Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Christmas Carol (2009)

Year 5, Day 355 - 12/21/13 - Movie #1,597

BEFORE:  Happy Festivus to all!  I've declared that today I celebrate Festivus, which usually involves me going on a walking tour of NYC's holiday markets and picking up those last-minute Christmas gifts.  But because of the shortened season, I wasn't able to take a day off from work, so this year Festivus happens to fall on a Saturday.  It would have been last Saturday, but it snowed, so today it is - that's the great thing about Festivus, it takes place when I say it does.  My wife joined me for the first time, but still I truncated the tour down to just a pizza place, the Union Square holiday market, the big 5-floor Barnes & Noble, and the Heartland Brewery.  Oh, and the liquor store on the way home.  Christmas shopping is DONE.

Linking from "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas", Patton Oswalt was also in "Man on the Moon" with Jim Carrey (last seen in "The Dead Pool").  And thanks to that claymation sequence, my Christmas films this year are all at least partially animated. 

THE PLOT:  An animated retelling of Charles Dickens' classic novel about a Victorian-era miser taken on a journey of self-redemption, courtesy of several mysterious Christmas apparitions.

AFTER: Two things have to happen for me to really feel like it's Christmas - and neither of them is watching Paul Schaffer's impression of Cher singing "Oh, Holy Night" or Darlene Love singing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)", though those are both great traditions.  I need to go on the Festivus walking tour, and I need to watch some version of "A Christmas Carol".  It can be the Patrick Stewart version, or Bill Murray's "Scrooged", and perhaps next year it will be the Muppets' turn, but this year the spotlight falls on the 2009 mo-cap version, directed by Robert Zemeckis.

NOTE: I'm not calling it "Disney's A Christmas Carol", because I don't acknowledge that as a valid title format.  It's CHARLES DICKENS' "A Christmas Carol", goddammit, just as it's really Victor Hugo's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" and Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Tarzan".   Once you allow Disney to start adding possessives, where do you stop?  Will it someday be "Disney's The Muppets' A Christmas Carol"?  Or "Disney's Marvel's The Avengers' Christmas Special"?  I'm drawing a line right here, right now.  Too many apostrophes.

Anyway, I'm drawn to some version of this story each year (which is my favorite?  more on that later) because it's a GOOD story, and good stories are timeless.  There are no doubt hundreds of variations on this story, dozens of which air on the Lifetime Network, but the fact that it crosses all ethnic and age barriers just emphasizes how adaptable it is.  Sure, you can take it as an examination of Victorian money-lending procedures, but you'd be missing the point.  It's really about self-reflection and redemption.  Plus, though "The Time Machine" usually gets credit as the first time-travel story, Dickens really beat it to the punch by about 50 years - so suck on that, H.G. Wells.

The story works for the one-percenters who may identify with Scrooge, or more likely appeals to the other 99% of adults who identify with Bob Crachit - who among us hasn't at least looked into the cost of hiring 3 actors in ghost costumes to visit their boss late at night?  OK, maybe that's just me.  But I'm telling you, it can work if you don't mind a little breaking and entering...

This version is told via CGI and motion-capture, which has its advantages and disadvantages.  This allowed the filmmakers to make just about anything mentioned in Dickens' book appear on the screen. If the floor of the room is meant to disappear and create the illusion that the room is soaring over Victorian London, well give some nerds enough computing power, and they can get that on the screen.  Jacob Marley's jaw can become unhinged and flap around wildly, without an actor having to work with some weird prosthetic.

The downside, however, is that when all things are possible, there is a temptation to go too far.  To have Scrooge's character shrunk down to mouse-size so he can hide in a drainpipe is an odd idea, plus it's not in the book.  And he doesn't need to hide from the other characters, since they can't see him anyway.  These are just shadows of things to come, remember?

But the process does allow for actors to play multiple characters - which almost hearkens back to the stage productions of "Peter Pan", where the same actor usually played Mr. Darling and Captain Hook (how Freudian for young Wendy!).  Carrey's features can be seen not only in Scrooge, but in two of the three ghostly visitors, which would be quite difficult to achieve in live-action (too many split-screens) - and this also reinforces the dream-like nature of Scrooge's visions, since I've heard that in your dreams, all the other characters are really just other aspects of yourself.   (Wouldn't it have been great if the Ghost of Christmas Past ended up looking like Fire Marshall Bill from "In Living Color"?)

