Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Quick 10: Stories Behind 10 Famous Christmas Songs

Stacy Conradt
by Stacy Conradt

It might seem a bit early to start referencing Christmas songs, but I figure if the retailers can do it, so can I. And I do sincerely apologize for anything that gets stuck in your head for the rest of the day.

bing1. White Christmas. Irving Berlin knew he had just written a classic - when he asked his secretary to take down the song he had just written, he said, “I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written. Hell, I just wrote the best song anyone’s ever written!” Bing Crosby sang it on his radio show in 1941 and recorded it in 1942. It was the best-selling single in any music category until Elton John’s version of Candle in the Wind for Princess Diana took over in 1998.

2. The Christmas Song. The words in the song are so evocative of winter, you would assume that they were written over a mug of cocoa sitting by a fireplace or something. But nope - it was written during a heat wave in California. Mel Torme dropped by his friend Robert Wells’ house, where Wells was supposed to be writing songs for a couple of movies. Instead, Mel walked in and Wells had written down “Chestnuts roasting… Jack Frost nipping… Yuletide carols… Folks dressed up like Eskimos,” because he was trying to think cold. Mel thought it was a great idea for a Christmas song, so the two of them knocked the song out in 40 minutes.

3. Santa Claus is Coming to Town. The earliest known public airing of this song was in November, 1934 on a radio show. It was an instant hit - it sold 100,000 copies of sheet music the very next day, and more than 400,000 by Christmas.

4. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas first appeared in the Judy Garland musical Meet Me In St. Louis. But the lyrics were kind of depressing: they included, “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, it may be your last,” “Faithful friends who were dear to us will be near to us no more,” and “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” The lyrics have changed over the years - Dean Martin rewrote that last lyric for Frank Sinatra’s album A Jolly Christmas, and that’s the version we probably know best: “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”

rudy5. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by a Montgomery Ward employee in 1939, for the company. Johnny Marks decided to adapt the character to a song, which pretty much made it an instant hit - he was responsible for other Christmas songs like I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and A Holly Jolly Christmas. It was first sung by Harry Brannon, but the 1949 Gene Autry version is probably the one you know and love (or loathe, depending).

6. Like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Silver Bells was originally in a movie too - The Lemon Drop Kid. It was sung by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell. The best part, though, is that the song started out being called Tinkle Bells… until the songwriter was telling his wife about his great new song and she informed him that tinkle was what little kids did when they peed. The song was inspired by Salvation Army workers ringing bells outside in the snow.

7. Frosty the Snowman was pretty much written to capitalize on the success of Gene Autry’s Rudolph rendition (it was released just one season later). I’m partial to the versions Jimmy Durante recorded to go with the 1969 T.V. special, myself.

8. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer. Husband and wife duo Elmo and Patsy recorded the song in 1978 and it started circulating in the San Francisco area. It only took a couple of years to become a cult hit. However, Elmo and Patsy divorced, so in 1992, Elmo recorded it solo. He also released a sequel in 2002: Grandpa’s Gonna Sue the Pants Offa Santa. I feel like he tried to capitalize on that one about 20 years too late.

chipmunks9. The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late). Another earworm, I think. I don’t even know all of the words but I can guarantee I’m going to have the tune in my head for the rest of the day. All I know is, “I still want a Hula-Hoop.” Anyway. Recorded in 1958 by David Seville himself, Ross Bagdasarian, the song sold 4.5 million copies. Jason Lee recorded a version when he played David Seville in the 2007 movie Alvin and the Chipmunks.

10. Santa Baby, the song about wanting lots of extravagant items for Christmas, was first recorded in 1953 by Eartha Kitt, AKA Catwoman. Lots of people have covered the song - Madonna, famously, but also RuPaul, LeAnn Rimes, Natalie Merchant, Kylie Minogue and (go figure) The Pussycat Dolls. I have no doubt Eartha Kitt’s is the best. The song was co-written by Joan Javits, the niece of Jacob Javits, a New York Senator.

