Tag Archives: Christmas

CLAUS GUTH: HUMANIZING MESSIAH (2010)

There are endlessly fascinating artistic directors working in the art of opera.  Then, there are great artists.   is a great artist.  In his 2009 staging of Handel’s “Messiah,” Guth calls to mind the Protestant theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who believed that the Church had become inadequate in speaking about God.  Bonhoeffer was embarrassed by the Church’s failure to convey the shocking, liberating, revolutionary power of the divine ideal.  To attain that, Bonhoeffer once symbolically suggested a one hundred year moratorium on the name (and word) God.  Perhaps then, the name and word could be attained.

Guth’s “Messiah” inhabits Bonhoeffer’s realm with a strikingly prophetic voice.  We are, unwittingly or not, starved for such a challenging and provocative voice.  Guth’s productions have never been less than impressive.  Fortunately, many of these have been filmed and are available on DVD: Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (2006), the Mozart/Czernowin Zaide (2006), Richard Strauss’ Ariadne Auf Naxos (2006),  Franz Schubert’s Fierrabras (2007), Mozart’s Don Giovanni (2008) and 2011’s Cosi fan tutti (Guth’s most uneven production and an odd fit in his Da Ponte trilogy ).  From Guth’s body of work on film, it is clear why he is such an in-demand artist.

Still, I was not prepared for his version of Handel’s perennial favorite, Messiah (2010).  Guth’s staging has been called agnostic, and that might be an apt description according to the traditional meaning (as opposed to contemporary interpretation) of the word.  Simultaneously, this may also be the most “Christian” filmed religious narrative since Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture (1991).  Guth’s Messiah makes an overly familiar yuletide narrative startling again.  This production was staged for the 250th anniversary of George Frideric Handel’s death.  I believe Handel would have approved.

Still from Claus Guth's Messiah (2010)The history of the composition is well known.  Handel was in ill health, destitute, and on the verge on being sent to debtor’s prison when he received a commission from librettist Charles Jennens to write an oratorio on Christ’ Nativity, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension.  The libretto was a pastiche, borrowing from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayers.  Handel composed it within three weeks and insisted on its being performed in secular Continue reading CLAUS GUTH: HUMANIZING MESSIAH (2010)

CAPSULE: THE CASSEROLE MASTERS (200?)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: J. William Carter (Billy Carter?)

FEATURING: Billy Carter, Larry McKellen, Bobby Cilantro, Stevie Dawson, Jimmy Howitzer

PLOT: None.

Still from The Casserole Masters

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s certainly weird enough, but, although some of the animated sequences show talent, the live-action sequences are too amateurish, and more annoying than bizarre.

COMMENTS:  I’m going to resist the temptation to start out this review with quips at the expense of the makers of The Casserole Masters, and instead give you some useful advice (for a change).  Load up the movie (embedded below) and immediately skip to 24:30 for a short lecture by “Molcok the Owl” on the afterlife.  It sounds like footage from a Scientology question and answer session, as the mild-mannered, mystical bird describes his visit to the interstellar Hall of Mirrors, a journey illustrated with swirling psychedelic patterns and egg-shaped spacecraft and sausages.  If you enjoyed that, and maybe even if you didn’t, skip forward again to 52:05 (you’ll know you’re at the right spot when you see the proscenium floating in a blood red sky) for the strangest video Christmas card ever filmed, scored to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and featuring a silent snowy forest, kaleidoscopic peppermint colored backgrounds, festive mushrooms, and a vintage Santa who bleeds from his eyes.  These two short worthwhile segments, both animated, rescue The Casserole Masters from the “beware” rating it would otherwise earn.  If I had tried to watch Masters from the beginning, without being obliged to review it, I would have given up within five minutes, because the rest of  the movie looks like home video of some Dadaist frat boys noodling around on a Saturday afternoon.  Recurring characters include a guy with a magic-marker mustache, Burger King crown, and a lobotomized smile, and another character who repeatedly babbles about being Batman; they stand in a room and giggle stupidly and howl abuse at each other.  All voices are electronically speeded up or slowed down to maximize the irritation factor.  The largest role goes to a sheriff with a shaving cream beard who delivers monologues praising religion and denouncing drugs, and plays a “knife game” with a tied-up prostitute in pasties and plastic trash-bag panties.  An authority figure preaching virtue while practicing depravity: yawn.  For the climax we learn the casserole recipe, which involves tentacles in oil and a wiener.  The live-action segments look like footage Harmony Korine rejected for Trash Humpers as too repetitive and annoying.  And yet, as insufferable as the live action scenes are, the “animated” sequences—which are just cutout images manipulated very simply, but effectively, with zooms and pans to create the illusion of movement—are interesting, reminiscent of a slower paced, weirder, and less witty iteration of Terry Gilliam‘s animation work for Monty Python.  The animations are scattered throughout the movie, sometimes laid over the filmed material, but Casserole only heats up in those two extended segments cited above.  Stretching for something else to praise, I’ll mention that the synthesized score by Blue Fiction is actually very good.  Still, there’s about ten minutes of worthwhile material buried inside of seventy minutes of avant-garde dreck.  It may work reasonably well as background wallpaper for an acid trip, though, which may well be Casserole Masters intended route of ingestion.

