Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year, Charlie Brown

Premiered January 1, 1986

Charlie Brown (Chad Allen) and Linus (Jeremy Miller) are looking forward to Christmas vacation, but they're disappointed when their teacher assigns them to read War And Peace by Leo Tolstoy over the break, and write a book report about it. Charlie Brown feels that his vacation is ruined.

Peppermint Patty (Kristie Baker) invites Chuck to a New Year's Party and tells him it's a "boy invites girl" party. She says this is his chance to invite "the girl of your dreams," meaning herself. Charlie Brown tells her he can't do anything over vacation until he reads the book. Lucy (Melissa Guzzi) and Sally (Elizabeth Lyn Fraser) are also invited. Lucy enrolls them all in a dance class to prepare for the party. Charlie Brown also declines this, but he shows up to the dance studio, reading War And Peace on the side.

Charlie Brown eventually decides to attend the party, and invites Heather, better known as "that little red-haired girl" to the party, much to Peppermint Patty's disappointment. He slips an invitation through Heather's mail slot, getting his hand stuck in the process.

On the night of December 30, Heather still hasn't responded to Charlie Brown's invitation, which makes him sad. And he still hasn't finished War And Peace.
New Year's Eve arrives and Charlie Brown attends Peppermint Patty's party. He brings his book along and sneaks out to the front porch to read it. Charlie Brown waits there, hoping Heather will show up.

Will Charlie Brown finish his book review of War And Peace before the end of Christmas break? Will Heather show up to the party? Will Lucy get "dog germs" from Snoopy at the party? You'll have to watch and see!

J.A. Morris says:

I'll say upfront that I'm a huge fan of Peanuts. I own books of the comic strips and DVDs of most Charlie Brown specials. But I hadn't seen nor heard of Happy New Year, Charlie Brown until 3 years ago. It's a good special, if not quite as good as the classic Peanuts specials of the 60s and 70s. Charlie Brown simply wants to enjoy himself on vacation and at the party, but things that are (mostly) beyond his control keep getting in the way. But we do get two rare scenes where Chuck gets to actually smile and seems to have a good time. And much of the story feels like it was taken straight from the comic strips.

Hardcore fans of Snoopy may be a bit disappointed, since he doesn't have a big role here. But we do get a classic confrontation between him and Lucy (spoiler alert:Snoopy gets the best of her). The voice actors do a pretty good job too.

I have two problems with this special: It's unlikely that a teacher would assign War And Peace to be read and reviewed over Christmas vacation. And I'm also not sure what age group Chuck and friends are supposed to be in this special. Elementary school? Middle school? How many kids of those age groups are assigned to read Tolstoy?

Beyond that, it's a fun special. There aren't many New Year specials, but this has become one I've watched every year since I learned about it.

My rating:

3 champagne flutes

RigbyMel says:

Like J.A. Morris, this special was new to me until three years ago. It's quite a cute special, but I am mildly disappointed that Snoopy and Woodstock didn't have more to do in it.

Still, it's fun to see the Peanuts gang learning the foxtrot during the dance lesson scene and playing musical chairs at the New Year's Eve party. (Musical chairs seems much more of an age-appropriate activity than reading War and Peace over Christmas vacation for the Peanuts kids.) I find it interesting that Linus is in the same class as Charlie Brown yet he doesn't seem concerned about the hefty reading assignment at all (in fact, Linus seems to know a lot about Tolstoy and his wife already). Maybe he's a fast reader or has already read the book?

There are a lot of fun little side bits that feel episodic in a comic strip like fashion, my favorite is a sequence where Linus, Lucy and their little brother Rerun are blowing up balloons for the party. Rerun's balloons turn out in a very unique fashion.

As J.A. Morris says, this is an enjoyable special but not quite in the same league as many of the earlier Peanuts specials. That being said, it is good fun and well worth adding to one's regular holiday viewing!

