Murray Christmas, Indeed

Crosby, Stills, and Nash sang the Stephen Stills lyric, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”

Christmas will be over soon, whether we are ready for the music, the movies, the festivities, the sentiment, and the happiness to be over or not, and that heavy feeling of saying goodbye to the magic known only at this time of year surrounds us like that dark cloud of wrong that fills the sky around Dana Barrett’s building at the end of Ghostbusters.

My fellow nerds and I hope your spirits remain high right through the end, and your dreams will be realized during the season of what can only be best described as joy and wonder. It is those around us, those we let into our weird little worlds, who make the light of the holiday brightest. Whether speaking to them in the same room, or face to face on the computer, or voice to voice on the phone, the lives we touch with our hope and cheer may not fully realize that it is their light and their vigor that touches us, giving us that hope and cheer for which we thirst so fondly on the Eve of Christmas and on the Day of Happiness.

All of this brings me to my entry this month, my favorite month. A movie released on Netflix a few years ago that had Bill Murray critics and fans evenly divided on its merit and general entertainment value. Actually, I think a lot of Bill Murray fans found themselves disappointed after the first few minutes and may not even have given the 56-minute ode to togetherness the chance it deserves, which is why we are going to talk about it here.

It’s a bizarre vignette, if you will, filled with equally bizarre cameos, a buried theme, and dark comedy of the blackest kind. But A Very Murray Christmas also had something else hidden between the one-liners and awkward performances: a message of togetherness so tender and so sweet that the movie has catapulted to very near the top of my Christmas favorites each year.

A quick note on the plot, as this is already getting long: Bill Murray, as himself, is set to host and perform at a star-studded, televised Christmas special on a night that brings with it the worst snowstorm in recent New York City memory. None of his guests arrive at the event, his nightmare producers who care only about money, their jobs, and kissing celebrity arse, won’t let Bill out of the contract, instead concocting a farce so non-sensical that even the TV land zombies wouldn’t believe it to be real, and Bill is on the verge of professional and psychological collapse.

A glimmer of hope and success brought on by Chris Rock (as himself) fades quickly into the darkness of failure, and Bill retreats into depression and alcohol as his dreams of togetherness with all of his celebrity friends coming to his rescue blow away with the falling snow outside, leaving him with a sense of palpable loneliness from which he is not certain he can recover.

And then something amazing happens…

Bill and his musical director, Paul Shaffer (as himself) visit the bar lounge, where a Christmas Eve wedding that had to be cancelled because of a power outage coupled with the cold feet of a groom, finds the bride and groom to be, the hotel staff, a very familiar bartender, a waiting-in-the-wings mistress, and a few other kooky (as Paul would say) guests are waiting for something…anything…to happen.

Through the magic of Christmas and through song, accompanied by Paul at the piano, this group of misfits finds something grander than the most extravagant present under a tree: each other. This group, especially Bill, learns that the tragedy of loneliness is but a mind game he has been playing with himself. He learns about the miracle of togetherness, not by spending time with those who, in his eyes abandoned him, but by spending time with and giving back to those who are having trouble making their own miracles happen (to quote from Scrooged). In short, the Christmas special Bill dreamed of falls well short of the Christmas special he lived in terms of fulfilling his sense of purpose; and that, dear readers, was the true miracle of Christmas for this not-so-lonely curmudgeon.

I’d like to say a word about three of the performances, and then a word about George Clooney, and then a word about the man in red, and then I’ll wrap it up. By then, I hope I will have finally sold at least one or two of you on this Christmas package of delight, once and for all.

First up in the performances is Maya Rudolph, as a lady-in-waiting, who chronologically delivers the first of a handful of the film’s show stopping performances. Rudolph, known for her over-the-top SNL impressions of Oprah and Whitney Houston, to name a couple, sings one of the most heart wrenching versions of “Christmas, Baby Please Come Home” that I’ve ever heard. At the onset of the performance, you think she’s doing her satirical thing again. But a few moments in, you realize that she’t not. Her sad eyes and her broken heart work together to pound out those lyrics of loneliness, not unlike Bill’s own, as Paul pounds out those notes on the piano, and you can feel each of those punches in your own chest.

