Year 7, Day 344 - 12/10/15 - Movie #2,197
BEFORE: I was dark there for another couple of days, couldn't be helped. We took Tuesday off to hit the outlet stores on Long Island, and I got the bulk of the gift-buying done there, and later that night on Amazon. But I decided I don't need to watch a film every night this week, as long as I can fit in two more before next Thursday, I should be fine. Linking from "Eight Crazy Nights", Adam Sandler was in "Spanglish" with Jamie Kaler. Tonight's film was originally scheduled for February (it would have linked the Diane Keaton chain to the Dermot Mulroney chain) when I determined it was more of a Christmas film.
I'm going to take this opportunity to talk about Christmas music, and my connection to it, because this film is probably the best representation I'll watch this year of a film with a Christmas-themed soundtrack. And I don't think I've discussed this before, in fact I've only featured Christmas-themed movies in 4 out of the 7 years of this project. (2009, 2010, 2013 and this year)
I collect a few things, like comic books, Star Wars novels and autographs, novelty t-shirts, and cover songs. I started years ago tracking down interesting covers of Beatles songs, and that turned into covers of rock songs in general, and at some point I started collecting holiday music too. But not the tired old standards sung by artists like Bing Crosby and Perry Como and Frank Sinatra - I think I started with Christmas albums from Leon Redbone, Booker T. & The MG's, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and The Roches, and the collection sort of spiraled out of control from there. This was back around 1991 or 1992, and if you remember, they started coming out with these charity CDs called "A Very Special Christmas", with modern acts like Bob Seger, Stevie Nicks, Whitney Houston and John Mellencamp singing Christmas songs, blowing everyone's mind. It was an exciting time.
I started making mix tapes (yes, cassette tapes) for friends, with my favorite new and classic Christmas songs filling up 90-minute cassettes, I think I made maybe 10 by hand that first year - this was back before the digital revolution made it possible to exchange files on flash drives or iPods, this was even before most people knew how to burn CDs. (OK, now I feel old.) And then every year I made a few more, started sending them out with my Christmas cards to friends and family, and after a few more years people started anticipating them, and asking me what was going to be on the next one, and it became an annual project for me.
My intent has always been to try and push the genre forward - I found that modern musicians were releasing Christmas albums every year, but what do the radio stations keep playing? Yep, Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. I appreciate that classics will always be classics, but we also live in modern times. One of my most popular themes over the years has been a set of mixes I call "Alter-Nativity", with acts like Jill Sobule, Tori Amos, Collective Soul, Fishbone and NRBQ in the 90's, and then Smashing Pumpkins, Aimee Mann, Sixpence None the Richer, Barenaked Ladies, Lisa Loeb, The Dandy Warhols and No Doubt in the early 2000's. Just about everyone has recorded Christmas music at some point, making my mixes a lot more interesting.
I've learned that there is an art to putting together a proper holiday mix - if you've seen John Cusack in "High Fidelity", talking about making mixes for his girlfriend, it's something akin to that. There are rules, you can't put too many fast songs in a row, it has to be generally upbeat and not depressing (I'll allow one "Blue Christmas" or a similar song, but that's it) and primarily, it needs to entertain me and appeal to my love of organizing things. Theoretically any grouping of songs, or movies, needs to be stronger than the sum of its individual parts.
I usually pick a theme - sometimes a year in advance, based on what I've recently added to the collection that I like, which is a bit like the CDC getting the flu shots ready before they're sure which strain of flu is going to be prevalent this season. But since I've taken to burning the CDs and buying some tracks digitally, I can now start this process in mid-November and still be reasonably sure that I'll finish in time to make about 75 copies and mail them out with my Christmas cards.
I've also done jazz-themed mixes, R&B or blues mixes, comedy/novelty songs, 1970's and 1980's mixes, and one year all the artists were former contestants from "American Idol". I've done a few mixes from modern a cappella groups, this was my theme last year and my mix seemed to be really popular - plus, it hopefully expanded people's minds about what the genre will accept. Last year I found a bunch of new songs that sound like particular classic rock songs, so when I started putting together this year's mix, I tried to figure out if I had enough of those for a full CD. I'd done this theme before, but not for a while. Years ago I heard a band do a rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" in the style of "House of the Rising Sun", and I was very entertained by this. I then found a few bands that similarly perform Christmas carols in the style of Beatles songs (like "Let It Snow" to the tune of "Let It Be") and other groups that released Christmas music in the style of bands like Boston, Yes, Pink Floyd and Queen.
