Monday, December 29, 2008

My Favorite Christmas/ Holiday Songs, Part II

I know that December 25th has come and gone. However, we are still in the holiday season (even if the retail sales suggest otherwise), so this post is still (barely) topical.

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"

While some object to this song because it is rather depressing, it is important to understand its context both within the film Meet Me In St. Louis and in American history. Within the movie, Judy Garland's character sings it to her younger sister to comfort her as they face leaving their family home in St. Louis. As you can tell by the clip above, this attempt isn't very successful. In regards to history, the song (and the movie) came out during World War II, which made the wistful tone more understandable and welcome. On another note, the song was supposed to be much more depressing than it was. For instance, it was supposed to contain the lyrics "Have yourself a merry little Christmas/ it could be your last/ Next year we may all be living in the past." Judy Garland argued against these lyrics, so the lyricist changed them to the ones we know today.

"What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

Although my coworkers and I used to laugh at this song because it sounded so despondent and desperate, it has grown on me over the years. Rather than being desperate, I suppose that the song seems a little more hopeful than I originally thought (even though the lyrics don't really suggest that the person's answer is going to be a positive one for the singer).

"My Dear Acquaintance"

I like the understatement of Regina Spektor's interpretation of this song. Although there is a debate (at least if one is to believe the YouTube comments for the song) regarding her use of irony and sarcasm in this performance, I am not entirely convinced that the song is necessarily that sarcastic (at least in the "Merry Christmas (the War is Over)" vein). While it does encourage reflection, I don't know if the tone is bitter enough to be considered sarcastic or ironic. Please forgive the rather odd clip - it was the only one with the entire song I could find on YouTube!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas Eve

I'm going to be away from my blog for a few days because of the holidays, but I hope that all of you have a wonderful Christmas. Here is one more song to help you get in the holiday spirit. While Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" is one of the most popular songs in history (really) and has been covered by almost everyone, my favorite version is Bing Crosby's from the beginning of the movie White Christmas. While the movie's finale is certainly more uplifting, the wistful tone and minimal orchestration of this version makes it far superior (at least in my humble opinion):

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Movie Review: A Muppet Christmas Carol

Due to weather issues, I am not spending my evening watching A Muppet Christmas Carol with my siblings, so I figured I would do the next best thing and discuss it. Out of the approximately five billion versions of A Christmas Carol that exist, this is by far my favorite. Although I grew up watching Mickey's Christmas Carol, that adaptation never rang true, and it is truly colorless when compared to the Muppet version.

First, let's get a few things out of the way. This movie is pure, unadulterated cheese. The tiny sets, the odd mixture of humans and Muppets in Victorian clothing, and the unapologetic cheer (see the choreography for "It Feels Like Christmas" as a prime example of all of these things) should spell disaster. Some of the songs, such as "When Love is Gone," seem destined to provide the audience with the opportunity to get more snacks or to use the rest room. Furthermore, on paper, the very idea of combining the Muppets, Michael Caine, and Charles Dickens seems destined for disaster.

And yet, despite these potential issues, it manages to work on so many levels. Not only is it able to bring a unique spin to familiar territory, it also manages to balance levity (usually in the form of Gonzo, who is standing in for Charles Dickens) with the story's more somber moments (if you aren't tearing up when the camera pans to Tiny Tim's abandoned chair with his cap and crutch, you are made of sterner stuff than I am). It sticks fairly close to Dickens's story and even uses a great deal of his language from the story. Furthermore, the movie avoids the pitfall of Mickey's Christmas Carol by taking the time to actually establish the characters. While it does typecast the Muppets, which is to be expected, it also is careful to provide a good understanding of the actual Dickens characters. The songs also add a great deal to the script. Although I fast forward through some songs on a regular basis, there are far more hits than misses in this film. "A Thankful Heart," "One More Sleep Til Christmas," and "Bless Us All" are incredibly catchy and really should be available through iTunes (just a suggestion).