Next up is Miley Cyrus…yes, that wrecking-ball-riding Miley Cyrus. We all know the girl can sing! She just always seems to be trying so hard to convince us all of that, finding the need in  the process to add the shock value that really nobody cares about. But in her earnest and utterly pleasant performance of “Silent Night,” she lets every bit of that angst and sexual showmanship go, and she turns in a raw, emotional delivery of this Christmas classic that makes you sit back and go, “holy shit…that girl is REALLY good!” Of note (again) is Paul Shaffer’s arrangement of Silent Night, a la SNL’s “Waltz in A.” Only Paul can turn the background orchestration of Silent Night into a bluesy, jazzy, totally enjoyable experience. What is “Waltz in A?” It has been the theme song for the closing credits of SNL since 1975. And his arrangement of “Silent Night” sounds just like it, downward chord progressions and all, making you feel like the cast of SNL just took their bow for the evening and transporting you back to a time when you watched the Christmas episode of the show with your family, and they are about to cut to a shot of the performers ice-skating in front of Rockefeller Center. This piano arrangement might be the best of the show.

And finally, the Christmas medley sang at (where else) Paul’s piano at the end of the night, featuring all of the show’s players in one way or another, brings tears to my eyes every single time I see/hear it. And guess what: until typing this, I never knew this medley is not an original, but instead it is “Fairytale in New York,” by The Pogues. It is in these final moments of their evening together, even though Bill is clearly almost done, that they all realize this is one of the best Christmases they have ever had…because they were together, because they uplifted each other, because they loved the company of each other, and because they let the Christmas miracle overcome them. It’s a truly remarkable scene, and perhaps the best scene in the movie. We’ll talk more about this scene in a moment.

Second on the list of things to discuss: early in the movie, Bill runs into an agent (another celebrity cameo) who has been trying to sign Bill to a contract for what sounds like years. Not only this, but the agent is trying to talk Bill out of doing what the agent believes will be a train wreck of a Christmas special. Bill says, “But we’ve got George Clooney,” and the agent says, “I rest my case.” You might think nothing of it at first other than it is a funny jab at Clooney, who happens to be in real life one of Bill’s celebrity friends. But this slick little one liner comes back at the end of the movie in what I will call the most clever callback in recent memory. You see, at one point, Bill, shall we say, falls asleep, and then dreams of the “real” Christmas special he’d of liked to have. The whole thing, though bright-colored and loaded with production value, and though contains the scene with Miley and Silent Night, is mostly nonsense and unemotional, especially when compared to the 30 minutes of scenes in the bar immediately preceding this one. And then George Clooney comes into it, and it is by far the worst musical number in the entire movie. Now, I don’t know anything about anything, and I doubt any director would intentionally make bad scenes in their films. BUT…imagine the balls Sophia Copolla must have if she DID do this as a deliberate call back to the train wreck comment from the agent at the beginning of the movie, and Bill, in the movie, is subconsciously recalling this comment in his dream as this truly awful and unfunny scene plays out in Bill’s fantasy Christmas special. It’s brilliant! I’d like to believe this is deliberate. Which would make it genius. Not only this, but it would prove all of my points from before that the joy of Christmas is all about the ones you spend it with and what you can do together, not what others can do for you, and not about those you think love you who don’t turn up when it counts.

