Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Bing Crosby Show for Clairol (1962)

From Bing Crosby: The Television Specials Volume 2 - The Christmas Specials

I laughed aloud very early on in this one, but it wasn’t at a joke. It was the announcer talking about the sponsor, Clairol: “The natural look, so appealing in a woman.” Different times.

This special, unlike the first, is in color. The DVD we had gives it a slightly fuzzy quality, but it’s definitely in color. I’m not sure anyone told the set designer, though. Most of the special takes place in a featureless gray void which is rather depressing.

There’s two credited co-stars for this special: Mary Martin and AndrĂ© Previn. Ms. Martin switches back and forth between charming and tedious, but Previn, a pianist and composer, is fairly amazing. Too bad he doesn’t get to do more here.

We open with a long, illogical sequence full of dancers in decent costumes doing mediocre choreography in front of that ugly gray void. Bing has a number I can’t recall, and then Mary Martin sings for far too long about nothing. Really, her number is about the music in everyday life, which starts out fine, but then she has to go into a million and a half examples. There’s a dance number where a bunch of fit young dancers imitate Crosby’s slacker aesthetic, which also completely squanders the color format. And again, I guess it’s part of his thing to be half-hearted, but he just looks pathetic compared to actual dancers.

Then a great jazz piece comes out of nowhere. Thanks, Previn!

Martin and Crosby have a duet that’s meandering and far too long, and then Previn is back with an absolutely fabulous “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”. Oh right, this is a Christmas show!

Suitably reminded, Crosby sings “Little Drummer Boy” with a back-up choir who are reduced to dwarfs by a badly chosen camera angle, and then the finale. Oh, the finale!

We’re doing Christmas “all over the world”, complete with the United Nations Children’s Choir, each delightful cherub in, shall we say, ‘ethnic dress’. It’s like It’s a Small World brought to life. Bing’s casual style completely undermines the potential sincerity of this tableau, so we can safely point out the silly things while the children gamely sing “Let There Be Peace On Earth”. The kids are distracted and poking at each other’s clothing. Israel is very young, and appears to be crying. Denmark (I think), lifts up her skirt in an attempt to remove her shoes during the final number. I love kids on stage.

Of course, we close again with “White Christmas”.

There are some good segments here, but overall this is just too long and tedious. I felt bad for Mary Martin, who had to swan around in an assortment of unflattering dresses. Maybe it was the style of the time.

Here’s a recording of Previn’s great arrangement of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Now you can skip the rest.

(It’s hard to hear the harp in there, but it’s still nice.)

Oh, and here’s a bunch of great pictures, featuring the featureless gray void, the shrunken choir, and a couple shots of the kids:

The Bing Crosby Show (1961)

From Bing Crosby: The Television Specials Volume 2 - The Christmas Specials

This is a very very weird TV special. A lot of it is just impenetrable references and stylistic choices that made sense in the context of the day… maybe. It’s in black-and-white, and the definition on the DVD we watched was really sharp. Almost too sharp, it often emphasized the weaknesses in the writing to be seeing the actors so clearly. It opens with a rousing song about judgement day, and then proceeds to ignore the fact that it’s supposed to be set at Christmas for the next hour.

It’s mostly about Crosby wandering around England in search of distant relatives, making thin excuses for cameos by British singers and actors. He looks sort of dazed or drunk, often glancing off-camera as if for a cue card. However, I think this is generally just part of his shtick.

We start up the main sequence with a long sequence in a tea shop, with a selection of songs and lazy choreography. Some of the jokes are almost cute if you’re in the right mood.

Next Crosby runs briefly afoul of the law for busking, and there’s another excuse for a song in a boring courtroom sequence. The comedy sequence with a genealogist had a few laughs in it, the poor character actress playing a street artist didn’t really have much to do.

Shirley Bassey does some awkward lip-syncing in an uncomfortable looking dress, and we’re finally in the home stretch. Crosby arrives at his “aunt’s” tavern, we have some ‘lovable local’ types and some good old-fashioned Irish jokes, and Bob Hope arrives to mug a bit for his cameo.

Finally the special closes on what else? "White Christmas."

This supposedly set the stage for all the multitude of Bing Crosby holiday specials that came after it, but outside of that context, there’s really no reason to watch it today.

