovers a reindeer in the forest near her house.  Convinced that the reindeer is the real Prancer (since this is the reindeer she saw fall), she takes it upon herself to nurse him back to health and care for him.  During this time she receives help from the local veterinarian, befriends an old recluse, and grows closer to her brother Steve.  John does not understand the bond growing between Jess and the reindeer however and, upset after finding that she has been caring for it, sells it to a buisness man.  Then it is up to Jess to save Prancer so he can rejoin Santa's team for Christmas eve.

Prancer walks a delicate line between realistic family drama and fantasy and it manages to do it respectably, despite a few plot holes here and there.  Rebecca Harrell as Jess manages to perform the part sincerely and makes Jess's enthusiasm and good-nature seem realistic and never too "Polyannish".  Sam Elliot is equally effective as Jess's distant and closed-off father and he plays the role with a gruff exterior and yet, underneath you can tell there's a man in pain who doesn't know if he can feel again.  Also a pleasure is Cloris Leachman as Mrs. McFarland, the local recluse, who first seems standoffish and mean, but warms to Jess in the end.  I personally enjoy the "Is it real or not?" fantasy aspect of the piece that places it along side of Miracle on 34th Street in the way it downplays the fantasy and forces an audience to make a decision on whether or not the reindeer really is 'the' Prancer.  The film makes several implications that the reindeer is magical, but it never really comes out and says it.  I think that makes the narrative a bit stronger and more grown-up than the average holiday fantasy.  If you haven't seen Prancer or if you haven't seen it in years, pick it up and give it a try this Christmas Eve.  I'm sure the whole family will enjoy it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Day 21: Look at Frosty Go!

There are so many songs that leap to mind when we think of Christmas that its hard to really even compile a list of all of them.  There are the religious ones like O Holy Night and The First Noel that feel timeless and classic, and then there are the more secular ones like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Silver Bells.  However, there are several "Christmas Songs" that have little, if anything, to do with Christmas...like Let it Snow, Winter Wonderland, and, a perennial favorite, Frosty the Snowman.  Frosty the Snowman tells a familiar story and we all enjoy its magic little tale, but it is really about winter more than its about Christmas itself.  Of course, since Christmas happens in the winter we allow it...but really, you have to wonder.  Anyway, all nitpicking aside, Frosty has become almost as much as tied to Christmas as Rudolph and Santa himself, and so it makes sense that he should get his own animated specials just like those characters did.  In 1969, Rankin-Bass animated the song for a Christmas special narrated by Andy Griffith and it was a big success...so successful in fact that Rankin-Bass commissioned a little-known sequel in 1976.  A sequel to a show about a magic snowman???  What could they possibly have come up with for the story?  Well, let's find out as we watch Frosty's Winter Wonderland.

Its winter again and Frosty, lonely at his home in the North Pole, returns to town to visit with his friends.  There's trouble in the air, however, as the nasty Jack Frost has become jealous of the attention that the children lavish on Frosty and begins thinking of what mean tricks he can play on them.  Meanwhile, Frosty is still lonely at night when all the kids go to bed and so the kids decide to make Frosty a snow wife named Crystal.  The only trouble with her is that she is not alive like Frosty...at least, not until Frosty gives her an ice bouquet.  This gift of love gives life to Crystal and she and Frosty begin to frolic across the land together.  Enraged by this, Jack Frost then sets about a plan to keep the two snow persons apart and to ruin winter forever.

The cartoon is really cute...perhaps even too cute.  Problems are resolved a little to easily when they arise and Jack Frost's transformation from grump into lovable friend just seems predictable and tacked on.  However, there is a sincere sweetness in the show that addresses the universal wish to have a special partner in our lives.  Frosty's need for companionship is something we can all relate to...especially when we feel like we won't ever find the right person.  We always watched this special at Christmas when Miss J and I were kids and it always seemed just right for the occasion.  Oddly enough, we never had the original movie recorded and I think I only saw it once...but if you want to see what happens to Frosty after the song ends, this one is a keeper for sure.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Day 20: Agnes, It's Me Billy...(Archive Post)

I drove home from Mom's house today and I am enjoying a nice quiet night at home. Its comforting after being surrounded by family for a whole weekend. I love them and enjoy the time together, but its nice to get back to my solitude for a while. I used my new KitchenAid standing mixer and pizza stone tonight and made a pretty damn good pizza. The mixer whipped together the dough in no time. It almost made it too easy...but not quite. I enjoyed how easy it was to use and how efficient it was...I may never use my hand mixer again. The stone works well too...I only hope it doesn't crack soon. Pizza stones are known for cracking if they aren't a certain thickness...and mine is under that. But it worked pretty fine tonight. So now I'm going to settle in and enjoy a chilling little holiday thriller that you might remember from last year...here's tonight's archive post of Black Christmas.

