Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year's Eve 2014

This will be waiting for me when I get home tonight. I hope something festive awaits all y'all tonight. Have fun and get home safe.

Holidaze 12/31/14

Holidaze Review: New Year's Evil (1980)

New Year’s Evil is a neat catalog of all the things wrong with the holiday at the end of the calendar. Amateurs who never drink throwing back way more than they should. Overpriced booze and food. Bands that confuse “loud” with “good.”

It’s also a handy sampler of everything worth hating about the ‘80s. Big hair. Too much rouge. Serial killers fucking up our holidays.

Seriously, what’s up with mad slashers go to town when everyone else is partying down? Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, even freaking April Fools’ Day—is no holiday safe?
Apparently not.

It’s New Year’s Eve (duh), and Blaze (Roz Kelly) is preparing for her live-from-L.A. TV show, Hollywood Hotline, which will ring in the New Year in all four U.S. time zones with satellite hookups to New York, Chicago and Aspen. Blaze is in a rotten mood, though—not just because she’s more than a bit of an asshole, but also because her assistant, Yvonne, has gone missing.

Seems our crazed killer (Kip Niven) is one of those guys who likes to start his New Year’s resolutions early: he dispatches poor Yvonne—stabs her to death in the shower (how original!)—before the opening credits even roll.

While hotel security searches for Yvonne, Blaze goes on with the show, which consists of a couple of punk rock bands (if you define “punk rock” as “shitty music played poorly buy guys wearing way too much eyeliner), an unruly crowd and four phone operators taking calls from viewers/listeners.

One of those callers is, of course, our killer, who speaks through a voice modulator, identifies himself as “Evil” and reveals his master plan: He’s going to kill someone every time the clock strikes 12 in each of the time zones, with Blaze saved for the night’s final victim. (Never mind that he’s already blown his own concept by killing Yvonne well before midnight.)

So “Evil” spends the rest of the movie wearing various disguises—hospital orderly, sleazy business manager, priest—while slicing his way through L.A. Things go reasonably well at first—he bumps off a nurse and two bar patrons—but then he runs afoul of a biker gang and, after a high-speed chase, hides in a drive-in where a horror-movie marathon is playing. (There’s a fleeting moment of hope that we might cut away from New Year’s Evil and stick with what’s playing at the show. No such luck, though.)

Meanwhile, Blaze’s actor son (Grant Cramer) is having quite the meltdown in her dressing room—popping pills, pulling one of Mom’s nylons over his head, self-piercing his ear with a nail (ow!) and trying to call his dad, whose line is perpetually busy.

Finally, “Evil” makes his way back to the hotel, hits a cop in the head with a brick (ow!) and dons a Stan Laurel mask before confronting Blaze and revealing his true identity.

Director Emmett Alston doesn’t do much with the New Year’s setting—aside from a bar scene and the time zone gimmick, this movie could be take place on any of the other 364 days of the year—and the murders themselves mostly happen off-screen (what little blood we see looks awfully fake).

Kelly, best remembered for playing Fonzie’s girlfriend, Pinky Tuscadero on Happy Days, really doesn’t have much to do except look alternately irritable and terrified (more the former than the latter), but Niven does bring a bug-eyed intensity to his mad-slasher role, especially when he’s being pursued by the bikers—the hunter briefly becomes the hunted.

The cops, though, are typically useless until the dramatic conclusion, which sets us up for a sequel that, mercifully, never arrived.

Toward the end of New Year’s Evil, a drunk man in a plummeting elevator says, “There’s some funky shit goin’ on here!”
Couldn’t have put it better myself, sir.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Holidaze Review: Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was an immediate hit when it was first broadcast in December 1964, when your humble correspondent was still in diapers, and it quickly became traditional holiday viewing.

So it’s a bit surprising that it took Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass a dozen years to produce a followup, perhaps because they were focused on other holiday specials, some of which also went on to become perennial favorites (Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, The Year without a Santa Claus) and several others failed to catch on.

Rudolph’s Shiny New Year picks up right where the original Rudolph left off, on the same night that that the little reindeer with the big, glowing red nose lead Santa’s sleigh on a dark, stormy night and helped save Christmas.
You’d think the poor guy could get a break after flying all around the world. You’d be wrong.

That same night, Santa gets a letter from his old friend, Father Time (voiced by Red Skelton, who also narrates), who writes that Happy, the Baby New Year, has gone missing with a week left in the old year. If he’s not found, the New Year won’t start, and it stay December 31…forever.

Santa wants to send out a search party, but who could possibly find his way in all that snow and fog? Who else? Santa tells Rudolph that “Once more, the happiness of the world’s children depends on you.” So…no pressure or anything.
And off Rudolph heads to Father Time’s Castle, the Palace of Happy New Years, and gets the scoop on why Happy ran away: Turns out the tike (who looks more than a little like Harpo Marx) has big, floppy ears and is really sensitive about them. So when everyone laughs when they see his ears, he takes off in search of friends who won’t crack up every time he takes off his hat.

Rudolph can certainly relate—everyone made fun of his shiny nose…until it came in handy for saving everyone, of course—and he speculates that nobody would let Happy join them in “any New Year’s games” (whatever those are).

Father Time tells Rudolph that Happy has probably fled to the Archipelago of Last Years, a group of islands where old years go to retire; on each island, time stands still as it had been lived by each old year.

Along the way, Rudolph also picks up allies in his search: General Ticker, whom Father Time describes as “a real clockwork soldier”; a camel named The Great Quarter Past Five; Big Ben, a whale who carries Rudolph and friends from island to island; One Million B.C., a very chatty caveman; Old Sir 1023, a knight from the days when fairy tales really happened; and 1776, a Benjamin Franklin lookalike who tells Happy that his friends call him “Sev.”

All the while, Rudolph and friends are menaced by Eon the Terrible, a vulture who wants to keep the New Year from happening so he can live forever and thus is also hunting for Happy.

Throughout Shiny New Year, there’s an odd preoccupation with abbreviated names: Rudolph asks The Great Quarter Past Five, “May I call you Quart for short?” “I’d rather you didn’t, if it’s all the same to you,” the dour camel replies. One Million B.C. insists on being called “O.M.,” and Big Ben calls Rudolph “Rudy” (how he knows who Rudolph is before he’s actually introduced himself is anyone’s guess).

If only the rest of Shiny New Year had been so interested in brevity.

The songs, with music and lyrics by Johnny Marks (who handled the same duties on the original Rudolph) are all catchy, the stop-motion animation retains its charm, and the familiar voice cast (Morey Amsterdam as O.M., Frank Gorshin as 1023, Harold Peary as Big Ben and Paul Frees in several roles) lend a comfort level to the proceedings.

Unfortunately, the script by Romeo Muller (who, like Marks, also did the same in the original) feels badly padded, with the same scenario playing out over and over again—Rudolph and friends very nearly find and rescue Happy, only to see the baby get away from them. Happy is even tricked more than once into taking a lift from Eon, who flies with the baby New Year to his desolate island for a final showdown.

There’s also the matter of Skelton, who handles the narration duties fine and even does triple duty as the voice of a baby bear, but struggles when he has to sing—and he sings several times (including a reprise of Rudolph’s theme song during a flashback sequence). He just doesn’t have the strength of voice that Burl Ives displayed in the original.

Rudolph’s Shiny New Year might have been fine as a half-hour special. However, at a full hour in length and saddled with a conclusion so ridiculously simple (if well intentioned) that it tries the patience of even the most nostalgic viewer, leaving the impression that the search for Happy was really much ado about nothing.

Rudolph’s nose may indeed be shiny, but Rudolph’s Shiny New Year is, unfortunately, dull.

Holidaze 12/29/14

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Holidaze Review: Big Business (1929)

It’s fairly common to see folks trying to make an extra buck or two at the end of year by selling Christmas trees.
But…selling them door to door? In Southern California?

What kind of knuckleheads would think that is a good idea?

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy.

Holiday cheer is in short supply as the boys drive from home to home, trying to talk the residents into buying one of the evergreens from the back of their beat-up car.

It goes about as well as you’d expect. Stan’s sales pitch is dim beyond belief (he asks a single woman, “If you had a husband, would he buy a tree?”), and Ollie fares no better with his overconfidence and arrogance, which get him clocked in the head with a hammer—twice.

It’s not until they arrive at James Finlayson’s house, though, that the whole effort goes to pieces. Literally.

