Friday Free-for-all #23

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What’s your favorite holiday movie?

Very appropriate that this one popped up now, since we’re almost exactly between Christmases which, face it, is what most people think of when they think “holiday movie.” Well, except for the twisted folk who think of the Halloween franchise, of course.

Groundhog Day is probably one of the better-known and more beloved non-Christmas films, But you have to think really hard to come up with others without looking. For example, which holiday is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles about? (Hint: it’s not Christmas.)

Did you even remember that Eight Crazy Nights is a thing until I mentioned it? And while at least the first Independence Day movie took place around that holiday, it only counts if you stick strictly to America, of course, which is just jingoistic and awkward when you remember that it’s the whole planet being invaded.

Easter movies tend to be about either Jesus or Bunnies, although Monty Python’s Life of Brian absolutely is an Easter film that isn’t strictly about either. New Year’s Eve fares a little better, including the strangely fascinating Strange Days, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Released in 1995, it was set in the two days leading into the year 2000 — although it wasn’t so much about the holiday as about the existence of recordings of people’s memories as a black-market drug.

Oddly enough, 1995 was the same year that Terry Gillaim’s 12 Monkeys came out — another mid-90s science fiction film set in the very-near future, although in the case of this one, the year was 1996, which was about exactly a year after the release date of the film.

Meta.

But, for me, this question actually has two answers, and I’ve already mentioned the director of one of the films. However, I’ll start with the more obvious choice.

It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those movies I can watch over and over, and from any point I happen to stumble across a re-broadcast. In case you live under a rock, it came out in 1946, directed by Frank Capra, and it stars James Stewart as George Bailey in the story of a small-town Everyman who winds up giving up his own dreams in order to help others.

One of the most fascinating things about the film is the abrupt tone-shift as we move into the third act, more on which in a moment. Up until that point, it barrels head-long into the American Dream — and remember, the whole thing was being produced right as the U.S. defeated the Powers of Evil™ and became the predominant and benevolent World Power — never mind that whole nuking civilians in Japan thing.

George Bailey — born into white privilege in the town of Bedford Falls, around 1907. After all, his father and uncle own the local Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, so the family is well-off. Well, at least until 1928, when young George is planning to embark on a world tour which is cancelled when his father has a stroke and dies.

Oops.

George is coerced by the board into taking over the company. Meanwhile, George gives his trip money to his brother Harry (whose life he already saved once) to pay his college tuition with the agreement that Harry take over the company after he graduates so George can be free to pursue his dreams.

Needless to say, Harry reneges because of a good job offer; George marries good girl Mary, but the stock market crashes and they have to spend their honeymoon money bailing out the Building and Loan.

Eventually, George starts a housing development with nice and affordable homes while the Big Bad, Henry Potter, tries to subvert him from his mission, but George will have none of it.

And then… George’s addle-brained Uncle Billy fucks up big time, accidentally hands Potter the Building and Loan’s deposits (the modern equivalent of $110K in cash), and suddenly George lands deep in the shit.

This is where the film turns dark and George’s guardian angel Clarence turns up to present George with the proverbial Monkey’s Paw answer to his appeal: “I wish I’d never been born.”

That’s exactly what George gets, and it becomes a beautiful butterfly effect of events. He never saved his brother from drowning, which had enormous repercussions in World War II, leaving hundreds of men to die in a Kamikaze attack. George wasn’t there to stop his pharmacist boss from making a mistake, leading to a kid being poisoned and said pharmacists winding up as a homeless town pariah.

Even the women in his life suffered — his wife Mary went on to become a mousy spinster librarian, and while it’s not absolutely clear how George helped childhood friend Violet Bick, she’s pretty much a whore in the town of Potterville. And even his own sainted mother morphed into one gigantic uber-Karen bitch.

Oh — it’s not Bedford Falls anymore, either, so there’s that.

There is one really brilliant but easy to miss moment in this act, too, and that’s the instant when Clarence starts the process of saving George. See, Bailey is about to dive off of the bridge to kill himself, hoping that his life insurance will take care of all of his financial problems. But Clarence knows his subject well, and in that moment he throws himself into the water first and begins shouting out that magic phrase.

“I can’t swim. Help, help. I can’t swim. Help!”

And what has been George’s life-long pattern? Helping everyone else without thinking about himself. So he dives in and drags Clarence out, and the rest happens.

Now, I don’t care how jaded or cynical you are, but once we get to the climax of the film — when George’s original reality is restored and he races home — if you don’t cry at least once if not for at least the last fifteen minutes of the movie, then you have no fucking heart.

Shit, if the waterworks don’t go off in just the first ten seconds of that clip out of context, make an appointment with your cardiologist now.

Here’s the funny thing about It’s a Wonderful Life, though — on initial release, it bombed. Big time. Critics loved it, but audiences didn’t, and it lost half a million dollars. It probably would have just vanished, except for one incredible fuck-up.