Bing Crosby: The Television Specials Volume 2 - The Christmas Specials

This is a collection of four of Bing Crosby's Christmas specials. I'm not going to go into detail about the individual content of each episode here - we'll do that in separate reviews. Instead, I wanted to talk a little about the experience of watching this as a whole.

I'd expected the experience to be tedious, which I suppose it was at times. Not what I want to discuss right now, though. It was also occasionally funny, interesting bizarre....

Not the subject, either.

What I want to talk about is a narrative that you can't help but notice watching this thing. The specials on this collection were from 1961 to 1977; that means he was nearing 60 when the first of these aired. His days as a major movie star were behind him, and his fans were aging. I'm sure a lot of the guests in his first special were famous at the time, but damned if I've heard of many.

Crosby almost always has a sort of laid-back style to his acting and singing, as if he knows it doesn't matter if he tries or not, because the world will love him, anyway. I don't think that's what's really going on, but I think he was trying to convey the idea. He was too cool to take any of it seriously, and he always saw some joke that everyone else - audience included - was missing.

The first special is bizarre, even by the standards of Bing's Christmas specials. It's filmed in England, and features very little content to distinguish it as a Christmas special - the only holiday song is the last: he closes with the song he was most closely associated with: White Christmas.

The second, from 1962, is notable mainly for being the first of these shot in color. They joked about this, and made sure there was no shortage of colorful props around to exploit the technology. The set designer didn't seem to get the memo, though: this was filmed in a dull, grey hall.

Most of this was devoted to Crosby trying to impress Mary Martin. The end featured three Christmas songs, the last of which was - of course - White Christmas.

The third jumps ahead to 1971. At this point, Crosby is nearly 70, though he doesn't look much older. Robert Goulet and Mary Costa are featured in this, along with Crosby's wife and kids. This thing is Christmas start to finish: the set is decked out for the holiday, and the music is geared towards the holiday. Putting Crosby's family on television probably wasn't the best idea: they don't exactly pull their weight. Do I even have to tell you how they close this? At least there are some jokes about who will sing it, before Crosby reminds them this isn't a democracy.

The last special opens with an introduction by his wife, explaining that this was recorded earlier. The explanation is necessary, because Bing Crosby was dead by the time it aired.

Appropriately, this one was filmed in England, just like the first. His family is back: this time, there's a frame story about them going to visit some long-lost relative overseas.

It was only filmed six years after the previous special, but it's obvious the years have caught up to Crosby. He looks tired and can't move around like he used to. What most stood out to me, though, is that he actually seems far more engaged than before. In the earlier specials, I always felt like he expected the audience to woo him: here, it's the opposite. He's trying to remind people why they used love him, or perhaps why their parents loved him.

He's trying to stay relevant.

This is the special featuring the famous duet with David Bowie. In the special, Bowie doesn't know who Bing is. It comes off as an acknowledgement not just that he's aging, but also that he's fading from the public consciousness.

There are also a couple sequences involving ghosts Crosby encounters in the English house he's visiting. If the scenes were less substantial, I suspect they'd have been cut, but the first - involving the spirit of Charles Dickens - leads into an extended sequence with Twiggy, and the second was played by Bob Hope. The Hope section is bizarre - other than giving the two one last chance to share the stage, it doesn't add much. But the Dickens portion is fascinating. There'd be a melancholy subtext to the sequence even if Crosby hadn't died soon after. With that knowledge, it's almost impossibly tragic.

The special ends the only way it could: with Bing singing "White Christmas" one last time. Well, technically, he probably lip-synced it, but... stay with me here.

It was strangely affecting. Here's a guy who was, at one time, the most popular man alive. And, at the end, his career just boils down to that one song. Watching it, I found myself wondering if he'd come to love it or hate it. It had come to define his life. And, it turned out, his death - this is the last thing the world would see him do.

At any rate, I can't recommend sitting through all these specials to experience the unintended tragedy that ties them all together, but I did find the experience surprisingly fascinating.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Blackest Night of the Year

We started Black Friday late this year - about 9:30 PM on Thursday night (better known as Black Friday's Eve). Of course, Black Friday now begins at 12AM sharp the day before, thanks to benevolent retailer Walmart's decision to forgo closing at all.

