Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Thank God It's Christmas

It’s just good business sense for a musician to release a Christmas album. You see, careers come and go, but Christmas is forever. Long after people have forgotten “Emotions”, “Dreamlover”, and “Fantasy”, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” will still be a beloved holiday classic. However while many artists, both established (Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney) and one-hit wonders (Billy Squier, Wizzard), have created immortal Christmas tracks, some huge stars miss the mark for some reason. Britney Spears, for example, surely will never understand why her “My Only Wish This Year” didn’t become a perennial favorite. Another example of this is Queen, who in 1984 recorded their own forgotten Christmas tune, “Thank God it’s Christmas”.

The song is surprisingly minimalist for a band known for their bombast and theatricality. Much of it is simply Freddy Mercury’s voice accompanied by a synth drum loop and a soft organ playing in the background, with the occasional addition of a subtle guitar or sleigh bell accompaniment. Mercury sings passionately of Christmas being a welcome respite from the painful year he’s had, and that pain and optimism is reflected perfectly in his famously emotive voice. Even without the benefit of operatic harmonies and Brian May’s epic guitar, it manages to be a pretty epic song.

“Thank God it’s Christmas” was never included on a studio album until over a decade after its release as a single, at which point it was crammed into a greatest hits collection. It doesn’t get much (if any) airplay, so most people don’t even know it exists. But do yourself a favor and dig up this forgotten track this holiday season – only Freddy Mercury could pull off something that is so powerfully melancholy and hopeful in equal measures. Well okay, maybe also Stevie Wonder.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Very Murray Christmas

Bill Murray is an enigma. Is he a crooning party guy?  A hard drinking, temperamental Irish brawler? A melancholy loner? No one knows for sure, and it’s probably better that way. His persona is based on that mystery, and he owes much of his legacy to it. A Very Murray Christmas attempts to show us the “real” Bill Murray - but after an hour, we are left with no more answers than we had before.

A Very Murray Christmas finds the legendary actor holed up in a swanky New York City hotel where he is scheduled to do a live Christmas special. Unfortunately, a snow storm has closed the city down and things have to be scaled back dramatically. Much of the show is a loving throwback to variety shows of the past, with guests “stopping by” to perform a song with Murray, with the hotel’s waitstaff often acting as backup singers/band. Of particular note are Maya Rudolph as a sultry, world-weary divorcee who belts out “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and Jenny Lewis as a waitress performing a surprisingly un-creepy rendition of “Baby it’s Cold Outside”. My favorite performance, though, is Murray, Lewis, and David “Buster Poindexter” Johansen’s interpretation the Pogues’ epic “Fairytale of New York”.
At one point Murray passes out and enters a dream sequence in which he lives out the Christmas special that was meant to be, alongside superstars George Clooney and Miley Cyrus. Proving that there is indeed a whole lot of talent behind all that twerking, Miley performs an awe-inspiring rendition of “Silent Night”. Clooney shows off his considerable charm as he engages in cheesy stage banter with Murray and sings backup on “Santa Claus Needs Some Lovin”.
I love everything about A Very Murray Christmas, from its variety show feel to its eclectic cast to its impressive and often moving musical numbers. I have no idea what inspired Sophia Coppola to do a Bill Murray-themed Christmas special, but I sure am glad she did. No matter what kind of guy Murray really is, he has truly given the world a beautiful Christmas gift.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special

As a kid, I was obsessed with Pee-Wee's Playhouse. I preferred it to Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, which gave me nightmares with its visions of frolicking demons, road-tripping serial killers, and Large Marge. I never missed an episode on Saturday mornings and meticulously recorded each one on a VHS tape - which makes it strange that I never saw The Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special until recently. And man oh man, was I missing out. It takes everything that made the Playhouse insane, cranks it up, and rips off the knob.

Pee-Wee Herman can trace his origins back to the Groundlings, where a young Paul Reubens and a colleague named Phil Hartman created what was ostensibly a stage show for kids, but was filled with subversive and adult humor. The show was eventually filmed for an HBO special, which ironically morphed into an actual kids' show featuring a young Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis, Law & Order's S. Epatha Merkerson as Mail Lady Reba, and Lynne Marie Stewart as Miss Yvonne, who would go on to play Charlie's Mom on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
The first thing that you notice as an adult watching The Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special is that it not only shares the John Waters-esque camp sensibilities of the show, but it is loaded with gay icons. Guests include Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Grace Jones, k.d. lang, Whoopi Goldberg, Joan Rivers, Cher, Little Richard, Charo, and the elderly, ukulele playing Del Rubio Triplets (not to mention an opening number by a chorus line of hunky Marines). Reubens' orientation has always been mysterious - he has been attached to adult film star Brooke Ashley and actress Debi Mazar, but also has an enormous collection of vintage gay erotica which got him roped into the Jeffrey Jones child pornography investigation in 2001.