RigbyMel's rating:

3 champagne flutes (or should they be sparkling cider flutes since the Peanuts kids are underage?)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Days: "Guess Who's Coming To Christmas"

First aired December 17, 1974

We open with Howard Cunningham (Tom Bosley) telling Richie (Ron Howard) and Joanie (Erin Moran) that they will celebrate Christmas Eve together with only family members invited. They ask if it’s okay to have a friend or two over, Howard says no.
The Cunninghams are putting up Christmas decorations, including a (creepy looking) robotic Santa in their front yard. The Santabot isn’t working properly and keeps hitting Richie in the head, they’re upset that the Santabot won’t be working on Christmas Eve.
Richie's older brother Chuck (Randolph Roberts) has returned home for Christmas. Chuck is trying to put lights on the tree, but like the Santabot, the lights aren't working.
Richie meets up with Ralph & Potsie (Donny Most and Anson Williams, respectively) at Arnolds. Fonzie (Henry Winkler) shows up with gifts for everyone. Potsie has nothing to give the Fonze, but invites him to spend Christmas Eve with his family. Fonzie declines and says he's spending Christmas with his cousin in Waukesha. He tells of all the presents and elaborate dinner plans await him in Waukesha. Richie & the gang are a little skeptical about Fonzie's Holiday plans.
At Howard’s hardware store, the company Christmas party is ending, so he and Richie close up and plan to drive home. But their car breaks down, so Richie calls Fonzie to ask if he can fix it. Fonzie tows the car to his garage and repairs it, delaying his “bus” to Waukesha, so Howard offers him a ride as payment for the repair. He declines and says goodnight to the Cunninghams.  As they're about to leave, Richie realizes he forgot to give Fonzie his Christmas present. He opens the door sees and Fonzie opening a can of food; it’s obvious he’s not going anywhere and will be spending Christmas alone.  Fonzie doesn’t notice Richie, so he walks back to the car, not wanting to hurt Fonzie's pride.
Howard and Richie return home to trim their tree with their family. Marion (Marion Ross) has popped popcorn for stringing. Unfortunately the lights aren’t working. Chuck tries to fix the lights again, they still don't work, but everyone is satisfied with the tree. Richie is feeling bad for Fonzie, so he and Howard go visit him to give him the present. Richie also wants to ask Fonzie to join the Cunningham family Holiday celebration. Can they convince Fonzie to spend Christmas with them, or will his own pride and stubbornness force him to spend Christmas alone?
J.A. Morris says:
When I was kid growing up in the 70s, I was a big fan of Happy days, but I've found the series hasn't aged well since then.  But "Guess Who's Coming To Christmas" is a very good Christmas episode. It shows that spending Christmas alone is a painful prospect for anyone, including people as cool as Fonzie.  And I can relate to Richie and Howard here, sometimes it's difficult to offer help to a friend or family member without offending them.
One thing that makes this an interesting episode is Fonzie's voice. Henry Winkler hadn't perfected it yet, so his voice is a bit higher-pitched than the one we knew and loved.
Fans of TV trivia will be interested to know this was the last appearance of Chuck Cunningham on Happy Days. The character was never mentioned again and eventually written out of existence. Because of this, there's a TV Trope known as Chuck Cunningham Syndrome.
This episode can be found on the "Happy Days-The Complete Second Season" dvd set, and also streams on Hulu.
My rating:

3 Candy Canes

Friday, December 23, 2011

A follow-up about "I Wish It Was Christmas Today"

A week or two ago, I posted a brief history of the song "I Wish It Was Christmas Today" from Saturday Night Live. Near the end of the piece, I wrote this:

"But we may get another performance on SNL. This week's (December 17,2011) host will be none other than Jimmy Fallon. Will we get cameos by Sanz, Morgan and Kattan? Will "the band" back together for one more Christmas performance? I certainly hope so!"

Well, maybe Jimmy Fallon reads this blog (just kidding), because we got a brand new performance of the song and a reunion of the "band"! Here's the 2011 edition of "I Wish It Was Christmas Today":

So perhaps there's still hope that one day, we'll turn on an All-Christmas radio station and hear this song right after Bing Crosby and Mariah Carey!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Harry And The Potters At The Yule Ball 2008

Recorded December 21, 2008, released December 2009.

