About Me

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, December 31, 2010

An Offbeat Tribute to Those We Lost in 2010

Happy New Year's Eve everybody!

Here is my somewhat morbid, non-comprehensive offbeat musings on some of the talented people we lost in 2010...

Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)

When Dennis "Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet" Hopper died, a clip of him reciting "If" by Rudyard Kipling from the Johnny Cash Show turned up everywhere on the net.

This is the clip that comes right before that. It's the only time I've ever seen him sing. Hopper and Cash seem to connect almost a little too well. Seems like they've both been down that same substance abuse road

I remember renting this fascinating little curiosity on VHS in the 90's. The early HBO film, Witch Hunt, features a rare sympathetic lead role for Hopper. It is also most likely the only time Hopper ever even attempted to pull off the hard boiled gumshoe PI role.

Check out not just the premise of this one but also the name of the private eye.

Peter Graves (1926-2010)

Depending on your generational reference point, Peter Graves is either most famous as Mission: Impossible! team leader Jim Phelps, as the creepy yet humourous Captain Clarence Oveur in Airplane! or as that guy that seems to host of all those biography things on TV there.

Though, I'm pretty sure that almost no one knows him only as the star to the 1950's sci-fi film, The Red Planet Mars.

Long story short: radio transmissions are established with intelligent Utopian life on Mars. The message from Mars: worship God more. Think of the Jodie Foster movie Contact with a ton of 1950's cold war propaganda thrown in.

Irvin Kershner (1923-2010)

The Empire Strikes Back is undoubtedly the film that Kershner will always be best remembered for. You could maybe throw in Kershner bringing Sean Connery back to the role of James Bond after an twelve year absence in Never Say Never Again or Kershner filming Frank Miller's ambitious screenplay for Robocop 2 or the trippy 70's Faye Dunaway horror thriller, The Eyes of Laura Mars. Really, though, the name Kershner is synonymous with what is arguably the best Star Wars movie of the series.

However, 16 years before introducing the world to AT-AT Walkers and Boba Fett, Kershner found his way to Montreal to direct a low budget Canadian movie entitled The Luck of Ginger Coffey . Robert Shaw plays an Irish journalist emigrating with his family to Montreal in 1964. Based on the novel of the same by Brian Moore, the film chronicles the struggles of adapting to a new life in a new country.

This movie is a must for any Montrealer. The film captures the many of the city's landmarks and neighbourhoods in all their 1964 black and white splendor. It is fascinating just on its historical terms alone. A bus ad in one scene plugs the still three years away Expo '67. There is also a cameo by what looks like a 17 year-old Don McGowan (there's a generationally specific Anlgo Montreal reference for ya).

Robert Shaw is, as always, great in the title role. The Luck of Ginger Coffey is a really good little film to boot.

It's easier to find the posters for this film on the web than it is to find the film itself.

The Luck of Ginger Coffey is also an extremely rare archeological find: an independent English Canadian film from the early 60's (there's no connection to the NFB or the CBC in this production and Canadian film tax credits were still years away).

I managed to catch this wonderfully obscure gem on on History Television a few years back but, alas did not manage to record it. There is a DVD edition available on Amazon UK but you'll need a multi-region player to watch it. If you are so inclined, it's worth the trouble.

Gary Coleman (1968-2010)

Forget "Whatch you talkin' about Willis?", Coleman's best role ever was as the boy genius Interstellar President Hieronymus Fox on the classic 70's sci-fi series Buck Rogers in The 25th Century.

Tony Curtis (1925-2010)

For those my age, the strongest association with Tony Curtis is not Some Like It Hot or The Defiant Ones or Spartacus or The Persuaders or even The Bad News Bears Go To Japan.  No, for us Boomer-Gen X Tweeners, Tony Curtis is Stony Curtis. In fact, as a child Curtis' guest appearance on The Flintstones created a great deal of confusion. I was under the impression that Stony Curtis was actually the man's real name. Stony and Tony sounded very similar and, after all, Stony did look and sound like the guy in movies like Boeing, Boeing.  As far as I was concerned, everyone kept getting Stony Curtis' name wrong when they called him Tony Curtis.

4 years of film and theatre school school managed to straighten that misconception out.

Here's Stony in at the pinnacle of his career...

Jackie Burroughs (1939-2010)

One of Canada's greatest actors, known for her roles in Road to Avonlea, A Winter Tan, The Grey Fox and the one of the greatest TV series ever (Canadian or otherwise), Slings and Arrows.  But for me and my pals in my sketch comedy troupe, The Vestibules, she will always be remembered as the women who stormed up to us out of nowhere at the 1990 Canadian Radio Awards reception in Toronto and declared "You guys are so fucking funny!".

We figured out who she was later...

J.D. Salinger (1919-2010)
Colbert never did land this guest
At the time of the brilliant reclusive writer's death, I posted a link to a brilliantly funny tribute to the man written by those really funny guys at www.theonion.com. Here is another great Salinger piece of theirs I recently turned up.

