Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Muppet Christmas Carol

Year 7, Day 346 - 12/12/15 - Movie #2,199

BEFORE: We're getting down to it now, just one film left after this to watch in 2015, and then it will be time for me to reflect on Movie Year 7, and total up how many times each actor appeared.  And while Michael Caine won't be on top of the leaderboard, he definitely had a good year - with other appearances in "Deathtrap", "Flawless", "Sleuth" and "Interstellar".  I'm not sure where the cut-off will be, but 5 films is probably enough to be significant.  Linking from "Lost Christmas", Steven Mackintosh, who played Goose's parole officer, carries over and plays Scrooge's nephew tonight.  That seems rather helpful.

THE PLOT: The Muppet characters tell their version of the classic tale of an old and bitter miser's redemption on Christmas Eve.

AFTER: This was the year for me to finish off some key movie franchises - I watched the last two films in the "Hobbit" series, I got current with Jack Ryan and for a couple months I was all caught up with "Mission: Impossible" films, stayed on track with the new "Avengers" and "Jurassic World" films, and the new "Star Wars" will finish things off.  And I'm finally, finally done with the Muppets.  I guess I could watch "The Muppet Wizard of Oz", but really, who cares? 

The Muppet franchise is a lot like "Star Wars", there will be a run of new movies, and then it could lie dormant for several years, until Disney buys it and decides to revive it because to NOT do so would be to leave some money on the table.  But "Star Wars" just has to be its own thing, the Muppets had to insert themselves into "Treasure Island" and this Dickens story just to get a movie made.  Clearly there were no more internal stories left in the narrative.  Once you tell the story of how the Muppets came to Hollywood, and once they take Manhattan and go to London, what's left to do?  

You can also see it in the current "Muppets" TV show - while the original "Muppet Show" was set backstage during the production of a variety show, the new one is set backstage during the production of a late night talk show.  Not all that different, although the documentary style reminiscent of "The Office" is a slightly different spin.  Still, most every episode I've seen ultimately goes nowhere.  

But I've learned that there's more than one way to look at things.  After finally watching "The Exorcist" this year, I realized that it could be taken as a tale about demonic possession, or alternately as a warning against dealing with a difficult teen. (The moral of the story: Don't have a kid.)  I wondered whether "Interstellar" had more to teach me about the relative nature of time through actual insights on planetary physics, or just by being over three hours long.  And so, since I already mentioned last night that "A Christmas Carol" was really the first time-travel story, I wonder if there's another way to look at it.   

Isn't it also the story of a one-percenter who gets scared by ghosts into becoming a socialist?  And it's weird how things have changed, because in 1840's London, a fiscal conservative was very against the celebration of Christmas, but in modern-day America, the Republican conservatives are always the ones complaining about the "War on Christmas".  I keep hearing stories about people's elderly parents getting influenced by conservative pundits and become late-stage Republicans, but Scrooge goes the other way, doesn't he?  When faced with his own mortality, he becomes more generous, even though doing so doesn't make him any less dead in the future. 

It makes me wonder if there isn't more to the story.  The big trend among today's billionaires is to set up foundations and donate to charities in massive amounts and while I would like to believe that Bill Gates and George Lucas (sorry, George) and now Zuckerberg have the world's best interests at heart, instead I picture a conversation with an accountant that comes straight out of "The Producers": "You know, it's funny, if you try to hold on to your fortune, it will get eaten away by taxes, but if you donate 60% of it now, you can keep the other 40% and never pay another dime in taxes!"  "Wait, say that last part again, about never paying taxes..."  

And even if Scrooge's transformation is done in time to save his own soul, isn't that still a self-serving motivation?  What about getting him to a place where he can use his wealth to help people, simply because those people need help?  Forget the tax deductions, if he donates to charity so that he can get into heaven, or even so that people won't hate him when he dies, he's still only thinking about himself.  So clearly more work needs to be done, or the transformation really needs to show him enjoying life, and not just going to the big Christmas dinner at his nephew's house, because again, he benefits from that.  

It's weird to have a human take the central role in a Muppet film, but I guess they couldn't have Kermit acting like a miser, for that would damage the character.  Instead Kermit takes the Bob Cratchit role, with Miss Piggy as his wife - and nobody seems to notice that their male children are frogs and their female children are pigs, which doesn't seem biologically possible.  I guess they wouldn't have hybrid pig/frogs either, they just wouldn't be able to have children, but try explaining cross-species sex to a kid.  

And Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker are the charity spokesmen, and Sam the Eagle is young Scrooge's headmaster, but I'm guessing the main reason to make this film was to cast Fozzie Bear as Fozziwig.  The addition of another Marley brother just to shoehorn in Statler and Waldorf seemed odd, especially since they named the extra brother Robert - so, Bob Marley?

Again, I'll say that I prefer the Albert Finney version, with superior acting and songs, like "I Like Life" and "Thank You Very Much".  In the Muppet the song "Marley and Marley" just feels like a temporary song that someone meant to replace later with something better, and "It Feels Like Christmas" has just some of the worst, most pedantic rhyming.  The Muppets tell the whole story in under 90 minutes, and honestly that makes it feel a bit rushed, and maybe that's what makes Scrooge's transformation less believable.  

Also starring Michael Caine (last seen in "Interstellar"), Raymond Coulthard, and the voices of Dave Goelz (last heard in "Kermit's Swamp Years"), Steve Whitmire (ditto), Frank Oz (last heard in "Zathura: A Space Adventure"), Jerry Nelson, David Rudman, and Jessica Fox. 

RATING: 4 out of 10 jellybeans

Friday, December 11, 2015

Lost Christmas

Year 7, Day 345 - 12/11/15 - Movie #2,198

BEFORE: Tonight, get ready for part 2 of my rant about unacceptable human behavior - the holiday edition.  Liberals vs. conservatives, polarized opinions about Muslims and refugees, and furor over mixed-race Santa Clauses - how did everything get so messed up?  How does a country that espouses religious freedom and the separation of church and state also regularly offer community battles over the placement of manger scenes and menorahs?  I want to talk about the so-called " War on Christmas", or what I think should more accurately be described as the "War OVER Christmas".  How did a season that is supposed to be all about peace, love and understanding turn into such a battlefield?  

Perhaps I should back up a bit.  I spent over 15 years analyzing broadcast commercials, and I think you can learn a lot about society through its advertising.  We've had a doozy of a year regarding controversies, and the ad market was no exception.  Christmastime rolled around and immediately people started fighting over the "proper" way to celebrate the holidays.  Things kicked off around Black Friday, a time when some people - those who aren't still sleeping off the Thanksgiving meal - head out to malls at some ungodly hour like 2 am on a Friday, or worse, 10 pm on Thanksgiving itself - for doorbuster deals.  This is another great question - how did we turn the day after a holiday about giving thanks for all of our blessings to being a day for trampling each other in order to save a few bucks?  One notable store chain decided not to open on Black Friday, because they believed that their employees and managers also deserved a day to spend with their families, and that their everyday prices were so low, there was no need for a Black Friday sale.  Great idea, I support this decision.

However, they couldn't just DO that - they had to create a commercial that would not only inform the public of their intent to remain closed, it would get all self-righteous about it, with images that showed families of all races celebrating Turkey Day, and a voiceover that said things like, "What if the holidays were about L-O-V-E, and not S-A-L-E?"  Again, it seems like the intention is mostly good, but apparently there was no way for them to point out what they were doing right, without also pointing out what the other stores were doing "wrong".  And here we start to see the genesis of the problem - we all just can't resist pointing out each other's faults, "I'm better than you are", nana nana poo poo, stick your head in doo doo.  

And then once I started to notice this, I realized it's everywhere these days - the often unspoken "I'm better than you" at the end of every conversation, every difference of opinion.  It's there in every hot-button topic from the past few years, and even if people aren't saying it, believe me, they're wishing they could say it.  Examples:

"I believe in gay marriage (and you don't, therefore I'm better than you.)"  
"I vaccinate my kids (and you don't, therefore I'm better than you.)"  
"I think universal healthcare is a form of socialism (and you don't, therefore I'm better than you.)"

I can name about 100 more examples - and the reverse opinions all intend to say it too, so please don't think I have a liberal bias, even if I do.  There doesn't seem to be any issue that can't be politicized and polarized, and as a result, it seems like there's nothing folks can believe in without being vilified.  It also feels like nearly everyone these days is opinionated, hypsersensitive, and has way too much time on their hands, which creates a sort of tinderbox for political and social argument.   Then the blamestream media comes along and throws a match on the dry grass, turning a flame-war into a raging forest fire. But let me get back to Christmas, and a few more controversies.  