That's right, I'm going on record as saying that Scrooge's experience is a dream - you can really interpret it either way, ghost story or dream.  (I used to wonder about that line in the song "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year", where it mentions "scary ghost stories" - what kind of a nutty family tells ghost stories at Christmas?  Then I remembered, "Oh yeah, Dickens.")   But if you think about it, the only helpful ghost is really the second one.  Scrooge knows all too well what happened to him in the past (but he needs to be reminded), and he has to know that he's going to die some time in the future, right?  The only real insight to be gained is getting that fly-on-the-wall look at how his nephew and the Cratchits celebrate the holiday.  Rich or poor, when the day comes, you've got to pull out all the stops.

Scrooge's dream (or spiritual experience, or whatever) follows the simple Rule of Three, and as such contains a message that represents Dickens' formula for redemption/happiness: face your past, enjoy the present, and try not to be such a dick to people in the future.  And that's what's universal, almost completely non-denominational, and works whether it's Christmastime or not.

My only other complaint about this version is that we don't get to see enough of Scrooge interacting with the townspeople, most of whom have borrowed money from him.  Admittedly it's been a long time since I read the book, so I don't know if this was just a stylistic choice, but I think the story is stronger the more he's depicted as a usurer in the beginning, and the more he's seen forgiving debts at the end.  This is something well represented in my favorite version of the story, which is:

The 1970 Albert Finney vehicle "Scrooge".  I will defend this version over any other, for a number of reasons.  First, it's got great musical numbers, especially "Father Christmas" and "Thank You Very Much", the latter of which is first sung ironically at Scrooge's funeral, and then sincerely at the end once all debts have been cleared.  This film was made just 2 years after the Best Picture winner "Oliver!", based on another Dickens classic, and shares some of the same DNA.  I just learned they were both filmed at Shepparton Studios, which explains a lot - they probably used some of the same Victorian sets and costumes. 

In a casting twist, whereas Ebenezer Scrooge was usually played by an older actor, requiring the casting of a believable younger look-a-like for the flashbacks, Albert Finney was a relatively young man who played the past Scrooge with no make-up, and then they olded him up to play him in the present-day sequences, and he was very believable.  (though he's now an older man, and his character in "Skyfall" looked completely different...)  Finney was younger than the actor playing his nephew, a fact which oddly enough is repeated here in the Jim Carrey version.

Plus you've got Alec Guinness as Marley, and he does a hell of a job too - jeez, the man incurred a double hernia from wearing the apparatus needed to carry his chains.  That's commitment.

NITPICK POINT: (And this refers to all versions of the story, even the original) Marley tells Scrooge he will be visited by three ghosts - but Marley himself is a ghost - so shouldn't it be FOUR ghosts?  Or shouldn't Marley at least say "You will be visited by three MORE ghosts, not including myself?"

Marley also says that the ghosts will arrive on successive nights, but then when Scrooge wakes up, he realizes that they got it all done in one night.  That's why he's so surprised - but since the story was originally written in serialized chapters, my guess is that halfway through, Dickens realized that Scrooge's redemption would be more powerful if it occured in time to celebrate Christmas, and not Boxing Day.

Also starring the voices of Gary Oldman (last seen in "The Dark Knight Rises"), Colin Firth (last seen in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"), Bob Hoskins (last seen in "The Wind in the Willows"), Robin Wright Penn (last seen in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"), Cary Elwes (last seen in "Days of Thunder")

RATING: 5 out of 10 street urchins

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

Year 5, Day 353 - 12/19/13 - Movie #1,596

BEFORE:  Will get back to the Santa Claus story in a few days.  I would think the linking would be quite obvious here - Chris Pine from "Rise of the Guardians" was also in the last 2 "Star Trek" films with John Cho.

THE PLOT:  Stoner buds Harold Lee and Kumar Patel cause a holiday fracas by inadvertently burning down Harold's father-in-law's prize Christmas tree.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" (Movie #9), "Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay" (Movie #234)

AFTER: Like the "Tyler Perry's Madea" films (a Tyler Perry production, directed by Tyler Perry), at least this franchise respects the Rules of Ernest - first your character has to go to jail, and only THEN do they get to "save Christmas".  At some point they need to go to camp as well, but I guess we'll deal with that when the time comes.

NOTE: These musings will no doubt be repeated when my University lesson plan is approved, and I teach my proposed class on modern history as seen through "buddy" films.  We'll start the course with Arbuckle & Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, then it's on to Abbott & Costello, Hope & Crosby, and eventually we'll end on "Dumb & Dumber", Jay & Silent Bob films, and this franchise.  It should be a scathing review on the decline of U.S. culture...

