You Otter Be Ready For Christmas

I’m sitting in the garage with my feet up. The temperature outside is 26 degrees. Inside, thanks to my trusty kerosene heater, it’s a balmy 63 degrees. It is starting to snow. Christmas is in the air. I’ve got a Captain Morgan and Coke in the cup holder, my laptop is out, and a DVD is playing in the 20-inch TV/DVD-Player combo, which sits on a shelf next to a red can of gasoline for my lawnmower.

The DVD is not National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and it is not A Christmas Story. It is not Elf. It is not The Polar Express, It’s A Wonderful Life, or Scrooged.

It is Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.


Remember this 1977 gem that aired on a then-new channel called HBO seemingly every day, every December?

Pa Otter has passed away, leaving his son Emmet and Emmet’s loving mother, Ma, alone together. They both miss Pa immensely, but they love each other dearly and would do anything to guarantee the happiness of the other. Which is why for Christmas, both secretly wish to enter a talent contest to win the $50 cash prize to be used towards buying a true Christmas present for the other; the first either has ever given or received.

You see, Emmet wants to buy Ma a piano so she can sing again, and Ma wants to buy Emmet a guitar so he can play with his jug-band.

Trouble is, the Otters are so poor that Ma can’t afford a costume to wear so she can sing in the contest, and Emmet can’t afford a washtub bass so he can play with his band in the same contest. But Ma could sell Pa’s tools and have money to buy that costume, and Emmet could punch a hole in his Ma’s washtub to make that bass, the same washtub she uses to do other people’s laundry as their primary source of income.

The endearing and bittersweet tale of a family’s love during the tragedy of loss and the challenge of adversity is propelled along by an amazing soundtrack of tunes like “Washtub,” “Barbecue,” and “Brothers.” And then, there’s the The River Bottom Nightmare Band, the local gang who also enters the contest, singing their song of the same name.

Jim Henson made this movie on the cheap; you can see the marionette strings above the forest creatures and the puppeteer sticks underneath the ducks as they fly swiftly over the lake. But in interviews, Henson always said he felt very attached to the selflessness and determination of the characters in this Lillian and Russell Hoban story, which compelled Henson to adapt it quickly, but lovingly, in the midst of his rapid rise to fame with The Muppet Show.

Not to sound preachy, but I guess what has always resonated so much with me about this movie (besides the fact that Dad used to show it to us incessantly as kids– he loved it, too) is that, as we tend to wrap ourselves in our own projects, lives, and worlds, especially during the holidays when we become (make ourselves) overwhelmingly busy, the show reminds us of the heartwarming nature of Christmas, and how those selfless acts we commit, particularly around the holidays, serve to not only brighten the sometimes dark worlds of others having trouble with their own miracles, but they also become one more in a string of candles of light in our own windows of Christmas happiness. And that, I reckon, becomes a prize to us worth way more than $50, in ways we might not even expect, as the conclusion of this treat of an overlooked holiday classic teaches us.

Give it a look, why don’t ya’? Not hard to find, and its anniversary edition and accompanying soundtrack are going to be released again in December. Heck, some theaters (including mine, if I get my way) will be showing it “special-event style” in the coming weeks. It truly is a sweet little number about the joy of making others joyful and the unexpected rewards that come with it.

“…a deeply-nuanced and thoroughly-functional understanding of human behavior…”

I have a friend who has a completely illogical disdain for Bill Pullman. He can’t stand him, thinks he’s the worst actor ever, and refuses to watch things if he discovers that Bill Pullman plays a role, no matter how small. “He’s almost a non-entity,” he once said. “They might as well have filmed a cardboard cut-out for all the emotion present in his performance.”

Me, I don’t get it.

And it’s not that I’m a big fan of Bill Pullman either. I don’t run out to see his movies. I don’t have a “Top 10 Performances of Bill Pullman” list tucked away in a notebook somewhere.  But I don’t hate the guy. If I consider him a “non-entity”, it’s because I barely ever even think about him. He’s never struck me as bad in a film. But I tend to not even remember he was in certain movies until I am reminded in conversations with friends. I guess the best way to put it is thusly: I am decidedly lukewarm about Bill Pullman.

Or was. Until I saw Zero Effect.
zero effectAnyone who doesn’t appreciate Bill Pullman should sit and watch this movie. Because his performance is awe-inspiring. It’s the sort of performance that bigger names (like Jack Nicholson or Al Pacino) would have won Academy Awards for, and if Zero Effect had been a bigger film, as opposed to a small, independent film, then Pullman just might have an Academy Award nomination on his own resume. He’s that good in this movie.

Zero Effect was released in 1998. It is written and directed by Jake Kasdan (whose father Lawrence is well-known for writing The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Return of the Jedi, among other timeless nostalgia films). It’s a very promising debut.

