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 Crazy: Blast of Silence – Allen Barron (1961)

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It’s a few days before Christmas as Frankie Bono (Allen Barron) arrives in New York on some special business. He arrives by train, born through the darkness of Penn Station’s arrival tunnel as simply “Cleveland” to the business partners he has come to meet. They don’t need to know his name, and he doesn’t need to know theirs. Neither wants to know, because their business is murder.

The timing is coincidental, but New York is at its busiest during the holiday season, so it affords a man who wishes not to be seen even more anonymity on theory. Frankie hates Christmas, and tries to draw some of that feeling into the building tide of hate that he needs to build up in order to carry out the hit he’s been hired to do.

Troiano (Peter Clune), who he has been hired to kill, is a middling syndicate boss who has been getting in the way of his rivals lately. Frankie doesn’t care about that either. It’s just a job, one that pays, he notes, enough to put him in the top tax bracket, able to afford the kind of big, showy suburban house and life that Troiano enjoys.

But for man who hates Christmas, he sure has a way of letting it get in his way. While he is waiting for the gun he’s purchased from the creepy, lowlife, rat loving Big Ralph to be delivered, Frank strolls along the glow of Fifth Avenue to a chorus of Silent Night. He passes the made up window displays and the tree in Rockefeller Center. If nothing else, the picture offers a brilliant display of what Old New York was like, Harlem and Midtown, the bridges and roads, the old skyline, the grit and grime that went hand in hand with the glitter and gold, men when they were still men. But the film offers plenty more anyway, the sightseeing is just a bonus.

Though it was made in 1961, there is a large parallel to be drawn with another New York mob boss, Paul Castellano, who had all the same problems as Troiano, and ultimately ended up in the same bloody heap on the ground. Baron, who grew up in Brooklyn in the 40s and 50s, probably knew a lot of these guys, back when it actually was like the first act of Goodfellas.

When Frankie ducks into a Midtown bar for a drink to pass the time after window shopping, he runs into an old friend he grew up with in the orphanage, Petey (Danny Meehan), and his sister Lori (Molly McCarthy), who Frankie had a crush on back then. Against his better judgement, he shows up when they invite him to a Christmas party, and the old feelings push their way to the top, no matter what the Narrator (Lionel Stander) says to try and convince him to remember what he’s actually in New York for.

There is a deep, choking violence in the gruff, relentless voice of Lionel Stander’s, whose narration (written by Waldo Salt) acts almost in the role of hypnotist, goading Cleveland along the path to murder when his instincts seem to be telling him to pull out, whenever Baby Frankie and his old crush threaten to ruin everything.

It’s always been a curious thing to me that hit men come from somewhere, that they don’t just accumulate one day with a silenced .45 in their hand and the knowledge to use it. But hit men were little kids, once, and had best friends with sisters they wanted to marry and have babies with. They lost peanut pushing contests, and in Frankie’s case was probably beaten by the pre-Vatican II nuns in the Orphanage. Like Baron, I grew up in Brooklyn with a lot of kids that, when I think of it now, seemed to have very little conscience to their being, especially the altar boys, who were a special breed of disconnected, thieving, fighting hoodlums — probably because they couldn’t sleep in on Sundays like the rest of us. I kid, I kid. Frankie has that disconnect, and more, to be able to kill, or try to take advantage of Lori, who invites him over for a quiet dinner so he isn’t alone on Christmas. Baron is not that world’s most gifted actor, but through the world he creates as director — the tight, squeezed in darkness that blots out much of the landscape, the angles, the low camera – he is wired right into the character of Frankie and brings us along. The Narrator seems to be speaking to us as much as Frankie.

There turns out to be little need for that Devil’s Advocate, though, when Frankie finds out that Lori already has a boyfriend — that she was stringing him along, in his point of view — and that pool of hate that he needs starts to spill over the brim, and it has Troiano’s name written on it.

The finale, filmed during an actual hurricane that hit Long Island in 1960, is a brilliant piece of noir filmmaking. Francis Ford Coppola always says “if there is weather, shoot the weather”, and this is why (even though, again, this film pre-dates my thoughts by a few decades). It lends such a surreal aura to the picture, something that million dollar Hollywood films could never achieve even with the best effects men. Thank God Baron only had twenty grand to shoot it.

Christmas Crazy: The Thin Man — W. S. Van Dyke (1934)

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“The next person who says Merry Christmas to me, I’ll kill them,” says a recovering Nora Charles as the well-wisher leaves the room. I know how she feels, but I could never say it with half as much charm as the sparkling Myrna Loy does in this psuedo-Christmas detective film from W. S. Van Dyke, based on the Dashiel Hammet novel.

So what’s Nora recovering from anyway? An afternoon bender. My kind of girl.