Technically, shouldn't that read "Shop while you shop"?

By the time we arrived, things were relatively calm: no lines to get into the store, no pushing, only a moderate amount of shouting. The line to reach the checkout was of course absurd, but we weren't there to shop, anyway.

We were there to be around friends and family. Other peoples' friends and family, perhaps, but every one of the shoppers present had opted to be there instead of spending this time with loved ones, so - in a way - doesn't that connect us all in a deep and meaningful way?

I'm guessing that they were going to go with Comic Sans, but were worried people would accuse them of being elitist.  

We were surprised to see a large number of signs written with black marker on torn sheets of paper - perhaps their printer was broken, or maybe they simply wanted to avoid the high-priced official price tags and pass the savings on directly to their shareholders. It's difficult to say.

Walmart has really gone all out with these lovely handcrafted signs.

From there, we headed to Best Buy, where the line was so short we actually bought a handful of discounted DVDs, allowing us the luxury of truly participating in the festivities we love so much. After, we stopped by Toys R Us. The lines were short, but we didn't end up buying anything.

The lines at our last stop were more impressive - a third of Target's store had been transformed into an impulse buying section, courtesy of a line that snaked its way through health and beauty all the way though the section full of what they pass off as food.

We approached a couple near the front of the line. A barricade stood between us to differentiate those who stood waiting and those still selecting which big-screen TV they wanted to take home. We asked them how long they'd been in line: they told us it'd been at least an hour.

They were polite and seemed in good spirits, so we did not ask if it had been worth it.

This has certainly been a strange Black Friday's Eve. It's almost as if the border between Gray Thursday and Black Friday has evaporated completely. Like a dog coming across an unguarded turkey dinner, Black Friday has devoured its predecessor, digested it, and left a mess behind for us to examine. And when we look closely at these droppings, we simply see more of Black Friday.

Warms the heart, doesn't it?

If for some reason that doesn't increase the overall temperature of the organic pump lodged in the center of your circulatory system, perhaps this compilation of Black Friday shoppers coming together at Walmart stores all over the country to partake in the joy of season will do the trick.

Merry Black Friday, one and all! May the odds be ever in your favor.

Ruby Gloom: Happy Yam Ween (2007)

Man, when December rolls around, it’s hard out there for a kids’ show not set on Earth. You want to have a holiday episode, of course you do, but if it’s totally unbelieveable for your characters to celebrate Christmas (or Hanukkah, etc.) what do you, the writer do?

You could shoehorn Christmas in there anyway (See: He-Man and She-Ra) and you might get some camp value out of that, but even most kids’ll see the excuse for what it is.

Or you could make up your own original holiday that just so happens to resemble the winter-gift-giving-season we all know so well.

Now, sometimes this works really well, sometimes it sort of works, sometimes it’s just pathetic. Sometimes it’s just, well, strange. Enter: YamWeen.

Ruby Gloom takes place in an undefined Halloween-esque dimension, with a bunch of supernatural characters who are also kids. It’s not at all scary, just a little gothic in its aesthetic. One of the kids is a cyclops, one a skeleton, one friend is a talking raven and one a bat, etc. Under this surface stuff, though, it seems to often follow pretty standard kid-show scripts. Their holiday celebration (Yamween) is about friendship. Ludicrous decorations, gift-giving, food, and friendship. Okay. I guess when none of your characters have any known family to speak of, there’s really no place else to go with this. The origin of this holiday is pretty spectacularly dull, and the complications of the episode pretty standard (one character is worried that no one will get them a gift, one obsessed with every detail of the celebration, one embarrassed that they messed up something for the party, etc.) The resolution is fine, I guess, but it didn’t really leave a lasting impression.

If you need to watch holiday stuff with some kids and are bored to tears of other things, Ruby Gloom is at least visually unique. Other than that, I’d say you can safely skip this one.

Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972, 1973, or 1974, depending on who you ask)

Nothing says "Christmas" like absurdly low-budget horror.

Silent Night, Bloody Night (not to be confused with Silent Night, Deadly Night, which I still have to get around to) is a cheaply made horror movie revolving around an abandoned mansion in Massachusetts. If I cared one bit about spoiling this thing, I wouldn't tell you that the mansion used to be an asylum, a fact which only comes out in a flashback making up the majority of the movie's last act, nor would I let it slip that the asylum's supposedly dead owner is actually less dead than everyone supposes. But if didn't reveal all that, this review would be absurdly short, so you see my dilemma.