Harry and The Potters are the world's first "Wizard Rock" band, made up of two brothers, Joe (vocals,keyboard, tenor saxophone, glockenspiel and theremin) and Paul DeGeorge (vocals, guitar, baritone saxophone and melodica). They formed in 2002 and have been playing songs about Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger, Voldemort and co. ever since. On stage, Joe and Paul both perform as "Harry Potter," with older brother Paul playing an older version of Harry and younger brother Joe as a younger incarnation of the boy wizard. The Potters have used their concerts as a way to promote literacy and often perform at libraries or book stores. Every year around the Holidays, they've played Yule Balls, inspired by the event featured in the book (and film) Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire.

At The Yule Ball 2008 captures the Potters' performance from the 4th annual Yule Ball held at the Middle East club in Cambridge, MA. They come on stage in Santa hats and open up with "We Wish You A Merry Christmas", then segue into their original song "Yule Ball." In addition to their usual repertoire of songs about all things Potter ("Save Ginny Weasley", "Dumbledore", "I'm A Wizard"), the Potters also perform several original Christmas songs including "Xmas Rulez, Voldmort Droolz," "Christmas Shopping for Dobby," "Xmas at Hogwarts" and a (mostly-spoken word) story-song called "How Hagrid Saved Christmas." During the encore, they lead the audience in a singalong of classic seasonal songs like Rudolph and Frosty.

The Brothers DeGeorge are backed by Brad Mehlenbacher on drums, and several fans are invited on stage to play clarinet, flute and saxophone. "Santa Claus" himself shows up to play lead guitar on a few songs.

J.A. Morris says:
I was fortunate enough to attend a Yule Ball in Washington, DC this past December. It was one of the most enjoyable concerts I've been to in a long time! The De Georges are great entertainers who obviously love what they do on stage. They took turns singing lead and usually harmonized nicely on the choruses. They also acted as MCs of the Ball, introducing other Wizard Rock bands. If you're a fan of Harry Potter books and movies, I strongly recommend you get to a Yule Ball next year. You will not be disappointed.

At The Yule Ball
can't compare to attending a Yule Ball in person, but it's the next best thing. It's a fun concert movie, we watched it while we put up Christmas decorations in our living room. I mentioned that Mr. Claus himself shows up to play lead guitar on a few songs. Watching "Santa" shred is always cool. I especially liked the original Christmas songs the Potters performed here. Christmas plays an important role in the Harry Potter series, these songs feel very true to both the spirit of the Holidays and J.K. Rowling's stories.

When I rate films & movies here, I don't usually add caveats, but:
At The Yule Ball is only available for purchase at the official store of Harry And The Potters and is not available via Netflix, Hulu, etc. So it's not as easy to watch as most of what we review here. If you're unfamiliar with their music, you can sample some of it here.

Having said that, it's highly recommended if you're a fan of Harry Potter, Christmas or both!

My rating:

4 candy canes.

RigbyMel says:

I agree with J.A. Morris generally about Harry and the Potters and about the At The Yule Ball DVD in particular. I really like the homemade with love ethos and positive energy that is evident in the Potters' perfomances. J.K. Rowling should be pleased to have people riffing on her work like this! Highly recommended! I also recommend checking out a Yule Ball live and in person for yourself if you can manage it - our trip to the 2011 Yule Ball in D.C. was tons of fun!

RigbyMel's rating:

4 candy canes

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2011 Yule Ball Poster ItalicBold Italic

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Glee: "Extraordinary Merry Christmas"

Aired December 13, 2011

In this episode the members of the New Direction glee club are celebrating the holidays just after Sectionals are over. The show opens with Mercedes (Amber Riley) singing "All I Want For Christmas Is You" with the other members of the club joining in.

Mercedes singing "All I Want For Christmas Is You"
After the opening number, we learn that Finn (Cory Monteith) is having trouble finding a Christmas present for Rachel (Lea Michelle). Rachel gives him an expensive and long list full of "bling" and tells Finn he can just get her five things off of it. Finn is hit with the realization that, “Holy crap, I'm dating Kim Kardashian.”