Nora and her husband Nick (William Powell), are a couple of California socialites back in New York for a holiday vacation with their dog Asta. The dashing, also-charming Nick used to be a detective in the Big Apple before Nora inherited a few companies from her father which brought them to California to stake their claim. By accident, and against his wishes, he is drawn out of retirement to figure out where the missing Cylde Wynant has gone.

Nick wants nothing to do with the case, however. He’s retired from dick work, and made himself a respectable man out in California, where he runs several of the businesses that Nora’s father left them. Also it would interfere with his drinking. Nora tries to goad him into it because she wants to see her man in action, but he is steadfast until the case becomes too interesting and dangerous to pass it up.

The plot is really secondary to these wonderful characters, though. Nick and Nora light up the screen with their quick and easy chemistry. Powell and Loy together are about as perfect an onscreen couple as you can get, and Nick and Nora Charles were the roles of a lifetime for both, exquisitely tailored to the both of them like a glove. Loy is witty and beautiful as Nora, the kind of girl girl with hair on her chest who can take a right hook just as comfortably as she can sit around in a mink coat with a highball. The couple play coy with to the new level, quipping and sniping, flirting and pretending they don’t care in the same breath. They do care, of course, but it’s more satisfying in some cases to learn how loved you are by how much you can get away with and there seems to be nothing that these two can’t get away with when it comes to each other.

Powell and Loy played these characters for over a decade through five films, and a long with their other pairings, such as Manhattan Melodrama, give a visual testament to the fact that they were one of classic Hollywood’s perfect couples, though their named surprisingly didn’t stay in the spotlight in the same way that Bogey and Bacall or Gable and Lombar’s names did. Maybe because they were never an actual couple. But maybe we should count our blessings for that, since Bogey and Bacall’s real life relationship limited them to only four films together, while Powell and Loy finally made fourteen.

Tuesday, After Christmas – Radu Muntean (2011)

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For most films, the centerpiece scene comes somewhere near the end of the film, or at least past the midpoint. The Lufthansa heist and subsequent murder spree in Goodfellas, for instance, or finally meeting Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. But in the Romanian drama Tuesday, After Christmas, we get it right off the bat.

The opening scene finds Paul (Mimi Branescu) and Raluca (Maria Popistasu) in bed together in a comfortable, if somewhat small, apartment somewhere in Bucharest. They are naked and content, not worried about bills or work or the shape of their bodies. They are happy travelers as far as we can tell, teasing each other the size of their toes and whether or not Santa will be visiting this year — as lovers do in this state. It’s only slowly, and very skillfully, that we find out that Paul isn’t actually married to Raluca, he’s married to Adriana (Mirela Oprisor), mother of his daughter, Mara (Sașa Paul-Sze).

Taken as a simple synopsis, this, of course, sounds like the set up to every one of those melodramatic “why don’t you leave your wife for me?” films. And while it does end up in that station, the path followed is a slightly different, less guilt ridden one than normal.

Things begin to go wrong (or right, as you will) for Paul one afternoon as he is taking Mara to the dental clinic. He receives a call from Adriana that her schedule has changed, allowing her to join them at the clinic. Mara’s dentist, of course, is Raluca, who is more than surprised at the unexpected appearance of her lover’s wife.

They play it cool, but Raluca’s body language betrays her physical distress. Or, it would if the transformation from the warm, playful girl we’ve already met wasn’t into, well, as cold and focused as a dentist should actually be.

Adriana leaves unaware, but not for long. Oprisor and Branescu play the eventual break up scene spot on, leaving the impression for the viewer of not only being a fly on the wall, but of being a fly on the wall that is scared to the point of shaking at the emotional tornado shattering the fabric of what was once a happy little domestic life.

Director Radu Muntean has said this is not a film about guilt, but a voyeuristic take on the choices people are forced to make when they come to a crossroad in their life. But the crossroad Paul comes to is not a natural feature of the landscape of his life that just happens to be there. Whether you consider the crossroad the beginning of the affair or telling his wife about it — or both — it’s a crossroad that Paul seems to have designed into the map of his life. It’s true that there appears to be little chemistry left in his marriage beyond the fact that he and Adriana share a daughter in Mara, but it all does come off a bit selfish of Paul in the end, maybe because of that solitary fact. That he isn’t trying to hurt anyone doesn’t excuse the fact that he does, and deeply at that.

Tuesday, After Christmas is one of those films that lives a better life in your head in the aftermath of seeing it than it does seeing it for the first time, but only aesthetically so. Outside of the three mentioned scenes, there is little flow or excitement, and the film works almost as an exercise in disengagement with the audience, almost as if Paul is saying, “I’ve endured this for 15 years, give it a try.” But a film needs to work as an active experience, a sum of its parts, and that it doesn’t is a fatal flaw in the end.