Christmas Crazy: Christmas on Mars – Wayne Coyne (…of The Flaming Lips) (2008)

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There may be no more odd person ever to be set upon this planet than Wayne Coyne. It’s the genuine strangeness of a brain that fires its synapses in a different manner all together. It’s only a brain as strange as his that could claim credit to this kind of output, for Christmas on Mars is nothing but a series of strangeness.

It’s Christmas Eve on the newly colonized Mars and everything is going wrong for the colonists. Their oxygen and gravity generators are failing and it’s leaving everyone on edge as the colony’s first baby is due. In the oxygen deprived basecamp, Bethlehem 2055, people start having visions of the baby’s horribly wrong future — in the most horrible vision, the baby is born only to be left to be crushed to death by an oncoming marching band… who all have vaginas instead of heads, or, as Adam Goldberg’s psychiatrist puts it: “this vaginal-headed marching band from hell”. The colonist who has this vision, the man who was set to play Santa Claus later that night, promptly commits suicide by rushing out of the air lock.

Into the mix lands a Martian, played by Coyne. He says nothing, he just observes and wanders as the station’s crew slowly lose their sense of hope for their futures.

With it’s mix of 50s atomic age camp and oddball Flaming Lips style, it’s somewhat of a surprise that Christmas on Mars turns out to be something of a sincere nativity play, albeit an atheist interpretation of it. There is nothing traditional about it, but you wouldn’t want there to be. It’s not a film that was made for reverence or silence. It was made to celebrate to, and talk over, and to get drunk with friends to, which is basically how all Christmas movies should be anyway.

Christmas Crazy: Mon Oncle Antoine – Claude Jutra (1971)

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I’ve always found that the best kind of art is the coy kind, the kind that sneaks the seriousness in through the back door. The way Kurt Cobain used to hide the serious lyrics in a mishmash of nonsense and contradiction, or the way Bergman and Ozu could deal with death and broken dreams while still bringing the fart jokes. Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine is of that same mold, ostensibly a charming, somewhat sentimental tale of a rural Christmas from the point of view of Benoit, who at fifteen is trying to figure out his place in the cycle between his childish behaviors and his adult feelings.

The film is set in the 1940s, in a rural Quebec mining town that seems to revolve around the general store owned by Benoit’s foster family, uncle Antoine and aunt Cecile. It’s the kind of store where you buy your baby food, your wedding veil and, eventually, your coffin. In the early winter morning, everyone comes out in the cold to see the unveiling of the Christmas display in the window, but is really just a reason to get together and have a few drinks and gossip. To Benoit’s eyes — and to his foster cousin Carmen’s eyes — it’s a stuffy, vaguely oppressive environment, but the isolation of the town, where horse and sleigh are still legitimate means of transportation, leaves them bemused rather than moody and sullen until one of the miner’s children dies and Benoit and Antoine make the trip as undertakers.

It’s the first trip of the kind for Benoit, the first test of his adulthood. Will the adult overtake the child, or will the child remain? Though the film is 40 years old, it somehow becomes more relevant as the idea of delayed adulthood grips us. Jutra’s Christmas setting and balance social politics and wry comedy — mostly at the expense of the hapless townsfolk — is the perfect setup for this question. More subtly the question is also asked of Carmen, who has new feelings of her own to contend with while Benoit braves the snow to take a peek at death.

Christmas Crazy: Mixed Nuts – Norah Ephron (1994)

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As we edge ever closer Christmas and New Years and to the promise of completely failing on our newly needed diets, we discover that it is apparently both Christmas Craaaazy and Rita Wilson week here at OW Labs.

Wilson is given a somewhat more meaty role in Mixed Nuts than she was in yesterday’s film, Jingle All the Way. Here she plays Catherine, the mousy love interest to Steve Martin’s socially inept Philip. The pair work together at a suicide hotline in this Norah and Delia Ephron-penned take on the 90s LA Christmas experience and burgeoning middle-age love. The film is so hardcore 90s that it features Jon Stewart and Parker Posey as a pair of rollerblading yuppies whose run-ins with Philip set the plot in motion at several points. It’s not as classic a yuppie duo as Julia Louis Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest as the yuppies in Christmas Vacation, but it works for what it is.

Philip, of course, has no idea that Catherine is in love with him. He is in love with another woman who doesn’t really seem to like him all that much despite the fact that they’re engaged.  On top of that, he’s been lying about their ensuing eviction which will force the closure of the hotline and put Catherine out of a job.

Plot-wise, the film is a dead fish that just sits there on the screen staring back at you with lifeless eyes. The film’s comedy set pieces and gags — like Madeleine Kahn’s impromptu rap song in a broken elevator, and Schreiber (his first time in drag!) and Martin dancing through the apartment — are another story though, and that’s only to be expected when you fill out your cast with Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, Adam Sandler, Liev Schreiber, Gary Shandling and Robert Klein. The film doesn’t have the consistent rat-tat-tat pace to it like earlier Martin comedies, but there are more than a few gems to comb the beach for.

Mixed Nuts is a curious Christmas film in the sense that it only vaguely qualifies as a Christmas film. It’s more of an ode to the comic farces of the 30s with some nods to screwball comedies thrown in, but aside from using a Christmas tree as a prop to transport a dead body, this story could take place at any time of the year. Part of that stems from the fact that LA just doesn’t feel like Christmas. Coming from the Northeast, Orlando feels the same way at Christmas. It’s the palm trees and not being able to see your breath. Ephron highlights that, setting palm trees in spotlights behind Christmas trees and having snowmen rollerblade through Venice Beach. It’s disorienting set against the traditional It’s a Wonderful Life/White Christmas ideal that the movies give us, but that’s the reality for half of the country anyway.