At first, Finlayson slams the door in Ollie’s face. Unfortunately, Stan is standing so close to the door that the tree’s branches get caught in it. Ollie rings the bell and Finlayson opens the door again, but Stan fails to yank the evergreen clear. This is repeated several times, with either the tree or Stan’s coat getting caught in the door. Finally, the flustered homeowner has had enough—he brings out pruning shears and dismembers the tree.

The fight. Is. ON.

The rest of Big Business is unrelenting mayhem, with the boys tearing apart Finlayson’s house while he attacks their car. By the time a policeman steps in, the house is thoroughly trashed, with windows smashed, vases shattered and large chunks of lawn torn up. And the car? Pounded flat, with Finlayson rolling around on the ground, furiously ripping at the last remaining Christmas tree with the fury of a man possessed.

Film historian William K. Everson once called Big Business the funniest 20 minutes ever committed to film. Individual tastes may vary—I prefer other Laurel & Hardy shorts Liberty or You’re Darned Tootin’ myself—but it’s hard to argue with how hilarious Big Business really is. In many ways, it’s the perfect summation of nearly every silent L&H short: the boys have a bad idea, make it infinitely worse through incompetent execution, and finally wind up defending themselves against one or more aggrieved parties (usually ever-angry Finlayson or slow-burn master Edgar Kennedy).

Where Big Business excels, though, is in how patient it is. We know disaster is coming, but the first ten minutes are all setup for the expected showdown, which quickly escalates from simple vandalism (Finlayson dismembering the tree with the shears, Laurel prying the numbers off the house) to epic destruction. What’s really amazing is how the demolition is handled without aid from sledgehammers or crowbars—Finlayson, in particular, destroys the boys’ jalopy with little more than righteous indignation and his bare hands.

Maybe Laurel and Hardy should have just set up a tree lot like everybody else. At least they’d still have a car—and a shot at a Merry Christmas. Instead, they get to spend the holiday literally running away from their troubles, while their dreams (and their car, and all of their trees) lie in ruins behind them.

Merry Christmas!

Olivia naps beneath the lights of Grandma's Christmas tree, but I'm pretty sure those aren't sugarplum faeries dancing in her head--li'l fishies or catnip balls, maybe, but not sugarplum faeries.

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas Day, no matter how you choose to spend it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve

This guy is gonna be busy tonight...

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Holidaze Review: The House without a Christmas Tree (1972)

For most people, Christmastime is a season of celebration, a time to share happiness and joy with family and friends.

For others, though, it’s a season of sadness, of painful reminders of what they have lost, of wounds inflicted and never fully healed.

So it is for James Mills (Jason Robards), who is still mourning the loss of his wife, Helen, 10 years later and refuses to allow a Christmas tree in the house he shares with his daughter, Addie (Lisa Lucas) and her grandmother (Mildred Natwick), even as Addie begs for a tree. Her friends have Christmas trees in their houses, so why can’t her family have one, too?

It’s not about money, Addie knows. The Mills family isn’t wealthy, by any means, but Jamie has some money in the bank—certainly enough for a Christmas tree, even a small one. Addie wonders aloud if her father really loves her, a point Grandma disputes: “He loves you,” she assures her granddaughter. “He’s just not good at showing it.”

An unfortunate understatement, that. James shows affection for his daughter by constantly correcting her, regardless of the activity: From the messy way she eats to shooting marbles to how Addie leaves the newspaper when she’s done reading it, it seems nothing she does is done the right way, according to him.

When Addie wins a prize at school—surprise! A Christmas tree—it sets up a confrontation between daughter and father, with Grandma smack in the middle.

Emotions, positive and otherwise, tend to get magnified in the yuletide season. It would be easy to take such material and turn it into an extended shouting match, but director Paul Bogart (a TV veteran who helmed many episodes of All in the Family) and screenwriter Eleanor Perry (working from a story by Gail Rock) keep the emotions in check. Even the faceoff over the tree is plainly and directly spoken, not shouted, with more emotion conveyed by facial expressions than by words and the recognition of the tensions that exist in all families, even a loving one like the Mills.

Robards, in particular, underplays wonderfully, the look of sadness and anger on his face when he sees the tree conveying more than a page of dialog ever could have.

No surprise there—Robards was one of the finest character actors of his era, shifting between lead and supporting roles with ease, later in the decade, winning two Academy Awards for Best Supporting actor. Here, he plays James as a man so full of regret and pain that he’s blind to the needs of those he loves most. When Addie brings home her school’s choir to sing Christmas carols—specifically, “O Christmas Tree”—Grandma clearly knows what her granddaughter is up to and looks nervously at James, who never speaks a word. He doesn’t have to. The hurt on Robards’ face says it all.

Natwick, a former member of John Ford’s stock company and an Oscar nominee herself, has the difficult role of the peacemaker of the family—Grandma loves and understands both Addie and James, but know that only they can settle their differences.

And Lucas as Addie, the true lead in The House without a Christmas Tree, could have been precocious or grating—or, worse, overly sweet or downright angelic. Instead, she plays Addie as clever, artistic, and emotional in the natural way a 10-year-old would be. She doesn’t scream at Robards over the fate of the tree; like Robards, Lucas conveys her character’s disappointment and anger with her face and her eyes.

Set in a small Nebraska town in 1946, The House without a Christmas Tree is an inexpensive production—shot on videotape and on limited sets (the Mills house, the classroom and the neighborhood between—giving it the look of a filmed play. But this movie doesn’t need anything elaborate or expensive. It’s the story of ordinary people who aren’t good at saying what they feel, told simply, without an overabundance of nostalgia or sentiment.

Many viewers will recognize their own family’s dynamics in the way the Mills family struggles with how to say what they really feel—with how hard it is to convey even the most simple, obvious things, especially at what’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year.

Holidaze 12/23/14

Rudy here has been part of my Holidaze celebrations for a long time. I bought him at the Montgomery Ward store at Brickyard Mall back in the '80s. Now Ward's is long gone and even the mall was demolished and resurrected as an outdoor mall a few years ago, but Rudy always has a proud place in La Casa--this year, atop the TV.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Christmas Toy

Over the course of the last few weeks, I've posted all sorts of holiday-related images--angels, Santas, inflatable Nativity scenes, Chuck Norris, etc.

The item pictured above? It is not any of those things.

It is, in fact, a gorilla.

It was made and distributed by Louis Marx and Company, a toy manufacturer that produced windup toys and action figures from just after World War I to the end of the 1970s. He stands about eight inches tall (slightly more with his arms raised as shown above). He has a button on his back that's supposed to make his arms move back and forth and wheels on his feet so he can roll across the floor.

The gorilla was given to me as a Christmas present from my grandmother sometime in the mid-1970s.

And he is the only Christmas present to survive from my youth.

Of course, this gorilla wasn't actually purchased by Grandma, even though she lived only a couple of streets over from a Toys R Us. She rarely left her small cottage on McLean Avenue unless she was on her way to the hospital for one reason or another. He was most likely bought by Mom at the aforementioned Toys R Us and stuck under the tree on Grandma's behalf.

I have no idea why I still have him, of all of the toys I got for Christmas back in the '70s.

It's not that I didn't love the gorilla. I did. I do. He fought with my Mego superheroes many a time and was often called upon to play the part of King Kong while a rubber crocodile--who also, oddly enough, survived and is still with me to this day--stood in for Godzilla.

It's just that there were other toys I loved more--the Megos and the Universal Monsters, all of which were given away by my Mom to the family next door when I was a teenager and, in her estimation, way too old to still have such toys. (To this day, she maintains that I agreed to this. To this day, I maintain I did not.)

Yet, there the gorilla stands.

He's been trough tough times, like all 40-year-old toys. The button that's supposed to make his arms move doesn't really work anymore--now when you press it, he just sort of shrugs. He's got "melt marks" on his body where it came into contact with other old plastic and had a bad chemical reaction. And his teeth had lost their enamel within a couple of years after I got him. I painted over them with Wite-Out back in the day (what do you want? I was a kid). Even that wore off eventually, though, so recently I gave the teeth a proper paint job and, while I was at it, added a little white to the eyes (which, if I'm not mistaken, never had any color at all).