Cory Haim (1971-2010)

Another person on the list that I've actually met...well, kinda.  There was about 10 minutes in the mid-90's when SCTV legend Joe Flaherty was supposedly interested in directing a potential TV pilot for The Vestibules. The whole thing was set up by a local producer who had gotten lucky and managed to get a movie called Snowboard Academy into production. As a means of acquainting Flaherty with our work, Paul, Bernard and I drove up to Mont Blanc to do a show for the cast and crew of the film (which included Flaherty, Jim Varney, Brigette Neilson and Cory Haim). 

If having someone talking loudly and obnoxiously through your entire show constitutes meeting them then, yes, we met Corey Haim. 

On a serious note, at least his demise was not drug related which, based on his behavior that night years ago,  I was, at first, convinced was the case.

James MacArthur (1937-2010)

Book 'em Danno...sorry, James, couldn't resist...

The adopted son of Academy Award winning actress, Helen Hayes, James MacArthur was the last surviving principal cast member of the legendary 1960's/70's TV cop show Hawaii Five-0 (his part is played by Scott Caan in the current re-boot).

Before 5-0, MacArthur appeared in number of other film roles including a few Disney flicks. He was also something of teen heartthrob for super brief period of time.  That time included a bit of a not-unShatner-like music career. This is song charted at #94 in the US in 1963.

It's called The Ten Commandments of Love.

It's my understanding that several small towns in the US have this version of The Ten Commandments posted in their courthouses, particularly in the more male-dominated regions...

Frank Frazetta (1928-2010)

Frank Frazetta is universally recognized as one of the greatest fantasy painters that ever lived. He was largely famous for paintings like this one:

Frazetta was one of the few artists who had the ability to, with one painting, make both men and women insecure about their body image simultaneously.

A rare gift.

Frazetta is well known for his paintings of Conan The Cimmerian, John Carter Warlord of Mars, Kull, Tarzan and, of course, Woody Allen. Yes. Woody Allen.

Frazetta was also a movie poster artist and early in his career, this was one of his assignments:

Oddly, Woody never contacted Frank for the Annie Hall or Manhattan posters...

John Forsythe (1918-2010)

Hmmm...not a hat in sight...

And, finally, big shout out the to the late great John Forsythe, star of Charlie's Angels, Dynasty, The John Forsythe Show and the original guy who "had on a hat".

Happy New Year
All The Best for 2011!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

10 "It's Ain't Always Such a Wonderful Life" Christmas Movies

10. A Midnight Clear (1992)

A Midnight Clear is one of the most underrated war movies out there (and ditto that on Christmas movies too).

This indie 1992 movie features an all star Brat Pack of The 90's cast: Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinse, Kevin Dillion, Peter Berg and Arye Gross. They play an American Intelligence unit isolated in the Ardennes Forest during The Battle of The Bulge in World War II.

The Battle of the Bulge was a last ditch attempt by the Germans to turn the tide of the war back in their favour. It almost worked. The offensive was launched on December 16, 1944 with much of the bloodiest fighting taking place over Christmas and New Years.

In the midst of the fighting, the American soldiers are approached under a flag of truce by a lost German platoon. The war is pointless for them by now and they just want to surrender. Far removed from the fighting, the "enemies" find themselves celebrating Christmas together.  Then tension mounts when the war once again reaches their doorstep and the two enemies are lead down a path from which there is no coming back.

A Midnight Clear is one of those films that doesn't hit you over the head with messages. The anti-war sentiments are there, to be sure, but they just lie there subtly, allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions.  The same is true of the film's sympathetic and ambiguously heroic deception of these particular men who fought in World War II.

The film was made at a time when WWII was not in vogue in Hollywood. The war movie genre was still under the shadow of the lingering 80's obsession with movies about the Vietnam War. Even the box in the video store compared the movie to Platoon. It would be another six years before Spielberg and Saving Private Ryan would make WWII cool again.

A Midnight Clear is a lost gem, an underdog in the combat film genre, a great alternate Xmas flick and well worth seeking out.

9. The Apartment (1960)

The Apartment won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1960.  It was one of those Best Pictures that actually deserved the honour. It was directed by Billy Wilder, legendary for directing one of the best film comedies of all time, Some Like it Hot. Wilder plays things a bit more dark and real this time around. He once again casts his Some Like it Hot favourite, Jack Lemmon, along with an unrecognizably young Shirley Maclaine and Fred MacMurray in what was probably his last non-family friendly role.

Set in the final week of the 1950's, The Apartment follows the story of a mid-level insurance company drone, played by Lemmon, trying to work his way up in the company. He has a unique strategy to achieving that goal. He lends out his apartment to four different managers so that they can use it as secret hideaway for all of their many extramarital affairs (and you thought Mad Men did it first). Chief among the managers is head honcho Fred MacMurray.

Things get a little complicated when Lemmon starts to hit it off with one MacMurray's main squeezes, played by Maclaine.  Over Christmas and New Years,  there's love, betrayal and attempted suicide. Yet Wilder manages to keep even the darkest moments both appealing and funny.