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 tonight...you 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 tonight...cool! :)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Day 19: Killing them With Kindness

As you well know, I am a big fan of Christmas horror.  I feel like with all the joy and happiness that many of us feel at this season that there are even more who are miserable and unhappy at Christmas...either due to their own mood or the circumstances around them.  Christmas horror and thrillers help to remind people that the holidays aren't a picnic for everyone.  Also, and this is probably just me, but I've always thought that there were few things creepier than a still, quiet snowfall in the middle of the night.  You're surrounded by darkness and hear the barely perceptible sound of snowflakes hitting the ground...and it all seems wrong.  Storms are supposed to be loud and bombastic, but snow storms are quiet.  I dunno, but it's always seemed a bit macabre to me.  But back to those unhappy at Christmas...many people don't like the holiday because of the memories it brings up.  This was the subject of a Shelly Winters chiller from 1971, when Grand Guignol was in and better known films such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush...Sweet Charlotte were popular.  It combines elements of dark-old-house horror with the distinct flavor of a fairy tale to weave a tale that remains delightfully ambiguous as to who is the real victim.  Let's snuggle up to a warm fire and get chilled to the bone by Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?

Mrs. Rosie Forrest is a kind and sweet-natured widow and heiress who throws a Christmas party for the local orphans every Christmas at her mansion, Forrest Grange.  The orphans, who have call Mrs. Forrest Aunt Roo, have gotten into the habit of calling the mansion the Gingerbread House, due to its fairy tale-like adornments and the too-good-to-be-true hospitality of Aunt Roo.  Christopher, one of the orphans, has a very active imagination and scares all the children at the orphanage with his stories of dragons and witches.  His stories actually get himself and his sister Katy taken off the list to go to Aunt Roo's house...but they sneak along anyway.  Aunt Roo is taken aback by Katy, who bears a strong resemblance to her deceased daughter Katherine, and becomes focused on her as the party progresses.  When it is time to leave, Katy is missing and Aunt Roo promises to find her and send her back.  Christopher, however, is convinced that Roo has kidnapped Katy and goes back to get her.  They discover that Roo is actually a very lonely and depressed woman who keeps her mummified daughter's remains in the attic.  Christopher begins comparing Aunt Roo to the witch from Hansel and Gretel and he takes it upon himself to free himself and Katy from her clutches and escape from her before she can make them her children forever.

Auntie Roo has a lot of things going for it as a thriller.  There is a crazy old lady, some clever children, and a huge imposing mansion that all the action takes place in.  On the surface it seems like it is pretty straightforward...a crazy lady kidnaps some orphans and they have to outsmart her in order to survive...but that's not the whole story.  Auntie Roo is insane, yes, but she is mostly crazed due to her loneliness and loss.  She doesn't want to hurt anyone, she just wants to have her chance at motherhood back.  Katy is actually quite content to let Roo make her her daughter.  Afterall, Roo is kind and showers her with things.  But Christopher is much less trusting and is what upsets the balance of the story.  He distrusts Roo from the start (rightfully so of course) but he antagonizes her until she begins to react violently to both of them.  I think Christopher is the real antagonist of the story, because he is the one who is preventing the goals of Roo and Katy.  In fact, I felt nothing but pity for Roo as she met her end in the finale of the story while the children walked off when her jewels.  That's why I said the film was a bit ambiguous, because you can look at her as a evil adult who abuses the children...or you can view her as a pitiful creature who was taken advantage of a cynical and ill-mannered boy.  Either way, its worth seeing once for Shelley Winters' performance.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Day 18: A Movie About the Big Guy (Archive Post)

Today was a lot of fun.  We did presents this morning and there were several surprises all around.  Mom loved her bluray player and her jewelry case.  Miss and Mr. J enjoyed their presents a lot, as did Dick, mom's man.  I myself was very happy to recieve a Kitchenaid stand mixer, pizza stone, and cookbook along with Avatar and a trivia game.  All in all, it was a very satisfying Christmas 2 of 3, I even used an Amazon.com gift card that mom bought me to get Gone with the Wind on Bluray for a steal.  Miss J forgot to get me one of the presents she had originally intended for me, so she bought it and had it shipped to Dad's...which made me chuckle.  She felt bad, but I told her not to worry.  I was perfectly satisfied with what I had.  When I get home on Monday I plan to use my mixer to make pizza dough for my stone...should be a damn good time.  Anyway, with all that's been happening, its been hard to do more than archive posts these last few days...but tomorrow will be an original.  Until then, enjoy this archive post on Santa Claus: The Movie.
                                                                   