He looks pretty goof for 40, I'd say. And he doesn't just come out at Christmastime--he's on display all year round in La Casa del Terror, hanging out with other ape figures like a couple of actual King Kongs (one modeled after the 1933 original, the other released in conjunction with the 2005 remake), as well as a nasty-looking Ultra-Humanite.

The gorilla more than holds his own with his simian playmates. He has seniority, after all.

Holidaze 12/22/14

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Holidaze 12/20/14

This flapper (bought at Christkindlmarket several years ago) is way too big to properly hang on my little tree, but she hangs on the wall just fine!

Friday, December 19, 2014

At Work Today

I'm wearing the Christmas sweater again today--going out for a cup or three of holiday cheer after work--but today I remembered to attach my Jingle Kitty pin to it!

Holidaze Review: A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All! (2008)

Last night, Stephen Colbert ended his nine-year run on The Colbert Report, on which he played a caricature of a typical blowhard conservative political commentator—think the arrogance of Bill O’Reilly combined with the thickheaded jingoism of Sean Hannity.

But just imagine if you took that parody and stuck it into a parody of that time-honored tradition, the Christmas variety special. Why, that would be the satirical equivalent of a turducken!

Well, you don’t have to just imagine such a thing—you can just watch A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!.

Colbert is at his mountain cabin, relaxing before going back to the city to record his Christmas special with Elvis Costello and the Jonas Brothers. He takes the time to pull on his winter gear and sing a Christmas song about Christmas songs (and how he’d like you to sing his Christmas song so he can collect royalties and feed his children) and is about to head out the door when a bear—actually, stock footage of a bear—appears and blocks his way.

Oh no! What will Stephen do?

Not much, really—he hangs out at the cabin while various guest stars (none of whom seem to have any problems getting past that bear) drop by to sing holiday tunes.

Toby Keith stops in to sing about the “War on Christmas” (a favorite yuletide theme for O’Reilly). Willie Nelson appears in Colbert’s Nativity scene as the fourth wise man; when Stephen asks what Willie’s doing in there, Nelson replies, “I’m so high, you’re hallucinating!” He then warbles about his herbal gift to the Baby Jesus (hint: it ain’t frankincense or myrrh). R&B singer (and apparent part-time forest ranger) John Legend plays piano while crooning a double entendre-laden tune about his favorite seasonal spice, nutmeg. Jon Stewart tries to sell Stephen on Hanukah with a none-too-convincing ditty. When Stephen tries praying for salvation (of his Christmas special), God put him on hold, with hold music provided by an angel who looks and sounds an awful lot like Feist.

And just when it looks like things may turn around and Stephen may be able to make his taping after all? The bear—actually, someone in a bear costume—shows up and eats one of his celebrity guests. The only person who can possibly sort this all out and show Colbert the true meaning of Christmas? Who else? Santa Claus (George Wendt)!

A Colbert Christmas pokes loads of fun with holiday variety shows, which were always kind of weird anyway. (So…Bing Crosby vacations at an English country estate, and David Bowie just happens to show up to sing with Bing? Really? And let’s not even get into The Star Wars Holiday Special, shall we?) There are also swipes at video Yule logs (at one point, Colbert attempts to throw chestnuts on his “open fire,” only to have them bounce off the flatscreen and clatter across the floor), commercialism (the DVD of A Colbert Christmas is available before the special is even over) and that moment in holiday rom-coms when couple just happen to be standing under mistletoe (in Colbert’s cabin, that mistletoe moves around to hang over any place where any two people happen to be standing).

Even if you aren’t familiar with the inherent clichés of the holiday variety show format, though, A Colbert Christmas has plenty to offer, including several funny original songs sung by a group of popular recording artists (and, um, Jon Stewart) willing and able to make fun of themselves while still celebrating the holiday season.

The Colbert Report may be gone (though Colbert himself will be back next year when he replaces the retiring David Letterman), but we’ll always have A Colbert Christmas to warm our hearts…and to put royalties into Stephen Colbert’s pocket. (Seriously, those kids need to eat, y’know.)

Holidaze 12/19/14

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Holidaze Review: Northpole (2014)

I’m not a big fan of Hallmark holiday movies.

Too often, they seem like romantic comedies dressed up in Christmas sweaters--tacky ones at that. And while I agree with my friend who recently pointed out that romance is also a vital part of the holiday season, it also seems to be a crutch that the network leans on too heavily and too frequently. The movies in question could be about Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Arbor Day—doesn’t matter. The seasons and decorations may change, but the plots and execution would be about the same.

Now and again, though, out of the seemingly dozens of yuletide offerings Hallmark puts out every year (I know it’s not that many, but throw in all the movies and specials from previous years and they can run with Christmas 24/7 from Dia de los Muertos all the way through New Year’s Eve), one will show interest in more then mistletoe.

This year, that one is Northpole.

As the title implies, Northpole is concerned with that place way up north where Santa and Mrs. Claus (real-life couple Robert Wagner and Jill St. John) and all the elves make all those toys for good girls and boys. But something’s wrong this year: The Christmas spirit “down south” (as they apparently refer to the rest of the planet) is fading, which means the aurora borealis won’t be able to produce the magic snowflakes the elves need to make all those toys. (Got that? If not, no worries—the movie explains it more than once.)

Everyone at Northpole is worried about the situation, but spunky elf Clementine (Bailee Madison) is determined to do something about it. When she sees that the Christmas spirit of a young boy “down south” (Max Charles) is still glowing bright despite the crisis, she steals one of Santa’s reindeer and flies down to help him spead Christmas cheer.

Not as easy as it sounds, though: Kevin’s mom, Chelsea (Tiffani Thiessen) is a recently divorced, no-nonsense reporter who loves her son, but has little patience with his bursts of imagination (like, say, conversations he has with his “imaginary friend,” Clementine), especially when Kevin’s hunky teacher, Ryan (josh Hopkins), encourages the kid to go for his big dream: Saving the town’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, which has been mysteriously canceled.

Will Chelsea find out why the town is so down on Christmas? Will she realized that Ryan is the perfect man for her? Will Kevin save the tree-lighting ceremony? Will that even be enough to help Clementine save Christmas? Is Northpole doomed?

If you’ve seen enough of these Hallmark movies, you know the answers to those questions already. You also won’t be shocked to find Hallmark trying to sell you various bits of Northpole chotchke (own your very own Magic Snowflake!) not only in the commercial breaks, but also in banner ads during the movie itself.

And while Northpole does have the requisite romance, it’s treated as a subplot rather than the main concern. What Northpole does better than most Hallmark offerings—heck, than most TV holiday movies, period—is it focuses on the importance of the Christmas spirit itself. The way it makes us feel. The comfort and joy it can bring. The effort it takes to keep that spirit stoked—and the benefits of that effort.

Thiessen and Charles have great chemistry—you could almost believe they’re really mother and son—and Madison’s enthusiasm never crosses over from charming into annoying. She’s having fun with the role, which makes it so much easier for the audience to do so as well. And while Wagner and St. John don’t get a lot of screen time, they bring a quiet authority and dignity to their roles—when they’re on screen, you don’t look anywhere else.

Director Douglas Barr (a former actor best known as Lee Major’s sidekick on The Fall Guy) keeps things moving along at a steady pace and juggles the various subplots admirably. Even the special effects—often a major weakness in made-for-TV movies—are handled well. (It might help that most of the SFX sequences happen at night, thus hiding any budgetary restraints.)

And that romance? It’s allowed to develop slowly over the course of the movie, even if the hunky teacher is a bit bland in that way that most leading men in these movies tend to be. Still, the romance never takes the focus away from the main plot, but you’re not the least bit surprised where this subplot is going.

In fact, there’s very little in Northpole that qualifies as surprising. Does that make it a bad movie? No. Familiar elements well executed can still entertain, amuse, and warm the holiday heart, and Northpole does that—even as it tries to sell me stuff and lets me know that there will be a sequel next year, whether I wanted one or not.

As it happens…I do.

Holidaze 12/18/14

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Holidaze Review: WGN Christmas Classics (1951/53/54)

As I’ve mentioned in this space before, I grew up in Chicago, where I was lucky enough to have a plethora of viewing choices in the days before everyone had cable or satellite or TV shows streaming on the Internet.

This meant not only a sterling education in cinematic history via the many movie shows spread across all the VHF and UHF stations in the city (back when VHF and UHF were still things), but that I wasn’t necessarily tied to network programming at any time of the day or night.