The Apartment features a performance from MacMurray that is so incredibly creepy you will never watch My Three Sons or Son of Flubber (yep, those stupid Robin Williams Disney things were remakes) the same way again.

The Apartment is a more realistic take on Christmas. Life goes on during the holidays; it's not like all your issues and conflicts just go on an extended Christmas break like the banks do.

8. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Stanley Kubrick is quite possibly the greatest film director who ever lived.  His films have a visual language and meaning all their own. Kubrick is many things but he is not a panderer. Either you keep up with his audacious storytelling methods or you don't. It's that simple.

That may explain why Eyes Wide Shut still remains Kubrick's most maligned and misunderstood film. Some critics went so far as to say that Kubrick must not have finished editing it at the time of his death (he never lived to see the film released) or that he caved into studio pressure to tone down the extensive amount of orgy scenes. I don't think those critics understand Kubrick all that well. It's a much more complex film that they are giving the legendary director credit for.

And, oh yeah, it all takes place around Christmas.

Eyes Wide Shut is a story of sex and betrayal, both real and imagined. Kubrick does for Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut what he did for Ryan O'Neal in Barry Lyndon: makes him look like a much better actor than he is. Cruise, after a confession from his wife Nicole Kidman (both real and movie version at the time), heads out into the streets of a backlot in London made to look exactly like New York City. He embarks on a a dream-like journey of sex, surreal experiences and well, more sex, really.  He encounters an elite orgy of anonymous sex that reflects the inner world of his psyche run wild (See Stanley? I'm keepin' up). The orgy scenes are not about being shocking, sexy or caving or not caving into the studio censorship. Those scenes are much more oneiric in nature than any of those things.

And, oh yeah, they take place around Christmas.

One of the things I love about Eyes Wide Shut is how Kurbick (like the candles in Barry Lyndon) lights entire scenes with Chirstmas lights. I have never seen another movie that has used holiday lights as artfully and beautifully as Eyes Wide Shut.

And ya just gotta love any movie that ends (SPOILER ALERT) with Nicole Kidman standing in the middle of a crowded toy store on Christmas Eve saying the words, "We have to fuck."

I suggest that any of the maligners who may be reading this out there take another look at Eyes Wide Shut. I mean, who has ever really liked a Kubrick film on first viewing?

And, besides, Christmas is a time for forgiveness.

7. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

It was only after seeing this movie three times and reading the book that I realized it's a Christmas movie. It's as close as James Bond ever gets to anything yuletide. Well, aside from Sean Connery calling his attache case with a pop-out knife and exploding gas canisters in it, "A nasty Christmas present" in From Russia With Love. K....um...that was really geeky, wasn't it?

In this Bond outing, George Lazenby fills Sean Connery's shoes (for just one movie, as it would turn out). Lazenby is no Connery. In fact, he's barely even a Moore (and certainly not a Craig or even a Brosnan or a Nelson or Niven or....okay, I'll stop now). Though he does nail the last line of the movie, which in this case, is pretty damn important. Yep, this is the one were Bond gets married. Given that he is definitely not married in any other subsequent Bond movies, well, um, I think that's a spoiler alert.

In Lazenby's inexperienced hands, Bond comes off as a more vulnerable and less confident than any another 007 in cinema history (and I"m including Woody Allen's Bond from the 1967 comedy version of Casino Royale).

Back to the Xmas connection.

Ernest Stavro Blofeld, Bond's only multiple movie arch nemesis (played this time around by Telly Savalas -it wasn't just Bond they kept recasting), threatens to launch a major biological attack on the free world on Christmas Eve 1969, unless his demands are met.

James Bond spends Christmas Eve in a car chase on solid ice and in one of the greatest ski chases ever put on film. Bond launches an all-out assault with a group of mercenaries on Blofeld's remote complex high in the Swiss Alps on Christmas Day (again, you gotta be an eagle-eyed Bond fan to catch the references to the actual days).

At one point, Blofeld  manages to capture Bond on Xmas eve. "Merry Christmas, 007" says Blofeld to Bond as 007 awakens. The first thing that comes into view as Bond's vision de-blurs in a POV shot, is Blofeld's Christmas tree.

Let's just pause on that for a second.

Blofeld is a guy who shoots his own henchmen in cold blood just to make a minor point and kills associates who bother him with lethally electrically wired chairs in the middle of bad guy board meetings. Just a movie before, Blofeld attempted to destroy most of the world with thermonuclear weapons. The man is the CEO and founder of an organization called the Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. Yet,  in the middle of planning and executing a massive complex plot to attack the free world with a horrific plague , he still takes time out to go and pick out a Christmas tree, transport it back to his remote complex in the Swiss alps and decorate it.

There is hope for the world after all.

6. Batman Returns (1992)

Outside of some wrapping paper I manage to track down every year, Batman makes a rare connection with the yuletide season in this movie. Batman Returns is the second and last Tim Burton directed Batman film and my personal fave of the 1989-97 caped crusader franchise.