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 did...it 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.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Day 17: How to Use Scrooge as a Verb (Archive Post)

So today was the last day of school before winter break and I must say, even though there were slight annoyances due to the kids' squirrelly nature.  Mostly we all just coasted through the day.  Also, the trip to WV was much smoother this year too so I'm feeling pretty good about it being Christmas 2 of 3.  I'm in the kitchen talking to mom while she cooks and my sister and brother in law are on their way here...they're set to arrive at 9.  I can't wait, cause then we can start stocking stuffers :)  I can't help it, I'm a sucker for presents.  Anyway, today at school I decided to show a Christmas movie that I watch every year and that I had already posted on a year ago...which means you're in for another archive post. So settle in while I begin revisiting this wonderfully comic, manic, and dark film:

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.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Day 16: An Understated Humbug

Another snow day today which means we have only one calamity day left before we have to start making them up...and tomorrow is our last day of school before break and a lot of non-educational activities along with early releases from several schools in the district.  So if we have a delay...we'll be there for like no time at all.  And just think, if we hadn't had our block schedule this week I could have gotten all my classes quizzed and done for Xmas.  Now, if we have school tomorrow, I will have to play catch up with two classes with a lot less time than usual...especially if there's a delay.  I'm so glad I didn't start Act III of Caesar yesterday with my classes, otherwise I'd be real behind in January with half of them.  Its enough to drive you insane I think.  On the upside, I got the class list for our school's variety show done and can get that hung up on the walls tomorrow if we're in school.  Anyway, its got me feeling a little Scrooged right now, something I don't want to feel the day before break starts.  I'm sure it will all work out, but until it does its gonna be stressful.  Speaking of Scrooge, I watched a real classic of Christmas today and one of the highest rated adaptations of Dickens' novella which features George C. Scott as that mean old mizer Ebeneezer Scrooge.  Let's look at the 1984 television film A Christmas Carol.

We all know the story...a greedy and cold old man, who makes no secret his dislike of Christmas, is visited by his deceased business partner and three ghosts who show him the true meaning of Christmas.  Its a touching, humorous, frightening, and sincere look at the human spirit and one that is so well-written that it comes as no surprise that it has been adapted so much and so often.  I mean, if you turn on your television at Christmas at any random time you're very likely to find some of the more common adaptations and sometimes even one or two that you've never heard of.  But this one is different because, despite its limitations in effects for being a television production, it features wonderful performances from its cast...particularly from Scott as Scrooge.  Scott plays all the lines and beats that we are familiar with from our Scrooges, but Scott plays him with a fair amount of inner amusement at the hardships of others and with an understatement commonly seen in his acting.  This is a Scrooge who is just as frightening to people when he speaks calmly and softly as he is in the rare times that he raises his voice.  He delivers much of Scrooge's lines dry and with mild sarcasm rather than loud BAHs and grumps.  This makes his Scrooge more of a real person and less of a caricature of a mean old grump.  This also makes Scrooge seem more contemptible at the start and more believably changed at the end than most.  The film also follows the book very faithfully and is sure to delight literature purists.  See it this Christmas...its on instant watch on Netflix if you have it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Day 15: A Double Feature of Holiday Spirit...and Pain (Archive Post)

Today was a much better day at school overall and now there are only two more days until break.  Yay!  I am so ready to be done so I can rip into some presents and some food.  Also, the weather folks are calling for some annoyingly wintry weather which might cause another delay for classes tomorrow.  I'm not exactly sobbing over that either.  But anyway, its time to get to the archive post for today which will feature those wonderful holiday classics Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.  The first is a classic which features a suburban family who, in their rush to make a flight to Paris, accidentally leave their youngest home alone.  In order to survive he must become self-sufficient and use elaborate booby traps to fend off two bumbling burglars.  The second repeats the first with the same family heading to Miami for their yearly vacation and being separated from Kevin, the youngest, at the airport.  He boards a flight to New York City by mistake and uses the opportunity to run amok.  But those pesky burglars are back and after Kevin for revenge.  You know the story, so read the post:

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 variety...you 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 out...movie 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.



Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Day 14: A Christmas Special....Gone Horribly Wrong

So we've already discussed holiday specials and episodes of television programs and how they all manage to bring their own special flavor to the Christmas episode formula.  Some shows are more successful than others.  Roseanne was able to effectively skewer the American idea of the family Christmas several years in a row while focusing on how it takes place in low-class families, The Golden Girls explored how those with advanced age celebrated Christmas, and the Muppets managed to make several special episodes (with at least one featuring John Denver) so yeah, it seems like everyone does one eventually.  Most people don't know how true that statement is though.  Some franchises that should never dip into Christmas have even 'gone there' in order to cash in.  Franchises like...Star Wars.  Yes friends, its come to this.  Time to examine one of the most critically panned Christmas shows ever made for television...The Star Wars Holiday Special.

