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December 23, 2009

The Dregs of Christmas

This year, I thought I'd do a brief rundown listing some of my favorite, for various reasons, holiday movies and TV specials. These are titles I don't tire of seeing year after year. They really do hold up.

I'm working on the next Trek entry, but it looks as though it isn't going to come together until after the holiday (please try and contain your disappointment!). The good part is, the next entry will be a two-episode hot kiss at the end of a wet fist, so prepare yourselves!

In the meantime, you can tide yourself over with a small gallery of all the Star Trek ornaments on our Christmas tree this year. Go check it out here. We also have many Lord of the Rings, Peanuts, Looney Tunes, Harry Potter, Scooby Doo, and other geek culture things (not to mention all the dog and cat ornaments). This tree truly does represent its owners.

So on to the list, in no particular order:

1. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) I just can't get tired of this classic Chuck Jones TV special. It represents the spirit of the season as well as being faithful to the book. It's very funny and sweet at the same time. Another thing I appreciate about this version is its efficiency: the program doesn't overdo it or add unneeded schmaltz. FAR superior to the feature film version (and don't get me started on the Horton movie). And if that isn't enough, need I mention Boris Karloff?

2. Holiday Inn (1942) As some of you know, this movie is a tradition with my family: we watched it nearly every year while I was growing up. We all know it so well that we tend to speak entire lines of dialogue from it while it's running. This movie, of course, originated the mega-holiday-juggernaut-hit, "White Christmas." No, it wasn't the movie White Christmas (1954), even though it is more recognized and has a somewhat similar plot. Holiday Inn, despite its cheesiness is a lot of fun for me. Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire are always entertaining with lines like, "A gentle smile often breeds a kick in the pants." Some of the songs aren't exactly Irving Berlin's finest, but they do at least have a certain cheeky fun to them. Heck, the movie is worth watching for Astaire's firecracker dance alone.

3. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) I don't need to tell you all much about this one. I've been a fan of it since I was very young, so much that I remember making a cassette tape recording of the special's audio so I could listen to it over again. No VCR at the time: I put the microphone of the tape recorder close to the TV speaker. Seriously high tech! Unsurprisingly, the voices used for the Peanuts characters in this special are the ones I still consider to be the "real" voices. The others just don't seem as right to me (ah, impressionable youth!). Looking at the show today, I love the music (classic stuff) and the humor still makes me laugh: "We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It's run by a big eastern syndicate, you know." The animation is crude, but it totally fits the material and this holiday special isn't afraid to come out and talk about the actual holiday. I'm not really a Christian and am as far away as possible from the "war on Christmas" BS, but I've always appreciated the way that this special gets to the point of the holiday in an honest way. It sure beats, "Jesus is the reason for the season."

4. Love Actually (2003) This, in my view can't really be called a classic, (hasn't been around long enough) but I've seen this film often enough to recognize its value as a holiday staple. It may not age well in the long run, but I still find this "feel good" movie to be one of my favorites. Yes, it really does deserve the "feel good" label! The film manages to blend its amusing and bittersweet elements with an overall humanity that really works for me. The film occasionally loses control of its large collection of stories and characters, but manages to pull it together in the end. The conclusion, which tidies up many of story lines, has just enough uncertainty to keep it somewhat grounded in the real world. Not all the relationship issues are resolved happily or with the sentiment of a greeting card. If nothing else, the story surrounding Bill Nighy's aging rock star character makes the film worth watching.

5. It's a Wonderful Life (1946) Again, I don't really need to give this one much explanation. It too was viewed on a regular basis when I was growing up. The movie has enough sentimentality ("sentimental hogwash!") for ten holiday movies and is often dismissed because of it or enjoyed only on that level. Beyond the main message of this movie, the things that keep me from getting bored with the film are the complexities of the ideas, the characters, the great performances of the cast, and the interesting way the film is structured. The guy who writes DVD Savant has a really interesting take on the film here. He talks a bit about the background of the movie and a very interesting theory about the way it's put together. I highly recommend reading it if you're a fan of this film. One quote:

"It would be fun to write a version of It's a Wonderful Life from Henry Potter's point of view. Potter only wants to bring order and frugality to a messy, mongrelized population and that upstart pipsqueak Bailey keeps gumming up the works.

Other character sketches are so rich they seem to indicate lives outside the movie proper. What was the sordid truth behind poor Violet Bick's reputation? Did Uncle Billy's transgressions drive his brother Peter to an early death? Just what did Miss Davis (Ellen Corby) need the $17.30 for? While George was propping up Bedford Falls, did the notorious playboy Sam Wainwright run Harry Bailey for congress on his war record, and warp American values by passing legislation favoring the plastics industry?