Christmas Craaaazy: Jingle All the Way – Brian Levant (1996)

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It seems to be generally accepted that most Christmas films, Die Hard aside, are only ironically enjoyed. Most of that enjoyment comes from growing up with the limited selection of Christmas-themed movies. I grew up with the likes of Home Alone (the first and second) and A Muppet Christmas Carol, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Scrooged, A Christmas Story, and I was just on the late side of the scale for The Santa Clause. I love these movies, all of them, unashamedly in the cases where shame is actually warranted.

If The Santa Clause came just before my switch to moody, miserable teenager, Jingle All the Way came just after it. I have no fond memories of it. I’ve seen it, but probably not in 15 years. This was a lame Christmas movie for the lamestain generation after mine. But could I, too, enjoy it in some way if I applied myself?

Released at the same time that the country was undergoing a deep and uncontrollable Tickle Me Elmo mood swingJingle sees Arnold Schwarzenegger as a typical American dad (suspension of disbelief engaged…) who missed out on his son Jamie’s (Young Anakin Skywalker Jake Lloyd) karate purple belt ceremony. To make up for being a shit father, he decides to buy the kid a TurboMan action figure, a toy that he was already supposed to have bought weeks ago on his wife’s (Rita Wilson) instruction. Meanwhile, a super-grabby neighbor played by Phil Hartman makes a play for the neglected Rita Wilson, as Arnie and mailman Sinbad run around town trying to track down the universally sold out toy.

It’s a bad film, of course it is. So is The Santa Clause. So is Home Alone. I’d remembered it in scraps as an awful, safe, Disneyfied cornball triumph story, but re-watching it, it’s a lot saucier than I remembered.

The film basically starts off with a series of Phil Hartman dick jokes, and moves forward with crazy post office employee jokes (that was a thing in the 90s, remember?), Unabomber and mailbomb jokes, Rodney King jokes, a drunken reindeer, more midget jokes than an 80s WWF fight card, drinking away the pain of a life ruined by bad fathers, an entire chase scene that ends in a pedophile gag setpiece in a ball pit, as well as Young Anakin Skywalker hitting the sauce (he must have seen into his own yippie-destroyed future).

While the film ends in a typical flurry of Hollywood family fluff (aside from Phil Hartman trying to force himself on Rita Wilson and getting El Kabonged with a mug of Egg Nog), those are all jokes at a subterranean Christmas spirit level that I can get firmly behind.

Throw in a seriously impressive set of cameos from Martin Mull, Richard Moll (Bull from Night Court), Yeardley Smith (Lisa Simpson), Laraine Newman, Harvey Korman, Chris Parnell, Danny Woodburn (Mickey from Seinfeld), Paul Wight (aka The Big Show) and Curtis Armstrong (Booger from Revenge of the Nerds), and I found that, yeah, I can actually enjoy this movie. Not wholeheartedly, fully accepting of the WAH-WAAH-WAAAH jokes like I can with The Santa Clause, but it’s enough to work on some level. Enough to make me a Christmastime poseur anyway.

In Your Queue: Cutie and the Assassin (“Cutie and the Boxer”, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”)

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Cutie and the Boxer – Zachary Heinzerling (2013)

Cutie loves Bullie. Bullie loves liquor. Typical. But nothing is really that easy or straight forward in this sober documentary about the artist couple, Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. In its telling, it’s about the art — Ushio’s boxing art and cardboard motorcycle sculptures, and Noriko’s Cutie graphic stories —  but really, its another love story, but a little bit more complicated than most love stories. Cutie and Bullie are Noriko’s creation, one that is loosely based on her own struggles with falling in love with Ushio. Ushio is a dominating presence, both in their marriage and in their art lives and it’s easy to see how much better off she might have been if she had fallen for anyone but Ushio, but sometimes life doesn’t let you make that decision. It just happens and leaves you paint splattered. Heinzerling is mostly hands off, letting the story unfold at a natural pace as Noriko struggles to find her artistic voice and Ushio struggles to get someone to pay him for his so the couple can keep the lights on. They are a dynamic pair, both as opposites and as artists, one you root for without quite understanding how or why it all works, but it does.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind – George Clooney (2002)

After producer Arnon Milchan outed himself as an Israeli spy last week, I made a joke about how he could start up a club with Chuck Barris, the creator of The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show and, as he claims, a CIA assassin. This joke immediately got me thinking about Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the 2002 biopic of Barris written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by George Clooney. It was a slick directorial debut for Clooney, who must have taken copious notes from David O. Russell and director of photography Newton Thomas Segal while he was working on Three Kings. Segal joined him as DP on Confessions as well, bringing his bag of photographic tricks along with him. If nothing else, it’s a very pretty film to look at. Much too pretty and slick for Kaufman’s tastes it turns out, and the writer eventually disowned the film. But the film is more than a pretty thing to look at. Whether you believe Barris’s claims or not, it makes for a great story with a high body count and Clooney and Sam Rockwell (and Rutger Hauer of course) really brought out the best, adding a cockeyed layer of black humor that settles down the more ridiculous elements of the producer-hitman story. It’s damn funny, and a great film whether Kaufman wants to admit it or not.