If I wanted news, I didn’t have to rely on Walter Cronkite. If I wanted sports, I had options beyond Howard Cosell. And if I wanted children’s programming, I wasn’t stuck with Captain Kangaroo.

Not that I had any problem with the good Captain—Bob Keeshan’s long-running show (1955-1984) was fun, but I had local options that were just as good—and, during the holiday season, even better.

Over on WGN—then a local powerhouse, rather than the cable superstation it would later become--Garfield Goose and Friends bore some similarities to the daily CBS offering: It started around the same time (1952, though it first premiered on WGN in 1955) and had a genial host (Frazier Thomas) who spent much of his time talking to puppets, usually Garfield Goose (who believed himself to be King of the United States) and Romberg Rabbit.

Thomas also showed short films and cartoons on the show, like the weird limited-animation adventures of Clutch Cargo; the serialized Journey to the Beginning of Time, in which a group of kids went back in time and saw stop-motion dinosaurs; or more educational segments like Thomas’s trip to sites in Great Britain relating to the legend of King Arthur.

During December, though, Thomas broke out three animated shorts: Frosty the Snowman, Hardrock, Coco and Joe and Suzy Snowflake. They were all produced in the early 1950s and were likely intended to run before or between feature films, but since they hit television in the middle of that decade, they’ve all gone on to become holiday classics and traditional—practically mandatory—viewing for generations of Chicagoland kiddies.

Frosty boasts the best known song of the three and was produced by UPA, the studio responsible for both Mister Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing, which may explain why the kids in this short all kind of look like Gerald. The animation is traditional line art, but limited in scope and application—movements are repeated throughout, though the backgrounds change regularly. It’s also really short—under three minutes—so there’s little chance for young viewers to get bored.

The most interesting thing about this version of Frosty is really the treatment song itself. It was still a relatively new tune when this cartoon was made in 1954 and has always been up-tempo, but this rendition is downright swingy, with Frosty bouncing down streets and over hills while the kids cheer him on.

Hardrock, Coco and Joe (also known as The Three Little Dwarfs or as both names combined for one long title) is more obscure, at least in terms of its song, which, according to Wikipedia, was written by Stuart Hamblen, a singing cowboy who later underwent a religious conversion and focused on gospel instead. The production company, Centaur, is also obscure—apparently, they made this and Suzy Snowflake and blipped out of existence.

What’s not obscure is the talent of the man who made the stop-motion figures: Wah Ming Chang, who worked on everything from Disney pictures (creating life models of animated characters) to Star Trek (creating not only iconic monsters like Tribbles and the Gorn for the show, but also the signature communicators that have now more or less become reality).

The figures are pretty simple and their motion isn’t especially complicated, but the story, in which Santa brings Hardrock and Coco along to help him operate the sleigh and distribute the toys. Santa doesn’t actually need Joe for the trip, but brings him along “’cause he loves him so.” It always seemed like Santa didn’t need any of these guys, but brought them along because, well, flying around the world in one night is a lonely gig, and time passes faster when you’ve got someone to share the ride with you.

The last of the trio, Suzy Snowflake, is not only more obscure and surreal--it’s not really even a Christmas song. It’s more about winter in general and snowfall in particular, Suzy being the first flurry of the season personified. However, as winter and Christmas are permanently tied together (if only by other songs like “White Christmas” and the aforementioned “Frosty”), Suzy fits in with the other two shorts pretty well. As with Hardrock, this short features stop-motion animation with figures by Wah Ming Chang.

What sets Suzy apart from the other two is its sense of melancholy—not so much conveyed by the tune itself (which, while not as up-tempo as Hardrock and nowhere near as bouncy as Frosty, is hardly a dirge), but by its visuals. Suzy is often seen either in shadow or silhouette, and while there are a few closeups, she’s often viewed at a distance, as if her limited time on Earth (“Come out, everyone, and play with me," she tells us in the lyrics, I haven’t long to stay") is as solitary as it is brief.

Maybe that’s why Suzy has much more of an emotional effect on me than the other two do. Christmastime is often a time of gladness and cheer, but not for everyone—for some, it’s a time when loneliness is magnified and isolation stings more than it does the other 11 months of the year. While she speaks to something magical about snowfall (and, by extension, winter and Christmastime), her time is short. And let’s face it: Some look on the onset of winter not with wonder, but dread.

So Suzy Snowflake can make me cry—more readily than either Hardrock, Coco and Joe or Frosty the Snowman can, anyway. After all these years, and all in under three minutes. There’s wonder in that as well.

Holidaze 12/17/14

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Holidaze Review: Santa Claus (1959)

Santa versus…Satan?

Yes, the Jolly Ol’ Elf takes on the Devil himself in this intensely surreal Christmas “treat” from writer/director Rene Cardona, better know for directing Mexican horror films like Night of the Bloody Apes and films featuring Lucha Libre legends El Santo and Blue Demon.

In Santa Claus, St. Nick doesn’t live at the North Pole, but in a palace in the clouds, where it’s got all sorts of high-tech gadgets—including a telescope with an actual eyeball and a satellite dish with an ear—to peek in on kids to see if they’ve been naughty or nice. (The NSA has nothing on Santa.)

Speaking of kids, Santa has a whole bunch of them in his palace (or maybe outside the palace, since it’s snowing on them constantly). The children come from all over the world in conveniently stereotypical costumes: The Mexican kids wear sombreros, the Americans are dressed as cowboys, the African tykes have bones through their noses, etc. It’s not clear why all these children are here, or where Santa got them. (Did he kidnap them? Is Santa running a sweatshop?) They all sing songs in their native tongues. Most of them look pretty unhappy to be there.

Meanwhile, in the fiery pits (yes, this movie literally goes straight to Hell), Pitch is engaged in an energetic dance number with other devils when Lucifer gives him his marching orders: Go to Earth and convince some kids to be naughty for Christmas.

Pitch has no problems talking a trio of little boys into throwing rocks at a department store window (we know these kids are bad news because, even at 10 years old, they’re already wearing leather jackets).

It’s tougher, though, to make little Lupita steal a doll she really wants (maybe she hears the narrator screaming at her to stop) even when he makes her dream about it in a really weird sequence of life-sized dolls dancing around Lupita, telling her that good girls never get dolls.

There’s also a little boy who has plenty of presents under the tree from his wealthy parents, but all he really wants for Christmas is the parents themselves. (In yet another creepy dream sequence, we see the little boy open up huge gifts containing his mom and dad.)

Back in La Casa del Santa, Kris Kringle is working with his assistant, Merlin the Wizard (yes, that Merlin), on ways to stop Pitch and save Christmas.

Nothing I’ve written above can properly convey the sheer weirdness of Santa Claus. From the descent into Hell to the dream sequences to the abundant glee with which Santa plays his organ (while the children left out in the snow sing and sing) to the windup mechanical reindeer, the whole thing has the uncomfortable feel of adults trying to imagine what kids would like to see in a Christmas movie, but instead projecting all their adult insecurities onto the screen.

Imagine being a kid at a matinee in the early 1960s, dropped of by Mom/Dad to dip into this cauldron of fever dreams? Were these kids scarred for life? Could they ever sit in Santa’s lap again without expecting an eyeball telescope to be watching their every move? How many years of therapy did it take to shake this movie off?

Or is it possible to unsee Santa Claus, once it’s been seen? It’s likely only Merlin knows—and he ain’t telling.

Holidaze 12/16/14

Monday, December 15, 2014

Holidaze Review: The Cheaters (1945)

Joseph Schildkraut was a popular actor who enjoyed a long career spread over several decades, a romantic lead in the silent era who later transitioned into memorable character roles from the fawning, vain Vadas in the Christmas classic, The Shop Around the Corner, to King Louis XIII in the 1939 version of The Three Musketeers, to his Oscar-winning role as Dreyfus in The Life of Emile Zola.

After the advent of sound, though, Schildkraut rarely played the lead. The Cheaters is a happy exception.

It’s Christmastime (of course, otherwise this wouldn’t be much of a Holidaze review), but J.C. Pidgeon (Eugene Pallette) isn’t full of holiday cheer. In fact, he’s flat broke and on the verge of bankruptcy, with process servers hovering in his office lobby. J.C .hasn’t told his wife (Billie Burke) yet, though, so she’s spending on the holiday like the family is still wealthy.