It's been 3 years since the last "Harold & Kumar" film was released, but in the stoner-verse, 6 years have somehow passed - and we find the two main characters in completely different places.  Harold has a respectable job and has married into a stereotypically terrifying Latino family, and Kumar has quit medical school and become an aimless stoner slob.  As such, they've ceased interacting and even communicating with each other, and each has picked up a substitute friend.  Harold appears to be living drug-free, and has even given up eating those wonderful White Castle belly-bombs.

But fate throws them together again ("through the years...we all will be together...") and the MacGuffin this time is the perfectly-shaped balsam fir Christmas tree - the quest for said item once again takes them across late-night New York City, this time filled with Christmas parties, Ukranian gangsters, stoner Santas, waffle-dispensing robots and dick jokes. 

There's even a clay-mation sequence that riffs on the old Rankin-Bass holiday specials, but since it's included as part of a drug-fueled hallucination, it can't possibly be taken seriously.  Then again, I suppose nothing included here is meant to be taken seriously, which is a shame.  What am I supposed to do with a nerd pursuing sex with a virgin (this was "Superbad" territory, no?) a baby constantly exposed to drugs (come on! a BABY?) and a riff on the "tongue stuck to a frozen pole" sequence from "A Christmas Story" (only that's, umm, not his tongue).

I guess I missed the cue in the film for when I was supposed to light up (thinking back on it, it was probably when the clock radio read 4:20...).  That would have made things more enjoyable, no doubt.  Actually I haven't done anything like that since 1988, unless you count morphine and painkillers when I had the kidney stones.  But I have a number of friends who do partake (shout-out to the Tumblr Wake 'N Bakers!) and I do approve of the M.J. becoming more acceptable, and in some states even legal. 

So, the franchise had a chance to portray toking up in a more positive light, and they blew it - sacrificing any social commentary to fit in more off-color humor.  Though I suppose if I think back on the events of the film, the "problem drugs" were cocaine and ecstasy, and marijuana leads only to good times and wild adventures.  Makes sense - why can't we make a similar distinction between a natural herb organically grown and something synthesized in a lab from cold medicine and cleaning products?

We live in confusing times.  Smoking pot is legal in some states (next movie: Harold & Kumar Go to Colorado?) and approved for medicinal uses in others (Harold & Kumar Open a Pharmacy?) and in most states, still illegal.  Some people are serving time for possession, but others are let go if the quantity was less then 4 oz. - can we all get together here and agree whether this thing is OK or not?  It's easy to make the connection to same-sex marriage - gay people can get married in one state, but not another, and "border-crossing" weddings will soon be commonplace - but how do we get one state to recognize a marriage that took place in another?  I love consistency much more than the thought of people enforcing their outdated belief systems on others.

My drug of choice is still beer.  Good beer, not that shit that most Americans drink.  If the ability to savor different flavors of beer and pair them with food got taken away from me, I'd be rightfully pissed.  At the office Christmas party on Monday, I brought in 5 bottles of Stone Brewery's "Vertical Epic" series, dated 2008-2012.  They were meant to be enjoyed in sequence on 12/12/12, and I missed that opportunity.  The series was released on 2/2/02, 3/3/03, and so on, and the vintages were designed to age together, and present a sort of "flavor narrative", with each year representing a twist in the story.  But this was simply too much beer to enjoy alone, so I shared.  I don't know if much inspiration was gained through this radical approach to storytelling, but we had a good time, and the 2009 Vertical Epic paired very well with chocolate cupcakes.  The 2012 was a Christmas ale, with spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and clove, so I felt the beers were appropriate for the occasion.

So, when I hear people talk about varieties of pot like "Winter Wonderweed", I get it.  I don't smoke it, but I get it.  However, just once I'd like to see this film franchise take the high road and not just try to appeal to the lowest common denominators of comedy each time.  I will, however, happily support the real-life invention of the WaffleBot.  You may not realize you need this product, but you do.

Also starring Kal Penn (last seen in "Superman Returns"), Thomas Lennon (last seen in "The Dark Knight Rises"), Amir Blumenfeld, Neil Patrick Harris (last seen in "The Muppets"), Danny Trejo (ditto), Elias Koteas (last seen in "The Thin Red Line"), Patton Oswalt (last seen in "Seeking a Friend For the End of the World"), with cameos from Bobby Lee, Eddie Kaye Thomas, David Krumholtz (last seen in "10 Things I Hate About You").

NOTE: Christopher Meloni had an uncredited appearance in both previous "Harold & Kumar" films - and there was a perfect part for him in this one.  I can only assume he wasn't available, and the actor who most closely resembles him, and is probably often confused with him, was cast.  What a shame.

