Stars and English Carols: Sting, Annie Lennox, Susan Boyle, Pentatonix and David Archuleta

As the current movie “The Man Who Invented Christmas” (reviewed here) reminds us, many of our current Christmas customs and decor date from the Victorian era in general, and from Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol” in particular.

But an English Christmas doesn’t begin or end with Dickens, and here are some contemporary performers doing the Lord’s birthday, British style.

The Cherry Tree Carol

Perhaps dating back to the early 15th century, this is one of the few Christmas carols to feature Joseph — and it’s not a flattering portrayal (but, spoiler alert, it all turns out well!).

Here’s British rock star Sting in a 2009 performance at Durham Cathedral, a medieval church in England, currently Anglican but formerly Catholic (aren’t they all?):

In the Bleak Midwinter

A late 19th-century poem by Christina Rossetti set to music in the early 20th century, it’s sung for the BBC by “Britain’s Got Talent” runner-up Susan Boyle (she lost, inexplicably, to a dance group called “Diversity”).

The Holly and the Ivy

This is a traditional British folk carol (meaning nobody knows exactly how old it is), but it was first published in the early 19th century. Here’s a live version by rock singer Annie Lennox:

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

Dating to the 16th century or earlier, this carol is actually referenced in “A Christmas Carol.” Here’s a very modern version by the a cappella group Pentatonix, which shot to fame after winning NBC’s reality-competition show “The Sing-Off.”

Coventry Carol

From the 16th century, this may be the only carol that refers directly to the Massacre of the Innocents by King Herod, and is a lullaby sung by the mothers of the doomed babies. The Holy Innocents are often left out of the Christmas narrative — not by us, as the Catholic Church has a feast day for them on Dec. 28 — but as horrific as the story is, this lovely carol commemorates them.

Here’s Sting again:

Here We Come A’Wassailing

The traditional English carol and New Year’s song dates from around 1850 — so if you see it performed in any version of “A Christmas Carol,” remind yourself that somebody didn’t do their homework.

Here’s a Celtic-flavored version featuring American singer/songwriter David Archuleta:

A Happy Christmas to you all!

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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3 for Tuesday: ‘The Middle,’ ‘Scrooged,’ ‘Kranks’

The Middle

Our biweekly TV family-viewing guide returns with three choices between Tuesday and Thursday, starting with the Christmas episode from the final season of one of America’s favorite sitcoms, starring one of our favorite Catholic stars.

The Middle: The Christmas Miracle — Tuesday, 8 p.m., ABC

From ABC:

It’s Christmastime, and Frankie (Patricia Heaton) and Sue (Eden Sher) are devastated after Axl (Charlie McDermott) informs them that he’s not going to church this year because he’s beginning to question his faith. Meanwhile, Mike (Neil Flynn) goes to war with the Glossner kids after they keep defacing his new, giant inflatable snowman; and Brick (Atticus Shaffer) goes all out in an attempt to wrap his first present for a planned Christmas Yankee Swap.

Here’s a promo:

Fans know that Heaton is a devout Catholic, but they may not be aware that Atticus Shaffer is also an outspoken Christian. Here’s a clip of his appearance on season 2 of the interview show “Frankly Faraci” on Dove Channel (click here for season one; click here for info on season 2 on Dove Channel).

MythBusters: Star Wars Myths Countdown — Wednesday, 8 p.m., Science Channel

With “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” hitting theaters this weekend, seems like a good time for the MythBusters to look at the scientific truth behind a lot of the show’s most spectacular special effects.

Speaking of the movie, here’s an extended trailer:

Christmas With the Kranks (2004) — Thursday, 8 p.m., Lifetime

This one wound up on the USCCB’s list of recommended Christmas movies, Here’s what the U.S. bishops had to say:

Delightful yuletide comedy about a Chicago couple (Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis) who boycott Christmas after their daughter leaves home to join the Peace Corps, sparking unforeseen reactions from their militantly merry neighbors (led by Dan Aykroyd). The film is based on the novella “Skipping Christmas” by John Grisham. Director Joe Roth delivers a dose of holly-jolly fun that is, by turns, extremely funny and poignantly tender, and its warmhearted message of selflessness, family and coming together as a community clearly embodies the truest spirit of the season. Some suggestive humor, comic violence and mildly crude language.