Back at the Pidgeon home, preparations for Christmas are well under way, but youngest daughter Therese (Ruth Terry) is fretting that her fiancé Stephen (not “Steve”) Bates (Robert Livingston) won’t understand her family’s eccentricities when he meets them. Her suggestion: Bring in a “charity case” just like her fiancé’s mom does every holiday season. Where can they find one? Uncle Willie (Raymond Walburn), jovial but otherwise useless, suggests randomly picking one out of the newspaper.

Enter Anthony Marchand (Schildkraut), formerly a famous stage actor before an accident rendered him lame and, most recently, watchman at a mattress factory, which subsequently burned down. (It is hinted that Marchand set the fire himself—perhaps as a suicide attempt.) Marchand is a study in contradictions: Handsome, suave and eloquent; but also bitter, self-defeating and more than slightly alcoholic.
Marchand limps into the Pidgeon household, accepts their charity and hospitality, and, when given a wad of cash by J.C., gets thoroughly plastered.

While recovering in the library, Marchand overhears a scheme being cooked up by the family: Turns out that a wealthy uncle has died in Denver, but his will leaves $5 million to a stage actress he admired ages ago. The family decides to find the actress, hide her out until the period to find her has passed (about one week), and keep the cash for themselves. Marchand pipes up and helpfully suggests how they can find the actress—search through Actors’ Equity—and leaves the room, only to listen at the door to the plot he has set into motion. He then walks toward his room—without the slightest hint of a limp!

The actress, Florie Watson (Ona Munson), is found rather easily, and Uncle Willie tells her that she’s a long-lost relation and invites her to spend Christmas with the Pidgeons. Will she find out the family’s plan to cheat her? Will the private detectives searching for Florie find her once the whole family has fled to a house in the country? And what of Mr. Marchand’s manipulations? Will things come out the way he wants them to?

If this sounds like a lot of plot for a little movie, it is. However, even though The Cheaters is overstuffed with story threads, things never become confusing, mostly because the focus here is more on character than on plot. Each member of the Pidgeon clan is defined early on (mostly as unlikable, greedy beasts)—then, as the movie progresses, each is redefined through their interactions with the enigmatic Mr. M and Florie, who knows she’s not related to this clan of weirdoes, but accepts their hospitality just the same.

The supporting cast is top notch, with screwball comedy vets Burke and Pallette on hand to keep the one-liners flying, and Munson makes Florie’s destitute actress into a warm, salt-of-the-earth sweetheart to be admired, not pitied.

Mostly, though, this is a showcase for Schildkraut, who underplays much of his dialog to great effect, and whose bombastic flourishes are strictly within character—especially a wonderful scene in which Mr. M reminds the gathered family that before the three spirits who haunt Scrooge in A Christmas Carol get to work, it’s Jacob Marley, fettered with chains and money boxes, who sends Scrooge on the path to redemption. The Pidgeons are riveted in a way they wouldn’t have been at the beginning of the movie—Mr. M has been subtly sending them on their own redemption journey.

The Cheaters has been largely forgotten, as has Schildkraut, even though he continued working for another couple of decades after this movie (most famously in The Diary of Anne Frank). Both of those oversights should be rectified: The Cheaters is sincere, sweet and smart holiday fare, and Schildkraut gives one of his greatest performances in it.



A Fistful of Santas

The four St. Nicks above came to my collection from various sources:

The Victorian-style fellow on the far left was found in the neighborhood Village Discount Outlet (a chain of second-hand stores in the Chicagoland area), where I've found quite a few cool yule decorations in recent years.

The giant head immediately to Victorian Santa's left was given as a Christmas present by a friend a long time ago. (His official name is Thistle--or so the tag on his underside says.)

The metal wind-up fellow was picked up at Uncle Fun many years ago. I often went there during the holiday season to find cool little ornaments and decorations for La Casa. Sadly, I can't do that this Christmas, since Uncle Fun closed earlier this year.

The Santa on the far left was bought at an arts-and-crafts store (possible Michaels) sometime in the '80s--and hand painted by yours truly.

Holidaze 12/15/14

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Holidaze 12/14/14

Nothing says Happy Holidays like a half-naked hybrid vampire sliding down your chimney with a dagger in her pointy teeth. (Seriously, that is one impractical outfit for coming down the chimney in--the friction burns must have been fierce.)

At Breakfast This Morning 12/14/14

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Thursday, December 11, 2014

On My Desk at Work Right Now

Holidaze Review: Christmas Holiday (1944)

With a title like Christmas Holiday and stars like Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly, the viewer wouldn’t be unreasonable in expecting a holiday-themed song-and-dance extravaganza, full of laughter and cheer.

Instead, the viewer gets…Christmas noir?

Robert Siodmak, who’d directed the eerily effective Son of Dracula for Universal the year before and would go on to helm such film noir classics as The Spiral Staircase, and Criss Cross, applies his dark sensibilities to Herman Mankiewicz’s adaptation of a W. Someset Maugham short story. And the results are not exactly overflowing with holiday cheer.

Newly minted Amry officer Lieutenant Mason (Dean Harens) is about to head off to San Francisco to marry his girlfriend, Mona, when he gets a Dear John telegram from her. (She’s gone ahead and married someone else.) Heartbroken but determined, he tries to fly to San Fran anyway, but a storm forces the plane to land in New Orleans.

Mason is provided accommodations at a local hotel and heads down to the bar for a bite to eat. There, a drunken reporter (Richard Whorf) convinces Mason to go to a “joint” with him where there are lots of pretty women in pretty dresses, including Jackie Lamont (Durbin), a hostess and singer. (It’s subtly implied that she does more than host and sing, but the Production Code likely frowned upon mentions of prostitution, especially in a movie with “Christmas” in the title.)

When the prospect of going to midnight mass is raised, Jackie practically begs Mason to take her with him, even though he’s not even sure he’s going. He does go, though, and Jackie cries inconsolably throughout.

Afterward, at an all-night diner (and later, in Mason’s hotel room), Jackie explains her behavior: Her name’s not really Jackie Lamont, but Abigail Manette, wife of convicted murderer Robert Manette (Kelly). He’s a ne’er-do-well Southern aristocrat charmer who, unfortunately, is also heavily into gambling and one night kills and robs a man. Robert’s mother (Gale Sondergaard) tries to cover up for her son by burning his blood-stained clothing and hiding the money, but he’s convicted of murder anyway, and Mom blames Abigail for it.

Jackie/Abigail still loves Robert, though…which is quite convenient, really, since he just escaped from prison in time for Christmas.

The gritty material is an ill-enough fit for a holiday-themed movie, but the casting of Durbin (a contract player at Universal best known for her fluffy ingénue roles and beautiful singing voice) and Kelly (on loan from MGM) makes the film feel downright bizarre. Sondergaard is well suited to her role as the domineering, forceful mother, and Durbin and Kelly are charming together in the scenes where Robert is wooing Abigail. Once the story turns dark, though, Kelly looks clearly uncomfortable in the role of a gambler/murderer, and Durbin’s usual bubbly screen persona is suppressed nearly out of existence. She spends most of the movie wearing an expression of beat-down resolve—surviving rather than living—although she does at least get to sing a couple of songs (including a lovely rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Always,” which also serves as a recurring theme throughout the movie).

It’s not that Christmas Holiday is a bad movie. There’s plenty to like about it--it’s beautifully shot (Durbin looks exquisite throughout), the music is good (Hans Salter was nominated for an Oscar for his score) and the actors all give it their best shot. Unfortunately, the whole thing is too dour to work as holiday fare and too dark to let Durbin and Kelly sparkle the way they usually do.

Christmas Holiday would be a fine film to watch as part of a film noir marathon or to suit the mood of a rainy day. But if you put this movie in your Christmas stocking, you’re more than likely mistake it for a lump of coal.

Holidaze 12/11/14

The especially festive Christmas tree in Lincoln Square.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Holidaze Review: Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962)

True confession: I have never, ever liked Mister Magoo.

It’s not so much that I find Magoo’s shtick—an bumbling old man wrecking havoc due to his extreme nearsightedness—offensive, though many visually impaired people do. It’s really that the shtick is so tiresome and repetitive—if you’ve seen one Magoo short, you’ve pretty much seen them all. And don’t even get me started on that live-action adaptation starring Leslie Nielsen…

It is therefore odd that I have such affection for Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol.