It is Life Day (a holiday analogous to Christmas). Chewbacca is on his way home to see his family and to celebrate the holiday, accompanied by his friend, Han Solo. Not long after departing Tatooine in the Millennium Falcon, the duo find themselves chased by two Star Destroyers. Han then sends the Falcon into hyperspace.
Meanwhile, on Kashyyyk, Chewie's family is anxiously awaiting and preparing for Chewbacca's return. Malla switches on a viewscreen-computer, and runs a search for any starships in the area, hoping that the Falcon will be found in the scan, but the results are negative. Malla contacts Luke Skywalker, who, along with his faithful droid R2-D2, is working on his X-wing starfighter. Luke says he doesn't know what has happened. Next, Malla contacts Saun Dann, a local human trader on the planet. He lets her know through a carefully-worded message that Han and Chewie are on their way, and should be arriving soon.
On Kashyyyk, Saun Dann arrives and brings everyone Life Day gifts. Back on the Falcon, Chewie and Han have just come out of hyperspace not far from Kashyyyk. Han notices an increased Imperial presence on the planet, so they decide to land in an unguarded area on the north end of the planet.  What follows is a mishmash of plot, cartoons, celebrity cameos, and musical numbers.  Will Life Day go on successfully?  Do we care?

This really is one of the worst holiday specials that ever existed and there's a reason that George Lucas has never given his blessing to have the show released on DVD.  The special got made because of the original 1977 success of Star Wars and with no sequel to sell immediately, the great minds of television saw a chance to cash in on the hype.  George allowed the trademark and characters to be used for the money, and then looked the other way as disaster was created.  The production values are so bad that you might get this confused with the original episode run of "Star Trek".  That's not a knock against Trek, mind you, but this was Star Wars and it had a distinct high-budget look (even if it was a low budget movie).  The choices in cameos are not wise at all as comedians like Bea Arthur and Art Carney crack wise along with Harvey Korman.  Life Day is also a terrible holiday name and I find it hard to believe that they couldn't think of something much more creative for the Wookies to celebrate.  Its all just much too cute and it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.  The only think about the special fans seem to universally enjoy is the cartoon segment which introduces Boba Fett for the first time.  At any rate, if you relish watching train wrecks you can always find this disaster on YouTube...but only if you're curious.  Trust me, its really that bad.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Day 13: You'll Shoot Your Eye Out!! (Archive Post)

Ok, how's this for ironic?  I had decided a few weeks back that I would save my most favorite Christmas movies for this final week before break and next week leading up to Christmas since I had so many other ones to view that were new and I figured I'd need the most Christmas spirit in these last days leading up to the holiday since the kids start getting super squirrelly.  I also figured that I had waited long enough to watch A Christmas Story and that it seemed like a great idea for today since I had a snow day and I can always use a good laugh.  Anyway, I went to the past posts page to copy and paste last year's entry into this space and would you believe it?  Last year's post for A Christmas Story was also Day 13 last year too!  I think that's a sign, don't you?  So lets not delay any longer and post this post:

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!").

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Day 12: More Christmas Horror

I'm rather surprised by how today turned out.  It was low key, yet productive, and I feel completely prepared for the coming week (especially since its our last one before Christmas Vacation...weee!!!).  Here's a recap of what I will be doing this week:  Monday: the Thespian Club Xmas party, Tuesday: Day 1 of Revue Auditions, Wednesday: Block and Day 2 of Revue Auditions, Thursday: Block, Packing, and helping with the Christmas Choral Concert, Friday: Drive home to WV for Christmas 2 of 3.  It's gonna be Friday before you know it.  Plus, we've got a storm a brewing outside that looks to make some sort of delay for us tomorrow at school (and if there's none, I will hear about it ALL DAY LONG from those wonderful students of mine).  Going back to being productive, I baked cookies and made another cheeseball.  I also was sure to put party supplies by the door and get everything situated so I can just grab it and go in the morning. I'm hoping to have several cookies leftover when I head home on Friday, but you never know with giving them to teenagers and my work colleagues first.  Mom has informed me that she won't have time to do any baking before the weekend...and I don't really mind.  Its not about cookies really, its about us being together as a family (no matter how corny that sounds).  Anyway, to wash that bit of cliche from our palates, I've decided to revisit an episode from "Tales from the Crypt" that has a bit of holiday flavor while still being a bloody good time.

