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by Bill Gibron

24 Dec 2009

When Santa sits back in his North Pole office and tallies up the boy and girl balance sheet every year, one wonders what exactly he uses as a means of measurement. It used to be that obeying one’s parents, doing well in school, and avoiding the pitfalls and problems of growing up were the essential benchmarks for a ranking of “good”, while putting a tack on teacher’s chair, pouring ink on Mommy’s rug and filling the sugar bowl with ants warranted a score of “bad” and a mandatory gift of furnace fuel. But now, in a world that excuses almost any behavior as part of the maturation process, it must be impossible to differentiate between disobedient and merely misunderstood.

The same thing applies to seasonal films. For everyone who wants nothing but visions of sugarplums and candy cane wishes, there are people who prefer their seasons greetings more mocking and satiric. Then there are a chosen few who can effortlessly manage between the two ideals, easily enjoying both the joyful and the jaundiced. Therefore, SE&L will separate its list of the best Christmas/holiday films of all time into two categories – naughty and nice. It’s the only way to cover all the jingle bell basics and make sure that everyone’s Yule is as cool as possible. While far from definitive, the undeniable delights of the divergent films featured guarantee no cinematic coal in any film fans stocking.

1. Nice: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Forget all the ridiculous remakes and stick with the sparkling and effervescent original. This terrific take on the commercialization of the season never fails to bring a smile to even the most mean, miserable face. Featuring Edmund Gwenn in a role that would redefine the personification of Santa for decades to come, this masterful little fable about belief and hope is a breathtaking combination of cynical and magical – the perfect combination of Christmas then and now.

2. Naughty: Christmas Evil

Asking the disturbing question of how society would react to someone taking the role of Santa seriously, Lewis Jackson’s amazing motion picture assessment of one man’s descent into Kringle craziness remains a forgotten mistletoed masterpiece. In the lead role, Brandon Maggart spends his days in a toy factory, his nights making lists of the local school children. But when he finally ventures out on Christmas Eve, his moralistic intentions become confused, creating a memorable spree of Yuletide terror.

3. Nice: A Christmas Story

Few remember that Bob Clark’s now traditional cinematic treat was an unfettered flop when it first hit theaters in November of 1983. Apparently, audiences weren’t quite prepared to experience the knowing nostalgia of holidays circa the pre-War era. It took home video, and dozens of showings on Turner stations like TBS, to transform this clever comic take on holidays past into a timeless seasonal celebration. Now, devotees wouldn’t be caught dead missing a single moment of this festive familial farce.

4. Naughty: Black Christmas (1976)

Bob Clark again, this time utilizing the holiday season for his inventive twist on the slasher film. Without the strict cinematic mandates that the genre would require throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Clark created the first subversive slice and dice, providing little explanation for the sorority attacks, and no actual resolution. With a narrative featuring eerie phone calls from a horrifying killer named Billy, this film is a perfect antidote for all the tinsel and treacle.

5. Nice: Scrooge

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has long been considered a Saturnalia standard. But of all the versions of his venerable Victorian allegory, this 1970 musical version starring Albert Finney is the most magical. Using an Oliver-esque approach to its recreation of London (read: grimy and grim) and amplifying the story’s supernatural elements, director Ronald Neame and composer Leslie Bricusse deliver a wonderfully winning effort, truer to the literary classic than any other adaptation out there.

6. Naughty: Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas

Stealing the stop motion animation crown from those loveable TV titans Rankin and Bass, Burton scripted a timeless treasure that suits both Santa and Satan quite well. As poor misguided Jack Skellington, the King of Halloweentown, tries to unravel the secrets of Christmas’ festive feeling of fun, we are treated to a world loaded with artistic marvels and inventive iconography. Perfectly suited for October or December, this is one flight of fancy that grows more and more magical, year after year.

7. Nice: The Polar Express

Some still find this first experiment in CGI rotoscoping to be a little disconcerting – the humans do appear rather stiff and disturbing in their zombie like blankness – but no one can fault Robert Zemeckis’ Christmas Card come to life look for the film. Thanks to the 3D imagery, this movie comes alive with startling seasonal symbols and moments of sheer cinematic bliss. Like most holiday treasures, its thrills are as universal as a smile and as special as the time of year.

8. Naughty: Lucky Stiff

Another forgotten masterwork, this time centering on an overweight lonely heart that’s invited to a Christmas celebration by a red hot honey he meets at a ski resort. Oh course, she and her family are cannibals, cruising the country for fatted ‘calves’ to clean and dress for their own festive flesh feast. Starring voice-over artist Joe Alasky as the blimp, and Donna Dixon as the blonde with an eye for prime man meat, this quirky black comedy delivers nonstop laughs.