Christmas is a back drop for the action in this story and it is a backdrop Burton takes full macabre advantage of.  There are giant exploding presents, screaming women thrown off roofs into Christmas trees and lethal brightly colored candy cane weapons. In the back story for Danny Devito's wonderful take on The Penguin, the "freakish" baby is both born and abandoned by his wealthy parents at Christmas. Michael Keaton's acceptable Batman and Michelle Pfeiffer's incredible Catwoman (and I am not just talking about the costume) have a twisted mistletoe-inspired rooftop fight.

Few directors can utilize childhood imagery with such twisted juxtaposition to darkness the way Burton can. Yet somehow Burton is, at the same time, always able to somehow create a sense of security amongst the dark visions of evil elves and bat-infested Christmas trees.

That in itself is a Christmas miracle.

5. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang(2005)

Before Robert Downey Jr.'s being fired from Alley McBeal for a heroin bust and his big Iron Man renaissance, he kinda drifted around in a random array of under-the-radar roles. This is one of them.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a great movie.  The story follows Downey's small time NYC crook as he literally runs from the cops into an audition that just happens to be going on at the time. In the heat of the emotional moment of the chase, he actually lands a role in a Hollywood movie. Downey is then sent to LA where he is to prepare for the role of private eye by hanging out with a real private eye played by Val Kilmer (in a wonderful performance).

Downey finds himself in LA cruising around with Kilmer at Christmas time. Downey also manages to stumble across Michelle Monaghan as a struggling actress. Monaghan's role in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is sure to satisfy anybody's sexy Santa's helper fetish. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang uses the classically surreal setting of Christmas in LA to maximum effect.

Also used to great effect are the legendary hard boiled detective writings of Raymond Chandler. His work is heavily referenced and integrated into the film. The movie is broken up in to chapters that borrow the plot, themes and titles of Chandler's The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, Farewell My Lovely, Trouble is My Business and The Simple Art of Murder. Though the movie does not take itself quite as seriously as any of those books. In fact, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has a great deal of fun with the pulp detective fiction genre.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang marks the directorial debut of Shane Black, the Hollywood screenwriter who gave us the first two Lethal Weapon movies, The Monster Squad, The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero and The Long Kiss Goodbye. Four of his screenplays use the backdrop of Christmas in LA. 

Xmas in LA is quite a popular setting for the non-Christmas Christmas movies, as our next selection undoubtedly demonstrates.

4. Die Hard (1987)

This scene is about as into the Christmas spirit as Die Hard gets

A perennial favourite on just about every alternative Christmas movie list out there, Die Hard is also a movie that forever redefined the action genre.

It's Christmas Eve in LA. New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) is town to try and patch things up with his ex-wife.  In the middle of her company's Xmas party, heavily armed men storm the tower and take control of the company's massive skyscraper. McClane, who happens to be out of the room at the time, finds himself  the lone hero who must.....okay, if you've read this far I really don't need to go on.

Die Hard is a massively entertaining piece of escapism. I say even though the screenplay displays some of the laziest writing I have ever seen. Everyone in the movie but the bad guys, Willis, his ex-wife and Urkel's friend's cop dad is unnecessarily stupid, arrogant and just plain unlikeable. It's as if the only way screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven E. De Sousa could make Willis a sympathetic character was by making everyone around him an asshole. Nonetheless, Die Hard is (even on the umpteenth viewing) full of great one-liners, exciting and genuinely suspenseful, despite the massive amounts of gratuitous violence.

Also Willis displays the most innovative use of Christmas packing tape I have ever seen. I'm still waiting for that one to turn up on Martha Stewart's show.

Die Hard 2 also takes place on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, the story is set in Washington DC so there is tons of snow and winter tableau's everywhere.  That automatically makes it too Christmassy for this list.

A screening of Die Hard around the crazily busy holiday season is a great way to unwind. Die Hard also nicely counteracts all the nice and happy yuletide images the media feeds us constantly throughout December.

A wonderful bit of Christmas movie-tie in marketing

3. Black Christmas

When I was a kid, they ran a trailer for Black Christmas during The Flinstones. It scared the hell out of me so much that my father, understandably, wrote a letter to the CRTC regarding the inappropriate airing of horror movie trailers during freakin' cartoons (some of those are his exact words). I think it was that negative memory and my perceived silliness of the premise that kept me away from Black Christmas for many years to come.

Until a few years ago, to be exact. One Christmas, IS, the wonderful love of my life, and I got not only to spend our first Christmas together but also to host all the yuletide festivities in our own home. It was almost midnight Christmas Eve and I was busy putting out and organizing the army of presents generated by two families. IS was watching TV at the time.  Suddenly, the sounds of the Pope's midnight mass from The Vatican was replaced by low budget 70's horror atonal piano horror movie music and screaming with Silent Night echoing in the background. I found it both distracting and mood breaking. I looked up at IS and asked her why she was watching, of all things, Black Christmas now. She calmly responded, "This is my 'It's a Wonderful Life'".

I gained an immediate new-found respect for Black Christmas at that moment.