Finn and Rachel sharing a Christmas moment by the lockers

We cut to a scene where Coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) is talking to Kurt (Chris Colfer), Artie (Kevin McHale) and Blaine (Darren Criss) in her office. Sue is being uncharacteristically magnanimous, saying she forgives the New Directions for past misunderstandings (mostly of her own creation) and wants them to sing at a homeless shelter. Sue has been looking for ways to keep busy since her sister died and says that her plans to shoot reindeer with Sarah Palin fell through.

Irish exchange student Rory (Damian McGinty) will be spending Christmas away from his family for the first time. He sings "Blue Christmas" as a tribute to them. Sam (Chord Overstreet), who is also away from his family, is sympathetic and offers to be Rory's Christmas sponsor and show him how Americans celebrate the holiday.

Meanwhile, glee club sponsor teacher, Will Schuster (Matthew Morrison) has an exciting proposition for the group - their very own television Christmas special with Artie as director. (The local tv affiliate has lost the rights to the "Christmas Yule Log" video and needs to fill time.) Artie agrees to direct as long as he can film in black and white and include a Star Wars tie-in - which was inspired by the Force (apparently) infiltrating Artie's dreams. We get a great cameo from Chewbacca when the scene shows us what was going on in Artie's head.

Chewbacca and the cast of Glee - what a Wookiee!

Unfortunately, the planned tv special is scheduled for the same time as the planned visit to the homeless shelter, but everyone is so excited about being on television that they don't think it through.

Artie auditions people's song ideas for the special including Rachel covering Joni Mitchell's "River." He deems it too depressing. Rachel counters that "Joni Mitchell isn't depressing, she's emotional!" but Artie is unmoved. His vision for the show sounds like a corny old school Christmas special with Kurt and Blaine receiving guests at their "ski chalet" and random friends dropping by to perform various musical numbers. We see lots of these in the show including Kurt and Blaine's rendition of "Let It Snow", Britney and the Cheerios doing a cover of the Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping" and Rachel and Mercedes duetting on "My Favorite Things."

As per usual, we get to see disagreements between members of the Glee club in this episode. Will Finn find the right present for Rachel? Will the Glee club help bring Christmas cheer to the homeless or will dreams of local tv stardom get in the way? "Yule" (haha) have to watch this episode of Glee and see for yourself!

Haul out the holly (and tinsel) ...

RigbyMel says:

This is the second Christmas episode for Glee and it is ... ok. Not great, but ok. I enjoyed the fun references to old-style Christmas variety specials of yore, right down to the deliberately goofy overacting and stilted segues into songs - it kind of reminded me of a less funny Colbert Christmas. The songs were mostly well-chosen (with one exception that I'll get to momentarily). I find it irritating that the producers of the show choose to use and abuse auto-tune on EVERY SONG especially on people like Amber Riley and Lea Michelle who have fine singing voices and DON'T need to be electronically tweaked onto the right pitch - this is a general complaint I have about the series.

I also don't like the fact that we have yet another instance of women being portrayed as crazy or greedy on the show in the subplot about Rachel wanting "bling" from Finn for the holidays. (SPOILER ALERT: Rachel eventually sees the error of her ways in this ep. However, I have doubts that the lesson learned will carry forward much in future episodes of the show.)

Which brings me to another lesson we're supposed to take away from the show - yes, being kind to people and thinking of others at the holidays is a GREAT message to be putting out there and it cannot be repeated often enough. BUT the use of the ultimate "white-guilt" song "Do They Know It's Christmas?" is condescending at best, and perhaps a bit insulting at worst. I have never been a fan of this song whether in a Bob Geldof, Glee or any other context and I find the song's treatment of the subject - hunger/homelessness - to be smug and heavy-handed. ("Thank God it's them instead of you" - REALLY?)

Complaints aside though, if you are a fan of Glee and/or Christmas there are definitely things to enjoy in this episode - I cannot call it a "classic" though.

My rating:
Two and a half candy canes

J.A. Morris says:

We're in general agreement on "Extraordinary Merry Christmas," including our feelings about "Do They Know It's Christmas." A decent episode, but not one I see myself watching annually. I thought Amber Riley did a better job at hitting the high notes than Mariah Carey does on "All I Want For Christmas Is You." The episode features an original song called "Extraordinary Merry Christmas," which is okay, but won't make you forget "White Christmas" or "Rudolph."

