Holiday Magic… and Mayhem

Happy holidays! Merry Christmas! Happy Kwanzaa! Season’s greetings! Merry Winter Solstice! Happy Festivus! New Year’s greetings! Belated Chanukah wishes! Peace to one and all! I love the holiday season. There’s good food, good spirits, meaningful traditions, and (usually) time off from work to spend with family. What’s not to love?

In our home, part of what makes it feel like the holidays is watching many of the beloved Christmas movies and TV specials for the umpteenth time. I’m sure you know the titles I’m talking about: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Elf, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (the original TV version, not the creepy Jim Carey movie), Miracle on 34th Street (the heartwarming 1947 version), Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and A Christmas Story, to name a few It's a Wonderful Lifeof the most popular (at least at our house). I don’t know how many times I’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life, but I can just be flipping through channels, catch five minutes of it, and start to tear up. I’m a fairly sentimental guy, so I have no problem in letting a film work on me in that way. Nevertheless, I have my limits.

Every year, a few more Christmas movies are made that compete for box office dollars, or space on network schedules. Unfortunately, for every Elf, The Santa Clause, or Love Actually made in recent years there are at least ten theatrical or cable-made Christmas movies that are either sophomoric, silly, or Saccharine-sweet. Those time wasters (I’m intentionally not mentioning titles to avoid endorsing them in any way), are just cynical attempts by producers to steal your money, or your time. Despite the cheeriness of the season, some of those movies make you angry that they wasted the resources in producing them. Angry enough to want an antidote. Therefore, in the spirit of Christmas, but with a serious mean streak, I will recommend ten Christmas season-set films that offer enough action and violence (sometimes in the name of comedy) to provide a catharsis and shake you out of that Lifetime/Hallmark Channel-sort of sugar shock you may be experiencing.

Most of the following films aren’t about Christmas, per se, but are set during the season and make various references, or allusions, to it. Nearly all of these movies are aimed at an adult audience, so think twice before gathering the entire family in the living room to share a Christmas movie together. The titles are listed in alphabetical order.

Bad Santa, 2003 – Billy Bob Thornton plays a department store Santa who uses the seasonal job as an excuse to case the Bad Santajoint before robbing it later; the tone of the film is very dark, and the characters are quite foul.

Batman Returns, 1992 – The second, and last, collaboration of director Tim Burton and star Michael Keaton , as Batman, has the added pleasure of Michelle Pfeiffer wearing a skin-tight costume as Catwoman (if that sort of thing interests you) and veteran actor Danny DeVito as Penguin (if that sort of thing interests you).

Die Hard, 1988 – The introductory installment of the series centering on NYPD officer John McClane remains one of the best action thrillers ever produced, turning TV star Bruce Willis into a major movie star; yippee ki-yay….

Enemy of the State, 1998 – Granted, the Christmas connection is pretty tenuous (the most overt reference is at the beginning of the movie when Will Smith is buying his wife a Christmas present), but this is a thrilling spy drama well worth a look.

Go, 1999 – Christmas Eve gets crazy for several young adults when a drug deal goes wrong and the ramifications twist through several relationships; this has been variously described as a rip off of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, or Akira Kurosawa’s Rashōmon, both of which are good sources from which to crib, if you ask me.

Gremlins, 1984 – The movie, which starts on Christmas Eve, shows teens the consequences of not following instructions, when the adorably furry mogwai becomes the title creatures; though rated PG (before the introduction of PG-13) this movie is probably too intense for many young viewers.

Kiss Kiss Bang BangHome Alone, 1990 – I realize that this comedy starred a child actor (Macaulay Culkin) and was aimed squarely at family audiences, but it’s also one of the most mean-spirited movies I’ve ever seen; sure, the criminals are bad guys and the setups are funny, the violence, however, is startlingly, disturbingly real.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, 2005 – Robert Downey plays a small-time East Coast hood who escapes to Hollywood, where he tries his hand at acting; this truly off-center action/comedy was penned by successful screenwriter Shane Black, who made his directorial debut with it.

Lethal Weapon, 1987 – Back when Mel Gibson was young, handsome and more guarded about his image, he made this in turns funny and exciting police detective buddy movie (co-starring Danny Glover).

Trading Places, 1983 – Although this movie is essentially a comedy, it’s a very dark comedy with elements of other genres, as well; and, of course, seeing Wall Street bigwigs get taken down is rather timeless.

Merry Christmas (or whatever holiday you’re celebrating) to all and to all a good movie!

The Beatles: From Singles Band to Album Artist

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, as of 2012, The Beatles have sold 177 million units in the United States, more than any other artist. Also as of 2012, Billboard magazine lists The Beatles as the record Beatles - Please Please Meholder for the most number-one hits on the Hot 100 chart with 20. Every major remaster, anthology, or compilation of Beatles material sets off yet another Fab Four buying frenzy.  I mention these things to help cut right to the chase. The Beatles were and remain one of the most significant music artists of the past 50 years, period. If you’re not a fan, you can argue all you want as why that is, but what you can’t do is diminish their impact or lasting resonance.

