Heaven's Gate is one of the most famous pictures in the history of Hollywood, for all the wrong reasons. Released to theaters in 1980 (kind of; see below), the epic Western stars Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert and Christoper Walken in the true story of Wyoming's Johnson County War.
Alas, director Michael Cimino's follow-up to The Deer Hunter, for which he won five Oscars, didn't fare well. Distributor United Artists initially refused to release the three-and-a-half hour movie and critics savaged the film when it did hit the screen. Heaven's Gate was pulled from theaters after a one-week run. It was later re-released in a 149-minute version, which audiences aggressively ignored. The film remains among the biggest box office disasters of all time, earning about $1 million against costs of around $40 million.
Does Heaven's Gate really deserve its reputation as one of the worst movies ever made? Well, now you can decide for yourself. Cimino's original vision of the film has been restored and reissued to DVD and Blu-ray as Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, a two-disc set from the film archivists at the Criterion Collection. Along with the high-definition video and audio transfer, the package features new interviews with Cimino and star Kris Kristofferson plus behind-the-scenes details, a 40-page booklet, and a featurette on the restoration process itself.
It is my great belief that the two most important gifts one can give others are new moments of happiness, and a chance to relive moments of happiness from the past. (I suppose organ donations and tickets out of soul-crushing poverty are good as well, but there’s only so much you can do with a blog post.)
So for the conclusion to my look back at Christmas specials long gone, I decided to look at some deep cuts — some specials not seen in a while, or only half-remembered.
Before I go further, I want to take a moment to give proper respect to A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, two specials that have maintained their reputation for nearly five decades. Indeed, hardly a Christmas goes by without Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy soundtrack for Charlie Brown playing at my family’s house on Christmas Eve.
Why are they so popular, and why have sequels, remakes and whatever that godless Jim Carrey/Ron Howard movie was paled in comparison? It might just be the series of happy accidents that made them come to life — the limitations of TV budgets and schedules.
Charles Schulz was never completely happy with A Charlie Brown Christmas — he thought it looked cheap and the animation was terrible — but getting actual kids to voice his characters, a gentle-yet-moody soundtrack and humor taken directly from his strips gave it an intimate, relatable quality that many Christmas specials lack.
And How The Grinch Stole Christmas was a wonderful alchemy of talents — the whimsy of Dr. Seuss combined with the deadpan of animator Chuck Jones and the dulcet tones of Boris Karloff for the narration. Of course there’s some nice anti-materialism messages in there, but they’re small, simple stories that focus on bringing humor and poignancy to the overwhelming, sometimes frustrating nature of the Christmas season.
All right — so what are some of the other great Christmas specials you haven’t seen in a while?
Let’s do some organizing here.
The Henson Playlist
Jim Henson and the Muppets were wonderful at capturing the lower-scale intimacy of the holidays — 1987’s A Muppet Family Christmas has little plot other than getting as many of the Muppets as possible to Fozzie’s mom’s house for Christmas, and even finds ways to bring in the Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock characters. The special’s been annoyingly edited on DVD, but an unedited version (with original commercials for maximum nostalgia!) is on YouTube. Few things make me smile like Jim Henson’s little cameo at the end.
As a kid, I felt a particular resonance with the Henson-made The Christmas Toy, about a self-absorbed stuffed tiger who discovers his favorite-toy status will likely be eclipsed by the arrival of a new Christmas toy (a Star Wars/Barbie hybrid named “Meteora”) this year. It (briefly) made me question my myopic childhood and tendency to cast older toys away for newer ones; see if it has a similar effect on your own offspring.
For many, a favorite will always be Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, based on a book by Russell Hoban, author of Bedtime for Frances (and the near-incomprehensible post-apocalyptic literary novel Riddley Walker). It’s a touching look at an impoverished family sacrificing much to try to make a better life and finding some triumph. Still, like many fans, I maintain that the “evil” Riverbottom Nightmare Band really was better. It's on DVD with The Christmas Toy.
There are a number of other Muppet Christmas specials, including the theatrical Muppet Christmas Carol and some recent TV-movies (I might be the only person I know that liked A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, with an It’s a Wonderful Life riff that sees Miss Piggy reduced to Miss Cleo and Scooter cage-dancing to Nine Inch Nails. No, I couldn't find a clip).
However, I must give props to Henson and friends for actually covering the Jewish high holiday with episodes of the Israeli seriesShalom Sesame, which also aired in the US. Jeremy Miller from Growing Pains learns about Challah, here’s a bit about a missing menorah, and can anyone really beat Grover in “Mitzvah Impossible?”