I also appreciated the episode's references to A Charlie Brown Christmas (such as Rory's reading at the end) and The Star Wars Holiday Special .

In last year's Christmas episode (which we have yet to review), we learned that Britney (Heather Morris) still believed in Santa Claus. It would've been nice to know if she still believes, but the writers seem to have forgotten about that plot line (as they often do).

As a fan of the classic Holiday variety shows RigbyMel mentioned, I'll admit that the "chalet" scenes brought a smile to my face. Chris Colfer and Darren Criss did a nice job here with the singing and dancing.

My rating:
Two and a half candy canes

One of my favorite modern Christmas songs: SNL's "I Wish It Was Christmas Today"

"All I know is that Santa's sleigh
Is makin it's way to the U.S.A.
I wish it was Christmas today"

In a recent post, I talked about Saturday Night Live's history of original songs about Thanksgiving. SNL has also given us one of my favorite modern Christmas songs.

On December 9, 2000, this simple title card appeared on screen :

Several cast members then appeared on a stage with fake snow falling in the background.
The song features Horatio Sanz on guitar and lead vocals, Jimmy Fallon on keyboard and back-up vocals, Chris Kattan holding the keyboard and dancing, and Tracy Morgan dancing. Sanz and Fallon also wrote the song.

Here's the first ever performance of "I Wish It Was Christmas Today":

It's a very happy, up-tempo number, Sanz's vocals give the song a very charming child-like quality. "I Wish It Was Christmas Today" went over so well that it was brought back for an encore performance on December 16 that year (I haven't been able to find a clip of that performance yet).

The song returned in December 1, 2001. As you'll hear from the crowd reaction, this song had already become a fan favorite.

On December 14, 2002, Sanz and company upped the ante. They busted out of a giant gift box and performed the song in costumes that represented popular toys given at Christmas that year.

If you're keeping score, that's Sanz as a teddy bear, Fallon as Harry Potter, Kattan as a soldier and Morgan as Chicken Dance Elmo.

The song was not performed in 2003, perhaps due to the departure of Kattan and Morgan.

On December 18, 2004, Sanz came on stage, guitar in hand and called out for Fallon, Kattan and Morgan to join him. They didn't, because they'd already quit the show. Sanz was a bit dejected, until Kermit the Frog showed up and offered to help sing "I Wish It Was Christmas Today". They were joined by Kermit's Muppet friends, Fozzie, Gonzo and Animal for a truly memorable performance.

The song wasn't performed the next year, which also happened to be Sanz's last season on SNL. It seemed that "I Wish It Was Christmas Today" would soon be forgotten.

And it was , until Julian Casablancas (lead singer of The Strokes) recorded a rock version of the song in 2009 that featured electric guitars, drums, etc. Here's Casablancas's version:

Finally, we got a special performance of "I Wish It Was Christmas Today" on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon on December 21, 2009. Sanz and Fallon sang the first verse of the song. Suddenly the camera panned over to the center of the stage to Casablancas, backed by hip-hop legends The Roots (who also serve as the Late Night house band). Sanz and Fallon eventually join Casablancas, it's a great once-in-a lifetime performance, nicely punched up by the Roots' brass section.

I Wish It Was Christmas Today from denisedahlin on Vimeo.

I'm a little disappointed to say that I've never heard this song play in any store or on any "All-Christmas" radio stations during the Holiday season. "I Wish It Was Christmas Today" should be hailed as a modern Christmas classic. I can even imagine Bing Crosby, Darlene Love or Rankin-Bass characters singing the song!

But we may get another performance on SNL. This week's (December 17,2011) host will be none other than Jimmy Fallon. Will we get cameos by Sanz, Morgan and Kattan? Will "the band" back together for one more Christmas performance? I certainly hope so!

And after typing this up, I do, indeed wish it was Christmas today!


