Podcasts of the Week Ending December 26

Welcome to the final Podcasts of the Week post for 2020.  Stay tuned for the Podcasts of the Year post on December 29!

Radiolab :: A Terrible Covid Christmas Special

Is Santa an essential worker? This and other questions are answered about Christmas in Covid Times.

99% Invisible :: Mini-Stories: Volume 9

Some short pieces on topics such as the process of novelizing a hit movie, Switzerland’s strange defensive measures, and ABBA’s outlandish outfits.



Holiday Movie Marathon: A Very Murray Christmas

Title: A Very Murray Christmas
Release Date: December 4, 2015
Director: Sofia Coppola
Production Company: American Zoetrope

How time flies! I thought to myself that I should finally watch that highly-regarded Bill Murray special on Netflix that came out, was it last year? No, it was five years ago. Five Christmases based and I neglected to watch this hour-long special. Was it worth the wait? Maybe not, but it is mildly entertaining.

The premise is that Bill Murray (playing himself, or at least the version of himself he plays all the time) is hosting a celebrity-studded live Christmas special in New York. But a blizzard means no one else can participate in the show and Murray is distraught. After wrangling Chris Rock into an awkward duet of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” the power goes out and the show is canceled. Murray makes his way to the lounge where he basically starts a karaoke party with the other guests and staff stranded there (played by a bevy of celebrities including David Johansen, Jenny Lewis, Rashida Jones, Maya Rudolph, Jason Schwartzman, and the band Phoenix). Finally Murray passes out drunk and dreams of an elaborate stage show with Miley Cyrus and George Clooney as guests.

I went into this thinking it was a parody of corny old Christmas variety specials and about a third of the way realized that it’s a homage to corny old Christmas variety specials. Really, it’s almost entirely musical performances tied together by a meager storyline. Murray is surprisingly a great vocalist in his own right and sings well with all his guest talent. The humor of the show is light and really the only time I bust a gut was when George Clooney popped out from behind a tree to sing the chorus of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’.”

Is it an all-time Christmas classic? Maybe not, but it was worth finally getting around to watching to get myself into the holiday spirit this year.


Holiday Movie Marathon: Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Title: Christmas in Connecticut
Release Date: August 11, 1945
Director: Peter Godfrey
Production Company: Warner Bros.

The movie begins with the travails of WWII sailor Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) who survives 18 days in a life raft and a long recovery in the hospital back home. He becomes obsessed with food and particularly the columns of Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck), a mother who writes about cooking and domestic life from her farm in Connecticut. The earnest publisher of her magazine, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) learns that Jones is a fan of Lane, and comes up with a publicity stunt of having the war hero spend Christmas at her farm.

There’s only one problem: Elizabeth is a single “career gal” who lives in New York City and knows nothing about cooking. Luckily, Elizabeth’s long-time suitor John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) is an architect with an actual farmhouse in Connecticut and is willing to pose at Elizabeth’s husband (and ultimately marry her for real). Elizabeth’s friend Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall) is a restaurateur who agrees to come along and do the cooking. All of this takes way to long to set up in the movie (as it takes too much space for me to summarize) but once all the pieces are set in place, the movie really shines.

When Elizabeth and Jefferson finally meet, it’s love at first site. There are a lot of comic hijinks of Elizabeth trying to keep up with the imagined life of her column, especially for Yardley’s benefit. But the movie is also surprisingly progressive as we learn that Jefferson is actually far more domestic than Elizabeth. This is especially true in a scene where he expertly bathes Elizabeth’s borrowed baby when she has no clue. The babies themselves are in fact left in the care of Sloan’s housekeeper by immigrant women working in war factories. The war has turned traditional gender roles upside down and this movie seems to be saying that they don’t need to go back to them. Stanwyck’s performance is particularly brilliant and she delivers lines that clearly indicate that she’s had it with societal expectations even as she’s forced to go along with them. (For more on the subversive elements of this movie see this recent article from the AV Club).

The slow start to this movie could use some judicious editing, and there are some subplots I’ve left out of my summary that aren’t too interesting, but overall, once this movie gets to Connecticut it’s a great rom-com. By the way, despite the movie taking place over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, it is not a particularly Christmas-y movie. Also, in an odd bit of trivia, this movie was remade in the 1990s as a tv movie directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger! I’m not going to watch that one.

Rating: ****

Holiday Movie Marathon: How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

Title: How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
Release Date: December 18, 1966
Director: Chuck Jones | Ben Washam
Production Company: Cat in the Hat Productions | MGM Animation/Visual Arts

With all the remakes and the ever-growing Grinch Industrial Complex, it’s easy to forget how short and simple this original adaption of the Dr. Seuss’ book is. It does bring together some remarkable talent, including legendary cartoon director Chuck Jones. The animation is noticeably superior to A Charlie Brown Christmas of a year earlier. It also features the voice talents of Boris Karloff as the narrator and June Foray as Cindy Lou Who. And the golden voice of the awesomely-named Thurl Ravenscroft sings the original diss track, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” The Grinch of course is relatable to anyone who gets a bit grumpy about the commercialism and trappings of Christmas, so this show holds up well.