RATING: 3 out of 10 Rockettes

UPDATE: Shortly after going to press I was saddened to learn of the death of men's magazine publisher Al Goldstein. This may seem odd at first, but I can't think of a better place to mention the man, because he also catered to the lowest common denominator - but he was damn good at it, and proud of it.  I met him a couple times at parties, and I recommend viewing any of his interview sessions with filmmakers where he dared to ask the tough questions about their sexual habits, or reading any of his many missives against his ex-wives and their money-grubbing bastard lawyers.  I never got to say, "Thanks for the box of porn, Al."

I'd say that Al was the poor man's Hugh Hefner, but that was really Bob Guccione's job.  I'd say he was the poor man's Larry Flynt, but that was Larry Flynt's job.  Al was just Al, ruling over his porn empire like Jabba the Hutt, laughing boldly while flipping the world the middle finger, no doubt surrounded by many unsavory characters. After the fall of Screw magazine, Al worked as a greeter at the 2nd Ave. Deli for a while, and I'm also sorry I never got to see him holding court there.   Maybe he never got around to effecting lasting change, but the world's a little less raunchy tonight, and that's too darn bad.  I'll give Al a mention here because I would hate for his passing to be overshadowed by that of Joan Fontaine, Peter O'Toole and Nelson Mandela, who all never even had the courtesy to meet me.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Rise of the Guardians

Year 5, Day 352 - 12/18/13 - Movie #1,595

BEFORE: Well, I've been away for 2 weeks but it's been a very busy time.  Most of my Christmas cards and CDs have gone out, about half of the requisite presents have been purchased (I'm hoping for some last-minute inspiration) and I've attended three office Christmas parties (two at companies I work for, I must be slipping).  The only thing I haven't done yet is go on my annual "Festivus" walking tour of the NYC holiday markets, but really, there's almost no time for that.  This past weekend I was sidelined by a snowstorm and a big blister on my foot, so the tour has been rescheduled for this coming Saturday, when the weather should be nicer.

But it's just one week until Christmas, and I've only got to slot in four films, and then two after Christmas to finish out the year.  No problem, piece of cake, I got this.  Linking from "Joyeux Noel", an actor from that film named Christopher Fulford was also in "Scoop" with Hugh Jackman (last seen in "Real Steel").

THE PLOT:  When the evil spirit Pitch launches an assault on Earth, the Immortal Guardians team up to protect the innocence of children all around the world.

AFTER: While Christmas movies come and go (usually around this time of year...) superhero movies are hot hot HOT!  And essentially, that's what this is, a superhero movie where the superheroes are classic children's characters all known for sneaking around at night without being seen.  That's what unites Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman and the Tooth Fairy, other than the fact that they're all metaphors for different aspects of childhood.

So somebody got the idea to do a superhero spin on these characters, putting them together in a "Justice League" sort of organization, a type of an X-Men-ification if you will.   In fact the basic plot follows the open of the first "X-Men" film quite closely, with an amnesiac Jack Frost in the Wolverine role, ambling through the countryside until he meets the other members of the team.  After that Jack sort of fills the "Iceman" role from the X-Men, and the Easter Bunny takes over more of the Wolverine role (I don't think it's a coincidence that E.B. is voiced by Hugh I see what you did there...).  The Tooth Fairy, as a goddess-type is sort of Storm-like, though I suppose the relatively new X-Men character Pixie is a closer analogue.  And Santa Claus is big, imposing and high-tech, so he's a bit of Professor X meets Magneto meets Bruce Wayne.

The coincidences / comic-book ripoffs continue - Santa's got a big holographic map of the globe that highlights the children who truly believe, and it looks an awful lot like the X-Men's Cerebro device.  The high-tech sleigh leaves Santa's workshop through a tunnel that calls to mind the way the Batmobile leaves the Batcave, and so on.  The villain, Pitch (aka the Boogeyman), seems like a cross between Marvel's Nightmare character and DC/Vertigo's Sandman (Morpheus).  In fact, it's hard to find any element of this film that doesn't call to mind something similar from Marvel, DC or Vertigo.

ASIDE: The Sandman seen in this film is, however, not directly based on the Vertigo Sandman.  This one's more of a happy roly-poly sort, who is non-voiced by Teller from the comedy/magic duo Penn & Teller (I assume - though this doesn't really make sense, it's a fun factoid I just made up.) End of ASIDE.