All right, that’s out of the way. Let’s get to it. The significance of The Beatles isn’t tied to any one thing. They were important for any number of reasons, including exploring and combining different musical styles, adding complex Beatles - A Hard Day's Nightinstrumentation (especially string arrangements) to previously bare-bone rock and roll songs, and to using the newest recording technology to improve and expand their sound. That’s all great stuff, but I’m not going to talk about any of that. Instead, I’m going to talk about how The Beatles helped lead the move away from the primary sales format being the single to becoming the album.

From the beginning of recorded music, the single was king. That’s because technology hadn’t evolved enough to make course-groove (most commonly 78 rpm) records hold more than a few minutes of material. Music artists Beatles - Beatles for Saleconcentrated on having “hits,” that is, single songs that would sell 78s. When course-groove records started being phased out in the late 1940s in favor of micro-groove (45 rpm singles, 33 rpm albums) records, the single remained dominant. Most album sales were concentrated on Broadway musical scores, classical music pieces, or greatest hits collections.

Things remained that way into the 1960s. At that time, it was still a common practice to intentionally leave a song perceived to be a possible hit single off an album in order to sell more vinyl – the thinking being that more people would be willing to buy a single than would ever be interested in purchasing a much more expensive album. The typical album of the day was like a collection of b-sides (the usual throwaway song on the lesser side of a single, Beatles - Rubber Soulthe “hit” side being the a-side), fine, if you were a huge fan of the artist, but nothing anyone else needed to own.

The Beatles were instrumental in changing that thinking. The commercial success they’d achieved with their self-penned songs as singles had already allowed them to take a much higher degree of career control than was usual for the time. Previously, nearly all artists (Bob Dylan being another notable exception) relied on their recording companies to purchase material from recognized songwriters for them to record. John Lennon and Paul McCartney being among the most talented and prolific songwriters of the day, however, meant that the band never hurt for material. That’s not even considering the occasional nuggets provided by George Harrison and Ringo Starr.

The initial days of Beatlemania were a hectic time. The band was busy touring the globe, making movies, and occasionally stopping somewhere long enoughBeatles - Revolver to knock out another single or two, though even the b-sides were proving to be winners. That meant that there was little time to spend in the studio working on albums that their record company (Parlophone in the UK, Capitol in the US) didn’t consider terribly important anyway.

The quality of the Lennon-McCartney catalog was such that the suits had more potential hits than they could release as singles. Whereas the first Beatles albums contained covers of songs by other composers, the band soon had the confidence and the clout to demand that a Beatles album contain nothing but their own compositions.

Beatles - Sgt. Pepper'sAs talented as the Liverpool lads were, they were also incredibly fortunate to be teamed with an innovative producer in George Martin. Martin encouraged them to be creative, to try new styles and instrumentation. In essence, he gave them unprecedented permission to play around with their sound. It was a perfect match, each pushing the other to do more.

When Rubber Soul was released in March 1965, it was their first album to contain songs by all four members and not a single one by an outside composer. The Beatles’ previous albums were already selling unaccustomedly well for the time, but Rubber Soul was something more than a leap forward in sales, it was a statement. They were serving notice to the world that an album could be more than a collection of leftovers, oddities and misfires, it could beBeatles - Magical Mystery Tour a work of art.

When Revolver was released 14 months later, it set the bar even higher. Just two months after that, the August 29, 1966 show at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park would be their last regular concert. From then on, instead of putting time into touring, they threw all of their energy into recording. In 1967, the band put out both Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour (an EP in the UK, expanded to an LP in the US).

The Beatles were known to be competitive and they listened to albums by other important artists, then tried to trump them. Whatever the genre, The Beatles seemed capable of equaling, or surpassing, the results of their fellow musicians, whether it be rock and roll, pop, folk, psychedelia, or metal (just Beatles - The Beatleslisten to the song Helter Skelter, if you don’t think that The Beatles were among the chief progenitors of that then-new genre).

To be fair, singles did remain a focus of their efforts (the mega-hit Hey Jude, for example), but their massive album sales proved to the industry that the LP was the format of the future. The Beatles released three more original albums in the next three years: The Beatles (commonly called The White Album), Abbey Road, and Let It Be (though Abbey Road was released before Let It Be, it was actually recorded after). Each album sold phenomenally well and each still ranks high with music critics. For all the band’s success, however, things were coming apart, as the documentary film Let It Be attests. By the time of their breakup in April 1970, however, they had left a legacy that may never be equaled.

Let’s return to the present and talk about what’s happening now. Since theBeatles - Yellow Submarine advent of digital downloads, the numbers of overall album (discs plus downloads) sales have dwindled, while sales of singles have increased sharply. That, however may be misleading, as downloads of full albums were not originally available from most online sources, which limited sales to singles only. That’s no longer the case and so, for the first time in several years, overall album sales actually increased in 2011. Who knows what the future holds for single versus album sales, but for the present, albums remain paramount.