We’ve embedded the video below for your convenience, but we found the playback on blip.tv to be sporadic, particularly if you try to use the slider to fast forward the movie. If you’re having trouble watching the embedded video you can try viewing it on the Casserole Masters homepage. It may also help playback if you let the file load on the page for a while before hitting “play.” Good luck!

SATURDAY SHORT: CHRISTMAS CRACKER (1963)

“Christmas Cracker” consists of three segments that have very little in common with each other, besides the fact that they are Christmas based, and are each introduced by a mime-like jester. Charming and now aged to fine quality weirdness, it may not surprise you that fifty years ago this nearly won an Oscar.

BATMAN RETURNS (1992): A SUPERHERO BURLESQUE

In 1992 some damn silly, so-called Christian organization threw a bullying hissy fit at McDonalds for its Happy Meal deal tie-in with Tim Burton‘s Batman Returns. McDonalds, true to form, prematurely withdrew its merchandising. Rumor has it that McDonalds issued a stern warning to Warner Brothers not to tap Burton for the next Batman film. For whatever reason, Warner Brothers caved into the golden arch and, consequently, put its franchise into a decade long grave with the unwise hiring of director Joel Schumacher.

Only the fundamentalist mindset can associate Big Macs with a certain brand of morality. Looking at Batman Returns (1992), one wonders what the Christian organization was bitching about. The Bible is all throughout the film and, actually the good book itself has far more sex and violence than Batman, Tim Burton, Warner Brothers and McDonalds combined.

Regardless, Batman Returns remains the greatest cinematic comic book movie to date and one of Tim Burton’s most uniquely accomplished films. Admittedly, I am not a fan of comic book movies, even if I did read comics some when I was kid, but then most kids I knew did. I was in the minority in preferring DC to Marvel, and I guess I am sort of looking forward to the new Green Lantern movie, mainly because the Green Lantern/Green Arrow comic was a favorite when I was a wee lad in the 1960s and 1970s. That was a comic that was delightfully of its time, a bit like Star Trek in espousing an ultra-liberal message with all the subtlety of a pair of brass knuckles. Even though Green Lantern himself was a bit too righteous and bland, I liked that he was obsessed with the color green and was rendered impotent by the color yellow. There was something surreal in that, and I find the insistence of realism in comics to be a huge oxymoron. Perhaps that’s why the dark surrealism of Batman Returns did not bother me like it did mainstream audiences, comic book geeks, and militant pseudo-Christian organizations.

Still from Batman Returns (1992)Even though I will acknowledge that Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight (2008) was well crafted, it would not have worked without Ledger’s performance holding it together. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, however, pales compared to ‘s much more intense, internalized, subtle and complex Wayne. Finally, Nolan’s film feels like it has one subplot too many. Comparatively, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is a Continue reading BATMAN RETURNS (1992): A SUPERHERO BURLESQUE

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)

AKA Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Henry Selick

FEATURING: Voices of Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, , Ken Page

PLOT: Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, discovers Christmas and tries to recreate it, with ghoulish results.

Still from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: As a children’s film, The Nightmare Before Christmas has a high hurdle to overcome. Since it’s aimed at kids, the movie is permitted to indulge in imagination and fantasy, so long as it uses a conventional story framework and takes a stab at conveying a useful moral lesson. Nightmare has a great, morbid motivating idea and is a triumph of macabre art design, but at heart it doesn’t stray very far from the childrens’ film format. If it’s eventually to be counted amongst the weird, it will be solely for its incidentals and visuals.

COMMENTS: The opening song introduces us to the ghastly denizens of Halloweentown, including the expected assortment of witches, vampires and ghosts, but also a creature with black and white striped snakes for fingers, the “clown with the tearaway face,” and a two-faced mayor with a spinning top for a head and a freakishly phallic stovepipe hat. This legion of scary weirdos are ruled over by Jack Skellington, an elegant but spindly skeleton in a pinstripe suit. A grim gray pallor hangs over the town, which features an Expressionist pumpkin patch/boneyard with slanted tombstones and a curlicue hill permanently posed before a giant yellow moon. Bored with the repetitive routine of  Halloween, Skellington seeks new vistas and finds one when he stumbles onto Christmastown, an eye-popping festival of lights and toys set among blinding white snowbanks ruled over by a jolly fat man; the town provides the perfect visual and spiritual contrast to gloomy Halloweentown. A holiday architect looking for a new challenge, Jack decides to “take over” Christmas (incidentally kidnapping Santa Claus). After futile attempts to ferret out the meaning of Christmas by dissecting teddy bears and placing crushed ornaments in boiling beakers, Skellington hatches a plan to pose as Kris Kringle and deliver toys himself, which leads to the film’s keystone sequence: a horrific Christmas Eve sleigh ride through a doomed village, where the Santa-suited skeleton leaves ghoulishly inappropriate gifts for Christmastown’s tots, including a severed head and a tannenbaum-swallowing snake. It all ends in disaster, as Jack, who began with the best of intentions, realizes that his amateur staging of Christmas was a Nightmare and that he has to set things right and reaffirm his devotion to the Satanic rites of All Hallow’s Eve. The moral seems to be, attempts to understand other cultures are doomed to failure; stick to your own kind.