It’s not odd that it’s an animated Christmas special—those have become commonplace in the decades since, though this was actually the first fully animated Christmas special ever made especially for TV. (It was subsequently run on the big screen, as most Magoo shorts had previously been.)

What’s odd, really, is how straightforward it is.

The special does begin and end in typical Magoo style, with our hero (voiced as always by Jim Backus), strangely cast as the lead actor in a Broadway production of A Christmas Carol , stumbling about, knocking over things (and people) on his way to and from the stage.

I don’t remember these opening and closing sequences, though—maybe because they were cut out for later rebroadcasts. Network shows run shorter than they did in 1962, when Magoo’s Christmas Carol first aired--mostly so sponsors can cram in more commercials—and I’ve seen it pop up on cable in recent years with these opening and closing sequences missing.

There are a few cracks about Magoo/Scrooge needing to buy a “pair of spectacles.” There’s even good use of the tired gag within the Christmas Carol storyline (when Scrooge sees Jacob Marley’s face superimposed over this door knocker, he assumes it’s his lousy eyesight rather than a ghost).

And the story has been slightly altered: tScrooge’s nephew, Fred, is entirely absent; he order of the ghosts has been shuffled—the Ghost of Christmas Present appears first—and the ending has been condensed so that Scrooge confronts Cratchit in the Cratchit home, rather than in the offices of Scrooge & Marley.

Aside from those points, though, the “play” is all business, hitting all the major events of the Charles Dickens original with few concessions to the animated format, with none of the slapstick or broad humor of the usual Magoo cartoon. So do all the other “actors,” including Tiny Tim, who looks suspiciously like Gerald McBoing Boing, another animated character from the same studio (UPA) that produced the Magoo shorts.

There are even a few sweet musical numbers (with music and lyrics by Broadway veterans Jules Styne and Bob Merrill). The song that Scrooge (both as a child and as an adult) sings about loneliness is not only memorable, but insightful as well, giving as good an explanation as you’ll get for Scrooge’s misanthropic manner.

It also doesn’t hurt that this Christmas Carol boasts a remarkably deep voice cast, including cartoon veterans June Foray and Paul Frees and popular actors like Morey Amsterdam, Royal Dano, Les Tremayne and Jack Cassidy (as Bob Cratchit!).

Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol has gone on to be regarded as a Christmas classic—maybe not at the level of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman, but it’s certainly fondly remembered—even by people like me who don’t fondly remember Magoo himself.

Holidaze 12/10/14

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

On the Way Home Last Night 12/8/14

Is the penguin holding a shovel so he can clear the sidewalk?

Holidaze Review: Star in the Night (1944)

It can’t be easy to attempt a fresh take on one of the oldest and most revered stories known to man: The Nativity, the tale of Joseph and Mary, of their trip to Bethlehem, of their search for shelter on a cold winter’s night and of the birth of their child, the baby Jesus.

But Star in the Night, the Oscar-winning short subject for 1944, tells the story in modern dress, with great simplicity and efficiency (it’s only 20 minutes long.

Nick (J. Carroll Naish) is the surly owner/operator of a rest station in the desert.(I thinbk he’s supposed to be Greek, but Naish plays him with an exaggerated Italian accent.) Life has got Nick down, and he has little use for holiday cheer. He tells a hitchhiker (Donald Woods) that because people are rotten to each other every other day of the year, why should it be any different on Christmas? Nick refuses to spare a room or a cup of coffee for the hitchhiker, but does let him come in and warm himself by the fire for a few minutes.

Nick has just installed a super-bright light (shaped like a star, of course) to draw customers from near and far. Seems to be working—on Christmas Eve, all of his cabins are filled with various discontented travelers, including a woman who constantly complains about the noise and mess made by the travelers next door who won’t stop singing carols; a man angry the laundry service messed up his shirts; and a couple who insist on extra blankets, no matter how much Nick and his wife assure them that the cabins are warm and comfortable.

There’s no more room for any more visitors—not for the hitchhiker, nor for the three guys on horseback who have ridden at least 10 miles through the desert following the light of the super-bright star light. And certainly not for the young couple whose car dies outside the station, the young woman obviously unwell and needing rest. Nick’s wife suggests that they stay in the shed out back…

See where this is going? Of course you do. But Star in the Night wisely shifts the focus away from the familiar story and focuses on the role of the innkeeper, Nick. He’s hard and bitter at the beginning of the story, but he becomes softer and warmer as he watches everyone else forgets their own concerns to help the young woman when she goes into labor. (Although it’s never stated out loud that she’s pregnant—it’s only whispered into characters’ ears--and she wears loose-fitting clothing that hides her baby bump. Something in the Production Code, I’m sure). The woman who has to get up early stops complaining and pitches in to help; the couple who asked for extra blankets gives those blankets to the cause; and the man whose shirts were ruined shreds the shirts for bandages.

By the end, Nick is crying tears…of joy.

Star in the Night packs a lot of story into its short running time, but director Don Siegel (who later helmed such diverse features as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry and The Shootist) moves things along briskly without making it feel rushed. And despite the familiarity of the story, the performers all throw themselves into their roles with both gravity and humor, making them all much more human relatable than they would have been had this been played as a more obvious allegory.

Instead, Star in the Night is as reassuringly warm as a cup of coffee on a cold December night. You may know where it’s going, but you’ll enjoy getting there.

Holidaze 12/9/14

Monday, December 8, 2014

Holidaze Review: Invasion U.S.A. (1985)

When some rotten Commie bastards charge onto American soil and threaten everything we hold dear, including Christmas itself, whom can we depend on to ride in and save the day?

One man: Chuck. Fucking. Norris.

Nothing screams “Happy Holidays” like a spin kick to the side of a terrorist’s head, and Chuck delivers plenty of them—along with punches, gunshots and squinty-eyed stares—in this hilariously awful action flick swimming in the yuletide years before Bruce Willis jumped in with the first two Die Hard movies.

Norris plays Matt Hunter, a retired CIA operative who…but why am I telling you his character name and backstory when he looks, sounds and acts like Chuck Norris? Anyway, he’s coaxed back to active duty when arch enemy, Rostoff (the ever-slimy Richard Lynch), sneaks into the U.S.A. and tries to kill him (but gets his best friend instead) ahead of a full-scale invasion. (Well, we’re told it’s a full-scale invasion, with attacks all over the country, but we only see action in Florida and around Atlanta.)

What’s the invasion plan? Seems to be no more complicated than to drive around and blow shit up—which, to be honest, is not a bad invasion plan. After all, instilling terror in the general population and ensuring that they feel unsafe wherever they are is kind of what terrorists do.

So Rostoff and his pals go here and there, shooting people at random, tossing bombs and basically attacking anything that indicative of the American Way.

And what could possibly be more American than Christmas?

The terrorists even go to a quiet suburban street all decked out for the season and use a rocket launcher on a Christmas tree. Seriously.

Think Chuck and his beard are gonna stand for that? Hell to the no.

He drives into battle in his 4x4, armed with his fists, feet, righteous indignation and an endless supply of bullets, all aimed squarely at Rostoff and his Communist cronies—nobody fucks with Christmas on Chuck Norris’s watch.

He seems to show up wherever the terrorists strike, as does an obnoxious reporter (Melissa Prophet). In a lesser action film, Chuck and the reporter would hate each other at first, but, by the end of the movie, fall hopelessly in love. But Chuck doesn’t have time for that—he has to kick, shoot and otherwise dismember the bad guys, all while growling his catch phrase over and over again: “It’s time to die.”

When the terrorists plan to blow up a mall full of holiday shoppers, Chuck plows through some glass doors, dodges rockets and machine guns, rides on the side of a stolen Nissan (product placement!) and chases a mad bomber in a white convertible, the reporter bitching in the back seat the whole time.

If you ask how either of them knew to show up at that exact mall at that exact time, you’re thinking a lot harder than anybody in this movie.

You could make the argument that Invasion U.S.A. is an allegory for the dangers of unchecked socialism and/or liberalism (in the minds of conservatives, often the same thing), weakening America’s moral backbone and resolve. Or maybe it’s a cautionary tale, transforming the “War on Christmas” that conservative commentators go on about year after year into a literal assault on tinsel, mistletoe and decorated evergreens.