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Northern Exposure: "Seoul Mates"

This quirky prime time drama ran from 1990 to 1995

This review first appeared as a guest post on Joanna Wilson's fabulous Christmas TV Companion blog which we love and you should definitely check out!

Of Ravens and Talking Dogs ...

This episode from season 3 of the series first aired on December 16th, 1991. It begins with Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) observing the town of Cicely's preparations for Christmas. Since he was brought up in a strict Jewish family, Fleischman was never allowed to have a Christmas tree and decides to seize the opportunity and have one of his own for the very first time. Trouble is, he doesn't quite know what to do with it once he's got it and he seeks advice from Maggie O'Connell (Janine Turner) and various other townspeople about it.

The cast from Northern Exposure - l to r Ed, Marilyn, Maggie, Chris, Joel, Maurice, Shelley and Holling

Maggie is dreading going home to Michigan to spend time with her family, only to be surprised and a bit confused to learn that her parents have decided to skip the family holiday in favor of a trip to the Caribbean.

Meanwhile, Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin) learns that he has a long-lost son – Duk Won (James Song) who shows up on his doorstep just in time for the holidays. It turns out that Maurice's time as a Marine in Korea also has given him a son and a whole family (as mom and grandmother) also come along for the ride. Maurice has always wanted a son, but is upset by the fact that the son he has is not white. After several missteps, Maurice gets into the spirit of the holidays and makes an effort to get to know his family and Maurice learns to appreciate his son for who he is.

Maurice with his new family

The town barkeep, Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum) is concerned about his wife Shelley (Cynthia Geary) who is pining after her traditional, Catholic Christmas. Holling sets out to fulfill Shelley's Christmas wish appropriating the local Unitarian Church, decorating it in a High Mass fashion with candles and a Nativity and singing “Ave Maria” for her. (Awww!)

Raven ornament

In the multicultural 90s spirit of the show, we learn about the Alaskan native tradition of the Raven, which parallels the Nativity story. The tale is first told to Fleischman by Marilyn Whirlwind (Elaine Miles) and then reprised as a “Raven Pageant” towards the end of the episode. Here is a YouTube clip of the pageant:

Chris Stevens (John Corbett), the local radio host acts in his usual role as philosopher/Greek chorus for the show and gives us some great thoughts on ravens - including a reference to Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem - and later shares a childhood Christmas memory that also has to do with talking animals. This last bit of philosophizing is one of our favorite bits from the whole episode – here's the clip:

RigbyMel says:

Although I watched Northern Exposure quite regularly, this episode somehow escaped my attention until very recently. (My only excuse is that I was in high school at the time and exams were probably eating my brain in mid-December 1991.) I watched this episode for the first time this past holiday season largely because of a chance encounter with the lovely Joanna Wilson of Christmas TV History fame. Joanna was visiting Richmond to promote her Christmas books and she had stopped at my place of business, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. It was a rainy day and we got to chatting and lo, Christmas TV and movies came up! Joanna asked if I was aware that Poe's “The Raven” was referenced in this particular Northern Exposure episode and I had to say that I wasn't but would definitely check it out. Needless to say, the disc with the episode went into the Netflix queue pretty much as soon as I got home from work and I am very grateful for the recommendation. I loved the multicultural aspects of the show and the fact that the residents of Cicely all get along in spite of their differences. The raven aspects of the show made it all the more fun and Chris's “my Christmas wish for you – may your dog talk” speech gave me warm fuzzies (especially as our doggie was cuddled up with JAMorris and myself on the sofa as we watched that scene). I rather suspect that this episode is now required annual holiday viewing in our household.

RigbyMel's rating:

4 candy canes

J.A.Morris says:
Unlike RigbyMel, I remember watching this when it was new. But I only remembered the part that focused on Maurice and Duk Won until Joanna recommended the episode. Northern Exposure was one of my favorite series of the 90s, there was a time when I wished I could live in a place like Cicely, even when I knew it was an idealized community. Having gotten reacquainted with episode, it's inspired us to re-watch the series. “Seoul Mates” is one of the best episodes of the series and has become one of my favorite Christmas episodes.

J.A. Morris' rating:

4 candy canes