The character designs and intricate, almost hidden gruesome details (like the skeletal Halloween cock that crows the dawn) are the triumph of Nightmare. With a couple of exceptions—the bubbly, Broadwayesque “What’s This?” when bemused Jack first discovers Christmastown (“There’s children throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads/They’re busy building toys and absolutely no one’s dead!”) and a deviant number sung by three mischievous trick or treaters who plan to kidnap “Sandy Claws” (“Kidnap the Sandy Claws, throw him in a box/Bury him for ninety years, then see if he talks”)—Danny Elfman’s songs are flat and unmemorable, advancing the plot but not thrilling the ear. The story is also exceedingly thin, even at its trim running time of under 80 minutes. The original concept came from a Burton parody of Clement Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas;” to pad out the running time, a romantic subplot and an antagonist were added. The love interest is Sally, a stitched-together female Frankenstein forever losing her limbs.  She’s constantly scheming to escape her creator, a duck-billed mad scientist with a detachable brainpan who wants to keep her locked in his castle, and she acts as a cautionary voice for Jack, trying to warn him off his insane Yuletide scheme. There’s no spark to their relationship, though, and though their romantic ending is pretty, it’s also pretty meaningless in story terms. The villain, Oogie Boogie the Boogeyman, is another wonderful character in search of a plot function. A burlap sack stuffed with creepy crawlies, gruff Ken Page gives him a 1920s boogie-woogie singer’s voice, and he makes a hell of a hellish impression. But he’s introduced late and has no real motivation: it’s unclear why he thinks that bumping off Santa Claus will help him unseat Skellington as king of Halloweentown. He pads the film, but his main purposes are to set up an unnecessary, anticlimactic action sequence for the finale, and (more importantly) to provide Selick the opportunity to build another magical set. And Oogie’s lair is it’s own freaky, fun world: his hideout is casino themed, with living gunfighter slot machines and worms crawling through the pips of dice, and it’s bathed UV lights to give the puppets an eerie glow. Though the script could have done much more to make him a meaningful antagonist, the awesome visuals this boogeyman inspires are reason enough for him to take up space in Nightmare‘s world. The entire story takes a back seat to the cute, Gothic animation, so why should Sally and Oogie Boogie be any different?

The idea for Nightmare was originally sketched out by Tim Burton at Disney Studios, before they fired him for “wasting company resources” by making Frankenweenie. After the director found success outside the Magic Kingdom, Disney was willing to work with him again, and he served as Nightmare‘s producer and even got his name in the title. In a case of history repeating itself, the studio again found the finished work too morbid and were afraid it would frighten young children, so they released it under their Touchstone subsidiary. Despite rave reviews, Nightmare was not an immediate success, but it has found a cult audience on video. Disney has since fully re-embraced the movie, removing all traces of the old Touchstone logos and prominently slapping the Disney name back on the prints, just as if they had been 100% behind it before it became a hit.

Related: Alfred Eaker’s A Few Odd Yuletide Favs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Burton] pulls adult minds down to the surreal darkness of childish imagination — where the real nightmares are. But through Burton’s eyes, these dark dreamscapes aren’t bad places at all. In fact, they’re quite wonderful.”–Desson Howe, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

SHORT: TWELVE DAYS OF BLACK MASS (2009)

We celebrate the season a little bit differently around these parts.  Please enjoy this disturbing tribute to the holidays from I Can See Yous Graham Reznick.  It features a creepy doll with perpetually downturned eyes, graphics and sound that are reminiscent of a “Sesame Street” segment, and irrational Satanic rituals.

This short, along with Voltaire’s X-Mess Detritus, was part of Beck Underwood’s “Creepy Christmas” project.  There’s plenty more where these came from, so please visit the Creepy Christmas site to see all 25 films!

And have a very creepy Christmas!

SATURDAY SHORT: X-MESS DETRITUS (2008)

Voltaire gives his audience a different perspective on Christmas in his short, “X-Mas Detritus.”  Like many of the shorts posted here, “Detritus” contains some frightening images. So, even though this short contains some great insight into the impact of this holiday season on our world, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is very squeamish.