That would be giving director Joseph Zito and Norris (who also co-wrote the screenplay) way too much credit. Invasion U.S.A. is about as simpleminded as an action film can get, using the trappings of the holiday season as lazy shorthand for everything this country holds dear.

Wait, though…if Chuck Norris is playing a man with an awe-inspiring beard who’s seemingly everywhere at once, punishing the naughty and protecting the nice? Does that make him…Santa Claus?

Best. Christmas. Movie. Ever.

On the Way Home Last Night 12/7/14

The moon is full and bright tonight.
The werewolves, they abound.
They prowl the streets for tender meats,
whate'er may be found.
So stay inside--indeed, do hide
and hold your innards dear.
Shocktober may be gone, but there
is plenty left to fear!

Holidaze 12/8/14

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Saturday, December 6, 2014

On the Way Home Last Night 12/5/14

I've lived in Chicago all my life, yet I've never been lucky enough to ride the Christmas Train, CTA's annual stab at holidat cheer. However, I did see it last night on its way to Midway Airport and managed to take a couple of shots before it lumbered on its merry way south.

Holidaze 12/6/14

Friday, December 5, 2014

On the Way to Work 12/5/14

Krampusnacht

It is the tradition of some European countries to celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6 (which also happens to be my Mom's birthday--I'd wish her a Happy Birthday here, but she doesn't do the Internet.)

It is also tradition belief that, the night before, St. Nicholas travels the globe, rewarding all the children who have been good throughout the year.

And the children who've been bad? They get Krampus.

Krampus is, to put it politely, a demon. He punishes bad children. Or eats them. Depends on which depiction you see. Also? He usually travels along with St. Nicholas (though sometimes Krampus ventures off on his own), so how nice can this St. Nick guy really be?

So if you're out and about tonight, be forewarned: If you've been naughty this year, Krampus might just be coming...for...YOU!

(The picture above is in the window of Dank Haus on Western Avenue in Lincoln Square. Krampus is shown in chains. For you naughty kids, you better hope he stays that way.)

Holidaze Review: Toy Story That Time Forgot (2014)

My love to the Toy Story movies knows few, if any, bounds, but last year’s Halloween special, Toy Story of TERROR!, left me unimpressed.

It’s not that it was bad, exactly—there were plenty of moments to smile at, the animation was as lovely as we’ve come to expect from any Pixar product, and, at half an hour, it didn’t wear out its welcome like some holiday specials. (Looking at you, Grumpy Cat.)

Maybe it was because TERROR! lacked the emotional impact of the three Toy Story movies (all of which left me a hot sobbing mess). It was cute and charming, but not much more. Perhaps my expectations were just too high.

One thing I will say for Terror, though, is that writer/director Angus MacLane had the good sense to turn the focus away from the main characters of the franchise—cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) and space ranger Buzz (Tim Allen)—and concentrate instead on Jessie (Joan Cusack), one to the many supporting characters, instead.

This year’s holiday special, Toy Story That Time Forgot, employs the same strategy toward its cast—Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang are on hand, but the spotlight is on Trixie (Kristen Schaal), the toy triceratops who joined the gang when they were given to Bonnie (Emily Hahn) at the end of Toy Story 3.

In this special, which begins just as Christmas is ending (thus just barely qualifying it as a holiday event), Trixie is frustrated: She’s happy to have a kid to play with her, but she’s upset that she’s never used as what she is—a dinosaur. (For much of the special, Bonnie pretends that Trixie is a reindeer.)

When Bonnie brings Woody, Buzz, Trixie, Rex (Wallace Shawn) and a kitty/bear ornament from the Christmas tree (Emma Hudak) along for a playdate with her friend Mason (R.C. Cope), the toys get quickly tossed aside for video games and wind up in a playset for Battlesaurs—humanoid dinosaurs in armor who, um, battle and stuff.

Trixie is immediately smitten with Reptillus Maximus, the Battlesaurs’ best warrior, and Rex finally gets the larger arms he’s always wanted. (T-Rexes had itty-bitty arms that weren’t good for anything.) But the Cleric (Steve Purcell, who also wrote and directed this special) is not exactly welcoming to these strange new toys and has sinister plans afoot—plans that could be downright lethal to our heroes.

With Woody and Buzz pushed to the background (literally—they’re yanked off-screen and stay gone for several minutes), it’s up to Trixie to impart life lessons to Reptillicus, Bonnie, Mason and (as it turns out) herself, all while saving everybody from the Cleric’s evil schemes.

Toy Story That Time Forgot improves on its predecessor with a faster pace, more action and, most importantly, more and better character development. (Jessie was already pretty well fleshed out before Toy Story of TERROR!, and a rehash of her abandonment issues didn’t break any new ground.)

Trixie, arguably the least fleshed-out of all the Toy Story gang, really shines at center stage, and Schaal seems to have a ball with the character—her slightly squeaky, slightly high voice contrasts nicely with the bulk and awkwardness of the triceratops (much the same way Wallace Shawn’s voice has always complemented Rex’s supposedly ferocious appearance). Trixie gets to be sweet, smart and (unlike Rex) decisive when everything around her starts spiraling out of control.

Toy Story That Time Forgot may only marginally qualify as a Christmas special, and it may not be the same as a full-blown movie (that we have to wait another three years for), but it’s a good time spent with characters we love--and one little dinosaur we now love a lot more.

Holidaze 12/5/14

Thursday, December 4, 2014

At Work Today

Loading holiday music into the work iTunes.

On the Way Home Last Night 12/3/14

Holidaze Review: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

“The Coca-Cola Santa is just a hoax.”

So explains Pietari (Onni Tommila), the shy young son of Rauno (Jorma Tommila), a reindeer hunter in a small Finnish village near the Russian border.

Pietari would know: He’s been pouring over books with ancient woodcuts and researching the heck out of the subject ever since the American crew with their hardhats and digging equipment began excavating the nearby mountain where he is convinced that Santa Claus is buried.

Pietari also has a point: Even though the legend of Santa Claus is centuries old, the popular perception of him—jolly, fat, red suit, ho ho ho, all that—is of much more recent vintage. Whether you’re looking at Clement Moore’s poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” the illustrations of Thomas Nast or, yes, the advertising art of Coca-Cola, our popular perception of Old St. Nick comes from within the last couple of centuries—and is almost wholly American.

So it’s more than a bit (intentionally) ironic that it’s an American excavation crew that digs into the nearby mountain and releases…something.

Something that slaughters most of the reindeer on which the inhabitants of the village make their money. Something that makes all the Americans disappear. Something that steals all the heating devices in the village (stoves, radiators, blow dryers, etc.)…and more.

It’s up to introverted Pietori, angry, bitter dad Rauno (who nonetheless makes tasty Christmas cookies) and Rauno’s buddies to solve the mystery, stop the mayhem and somehow survive Christmas.

Rare Exports is an unusual hybrid: An action/horror holiday comedy that doesn’t skimp on any of the above. It’s also got plenty of chases, explosions, cursing and gore; no wonder it’s the rare Christmas movie that’s rated R.

With all that, though, there’s a reminder that, for all the bright lights, glass balls and tinsel, Christmas has some older, darker traditions. Pietori’s research reveals a Santa Claus who is fierce and frightening, tormenting and eating children whether they’ve been naughty, nice or anywhere in between.

(There seems to be a conflation of Santa Claus and Krampus, his traditional demon-like companion who punished the bad children while Santa presumably rewarded the good. Or, perhaps, it’s a really subtle suggestion that the two are one and the same—and always have been. Given how smart and well observed the movie is otherwise, I’ll assume it’s the latter.)
There’s also the emotional center of the film: The relationship between Pietori and Rauno, who are both suffering through the holiday without Pietori’s mom, but find out how much they need each other just to make it past December 25 alive—and how capable the underestimated, picked-on Pietori can be in a crisis.

Rare Exports provides an antidote for those who are weary of holiday cheer--and for those who have always suspected that something sinister hides behind that red suit and white beard.

Holidaze 12/4/14

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Holidaze Review: Remember the Night (1940)

It’s unfortunate—ironic, even—that a movie called Remember the Night should have been forgotten for so many years.

After all, it starred two of the most popular actors of the time, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray; it was written by the great Preston Sturges (this was the last movie he would only write—he would also direct every one of his scripts hereafter); and it was a box office hit when it was first released (oddly, on January 19, 1940, missing the holiday season by several weeks).

