Friday, December 24, 2010

RigbyMel's Specials Without Which The Holidays Are Incomplete

Everyone has their holiday traditions and everyone has opinions on things that can make or break their holiday season.

Being the tv and film geek that I am, I have several holiday specials that, if missed, would make my Christmas feel rather incomplete.

Herewith, a list (not in any order other than the order in which they occurred to me):

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer

The 1964 classic stop-motion special. Unparalelled cuteness. Great songs. Fun additional characters like the Misfit Toys, Yukon Cornelius, Hermey the Elf who wants to be a dentist and the Bumble Snowmonster. Plus, Rudolph overcomes his misfit status and saves Christmas. What could be better?

A Charlie Brown Christmas

This special first aired in 1965 and has become a holiday staple. Featuring the beloved Peanuts characters created by Charles Schultz. Really manages to get at what Christmas is all about in the face of the over-commercialization of the holiday. Plus it has real children voicing the Peanuts gang (as opposed to grown up voiceover actors pretending to be children) and the best Christmas jazz soundtrack ever thanks to Vince Guaraldi.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas!

The 1966 television special based directed by Chuck Jones, narrated by Boris Karloff, based on the book of the same title by Dr. Seuss. Moreover it has Thurl Ravenscroft and another brilliant message about the holidays. "Christmas there will always be, just as long as we have we ... "
Accept no bad Jim Carrey film adaptation substitutes!

Christmas Eve On Sesame Street

First broadcast on PBS in 1978, this sweet little special is well worth checking out. The song "Keep Christmas With You All Through The Year" has a tendency to make me cry (in a good way).

"Keep Christmas with you
All through the year,
When Christmas is over,
Save some Christmas cheer.
These precious moments,
Hold them very dear
And keep Christmas with you
All through the year. "

And here is another Jim Henson special which I don't think quite as many people are familiar with:

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas

Based upon a charming 1971 children's book by Russell and Lillian Hoban (which I also love), this is a 1977 adaptation by Jim Henson and company. It is a kinder, gentler version of O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi".

The story centers on Emmet Otter and his widowed Ma, Alice Otter. They manage to scrape by doing laundry and odd jobs for others in Frogtown Hollow. As Christmas approaches, they hear of a talent contest taking place in a nearby village and Ma and Emmet each decide to enter in order to get Christmas presents for each other. Ma wants to buy a nice guitar for Emmet, and Emmet wants to get a piano for Ma. However, they must sacrifice each other's livelihood for the talent contest -- Ma hocks Emmet's tools for dress fabric, while Emmet turns Ma's washtub into a washtub bass for a jug band. All turns out well in the end though.

This special features a beautiful variety of puppet work (Henson and company were trying out techniques for The Muppet Movie) and wonderful songs by Paul Williams. A secular special made with great care, love and respect for its audience. If you've not seen this, I highly recommend checking it out.

For more info check out the Muppet Wiki entry on the special: Muppet Wiki Emmet entry.

So those are my "can't miss" Christmas specials. What (if any) specials do you find it necessary to watch every year?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer

'Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer'

Released October 31, 2000

Every Christmas, I learn there are two kinds of people:
Those who like Elmo & Patsy’s ‘Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer’, and those that thinks it’s musical torture.
I’m a big fan of Christmas “novelty” songs, so I like it. I wouldn’t call it one of my favorites, but I remember hearing it for the first time in 1982. During the ‘83 Holiday season, the song became a Christmas hit, a staple of the Doctor Demento Show playlists and MTV put a video for the song in heavy rotation.

The story takes place in the town of Cityville, where we meet the main character, Jake Spankenheimer. Jake loves Christmas and everything that comes with it, and so does his Grandma, which creates a special bond between the two. The rest of their family doesn’t care much about celebrating Christmas. Jake’s sister Daphne tells Jake that there’s no such thing as Santa Claus, he asks his parents who say Daphne is correct. Jake’s faith in Santa is shaken.

Jake helps out at Grandma’s general store, the only family owned business left in town. At Christmas, the store sells lots of Grandma’s homemade fruit cakes. All other stores are owned by Austin Bucks, Cityville’s business tycoon, and he wants to buy Grandma’s store too. She refuses to sell to him, despite the efforts of money grubbing Cousin Mel, who also works at the store. Mel concocts a scheme: she will poison Grandma’s famous fruitcakes, hoping they will taste terrible, thus bankrupting the store, forcing Grandma to sell to Austin.

On Christmas Eve, the Spankenheimers are hosting a family gathering, when Grandma realizes she forgot her medication and walks home to get it, taking some of her fruit cake with her. While walking home, Santa flies by in his sleigh and his reindeer act distracted and accidentally run over Grandma. Her family notices her absence and looks for her. There’s no sign of Grandma, they find her shoes & fruitcake in the snow. Jake is convinced she was hit by a reindeer. Mel finds a note near the scene and grabs it, telling no one.

A year passes, with still no sign of Grandma. Jake is sad about this, Mel convinces Grandpa Spankenheimer (Grandma’s heir) to give her power of attorney. Grandpa appears to have dementia, so he’s easily manipulated by Mel, so she gets him to sell the store to Austin. Jake protests, saying Grandma might come back and wouldn’t agree to sell. Austin says he’ll give her another week to return.