And what about Mr. Welch (Stanley Andrews), the unhappy husband of George's kids' schoolteacher, Mrs. Welch? Mr. Welch hits George for making his wife cry. He's the villain of the moment, but imagine a one-act play about life at the Welch family. They have no kids; she's underpaid and he's out of work. They're trying to be cheerful on Christmas Eve when an unreasonable parent accuses Mrs. Welch of endangering a student, Zuzu. Mrs. Welch breaks down in tears. Mr. Welch stomps out to get drunk. It sounds like something from James Joyce." Classic stuff.

6. A Christmas Carol (aka "Scrooge" 1951) This warhorse has been done a lot, but this is maybe the best filmed version. I also get a kick out of the Muppet version.

7. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) This is the one Rankin/Bass special I will still sit through and is the standout. Sure, the Rudolph song was written for a retail store jingle originally, but the story is good and has a message of tolerance (those commie 60s hippies!); come on, it has a gay dentist as a major supporting character! The old rickety stop-motion animation makes the Charlie Brown specials look sophisticated, but it's still endearing. And today, the message contained in the song, "There's Always Tomorrow," that you can always put off making your dreams come true, is a bit of a downer if you think about it very much. But really, who cares? We're all residents on that Island of Misfit Toys at one point or another.

OK, that's it for this year. I'm sure I'm leaving something out, but there's always tomorrow...

Have a great holiday, everyone (whatever you're celebrating) and stay ahead of the weather!

December 22, 2009

"Look, the Giant Chicken's Boba Fett!"

We caught the movie, Up in the Air (2009) over the weekend. I liked it quite a bit: there were a few things that stood out about it for me. The film struck the right balance, IMO between the need to take some of its subject matter seriously (the bad economy/people losing their livelihoods) and at the same time have a likable, if not always sympathetic main character. The screenplay does help this along, but part of the credit must go to George Clooney who really digs into this role. It's hard to imagine someone else playing the part. Sure, this isn't something you need to run out and see at the theater, but I'd say at least give it a rent when it appears in a few months.

I am also planning on checking out the ultra-hyped Avatar soon. I'm not the biggest fan of James, "King O the World" Cameron, but this one does look like it'll be worth checking out, at least for the 3D/effects.

Here's the batch of new titles for this week:

(500) Days of Summer (2009) Also on BD.

All About Steve (2009) Also on BD.

American Pie Presents: The Book of Love (2009) The owners of this "brand" should just go ahead and launch the "American Pie Channel." Also on BD.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (2009) Also on BD.

District 9 (2009) Also on BD.

Extract (2009) Also on BD.

Family Guy: Something, Something, Something, Dark Side (2009) Also on BD.

Ichi (2008)

It Might Get Loud (2008) Also on BD.

Staten Island (2009) Also on BD.

And hey, I hope everyone has a fun and happy holiday. If you're traveling through the impending winter storm, drive safely and best of luck on those flights!

December 16, 2009

"There's a special rung in hell reserved for people who waste good scotch."

Greetings from extra-cold MN!

We have a new Trek entry coming soon. In fact, there will be two before the end of the month. It's obviously more than you can handle!

I'd have gotten this week's entry up sooner, but there's this pesky thing called "holiday shopping."

So, here's the list for this week:

G-Force (2009) Also on BD.

The Hangover (2009) Also on BD.

Inglourious Basterds (2009) Also on BD. DVD Savant has an interesting review of the movie here.

The Other Man (2009) Also on BD.

The Paper Chase: Season 2

Taking Woodstock (2009) Also on BD.

The Tudors: Season 3

Star Trek: The Original Series - Season 3 TOS Season 3 comes to BD--as before, both enhanced and original effects versions are included. Rejoice: "Spock's Brain" is now "watchable" in 1080p!

December 8, 2009

"Being me... has its privileges."

December really has hit here in MN: our first real snow of the season (yes, I know some of you have already had a fair amount). I got the latest Trek blog entry posted and we should be recording the next podcast any day now. I did watch the BD of the new Star Trek movie and still enjoyed it; my opinion hasn't really changed from last May. The picture and sound quality of the BD were, as expected, exceptional. I may sample the bonuses at some point, but I'm not expecting anything Vulcan-shattering (sorry!).

So, on to this week's new releases.

The Brigitte Bardot Classic Collection

Get Smart: Season 5

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) Also on BD.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Ultimate Edition) Yes, another version of the Potter movies (and certainly not the last). This time they offer up both theatrical and extended cuts of the films. I haven't heard whether these versions, usually around 10 minutes extra per film, really add much over the theatrical cuts. It seems a lot less significant than the Lord of the Rings extended versions. Also on BD.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Ultimate Edition) Also on BD.

Julie and Julia (2009) Worth watching for Streep's performance, if nothing else. Actually I thought the movie was otherwise pretty okay. Also on BD.

Lost: Season 5 Also on BD.

Public Enemies (2009) Also on BD.

World's Greatest Dad (2009) Also on BD.

TOS Rewind #35: "I, Mudd"

This time we take a look at I, Mudd (11/03/1967).