Just for the “record,” when Rolling Stone magazine compiled their series “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” earlier this year, four Beatles albums made the top ten (still another was at fourteen). Three of those top ten albums Beatles - 1were in the top five, with one of those (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) grabbing the top spot. That’s what I mean by legacy!

The Des Moines Public Library has all of The Beatles’ official album releases, as well as the major compilations. Find out why The Beatles are held in such esteem, visit your nearest branch of the DMPL, where CDs check out for three weeks at no charge.

John Wayne – The Spoiler Alert Post

Two months ago, I started this blog with a post about Iowa-born movie icon John Wayne. At the end of that post I mentioned that I would return to The Duke at a later time in full spoiler alert mode. Well, here we are, so if you don’t like to know the outcome of movies that you haven’t seen, you may not want to proceed past the first four paragraphs of this post.

Sands of Iwo Jima

Looking death straight in the eye

John Wayne appeared in over 160 films and starred in almost all of them.  He was top billed in many low-budget Western programmers and a lot of routine, if much bigger-budgeted, movies of all types, though usually with the accent on action. On occasion, Wayne showed himself capable of delivering truly fine performances, but he usually stuck to portraying the same basic character:  a larger-than-life, take-charge hero.

The quintessential Wayne character was patriotic with a capital P. The roles he played were often so establishmentarian that anyone expressing a contrary opinion was subject to his wrath, even if that contrary opinion might seem reasonable, or even laudable to some audience members. In real life, Wayne was fervently right wing and he wasn’t afraid to let people know it. His film roles usually mirrored that personal stance. As a result, I’ve met many people over the years who refuse to watch John Wayne movies, even the noteworthy ones, as a matter of principle. To them I say, “You’re missing out on some really great movies!” (See my original Wayne post titled “Me and The Duke” for ten such titles.)

King of the wild frontier

King of the wild frontier

As a film fanatic, I try to overlook any personal qualities of cast or crew that might prevent me from enjoying an otherwise rewarding movie. That’s why, for instance, I can still go to a Tom Cruise movie and enjoy the experience (if the film is a good one, obviously) even though several of his television appearances of recent years would indicate, in the minds of many, that he holds some questionable opinions on a variety of subjects. So it is with John Wayne. I don’t necessarily agree with his purported politics, but I’m not about to let that keep me from viewing a worthwhile flick. When it comes to movies, I just agree to disagree. For those who can’t get past his politics, however, I’ve compiled a list of films that Wayne detractors, or fans, for that matter, may enjoy.

SPOILER ALERT from this point on — In 1972 when Wayne was fatally shot in the back by little-known supporting player Bruce Dern (an actor then typically cast as seedy bad guys) in the Western The Cowboys, it seemed almost sacrilegious. The prevailing sentiment was “no one kills John Wayne, especially in such a cowardly manner as that.”  Surprisingly, Wayne had begged to play the role, willingly starring in what might be termed a revisionist Western. Apparently, in a time of great cultural change, even Wayne was interested in toying with his image.

Hey, Duke, watch your back!

Hey, Duke, watch your back!

Wayne, in fact, had been killed in movies previous to The Cowboys, though never in such surprising fashion.  His prior deaths, most of which had come much earlier in his career, were more in keeping with the growing mythic nature of Wayne as movie star. The following titles have at least two things in common,  1) they’re all very good films, and 2) The Duke was killed on screen in each of them. So, without further ado, here’s the list:

  1. Reap the Wild Wind, 1942 – Wayne plays the captain of a clipper ship that wrecks in the Florida Keys, but survives, at least until the climax involving a giant squid;
  2. The Fighting Seabees, 1943 – as Lt. Cmdr. Wedge Donovan, Wayne is the head of a WWII construction battalion assigned to build military sites on Pacific islands and fight Japanese forces at the same time;
  3. Wake of the Red Witch, 1948 – again, Wayne is a ship’s captain who, I kid you not, battles a giant octopus;
  4. Sands of Iwo Jima, 1949 – hard-as-nails marine Sgt. John Stryker drills his trainees mercilessly before leading them against Japanese forces in the Pacific in the famed WWII Battle of Iwo Jima;

    He died with his boots on

    He died with his boots on

  5. The Alamo, 1960 – Wayne directed himself as Col. Davy Crockett in the historic battle between Mexican troops and Republic of Texas fighters – anyone the least familiar with history knows this one doesn’t end well for The Duke;
  6. The Cowboys, 1972 – out of necessity, rancher Wil Andersen (Wayne) hires a bunch of inexperienced teenaged boys to help move his herd to market, with, shall we say, mixed results;
  7. The Shootist, 1976 – in his final film, Wayne plays a cancer-riddled gunfighter looking for a heroic way to go out, and he gets his wish.

With the exception of Wake of the Red Witch, all of the movies on The Duke Dies list are available at the Des Moines Public Library. Click on any linked title and you’ll find yourself in our library catalog, ready to request that movie. DVDs check out for a week at the cost of $1 per title. With a DVD limit of ten, you can turn any week into your own personal film festival!