At some point, somebody forgot to renew the copyright, and so the film fell for a time into the public domain, which meant that it could be shown freely forever. And who picked up on that? Television stations, which led to the movie being run over and over around Christmas every year and, ta-da, instant classic.

Okay, slight simplification — the film itself was free. The short story it was based on was not. Still, beginning in 1974, the movie was on the express train to beloved Christmas classic and, honestly, I think that it deserves it.

As for my other choice, which I love even more than It’s a Wonderful Life, that would be Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is every inch a Christmas movie while not being about Christmas per se, but still being about the hopes of a dreamer pitted against society at large.

Sure, Brazil’s Sam Lowry loses his battle, sort of, but he’s kind of an anti-George Bailey: a man who starts out working for the side of evil only to be liberated by his (most likely never-requited) love for a woman he may or may not have actually met, but rather only saw one time on the way to work.

That’s the best-case scenario. In the worst case, he actually wound up getting her arrested and, probably, summarily executed as a suspected terrorist. Oops.

Eventually, he winds up finding refuge in his own fantasia of a world where yes, he did actually matter as he is tortured by people he had thought to be his friends and allies.

All of this is played out against some of the most amazing film design ever, in a world that takes place during the entire 20th century at once, on a Tuesday. In fact, a lot of the aesthetic would have felt totally at home to George Bailey, especially the costumes and technology.

Here’s a really good example of the design and tech of the film:

Anyway, Gilliam’s Brazil is the best version of 1984 ever filmed, period. The movie is also infamous for some useless asshole producer at Universal trying eviscerate it, leading to Gilliam taking out ads in the trades demanding that the studio give his film back.

Luckily, Gilliam won that battle, although we still got to see the version that the hack Sid Sheinberg wanted to release on various Criterion Collections and, yes… it was absolute shite.

Anyway… it’s a nearly perfect film. Go seek it out and watch it, whether it’s Christmas or not.

PS: I’m so sorry that trailers in the 80s sucked ass…

Christmas Countdown, Christmas Is Here!

Day 27

OK Go right to it. One of my favorite bands for oh so many reasons — start your education here — but they combine math and science and music and create amazing videos as well as give back to the community and they are (mostly) L.A. locals and I couldn’t admire them more if I tried. So, with no further ado, here is their way pre-fame Christmas wish for you all on this Christmas Day.

Check out the previous post, or start the countdown to 2020!

Christmas Countdown, Tuesday #4

Tuesdays theme is traditional Christmas Carols performed in non-conventional ways, and for this one I bring you the masters of non-conventional, 2Cellos, Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser, a Slovenian and Croatian cellist duo who met as teens in a master music class. Like so many before them, they learned to do things that their instruments weren’t supposed to do, and they came to prominence with their music video for Thunderstruck, which sets their performance style in a setting more appropriate to the Baroque era before blowing it apart.

The only way I can describe the performance in the video in the previous paragraph, and everything else they’ve ever done, is as super-charged. Sure, I think the staged video may have involved some faking it to pre-recorded tracks, but at the same time, the emotional connection between these two guys when they play together is a constant. It’s almost like they’re having sex in the most non-sexual way. And anyone who has ever played music in a group with other people will understand that.

The connection of music is primal, immediate, in the moment, all-powerful, and it transcends all weaker forms of communication that require words or symbols. Musical communication is pure thought, pure emotion, pure NOW. If you’re not a musician and don’t believe me, go find a drum circle and give it a try, then get back to me.

And, in case you’re wondering — yes, that dynamic between these two guys and their audience is still apparent in a live show, even if they have upgraded to electric cellos.

Note that it seems to be a rule that they play most of their shows with half the horse-hairs on their bows broken from the first moments.

See the previous post, or dive right into Christmas and one of my favorite bands.

Christmas Countdown, Monday #4

Day 25

Feliz lunes, y otra navidad española, esta vez con Natalia Jiménez. She is one of the first singers whose songs I started to learn to sing, both as a solo artist and with her group La Quinta Estación (or La 5ª estación, if we’re doing it properly), and she’s pretty amazing.

In case you’re wondering, my favorites of hers are Creo en mi and El sol no regresa, which also has one of those amazing one-shot videos. Here, she performs the old classic Blanca Navidad, or White Christmas, and this is a pretty amazing example of how to translate the idea of lyrics while keeping the rhythm and not relying on being absolutely literal.

Watch the previous video or see the next.

Christmas Countdown, Sunday #4

Day 24

Welcome to Sunday and our theme: “It’s Not Just Christmas.” In tonight’s installment, we flashback to a very famous Adam Sandler SNL bit that continued to grow — his Chanukah Song, this one performed live in Chicago, back when he was still doing that sort of thing.

And I totally didn’t plan it that this theme would align so that this post comes on the first day of Chanukah, 24 Kislev, 5780 — also known as December 22, 2019. Really, I didn’t!