It turns out Grandma was taken to the North Pole by Santa so he could make sure she received medical attention. She is suffering from amnesia, so Santa doesn’t know where to take her. Jake e-mails Santa, his message is read by Quincy, the chief elf. They figure out Grandma is the amnesiac woman, Santa returns her to Cityville. She is happily greeted by Jake & the rest of her family, the end. Or, it should have been the end, anyway.

At this point of the show, I noticed there was still 22 minutes left in the show’s running time, I wondered what else needed to happen.

Mel and her lawyer I.M. Slime frame Santa for kidnapping Grandma, he is charged with leaving the scene of an accident and “Sleighicular Negligence” (the best “joke” of the special). Mel and Slime also sue Santa for everything he has, thus threatening the existence of Christmas as we know it. Meanwhile, Mel and Slime have kidnapped the still-amnesiac Grandma and hidden her in remote cabin in the forest.
Spoilers follow.
With the help of Quincy the elf, Jake locates Grandma, and finds the note left at the scene of the reindeer accident. Turns out to be a note left by Santa, explaining that he ran over Grandma by accident because the reindeer smelled the fruit cake she was carrying; it seems Mel added “reindeer nip” to the recipe. Grandma’s memory is restored when Jake gives her a piece of her famous fruit cake, she reads the note and rushes to court, where Santa is about to be found guilty. Mel is revealed as the cause of all the troubles, Santa is acquitted; Grandma’s general store is saved, as is Christmas itself.

Austin Bucks has changed his tune, he will not try to buy the store, but wants to start a national franchise of Grandma’s stores, making her and Jake’s family very wealthy.
J. A. Morris says:
Like I said, this special should have ended with Grandma’s return to Cityville. The relationship between Jake and Grandma (and their mutual love of Christmas & the Holiday season) in the first part is touching. Mel could have received her comeuppance at that point.  In the tradition of earlier classic specials, Mel could have even been reformed. And that would’ve probably been enough to get a positive review. But it drags on for practically another half hour after that.
My appreciation of the title song made me want to like this, but I can’t.
My rating:

Two Candy canes

Happy Xmas (War Is Over)

Bet you thought I forgot about my Beatles-related Christmas song series, didn't you? Well I didn't.

Today's installment is going to feature and assortment of goodies (since the holindaze got a bit busy and I am behind).

First, an obvious one "Happy Christmas (War Is Over" by John Lennon and Yoko Ono

The song was released as a single by John and Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band in 1971. It peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at #2 on the UK charts.

The lyric is based on a campaign in late 1969 by Lennon and Ono, who rented billboards and posters in eleven cities around the world that read: "WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It) Happy Christmas from John and Yoko". The cities included New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Rome, Athens, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Helsinki. At the time of the song's release, the US was deeply entrenched in the unpopular Vietnam War. The line "War is over, if you want it, war is over, now!", as sung by the background vocals, was taken directly from the billboards.

The childrens choir in the background consisted of kids from the Harlem Community Choir and they are credited on the single.

This song has (rightly) become a holiday standard and has been covered by everyone from Celine Dion and Sarah McLachlan to Maroon 5, 'N Sync and Andy Williams (!) We even heard it as part of one of the Christmas shows at Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Christmas Town this year. That being said, it always bothers me a bit when people cover the song and leave the "War Is Over" portion of the lyrics out and replace them either with "ahhs" or instrumentals. Especially in times (as now) when the U.S. is engaged in 2 wars overseas. Still this is probably the best of the Beatles' solo Christmas songs and I am glad that others recognize that (even if they try to de-politicize it). I stand before you an unabashed peace-nik and think the song is better with its message intact.

On a much lighter note, here are 2 audio rarities. They feature tracks by Paul McCartney that only appeared as snippets on the Beatles Fan Club Christmas Records. They were originally released as flexi discs to members of the Beatles' UK fan club. Each year from 1963 to 1969, the Beatles had recorded a short Christmas message for their fans, composed of carols, skits, jokes, and thanks to the loyal "Beatle People".

Herewith, McCartney's contribution to the 1968 edition in its entirety:

It's basically an improvisation with guitar and for all that it is pretty catchy. Certainly not deep or anything or on a level with Lennon's 1971 Happy Xmas release but fun.

And here is McCartney's contribution to the 1969 edition (also the last Beatles Christmas Record made):

This is even MORE slight and improvisatory, but Paul's melodic talents make it worthwhile, I think.

More later this week ... !

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

It's Not Christmas Without...David Letterman's Christmas Episode!

There are a few Holiday movies, specials, episodes, etc, that RigbyMel and I simply must watch every year.
One of our favorite ongoing TV Christmas traditions is the annual Christmas episode of The Late Show With David Letterman.

One recurring Holiday bit is band leader Paul Shaffer’s hilarious impersonation of Cher singing "O Holy Night," which he began performing in 1983 on Letterman’s old NBC show.  For many years, I had only heard the Shaffer version.  But a clip of the song from The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour recently showed up on dvd and youtube.  It originally aired on December 19, 1973, the special guest that week was actor William Conrad, who sings "The First Noel" in the same scene (and don't miss Terri Garr in this scene, she was a regular back-up singer & dancer on Sonny And Cher). 

