Monday, December 2, 2013

Joyeux Noel

Year 5, Day 335 - 12/1/13 - Movie #1,594

BEFORE:  I found time on the night of Thanksgiving to assemble my annual Christmas mix CD.  This tradition started about two decades ago, when I put some of my favorite classic Xmas songs (Elvis Presley, Leon Redbone and Bing Crosby were probably mainstays then) on to a 90-minute cassette (yeah...) and gave it to probably about 10 people.  Reactions were good, so I did it again, and bought more Christmas music CDs the next year, and more the year after that, and it was feeding my typical obsession to collect things AND organize them, but it also started to serve as an all-purpose Christmas gift for family, friends, co-workers and even the UPS guy and the postal clerks.  People ask me if I'm going to run out of songs, and I've determined that's mathematically impossible, I could probably continue this process for the rest of my natural lifespan and never run out of versions of "Silent Night" (plus, if I pull songs from the CDs once a year, then technically I can't be called a "hoarder").

But as with everything I do, there needs to be a process.  There is a certain art, science and logic to creating a Christmas mix, plus I need to feel inspired.  I don't allow the process to guide me, even though the process could be more or less on auto-pilot at this point - just pick a bunch of good songs, make sure no two artists are singing the same song, the length is just under the 80-minute CD limit, and hit "Burn CD", right?  Not so fast.  I simply must have a theme, and that theme could be 80's rock, or jazz, or a cappella, or even Christmas music in the style of famous classic rock songs (one of my more difficult mixes to put together).  This year I had a rough idea for a theme, and it just wasn't coming together as fast as I would have liked, but I realized the clock was ticking.  So I sat down to log in the CDs I bought last year, and I realized I had put a bunch of post-it notes on the CDs, marking songs that I thought would fit in with a theme I've used before - and when I put this together with the songs that didn't make the cut in a previous year, for one reason or another, within a couple of hours I had a mix that was just a few minutes over the legal limit.

This is the best place for a mix of songs to be in - I know I need to cut just one song, and I'm golden.  But which one?  Well, when I pick songs I'm usually drawn to songs that show creativity or are different in some way - I'm most impressed by new arrangements, or singers that change the melody up a little, or stand out in some perhaps undefinable way.  Some versions that aren't just "the same old thing".  Then I'll listen to the mix, and choose the one that perhaps went a little too far (this year it was a very angry-ish version of "Carol of the Bells") and then what's left is usually the final group of songs.

Then it's just a matter of putting them in the "right" order, which is important.  I try to include 6 or 7 traditional Nativity-oriented carols, so that's a section, but I don't want so many that the mix gets bogged down in religious dogma.  Then there's usually a group of the weather- or party-related songs, like "Winter Wonderland", "Let It Snow", "White Christmas", and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree".  Any songs related to Santa / Rudolph / Frosty the Snowman usually constitute a third section, and then there are usually a few songs that are relationship-based, like "Blue Christmas", "Last Christmas" and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)".  Then there are generic well-wishing songs like "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", and other songs that I can take or leave, like "Feliz Navidad" and "12 Days of Christmas" - it has to be a really great version of one of those songs for me to even consider using it.  Plus I like to throw in one or two original songs, just to keep things fresh and maybe move the genre forward a bit.  Sometimes I like to challenge people's perceptions of what a holiday song sounds like, but I don't want to go too far.

Then, after a rough order is established, I have to listen through it one more time.  At this point I ask myself a number of questions, such as "Do I have too many female artists in a row?"  "Are the songs that mention God or Jesus too preachy?"  "Do I really want to alternate like this, fast song then slow song then fast song, or does that seem to bi-polar?"  "What's the overall tone of the compilation?"  Too many slow songs or songs in minor keys can potentially drag the whole thing down, and make it sound like a funeral dirge for Prancer & Vixen.  But too many loud or fast numbers could alienate the older relatives.  Usually cutting out the most egregious offenders in Step 2 takes care of this, and the rest can be smoothed over by just not putting too many downbeat songs together. 