Favorite Characters Meet the Holidays
Mr. Magoo might mostly come across as horribly insensitive to the visually-impaired these days, but his take on Dickens with Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is still one of the best, with great songs by the writers of Funny Girl that hold up, "razzleberry dressing" or no.
I have to give major props to He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special (also available on Netflix Instant) for being The Most 1980s Christmas Special Ever. The sheer number of weird colorful characters is appealing to fans and people who only vaguely remember this in drug-like nightmares, but can anyone hate on a special where even Skeletor is infected with the Christmas Spirit?
Similar things might be said for the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special, where Pee-Wee Herman and friends welcome the likes of K.D. Lang and Grace Jones.
And for sheer obscurity, one can see how Pac-Man and friends save Santa in Christmas Comes to PacLand, or have an entire episode of The Nanny rendered in the style of its animated opening sequence in The Nanny: Oy to the World, where she teaches her selfish charge all about Christmas despite being, well, Jewish. Oy, indeed.
Hanukkah has a hard time getting a break, people.
British entertainment (or at least what we’ve seen of it) has always been a mite darker and more melancholy than that of the Americas. I still can’t explain Benny Hill.
Many of their best Christmas specials are no exception. One of my favorites is The Snowman, an Oscar-nominated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ classic wordless children’s book. It’s the simple story of a snowman that comes to life and take a boy on a magical trip to Santa’s workshop, rendered in a gorgeous watercolor style. The flying sequence, sent to the song “Walking on the Air,” still gives me goosebumps, and it adds a nicely sentimental sweetener to the book’s downbeat ending.
Here's the full version, introduced by David Bowie. It's rather odd to think the little boy grew up to be him.
Along those lines, I recommend another children’s book adaptation, The Angel and the Soldier Boy, which features a wonderful soundtrack by the Irish folk group Clannad, and chronicles the adventures of a couple of Christmas decorations who try to save the contents of a little girl's piggy bank from some pirate toys. I discovered this a few years ago when the book was recommended to me by a girl I was dating, and I got her a drawing of the characters from the original illustrator. She dumped me anyway.
A particularly British Christmas special is The Forgotten Toys: The Night After Christmas, about a couple of unclaimed charity toys voiced by Bob Hoskins and Joanna Lumley. The tale serves as a pretty straight metaphor for homelessness, and it’s only in the very last seconds that the toys get a happy ending. This inspired a short-lived and more upbeat series a few years later that had them wandering from adventure to adventure, but I was drained enough from this one to let their happy ending stand.
Richard Williams is one of those people I find fascinating, someone who literally wrote the book on animation and completed wonder after wonder (including the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), while working on his dream project, The Thief and the Cobbler, which was ultimately taken away from him.
Among his masterworks were two award-winning Christmas specials. One was a 1971 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that proved so good it was submitted for, and won, the Oscar for Best Animated Short. It’s one of the closest adaptations of the original work, with several scenes left out of most versions, and is absolutely terrifying with its depiction of a cold, Victorian England, inspired by the engraved illustrations of the original story by John Leech. It also features Alistair Sim from the live-action classic Scrooge reprising his role as the title character; you can watch it here.
A decade later, Williams won an Emmy for Ziggy’s Gift, a brighter-but-still-melancholy tale that takes the luckless comic strip character and deposits him in an almost crushingly-real urban environment, where his efforts to become a street Santa lead to his inadvertently joining a con man’s fake-Santa ring.
Peter Jackson’s new film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit might have broken box-office records despite mixed (and in the case of this paper, excoriating) reviews, but I myself am still reluctant to see it and weigh in. Why devote nearly three hours to a film adapting 1/3 of a book that you could read in less time — and why try to improve on the 75-minute version by Rankin-Bass Productions?
The Rankin-Bass Hobbit was a mainstay of my childhood. Made for TV in 1977, it was rebroadcast a few times in my youth, but I knew it the most from the book-and-tape based on the special that my family would listen to on long car trips as a way to temporarily pacify my brother and myself (things were different in those days before DVD players in cars).
For me, Gandalf the Wizard will always be the stentorian tones of John Huston, and while I’ve nothing but love for Andy Serkis, there’s little that can replace the salamander-like Gollum voiced by monologist and regular David Letterman guest Brother Theodore.
(I’ll admit, though, that I’ve never seen Rankin-Bass’ version of The Return of the King, which awkwardly completed Ralph Bakshi’s dead-serious Lord of the Rings animated movie with a disco number about whip-loving trolls. A few of my friends have admitted they’re fans.)
It’s only appropriate that this new Hobbit turns my thoughts to Rankin-Bass, as Christmas has long been their season. From the 1960s through the mid-1980s, Rankin-Bass was the king of Christmas specials, regularly turning out some new effort either in stop-motion or traditional animation that still air on networks and on cable.