It has grown on me in the years since.  It's a very well directed and well crafted horror thriller. Black Christmas pre-dates the holiday themed slasher movies trend begun by John Carpenter's Halloween by four years. It's also the first movie to use the much subsequently overused and quoted line, "The call is coming from inside the house!".

Black Christmas was directed by one of Canada's finest directors, the late Bob Clark. Clark also went on to direct the massive hit sex comedy, Porky's. Those two movies alone have made Clark a pariah among Canadian culture elitists who believe that this country's culture begins and ends with Pierre Burton and Farley Mowat. Even Clark's excellent Sherlock Holmes mystery, Murder by Decree, can't turn that perception around. It may also rub a lot of people the wrong way 'cause it has many a horrific murder set to the strains of holiday music (also one of the first horror films to use the ironic music juxtaposition device). That and both movies were made on Canadian Government Tax Credit programs.

Black Christmas is one of those horror movies that is actually a pretty good movie. Clark uses strategically placed silences, slow motion and accompanying slowed down sound effects and aforementioned juxtaposition of murder in the midst of tinsel and colourful blinking lights to create a film that is genuinely creepy, tense and scary. Black Christmas also features a great deal of that 70's "Hey, we can swear in movies now!" dialogue, including one scene in particular where the "C" word is thrown around so much that it would render the film virtually unreleasable in today's market. Oddly, the violence, though, is considered tame by today's standards.

Black Christmas stars a pre-Superman,pre-mental breakdown Margot Kidder, a pre-SCTV Andrea Martin, a post-Zeffereili's Romeo and Juliet Oliva Hussey and a post-2001, pre-2010 Keir Dullea (my guess is that they took advantage of the fact the he was in Toronto shooting the embarrassingly low budget Canadian Sci-Fi series, The Starlost, at the time) . Cementing its classic B-movie status is the appearance of John Saxon as the initially disbelieving cop turned last minute savior.

You can always count on some Canadian cable network running low on their seasonal Cancon to run Black Christmas at least once every December.

The recent "all 70's horror movies must be remade" craze gave us a 2006 version of Black Christmas (with Andrea Martin as the only returning cast member).

Avoid that one at all costs.

2. Joyeux Noel (2005)

One of the brutal realities of war is that war doesn't just stop because it's Christmas.

Or does it?

Joyeux Noel is an amazing trilingual (English, French and German, everybody speaks in their native tongue-none of this Hollywood "the entire world speaks English with an accent" silliness) film that explores just that idea. The story is based on a number of true incidents of unofficial spontaneous cease fires, yuletide and otherwise, that happened during World War I. They were more than just cease-fires. Soldiers from both sides would climb out of their horrible rat infested trenches and actually celebrate the holiday (or just hang out) together.

There is one particularly moving scene in Joyeux Noel. One of the German soldiers hears the Scottish troops over in their trenches playing Christmas Carols on the bagpipes (they often fought in very close quarters in that war) on Christmas Eve.  Silent Night played on the bagpipes might not be most people's idea of easy listening music but it does inspire the German soldier in question. Turns out the guy was an opera signer in civilian life (yeah, it's a bit of a conceit but run with it). He makes the incredibly brave move of climbing out of the trenches singing the "O Come All Ye Faithful" . He stands right in the middle of "no man's land", just belting out the carol. It is this act of pacifistic bravery that inspires the other British, French and German troops to get out of their trenches as well.

In the case of the these impromptu cessation of hostilities, the festivities were often stopped not by the soldiers themselves but but by commanding officers as soon as they got wind of the activity. This is what happens in Joyeux Noel. All of the soldiers are severely punished for acting contrary to their job description.

The punishment the German troops receive is immediate reassignment to the Eastern Front.  Yes, the Eastern Front was infamously awful in both World Wars. The film ends on a chilling line. As the German soldiers are being transported to the Eastern Front by train, one of them says, "I'm Jewish. I don't even care about Christmas". 

1. Meet John Doe (1941)

Meet John Doe is the darker, more realistic version of It's a Wonderful Life. The two films are both directed by Frank Capra. Meet John Doe was released in 1941, five years before It's a Wonderful Life. Meet John Doe was a big hit in its initial release and has now faded into obscurity while the opposite is true of It's a Wonderful Life. The two films contain many of Capra's recurring themes but feature very different treatments of those themes and ideas.

Now let's talk about Meet John Doe on its own terms.

In 1941 before the US entry into WWII, the Great Depression was still dragging on. A newspaper columnist, played by the wonderfully underrated Barbara Stanwyck, is laid off. In response, she writes a letter to the editor under the name John Doe stating that Mr. Doe will jump off the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve (still several months off) to protest the current state of the country's social and economic ills. The letter causes a sensation and Stanwyck is hired back. In a effort to keep sales up, the paper's editor concocts a plan to create an actual John Doe. They find a former baseball player played by Gary Cooper. Cooper is now homeless (or a "hobo" as was the term then) and agrees to pretend to be John Doe 'cause he needs the money to fix his bum arm that's keeping him out of the major leagues.