Before they reveal the mansion or town's dark history, we're treated to a Psycho-style bait-and-switch. A big city lawyer comes to town with his mistress (the movie makes a point of having him call home at one point, in case we didn't know he was married) to offer some of the locals a chance to buy the house cheap.

The four locals in question are all old and all weird. One, played by David Carradine's father, is mute and keeps ringing a bell. At any rate, they offer to put the big-shot lawyer up in a hotel, but he's planning on staying at the house.

Once we've wasted quite a bit of time on the happy couple, they're brutally murdered by an ax-wielding maniac. We never get a good look at their killer, but the movie tries to convince us it's Jeffrey Butler, grandson of the "late" Wilfred Butler. Jeffrey, who inherited the mansion years before, meets the mayor's daughter, who inherits the role of main character from the dead lawyer.

Jeffrey keeps disappearing to go look into things, so of course he could be the killer. But it's so obvious I can't imagine anyone was fooled. A bunch of characters we don't care about are killed, then Jeffrey finds his grandfather's diary and learns the horrible, horrible truth, which is a bit too convoluted to cover here.

The background of the mansion is the only part of the movie that comes off as remotely creepy, and even that is held back by melodrama. Still, it does have a sort of storybook nightmare vibe, which is better than nothing.

The rest of the movie is just kind of boring. It takes place right before Christmas, but - other than the decorations and music - that seems relatively superfluous. Sure, there's a connection to the mansion's history, but - again - it didn't really have to be set then to work.

The killer, of course, is the secretly-still-alive old man Butler, who - by my math - has to be pushing 80 or 90. I'm not entirely sure how he managed to lift an ax, let alone break out of an institution, drive to his old home, and sneak up on/murder five or so people. Seems like a bit of a stretch, honestly.

It's not the worst holiday-themed horror out there. In fact, there's a case to be made that it's fairly effective, taking into consideration its budget and the era it was made in. But that doesn't change the fact it's boring by today's standards and lacking the campy charm displayed by many of its contemporaries.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Special Black Friday Message from Mainlining Christmas

From all of us here at Mainlining Christmas, we'd like to wish you and your loved ones a Happy Black Friday. Remember who makes the season possible while you're macing a crowd of strangers tomorrow.

My Little Pony Friendship is Magic: Hearth's Warming Eve (2011)

YAY PONIES! This is an unusual sort of Christmas episode. Since Equestria has no relation to Earth, their midwinter festival is a bit different. It’s a holiday in honor of the founding of their land, and the friendship between the different sub-types of ponies. It’s clearly a Christmas-type holiday, though, complete with garlands, ribbons, bells, and a story from long-ago.

The main plot is that the characters are starring in a holiday pageant in Canterlot which dramatizes the story of the founding of Equestria. Most of the episode is this story-within-a-story, dramatizing the legend of the original leaders of the Unicorn, Pegasus and Earth clans. It’s about how their differences nearly destroy Equestria before it starts, but then their friendship saves the day. The warmth of their friendship drives away windigos, evil ice-creatures that feed on hatred and come close to starving all the ponies in an endless winter.

I kind of love that under the ‘friendship’ story, it’s a classic winter holiday. It’s about driving back the winter, and the people’s connection with the health of the land. It's really a solstice special. I mean, if you like overthinking cartoons. Which I do.

The tiny sub-plot about Fluttershy’s stage fright is cute, and all the characters get to exaggerate their normal personalities for their roles in the pageant. The episode closes with a traditional Hearth’s Warming Eve carol. The carol is cute, but not one of the better songs from Friendship is Magic, in my opinion.

I did enjoy this episode, it’s sweet, but it’s not one of the best episodes of this show. But that’s because the show is awesome. It’s a fun little half-hour, though, and a fun holiday treat.

Welcome Back

Welcome back.

I type those words, but they're misleading: none of us ever really left. How could we, with the Christmas season slowly stretching towards eternity? No, we've been here all along, keeping the yule log burning, the eggnog pouring, and the DVD player humming.