But it’s also difficult to write about it without ruining many of the film’s surprises. I’ll try my best…

Ryan O’Neal stars as a shady tycoon named Gregory Stark. Stark has lost a set of keys. This set of keys contains the entry card for a safe deposit box that holds incriminating evidence against him. Soon, he begins being blackmailed by a clever con artist who leads him on elaborate goose chases. Seriously, he’ll receive notes that say things like (I’m paraphrasing) “Get on the #9 bus at such and such corner at 1:21 pm, take the bus seven blocks, get off the bus and get into a cab, go six blocks east and nine blocks west and three blocks south, go into the building right in front of you and ask to use the restroom.” In the restroom, he’ll find a note (again, paraphrasing) that says “Stay tuned Wednesday for the next list of commands.” Stark is frustrated and exhausted, so he hires private detective Daryl Zero.

zero4Daryl Zero (played by Bill Pullman) bills himself as “the world’s most private detective” because people who hire him never get to meet him. Zero is agoraphobic, living every moment of his life disheveled in pajamas behind six deadbolt locks. He subsists almost entirely on canned tuna and room-temperature cans of Tab. Sometimes, he jumps on the bed while he composes awful folk songs. Potential clients must first be screened by his associate Steve Arlo (played by a very subdued Ben Stiller). Arlo takes whatever information he can get from clients back to his boss. Usually, most cases are solved without Zero ever having to leave the apartment. But this time is different: to follow the list of commands back to their source, Zero is going to have to shave, brush his hair, and effectively disguise himself to go out into the world and face polite society for the first time in years.

This is where Pullman’s performance really begins to shine. He’s quirky and amusing up to this point. But driven to solve this case (especially when the keys are found in a most-likely place, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that his client is, most assuredly, not on the level), he must pose as an accountant. He becomes suave, sophisticated, charming– the polar opposite of what we have seen up to this point.

I can’t tell you more than that. Suffice it to say that this is one of those winding films that keeps turning back on itself so many times that you’re continually forced to rethink everything you think you already know. You’re forced to question how fallible your own objectivity and observation might be (or, “the two obs”, as Zero credits them in one of many expansive monologues about his process throughout the script). If you saw the ending coming, you cheated.

It is estimated that it cost $5,000,000 to film Zero Effect. The gross box office for its month-long theatrical run was a pittance in comparison: merely $1, 980, 338. How does a movie this clever, innovative, and downright entertaining fly so criminally under the radar? Is it about marketing it correctly? Had you heard of this film before I recommended it?

One thing is certain: Bill Pullman getting the Oscar nomination he so richly deserved for a riveting performance this many miles from his normal “type” would have helped. Zero Effect is available on DVD and can be streamed on Fandango Now, Vudu, and Amazon Prime. Check it out. I quote Ben Stiller when I say you’ll be “fucking flabbergasted.”

“Get busy living or get busy dying.”

The process for selecting our Movie of the Month is an organic one, decided through somewhat intense (but always joyful) Messenger conversations between all three of us. We usually have a general theme in mind and then we proceed to pare our choices down within that theme to one that we all agree is worthy of the spotlight.

This month, the process worked a little differently because we had an idea that we couldn’t necessarily come up with a movie to represent. During a chat about underrated films of all shapes and sizes, we decided that we wanted to write about a movie that we each think is underrated and deserves a larger audience. This is a pretty straightforward process for our solo entries, but where do we start for the jumping-off point for our Movie of the Month?

How do you pick one “underrated” movie to represent all underrated movies? Just how do you define “underrated” anyway? Is it only movies that we think are really great, but never find a good-sized audience? Can we include movies that got universally-panned by critics but seem to be adored by the filmgoing-public? How exactly do you measure this sort of thing?

We consulted many, many, (many) lists on the Internet of what various critics and film lovers believe to be the most underrated movies of all time. A lot of good options emerged, but the very nature of what “underrated” seems to mean led to us having difficulty finding a movie that a) all three of us had seen or b) would be of general appeal to our readership.

And so, for the month of November, we are going to forego our normal “cinematic rabbit hole” concept and, instead, write about movies that fit a general theme. We’re going to highlight a movie that probably, by most definitions, is not really underrated. But hear us out…
shawshankWe know what you’re thinking: The Shawshank Redemption is about as far away as you can get from underrated. There probably isn’t a single person alive who doesn’t love this movie or at least enjoy some aspect of it. It is, in fact, listed on as the #1 Greatest Film Of All Time based on user reviews. So how is it underrated?

One of the things we learned about this film while doing some research is that The Shawshank Redemption is very lucky to be as popular as it is now. It was an absolute box office failure– the $18,000,000 it grossed in theaters sounds like a lot of money, but that amount didn’t even cover the cost of production. Some critics were lukewarm about it, citing the film as overly sentimental and too long. It wasn’t until the release of the film on home video that anybody seemed to care. Seven Oscar nominations later and a little help from Ted Turner, who loved the movie and sold the syndication rights to cable for much lower than normal, and one of the biggest “flops” of 1994 became one of the most well-loved films of all time.