Rating: ****

Holiday Movie Marathon: Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)

Title: Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas
Release Date: December 4, 1977
Director: Jim Henson
Production Company: Henson Associates

I’d heard about Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas when I was a child, but somehow I never caught it on tv and later in life I just couldn’t find. Being a lover of otters and Jim Henson, I’m glad that I finally was able to watch it this year. Henson and his associates created a charming Appalachian village populated with several down-home animals including the titular Emmet (Jerry Nelson) and his mother, Alice (Marilyn Sokol). In this “Gift of the Magi” inspired story, Emmet and Alice each hope to win the prize in a talent show so they can get one another the perfect gift. Emmet pokes a hole in his mother’s washtub to start the jug band, while Alice pawns Emmet’s tools to get fine clothing for her singing performance. It’s a sweet story with great music and fantastic set design and puppetry tricks that still hold up. I’m so glad I finally got to see this!

Rating: ****

Holiday Movie Marathon: A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Title: A Charlie Brown Christmas
Release Date: December 9, 1965
Director: Bill Melendez
Production Company: Lee Mendelson Films

It’s not the nostalgia talking, this show is really just great. This groundbreaking tv special deals with seasonal depression, crass consumerism, and even made aluminum Christmas trees go out of style. Add to that a banging jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. And it does all this in a story about kids putting on a Christmas play in limited animation by the Graphic Blandishment team.

Rating: *****

Holiday Movie Marathon: Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas (1999)

Merry Christmas! Today I will be posting my reviews of my binge-watch of holiday movies. Enjoy!

Title: Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas
Release Date: November 9, 1999
Director: Alex Mann, Bradley Raymond, Jun Falkenstein, Bill Speers, & Toby Shelton
Production Company: Walt Disney Television Animation | Disney Video Premiere

This anthology film is made up of three shorts staring the Disney Fab Five. The first segment (and the best) has Huey, Dewey and Louie wishing every day would be Christmas and finding that the day is less special when it’s repeated Groundhog’s Day style. Next, Goofy tries to make a perfect Christmas for his son Max, who begins doubting the existence of Santa Claus. Finally, Mickey and Minnie create a modern interpretation of “The Gift of the Magi.” It’s a good holiday film to watch with young children although it’s not anything special.

Rating: **1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending December 19

Ben Franklin’s World :: The World of the Wampanoag

A two-party history of the indigenous people of Eastern Massachusetts who encountered the Puritan settlers of Plymouth in 1620.

Planet Money :: We Buy a Lot of Christmas Trees

A behind-the-scenes look into how the Christmas tree market works.

Planet Money :: The Case Against Facebook

A suit filed by the federal government and 46 state attorney generals against Facebook is stirring up the long-dormant history of anti-trust action in the United States.

Radiolab :: The Ashes on the Lawn

The purposes of protest and why they can’t be modulated to avoid offending people as seen through the story of the ACT UP protests to support relief from the AIDS crisis.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Edison’s Demon Dolls

Talking dolls are creepy and have been so since they were first invented in the 1890s by Thomas Edison himself.

Snap Judgment :: The Crossroad

A true story of a good Samaritan in the time of COVID 19.


Movie Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

Title: The Muppet Christmas Carol
Release Date: December 11, 1992
Director: Brian Henson
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Jim Henson Productions

The first Muppets movie made after the death of Jim Henson offers some big changes from the earlier films in the franchise.  First of all, it adapts a well-known story to be told with popular Muppets playing most of the characters, and many other Muppets acting as a chorus. Second, the trio of Kermit (Steve Whitmire), Fozzie (Frank Oz), and Miss Piggy (Oz, again) are no longer the lead Muppet characters, but instead Gonzo (Dave Goelz) narrates the film as Charles Dickens with Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire) as his sidekick. My guess is with Henson deceased and Oz pursuing lot of projects outside the Muppets, that Goelz and Whitmire now had seniority among Muppet performers, and I like the approach they took foregrounding their characters rather than trying to recreate the work of Henson and Oz. The final big change is that the star of the movie is not a Muppet at all, but the very human actor Michael Caine playing Ebeneezer Scrooge.

The movie has some good gags and I enjoy the Gonzo/Rizzo rapport.  Statler (Jerry Nelson) and Waldorf (Dave Goelz) as the ghosts of the Marley Brothers are also great. Paul Williams returns to provide music for the soundtrack, which works well within the film, but is not as classic as his work on The Muppet Movie.  Ultimately though, A Christmas Carol has been overdone and there’s not much The Muppets can add to it.  The movie is more of a really well-made tv special than a feature-length film.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) #atozchallenge

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: It’s a Wonderful Life
Release Date: December 20, 1946
Director: Frank Capra
Production Company: Liberty Films

George Bailey is in trouble and the people of Bedford Falls pray to heaven for help.  Heaven, in the form of angels who appear as blinking galaxies and stars, responds by calling on an angel who hasn’t yet received his wings, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), is called upon to be George’s guardian angel.  Together, the angels review George’s life of good deeds and self sacrifice which make up the majority of the movie.