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The best films of 2008... and there were a lot of them

Sally Hawkins exudes the celebratory spirit of the season, in Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky."

by Roger Ebert

In these hard times, you deserve two "best films" lists for the price of one. It is therefore with joy that I list the 20 best films of 2008, in alphabetical order. I am violating the age-old custom that film critics announce the year's 10 best films, but after years of such lists, I've had it. A best films list should be a celebration of wonderful films, not a chopping process. And 2008 was a great year for movies, even if many of them didn't receive wide distribution.

Look at my 20 titles, and you tell me which 10 you would cut. Nor can I select one to stand above the others, or decide which should be No. 7 and which No. 8. I can't evaluate films that way. Nobody can, although we all pretend to. A "best films" list, certainly. But of exactly 10, in marching order? These 20 stood out for me, and I treasure them all. If it had been 19 or 21, that would have been OK. If you must have a Top 10 List, find a coin in your pocket. Heads, the odd-numbered movies are your 10. Tails, the even-numbered.

I have composed a separate list of the year's five best documentaries. They also may be described as "one of the year's best." And this year's Special Jury Award goes to Guy Maddin's "My Winnipeg," which stands between truth and fiction, using the materials of the documentary to create a film completely preposterous and deeply true. Another of "the year's best."

Jimmyron Ross in "Ballast"

* * *

"Ballast" A deep silence has fallen upon a Mississippi Delta family after the death of a husband and brother. Old wounds remain unhealed. The man's son shuttles uneasily between two homes, trying to open communication by the wrong means. The debut cast is deeply convincing, and writer-director Lance Hammer observes them with intense empathy. No, it's not a film about poor folks on the Delta; they own a nice little business, but are paralyzed by loneliness. At the end, we think, yes, that is what would happen, and it would happen exactly like that.

"The Band's Visit" A police ceremonial band from Egypt, in Israel for a cultural exchange, ends up in a desert town far from anywhere and is taken on mercy by the bored, cynical residents. A long night's journey marked with comedy, human nature, and bittersweet reality. Richly entertaining, with sympathetic performances by Sasson Gabai as the bandleader and Ronit Elkabetz as the owner of a local cafe. Written and directed by Eran Kolirin. Was at Ebertfest 2008.

"Che" The epic journey of a 20th century icon, the Argentinian physician who became a comrade of Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolu- tion and then moved to South America to support revolution there. Benicio del Toro is persuasive as the fiercely ethical firebrand, in a film that includes unusual and unfamiliar chapters in Che's life. Steven Soderbergh's film is 257 minutes long, but far from boring. (Opens Jan. 16)

"Chop Shop" (Alejandro Polanco)

"Chop Shop" The great emerging American director Ramin Bahrani finds a story worthy of "City of God" in a no-man's land in the shadow of Shea Stadium, where a young boy and his sister support themselves in a sprawling, off-the-books auto repair and scrap district. Alejandro Polanco and Isamar Gonzales seem to live their roles, in a masterpiece that intimately knows its world, its people and their survival tactics. It will be featured at Ebertfest 2009.

"The Dark Knight" The best of all the Batmans, Christopher Nolan's haunted film leaps beyond its origins and becomes an engrossing tragedy. The "comic book movie" has at last reclaimed its deep archetypal currents. With a performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker that will surely win an Oscar, a Batman (Christian Bale) who is tortured by moral puzzles and a district attorney (Aaron Eckhart) forced to make impossible choices.

"Doubt" (Meryl Streep & Amy Adams).