And finally, who is the man in red? Who IS the man in red? You know you know him. Where have you seen him? If you know your movies and your 80s pop culture, you’ll recognize him pretty quickly. And if not, well, I’ll let you toil a bit. In this film, the man in red is the bartender in the background of nearly every single shot filmed in the bar after the failed wedding. Sometimes he is in focus, sometimes out of focus, sometimes speaking, sometimes singing, sometimes making drinks, and sometimes drinking drinks, but he is always there. Always. So what? Who cares? I believe that this Ghost of Christmas Past behind the bar is a foggy reminder to Bill and company of those truly forgotten during the holidays – those even further down in the dumps and more forgotten than Bill wrongly believes himself to be – those with nowhere to go, no one to be with, nothing to do but serve drinks to other forgotten souls like himself – those with nothing to smile about, but who smile anyway. And why? Because these people who smile through life’s turmoil don’t know another way. They smile because that is what they do. They live, whether they know it or not, to quietly bring those together who may not’ve otherwise come together. They remind us (and eventually Bill) to reach out to those who stay in the background and bring them in to the foreground. For without these people, or to take it a step further, without these memories of grander times implanted in Bill’s or in our own heads, there’d be little to celebrate; for the people and the memories of good times are what the Christmas miracle is all about. I think THAT’S who the man in red is and what he represents. In one scene, when the actors in the foreground are singing a carol of sorts, we see this man in red in the background, slightly out of focus and casually shaking a drink in a tumbler. Moments later, this heretofore lonely man in red sees something off camera that makes him smile a smile that will light up your heart, making you realize that he, on this Christmas Eve, is finally realizing his very own Christmas Miracle, and he is loving every minute of it. Later, when singing The Pogues “Fairytale in New York,” the man in red sings the line, “I could have been someone,” (which invokes more than one tear, if you have a heart) to which the backup singers echo the sentiment by caroling much louder than he, as if to stamp out his worry, “well so could anyone!” This line, sung by this character, in this moment, spells out in black and white what the entire movie is about: a person may be down, but that person is never out…the ones you’ve let into your weird little world are going to make sure of it.

Now I’m getting all preachy again.

A Very Murray Christmas is more than a Christmas special, it’s a work of brilliance. It makes my heart happy, as they say. It makes me smile, it literally makes me cry, and it makes me want to watch it again and again. Like I said before, you gotta look closely, because this movie is most certainly odd. If you don’t look deeper, the oddity is all you’re going to see. But way down in there is a heart of hope that people are, in fact, good, and that people are worth being there for, remembering, and sharing with all of the magic Christmas brings.

“What’s This?”

My favorite Christmas movie isn’t really your stereotypical Christmas movie. It’s pretty dark and gothic, definitely creepy, and it doesn’t really evoke the sense of “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men” that we’ve come to expect from the truly great Christmas films.

Except that it does.

The Nightmare Before Christmas was released in October of 1993. From the moment I first saw the trailers for this clay-animated movie, I wanted to see it. I loved the notion that someone could be dark and twisted enough to make a movie that served as both a great pick for Halloween and a great pick for Christmas. And that song in the trailer (What’s this? What’s this? There’s color everywhere. What’s this? There’s white things in the air. What’s this?) had been stuck in my head from pretty much the first moment I heard it. There was a snafu, though, in my plans to see this movie. Two of them, in fact. I knew no one in my circle of friends who had any interest whatsoever in spending an evening watching a cartoon and I had no driver’s license, so I could not drive myself.

Yes, it’s true. I was a Senior in high school and I had no driver’s license. My step-father had made this tyrannical and humiliating decision because he did not want his insurance to go up just because I had my license. Especially since he had no intentions of ever letting me drive any of his cars. If I wanted to go places or do things with my friends, I had to rely on them to drive me, to pick me up, to take me home. And since we lived six miles out of town in the country, the chances of people agreeing to that were fairly slim. It happened, but it was rare.

For this reason, among others, I was pretty depressed and lonely through most of my Senior year of high school. Yes, I had friends. Lots of them, in fact. But my license-free, no-car existence excluded me from most of the social gatherings. In addition, there was an ex-girlfriend involved here, a girl who had become friends with my friends and always seemed to be hanging around. Sometimes, admittedly, the decision to stay home on Friday night and catch up on movies I had missed was a conscious choice to avoid any further heartbreak. High school romance is the pits and I can’t blame that on my stepfather.

jack and sally
So. . . okay. Gibson City. 1993. I was a Senior. My younger brother was a Freshman. He had a girlfriend. Her name is, at the moment, escaping me (but I will never forget that she had a pick-up truck that we referred to as “the screwdriver truck” because you had to, you know, jam a screwdriver into the ignition to start it). They were going to see this movie at the Wings Cinema in Rantoul. Naturally, I did not want to be so lame as to tag along and (oh, the shame!) BE A THIRD WHEEL to (someone please kill me!) MY YOUNGER BROTHER, but I was desperate to see this movie. We do what we have to do.