But, still, we've crossed a threshold. Black Friday's Eve is upon us once more, with turkey, mashed potatoes, throngs of screaming shoppers trampling each other to death, and cranberry sauce. A lot of people don't like cranberry sauce, but I've always been a fan of the stuff.

This year brings us something special. Well, really, it brings more of the same. But when the same refers to endless Christmas specials and a never-ending supply of holiday music, well... that's pretty special in its own right, isn't it?

You may be wondering what we still have left to watch after three years of this blog. If so, you're a poor, misguided fool with no conception of the depth this holiday offers. We've barely scratched the surface of the holiday, and that surface - like the Universe itself - is always expanding. Every year that passes brings more and more specials, direct-to-TV movies, and other opportunities to bury ourselves in Christmas cheer.

More art, more books, more music - my holiday set list is over 3,000 songs now and counting. More everything. Because that's what Christmas is: it's a time to buy yourself another flat-screen TV, time to watch another 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story, time to eat another dozen fruitcakes.

Don't be ashamed of being a consumer. Embrace it. Whether celebrating the birth of Jesus, Dionysus, or any of the other gods born around the winter solstice, this has always been the time to force down a little more, before it goes bad. Or, in the modern case of holiday specials, after.

Let the festivities begin.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Frozen (2013)

Cards on the table here: Lindsay and I don't agree on whether this even qualifies for the blog. She thinks it's not a Christmas movie because it technically takes place in the summer, has nothing to do with Christmas, and never once mentions the holidays by name. And those are valid points.

But here's where I'm coming from: I'm looking at a movie with five main characters where one's a talking snowman and another is a reindeer. A full 40% of the leads are Christmas tropes.

"Are there bells?" you may ask. Yes - hanging ice bells that the reindeer gets tangled in.

"But does the reindeer appear to fly?" you'll respond. There is a scene where the reindeer leaps over a ravine that's reminiscent of flight.

Let's add this all up:

xMY = (1.25 Talking Snowmen * Reindeer * Winter Wonderland)  / (No Santa * No X-Mas mention)

If I'm doing the calculations right, that still comes out to 2.71 megayules, which is well above the cutoff for Mainlining Christmas (as outlined in our charter). So then. Let's get to it.

Frozen, like the last four Disney princess movies, is a princess movie about how it's simultaneously a princess movie and not a princess movie. It wants to be part of the franchise, but at the same time it wants to subvert the genre's expectations.

This time, the primary deviation from the tradition formula is that it's about two sisters. There are potential love interests, too, but they're ultimately peripheral. Conceptually, that's awesome. In practice... well, the problem is that they focused too hard on the concept.

The plot plays out like the writers have put together a dissertation on why they should tell a story about two sisters. Major plot lines exist to drive home this point intellectually. It's clinical in its execution: there's genius in the structure but very little art. The film works well enough, but it never feels as mythic as I wanted it.

Fortunately, while the plot lacked heart, the characters were fantastic. The two sisters were great, the main love interest was fun, and the reindeer was sweet.

Then there's the snowman. Yeah, you've seen the trailers, you've seen the test video where he dances a hula, and you're dreading what he's going to do to this movie.

Throw those preconceptions out. He was awesome. He's a hilarious character, and he's the heart of the movie. Ostensibly, he shouldn't work in this world, but somehow he does. Well done, Disney. Well done.

I also loved the animation. Elsa's magic is breathtaking to watch: she's operating at a power level similar to Maleficent, but for once we get to really sympathize with her. Her scenes are a lot of fun. Just don't make her angry: she's extremely dangerous when angry.

The music is good, though I felt it was out of place. Stylistically, it evoked Broadway musicals when I wanted magic. Between the songs and the lack of mysticism in the story, this just didn't feel like a Disney fairy tale to me.

I found myself liking the movie more when I thought of Elsa as a mutant and the whole thing as a prequel to the X-Men movies. Maybe Arendelle becomes Latveria in a few hundred years.

All in all, this is a good Disney movie. It's nice to see songs taking a central role again, and I love that we're still seeing female characters as leads, as opposed to love interests. Disney has been getting good at this, and I hope they keep it up. At times, it feels like it was made by committee, but ultimately the characters are strong enough to overcome this issue.

It you need a break from the hustle and bustle that define the four-day Black Friday weekend, check it out.