In addition to a strong script and good songs, this movie also has Michael Caine, who makes a surprisingly good Scrooge. He does a good job interacting with the Muppets (which must be more than a little strange) and is able to make a believable transformation from miser to benefactor in less than two hours. Most importantly, you never get the sense of condescension from him and he actually seems to be enjoying himself. The casting on the Muppet end works well too; Kermit's character makes him an effective Bob Cratchit and including the two hecklers as Scrooge's former partners is a stroke of genius.

If you are tired of the endless airings of A Christmas Story or How the Grinch Stole Christmas (at least the Jim Carrey version), you may want to consider renting this and making it part of your holiday. Yes, it is a little cheesy, but what are the holidays without some cheese?

Book Trailers: Simone Elkeles's "Perfect Chemistry"

While I am all for getting people to read, I am usually very skeptical of book trailers. Given the budget and resource constraints, they are often have questionable production values (and that is putting it very kindly). Imagine my surprise and delight when I came across this book trailer/ promo for Simone Elkeles's YA novel Perfect Chemistry. The video is a parody of the book's plot, and its purposeful cheesiness is very addictive.

Favorite moments: Brittany's vapid "It's a book!"; Brittany's boyfriend doing his white boy dance

Saturday, December 20, 2008

My Favorite Christmas Songs, Part I

From the past few posts, it may appear that I am a Scrooge-like creature who mutters "Bah humbug" and threatens to kick puppies during the holiday season. However, there are quite a few Christmas songs that I happen to love. In fact, I'd venture to guess that there are far more Christmas songs that I like than ones that I despise.

"Merry Christmas Eve"

Who knew that Better Than Ezra even made a Christmas song? And what a great song it is. Rather than beating you over the head with the warm fuzzies, it manages to offhandedly capture some of the most elemental parts of the holiday. Some of what they mention are transcendentally important ("a midnight Mass for a birthday," "at the airport families wait on cue"), some are great pop culture shout-outs (Miracle on 34th Street), some are tiny observations ("grandmothers save paper to use next year"), but all ring very true.

"Promises to Keep"


"Old City Bar"

Tran-Siberian Orchestra is definitely not for all tastes. Some people love them, some people think of them as too manufactured and gimmicky. While most of their music is hit-or-miss for me, their first album, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, is on my permanent Christmas playlist. "Promises To Keep" and "Old City Bar" are my favorites. Unlike much of TSO's music, which typically goes into hair rock/ synthesizer/ Meat Loaf territory, these two songs are so wonderfully subtle, both in regards to the music and the lyrics. Even the use of the children's choir in "Promises to Keep" seems utterly fitting. "Old City Bar" is perhaps one of the most underrated of TSO's songs. Not only does it promote the importance of acting kind to each other, it accomplishes this in a perfectly understated way without resorting to emotional blackmail or manipulative measures (I'm looking at you, "Christmas Shoes").

"Tennessee Christmas"

Judging from the amount of people I know from Tennessee who hate this song, it is obviously not universally beloved. However, I happen to enjoy this song (partially because I am originally from Tennessee), and it never really seems like the Christmas season to me until I hear this song. Try to ignore Amy's totally 1980s hair, makeup, and clothes from that horrible album cover.

"What Christmas Means to Me"

After all of those slow Christmas songs, I figured that we needed something a bit more upbeat. Actually, I think that, with this song, Stevie completely skips upbeat and goes all the way to blissfully happy. What's more, he is able to do it and not seem completely cheesy or insincere.