One chain store came under fire for selling a holiday sweater that read, "I have O.C.D. - Obsessive Christmas Disorder."  Now, I love novelty t-shirts, and by extension, novelty sweaters I suppose - here the store was just trying to interject a bit of whimsy into the holiday, but someone said, "No, you can't make fun of the mentally handicapped!"  Umm, why not?  It's OCD!  Those people (myself included) are hilarious!  The way we need to constantly organize things, or agonize over decisions that need to be made according to a set of completely arbitrary criteria!  Go ahead, make fun, I'll be over here taking down notes about it.  

Then there was a Bloomingdale's catalog ad which depicted a man smiling at a woman, with the woman looking away, and copy that read, "Spike your best friend's eggnog when they're not looking."  Some people felt that the ad promoted getting a woman drunk to seduce her - but how do we know that the man was going to spike the woman's drink?  Maybe she was going to spike HIS drink, as soon as he turned the other way.  But here, I suppose I see how people could think it was all just a bit too date-rapey.  (But then why do we still allow "Baby, It's Cold Outside" to play on the radio?)

And of course, we have the grandest ad controversy of the season, the Starbucks cups kerfuffle.  To be fair to the famous coffee chain, I'm willing to accept the possibility that there were meetings and focus groups about the "best" way to celebrate the holiday - and that's not an easy task.  How does a company show its appreciation for Christmas without offending its customers of other denominations?  That's a tricky line to walk, and they hit on what they thought was an elegant answer - make the cups solid red for the season.  No snowflakes, no pine trees, no people in sweaters ice skating - just red.  And if things went well, some people would come into the stores and think, "What a nice, Christmas-y red cup!" and other non-Gentile people would think, "Hey, it's a red cup!" or perhaps nothing at all. 

(It's kind of like how a bunch of recording artists came together in the 1980's to record "Do They Know It's Christmas?" for charity - and their hearts were in the right place, God bless 'em.  But they forgot to mention that those starving people in Africa don't usually celebrate Christmas, because most of them are not Christians, and they're kind of busy starving, so they've got more important concerns.  So no, they don't really know that it's Christmas, and we shouldn't take the opportunity to proselytize.  Can't we just, you know, help them?)

And it would have been a perfect solution, if one douchebag (not hating, just stating...) hadn't made a video about it - allegedly joking, he now says - about how Starbucks had "removed" all the Christmas imagery from their cups, (even though it wasn't there in the first place), and there's no mention of Santa OR Jesus on the cups (umm, there never was...) and how he tells the barista that his name is "Merry Christmas" just to FORCE some holiday cheer on to the cups, and maybe we should all boycott Starbucks until they learn to celebrate Christmas the RIGHT way.  Soon it was all over the news, and it led to Trump on TV saying, "Hey, maybe we should boycott Starbucks" and "When I'm president, we'll all be saying "Merry Christmas" to each other again."  (Really, Donald, how would you enforce that?)

And there it is - collectively, we found a way to turn the season of peace and love into "I celebrate Christmas this way, and you don't, therefore I'm better than you."  Shame on that guy, and shame on us for allowing it to happen.  Because there should be no RIGHT way to celebrate Christmas, since that implies the flip-side, that there is a wrong way.  Some people go to church, some don't.  Some people believe in Santa Claus, some don't.  Some people buy a real tree, some people have a plastic tree or no tree at all.  Some people hang lights outdoors, some people don't.  Some people go to the movies and eat Chinese food on Christmas, and who exactly are they hurting?  The holiday can take it.  My wife and I go to a casino buffet and play the slots on Christmas Eve, and if that's wrong, then I don't want to be right. 

Maybe the internet age is partially to blame.  If you read the comments on any online video, it's not long before things get nasty.  "Hey, I like this Katy Perry song," is often followed by "If u like Katy Perry, then u r an idiot!" and then, "What do u meen, I love her, mebbe u should get ur head out of ur ass!"  We're now putting each other down for the simple crime of having an opinion, and trying to express it.  Last I checked, thinking and having an open exchange of ideas was a good thing, now it just seems to ignite flame-war after flame-war.  Maybe I'm wrong, maybe "I'm better than you" has been around forever, back to the primitive days of "I have fire, and you don't, therefore I'm better than you."  But Kris Kringle on a cracker, where does it end?  