For whatever reason, though, the film faded into obscurity until recently, when TV showings and home video releases by Turner Classic Movies (including a restored Blu-ray release this year) have boosted its profile substantially.

And deservedly so: Remember the Night is a hidden gem with its two stars, writer and director (Mitchell Leisen) all at the top of their game, carefully toeing the line between romantic comedy and holiday drama without leaning to heavily on either. (Until the ending, anyway—more on that later.)

Stanwyck stars as Lee, an unrepentant shoplifter who has the misfortune to get busted right before Christmas. When her attorney puts up a spirited, unique defense (“Hypnotism!”) that appears to sway the jury, Assistant District Attorney John Sargent (MacMurray) convinces the judge to continue the case after the New Year—which means Lee will have to spend Christmas in jail.

Feeling guilty, John has Lee bailed out of jail, and the bail bondsman, thinking John has, um, other “plans” for Lee, delivers her to John’s apartment. John’s getting ready to head back to his Mom’s house in Indiana for Christmas, but it turns out that Lee is a Hoosier too, so he offers to drop her off on his way.

Road trip hijinks ensue--including car crashes, wrestling matches with cows and just a hint of arson—before they arrive in Lee’s hometown to find that her mother is a cold, hard, bitter woman who wants nothing to do with her larcenous offspring, so Lee sticks with John to visit his mom (Beulah Bondi) and the rest of the family.

Of course, Mom and everyone else assume that John and Lee are a couple, even when they both say they’re not, so guess what happens? Yup, they fall in love, which makes the whole prosecutor/perpetrator thing so much more complicated.

This may well sound like a typical screwball comedy with a holiday theme—and, except for the ending, which tips the storytelling scales in favor of full-blown melodrama, it pretty much is.

What distinguishes Remember the Night, however, is Sturges’s excellent script, in which adults talk and act like adults, even in situations that lend themselves to silliness or sappiness.

For example: Before John and Lee take off for Indiana, they have dinner and talk about Lee’s shoplifting “career” in terms both serious and witty (hint: it’s not “Hypnotism!”) And John’s mom, realizing the “kids” are falling for each other, goes to Lee’s room and expresses her concerns over what their budding relationship would mean for John’s career. It would have been very easy to paint Mom as cruel or insensitive, but Sturges fills her dialogue with warmth and gentleness, and Bondi and Stanwyck play the scene with beauty and sensitivity—when Mom asks, “But you love him, don’t you?” and Lee answers, “Yes, I’m afraid so,” it’s downright heartbreaking.

It doesn’t hurt that MacMurray and Stanwyck have great screen chemistry, which they’d uses to even greater effect four years later in Billy Wilder’s classic film noir, Double Indemnity.

It’s deeply cool that Remember the Night has emerged after all these years as a lost Christmas classic and is getting the respect and play that it deserved all along. If you’re tired of the holiday staples and are looking for something “new,” Remember the Night might just be for you.

Holidaze 12/3/14

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Holidaze Review: Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever (2014)

Late in Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever, a made-for-TV holiday movie based on the popular Internet meme, the heroine (with the titular feline in the passenger’s seat) drives a Camero in circles around the villain’s car.

That scene sums up the movie pretty well: Going around and around without ever actually getting anywhere.

The plot of Worst Christmas Ever is barely enough to fill out a half-hour special, much less a two hour extravaganza: Grump Cat (real name: Tardar Sauce; voiced by Aubrey Plaza) lives in a failing pet shop, whose owner is pinning all his hopes on selling a super-expensive dog. (How the owner can afford such an expensive dog when he can’t even pay his rent on the pet shop is never explained.)

One of the owner’s employees, Crystal (Megan Carpentier), is a 12-year-old who isn’t popular with the cool kids and is going through her first Christmas after her parents’ divorce, so when she gets a magic coin from a mall Santa Claus (who may be the real deal), she wishes for “a friend—one who listens to me and on whom I can depend.” And for her wish, Crystal gains the ability to hear Grumpy Cat talk and therefore has to suffer all the misanthropic one-liners and unfunny narration along with the rest of us.

Meanwhile, two nitwit thieves (think Home Alone, only dumber) plan to steal the dog when the mall closes on Christmas Eve, and it’s up to Crystal, Grumpy and the other denizens of the pet shop to stop them.

There’s also some nonsense about a bumbling mall cop and some romantic shenanigans between Crystal’s mom and a mall elf, but even with all that, screenwriters Tim Hill (who also directed) and Jeff Morris pad the proceedings out with lots of self-deprecating humor (mocking this movie, other Lifetime movies, holiday specials in general and Grumpy Cat merchandise) and pop culture references (to Batman, Murder She Wrote, The A-Team and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, among others).

This wouldn’t be so bad if Worst Christmas Ever were cut down to an hour, weeding out repetitive action and Grumpy Cat’s never-ending yammering (read in a sullen monotone by Plaza). Such a pruning would also have given the special a tighter focus on whatever audience this thing was intended for and spared the viewers some truly tasteless sequences, like when Grumpy imagines the horrid sequence of events if the pet shop closes, culminating in her being put to sleep (no, seriously), and a child molestation joke, in a Christmas special (no, seriously).

Instead, what we get is an unfocused, rambling, overlong, tone-deaf mess.

Turns out the title qualifies as truth in advertising--Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever really is the worst.

Holidaze 12/2/14

Monday, December 1, 2014

Holidaze Review: A Christmas Carol (1971)

According to Wikipedia, the oldest known film adaptation of A Christmas Carol, the 1843 Charles Dickens novella that introduced the world to Ebenezer Scrooge--the mean, cheap old man who nonetheless gets a shot at late-life redemption thanks to the ghost of his late business partner, Jacob Marley, and spirits representing the past, present and future of the Christmas holiday--popped up in 1901, when film itself was little more than a decade old and Dickens had existed within living memory.

Over the century-plus since, dozens of versions have appeared on screens big and small. Full-length features, made-for-TV specials, musicals, adaptations filtered through the pop culture prisms of Mister Magoo, Mickey Mouse and the Muppets, sitcom episodes…you name it, A Christmas Carol has probably been pounded, shoved or twisted into it.

The most popular version of the tale is probably the 1951 big-screen version starring Alistair Sim as Scrooge. Completely understandable--that version was in the public domain for years and played on many TV stations in many holiday seasons.

But did you know that, 20 years later, Sim starred in another version of A Christmas Carol--possibly the best, if most obscure, version of all?

It was a half-hour animated TV special, which aired in 1971 and was later issued on VHS, but never made it to DVD, much less Blu-ray.

That’s a shame, because this version deserves the widest audience possible, for a number of reasons.

First off, the special, produced by the legendary Chuck Jones directed by Richard Williams, is visually stunning, with fine line work in the hand-drawn animation that not even the blur of my copy (a bootleg bought from eBay and obviously dubbed from the aforementioned VHS release) could obscure. There are some moments that hint at Jones’s usual style (previously gracing another Christmas classic, How the Grinch Stole Christmas), but many more that look like book illustrations come to life.

Second, the special uses the relative brevity of the original story to great advantage. It was, after all, a novella, not a full-blown novel, and this version packs nearly all the major incidents into its 25-minute running time while still hitting on minor moments often forgotten in other, more lavish versions, like the visits to a mining camp and a ship at sea with the Ghost of Christmas Present, or Bob Cratchit lamenting at deathbed of Tiny Tim. There’s not a line or scene in it that’s not straight from Dickens, making this possibly the most accurate adaptation of all.

Lastly? The ghosts. The scary, scary ghosts.

Marley’s Ghost (voiced by Michael Hordern, who played the same role opposite Sim in the 1951 version) is one of the most frightening creatures ever to float across a TV screen, and even the usually jolly Ghost of Christmas Present had kids jumping behind the couch when he pulled back his robe to reveal the children, Want and Ignorance, clinging to his legs. (I remember this scene from the one time I saw this version when I was a kid—probably when it originally aired in 1971--and it still gives me the creeps.)

We can always hope that somebody somewhere gets the bright idea to release a “special edition” of this special, especially in high definition. It really deserves to be seen. Until then, those of you who still own VCRs (like me) can track down VHS copies on eBay or Amazon. Trust me--it will be worth it, though I apologize in advance for any nightmares Marley’s ghost scares up…sorry about that.

Holidaze 12/1/14

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Saturday, November 29, 2014