"Doubt" A Catholic grade school is ruled by the grim perfectionist Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), whose draconian rule is challenged by Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). A young nun (Amy Adams) is caught between them, as the film shows how assumptions can be doubted, and doubted again. Viola Davis, as the mother of the school's only black student, has one significant scene, but it is long, crucial and heartbreaking. Davis goes face to face with Streep with astonishing conviction and creates reasons for doubt that may be more important than deciding the truth. John Patrick Shanley directed and adapted his Tony Award-winning play. (Opens Friday)

"The Fall" Tarsem's film is a mad folly, an extravagant visual orgy, a free fall from reality into uncharted realms. A wounded stunt-man, circa 1914, tells a story to a 4-year-old girl, and we see how she imagines it. It has vast romantic images so stunning, I had to check twice, three times, to be sure the film actually claims to have absolutely no computer-generated imagery. None? What about the Labyrinth of Despair, with no exit? The intersecting walls of zig-zagging staircases? The man who emerges from the burning tree? Filmed over four years in 28 countries. It will be at Ebertfest 2009.

"Frost/Nixon" The story of a duel between a crafty man and a persistent one. How many remember that the "lightweight" British interviewer David Frost was the one who finally persuaded Richard Nixon to say he had committed crimes in connection with Watergate and let his country down? With his own money riding on the interviews, Frost (Michael Sheen) is desperate after Nixon finesses him in the early sessions, but he pries away at Nixon's need to confess. Frank Langella is uncanny as RMN. Ron Howard directs mercilessly. (Opens Friday)

"Frozen River" Melissa Leo should be nominated for her performance. She plays an hourly employee in a discount store, struggling to support two kids and a run-down trailer after her husband deserts her with their savings. After making an unlikely alliance with a Mohawk woman (Misty Upham) who was stealing her car, she finds herself a human trafficker, driving Chinese across the ice into the United States. A spellbinding thriller, yes, but even more a portrait of economic struggle in desperate times. Written and directed by Courtney Hunt. It will be at Ebertfest 2009.

"Happy-Go-Lucky" Here's another nominee for best actress -- Sally Hawkins, playing a cheerful schoolteacher who seems improbably upbeat until we win a glimpse into her soul. No, she's not secretly depressed. She's genuinely happy, but that hasn't made her stupid or afraid. Mike Leigh's uncanny ability to find drama in ordinary lives is used with genius, as the teacher encounters a driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) as negative as she is positive. Not a feel-good movie. Not at all. But strangely inspiring.

"Iron Man" Like "Spider-Man 2" and "The Dark Knight," another leap forward for the superhero movie. Robert Downey Jr. and director Jon Favreau reinvent Tony Stark as a conflicted, driven genius who has a certain plausibility, even when inundated by special effects. So successful are they that in the climactic rooftop battle between two towering men of steel, we know we're looking almost entirely at CGI, and yet the creatures embody character and emotion. Downey hit bottom, as everyone knows. Now he has triumphantly returned.

"Milk" Sean Penn, one of our greatest actors, locks up an Oscar nomination with his performance as Harvey Milk, the first self-identified gay elected to U.S. public office. At age 40, Milk was determined to do "something different" with his life. He's open to change. We see how the everyday experiences of this gay man politicize him, and how his instincts allow him to become a charismatic leader, while always acknowledging the sexuality that society had taught him to conceal. One of the year's most moving films.

"Rachel Getting Married" After seeing this film, people told me, "I wanted to attend that wedding" or "I wish I'd been there." It's that involving. Jonathan Demme doesn't lock down one central plot, but considers the ceremony as a wedding of close and distant family, old and new friends, many races, many ages, many lifestyles, all joined amid joyous homemade music. His camera is so observant, we feel like a guest really does feel. Rosemarie DeWitt as Rachel and Anne Hathaway as her sister generate tricky sibling tension.

"The Reader" A drama taking place mostly within the mind of a postwar German who has an affair at 14 with a woman he later discovers is a war criminal. Her own secret is so shameful, she would rather face any sentence than reveal it. The film addresses the moral confusion felt in those who came after the Holocaust but whose lives were painfully twisted by it. Directed by Stephen Daldry, with David Kross as the younger protagonist, and Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes as the older ones. (Opening Dec. 25)

"Revolutionary Road" (Leonardo DiCaprio & Kate Winslet).