Eric, Rob, Andy, and I did a podcast. Check it out here.

I mentioned when talking about "Catspaw" that I felt that the creators weren't always sure whether they wanted to be serious or not. Well, this time they had their tongues surely planted in cheek. This episode has a load of goofy material in it and often goes from one gag to another. A real problem for me is that they have this plot that's all too easy to poke holes in. The whole thing isn't all that satisfying but does have its moments. The first act, where the robot Norman takes control of the Enterprise, is too rushed for its amount of detail (they have to explain how he takes over the ship) and too long for a quick, if unimportant, "get them to the planet" plot point. Kirk and the crew just seem to shrug and wait it out once they become aware of Norman's actions. The whole thing just doesn't seem right for the characters.

Harry Mudd gets a proper introduction with the other robots and even introduces the replica of his ex-wife. Otherwise, all the other robots (save for Norman) are hot women in skimpy outfits, causing Chekov to exclaim, "this is even better than Leningrad!" After the plot is in full swing, it's time once again for those crafty humans to outwit the machines with a full-on Shatner speech: I believe at this point in the series, the Kirk talking the machine to death thing has officially become a joke. The head robot Norman is "smoked" by the humans' erratic behavior and a simple logic loop. Wow, there's some high tech, there! I really have trouble taking their plot to "serve" the galaxy very seriously and wonder why they didn't just go for something simpler. The penultimate scene where they leave Mudd on the planet with 500 "unlocked" ex-wife robots does indeed seem like a suitable fate for Harry (but of course, the character returns in an episode of the Animated Series)

Roger Carmel is back playing Mudd and he's fun to watch as he embraces the part with gusto. I usually resist using the word, "gusto" but it just seems apt in this cast. The rest of the cast gets to do some pseudo-improv during the scenes where they're attempting to overload the robots. Shatner goes between being cranky and whimsically sarcastic. I still find some of that amusing and I believe the cast had fun doing the scenes. Hell, it's a lot more than James Doohan usually got to do.

Interesting notes:

Norman is the only robot who talks, well, like a stereotypical robot. All the female "models" talk normally.

Kirk and Spock are the only members of the landing party not to be at all tempted by something the robot population has to offer. I'm surprised they didn't have some android babe try to go after Kirk. This time, it's all-business for the Captain. Also, I notice how Uhura is potentially "bought" with the offer of an immortal robot body. Chekov is ready to settle down with all the chicks and McCoy and Scotty get tempted by work-related labs and stuff. What does that tell you? That Uhura, always thinking about her looks...

The doors on the planet set look awfully similar to the Krell doors of "Forbidden Planet." Hmmm...

Of course I didn't really care about this stuff growing up. I always liked watching the shenanigans of I, Mudd and found the last half very amusing. The sight of those familiar characters acting like that for one episode was quite entertaining.

I watched the remastered version of this episode. Besides the usual ship/space/planet shot replacements, I noticed that they spruced up the part where Norman reveals the little access panel on his stomach. One of those times where it didn't really add nor detract from the episode.


Now let's turn it over to Eric:

This is going to be another short review, partly because of the holidays but mostly because there is nothing particularly profound about "I Mudd." It is essentially a satire, a lighthearted romp through silliness that often strays into surreal absurdity. The only themes that have any resonance are two that we've discussed before and are perhaps overused in original Trek: "Man vs. Machine" and "Man vs. Idyllic existence." (For more satisfying treatments, see "This Side of Paradise" and "Return of the Archons.") With both of these themes, Kirk fulfills the role he has in the past: advocate for the ascendancy of humanity over machines (in this case androids) and pleader for the human spirit's need for freedom and challenge.

The androids, by way of Norman, show the shortcomings of artificial intelligence--it lacks the human capacity to devise its own sense of purpose. (This is an interesting point, although many humans, despite being blessed with "organic intelligence," also suffer from that same difficulty.) In addition, the androids, with the possible exception of Norman, are incapable of original, independent thought. And even in Norman, this capacity is stunted at best. So naturally, it is human creativity, irrationality, and out-of-the-box thinking that wins the day.

Mudd, on the other hand, represents the "evils" of an idyllic existence (albeit one in captivity). Apparently it makes one fat, lazy, and pointless. The lesson is lost, however, when one refers back to the first season episode "Mudd's Women" and sees that Harry Mudd has always been fat, lazy, and pointless. In any case, Kirk and crew are able to escape only when they reject the "gilded cage" offered by the androids. And as a kicker, even Mudd (who clearly relishes having the androids to fulfill his every whim) is willing to join forces with Kirk to win his freedom.

So the themes in "I Mudd" are retreads from earlier episodes, and their treatment and resolution is notably unremarkable. This episode is hardly a gem, but if you watch it expecting nothing more than a light satire, it is still enjoyable.

Next time: "Metamorphosis"