I always enjoyed Cher's work in comedy sketches with Sonny, but this is not her finest moment.  Here it is, if you find the “Holiday medley” unbearable, go to the 3:55 mark in the video to hear "O Holy Night":

And here’s Shaffer imitating Cher singing "O Holy Night," from 1998:

Another Letterman show tradition is Darlene Love’s performance of her classic song "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)". The song was first released in 1963, Letterman calls it his favorite Christmas song of the Rock Era, and it’s one of my favorites as well.

Love began performing the song on Late Night  in 1986 and in recent year's she's become a permanent fixture on Letterman's last show before Christmas.  Here’s Love's 2008 Late Show appearance:

Darlene Love returns to ‘The Late Show’ on Thursday, December 23, don’t miss it!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Two Rarely Seen 'Simpsons' Christmas short toons

As I mentioned in an earlier review, ‘The Simpsons’ has given us quite a few Christmas-related episodes over the past 20 years. Our review of last night’s episode is forthcoming, but I’ve recently discovered two ‘Simpsons’ Christmas rarities.

The first clip comes from a 1988 episode of ‘Tracy Ullman Show’, where the Simpsons got their start in short interstitial cartoons. Thanks to Joanna @ the Christmas TV Companion blog for finding this one!

The second clip is simply titled ‘The Simpsons Christmas Message’. This aired in the UK back in 2004. Gotta love the “British-centric” jokes and Homer’s Father Christmas suit.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Eight Crazy Nights

Eight Crazy Nights
Originally released November 27, 2002
Directed by Seth Kearsley
And now we have our first Hanukkah review.
In the town of Dukesberry, New Hampshire, local drunk Davey Stone (Adam Sandler), described by the narrator as a “33 year-old crazy Jewish guy", leaves a restaurant without paying his tab, goes on a drunken rampage and ends up in a high-speed chase that results in the destruction of Dukesberry’s Christmas and Hanukkah displays. Davey is about to be sent to prison when his old basketball coach Whitey Duvall(also voiced by Sandler) comes forward and begs the judge to give Davey one more chance and sentence him to community service. The judge agrees and Davey becomes Whitey’s assistant youth basketball coach.
Later, Davey’s trailer burns down, so he’s forced to move in with Whitey and his sister Eleanore (voiced by, you guessed it, Sandler).
Davey spends most of the rest of the movie belittling and abusing Whitey & Eleanore…blah blah blah…(SPOILER ALERT!) he gets redeemed at the end, reforms himself and lives happily ever after with his childhood sweetheart Jennifer Friedman. That’s all that needs to be said about it.
JA Morris says:
Let me begin by saying Adam Sandler's ‘The Hanukkah Song’ is one of my favorite “modern” Holiday songs. I’ve bought two versions of the song and played it at every office Holiday party I’ve organized. I even have a “karaoke” version of the song. So I was excited when I first heard that an animated feature length movie was being made based on the song. I also don’t mind “gross-out” humor when it’s done right.
This was not only one of the worst holiday-themed movies I’ve ever seen, it’s one of the worst I’ve ever seen full stop. The movie opens with Davey committing multiple felonies. After he avoids prison time and gets a second chance, he makes fun of an obese child, knocks down a port-a-john while an old man is inside (yes, he winds up covered in excrement, which is eaten off him by some reindeer) and breaks into a mall before he has a moment of clarity, admits he's an alcoholic and shows he’s really not so bad after all. Actually, Davey IS bad, the filmmakers just want us to think he’s not so bad. But Davey is one of the most unsympathetic “protagonists” you’ll ever see in a movie.
In the middle of the story, we learn that Davey is such a repulsive human being because his parents died in a car accident when he was a kid, which led to his drinking problem and life of crime. But by this time in the story, Davey has been presented as irredeemably bad, so giving him dead parents doesn’t build any sympathy for him.
Lots of Holiday films & specials end with a villain coming to their senses, seeing the error of their ways and reforming (The Grinch and The Bumble from ‘Rudolph’ being obvious examples). I believe in rehabilitation, but Davey Stone is a walking obscenity, utterly without redeeming social value, his “change of heart” can’t be taken seriously. He doesn’t deserve a “happy ending” with Jennifer, he should have gone to prison.
‘Eight Crazy Nights’ also has some of the most annoying usage of Product Placements I’ve ever seen. Corporate logos in the backgrounds (in some cases the foregrounds too!) of just about every scene. During one of the musical numbers, logos even come to life and sing!
Speaking of musical numbers, there are several forgettable new songs in this film, sung by the likes of Allison Krauss and Ann Wilson (singer for the band Heart), who deserve better material. 'The Hanukkah Song' does not show up at all during the movie, only plays over the closing credits.
Avoid this at all costs. Listen to ‘The Hanukkah Song’ again instead of watching this.
We have our first ever lump of coal.

RigbyMel says:This movie is a steaming pile of reindeer poop! ‘Nuff said.