Let me pause for a moment and explain that my younger brother has always somewhat accused me of being an elitist snob when it comes to movies. “Overly critical” are the words he often used. And to a certain extent, he was right. I was young and a good writer. I was hyper aware of the latter fact, and definitely pretentious about it. I had designs on working in the film industry and was almost 100% completely incapable of watching a movie for fun, for sheer entertainment value. To that I will just say that, now that those dreams of being a famous screenwriter never came to fruition, I have watched the entire Mission: Impossible catalog at least six times and stop pretty much everything I am doing when I realize that Tremors is on television. I’ve gotten better, that’s all I’m saying.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Me, my brother, his girlfriend. Depressed. Lonely. Third wheel. Date night. I’m an overly critical, elitist snob. And . . . wait for it . . . we both loved this movie.

That’s right. We both LOVED this movie. Immensely. And I do believe that this might have been the first time in our entire lives that this had EVER happened. Whenever I see this movie, I always think of that awkward evening. I think of my brother in the theater parking lot: “If you hated that, I don’t even want to know you anymore.” I think about trying to be contrary and play it off like this was the worst god damn movie I had ever seen. But I couldn’t do it with a straight face. Because the movie, let’s be honest, had for pretty much the first time in my entire Senior year, made me feel so ridiculously ALIVE. I’ve already told you my Senior year was rough, and this clay-animated (!) Christmas movie (!!) had given me a reason not to, I dunno, hate myself for a couple of hours. Which is somewhat ironic, I guess, given how dark and gothic the movie actually is.

I won’t speak for my brother now, because I’m not sure how this movie has held up for him over time, but it still holds up for me (as I’m sure it probably does for his wife, who loves this sort of thing more than I do). This is, without question, my favorite Christmas movie ever. There is, admittedly, some nostalgia thrown into that assessment, but even without that, it’s a damn fine film.

Well-written. Well-plotted. Visually breathtaking (I’m still floored by how they animated, with clay, the spotlight in the “Sandy Claws” musical number and how the tree spins in one direction while the ornaments spin in the other). Unbelievable music. Jaw-dropping villain (Oogie Bogie is horrifying and adorable all at the same time). The absolute creepiest depiction of Santa Claus I have ever seen in any movie before or since.

oogie boogie

The Nightmare Before Christmas isn’t just a Christmas movie for me. It’s a macabre reminder that there isn’t any good reason that the feelings and compassion and friendliness that overtake us this time of year can’t exist all year long. That’s really all Jack Skellington wanted, right? To feel this good all year.

jack lights

‘Come Out To The Coast! We’ll Get Together, Have A Few Laughs’

We’re certain that our selection for December’s Movie of the Month is sure to be a controversial one that sparks conversation. Not because the movie isn’t worthy of such a distinction, but because there’s probably more than a few among you that will disagree that the movie fits our theme.

Last month, we focused on underrated films and then put a spotlight on one of the most well-loved movies of all time. This month, we wanted to focus on our favorite Christmas movie (for obvious reasons) and selected a movie that just barely squeezes itself in. Have we lost our collective minds?

Our Movie of the Month is . . .
die hard
Don’t be a naysayer! Die Hard is a Christmas movie! It takes place on Christmas, right? It makes you feel all warm and fuzzy watching John McClane beat the crap out of terrorists, right? ‘Tis the season!

Three Nerds’ selection, December 2018: Die Hard
Who Directed It: John McTiernan
Who Wrote It: Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza
Who’s In It: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, and Paul Gleason
What does everyone else say about it: Rotten Tomatoes score: 93% (critics), 94% (audience), IMDB user rating: 8.2 (out of 10)
Where you can see it: DVD/Blu-Ray and four streaming services (Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, and Prime Video).

The Nerds Weigh In
Karen: Duh. Obviously a Christmas movie. Christmas party. Christmas decorations. Christmas jokes. Christmas happy ending. Christmas movie. And as far as the movie guts go, there is something obviously special about the little tango between Alan Rickman and Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Movie perfection. After all of these years, the one-liners still make me chuckle.