9. Nice: It’s a Wonderful Life

Like A Christmas Story, Frank Capra’s look at the fragility of the American dream was more or less ignored by late ‘40s audiences. But once TV took up its cause, and a lapsed copyright allowed unlimited home video releases, the once overlooked gem became a true seasonal standard. Featuring fine turns by Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, what some found almost anti-American 60 years ago is now viewed as the perfect piece of old school Hollywood craftsmanship.

10. Naughty: Bad Santa

Nothing illustrates our post-modern mindset toward the holidays better than this crude family film about a drunk and debaucherous Santa who uses his department store position as a means of casing joints for his annual Xmas eve robberies. Unfortunately, a chubby little gingersnap known only as “The Kid” throws our Kris Kringle crook for a loop. The result is both hilarious and heartwarming, with just enough scatology thrown in to keep the Noel nasty.

by Meghan Lewit

24 Dec 2009

This time of year typically brings us a slew of holiday themed television and lots of list-y goodness celebrating the best in pop culture from the year that was. In an effort to combine these two end-of-year staples, I thought I’d compile my definitive list of the best holiday episodes EVER.

I’m sure I’ve overlooked a few classics. But pointing out the holes is half the fun of the list, right? So, let the countdown begin:

10. The O.C.: “The Best Chrismukkah Ever”
As I am myself the product of a Jewish father and a shiksa mother, I have to give credit to The O.C. for combining the best of Christmas and Hanukkah into one über-holiday. (It’s hard to go wrong when you’ve got both Jesus and Moses on your side.) The episode also features all the hallmarks of classic season one The O.C.: a love triangle, a Newport Beach party, a drunken Marissa Cooper… and a partridge in a pear tree.

9. A Very Brady Christmas (1988)
I admit this one may be a bit of a cheat, since it’s actually a made-for-TV movie. However,  it did launch the short-lived “adult” series The Bradys, and so it makes the list. The family Brady reunites at the old homestead, but holiday cheer is low as all the kids are now dealing with grown-up problems. Greg and his wife can’t agree on where to spend the holidays; Peter is dating his female boss who (horror!) makes more money than him; Jan is having marital problems of her own; Bobby wants to be a racecar driver; Cindy is still tired of being treated like the baby; and former cheerleader Marcia somehow ended up married to an oaf named Wally. Even poor Alice is back with her old employers, having split with Sam the Butcher. But, in true Brady fashion, the family puts their problems aside and pulls together when Mike gets trapped inside a caved-in building. The whole thing is deliciously, unironically campy, but I challenge you not to choke up just a little bit when Mike emerges from the rubble as Carol and the kids sing “O Come All Ye Faithful”.

8. The Simpsons: “Grift of the Magi”
During the past 20 seasons there have been many a holiday-themed Simpsons episode—but only one that features an appearance by a wee, animated Gary Coleman as a toy factory security guard who tries to stop Lisa, Bart and Homer from destroying an evil toy called Funzo.

7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Amends”
Angel—recently returned from a Hell dimension—is haunted by the ghosts of his murderous past. While trying to help him, Buffy encounters the First Evil (who we meet again as the big bad of season 7) and snow falls on Sunnydale after a poignant confrontation between the star (sun?) crossed lovers.

6. Frasier: “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz”
A classic example of the kind of highbrow farce that was Frasier’s stock in trade. In order to not upset the mother of his latest girlfriend, Frasier pretends to be Jewish—meaning he has to frantically scramble to hide the Christmas ham, the tree and his brother Niles (the sublime David Hyde Pierce), who happens to be dressed as Jesus. Frasier and his father also attempt to have an emotional heart-to-heart, with disastrous results. “We never should have tried this, we’re not Jewish!”

5. The West Wing: “Noel”
Season one’s “In Excelisus Deo” is often held up as the gold standard of West Wing holiday epsiodes, but I’m always partial to a Josh Lyman-centric story, so I’m going with season two’s melancholic “Noel.” Still dealing with the fallout of the Rosslyn shooting, Leo calls in a psychiatrist (Adam Arkin) to help Josh come to terms with his post-traumatic stress disorder. The episode’s emotional climax is juxtaposed with a haunting performance by Yo-Yo Ma, and ends with a rather lovely moment in which Leo tells Josh, “as long as I got a job, you got a job.”