Here's what I propose: For the time being, all internet comments, political statements, opinions on social issues, and the like, need to end with these four words - "And that's OK too".  Because I think that's how we fight back against "I'm better than you."  And if those words don't seem to fit, then you have to rewrite what you're saying so that they fit.  Try it - pick something you feel strongly about, any issue, and state your case, ending your argument with "And that's OK too."  It may not be easy, simply because we've all lived in a polarized world for so long, with the news and pundits telling us that every issue is either black or white, when in fact most things are some shade of grey in-between.  Abortion, gun control, global warming, immigration, whatever - as long as your opinion is 100% right and the opposing view is 100% wrong, we are never going to accomplish anything as a country or as a species, we're going to keep tearing each other apart if we can't work together.  

So I can't wrap it, and I hope you like it, but my gift to everyone this year is "And that's OK too".  Try it on, play with it, and see if it starts to spread a little more acceptance and cheer.  I won't force you to use it, because that would be against the point, but I'm keeping the receipt, so you can't return it.  If it doesn't fit, I suggest you try and make it fit.  Or not, but I'm hoping you can use it.  Use the heck out of it, until you don't need to use it anymore, until it's replaced the unspoken "I'm better than you" at the end of your opinion.  Because, really, no one is better than anyone else.  Someone can be richer, more powerful, have more followers in social media, but not better.   OK, rant over (for now) and I'll be getting down from off of my high horse now.

Linking from "The Family Stone", Luke Wilson was also in "My Super Ex-Girlfriend" with Eddie Izzard (last seen in "Velvet Goldmine").  

THE PLOT:  One Christmas Eve Goose meets Anthony, an enigmatic stranger with apparent psychic powers, able to tell by touching them what people have lost.

AFTER: I really liked this movie, more than will probably be reflected in a numerical rating, and I think it's got a great chance of growing on me.  If you watch only one new Christmas-themed movie this year, I recommend giving "Lost Christmas" a try.  And please, please, stick with it, because it starts out very depressing, very British (which almost seems redundant) but there is a pay-off.  And it wouldn't be the first dark Christmas story to catch on, because if you pick apart fims like "It's a Wonderful Life" (Depression, war, suicide, bankruptcy) and "A Christmas Carol" (regret, the plight of the working class, a crippled boy, general holiday grouchiness) you might wonder how they got made in the first place.  But sometimes we need the darkness to better appreciate the light. 

Actually, I'm bringing up those two films for a very specific reason, which I'm hesitant to even discuss for fear of spoiling the plotline of "Lost Christmas".  Look, just find this one on cable, or add it to your Netflix queue, and then we can talk about it, OK?  I don't ask you to do this often, but please, work with me, here. 

The best thing about the movie is Eddie Izzard - and isn't he always the best part about whatever he's in?  (Although they didn't let him wear a dress here, which seems like a damn shame.)  He plays a mysterious drifter who also seems to be part medium and part magician, although he can't remember his own name or many details outside of meaningless trivial facts.  But by shaking hands with someone, he can see images of whatever it is that person has lost - and it could be an object, or a loved one, or just their direction.  And even though it seems like he has no direction himself, he encounters a boy who's lost his dog and a man who's lost his family, and together they set out to make things right, based on these flashes of psychic insight. 

I will say only that Izzard's character is not an angel, nor is he Santa Claus, nor is he the Ghost of Christmas Past.  So, then, what IS he?   Ah, ah, ah.  All will be revealed - and if for some reason you find the answer to be a bit too science-fiction-y, a bit too wibbly wobbly timey-wimey, then you're probably the type of person who wonders why there is a "Dr. Who" Christmas special.  

And if you don't like sci-fi in your Christmas movie, that's too bad.  May I remind you that Santa Claus would need to travel near the speed of light in order to visit every good little boy and girl's house on Christmas Eve to deliver presents?  And he lives in an impossibly cold workshop location at the North Pole?  And reindeer don't fly, and elves don't build toys?  And that stars don't move through the sky and then suddenly STOP right over where a baby got born in a manger?  There's already plenty of sci-fi in the Christmas stories, deal with it.  

Let's also go back to those other classic stories for just a second - "A Christmas Carol" is very nearly the first story ever to feature time travel, predating the 1895 story "The Time Machine".  Now, the ghosts only showed Ebenezer Scrooge "shadows" of the past and the future, but the end result is the same.  Scrooge was able to see his past and his future, for the benefit of making a better Christmas in the present - and isn't that what time travel is for?  And in "It's a Wonderful Life", George Bailey got to see what his town would have been like if he had never been born.  People died in World War II because his brother didn't save them, because George wasn't there to save his brother when he fell through the ice.  And there were dozens of other characters who benefitted from the work of George Bailey - in the end, there's not much difference between "It's a Wonderful Life" and "The Butterfly Effect".  