On Christmas Eve in a nice, out-of-the-way, house a greedy wife decides to murder her husband and collect on the insurance.  She soon begins working to dispose of the body while her daughter stirs around upstairs waiting for Santa.  On the radio, a news report informs her that an escaped mental patient is loose tonight dressed as Santa Claus, but she ignores the report.  Afterall, what are the chances that he would come through her neighborhood?  Pretty good actually, because the man soon shows up and begins and intense game of cat and mouse which she must struggle to survive.

Every television show does their take on the holiday special and each has its own flavor, this one being no exception.  "Tales from the Crypt" was always a violent and tawdry little show on HBO and this entry follows that line in spades.  Mary Ellen Trainor is deadly, sexy, and scared all at the same time as the wife who gets her comeuppance at the hands of Larry Drake, the killer Santa.  Drake, with his oddly shaped face and tooth appliance, actually looks a bit like the mascot from MAD magazine...which makes me giggle a bit each time I watch it.  Or rather, I would giggle if he wasn't so damn creepy.  The cold Christmas setting is also very well shot in deep blues that contrast with the white of the snow and the Christmas lights in the back ground.  This was look that the remake of Black Christmas also used to good effect (if only that movie was as good as the production design).  I would like to take time to also note that "And All Through the House" was originally published in the "Vault of Horror" magazine and then was adapted as a segment of the 1972 film Tales from the Crypt starring Joan Collins, and I think that each version of the tale offers great pros and cons.  The Joan Collins version strives for realistic thrills and intensity while the HBO version views the film through the lens of the 80s slasher film.  If I could combine elements from each together, I think I would have the perfect version...but for now, the television version works well as a suspenseful stand-alone work. Watch it yourself and see if it doesn't give you a chill.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Day 11: Naughty! (Archive Post)

So last night's Ugly Christmas Sweater Party was a complete success, aside from the fact that no one ate any food and I made a boo-boo with JP's Christmas present.  I got him a Cuban cookbook written entirely in Spanish because I thought he would enjoy translating (he teaches Spanish and French) and cooking from.  However, it was full of meat recipes and JP is a vegetarian.  D'oh!  So now we're gonna send it back and I'll get him something else.  He didn't fare much better though...he got me Date Night which was totally something I wanted, but like my sis with Avatar, he got me the DVD instead of the Bluray.  I'm glad that at least this time, I didn't make a mistake on my wishlist...JP just got confused I think.  No problem though, I might just have to deal.  I definitely felt bad about getting him a present he didn't like, you might say I even felt a little naughty...which put me in mind of this post from last year for tonight's blog.  I haven't splashed any Christmas horror around the page yet, and its certainly due for some.  Without further ado, the post:

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 10, 2010

Day 10: The Bat, The Cat, The Penguin

Rough day at work today.  I realize that children don't exactly want to sit still and listen to me explain "The Tragedy of Julius Caesar" for half a period...but it's my job.  They should just let me do it.  Anyway, I did get through most of the notes and points I hoped to cover involving the big questions on the test on Monday (yes, it was the only time I could schedule it...stop looking at me like I'm a monster) so they should do well on that....but they better hope they know the little things as well as they say they do.  Oh well, Act II is hard to go over anyway because essentially nothing happens...its a character development act where we learn more about Brutus and Caesar and the decisions they make to lead them to the big scene in Act III.  Sigh, at least the day is over now and I can start gearing up for the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party tonight at Clay Clay's house.  I bought a totally tacky top to wear (love that alliteration) and several accessories to really make it memorable.  Oh, speaking of tragic characters like Brutus and Caesar...I was inspired by all this tragedy talk to discuss one of my favorite sequels from a superhero series (which also happens to be a Christmas movie).  It features a lone hero who must deal with a life lived without companionship, a misunderstood and twisted man who's exile from the human world forced him to take revenge against it, and a put-upon woman who is crushed by the realites of big buisness and becomes a violent characature of everything that she never was before.  Am I talking about some kind of opera or Shakesperian tragedy?  Heck no!  I'm talking about Batman Returns, Tim Burton's first sequel and only sequel to the acclaimed Batman franchise at Warner Bros.  It was dark, tragic, and cold while also being colorful and manic like a circus and left many people scratching their heads.  Why do I enjoy it?  Read on to find out.