I've got something now that I think is entertaining and even better, interesting.  And by that I mean it's got MY interest right now, and it represents where my head is at, and that's what I want to share with people.  There are a couple sad songs, perhaps "wistful" is a better word, and that's OK.  The mix made me sort of tear up in two spots, and that's a good sign.  But I don't want to depress people, so the cheer comes back to (hopefully) pull people back to a celebratory mood, and I think after a few more listens I'll be ready to mail it out with my Christmas cards.  An even better sign is the fact that right after listening through it, I want to hear it again.

But that's not why you called - so on with the countdown.  Linking from "The Patriot", an actor from that film named Peter Woodward was also in "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" with Diane Kruger (last seen in "Troy").

THE PLOT:  On Christmas Eve during world War I, the Germans, French, and Scottish fraternize and get to know the men who live on the opposite side of a brutal war, in what became a true lesson of humanity.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "War Horse" (Movie #1,585), "Paths of Glory" (Movie #1,180)

AFTER:   Well, this goes right along with what I was just talking about.  Music is the initial thing that draws the French and German soldiers together on Christmas Eve.  Music, then alcohol.  Both are sort of universal languages (along with food, I suppose) and to a lesser extent here, religion.  The soldiers from France, Germany and Scotland end up having a mass together, which was easier back then because all of their masses were spoken in Latin.  

But let's start with music.  "Stille Nacht", or as you may know it, "Silent Night", was composed in German and just plain sounds better sung in that language (as does "O Tannenbaum"), but of course it's also recognizable in other languages.  "O Come All Ye Faithful" is shown here as a crossover too (sung as "Adeste Fideles", again, Latin).  I'm sure there are other Christmas songs that are uniquely German, or French, or English, but some of these are just plain universal.  I'm spoiled by the fact that 99% of my Christmas CD's recipients live in English-speaking countries, so I can worry about the theme and the tone and not worry if the messages are being understood or not. 

Speaking of messages, it's a little tough to land on just exactly what the message of this film is.  It's clearly anti-war, but it was a little hard to get much clearer than that.  Obviously it's much harder to shoot your enemy once you've shared a drink with him, and it shows that people on both sides of World War I were "dehumanizing" their enemy in order to make war acceptable in the minds of their countrymen.  It also highlights the difference in attitudes held by the people in government, and those held by the people in the trenches.

But it's tough to say whether this was meant to be seen as a sane moment in an insane war, or perhaps a more insane moment.  Putting Christmas aside, what happened still constituted fraternization with the enemy, and it was perhaps naive to think that their superior officers would never find out, or that there would be no repercussions.  The goals of war are to stay alive and kill the other guy, and however you feel about Christmas, celebrating it ended up interfering with the aforementioned other goals.  Besides, if celebrating with the enemy gets your unit disbanded or gets you transferred to the more dangerous Russian Front, then in the end it hardly seems worth it.

This is the end of the war chain, which began with "Red Tails" back on November 7.  Actually, it sort of began with "Gone With the Wind" in late September, or really you could say it kind of started with "Les Miserables" back on Jan. 1.  Whatever.  Now that peace has broken out, I need to step away and get my Christmas CDs made, my Christmas cards mailed out, the outdoor lights put up, and then I really should think about buying some gifts for people.  Damn, I've got just three weeks until Christmas, so this is going to be tight, and it's my own damn fault.   I'll meet you back here in about two weeks, hopefully, to knock off the last few films of the year, which are mainly holiday-based.

Also starring Benno Fürmann, Gary Lewis, Daniel Brühl, Steven Robertson, Guillaume Canet, Frank Witter, Ian Richardson, Thomas Schmauser.

RATING: 6 out of 10 bagpipes

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Patriot

Year 5, Day 334 - 11/30/13 - Movie #1,593

BEFORE: Happy Thanksgivukkah!  I wish I'd known months ago that the two holidays were going to coincide, I could have transitioned from "Pocahontas" to something like "8 Crazy Nights" - but I didn't.  Instead I went with a Mel Gibson linking, and as a result the war category is almost completely cleared.  I know it seems like July 4 would be a more appropriate date to watch this, and I agree, but I've covered just about every American (and Greek) conflict, except this one.  (OK, so I skipped the Spanish-American War, Korea and Vietnam this time.  You know what I mean.)

