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Christmas Can Be Cool – The Christmas Song

22 Dec

According to Wikipedia, “The Christmas Song” has been recorded by, like, every popular artist ever. And I’m not saying every one of those covers is bad, but I have never wanted to hear anyone but Nat King Cole sing this song. I suspect most people feel the same way – I rarely hear any other version of it anywhere. Why? Well, Nat King Cole just nails it. He sings it simply and he sings it well, backed by that syrupy-sweet orchestra and those jazzy chords. The lyrics, written by Bob Wells and Mel Torme, are just vague enough in their details to give the whole thing a feeling of timelessness – tiny tots, with their eyes all aglow, will always find it hard to sleep on Christmas night. Really, the title itself says all you can say about “The Christmas Song” – it is what Christmas sounds like.

(I’ve been holding off on writing about my three all-time favorite Christmas entertainments, intending to cover them on December 23, 24, and 25. However, I’ve decided to save them for longer, more involved posts next year and enjoy the remaining holiday time with friends and family instead. Merry Christmas!)

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Christmas Can Be Cool – A Christmas Story

22 Dec

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TBS doesn’t show A Christmas Story on repeat all day on December 25 for nothing; it is the good-time, feel-great Christmas movie. What makes it so noteworthy is the way it blends specificity with generality. The characters are fully formed on their own, yet also resemble people in our own lives. Darren McGavin is Ralphie’s Old Man, but he’s also everyone’s Old Man – our fathers may not have won as major of an award as that leg lamp, but we all watched him obsess over something just as absurd. Ralphie is us as we remember ourselves – we may not have wanted a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, but we all wanted something just as wonderful. Jean Shepherd, whose work In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash served as the basis for the film (he also narrates), specialized in this kind of nostalgic story-telling. A Christmas Story never missteps, always centering its focus on recognizable family dynamics and universal truths; it is the movie equivalent of a comforting childhood blanket.

Christmas Can Be Cool – Arthur Christmas

22 Dec

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Arthur Christmas, produced by the inestimable Aardman Studios (home of Wallace & Gromit), slipped through the cracks for many last year, despite (or perhaps because of) being paired with Justin Bieber’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” Christmas single. This is a real shame, since it’s probably the best family Christmas film of the past decade. An exceedingly clever script written by Peter Baynham and director Sarah Smith goes a long way towards answering the many mysterious Santa-related questions, both age-old (How does he get down chimneys?) and new (Why can’t we see his house on Google Earth?). It turns out the role of Santa Claus is handed down through generations, and although his current operation is remarkably efficient, Santa himself (Jim Broadbent) has become a mere figurehead while his tech-head elder son Steve (Hugh Laurie) pulls the strings. Baynham and Smith understand that cleverness itself means little without heart, and after the film is done world-building, it shifts its focus to its titular character (voiced by James McAvoy), the Claus son who won’t eventually become Santa Claus. Arthur may not understand the ins and outs of the family business, but he does understand Christmas itself, and the bulk of the film follows him on his race against time to get a cherished present to a girl named Gwen (the one child in the world who didn’t receive her gift) before the sun comes up. The film has fun with detail and flashiness, but its real success shows through its characters and their relationships as they argue over efficiency and progress, all while Arthur stays focused on little Gwen and her Christmas-morning happiness.

Christmas Can Be Cool – Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town

21 Dec

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I wrote earlier that Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town is the best of the Rankin-Bass animated Christmas specials, and I stand by that assessment, even if it doesn’t have the cultural goodwill Rudolph has. What it does have is a more clever, entertaining story (narrated by a Fred Astaire-voiced mailman, no less!), and it doesn’t take itself half as seriously. Using letters from children asking for explanations to legends (“Why do they call you Kris Kringle?”) as a jumping off point, the special essentially mythologizes Santa Claus, giving him a backstory to rival the greatest of the Greek gods. The real fun of Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, however, stems from its playful tone. The villain, who some awesome writer dubbed Burgermeister Meisterburger, is magnificently ridiculous in his quest to outlaw all toys, and the most entertaining segments of the special lie in watching him and Kris try to outsmart each other. The Winter Warlock (obviously a significant influence on Adventure Time‘s Ice King) has an amusing arc, starting as the threshold guardian before becoming friendly supernatural aid. And, as always, there’s that special stop-motion animation, with its certain homespun charm.

Christmas Can Be Cool – Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

20 Dec

(Apologies for missing the last two days–Christmas parties, work, and a new dog have all conspired against this blog. I’ll catch up.)

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A simple story of a Macy’s department store Santa claiming to be the real thing, Miracle on 34th Street is a movie I’ve always loved, but taken on a new respect for in the past couple years. The reason is the following line: “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.” No, that is not a particularly profound or novel thought, especially for a Christmas movie. But what’s admirable about Miracle is how, when it comes to faith, it plays by its own rules, never giving us conclusive proof that it protagonist actually is Santa Claus. A movie like The Santa Clause will offer similar themes, but they never really function as they should because the film itself gives its viewers all the evidence they need of Santa’s existence. What is faith without doubt? In Miracle on 34th Street, we must struggle along with the characters. Is it possible this is just a kindly old delusional man? Yes. But maybe he’s Santa Claus, too. I believe in the Santa Claus of Miracle on 34th Street more than I believe in the Santa Clause of The Santa Clause. Why? Because the film respects its audience enough to allow them not to believe in him, too.

Christmas Can Be Cool – Low’s Christmas

17 Dec

I took some time today to look back on all that I’ve written for this series so far, and it seems pretty obvious that I love sad Christmas entertainment the most. Why? I’m not entirely sure. As some sort of halfhearted attempt at an answer, I submit Low’s 1999 Christmas EP. Here is a band that understands Christmas is a holiday as deserving of silent (and somewhat fearful) reverence as it is cheer and goodwill. Even if you don’t subscribe to the Christian faith (the members of Low do), it’s hard not to feel the sheer power of the Christmas story when it’s presented in an effective manner. “If You Were Born Today (Song for Little Baby Jesus),” with its barely-strummed guitar, almost unbearably slow tempo, and beautiful hushed voices, is the kind of song to make hair stand on the end of one’s neck, believers and non-believers alike. And the best track on the album isn’t even a religious one – it’s the cover of “Blue Christmas,” which, when it arrives at its wistful guitar solo, makes me think of the last call at a lonely bar on Christmas Eve. This is a lovely, strange, and honestly kind of creepy album, but then again, Christmas is a little lovely, strange and kind of creepy.

Christmas Can Be Cool – “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”

16 Dec

“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is the very best Christmas pop song ever written. This is not debatable. Do children hearing those momentous opening chords for the first time sense the significance of the occasion? Phil Spector’s trademark Wall of Sound, essentially the musical equivalent of a great bear hug, was made for Christmas time. If Dickens’ A Christmas Carol were set in modern times, there would be no need for the three Christmas ghosts – Scrooge would need only to hear the sound of Spector’s jukebox orchestra filling the room, accompanied by Darlene Love’s unbelievably emotion-filled voice, to be brought to his knees. Yes, Spector’s entire Christmas album is essential listening, but this is its best track; it deserves its own entry.