"Revolutionary Road" The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and his wife find hell in the suburbs. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, in two of the best performances of the year, play a young married couple who lose their dreams in the American corporate world and its assigned roles. Sam Mendes reads minds when words aren't enough, and has every detail right -- including the chain-smoking by those who find it a tiny consolation in inconsolable lives. (Opens Jan. 2)

"Shotgun Stories" You'll have to search for it, but worth it. In a "dead-ass town," three brothers find themselves in a feud with their four half-brothers. It's told like a revenge tragedy, but the hero doesn't believe the future is written by the past. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, it avoids the obvious and shows a deep understanding of the lives and minds of ordinary young people in a skirmish of the class war. The dialogue rings true, the camera is deeply observant. The film was the audience favorite at Ebertfest 2008.

"Slumdog Millionaire" Danny Boyle's improbable union of quiz-show suspense and the harrowing life of a Mumbai orphan. Growing from a garbage pit scavenger to the potential winner of a fortune, his hero uses his wits and survival instinct to struggle against crushing handicaps. A film that finds exuberance despite the tragedy it also gives full weight to. The locations breathe with authenticity.

"Synecdoche, New York" The year's most endlessly debated film. Screenwriter Charles Kaufman ("Adaptation," "Being John Malkovich"), in his directing debut, stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a theater director mired in a long-running rehearsal that may be life itself. Much controversy about the identities and even genders of some of the characters, in a film that should never be seen unless you've already seen it at least once.

"W." To general surprise, Oliver Stone's biography of George W. Bush is empathetic and understanding, perhaps because Stone himself is a blueblood Ivy League graduate who could never quite win his father's approval. Josh Brolin gives a nuanced portrayal that seems based on the known facts, showing the president as subservient to Vice President Cheney and haunted by old demons.


"WALL-E" The best science-fiction movie in years was an animated family film. WALL-E is a solar-powered trash compacting robot, left behind to clean up the waste after Man flees into orbit. Hugely entertaining, wonderfully well drawn, and, if you think about it, merciless in its critique of a global consumer culture that obsesses on intake and disregards the consequences of output.

* * *

Every year I name a winner of my Special Jury Prize, so named in honor of the "alternative first prize" given by juries at many festivals. This year (roll of the drums) the honored film is:

"My Winnipeg" Guy Maddin's latest dispatch from inside his imagination is a "history" of his home town, which becomes a mixture of the very slightly plausible, the convincing but unlikely, the fantastical, the fevered, the absurd, the preposterous, and the nostalgic. Oddly enough, when it's over, you have a deeper and, in a crazy way, more "real" portrait of Winnipeg than a conventional doc might have provided--and certainly a far more entertaining one. Will be at Ebertfest 2009.

"Encounters at the End of the World."

Five documentaries in equal first place:

"Encounters at the End of the World" Werner Herzog moseys around to see who he will meet and what he will see at the South Pole. The population here seems made of travelers beyond our realm, all with amazing personal histories. In a spellbinding film, Herzog finds a great deal of humor, astonishing underwater creatures, permanent occupants such as seals and penguins and the possibility of a bleak global future.

"I.O.U.S.A." A film to make sense of the current economic crisis. The U.S. national debt has doubled in the last eight years, we can't make the payments, the world holds our mortgage, and it can't afford for us to default. So the same unsupported currency seems to circulate one step ahead of disaster. Not a partisan film. Experts of all political persuasions look at our bookkeeping and agree it is insane.

"Man on Wire" On Aug. 7, 1974, a Frenchman named Philippe Petit, having smuggled two tons of equipment to the top of the towers of the World Trade Center, strung a wire between them, and walked back and forth eight times. The doc combines period footage and re-created scenes to explain how he did it, and mystically, why. We know he made it, so how does this film generate such suspense?

"Standard Operating Procedure" About what photographs are and how we see them, focusing on the infamous prison torture photographs from Abu Ghraib. Errol Morris' scrutiny reveals what was really happening, and why, and how the photographs do not always show what they seem to. He introduces the name of Charles Graner, who always stayed in the shadows, but without whom there might have been no photos at all.