See the previous post or the next one.

Christmas Countdown, Saturday #4

Day 23

For this weeks “Famous Duets” theme, we have a return of the song Baby It’s Cold Outside, this time as it originally appeared in the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter, and if the date-rapey aspects aren’t obvious in the lyrics, they sure are in the choreography and performances. It’s also interesting to see the entirely different tone taken depending on whether the Wolf is a man or a woman. The man feels that the woman owes it to him. Meanwhile, the implication the other way around is that the man is a fool for refusing the woman’s advances. (Indeed, the male Mouse is the only one to actually walk out the door, but then walk right back in, and is also the only one who winds up on the bottom at the end.)

Regarding the “Famous Duets” involved, some names people may know now and some maybe not, but this clip features Ricardo Montalbán and Esther Williams, and then Betty Garrett and Red Skelton. You might know one of them as the not-Benedict Cumberbatch Khan. Esther and Red were A-listers in their days, while Betty wound up comfortably in character actor territory. At this point, Skelton had a well-established career as a radio star — consider him the equivalent of a YouTube influencer of the era. Everybody knew who he was, even if they weren’t used to seeing him in the medium of film.

Meanwhile, Williams had been recruited from a career as an Olympic swimmer, and then was groomed and trained to be an actress while making a name for herself as a pin-up model — a career path that is still common today.

This was one of Montalbán’s earlier films after establishing himself as a star in Mexican cinema, and it was his second with Williams. Think Gael Garcia Bernal or, to go a bit further back, Antonio Banderas, although he was Spanish, not Mexican.

Finally, Garret had managed to get noticed on Broadway while an understudy gig for Ethel Merman put her on stage for a whole week, and she wound up in Hollywood as a contract player for MGM, which put her in this musical not long after she arrived in town. Eventually, she wound up in television, where she’s probably better known from numerous series, including 70s and 80s biggies like All in the Family, Laverne & Shirley, Murder She Wrote, and The Golden Girls.

Check out the previous post or the next one.

Christmas Countdown, Friday #4

Day 22

This is the last Friday before Christmas, and the fourth and last video on this theme — All I Want for Christmas Is You. It’s only fitting, after all the covers, that we bring it into the station with the diva herself, Mariah Carey. She released it just over 25 years ago, right before Halloween 1994, and it was the lead single from her fourth studio album and first holiday album, Merry Christmas.

She’s also covered her own song several times, including for her second holiday album in 2010, Merry Christmas II You, and again in 2011 as a duet with Justin Bieber for his holiday album Under the Mistletoe. And countless other people have recorded it in the ensuing two and a half decades as well.

Like I originally described it, you can think of the song as “Mariah Carey’s Retirement Plan.” I’ll have another famous artist’s retirement plan song coming up soon although, sadly, they never made it to retirement. And there may be one more surprise in the works when it comes to All I Want for Christmas Is You.

Check out the my favorite cover of this song, the previous post, the next post, or the first post on this theme and in this series.

Christmas Countdown, Thursday #3

Day 21

Thursday’s theme is Funny Christmas, and when you think of funny song parodies, Al Yankovic probably comes to mind. Over the course of at least four decades, he’s consistently turned out amazing takes on major pop songs, with classics like Fat (Michael Jackon’s Bad) and more recent hits like Tacky (Pharrell Williams’ Happy.) He even has an epic setting of the Star Wars saga to Don McLean’s American Pie called The Saga Begins — featuring a rare appearance by a completely clean-shaven Al.

He doesn’t always parody famous song lyrics, though, and his polka mash-ups are a feature of every one of his concerts and albums. And speaking of mash-ups, that brings us to today’s installment, The Night Santa Went Crazy, which incorporates a few songs into a very dark take on the holiday.

Check out the previous post, the next post, or start at the beginning.

Plus there’s a Christmas bonus!

Christmas Countdown, Wednesday #3

Day 20

Wednesday is Famous Bands day. So far, we’ve seen Wham! and Lennon and Ono. Next up, it’s the Boss doing an old classic in his unique style. There’s really not much more intro to give it, except that this was recorded live in concert in 2007.

Check out the previous post, see the next, or start at the beginning.

Christmas Countdown, Tuesday #3

Day 19

Here’s another holiday number from the boys from Out of the Blue Oxford, and while it includes a nod to their earlier cover of All I Want for Christmas Is You, they really camp it up here with an all-male rendition of a song that is traditionally sung by a woman, Santa Baby.

Then again, it’s the 21st century and we’re just over a year away from starting the second decade of that century, so to hell with “tradition,” because that’s a thing that doesn’t exist, just something that is constantly recreated.

See the previous entry, check out the next, or take it from the top.

And this just in: The Boys in (out of?) the Blue just dropped their 2019 Holiday Single. Check it out!