It's not long before John Doe creates a massive grass roots movement of common people. The movement is funded by the paper's owner and publisher played by Edward Arnold. Arnold's character is an early 1940's version of a media mogul, owning multiple newspapers and radio stations. Arnold is, of course, putting up the money to back John Doe  in order to serve his own political ambitions. His jackbooted-motorcycle-riding private security force and lines like "What this country needs is an iron hand" betray Arnold's crytpo-fascist leanings. In 1941, fascism was on the march (to put it mildly) in Europe and Asia. The US was still predominantly isolationist and, really,  no one was really sure whether fascism would catch on in America or not.

As soon as Cooper and Stanwcyk (who is both Cooper's speech writer and his love interest) clue in to Arnold's true ambition, they stand against him. Arnold, in turn, reveals to the media that he owns that John Doe is really a "fake". The exposure of the "fraud" is in an incredibly emotionally powerful scene set in a stadium full of Doe supporters.

Now thoroughly publicly discredited, Cooper decides that the only way to save the John Doe Society (as the movement is now called) is to follow through on the message of the original letter and jump off the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve.

Highly regarded by film academics, directors and screenwriters, Meet John Doe is an otherwise forgotten film. You really gotta look to find a TV airing, even around Christmas. The DVD is put out by small time companies and usually has bad sound and not the greatest picture.  It is still worth seeking out, especially at this time of the year and especially if you're starting to get a little tired of It's a Wonderful Life.

Take a look at this scene.

(and that's big WTF? on all that Dead Zone stuff)

There are no angels in Meet John Doe. God is often referred to there is no evidence of His divine intervention like in that other Capra Christmas classic. Edward Arnold is not Lionel Barrymore.  He does not make speeches and judgments. He is not curmudgeonly. He is quieter, more scheming and a lot more powerful than Barrymore ever was (and I'm even counting when Barrymore is seen running the whole town in an alternate reality).  Much much scarier, in other words.  Gary Cooper is a bit more morally ambiguous than Jimmy Stewart. The bad guy is more powerful, we're not really sure if the good is really good and there is no tangible morally superior force in the universe. It's not the kind of movie you want to watch while wrapping your presents on Christmas Eve.

Meet John Doe ends on note of hope but not one of certainty. That's kind of what Christmas, and life, is really like.

Merry Christmas,
Happy Holidays,
Season's Greetings,
and Happy Whatever Else We're Supposed To Say Now,
All The Best for 2011!


Friday, December 17, 2010

A Very Youtube Christmas

I took some time out from all of my holiday madness to look up some of the more interesting Xmas fare being offered up on Youtube this season...

Let's start off with Billy Idol's Christmas Album.

Yes. Billy Idol. Christmas album.

The guy seems to be a bit confused  about the difference between a White Wedding and a White Christmas.

If you like your holidays kinda creepy and disturbing, Billy is your guy.

Then let's move on to this little gem.

Every good geek out there knows just how awful the once-aired-yet-still-recorded 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. However, did you also know that there is a Star Wars Christmas album?

According the poster on Youtube, this is the best track on it:

Is there anything Anthony Daniels will not do in the name of George Lucas?

This next one I'm quite touched by. My sketch comedy group, The Vestibules recorded a song about a billion years ago called Christmas on Acid (still available on CD, BTW, at www.thevestibules.com). Recently, somebody actually went to the trouble of translating the song into Spanish.

This amazes me. Take a look:

Felix Navidrogo has got to be the greatest lyric translation of all time!

This is the crossover everyone has been demanding:

Oh, what Jack Bauer sacrifices for the security of the country he loves!

This is proof to the argument that Christmas, in fact, has its roots in winter solstice related page rituals that pre-date the birth of Christ by, well, quite a bit, actually...

Here is a wonderful mash-up that makes you wish that Gene Autry and The Police would have worked together more often.

I hope Rudolph gets the message.

And, finally, here are my pals John C. Reily and Wil Ferell doing an uncanny imitation of David Bowie and Bing Crosby's legendary Xmas duet:

Personally, I find the last gag a little too on the nose but (that's often the case with the Funny or Die stuff). Other than that, man, did those guys nail it. Reilly's even got Bing's frequent cue card glances down.

Stay tuned for my list of the 10 Best "It Ain't Always Such a Wonderful Life" Christmas Movies...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

John Lennon 1940-1980

John Lennon in the anti-war film How I Won The War

Rounding out the dark early December anniversaries is the shooting of John Lennon on December 8, 1980.

During my morning run today, my iPod shuffle eerily offered up Starting Over (Lennon's last hit single before his death), on this, the 30th anniversary of that fatal shooting in New York City. Needless to say, I found myself reflecting on the events of three decades ago today.

I remember it very well.

Earlier blogs have spoken about the role The Beatles have played in my life. I have even mentioned that I was at the memorial for John Lennon in Central Park in New York City on December 14, 1980.

I remember coming home from a rehearsal for a play that the Narroway Theatre Troupe (there are a tiny amount of you who will know that name) was putting on later that month (the one and only Christmas play I have ever involved with). I put on my clock radio to fall asleep to that night.