But did I have enough to cobble together a mix this year, mostly from the scraps of albums past, the songs I didn't use in previous years? And could I fill a CD with no repeated songs? Yes, another rule I have is that I can't use the same song twice in a mix, which can make things tricky. I sometimes have to listen to three or four versions of the same Christmas song to determine which is "better" than the others, as subjective as that may be. When you get right down to it, there are really only about 50 popular Christmas songs, and I can fit about 25 on a CD. Sometimes 24, sometimes 26, so it's kind of like a haiku in that sense, but still it's often a challenge to find 25 songs that fit my theme and avoid any repeats. I'll occasionally include an original song if I really enjoy it, and there are some holiday songs I flat out avoid, like "Baby, It's Cold Outside" - I think with that line about "Hey, what's in this drink?" it's just a bit too date-rapey.
So this year I started with a list of songs in my collection that I enjoyed, which happened to sound like particular classic rock songs - like "Deck the Halls" in the style of Rush's "Tom Sawyer", "Angels We Have Heard on High" in the style of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'", and "White Christmas" in the style of Billy Idol's "White Wedding". (Jeez, I have Billy Idol's Christmas album, how did he not think of that?) Again, I gravitate toward interesting arrangements, songs that mash-up one song's lyrics with another's tune, ones that strike me as especially clever. I dug a little deeper and found a version of "Oh, Holy Night" that sounds just like The Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" and another song that you'd swear was performed by U2, if you didn't know otherwise. I put these on a spreadsheet with some leftover Beatle-themed mash-ups, like "What Child Is This" in the style of "Michelle" and "Sleigh Ride" in the style of "Lady Madonna", and I had almost enough for an 80-minute CD.
Now, this is the point I'd gotten myself into trouble a few years ago, having fallen a few songs short of a proper mix, and I used parody songs, like "I Got Yule Babe" (a Sonny & Cher parody) and "Wrap It" (a riff on Devo's "Whip It") to fill it up. I still cringe a little when I listen to this mix, because I felt that it got way too corny and silly during this section, so I wanted to avoid that this time. Now, I could have just sat on this mix, waited another year or two for more songs and picked another theme, but instead I used a couple of real songs from real classic rock bands to close the gap. I found that Cheap Trick had covered their own song "I Want You to Want Me", turning it into "I Want You for Christmas" and Earth, Wind & Fire released a holiday CD, with a version of their song "September", now turned into the more Christmasy "December". These still fit with my theme, sort of - considering that they were still holiday songs sung to the tunes of specific classic rock songs.
However, I was still a little short for a full mix - so I opened up the theme a little wider, and included 3 songs from other name rock acts - checking holiday albums in my collection from the real Billy Idol, Brian Wilson and REO Speedwagon. At this point I had 20 song titles that I could eliminate, so I just had to find three songs like "Jingle Bell Rock", "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and "The Little Drummer Boy" that weren't already part of the mix. And just like that, I had a list of songs I could work with.
The next step for me is to organize the songs - I usually split them into four categories, like general winter songs ("Let It Snow", "Sleigh Ride", "Winter Wonderland"), biblical/Nativity songs ("Silent Night", "Oh Holy Night", "The First Noel"), secular character songs ("Santa Claus Is Coming to Town", "Frosty the Snowman", "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer") and then general relationship-based or well-wishing songs ("Blue Christmas", "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"). These are not hard and fast rules for organizing the songs, but it at least gets me to an order I can test out and listen to several times, before making some adjustments.
The next step is to listen to the mix a few times, to see if it flows naturally, with not too many fast or slow songs bunched up together, or without two songs in a row by the same artist, or without getting too silly or serious in any spot. There are a lot of arbitrary reasons why I'll move songs around to try and make the mix better. I'll also play the mix for my wife on our Thanksgiving Day drive to wherever we're going, to get another opinion on the theme before I start sending it out. And if I listen to the whole mix and I can't wait to start it again at the beginning, then I know I've maybe tapped in to something good.