"Trouble the Water" A few days before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, a young couple from the Ninth Ward named Scott and Kimberly Rivers Roberts bought a camcorder. As the rains began to fall, they began to film, even while trapped by rising waters inside their attic. Their astonishing footage, unlike any other, is incorporated by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin into a documentary that shows why Brownie was not doing a great job, not at all. This film also will be at Ebertfest 2009.

Looking back over the list, I think most moviegoers will have heard of only about 11, because distribution has reached such a dismal state. I wrote to a reader about "Shotgun Stories," "I don't know if it will play in your town." She wrote back, "How about my state?" This is a time when home video, Netflix and the good movie channels come to the rescue. My theory that you should see a movie on a big screen is sound, but utopian.

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Judd Nelson & Peter Fonda Join The Cast Of ‘Boondock Saints 2’

In an announcement that no one likely saw coming, legendary actor Peter Fonda (Easy Rider, Ulee’s Gold) as well as Judd Nelson (The Breakfast Club, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) have both joined the cast of Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day.

This news, released by DCP Boondock II Productions, comes as filming has just about finished over in Toronto, so it seems as if director Troy Duffy has been saving some of the best for last.

Mr. Fonda will be playing a character who has quite the intriguing name, The Roman. No word as to who The Roman is or what he does, but it sounds nice and scary to me. Judd Nelson will be playing Concezio Yakavetta, whom I’d be silly not to assume is a member of the mafia family from the first film; likely seeking revenge for his fallen brother? Maybe cousin? Could be interesting.

As we know, the movie also stars Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus as the Saints and Billy Connolly as their father Il Duce. Also new to the party is Clifton Collins Jr. as Romeo and Julie Benz as Eunice.

This is all just another level of excitement added on to the pile that Boondock fans already share, so it should be a good time!

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Oprah named entertainment's most powerful woman


LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Hollywood Reporter on Friday named Oprah Winfrey the most powerful woman in entertainment on its annual "Power 100 List."

Winfrey, whose "Oprah" talk show began in national syndication 22 years ago, played a role in the victory of President-elect Barack Obama by endorsing him early in his run and by supporting him throughout the campaign.

Elizabeth Guider, editor of The Hollywood Reporter, remarked on Winfrey's "immense cultural influence" and said she could be "the most influential woman in America."

Winfrey, 54, jumped from the No. 6 spot on the entertainment trade paper's 2007 list to No. 1 this year. The Hollywood Reporter noted that a study by University of Maryland economists found Winfrey's support for Obama won him more than 1 million votes nationwide.

Winfrey's production company, Harpo Inc., made $345 million last year. She overseas an empire that includes her TV show, a magazine and an online store.

Anne Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC Television Group, was given the No. 2 spot on the list after coming in top a year ago. Sweeney oversees her company's news, entertainment and daytime divisions, along with its cable and publishing branches.

Amy Pascal, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group, won the No. 3 spot on the list.

Other women listed included actress Angelina Jolie, at No. 24, who has bolstered her public image with philanthropic endeavors; comedian Tina Fey, No. 51 in part for playing Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, in wildly popular TV impersonations during the election campaign; and 16-year-old pop star Miley Cyrus, who has a Disney franchise built around her and rounded out the list at No. 100.

The Top 10 in the Women in Entertainment Power 100 list are;

1. Oprah Winfrey, chairman of Harpo Inc.

2. Anne Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC Television Group and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks

3. Amy Pascal, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group and co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment

4. Nancy Tellem, president of CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group

5. Stacey Snider, co-chairman and CEO of DreamWorks

6. Bonnie Hammer, president of NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Universal Cable Productions

7. Judy McGrath, chairman and CEO of MTV Networks

8. Mary Parent, chairman of MGM Worldwide Motion Picture Group

9. Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television

10. Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Jill Serjeant)

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