4. 30 Rock: “Ludachristmas”
Not wanting to spend the holiday with his irascible mother (hilariously played by Elaine Stritch), Jack attaches himself to Liz’s more wholesome family (including guest stars Buck Henry and Andy Richter, also hilarious). Meanwhile, over in the B plot, Tracy is forced into sobriety by a court-ordered alcohol monitoring device that threatens to put a damper on the annual “Ludachristmas” celebration, and Kenneth’s attempts to impart the true spirit of the holiday season leads to the group attempting to chop down the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

3. Seinfeld: “The Strike”
This episode did more than just create a pop culture buzzword; it invented an entirely new holiday. Frank Costanza introduced the world to Festivus (for the rest of us), a holiday that includes a celebratory aluminum pole, feats of strength and the all-important airing of grievances.

2. Veronica Mars: “An Echolls Family Christmas”
There’s not much comfort and joy in Neptune as Veronica is enlisted to find out who stole Weevil’s winnings in a high stakes poker game at the Echolls’ house. (“Annoy tiny blonde one, annoy like the wind!”) Meanwhile, Veronica’s P.I. dad tries to protect movie star Aaron Echolls (Harry Hamlin) from a stalker. Secrets are revealed and plots become twistier in one of the cleverest episodes of the brilliant teen noir series.

1. The Office (UK): Christmas Special (Parts 1 & 2)
Before Jim and Pam, there was Tim and Dawn. The original BBC mockumentary about office drones at a paper company consisted of 12 perfect episodes of bone-dry British humor and concluded with a two-part Christmas special that gave its characters (and viewers) the happy ending they deserved. Tim and Dawn find love and even buffoonish, ex-boss David Brent finds a measure of redemption in a special that also stands as one of the best series finales of all time.

by Bill Gibron

24 Dec 2009

2009 will be remembered as the year when two famed fictional franchises got that most questionable of big screen makeovers - the infamous re-imagining - and in the case of at least one potentially unknown quantity (J. J. Abrams brave Star Trek update) the verdict was fairly unanimous. While it’s safe to say that Guy Ritchie’s take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective won’t be garnering the same end-of-the-year honors as its interstellar counterpart, it’s just as effective as the aforementioned modernized space opera. Indeed, Sherlock Holmes is just a single casting decision away from being another brilliant update. Instead, it’s just a wonderful, if flawed, entertainment.

The set-up has Holmes (an excellent Robert Downey Jr.) and his assistant Watson (a marvelous Jude Law) at wits end. They have just solved a major multiple murder case involving the sinister Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), and as he is prepared for execution, the pair is planning to split up. Our good doctor is getting engaging to long suffering girlfriend Mary, and Holmes is not happy about it. When a cemetery guard claims that Blackwood has risen from the dead, and when he is indeed spotted around London causing more dark mischief, the boys are back on the case. Complicating things is shrewd American super criminal named Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). Not only has she thwarted Holmes on at least one previous occasion, she stole his heart as well. Now, as Blackwood plans to overthrow the British government, it is up to our dynamic duo to save the day.

The weakest link in Sherlock Holmes was not handing over the directorial reigns to UK Crime Guy Ritchie. He’s actually well suited for putting his stylized spin on such stodgy Victorian fare. As he did with the British gangster film, Ritchie revitalizes the language of film while staying within the strict guidelines of this wannabe mainstream entertainment - and he manages magnificently. Nor was the hiring of American Downey Jr. a bad move. He can handle the accent, and brings enough contemporary swagger to make Holmes relevant again. There is no questioning Law, Strong, or Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade. Each one is excellent, offering ample nuance and panache to their parts. No, what almost sinks this otherwise stellar experience in one Rachel McAdams. Cast as Holmes’ love interest/endearing con artist nemesis, she’s just too off kilter to sit solidly alongside her far more accomplished costars.

While it may not be fair to blame all Sherlock Holmes’ failings on one particular person (after all, she was approved by Ritchie based on Downey’s suggestion), it’s clear that Ms. Adler does not belong in this story - at least, not as realized by Ms. McAdams. The actress suffers from what could best be described as Billy Pilgrim syndrome. She is unstuck in time, coming off as neither turn of the century nor contemporary. Instead, she can’t be placed in a period, which is deadly for a film that relies on evoking a certain era to enliven its ideas. There is also a problem with her profile. As a character, Irene Adler is historically much more worldly wise and capable of matching Holmes one on one. McAdams looks like Downey’s daughter, not his equal.