Christmas Songs I Hate, Part II

If part of you dies a little bit inside whenever you hear certain Christmas songs, this post is for you!
  • Most animal songs that involve Christmas - This includes any song done by the barking dogs. However, two that I find particularly horrific are "Dominick the Donkey" and "Chrissy the Christmas Mouse." Sweet baby Jesus, where to begin with how terrible these songs are. "Dominick the Donkey" actually includes braying. "Chrissy the Christmas Mouse," performed by Donald O'Conner and Debbie Reynolds (both of whom should have known better), is probably the most insipid songs ever created.
  • "A Howdy Doody Christmas" - I first heard this song when I worked at Pier 1, where it was on the Christmas music tape. After my coworkers and I stopped hyperventilating from the horror of it, it became one of the songs that we loved to hate. It was too bizarre to completely dismiss it, and so we resorted to mocking it every time it came on. Unfortunately, I can't find it on YouTube (I know that you are very sad about missing out). To give you an idea of what the song is like, just imagine a frightfully cheery Christmas song that would fit in a murder scene (probably directed by Quentin Tarantino) where someone gets stabbed or hacked to death.
  • "Warm and Fuzzy Time of Year" - Just the name makes me want to find and maim Billy Gillman. The only thing that could make this song less tolerable is when it features a creepy Howdy Doody puppet.
  • "Merry Christmas with Love" - This song has so much going against it. It is extremely sappy, it is kind of depressing, and it is performed by Clay Aiken, who has a rich, inoffensively bland voice. Whenever I hear this, I can't help but think that the carolers are really the woman's friends who are doing an intervention (through song).
  • "Same Old Lang Syne" - This shouldn't even count as a Christmas song, but radio stations tend to use it during the holiday season. While the song's plot takes place on Christmas Eve, I don't think that the holiday really matters. It could have taken place on July 4th or Flag Day or Arbor Day for all of the presence that the holiday has in the song. Anyway the narrator meets an ex-girlfriend at a grocery store and they drink beer in her car. Then a random Kenny G-esq solo ends the song. That's the basic plot. Tom Reynolds's I Hate Myself and Want to Die has a wonderful dissection of the song, and he makes a very valid point when he notes that "No matter how plaintively Fogelberg sings... it doesn't change the cold fact that nothing happens in this song."
  • "My Favorite Things" - I don't hate this song per se, but it really has no business being part of the Christmas/ holiday music rotation. Yes, it mentions a few wintry sort of things (snowflakes, silver white winters, etc.), but that is not a very sound rationale for considering this a Christmas song. It was in my family's Reader's Digest songbook, and even as a small child I found its inclusion suspect.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bizarre Specials of Christmas Past

Although Christmas is a time of joy, peace, and love, and it is also a time for over commercialization. Beyond the sometimes strange Christmas music that is everywhere during December, there are also the holiday specials to contend with. Some, such as White Christmas and The Muppet Christmas Carol, are great. Others (see the Lifetime holiday movies) are cheesy and predictable but fairly good-natured.

However, I've started remembering some very strange Christmas specials from years past. My parents, who were occasionally very supportive, used to videotape TV Christmas specials using our top loading VCR. In those pre-DVD, pre-cable days, these tapes were a constant source of entertainment. However, I've come to realize just how screwed up some of these specials really were.

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

I remember watching this one numerous times with my brother. It stars Joel Grey (of Cabaret and Wicked fame) as the voice of the clockmaker/ father. For the uninitiated, this is (very) loosely based on the poem of the same name. When I say loosely based, I basically mean that the story has nothing to do with the poem, which is used at the end of the cartoon. Anyway, Santa Claus refuses to come to a town because one of its inhabitants has written him a letter saying that the townsfolk don't believe in him anymore. Unsurprisingly, most of the people are heartbroken about this, but Joel Grey's character comes up with an idea to help the town get back into Santa's good graces. When I asked my brother if he remembered this cartoon, he actually was able to sing the song featured in the clip above. This was more than a little disturbing. However, my brother's freakishly accurate memory is not nearly as disturbing as the people in this cartoon, all of whom look very similar and vaguely inbred.

Christmas in Hawaii

I don't know why my parents thought that a Christmas special starring Perry Como and Marie Osmond would appeal to children. However, when you only have 4 channels, almost anything with bright colors is appealing, so my brother and I would occasionally watch this. Looking back, I can honestly say that I had no idea that Perry Como was in this until I looked it up on YouTube just now.

Andy Williams and the NBC Kids Search for Santa

I LOVED this special, and I mean that in a completely non ironic way. Starring a surprisingly spry Andy Williams and a bunch of 1980s era child stars (including a tiny Joey Lawrence) who I suppose were contractually obligated to do this, this show was far superior to Perry Como, Marie Osmond, and Hawaii (at least it was when I was seven). Although time hasn't been terribly kind to it (I can't get over how creepy it is that Andy Williams manages to take a bunch of kids to the North Pole without other chaperons), it still makes me smile even as I laugh at how utterly insane the entire premise is.