Young George Bailey (Bobby Anderson) saves his brother when he falls into an icy pond, and prevents his distraught employer at a pharmacy from accidentally giving out medication with poison in it. As a teenager, George (played by James Stewart from here on), dreams of leaving Bedford Falls and traveling the world and going to college.  When George’s father dies, he is forced to take over the family’s Building and Loan, the only business in town that stands up to the rapacious capitalist Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore).  George’s younger brother Harry (Todd Karns) goes to college in George’s place and four years later returns with a new wife and a great job opportunity, so George is stuck at the Building and Loan.

George falls in love with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) and they get married.  On the day of they’re leaving for their honeymoon, there’s a run on the bank, and George and Mary have to use their honeymoon money to keep the Building and Loan open. Mary renovates an abandoned house and over the years their family grows with four children. Under George’s leadership, the Building and Loan finances quality, affordable homes for many of the working people in the town.  Mr. Potter even tries to lure George into his influence with a lucrative job offer, that George angrily refuses.

During World War II, Harry heroically defends troop transports in the South Pacific and receives the Congressional Medal of Honor.  On the day before he’s set to return home, Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), George’s absent-minded partner at the Building and Loan, mistakenly hands an envelope of cash to Mr. Potter in a folded newspaper. The evil Mr. Potter keeps it knowing that the Building and Loan will collapse without this payment and he can have George arrested for embezzlement.  George lashes out in anger at his family and friends and contemplates suicide.

At this point, Clarence Oddbody arrives on earth as George’s guardian angel. In the most famous sequence of the film, Clarence gives George the opportunity to see what Bedford Falls would be like if George had never been born.  The town, now called Pottersville, is a den of vice and iniquity and all the people George knows and loves are miserable and meaner. George realizes the significance of his life and asks to live again.  Meanwhile, Mary organizes the community and everyone in the town chips in to help pay off the Building and Loan debt.  And Clarence gets his wings.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

If you watched television in the 1970s and 1980s, you will remember that each Christmas season became “It’s a Wonderful Month.” Because the copyright on the film lapsed, any television channel could show the movie and they chose to play it over and over again.  I remember tuning in and watching it in bits and pieces, reliving my favorite parts, not even sure when I finally watched the film from end to end (the very beginning where people are praying for George felt unfamiliar, so maybe I never saw that part).

What Did I Remember?:

This film is etched upon my brain and I could still recite lines of dialogue along with the characters.

What Did I Forget?:

Other than the opening sequence with the prayers, I didn’t forget much. Like many of the movies I’ve been watching, there are details I notice as an adult that I didn’t cotton on to as a child.  For example, the druggist Mr. Gower’s son dies from the Great Influenza Pandemic.  Also, George’s behavior can be really atrocious such as when he visits Mary after Harry’s wedding, or when he lashes out at his family when Uncle Billy loses the $8000.  Granted, it’s understandable why he’s so upset and we know that this is not the person he is.  As a parent, seeing the part where George holds one of his children close to him while weeping carried emotional resonance.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

The acting in this film is terrific across the board.  Even the minor characters are fully realized.  There are so many little details in this movie that make it feel like a real small town where people are involved in one another’s lives.  And everything that is set up in the extended flashback pays off in the alternate universe sequence.  And this movie is just full of hope and inspiration, so it’s hard not to feel emotional by the end.

Frank Capra is criticized for sentimentality and Capra-corn, but this film surprisingly offers a negative assessment of capitalist America in the immediate aftermath of World War II, much like its contemporary The Best Years of Our Lives.  Opposed to the American dream being open to anyone who works hard its up to communities lead by people like George Bailey to fight for basic human decency. George’s angry speech to Potter defines the basic tenets of social democracy against unfettered capitalism and is something that helped me define my political identity as a child (ironically, Stewart and Capra were both lifelong Republicans).

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

I think the movie holds up very well.  I’ve always wondered what the world would be like if Mr. Potter had never been born, or even got his comeuppance (outside of a Saturday Night Live sketch).   The Pottersville sequence does lay things on a bit thick.  I’m never clear how big of a town it’s supposed to be, but Pottersville seems to have a sex worker industry big enough to support all of Western New York.

Is It a Classic?:

It’s a Wonderful Classic!

Rating: *****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with I:

  1. Iceman (1984)
  2. Ikiru (1952)
  3. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
  4. Intermission (2003)
  5. It Happened One Night (1934)

What is your favorite movie starting with I? What do you guess will be my movie for J? (Hint: it was filmed at my family’s favorite vacation spot when I was a kid).