(Alternately, "It's a Wonderful Life" is just the flip-side of the Baby Hitler conundrum.  If you could go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby, you couldn't really benefit from changing the timeline, because you'd come back to the present and say, "Hey, everyone, I did it!  I killed Hitler before he could become a problem!" and people who say, "Who the heck is Hitler?"  Since he didn't do anything bad yet, he wouldn't be on anyone's radar, and your heroics would go unnoticed.  But I digress.) 

The other thing this film reminds me of is the NBC TV show "My Name Is Earl".  The main character there had lost a winning lottery ticket, and when he learned about karma, he felt that if he could make a list of all of his past mistakes, atone for them and become a better person, then the universe would find a way to make it up to him.  The storyline of "Lost Christmas" works on the same principle, since every character has lost something or someone, they're all holding on to the belief that if they can retrace their steps, find what was lost, apologize for their mistakes, then something good, or at least better, will come of it.  And it's hard to argue with that philosophy, especially at Christmas time.  And even if it's not entirely true, it's a nice belief system to have.

There, I've managed to tell you everything you need to know, and also I've told you nothing at all.  The film is a puzzle in its own way, and it doesn't get deep into religious B.S., except maybe a little Hinduism.  And maybe you'll gain an appreciation for what you have, because things could always be so much worse - and that feels very British, too.  It probably deserves to be a "7", but I'm taking off a point for the horrible acting job of the central young boy.  Ugh, save me from kids that mumble all of their lines.  But I'd still like to see this movie become a Christmas classic in years to come. 

Also starring Larry Mills, Jason Flemyng (last seen in "X-Men: First Class"), Geoffrey Palmer (last seen in "Tomorrow Never Dies"), Sorcha Cusack (last seen in "Snatch"), Christine Bottomley (last seen in "Venus"), Steven Mackintosh (last seen in "Kick-Ass 2"), Connie Hyde, Brett Fancy.

RATING: 6 out of 10 family photos

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Family Stone

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 clich├ęd, 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

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Eight Crazy Nights

Year 7, Day 340 - 12/6/15 - Movie #2,196

BEFORE: In reaction to recent events - or rather, in reaction to the reaction to recent events, I prepared a rant about racism and world politics, my thoughts on the current state of affairs regarding cultural diversity and the "War on Christmas".  I was going to save all that for a post two days from now, but seeing as this is a Hanukkah film, and programming this is my own way of celebrating diversity, there's no time like the present.  

We're deep into the holidays, Thanksgiving was just two weeks ago, and Hanukkah starts tonight, and Christmas is just two weeks away.  I admit I don't know when Kwanzaa starts, and that's probably part of the problem, since our country has decided to circle the wagons and double-down on "Judeo-Christian values", whatever that means.  There's talk of starting a Muslim-American database, this politician over there is talking about building a wall to keep out Mexicans, and those politicians over there have taken a stand against helping any refugees that aren't Christian.  All of this seems like the start of some very dangerous thinking, and we seem on the verge of sacrificing the very principles that the U.S. was founded on - religious freedom, and the separation of church and state.  

When you take the two holidays together - Thanksgiving and your winter holiday of choice, they should form a powerful reminder of the way this country is supposed to run.  The pilgrims came to the New World seeking religious freedom - they were too uptight and prudish for British people to handle, if you can imagine that.  Really, they came here to find people that they could act holier than, and thus feel all self-righteous, but let's table that for a second.  Once established, the colonies became a place for people of all religions who were kicked out of nearly every country on earth.  The Quakers, the Shakers, Irish Catholics, others who were brought here against their will from Africa and Asia, Europeans fleeing World War I + II, and then more recently, waves of people from Mexico and Muslim countries. 

Thanksgiving should remind us that this country was founded mostly by immigrants, who set rules to allow diversity, and then Christmukkuh should give us the opportunity to celebrate it.  People did NOT come here to found a country that would adhere to their religion, and only their religion - because that would be the antithesis of freedom.  I'll get more into the "War on Christmas" in a few days, but the bottom line is that there has to be a way to celebrate your religion, your holiday, and still allow others to celebrate their religions and their holidays their way.  

