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.

Christmas Can Be Cool – “It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop”

15 Dec

(Guess I’ll just go ahead and double/triple up today.)

Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit is an indie rock band with a penchant for writing emotionally raw, tuneful, guitar-driven songs. “It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop” is one of their finest showcases, a song that begins softly with finger-picked acoustic guitar and piano, eventually building to an exhilarating climax of pounding drums, electric guitar, and even a choir. Along the way, it offers a bittersweet truth: Christmas gives us a reason once a year to be cheerful and kind, but it’s all fleeting and maybe even a little fake. With an aching desperation conveyed through lyrics like “Once you’re tucked in bed / you’ll hold onto the day for the last few seconds,” the song perfectly captures the false hope that maybe that good feeling will stick this year. But then December 26 rolls around, and life has gone back to its past self.

Review – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

15 Dec

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

(Full disclosure: I did not see An Unexpected Journey at 48fps. A movie ticket is a vote, and I refuse to vote for this process.)

Say this for Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit: it makes no attempt to tonally match the earlier, darker Lord of the Rings series. After all, stakes don’t get much higher than the possible end of the known world – lighter quests deserve lighter treatment. J. R. R. Tolkien understood this; it’s why Lord of the Rings reads like mythology while The Hobbit reads like a children’s story. Likewise, An Unexpected Journey possesses a lightheartedness the other films don’t. Dwarves laugh and sing, trolls argue in comedic fashion, two characters try to outsmart each other with riddles, etc.

The problems with An Unexpected Journey, then, mostly stem from what just about everybody predicted they would: its length. There is simply not enough material in Tolkien’s 270-page novel, a simple story about well-to-do homebody Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) accompanying thirteen dwarves on a quest to reclaim their home and gold from a dragon named Smaug, to justify three three-hour films. Jackson tries to pad out the story whenever he gets the chance, sometimes expanding on events only hinted at in the book (a certain evil force looms threateningly in the south), sometimes adding entirely new characters and subplots (a grudge between lead dwarf Richard Armitage and an orc leader), and other times finding various excuses to include characters from Lord of the Rings (a frame story including Elijah Wood and Ian Holm). Unfortunately, this stretching of the plot often makes the film feel unfocused and minor, more like a television miniseries than a big-budget movie.

Perhaps most problematic is the introduction of wizard Radagast, a minor character in Tolkien’s universe who should probably remain that way. Essentially the Jar Jar Binks of An Unexpected Journey, he has a bird’s nest under his hat, poop running down the side of his face, and a sled drawn by rabbits. Even taking into account the more bouyant tone, any scene featuring Radagast feels cartoonish and out of place. Another misstep is an odd Council of Elrond-esque scene in Rivendell consisting entirely of characters from Lord of the Rings. It gives the audience no new information and amounts to little more than winking references to the earlier films.

In spite of its myriad flaws, An Unexpected Journey also has much to recommend it. Middle-Earth looks as inviting as ever, Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen give excellent performances, and Andy Serkis’ reappearance as Gollum sets the stage for the film’s best and most entertaining sequence. Indeed, these elements work so well that it’s difficult not to be somewhat disappointed with the muddled end result. Here’s my idea: when the time comes in two years for the DVD boxset, Jackson should make a new cut – not adding new footage as he did for Lord for the Rings, but removing any and all of the excess from The Hobbit. I am convinced that a great adventure movie lies somewhere amid all the fluff.

Grade: B

Christmas Can Be Cool – The Royal Tenenbaums

15 Dec

(Sorry I missed this yesterday; the tragedy in Connecticut didn’t exactly leave me with a lot of holiday cheer. I’ll double up at some point this week.)

the_royal_tenenbaums

Why am I writing about The Royal Tenenbaums? Other than Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Christmas Time Is Here” briefly appearing on its soundtrack, it has no explicit connection to Christmas. No one considers it a “Christmas movie.” However, much of director Wes Anderson’s work has similarly tenuous connections to Christmas (Bottle Rocket‘s ending scene, Rushmore‘s “December” segment, Fantastic Mr. Fox‘s Rankin/Bass-inspired stop-motion animation), and I have a sneaking suspicion he’s as obsessed and fascinated with the holiday as I am. The Royal Tenenbaums feels the most like a Christmas movie of them all; after all, the story of an estranged father attempting to reconcile with his family already sounds like the stuff holiday Hallmark movies are made of. Add to that a winter setting, composer Mark Mothersbaugh’s vaguely Christmas-y instrumentation, and Anderson’s trademark ornate visual style, and it all becomes even more apparent. Themes of self-improvement, forgiveness, and familial affection are elements as definitive of Christmas entertainments as any other; Tenenbaums has those in spades. Royal doesn’t deserve his family’s love, but we understand if they can’t help but feel it anyway.

Christmas Can Be Cool – The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

13 Dec

Cary Grant The Bishop's Wife

The Bishop’s Wife is an overlooked classic you really should try to work into your Christmas canon. David Niven plays a bishop so consumed by the building of a new cathedral he’s lost focus on his wife (Loretta Young) and daughter (Karolyn Grimes, who must have been the go-to “cute Christmas movie kid” – she played Zuzu in It’s a Wonderful Life one year earlier). Enter the suave, debonair Cary Grant, an angel sent to lend Niven a helping hand (while also sorta-kinda stealing Young’s heart). Yes, that sounds like it was created by a Hallmark plot generator, but the movie treats its characters with respect and delicacy; Grant in particular is given depth and complexity rarely afforded to characters of the heavenly persuasion. (A potential explanation: Billy Wilder was brought in by the studio to do an uncredited rewrite.) The Bishop’s Wife works, in spite of a cheesy plot, because of top-notch performances and a surprisingly affecting ending.

(This film is currently out-of-print; Amazon lists a release scheduled for January, which makes absolutely no sense at all. However, it will air on TCM December 23 at 8:00. Netflix also has it available for physical rental.)

Christmas Can Be Cool – “If Christmas Can’t Bring You Home”

12 Dec

Reigning Sound is a garage rock band out of Asheville, NC that’s been churning out consistently excellent albums for a decade now to little fanfare. Their secret weapon: frontman Greg Cartwright’s impressive songwriting chops. He knows how to evoke real emotion with understated lyrics and simple melodies; like the best song writers, he makes it look easy. “If Christmas Can’t Bring You Home” is one of their best offerings. The band grooves in a loose and boozy fashion, lead guitar wailing mournfully, as Cartwright tries to make amends for his past mistakes with an ex. What makes it all so effective is Cartwright’s humility-filled lyrics (“I feel guilty for the things I’ve done”) paired with the fuzzy, bruised, tired-sounding instrumentation. It’s the sound of resignation.