Three Nerds’ selection, November 2018: The Shawshank Redemption
Who Directed It: Frank Darabont
Who Wrote It: Frank Darabont
Who’s In It: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Clancy Brown, Gil Bellows, and James Whitmore
What does everyone else say about it: Rotten Tomatoes score: 91% (critics), 98% (audience), IMDB user rating: 9.3 (out of 10)
Where you can see it: DVD/Blu-Ray and three streaming services (Fandango Now, Vudu, and Prime Video).

The Nerds Weigh In
Karen: Shawshank is ultimately a film about friendship. This is not to say that it is ONLY a film about friendship. But primarily, it’s a film about how, even in during the darkest moments of your life, a close friend can be your soul mate and your salvation. There isn’t a human on earth who doesn’t need to be reminded of that fact from time to time, and I think this is partially why there is so much appeal in a film like The Shawshank Redemption.

Aaron: I love this movie more than I can adequately describe in a few sentences, so, instead, I will share a memory of seeing this movie for the first time. Back in 1994, my girlfriend at the time, myself, and a friend were invited to participate in an advance screening of this film a full two weeks before it opened. It was a free screening and we had to fill out little cards afterwards saying what we liked and did not like about the movie. I was pretty excited about this movie (big fan of Stephen King and Tim Robbins), but my two companions had no knowledge whatsoever about this movie (though it would turn out that my girlfriend had seen the trailer). This movie hit my friend hard; it affected him personally and viscerally in a very meaningful way. Right about the point where the movie wants you to think that Andy has killed himself, my friend decided that he needed to use the restroom as he didn’t want my girlfriend “to see him cry.” My girlfriend leaned across me and whispered to him, “He isn’t dead. They haven’t shown the part in the preview where he’s standing shirtless in the rain.” My friend actually gasped that she would have had the gall to ruin the movie for him. He didn’t speak to her for the rest of the night.

Greg: GCMS gave us seniors a few days to visit the colleges of our choice. One day, I went with a few folks to not see a college, but to see a movie. Those with whom I attended this feature were the ones who actually had to convince me to abandon our college-visit day to see this prison movie. And I’m glad my arm was so easily twisted.

Lil Bit O Trivia – The Shawshank Redemption
rob reiner
1. Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Paul Newman, and Robert Redford were all considered for the part of Red. Jeff Bridges, Tom Hanks, Kevin Costner, Tom Cruise, Nicolas Cage, Johnny Depp, and Charlie Sheen were all considered for the part of Andy Dufresne. Charlie Sheen was, reportedly, so enamored of the script that he offered to do it for scale. Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise were, in fact, the immediate first choices of director Rob Reiner, who offered Frank Darabont $2.5 million for the rights to the screenplay, so that he could direct the film himself.

2. When Andy goes to the library to begin work as Brooks’ assistant, we meet Jake, Brooks’ pet crow. Tim Robbins had to time his line (“Hey, Jake. Where’s Brooks?”) around the crows’ squawking patterns so that he wouldn’t be squawked over as he spoke. This is a crow, after all. Not really trainable to squawk on cue. Robbins actually studied the bird’s squawking pattern for a time to figure out how to time the line. This improvisation is noticeable in the finished film. You can see Robbins watching the crow as he approaches it, waiting for the moment it would squawk.

3. Speaking of Jake the crow. . .there’s a moment in the film that almost got Frank Darabont and crew slapped with a hefty fine from the American Humane Society. They  were required to monitor all sequences that involved Jake. During the scene where Brooks feeds Jake a maggot, the AHS objected. Their grounds? It was cruel to the maggot. Darabont was required to use a maggot that had died from natural causes. One was found.

alfonso4. The mugshots of a young-looking Morgan Freeman that are attached to his parole papers are actually pictures of Morgan’s younger son, Alfonso. Alfonso also has a cameo in the movie as a con (he’s the one who shouts, “Fresh fish! Fresh fish today! We’re reeling ’em in!” as Andy is being escorted in). A year after The Shawshank Redemption, he appeared as a Fingerprint Technician in Se7en, another movie that stars his father.

5. Although set in Maine, the success of the movie helped boost the fortunes of Mansfield, Ashland, and Upper Sandusky, Ohio, three towns that share thirteen sites used as filming locations. According to the Mansfield/Richland County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the movie brought in more than 18,000 visitors, and produced an estimated three-million dollar boost to the local economy in 2013. There’s now a Shawshank Trail for tourists and local businesses have jumped on the bandwagon. A visitor can purchase themselves some Reformatory “Red” Wines, Shawshank Bundt Cakes, and the local Two Cousins’ Pizza sells Redemption Pie. The rock wall where Red’s “treasure” is buried, was built specifically for the film and stood for many years. Eventually, the wall was sold on eBay, one rock at a time, by the farmer who owned the land on which it stood.

morgantimbaseballThat’s all for this week, friends. Check in next week with Aaron. He’s got an underrated movie to recommend.