Specifically, regarding Syrian refugees, for anyone who thinks that we should only allow "Christian" ones into the U.S., I humbly suggest that they look up the word "Christian" in the dictionary - whether you believe in the strictest definition "One who believes in Jesus Christ and his teachings" (which include charity and tolerance - even tolerance toward intolerant people) or the more secular definition, meaning "decent, respectable, humane", either way, barring anyone in need from getting help is decidedly NON-Christian.  And we've had an open-door policy (more or less) in this country for a long time, it would be a shame to go back on it now.  

I say "more or less" because the U.S. notably refused to relax immigration quotas for German and Austrian Jews, beginning in 1941 - and that sure turned out to be the wrong move, didn't it?  And then once the U.S. entered World War II, the bans were withheld due to several factors - economic depression, anti-Semitism, and the fear that refugees could be working as agents for Germany.  Wait, that seems a little familiar, right?  We supposedly can't take in Syrian refugees now because of our current economic state, anti-Muslim opinions, and a fear that some refugees could be working as agents for ISIS.  Which should seem just as ridiculous as a German Jew working for Hitler. 

End of part 1 of the rant, please join me for part 2 in a couple days...

Linking from "Winter's Tale", Jennifer Connelly was also in "Higher Learning" with Tyra Banks, who does a cameo voice in tonight's film.  I couldn't find a direct link, because for a long time I had this film linked to animated films like "The Little Mermaid" or comedies like "Ready to Rumble" - films that it shared actors with. But that would have placed this film in late summer, and that would have made no sense.

THE PLOT:  Davey Stone, an alcoholic with a criminal record, is sentenced to community service under the supervision of an elderly referee, and is then faced with trying to reform and abandon his bad habits.

AFTER: At heart this is a modern version of "A Christmas Carol", although it seems like someone worked hard to disguise that fact.  Instead of being an old, rich person like Ebeneezer Scrooge, the central character here is an out-of-work man in his thirties.  And there are no ghosts that visit him in the night, instead he has a drunken episode in a mall late at night, where he imagines that he's confronted by the characters from the logos of Foot Locker and Panda Express.  

But the general principle is still the same - a non-likable person who's given up on the holidays because of a personal loss in his past is shown the error of his ways.  Now, my personal benchmark for Dickensian holiday redemption stories is the 1970 film "Scrooge", starring Albert Finney, but if you prefer the Alistair Sim or the George C. Scott or the Bill Murray or the Jim Carrey version, more power to you.  After all, we're here to celebrate diversity.  

To avoid jail, Adam Sandler's Davey is forced to coach youth basketball, under the supervision of Whitey (also voiced by Sandler) and then later he even moves in with Whitey and Whitey's sister, Eleanore (also voiced by Sandler).  I thought that perhaps Whitey would me some kind of magical being, like a Dickens ghost, who would turn Davey around.  Nope, he's just a short old man, but he does try to act like a moral compass in his own way.  The best song in the whole film is probably "Technical Foul", as Whitey and his sister describe all the things that Davey could do that would make him a bad roommate.  It's a very subtle way to show the process of him becoming a better person.  

The basketball angle is a also a clever way to get Davey to bond with Benjamin, the young son (and possible Tiny Tim-like offspring) of a girl that was his childhood friend, and it's pretty obvious that if he can turn his life around and avoid prison time, there's the possibility of romance.  But to do that he's got to finally deal with the tragedy in his past, and then do something to put another person's needs before his own.  

I'm probably overselling this story, because any holiday warmth is nearly negated by jokes about people peeing their pants, someone getting stuck in a port-o-potty that gets pushed down a hill, and deer feces.  Lots and lots of deer feces.  It's a shame that there's so much scatological humor, which seems to really bring down the level of the comedy.  The message could have shined through so much more brightly if they'd just kept things a little cleaner.

Also starring the voices of Adam Sandler (last seen in "Big Daddy"), Jackie Sandler (ditto), Rob Schneider (last seen in "Judge Dredd"), Kevin Nealon (last seen in "Just Go With It"), Jon Lovitz (last seen in "The Great White Hype"), Austin Stout, Norm Crosby (last seen in "Grown Ups 2"), Allen Covert (last seen in "Big Daddy"), Peter Dante (ditto), and vocal cameos from Blake Clark (last seen in "Mr. Deeds"), Ellen Albertini Dow (last seen in "Ready to Rumble"), Tom Kenny (last heard in "Frankenweenie"), Carl Weathers (last seen in "Force 10 From Navarone"), Cole and Dylan Sprouse, Lainie Kazan (last seen in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"), Allison Krauss, Ann Wilson. 

RATING: 4 out of 10 scorpion bowls