While some of the Rankin-Bass specials are still mainstays of the major networks, such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and Frosty the Snowman (and its dreadful 1990s follow-up Frosty Returns), my fondness for Rankin-Bass comes in part from the stranger and more obscure specials they produced over the years that often find themselves relegated to “bonus features” on DVD, or on such cable networks as ABC Family.
Rankin-Bass’ specialty (usually through the scripting of the late Romeo Muller, who wrote something like two dozen holiday specials in his lifetime) was finding a way to stitch a half-hour-to-an-hour storyline around every possible Christmas song imaginable, somehow finding a way to organically weave the lyrics throughout the storyline, or to build to that triumphant moment where, after 3-4 original songs, the storyline would climax with that number you already knew, presenting the young audience with the scene of “Ta da! And that’s how it really happened!”
For instant, when Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem that came to be known as “T’was the Night Before Christmas,” I somehow doubt he intended St. Nicholas’ visit to be a great relief to the residents of Junctionville after an intellectual young mouse caused him to send back their letters after publishing a Santa-denying editorial and almost ruining the clock that played a pro-Santa message.
As a kid, I found Santa’s need for validation somewhat suspect, but I always loved the Joel Grey-performed “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand” which is so catchy that even South Park hommaged it.
Indeed, South Park has made no bones about its debt to Rankin-Bass, particularly in its Christmas episodes, which have featured everything from the credit “Blankin-Rass Presents” to characters morphing into stop-motion-style figures.
Perhaps I related too much to the young bespectacled mouse, for I often found myself applying intellectual, even existential questions to the nonexistent mythology of these specials.
For example, was Jessica, the lovely young townsperson who married Kris Kringle in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town…
…the same aged, grandmotherly Mrs. Claus who tried to save Christmas with help from Snow Miser and Heat Miser in The Year Without a Santa Claus?
For that matter, how could Santa, himself a victim of persecution in Comin’ to Town, be so cruel to the outcast Rudolph in the mutant reindeer’s own special? Could he have lost his way, as so many mortals have themselves?
It was even more problematic when the worlds of stop-motion Rankin-Bass and animated Rankin-Bass collided. Rudolph’s Shiny New Year converted the stop-motion Rudolph into animation when he re-told his tale in flashback to the big-eared Baby New Year, aka “Happy.”
One of the great things about college town life, in my experience, is being plugged into a constant source of youthful energy and enthusiasm. In the spring especially, I like to walk around Chapel Hill and the UNC campus just to recharge my psychic batteries. It reminds me of my own undergraduate days, when life seemed full of promise and purpose, and — most critically, perhaps — college girls in sun dresses.
The indie comedy Liberal Arts — new to DVD, Blu-ray and digital this week — explores this phenomenon with the story of one 30-something man's retreat to the university campus. Writer and director Josh Radnor (happythankyoumoreplease) plays Jesse Fisher, recovering English major and unhappy NYC professional, who returns to his alma mater in Ohio when a beloved professor retires.
Upon his return, Jesse meets the lovely and free-spirited sophomore Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). They embark on a friendship, perhaps with benefits, as Jesse wallows in the sepia-toned nostalgia of college days. Jesse doesn't quite approve of Zibby's reading list (“What is it with you girls and vampires?”) but he finds that she sparks in him feelings he's forgotten he can feel.
There is, of course, the matter of the age difference. Jesse does the math and calculates that when he was Zibby's age, she was three years old. But he runs the numbers again and is pleased to discover that when he's 87, she'll be 71. That seems OK, right?
“Argo was far and a way the most-mentioned film on our critics’ ballots,” SEFCA president Philip Martin said. “While there were other films that had more first place votes, Argo was consistently well-regarded by our membership and it ended up winning the poll by a comfortable margin.”
In a much closer race, actor-director Affleck was named Best Director over Kathryn Bigelow, whose Zero Dark Thirty edged out Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln for the second spot in the critics' poll.
Daniel Day-Lewis became the first three-time winner of the group’s Best Actor award for his performance as the title character in Lincoln (Day-Lewis previously won the award for his work in There Will Be Blood in 2007 and Gangs of New York in 2002). Jennifer Lawrence was named Best Actress for her turn in the dark comedy Silver Linings Playbook.
Director Ben Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild was the overwhelming choice for the group’s Gene Wyatt award, given annually to the film that “best evokes the spirit of the South." Richard Linklater’s Bernie finishing second.