ETA: There are some very questionable sartorial choices in this clip (Joey Lawrence's Bigfoot slippers, Andy Williams's white socks). I'm also quite surprised at how lovely Joey Lawrence looks in this video - he's prettier than most of the girls. Also, while Malcolm Jamal Warner tries to play it cool and even seems a tad embarrassed, Alfonso Ribeiro seems completely into this number - I suppose that this kind of unquestioning enthusiasm served him well as Carlton on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Grading Frenzy

I have just finished grading over 130 essays in less than 24 hours. I think I deserve some kind of prize, but I will be happy to settle for several extra hours of sleep... Since a snowstorm is supposed to hit Boston tomorrow, maybe I will get that extra rest.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas Songs I Hate, Part I

Christmas songs are indeed a mixed bag. Some are truly inspired, and some are great because of their effervescent and unrepentant cheesiness ("All I Want For Christmas is You"). Unfortunately, there are several things that work against the quality of Christmas songs. Since there is money to be had in Christmas albums, EVERYONE puts out a Christmas album. This surfeit of albums often leads to rushed Christmas songs (there are only so many variations on the theme possible) or to strange covers of already established songs. Furthermore, while Christmas (at least in theory) is a time of peace, joy, and love, song writers tend to translate that into maudlin, trite, and emotionally manipulative.

Although I will do a post of Christmas songs that I do like, here are some of the ones that I have a particular aversion to. I've also helpfully included links to the songs, when possible, so that you can share in the pain. These are more than just your garden-variety annoying Christmas songs (like "Feliz Navidad" or "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth"); these songs take annoying to a whole new level:

"Hey Santa" - One of my most embarrassing things from my past is that I used to really like Wilson Phillips. Luckily, this only lasted for about a month in the 5th grade, so I was much wiser when two members of the group came out with "Hey Santa," which is a song that was universally reviled at the bookstore I worked at, perhaps because it was on constant rotation on the holiday mix that we were forced to listen. The perky melody, saxophone solo, and stupid harmonies still set my teeth on edge. It has Lite FM written all over it, and it is a rather stupid song (and an insultingly bad video).

"Where Are You Christmas?" - This song is from the travesty that is the live-action version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Jim Carrey and Ron Howard - you should both know better). Besides being from a horrible movie that probably still has poor Dr. Seuss whirling in his grave, this song is so syrupy that just listening to it is enough to rot teeth. I particularly hate the Faith Hill version of the song, which she does in full-throated, power ballad mode. My hatred for this version stems from the fact that, when I lived in Nashville, a radio station had it on constant rotation during the months of November and December. Whenever I heard that song when I was driving, I would frantically and violently dive for the radio controls, almost crashing my cute little CR-V in the process.

"Santa Baby" - Strangely enough, I don't hate this song as much as the other ones on the list. However, my siblings, particularly my sister, hate this song with the fire of a thousand suns. Besides the fact that it is almost a rite of passage for pop tarts to cover this song (Madonna, Taylor Swift, Kylie Minogue, Kellie Pickler, etc.), the song's entire vibe is simultaneously too materialistic and too cutesy for words. Whenever I listen to it, I get the image of Santa as sugar daddy, which is incredibly disturbing. The Madonna version is probably the most obnoxious, since she did it during her high-pitched, Betty Boop phase during the 1980s.

"The Christmas Shoes" - I've saved the most hated song for last, for I despise this song more than I can possibly convey in words. Worse yet, it was a huge hit that spawned a book and a tv movie, so it was, at least for a time, everywhere. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it is about a little boy who wants to buy shoes for his mother so that she will look beautiful for Jesus when she dies. Unfortunately, he doesn't have enough money for the shoes, so the man standing in line behind him, who is also the song's narrator, gives him the money and notes that God sent the little boy so that the man would feel heaven's love (or something of that nature). Just when you think that the song can't get any more saccharine, a children's chorus enters the picture and lisps the cloying chorus once more. Listening to this song is like being beaten with a sack filled with kittens or being drowned in a vat of pudding (TM Mike Nelson).