Suddenly the top 40 tunes of CKGM stopped and the DJ was talking about a famous musician who had just been shot. I was half awake. I didn't catch the name but, at that moment, I was pretty sure it was Keith Richards. I had just read Up and Down With the Rolling Stones and getting shot somehow seemed in keeping with Richards' lifestyle. Then the DJ repeated the name: John Lennon. I was suddenly completely awake. I was also stunned. I could not get my head around it : who the hell would want to kill John Lennon? How could the peace guy get shot?

I remember some yahoo on Facebook on last year's anniversary said "John Lennon said 'All you need is love' when all he really needed was Kevlar vest". Spoken like a true reactionary, pal. Lennon was advised many times by many people that he should have bodyguards. A really famous guy like Lennon hanging out in public in NYC unprotected was not a good idea, he was told. Lennon would not hear of such a thing. So, in a way, he did die for peace.

End of rant. Back to blog.

As fate would have it, I had asked my parents for a major b-day present that year: to go on a three day high school trip to New York City. Much to my surprise, they agreed. It would be my first time in the city. Our train tickets were for the Friday, as it turned out, after the Monday that Lennon was shot.

That would put me in NYC for the planned public Lennon memorial on December 14, 1980.

The trip was an incredible eye-opening blast. A seventeen year-old in NYC for the first time: need I say more?  Well, maybe...but let's save that for another blog.

On that Sunday, the last day of our trip, we were scheduled to visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art. An amazing museum, to be sure. I have been there many times since. At that particular moment in history, though, the MMA ran a distant second to a once-in-a-lifetime vigil for a slain rock legend.

The teachers supervising us did not see it that way.  They were not at all into the idea. At the time me and the other kids saw it as The Man denying us something we really wanted. When I think back on it now, though, taking their age into account, they were probably as probably as big or bigger fans of Lennon than we were. More likely, they were terrified of taking a bunch of teenage bumpkins from Canada into a Central Park crammed full of 250,000 New Yorkers. Any number of things could happen, none of them good. In 1980, NYC was closer to the city of Charles Bronson's Death Wish than to the Post Giuliani Times Square Disneyland it is today. And they'd already had one lost kid incident that trip.

After a few half-hearted arguments about the MMA being a very important cultural institute, they finally relented.

Attending the John Lennon memorial was a moving experience. People were crying all around me. Many aging boomers showed up with their old hippie protest signs and paraphernalia. I remember seeing one of those American flags with peace signs where the stars should be that some activist turned accountant had no doubt dug out of a trunk in his attic that morning.

Like the man says in the clip below, there was literally no noise in all of Central Park for ten minutes. The only sound was that of the helicopters overhead. Ironically, that sound conjured up images of Vietnam from Apocalypse Now in my head. I was standing next to the ABC News van and even they shut up (you can see the van in this clip but not me).


I really owe it to my parents and those teachers that I was even able to be there at all for such a moving moment in time.

The other side of the coin was that, frankly, that was the largest amount of people I have ever seen in one place at one time in my entire life. After the vigil, I fulfilled my teachers' worst fears. Caught up in the massive push of 250, 000 people all trying to leave Central Park at the same time, I quickly lost sight of my group. I remember making a majorly conscious effort to not panic. I found the roots of a massive tree, the highest elevated surface I could find. and stood on top of it. I did not move from that spot until a middle-aged history teacher on the verge of a simultaneous nervous breakdown and heart attack  found me.

He later told me, "We're lucky it was you. I'm not sure any of these other kids would have had the same common sense." . My apologies to any of the other students who were on that trip with me who may be reading this now but that is what the man said.

The next night I was back in Montreal in rehearsal for a show that opened the following weekend (it strikes me that I had a rather amazing well-rounded life back then -I can only hope that I was enjoying it to the fullest). When I told my fellow cast members that I had been at the Central Park Lennon memorial the day before, they just stared at me in disbelief.

December 1980 also marked the emergence of Lennon's Merry Xmas (War is Over) as a  new Christmas standard. It was a natural. It was Christmas time and the song was connected to a major news story. Besides which, many radio stations at the time went with an all Lennon/all Beatles 24 hour playlist for a week after Lennon's death. That's a lot of airtime to fill.

Before December 1980 Merry Xmas (War is Over) was rarely heard on the radio at all, even on the rock stations around the holidays. It was a single that never even charted in the US.  I'm guessing that an early 70's traditional folk standard turned Vietnam war protest song doubling as a yuletide tune would have been just a tad too contentious for the pre-1980 pop culture mainstream. Even Phil Spector's choir of angelic children could not get the song past that issue.

Every December since, Merry Xmas (War is Over) has gotten a ton of airplay. Today, it has been covered by Andy Williams, Jessica Simpson, Neil Diamond and Celine Dion. If that's not a sign of total mainstream acceptance, what is?

Among many many other things, John Lennon actually managed to be the last songwriter to introduce a new Christmas standard.