Every time she shows up, every time the script by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg throws Irene into a scene, Sherlock Holmes struggles to stay fun. Granted, purists may balk at some of the other liberties taken, though this is one of the rare interpretations of the character that gets his internal process down pat. Even elements that people will think out of place (the underground boxing, the weaponry) all have a purpose in showing how Holmes relates to the world (deducing human nature) as well as to his friends (he fights to help Watson with his gambling debts, FYI). The companionship and teamwork we expect from duo is evident in every scene. The chemistry is undeniable. Then Ms. McAdams walks in and the carefully balanced cinematic brew goes substantially awry.

Still, Ritchie does his best to keep things lively. The narrative is just a MacGuffin, a means of getting Holmes and Watson to scour the London streets looking for clues. They run into all kinds of criminal types, always one step ahead of them intellectually, while constantly challenged physically. This is one of the most pro-active interpretations of the character ever. Instead of spending his time in deep thought contemplation, Holmes runs amuck, dishing out his own brand of well-considered justice with a wink and a wry smile. Downey is just delicious in the part, bringing that cool cockiness he showed in Iron Man to the role. But his Holmes is also troubled. This is a man who’s on the brink of losing everything - his best friend, his social position…and maybe even his mind. 

Luckily, Law is around to prop him up. This is one of the best versions of Watson ever, a clever man who uses his reputation (and talents) as a war hero to actually assist instead of simply standing back and whimpering. Many assume that Holmes and his platonic partner are all brain and no brawn. One of the best things about Ritchie’s reinterpretation is that both men are made dimensional. Each one can outwit the standard criminal element. They can also kick ass when need be. Toss in Strong destroying the scenery with his merry Method mastication and you’ve got a jolly good regal romp. McAdams, thought, brings it all down to the realm of the retread whenever she appears - and that’s really too bad.

Hollywood frequently allows a single filmmaking facet - script, star, production situation - to undermine an otherwise promising project. It says a great deal about everything else in Sherlock Holmes that, Rachel McAdams aside, the rest of the movie is magnificent. Will you cringe at seeing the famed detecting duo running through explosions like modern day action heroes? Maybe. Will the last act clash on a half-completed Tower Bridge remind you of dozens of indistinct Tinseltown blockbusters? Sure. Do Downey and Law take risks with characters that are beloved and embraced by millions? Yes. And does Ritchie occasionally indulge in the directorial tricks that have him loved/hated by audiences. Absolutely. Still, even with all these potential problems, Sherlock Holmes is heavenly. It’s just too bad that a single creative decision costs this effort its status as a classic. It is, otherwise.

by Bill Gibron

23 Dec 2009

If the movie musical dies a second death - and it’s not looking too good right about now - Rob Marshall will clearly be one of its assassins. While many enjoyed his interpretation of the Bob Fosse infused work Chicago, the Broadway choreographer turned filmmaker has yet to figure out the difference between stage and screen. This is blatantly obvious with his second stab at song and dance significance - Nine. A loose adaptation of Federico Fellini’s classic film 81/2, the main narrative centers on a famed ‘60s Italian director (Daniel Day-Lewis) who has lost his creative edge. Looking for inspiration, he envisions the women in his life as various muses, each one offering the possibility of redemption - or sometimes, the stunning truth about his arrogance and egomania.

Sounds like a promising premise for a show, especially one set against the more experimental phase of the Great White Way (circa the early ‘80s). Nine, like Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd was attempting the push the boundaries of what was acceptable musical fodder. Without these noble efforts, we wouldn’t have the “anything goes” approach of today. While it was intensely popular, it was not particularly memorable. Few of Maury Yeston’s tunes became standards (“Be Italian” came closest) and audiences enjoyed the acting and celebrity more than the story. So in the vast realm of arena to celluloid translations, Nine would be an incredibly hard sell. And when you consider the number of titles that could have been made into musicals thanks to Marshall’s Oscar winning clout, picking this particular one was foolish - and fatal.

That’s because, no matter how you slice it, Nine is an awful show. What works in the intimacy of a theater comes across as dull, lifeless, and self-indulgent blown up 70 feet high. Marshall has relied on the talents of screenwriters Michael The Player Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella to modify the revue format into something more straightforward, but their efforts keep butting heads against Yeston’s atonal trappings. The nods to Fellini and the filmmaking community of the time are curious, and often entertaining, but just when Marshall has us engaged and interested, the dirge-like drone of “My Husband Makes Movies” steps in and ruins it. The first rule of thumb about adapting musicals to film is that they should be good musicals, and Nine is definitely not that.