The film opens with Mr. and Mrs. Cobblepot 'celebrating' the birth of their new son whom they keep in a cage due to his deformities and general unpleasentness.  Deciding they cannot take anymore of the child, they dump him in the park river and watch as he floats away into the sewers.  He soon floats through a canal leading into a penguin enclosure at the zoo and is rescued by huge emporer penguins.  33 years later, it is Christmas in Gotham City and everywhere people are bustling around to finish shopping and stay warm in the bitter cold weather.  Life has been fairly crime free since Batman sent took care of The Joker and his gang several years ago, but a new menace is on the rise.  Max Shrek, an iron-fisted Gotham buisnessman, is assaulted at the annual tree lighting ceremony in Gotham Plaza by the Red Triangle Circus Gang and he manages to escape while they create general pandemonium, and trapping his secretary Selena Kyle in the process.  Batman rescues Kyle and sends the gang packing, but Shrek is taken when he steps on the wrong sewer grate.  Turns out, The Penguin (the Cobblepot son from the opening) has been living in the sewers these past 33 years and is the leader of the Circus Gang and he requires Shrek to do a favor for him.  He wants to acsend and rejoin society...though there are suspicions that he has less than honorable intentions.  Meanwhile, Selena Kyle has discovered that Shrek plans to steal energy from Gotham City...but before she can inform anyone he pushes her out of a window.  She nearly dies, but is rescued by hundreds of alley cats who warm her and revive her.  She has a complete breakdown and forms a new persona, Catwoman, so that she can take revenge on her heartless boss.  With two criminals loose on the streets and working together to take Gotham City for themselves...Batman more than has his hands full, especially when Batman is developing feelings for Catwoman and Bruce Wayne is falling for Selena Kyle.  Will the Dark Knight succeed?

Wow, that's a big synopsis.  And yes, that was probably the shortest synopsis I could possibly write without leaving out important details and motives for why characters behave the way they do.  I've seen shorter synopsises, but those are usually written by people who don't care much for the movie.  One of the biggest criticisms that this film faced, aside from its dark nature and gross Penguin characterizations by Danny DiVito, was that there was too much development and time spent developing the villains and fairly little spent with Batman/Bruce Wayne (a similar criticism was lobbed at the first film, with many people saying that it should have been called The Joker instead of Batman).  I am not of the same opinion however.  Batman has already been established as a character and so we already understand him.  It is better for the film that we sympathize with the villains because, as you can see from the synopsis, they are tragic figures that we are meant to empathize with.  Sure, they do bad things...but both of them grow out of people who were never given any other chance by society.  I think that also made people uncomfortable, because it is much easier to dislike a villain who is more pure evil...like The Joker...than a villain who is completely justified in wanting revenge...like Catwoman and to a lesser extent, The Penguin.  That is one of the aspects of Batman Returns that I prefer to the others because it begs you to ask the question "What is good and what is bad and how blurry can we make the line between them?"  Technically, Batman is breaking the law but we forgive him because he is stopping crime.  Catwoman and The Penguin break the law to right the wrongs of their pasts as well...but they do it in much less honorable ways.  The triangle of the animal identities is a nice touch as well with air, land, and water all covered by the characters respective name choices (Cat, Bat, and Penguin) and it helps to show how each of them share a common link.  Their pasts were terrible, and they took refuge in the animal world.  The story really would make a tremendous opera, and Danny Elfman's huge score certainly elevates it to that level.  I think everyone should watch Batman Returns with these ideas in mind to see if you interpret some of the themes differently.  Its a very complex and rich drama, while also doing pretty well in the action department as well.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Day 9: A Magic Train (Archive Post)

Today was a bit of a rough day and didn't provide me with much time to write a brand new post today, so I've decided to archive one from last year.  Enjoy this re-post about one of the most popular recent Christmas movies, about a magical train and an exciting journey:

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 snowman...it 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 myself...it 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 sooner...like 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 Claus...my 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.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Day 8: Sick Days and Sneakthieves

I took a sick day today...something I haven't done in almost a year and a half of teaching.  In hindsight, I'm surprised that I hadn't done it yet.  I've been having this abdominal pain off and on for over a year and some times it happens quite a bit and other times it is gone for months at a time.  I've even gone ahead and taught on days that I felt lousy with it because I knew that it usually only lasts about 24 hours.  However, each of those days was always terrible and I always regretted it...but I didn't want to use up sick days.  For some reason I have this compulsion to always attend work and school and I never liked to miss.  I even went to seventh grade with a hideous fever and stayed there most of the day.  A teacher had to kick me out of class for my own good.  And I have to say, after taking this sick day, it certainly wasn't what I imagined.  I thought I'd sit around and convalesce all day...but in fact I was busier than if I had gone to work.  I had to go into school early to lay out sub plans, then I had to go to the doctor's office early to get an appointment, then I spent an hour and 20 minutes there after running some necessary errands, I got scheduled for a CAT scan (for my tummy), did blood work, and then actually did the CAT scan.  I mean I didn't stop moving from mid-morning on.  On the upside, I finished the shopping for Mom and got a treat for myself...and I finally did something about this pain.  It feels good to have done something rather than just sit on my ass and take it.  So it was probably one of the strangest sick days of my life.  I'm ready to go back to work tomorrow though, and I'm sure I'll feel good in the morning.  Anyway, the subject of today's film examination is another film that takes place in December, but doesn't make a big deal about the fact that its taking place around Christmas.  It also deals with someone who took a sick day and had an adventure.  No, its not Ferris Bueller, but it definitely takes some cues from Mr. Bueller...which isn't surprising since it was written by the same man, the late John Hughes.  It is also part of a series and its about the point when that series started to go sour...but that won't stop me from talking about it.  So lets get kid crazy and look at Home Alone 3.