Aaron: A year or so ago, I was challenged by Greg to do a Facebook list of my personal favorite top 20 films of all time. I had a really difficult time not including this movie on the list. If my list had been more genre-specific (Say, Top 20 ACTION Films of All Time), then Die Hard would have been– without question– the number one movie on that list. I’ve loved this movie ever since I first saw it as a kid, and I’ve loved it for different reasons throughout the years. As a child, it was a solid action film (and rated R!). As a teenager, I appreciated that it was a solid action film that wasn’t brainless. In college, I began to appreciate it as a solid beginning for an actor whose films I have greatly loved (I love Bruce Willis and I won’t apologize for it). As a student of theatre, I recognized just how nuanced Alan Rickman’s performance was. As an adult, I get nostalgic because they just don’t make them like this anymore. I am not exaggerating to say that, with the possible exception of The Empire Strikes Back, it is entirely possible that I have re-watched this particular movie more than any other. In fact, I may be overdue to watch it again.

Greg: I agree with Aaron: this is a Christmas movie. Look . . . No matter which “List Of Best Christmas Movies Ever” you look up online, Die Hard will appear on it. I’d bet my aging Toshiba laptop on it. This indubitably makes Die Hard, whether you like it or not, a Christmas movie. Following the same logic, no matter which “List of Best Action Movies Ever” you look up online, Die Hard will appear on it. This is all I have to say about the matter. Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-diehard.

Lil Bit O Trivia – Die Hard
14520310959981. The first Die Hard movie is based on a 1979 novel by Roderick Thorpe, entitled Nothing Lasts Forever. This novel is a sequel to his 1966 novel, The Detective, which was adapted into a film in 1968. The film version of The Detective stars none other than Frank Sinatra. Due to a stipulation in Sinatra’s contract, the producers of Die Hard were legally bound to offer the role of John McClane to Frank before auditioning other actors. Mr. Sinatra would have been 73 years old at the time and turned the role down.

2. What do Don Johnson, Richard Gere, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Sylvester Stallone, Richard Dean Anderson, Burt Reynolds, and Nick Nolte have in common? All of them are rumored to have been offered the role of John McClane. Also rumored to have been in contention: Robert DeNiro, John Travolta, Charles Bronson, and Mel Gibson. Also: Michael Madsen, Al Pacino, and Tom Berenger. Bruce Willis had auditioned very early on, but was, reportedly, not taken very seriously by producers as he was considered, at the time, a comedic actor. The original posters for the film, in fact, focus on Nakatomi Plaza and barely feature Bruce Willis at all.

FoxPlaza_TristanReville_Flickr3. Speaking of Nakatomi Plaza . . . the building used for this location is actually Fox Plaza, the corporate headquarters for the movie company that made the film. At the time, the building was still under construction, so there wasn’t much modification needed to get the space ready. It was cheaper as well; Fox did not have to rent a building location because they already owned the one they were using. (Bonus fact: Fox Plaza is also featured at the end of Fight Club. It’s one of the buildings that explode at the film’s conclusion!)

4. There’s a great bit of improvisation in Alan Rickman’s death scene . . . that no one ever told Alan Rickman about. In order to make it appear that he was falling from a building, Rickman was supposed to drop twenty feet onto an air mattress while holding onto a stunt man. It was agreed to a three count before Rickman would be dropped, but the stunt man intentionally let go on the count of two. Poor Alan’s expression as he falls is an expression of genuine terror. Incidentally, Die Hard is Alan Rickman’s film debut.

5. There’s been a long-standing Internet rumor that Die Hard was originally intended as a sequel to the 1985 Arnold Schwarzenegger flick Commando. According to Stephen de Souza, who wrote both Die Hard and Commando, this rumor is demonstrably untrue. However, it has been confirmed that the novel 58 Minutes by Walter Wager was intended to be the story for Commando 2. This novel served as the source material for the final script of . . . wait for it . . . Die Hard 2: Die Harder. Also, since we’re talking about it . . . the script for Die Hard With A Vengeance was adapted from a Jonathan Hensleigh short story (“Simon Says”) which had been already earmarked to potentially become a Lethal Weapon sequel.

Now it’s time for you to weigh in, friends! Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? What’s your favorite Christmas movie? Did we say “Happy Holidays” yet? Because we should have.

Happy Holidays from all three of us here at Three Nerds and a Movie!