The truth is, I don't know what kind of chain I'll be involved in come July, and even though I have a couple other Mel Gibson films left on the list, sandwiching this film between "Payback" and "Bird on a Wire" didn't make much sense to me.  I don't even know for sure if I want to link with actors next year, we'll see. 

THE PLOT:  Peaceful farmer Benjamin Martin is driven to lead the Colonial Militia during the American Revolution when a sadistic British officer murders his son.

AFTER:  This is another war film that felt maybe too long by 25% or so - does any film really need to be 2 hours, 45 minutes long?  Couldn't some editing have been applied to cut out at LEAST 15 minutes, while maintaining the same storyline?  I mean, if we see Gibson's character saying goodbye to his children three times instead of four, isn't that enough?  There are some other redundancies in the plot as well, but I'm not going to mention major plot points for fear of spoilage.  But seeing the same thing happen again and again means that the story could have easily been simplified a little. 

Old Mel shows a bit of the "Mad Max" psycho here (or maybe it's the "Lethal Weapon" psycho) as his character is a pacifist at first, but then gets dragged into the conflict of the American Revolution.  I'm sure there must have been some people who voted against taking up arms, but according to this film, with the way that the British army treated even the Americans who were loyalists, by commandeering their slaves, land and supplies, they created more dissent wherever they went.  Which means that the U.S. might have remained colonies if the Brits hadn't been such royal dicks.

But when his family is threatened, and his son is in danger, Benjamin recalls his fighting days from the French-Indian War - there's a backstory which eventually gets told - and takes on a squadron of Redcoats thanks to a few well-placed already-loaded muskets and his trusty tomahawk.  It's only believable because of how long it took to reload a gun back in those days.  Seriously, it took like 5 minutes at best, and even then you weren't sure you did it correctly until you pulled the trigger and it didn't blow your own face off. 

What you see in the early battles of the war is a lot of gentleman-like behavior - you guys line up over there, and we'll line up over here, and you fire your weapons, and we'll get hit, then we'll take our turn.  Were things really like that?  Men were expected to just stand there and anticipate getting shot?  With the Brits' superior numbers, there was no way for the Colonials to win - until they started "fighting dirty", hiding in fields and forests and shooting without warning.  Yeah, they broke the rules but the rules sucked to begin with.  And isn't that what rebels do, break the rules?

I remember learning this sort of thing in U.S. History class, but I think it's probably an oversimplification to suggest this idea came from ONE guy, or was a practice used just by the South Carolina militia, for that matter.  But I suppose it makes it more dramatic to show the scrappy bunch of farmers, not professional soldiers, coming together to create more underhanded but efficient tactics. 

There are also some insights into the proper methods of courtship in the 1700's, and they sort of nailed how formal people acted back then - plus I think there are some keen insights into the motivations of the colonists, the reasons for the Revolution.  But there's also a large amount of melodrama here - like the young daughter who can't (or won't) speak.  Seems sort of a cop-out to explain why she wasn't given any lines, or if not that, then the use of a disabled character to wring more suffering out of this family's situation.

We also see Gibson's character melt down his tin soldiers to make his own musket balls.  Which was very effective since it turned out the British had no defense against irony.  You think that a gunshot hurts?  These also sting...

Also starring Heath Ledger (last seen in "10 Things I Hate About You"), Joely Richardson (last seen in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"), Tom Wilkinson (last seen in "Recount"), Jason Isaacs (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2"), Chris Cooper (last seen in "The Horse Whisperer"), Rene Auberjonois (last seen in "Where the Buffalo Roam"), Donal Logue (last seen in "The Thin Red Line"), Adam Baldwin, Leon Rippy, Logan Lerman (last seen in "The Three Musketeers").

RATING: 5 out of 10 rocking chairs