Secondly, the story is just too scattershot to truly resonate. Guido Contini’s life is the stuff of standard backstage melodrama. His mother (Sophia Loren) is a saint. A local prostitute (Fergie) introduced him to the ways of sex when he was a kid. He has a devoted wife (Marion Cotillard) who used to be his main star, but she has been replaced by a blond bombshell (Nicole Kidman) onscreen and a ditzy married psycho off (Penelope Cruz). Overseeing his mangled moviemaking empire is a longtime costume designer and collaborator (Judi Dench) who acts as confessor, sage, and realist. Still, this doesn’t keep Guido’s eye from wandering, as when an American reporter (Kate Hudson) tries to seduce him. Now instead of the material making each one of these conflicts soar, Nine uses the format as singular showcases. Each character gets a signature tune, makes their proposed splash, and then basically disappears from the narrative.

This allows for more interaction between Guido and himself, and this is Nine‘s most telling misstep. In order to enjoy such indulgence, we have to sympathize with such a lout. We have to appreciate his trials and tribulations, be won over by his wry, subversive smile, and acknowledge that, while flawed, he is still a fine man. Nine lacks all of these elements, even with actor supreme Day-Lewis giving it his best unshaven auteur shot. While far more Godard than Fellini in appearance, the intense performer just can’t turn Guido into a loveable cad. He gets the song and dance moves down fairly well, and his voice is pleasant. But we have to cheer for our lead, not merely tolerate him. Marshall, on the other hand, treats him like a throwaway, a necessary element to get us to each of his ladies’ spot in the limelight.

It would be nice to say that these lofty women elevate Nine into something watchable. Sadly, only Ms. Cotillard gives anything remotely resembling a three dimensional performance. Dame Dench is like a crotchety old Supreme Being lording over things with a wisdom born straight out of a script, not life experience while Ms. Cruz seems capable of little except flashing her ass and babbling like a baby. Some in the cast aren’t even this lucky. Ms. Lady Lumps gets the showstopper, but then Marshall stages it like some manner of Beach Blanket Bordello. She’s a cipher, as is the equally empty Kidman. And though it is not meant to be disrespectful, Sophia Loren needs to go back to the plastic surgeons that turned her into a Madame Tussaud’s version of herself and get all those Lira she paid back.

Of course, if Marshall had been truly inspired to do something radical or different with this show, we’d forgive Nine‘s frequent foibles. Instead, he puts all the musical numbers on a mock-up of Guido’s next project, a studio-bound look at Italy nested safely inside Rome’s famed Cinecitta. This locks him down to one way of presenting the songs. Instead of opening up the material to play around the city that symbolizes much of what Nine stands for, he keeps everything trapped between scaffolds and electrical cables, more or less turning a movie musical into a stage version all over again. Such a conceit may have worked for Chicago, but as recent revamps like Hairspray and Mamma Mia! have shown, taking things beyond the norm can be surprisingly effective.

Sadly, Nine is not. In fact, it’s downright irritating. As the bombast tries to blow you out of the seat, as the various riffs on better, more meaningful films fly by, as Day-Lewis and his costars try to enliven what is already a zombified set list, we care less and less about what is going on. By the end, when Guido is in full blown epiphany mode, our desire to stick with his selfishness dwindles. Then Marshall mandates a curtain callback for all involved. All we can do is pray for a major set disaster. The movie musical can still be a splendid bit of escapism. With Nine, the only thing you’ll want to flee is the movie theater itself.

by Jason Gross

23 Dec 2009

Greg Sandoval provides great analysis of Net and music issues for CNET and has done another service to anyone interested in these topics with his recent column, A year out, where’s RIAA’s promised ISP help?.  The answer to the question is ‘nowhere to be found.’  Turns out that it was just hokum, A.K.A. a publicity stunt on the part of the RIAA to continue to put the fear of god into the hearts of unauthorized downloaders (who, according to Big Champagne, aren’t really being deterred).

What seems even more interesting is a little tidbit hidden in the middle of the article about why the RIAA stopped pursuing new lawsuits (as opposed to the old ones they’re still pursuing).

“The reason that some at the labels wanted an end to the litigation is that for years it brought down mountains of public scorn. The lawsuits were also expensive and RIAA’s members wanted costs slashed, which happened earlier this year.”

Sandoval also reveals that yet another reason is that the RIAA was trying to get other Net providers to play ball in their imaginary scheme, to have downloaders’ account cut off eventually (a three strikes law).

Sorry to burst the bubble of anyone who thought that the RIAA was being good-hearted and offering a peace offering on this.  Hopefully, as labels have to keep cutting expenses, their payments to RIAA will dwindle down to nothing.  Or at least the RIAA can get back to one of the few things that they were good at- giving out gold and platinum awards (though nowadays, there’s less and less of those to hand out).

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