The plot of the special revolves around Pee-Wee being a spoiled, present-obsessed brat who demands extra wishes from Jambi and turns an arts and crafts segment with Frankie and Annette into sadistic slave labor. Along the way he participates in some typical Playhouse rituals - getting a magic word from Conky, jumping into the Magic Screen (with Magic Johnson), and watching one of the King of Cartoon's bizarre animations. Sprinkled throughout are musical numbers and visits from Playhouse regulars, and the whole thing ends with a visit from Santa. It turns out that Pee-Wee has asked for so many presents that there is no room left in Santa's sled for anyone else's gifts. Pee-Wee eventually breaks down and decides to share his haul with the children of the world, and learns a valuable lesson about how the holidays are about being selfless, not selfish.

The Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special is a rare treat for Pee-Wee fans for whom this flew under the radar the first time around, as well as lovers of all things kitsch, camp, and (let's face it) super, super gay. With a lineup like this it's truly something to behold - even if you're petrified by the thought of Grace Jones emerging from a wooden crate.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Ref

In between his time as a chain smoking, rapid fire monologuist and his tenure as a basic cable auteur, it looked for a second like comedian Dennis Leary might become a legit movie star. The 90s brought major roles in films like Operation Dumbo Drop, Judgment Night, and Suicide Kings. He even popped up as a rebel leader in Demolition Man and wrote the romantic comedy Two if By Sea with Mike Armstrong, who he had met while working on MTV's Remote Control. My favorite role of his, though, has got to be that of Gus in 1994's The Ref.

No one has ever accused Leary of having much range - he's at his best when he's sticking close to his foul mouthed, grouchy persona, and The Ref definitely allows him to do that. Robbing a house on Christmas eve, things go horribly wrong and Gus is forced to take refuge in the car (and home) of the Chasseurs, a bickering yuppie couple. Now hostages, Lloyd and Caroline (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) infuriate Gus with their incessant sniping as he frantically tries to plan an escape. Much like in The Birdcage, the film climaxes with a family dinner that goes horribly (and predictably) wrong. Gus manages to leave town with the help of the Chasseurs' estranged son and the entire incident ends up bringing the couple closer than ever.

The reason this movie works so well is a combination of great writing and great acting. The film is infinitely quotable, particularly the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf-esque scene towards the end when the Chasseurs finally unload on each other - and their assembled family members. Spacey and Davis are able to delightfully spit venom at each other and simultaneously show glimpses of the people they used to be before life didn't turn out the way they thought it would. Christine Baranski is great as Lloyd's passive-aggressive yuppie sister-in-law, but it's Glynis Johns - the adorable Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins - who steals the show as the cold-hearted matriarch of the Chasseur clan. Leary does what he does best for the most part, and some of his finest acting is unspoken when he observes the surprising effect his "visit" has had on the Chasseurs as Lloyd and Caroline have their epic meltdown.

The Ref has all the elements of a classic Christmas movie - a snow covered small town, a Christmas tree, a family coming together, etc. Although in this film the town is full of selfish bluebloods and incompetent cops, the tree is beaten repeatedly with a fireplace poker, and the family only comes together after binding and gagging their annoying relatives. The Ref is profane, witty, and like the best Christmas comedies, manages to perfectly ride the line between cynicism and authenticity. I just saw it for the first time and it's now one of my favorites. Make it one of yours, if it isn't already.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Anyone who knows me knows that I love karaoke. And when Christmas time comes around, there's one song that I have to sing simply because I get to channel, in some small way, the infectious joy of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. There's no feeling quite like it, and it's the one holiday tune that is guaranteed to win over a crowd of even the most cynical hipsters. That song, of course, is Bruce and the boys' legendary version of "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town".

The famous version that we all know and love was recorded on December 14th, 1975 at a concert in Long Island, and was the B-side to "My Hometown". The song was so popular that it became a staple of Bruce's live shows during the Christmas season - and sometimes the off-season, such as a memorable 2009 performance at Bonnaroo. Those who have seen the whole production with their own eyes will tell you of the magical moment when saxophonist Clarence "Big Man" Clemons would step out dressed as Santa as Christmas lights began to light up all over the amps. Clemons also sang backup and provided the song with one hell of a sax solo until his death in 2011.

The song is known for Bruce's intro, in which he famously describes the "wind whippin' down the boardwalk" and asks the crowd if they've been good this year ("Not many!" he replies). In this 1978 version, he prefaces the song with an awesome, extended Jersey Shore fairy tale. Enjoy!