The film begins with a crack team of for professional thieves preparing to smuggle a top secret missile microchip out of the country.  In order to get through security with no snags, they hide the chip in an RC car (it was 1997, airport security was easier then). However, when they prepare to transfer planes they find that the bag they had placed the car in has been switched with an identical one by accident.  They don't know who took the bag, but they do figure out that it is headed to Chicago.  Eventually they discover that an elderly lady took the bag and they are able to find her street.  They cannot find the correct house though, due to incomplete information, so they begin doing a house-to-house sweep during the day since no one is home.  Little do they realize that Alex Pruitt, who has been left home with the chicken pox and who also has been given the car by the elderly Mrs. Hess, is watching them.  He calls the police, but no one believes his story when they find no evidence of any break ins.  Soon, the thieves become aware of Alex's prying and his possession of the car and it is up to him to keep them out of his home...using the most inventive boobytraps ever thought up by an 8-year-old.

Home Alone 3 feels like two different movies playing at once.  On one hand, it is an espionage thriller with a kid as the lead and on the other hand it is a slapstick comedy and the two halves don't exactly fit together securely.  The stakes are well set up and some of the characters are decently well rounded...particularly Alex and his mother (Haviland Morris)...but when the thieves, who seem very very good, begin making stupid mistakes and falling for Alex's primitive traps is when the movie hits his biggest snag.  They are set up as so ruthless and professional at the start and it seems wrong to see them bumbling like idiots.  When Harry and Marv in the first two films did it, it seemed natural.  But these are smart and top-notch thieves, and to see them falling all over themselves like idiots seems wrong.  However, if you can get past that...like say you figure that they are too arrogant and overconfident...the film is easy to enjoy on an entertainment level.  The setup isn't bad and it is trying out some new ideas rather than repeating the first film (a criticism that part 2 got from all sides).  The traps are also funny...though some seem very difficult to survive, like the falling barbell and the falling lawnmower.  Anyway, if you've never seen Home Alone 3, you could do a lot worse for shallow entertainment...especially if you have kids.  However, if the first two don't thrill you at all, you should probably avoid this one too.  Its basically the same idea with a different skin.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Day 7: Santa in Space?

So I'm finding that this year, in an effort to repeat myself as little as possible, I'm having to really scrape the bottom of the barrel for interesting and different Christmas films.  Last year it was easy, just cover the classics and some of my offbeat favorites and I was fine.  This year I'm still gonna look at some old favorites and repeat some from last year, and there are still some classics I haven't done yet...like White Christmas...but really, I'm finding some stinkers here as far as 'interesting and offbeat' is concerned.  But hey, I promised 25 days of Christmas movies and 25 days you will have...but don't be surprised if you really dislike some of the creative choices I make.  Tonight's film gives Ed Wood's 'so bad its still bad' classic Plan Nine from Outer Space a run for its money and may even best it in terms of pure campy cheesiness.  It capitalizes on two fascinations that America had during the late 50s and early 60s...outer space and Santa Claus.  And what a mash up it is.  We have space ships, martians, Santa, military operations, and various other plot points all crammed into a tight 1 hour and 20 minutes.  Does it work?  Well, I'll let you know once I tell you the story of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (no, I'm really not making this up).