Let's go out on that one.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Date Which Shall Live in Infamy

For those of you unfamiliar with the historic speeches of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, this blog is not about some terrible experience from my single days.

No. I'm referring to the second in the trio of dark early December anniversaries: the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It was 69 years ago today that Japanese pilots sounded the "To hell with Babe Ruth!" battle cry that would set into motion a series of events that would transform the world.

When I was in Hawaii a few years back, I made a point of visiting Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial.

This is the view from the boat approaching the memorial:

Pearl Harbor is pretty shallow in places so the smoke stack of the USS Arizona still pokes up from the water:

Keeping in mind that I come from a family filled with World War II veterans, I must point out that the commentary and general attitude at the Memorial in those early post-911 days was a tad heavy-handed to say the least. With all due respect, they talk about the USS Arizona like it was the only battleship ever sunk in the history of warfare.

Don't get me wrong, the Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial are amazing historic sites to behold. They really should just let them speak for themselves.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Remembering December 6, 1989

Early December marks a trio of horrible anniversaries: the shooting at L' Ecole Polytechnique on the 6th, the attack on Pearl Harbor on the 7th and the shooting of John Lennon on the 8th. I've always found the terrible trilogy to be a grim counter-point to the gradual onslaught of yuletide cheer.

It is with something of a heavy heart that I recount my memories of December 6, 1989 and the days that followed. I say that because my tone in the rest of my blog may suggest otherwise.

Working in comedy when horrible things like this happen ain't easy. I am still haunted by memories of a show I was in on September 12, 2001 when some majorly misguided stand-up comic rolled out his all new 911 material (I wonder if that would fall into Glen Beck's 9-12 program?).  That, however, is a blog for next September.

Back in 1989, I was writing, performing and producing a weekly sketch comedy radio series with my good pals and colleagues, The Vestibules. We already had our first CBC contract by then but we were still doing our series for CKUT 90.3 FM, Radio McGill. We saw it as a good way to continue to generate new material.

The show aired Thursday nights which meant that 90% of said new material for that week's show was written after 10 PM on Wednesday night. We knew nothing of the Polytechnique shooting that night (just as an aside I have never known what to call the event. I have never liked the Montreal Massacre. It sounds like something an American news network's graphics department came up with).

Not that we saw any news, American or otherwise that night. We were shut away from the world in Breakfast Studios throwing crumpled up bags around the room in attempt to either distract ourselves from the fact that we still didn't have a show written or in the hopes that physical activity would somehow indirectly inspire us to write the Greatest Sketch in the History of Comedy.

I did not learn of the shooting until waking up Thursday morning. I was just getting out of bed so that I could head right back to  Breakfast Studios to help prepare our newly written and recorded show for that evening's broadcast. My clock radio had just gone off. I heard the news for the first time on CKUT FM from an incredibly nervous sounding and shaken up kid clearly reading a wire story verbatim.

One of the newly written and recorded sketches that we had for the show was about these two gruff sounding sleazy movies critics. The critics review and hate just about every movie that was out at the time.  The only movies that get good reviews from these guys are soft core pornos. A simple joke, I know, but trust me, it was all in the performances. It did not take long for us to realize that it was a sketch that, under the circumstances,  none of us were comfortable with putting on the air.

Problem was that we had nothing else ready to put in the questionable sketch's place. So we spent most of the morning and early afternoon re-editing the bit. We cut out anything that we felt might be inappropriate. As it turns out, that was most of the sketch. It made the show a little short but CKUT didn't have all that strict a schedule to adhere to. The remaining bit left even our biggest fans going , "Huh?".

It was worth it.

As I look back on it now, I still wonder if  we were being overly sensitive or not. I think, though, that either way, it was my own (and I can only speak for myself on this score) way of showing, if only to myself, that yes, this horrible event affected me and that, yes, I did what I could.

I would do the same thing again today.

The day after that show aired, I was in the Friday night McGill Improv show (BTW, for the record, I never even attended McGill University) .  In the show, we were playing an improv game called "Most Deaths in a Minute". I'm not sure whose idea it was to even play that game that night but I suspect that some kind of iconoclastic reaction against the media bombardment about the event over the two previous days figured into the decision.

For the non-improv cognoscenti out there, the game is exactly what it sounds like: come up with as many different ways to die in a given location as you can in one minute. Of course, we got the suggestion of "school". Today under those circumstances, I would just turn the suggestion down cold. Back then, being the young Johnstonian  improv purists that we we were, we took it.

The timing of one minute began. There was hesitation amongst the players. Then finally someone ran onto the stage. Seemingly without even thinking, she said, "Is there where the engineering final is?" and then mimed getting shot. I believe the phrase "too soon" was invented that night.

Many years later, I had the occasion to reunite with that player. I told her the story of how she made the first joke about the December 6 shooting. She did not remember the incident at all and was mortified by even the suggestion that she did such a thing. In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have mentioned it.

Working in comedy over the next 21 years, that was the one and only joke that I have ever heard about the events of December 6, 1989.

I hope it stays that way.