That being said, if I compare this film to your average comic-book team-up, or a film like, say "The Avengers", there are a few places where it seems to fall short.  What, exactly, is the villain's plan to take over the world - how is he going to accomplish this?  This seemed very nebulous here, and his plan involved getting kids to fear him, but NOT believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny.  Which seems a bit self-defeatist, because if kids mature and learn to not believe in fairy stories, that could also involve him, because he's perceived as a similarly imaginary character.  It's all or nothing with the fairy tales - they're either all true, or all fantasy.  The more exact elements of his plan seem to involve turning dream horses into night mares (get it?) but I'm not seeing his endgame here.  Once all the kids in the world are scared of the Boogeyman - then what?  He signs a book deal and stars in a TV biopic?  

But, on the upside, it's a step toward advancing/updating the Santa Claus mythos, which quite honestly sometimes seems very mired in the past.  How many homes even HAVE a working chimney these days, thanks to central heating?  And what kid hasn't done the math to try and calculate the time it would take Santa to visit EVERY home on Christmas Eve, and determined that even if you discount the non-Christian households, it still seems a tall order for him to get into each house, deliver gifts, eat cookies, drink milk, shout "Ho Ho Ho!" and go back up the chimney in under 0.00001 seconds?  I know, I know, time zones, magic reindeer and the curvature of the earth - and then Lois Lane comes back to life for good measure.  My kid would be questioning the whole thing from the get-go, which is one more reason why I don't have a kid.

Recent debate over the exact location of the North Pole seems to place it in Canadian territory - but Santa Claus is Russian here for some reason, wielding sabers and wearing a Cossack-style hat.  I'm guessing the ability of the voice actor to do a Russian accent and an inability to speak in a Canadian style had a lot to do with that.  And the recent Fox News report about Santa Claus' race (Spoiler alert: He's WHITE) sort of demonstrated the ability that myths have to change over time.  The original Saint Nicholas was Greek, but lived in a section of the world that is now Turkey, so he probably was more brown than some people today might be comfortable with.  (Same goes for Jesus, despite the whiteness of his skin as depicted in most Renaissance artwork, people seem to forget that he was born in Israel, so was probably more of an olive-skinned gentleman.)

NITPICK POINT: On the same track as the Fox News "Christmas racism" scandal, despite a nod to the European version of the Tooth Fairy (Ratoncito Perez), this film is mostly based on American versions of these characters - how do these characters play overseas?  We are shown Santa and the Easter Bunny visiting desert huts and Chinese pagodas, but are they even known in those regions?  If a country doesn't celebrate Easter, why would they know the Easter Bunny?  And putting kids' teeth under their pillows, is that even a thing in most other countries?  I'll research when I have some more time...

NITPICK POINT #2: It's a valiant effort to come up with a reason WHY the Tooth Fairy collects teeth, even those with a little bit of gum attached, but still...eww.  The whole practice seems rather barbaric.  I like to challenge my friends with small kids by asking them what they're going to tell their kids about Santa, maybe I need to start asking them how they're going to handle the whole Tooth Fairy thing too - because that's just the kind of skutch I am.

But if the stories change over time, who's to say they shouldn't?  Why shouldn't Santa have a high-tech workshop with high-speed internet access and lots of flashing lights, dials and switches?  Why wouldn't he use a roomful of servers to keep track of the naughtiness of millions, if not billions, of children?  Why can't he be Russian, or Canadian, or Hispanic, or look different to everyone who (almost) sees him?  Why does the magic automatically stop when it comes to Santa's skin color?

Of course, there are many different forms of magic.  I saw a recent news report where a plane full of kids who had battled cancer were taken on a plane ride to the North Pole (and I'm resisting the use of sarcastic quotation marks here...).  The windows of the plane needed to be kept closed the entire time, because you can't risk kids seeing how the magic happens, and at the end of the plane ride, the kids landed at Santa's Workshop, which looked exactly like they hoped it would, and nothing at all like hangar B-3 at L.A.X.  And somehow the same reporters who saw the plane take-off also found a way to report from the North Pole itself - again, it's all part of the magic. 

I may be getting older and finding myself to be more and more cynical about Christmas tales, but I'm not one to reveal how magic tricks are done.   Not to sick KIDS, anyway.  Jeez, is that what you think of me?   I thought we had a real relationship here, and then you pull this on me...

Also starring the voices of Chris Pine (last seen in "Star Trek Into Darkness"), Alec Baldwin (last seen in "Rock of Ages"), Jude Law (last seen in "Cold Mountain"), Isla Fisher.

RATING: 5 out of 10 Russian composers