It is Septober on the planet Mars and the adult Martians have begun to notice something disturbing.  Their children don't want to sleep, they don't care to eat, and they spend all day watching Earth programs on their televiewers (a terrible habit according to the parents).  The martians go to speak with their head wise man about the problem and he informs them that on Earth, it is the beginning of December and that is when they begin preparing for Christmas.  Apparently, the martian children have seen and heard about Christmas and Santa Claus from the televiewer and yearn to have the same experiences that their Earth counterparts have.  You see, martian children are born with the minds of adults and are treated as adults.  They don't play or frolic, and they need to in order to work out their new feelings of restlessness.  The decree goes forth that Mars needs a Santa Claus and the martian fathers head to Earth in their space ship to kidnap him and bring him back to Mars so that he can bring Christmas to their children.  The martians are confused at first, as they can clearly see a Santa on every corner ringing a bell and asking for money.  But when they kidnap two Earth children, Billy and Betty, and ask them where he can be found...they are lead to the North Pole and Santa's Workshop.  So soon, the martians and Billy and Betty are all trying to get to Santa.  Who will prevail and what will become of Christmas?

Wow...just wow.  I really have never seen a film quite as bad as this one.  I mean Octaman was pretty bad...but this one just has all the production value of a preschool stage production...maybe less.  The actors are all over-cranking for a movie of this caliber (like they think they're gonna get an Oscar) and the effects are laughable.  However, boy was it ever funny.  I understand that "Mystery Science Theater 3000" once did an episode featuring this movie and I can imagine that it was pretty amusing.  I'll have to watch that one sometime, but for now I just have the regular film to work from.  Its such a strange concoction of ideas and makes very little sense.  Since when did television crews go to the North Pole to interview Santa?  Why do the martians look like green humans with strange hats?  Why does Mars have Earth food in pill form?  I mean, there is so much that is inexplicable in the film that it makes you giggle.  I bet this movie would be perfect for a tacky Christmas party...so long as you had enough liquor and plenty of witty people.  Once again, I don't suggest that you add this film to your holiday rotation...but if you're intensely curious you can watch it for free on YouTube.  I promise, there's nothing quite like it.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Day 6: You Could Even Say It Glows

So, you gotta love random memories.  I was sitting here trying to think of a film to talk about tonight and I started thinking of old Christmas songs I learned as a kid.  Jingle Bells, Silver Bells, Carol of the Bells...man, that's a lot of bells.  All those ringing bells could keep you up until New Year's if they all rang at the same time.  Sorry...I digressed.  Anyway, I was thinking of old songs and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer popped into my head.  Its a sweet little song, all about how an outcast became a star, and I remember it giving me a lot of hope as a child.  Look, I know that sounds corny...but you don't know how different I felt when I was a kid.  I mean I really was odd...even Mom knew it.  So the idea that someone could start as a social pariah and grow to be a big shot was appealing to me (for your information, I loved The Ugly Duckling too).  Anyway, thinking about that song put me in the mind of its stop-motion animation counterpart which was made for television by the talented team at Rankin/Bass.  I hadn't watched the film in over 15 years and yet when I thought of it, I couldn't imagine how I could have neglected to place it in my 25 day round up last year.  So here it comes, Rankin/Bass's Christmas classic, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

The film opens with Sam the Snowman narrating the story of an amazing reindeer who had a glowing red nose.  The reindeer's name was Rudolph...but he was not always thought to be so amazing.  At the start of the story, Rudolph is the shame of his father Donner (who is Santa's lead reindeer) and wears a cover over his nose when he is taken to practice take-offs. Meanwhile, an elf named Hermey is undergoing problems like Rudolph's. He does not want to make toys like the other elves, but instead wants to become a dentist. The lead elf scolds him and tries to get Hermey to obey, but the young elf refuses to change his interests.  Jump to a year later and Rudolph is still wearing a nose cover, which changes his voice, and has Comet for a coach.  Soon, during some horseplay, Rudolph's cover pops off and the other reindeer laugh at him...which sends him into the forest.  While in the forest, Rudolph meets Hermey and the two discover they share a bond.  Soon, Rudolph grows into a young stag and is faced with his song-given destiny of leading Santa's sleigh on that fated Christmas Eve.

Rudolph as a long film is much like Ron Howard's The Grinch in structure.  It features the same idea of expanding a short story into a longer film and embellishes quite a bit to get there.  Along the way, we get a large backstory for Rudolph, several musical numbers, a carnivorous Abominable Snowman, and an Island of Misfit toys.  All these things are not present in the original story or song, but they serve to push Rudolph to his eventual fate as head of Santa's sleigh.  Much of it is frivolous and all of it feels overstuffed...but its done in that wonderful old-school way that makes it all cling together like a really sweet Christmas cookie.  It looks good, it tastes good, and you only need to have it once a year.  Rankin/Bass would go on to make even more holiday specials after this one including The Little Drummer Boy, Frosty The Snowman, and The Year Without Santa Claus...all which would grow to be classics in their own right.  However it is this first creation that sits in everyone's memory as the best...and why not?  Afterall, doesn't the song say "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer...you'll go down in history"?