Once you get beyond the children's choir, you start to realize the entire emotional arc of the song is wrong. A self-absorbed guy gives a few dollars to a boy so that the boy can buy shoes for his dying mother? And this guy says that "God had sent that little boy to remind me what Christmas was all about"? Perhaps he should leave God out of it. All things considered, couldn't the Almighty have figured out another way to remind this self-absorbed douche what Christmas is about without having to resort to giving a small boy's mother a fatal disease? Beyond that, I don't think that Jesus is that much of a stickler for trends or footwear. I know that I am supposed to be touched that a little boy wants his mother to look pretty when she gets to heaven, but I'm more than a little disturbed at the thought that he is running around on Christmas Eve while his mother is apparently knocking on death's door.

By the way, someone did a parody version of this song called "The Christmas Thong." This is so wrong (yet funny) on so many levels. The story has changed somewhat: the guy is trying to get a job at Fredericks of Hollywood and a little boy comes in to buy some lingerie for his mom. The guy gets a glimpse of the mother's picture and decides to help the boy out. I'm not sure what's more upsetting: the fact that the little boy is buying a thong for his mother or the fact that the song's narrator is completely supportive of this venture.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Book Review: I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence

While David Sedaris is one of my favorite authors, I have a considerably more complicated view of his sister, Amy. Although I like Amy, I tend to prefer her in small doses. In a cameo or on a talk show, she is very charming and funny, but I can't imagine watching her for more than thirty minutes at a time. I greatly admire her wit and her complete lack of self-consciousness, but like eating an entire pound of Godiva in one sitting, I always thought she was just too much to take in large doses. However, her book, I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, which was first released two years ago and has just come out in paperback, may just change my mind about her once and for all.

For those of you unfamiliar with Amy Sedaris, she is a jack of all trades and a master of many of them. Besides acting in film (she's had cameos in approximately every other film to come out since 2002), theatre (The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told - a gay reimagining of the Genesis story) and television (Strangers with Candy), she is also a known baker (she sells her cupcakes in NYC), proud rabbit owner (not a euphemism - she has pet rabbits and even starred in a Microsoft commercial with rabbits), and gifted comedienne. All of these attributes are featured, in some form or fashion, in I Like You, a subversively humorous and surprisingly useful guide to hospitality.

In the book's introduction, Sedaris admits that she does not like joke cookbooks. Consequently, while some of the advice that she offers should definitely be taken with a grain (or even a shaker) of salt, her recipes are easy to follow and are typically very good. The recipes range from cupcakes and cheese balls to traditional Greek dishes, and Sedaris also includes menu suggestions, such as a meal for a first date and an alcoholic's menu (applesauce and chicken wings). Interspersed with the recipes are photographs of Sedaris and numerous arts and crafts as well as hints and tips for entertaining. While many of these tips are useful, there are certainly some ones that are made with tongue planted firmly in cheek; for instance, as a party game for children, she suggests taking the children to a part of town that they have never been to before and letting them figure out how to get home on their own.

While I Like You may never take the place of the traditional guides to etiquette and entertaining, it certainly deserves a place beside these books. This book makes a great hostess gift for the nontraditional hostess or as a wickedly funny (and slightly strange) reference for yourself. There is also an abridged, but still humorous, audio version, in which you can enjoy the craziness of Amy Sedaris in stereo. Trust me, as we get stand in the midst of the Christmas/Hanukkah/ Kwanzaa season, I Like You makes a great alternative to the ubiquitous songs about reindeer and snow.

Prop 8 - The Musical

What's better than a short musical with songs by Marc Shaiman, who wrote the songs for Hairspray? A short musical about Proposition 8 starring Neil Patrick Harris, John C. Reilly, and Jack Black, who plays Jesus. My personal favorite part about this is that Jack Black, as Jesus, points out some of the stranger things the Bible says, such as not eating shellfish and stoning people. In under three minutes, not only does Shaiman satirize society's complicated relationship with homosexuals (for instance, it notes that people don't mind homosexuals when they are making clothes or fixing hair), it also skewers the fact that Bible-thumpers tend to "pick and choose" which Biblical edicts to follow. Enjoy!

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die