After that, my life becomes a whirlwind of burning CDs, labeling them and packing them in padded envelopes, for about a week this dominates most of my free time. But if I get some good feedback from friends and family about how entertaining the mix was, then it all feels worth it.
THE PLOT: An uptight, conservative, businesswoman accompanies her boyfriend to his eccentric and outgoing family's annual Christmas celebration and finds that she's a fish out of water in their free-spirited way of life.
AFTER: I'm glad I moved this one to December, because it's all about a family coming together at Christmastime, and that's what so many people are getting ready to do. Now, maybe this cinema family resembles yours and maybe it doesn't, but there's clearly an attempt here to show some scenarios that are more or less universal: meeting your lover's family for the first time, being uncertain about relationships at holiday time, making holiday meals, having awkward conversations about social issues while eating those meals.
It's hard to do all that without feeling too clichéd, most holiday films about families just end up covering the same things, like they're decorated differently, but were all made with the same cookie cutter. At least they tried to put a twist on things here by making the girlfriend the conservative one, and the parents as liberal as can be - because we've all seen liberal young people feuding with conservative parents a thousand times.
But I wonder if they went a little too far, and made this Stone family ULTRA-liberal. One son seems like he's entered the corporate world, which has shocked family and friends alike (what was he like before?) while another son is a slacker type who believes in "clothing optional" holidays, and apparently the family is OK with that. The third son is gay and hearing-impaired, in a long-term relationship with an African-American man who LOVES to cook - I'm shocked they don't sing show tunes together, it being 2005 and all. One daughter is filled with resentment, and the other -
Well, the other daughter seems largely unnecessary, in that they didn't really give her much to do, except to sit around and mope and wonder if her husband's going to show up at Christmas. And they never really say if her relationship is in trouble, or if he's just working, or out of town. To be fair, there are a lot of characters here to keep track of, and something had to give. There's only so much movie, and if they're going to bring up Mom's illness, one of the other plotlines is just not going to get fleshed out. So why not combine the two daughters into one character and make things simpler? Do we NEED five adult kids, when we can tell the same story with four?
Now I'm flashing back to "August: Orange County" and also "This Is Where I Leave You", and even "The Big Wedding", so I've watched four films this year that work along the same lines - a large family gathers for a big event (wedding, funeral, Christmas) and chaos ensues. Old rivalries are re-established, people fall apart and come back together again, and I guess we're all supposed to reflect on similar important events in our own lives - but come on, all of these screenwriters are working from the same playbook, right?
But there's some clunkiness here - the uptight conservative girlfriend somehow realizes (after a night out at a bar with her boyfriend's brother) that maybe she's not so uptight at all - but literally just the day before, she'd made a complete fool of herself at dinner by saying accidental anti-gay remarks. So is she uptight or not, and what prompted the change? A couple of beers and suddenly she realizes she might be dating the wrong brother? This seems to come out of nowhere. Similarly, her boyfriend seems instantly attracted to her sister, who just happens on the scene - what a huge convenient contrivance.
Then we've got the deaf gay brother - because someone felt that they could diversify the cast by just diversifying one little piece of it. (Umm, that's not how it works.) I can't see what making his character deaf brought to the table - unless the actor is deaf and someone really, really wanted to use him. Sure, it's nice to see a deaf actor working, but it brings nothing to the story, other than one gag where the uptight girlfriend tries to shout at him, not realizing he can read lips. This is another part of the plot that feels really underdeveloped - he didn't have to prove that it wouldn't get in the way of him adopting a child, or really overcome any problem at all, it just seemed like window-dressing.
I might have given this a "5" if it hadn't fallen into the too-easy trap of reverting to slapstick in the last act, which is just people chasing each other around the house and knocking down dishes and trays of food. It works fine in "A Christmas Story", but not here.
Also starring Dermot Mulroney (last seen in "Jobs"), Sarah Jessica Parker (last seen in "Failure to Launch"), Diane Keaton (last seen in "Something's Gotta Give"), Craig T. Nelson (last seen in "Private Benjamin"), Rachel McAdams (last seen in "Midnight in Paris"), Luke Wilson (last seen in "Stuck on You"), Claire Danes (last seen in "The Rainmaker"), Tyrone Giordano, Brian White, Elizabeth Reaser (last seen in "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing"), Paul Schneider (last seen in "Water for Elephants")
RATING: 4 out of 10 mushrooms