A Muppet Family Christmas

When you talk to people about the Muppets' Christmas movie, they usually think of The Muppet Christmas Carol. Which is a good movie, don't get me wrong, but it just doesn't quite work for me. Sure it was written by Jerry Juhl, Jim Henson's first employee, features most of the original voices and puppeteers, and it's got effing Michael Caine as Scrooge, but you can just kinda tell it's the first movie without Jim Henson in charge (he had died two years earlier). Plus it's way too schmaltzy. The Muppet Christmas movie I wish more people were familiar with is A Muppet Family Christmas.

A Muppet Family Christmas
 is a TV special from 1987, which later received a limited VHS release in a heavily edited form. It is notable for being one of the few occasions where characters from the four major Muppet brands got together (The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and the Muppet Babies), and being Jim Henson's last major Muppets production. In it, Fozzie Bear and friends travel to his mom's house to surprise her for Christmas, not knowing that Emily Bear has gone on vacation and rented the house out to Doc and Sprocket from Fraggle Rock. Later, the Sesame Street crew shows up and Miss Piggy races a snowstorm to make it back in time from her latest photo shoot.

There is so much good stuff in this special - Fozzie doing a comedy act with a talking snowman. A love triangle between Gonzo, Camilla the chicken, and the Christmas turkey. The cast of Sesame Street acting out "Twas the Night Before Christmas". Mindblowing Muppet crossovers. Singalongs galore, of course. And a heartbreaking final cameo by Henson, who is shown washing dishes in the kitchen after Christmas dinner. Looking out at the assembled Muppets singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" he remarks, "I like it when they have a good time."

It's hilarious, it's joyous, it's fun, and to me, it was the last true Muppet movie. Oh and guess what - it's available in its entirety on YouTube, complete with all the original commercials! So now when we hang out in real life we can totally talk about it.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

I'll Be Home for Christmas

I don't know why I did it to myself. Maybe it's the fact that there aren't a lot of Christmas options on Netflix that don't feature talking animals. Maybe it's my lingering affection for Home Improvement star Jonathan Taylor Thomas. Maybe I just hate myself that much. Well for whatever reason, I recently sat down and watched I'll Be Home for Christmas, the live action Disney "comedy" best known for being the last time anyone has ever seen JTT alive.

Now, I have an unusually high tolerance for Christmas-themed crap, as shown by my love of Jingle All the Way and the fact that I've sat through The Star Wars Holiday Special more than once. But I'll Be Home for Christmas is a horrible, horrible abomination, and I want to round up every copy in existence and have them buried in the desert like the E.T. Atari game.

In the "film", Jonathan Taylor Thomas plays a wisecracking college student who is sort of like the non-thinking man's Parker Lewis. When he fails to deliver on his promise to help a group of jocks ace an exam, he's left in the desert dressed in a Santa suit on the day he's supposed to accompany his girlfriend (Jessica Biel) home for the holidays. What follows is a series of "hilarious" misadventures as JTT hoofs it cross country with a series of painfully unfunny companions such as a carload of flatulant old ladies, a simple-minded thief, a lovestruck goober of a state trooper, his college nemesis (the only character more loathsome than his), and a group of marathon-running Santas. In the end JTT predictably wins back the girl and makes it home for Christmas, even though his smarmy prick of a character hardly deserves it.

What makes this unfunny shitshow even worse are the shoehorned-in sentimental moments meant to make you feel like JTT's character (I want to say "Jack"?) is anything more than a soulless asshole. He makes a detour to a children's hospital, where a young wide-eyed Hispanic stereotype reminds him that Christmas is about family. He returns the money he wins in the Santa marathon after finding out the man he beat was going to use it to buy turkeys for the poor. Finally, he refuses the vintage Porsche his dad (Gary Cole) used as a bribe to get him to come home. These incidents are supposed to show some sort of character development, but I was too busy waiting for Jack to be killed in a grizzly Christmas-related accident to notice any.

The only good thing about this movie is that it is an excellent time capsule of 1998, if you ever needed one. The fashions, the frosted tips, the cultural references, and especially the music. References are made to Fiona Apple, Aaliyah, Smashmouth, and more. At one point, Jessica Biel sings along to Aqua's "Doctor Jones" and her future husband is featured in "Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays", NSync's Christmas song which plays during the credits.

But if you're not doing some sort of anthropological study on the year 1998, morbidly curious about the last days of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, or physically confined to a couch in front of a TV playing ABC Family, there is absolutely no reason to ever subject yourself to this film. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to watch Scrooged ten times in a row to get this awful taste out of my mouth.