December always brings a flotilla of DVD and Blu-ray box sets aimed at holiday gift shoppers. Some are reissues of films and TV shows already available on disc or online, but most holiday bundles feature exclusive extras or new material.
Below are some recommendations from this year's batch of box sets. The listed prices are approximate retail costs, but it really pays to shop around with these things, online or off, especially with the more expensive sets.
Francis Ford Coppola: 5-Film Collection
(Blu-ray, $30, 5 discs)
This bargain box set packages Apocalypse Now and the director's cut Apocalypse Now Redux with three more Coppola films — Tetro, The Conversation and One From The Heart. While all the films here have been issued on DVD and/or Blu-ray before, this is a great price for five Blu-ray titles, and each disc comes with its own set of extras. It's also a chance to see the underrated Tetro, which Coppola has said is his most personal film.
All in the Family: The Complete Series
(DVD, $180, 28 discs)
Back in the day, All in the Family pushed the boundaries of the prime time sitcom and was a huge victory for ambitious artists over cautious network execs. It ultimately paved the way for today's smart and sophisticated TV shows. Pop culture scholars will appreciate this generous set, which collects all 213 episodes of the groundbreaking television series, along with two documentaries, alternate pilot episodes and a new interview with creator Norman Lear.
The Rolling Stones: Charlie is my Darling — Ireland 1965
(DVD/Blu-ray, $75, multimedia box set)
This fascinating tour film flew under the radar a bit among all the other Rolling Stones 50th anniversary hoopla this year. The film chronicles the boys on an early sprint through Ireland, and it's like a time machine back to an era when rock and roll was still new and sexy and dangerous. The film is available on single-disc DVD or Blu-ray for under $20, or the box set adds two bonus CDs, a 40-page booklet, a replica poster and a 10” vinyl record.
The live band is cooking, and dead ringers for the first generation of rockabilly royalty nail rave-ups from “Who Do You Love” to “Great Balls of Fire.” But even at its full (and considerable) force, the 2007 jukebox musical Million Dollar Quartet seems haunted by something surprising, given the supposed durability of the subject matter. It’s hard not to conclude that Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott’s book ultimately celebrates—and mourns—its evanescence.
Yes, history proved Sun Records founder Sam Phillips right when he said “Rock ‘n roll ain’t a fad; it’s a damn revolution.” Even the briefest look around confirms that the culture-wide transformation sparked by this generation remains in progress.
But the way this show re-enacts the night that Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis got together to do a few numbers in the studio that first catapulted them to fame asks a pointed question to those sharp enough to hear: Was Dec. 4, 1956 really an evening of rock apotheosis? Or, to borrow the phrase from Hunter Thompson, was it just the night a great wave crested—and then fell back?
In short, you could almost say they're making a list and checking it...well, a great deal more than twice.
The List for 2012, our final take on excellence in regional theater, will publish in our issue of Dec. 19. But if you'd rather write the headlines, here's your chance. Leave your nominations for excellence in this year's regional productions in the comments below. (Or, if you're the shy type, forward them to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
But wait. You can't play the game at home with another list: the annual categories and criteria we use. They're below, just after the jump. Best of luck!
One of the year's very best documentaries, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry chronicles recent events in the life and work of China's most famous artist, and one of its most tenacious political activists. The film made a splash at this year's Full Frame festival in Durham and just this week was shortlisted for the Best Documentary Oscar. New to DVD and Blu-ray from IFC Films, Never Sorry is a remarkably accomplished film from journalist and first-time director Alsion Klayman.
In the art world, Ai Weiwei is a giant. His sculptures and installations are exhibited worldwide, and he was one of China's homegrown heroes during the 2008 Beijing Olympics — he helped design the famous “Bird's Nest” stadium. Weiwei is also a prolific photographer, filmmaker and — until recently — blogger and Twitter devotee. His freedom, online and off, has been significantly curtailed of late by the Chinese government.
I don't want to give too much away, because part of the surprising suspense in this film comes from watching events of the last few years unfold. Director Klayman filmed Weiwei from 2008 to 2011 as the artist clashed with government officials while still mounting his exhibitions and overseeing a small army of volunteers. I would say that the film splits its focus between Weiwei's art and activism, except that those lines are permanently blurred.
For instance, after the devastating 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, Weiwei spent a year gathering the names of more than 5,000 children killed in the tragedy. Chinese government officials had tried to suppress this information for several dubious and depressing reasons. When Weiwei published the list online, in a kind of citizen-investigation-as-art-project, police responded by shutting down his blog and installing surveillance cameras around his home. That, it turns out, was just the beginning. Weiwei would later be physically attacked and forced to demolish his brand-new studio space. Then things got really nasty.