See you later with 5 for Friday, looking forward to the weekend.

Image: Courtesy ABC

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Golden Globe Awards: A Few Things to Remember

The Golden Globe Awards nominations came out today. Some folks are cheering; some are cranky; many are both.

Some films and TV shows got lots of love from the voters in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, some got bits, others got none.

In the current climate of scandal in Hollywood, how are we to think about nominations? Among the films and TV shows getting nods are those that celebrate objectively sinful behavior; among those snubbed are ones with uplifting or positive themes (but we are happy to see NBC’s family-centric drama “This Is Us” getting several nods).

Unless recent trends take a 180-degree turn, the Golden Globes broadcast, airing Jan. 7 on NBC, with host Seth Myers, will be rife with political references and jokes, generally at the expense of one side of the aisle.

So, what are Catholics to do?

Here are some helpful things to remember:

People in the entertainment industry (and the journalists that cover it) are not a representative demographic sampling of the general American populace — politically, ideologically, socially or religiously. While that has always been true to an extent, it has become much more publicly obvious in recent decades.

Long ago, Hollywood felt obligated to reflect the likes and interests of the general American public — and to appear to be in agreement with it on major issues — but now it feels more obligated to represent its own interests. The people still speak at the box office, but theirs is not the only voice.

Some entertainment is produced to answer a need and want from the public — hence the popularity of Hallmark’s feel-good Christmas movies, for example — and some is produced based on concepts that have a proven track record (like comic books, young-adult books, video games or bestselling novels).

Other movies and TV shows represent either the passions and interests of those making them, or are designed to appeal to a very specific audience. Among these people, such projects may be considered the highest form of art and tremendously compelling, while to the general public, they may be unappealing, bewildering or even appalling.

If, say, faithful Catholics overwhelmingly ran studios and TV networks, were top agents and screenwriters, financiers and producers, then the landscape would be dramatically different.

That’s emphatically not the case.

People in Hollywood generally tell stories for two reasons (or some combination of the two reasons): to make money, or to satisfy a longing of their hearts.

As a radio friend of mine is wont to say, that which gets rewarded gets repeated. If content that Catholics and other Christians don’t find appealing still makes lots of money, more will get made. If good things come out — like “The Star,” for example — and they don’t make lots of money, more may not be made, at least by major studios.

But if Christians have a longing in their hearts to tell a story that reflects their sensibilities, many will find a way. The same is true of other folks whose hearts and sensibilities tend in very different directions.

And many of these other folks are also awards voters. Like anyone else, they vote for what they like and ignore what they don’t. If they don’t like the same things as you, well, that’s life.

So, to expect awards shows to honor only movies we love and find worthy is to be perpetually disappointed. To expect Hollywood folks to not expound upon their beliefs at awards shows is just as futile.

In the end, our power lies in choice: to see a movie or TV show or not, and to watch an awards show, or not.

Whether Hollywood responds to those choices and makes some changes … well, I’m hopeful but not optimistic.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Learn more about Family Theater Productions’ upcoming, new and vintage productions as well as our Hollywood Outreach Programs; and, of course, you’ll find us on Facebook.

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5 for Friday: Baking, ‘Poppins,’ ‘Rudolph,’ ‘Wonderful Life’ and ‘Frozen’

This weekend’s edition of our biweekly viewing guide features a lineup of true classics, and one show that looks good enough to eat.

All times Eastern (check local listings for time and channel in your area).

The Great British Baking Show: Christmas Masterclass — Friday, 9 p.m., PBS

British baking experts and judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry show off their own skills here. Hollywood makes turkey stuffing, cranberry Chelsea buns, mince pie and panettone. Berry whips up Christmas pudding with brandy butter, classic Christmas cake and a Yule log.

Mary Poppins (1964) — Saturday, 8 p.m., ABC

What can I say except, “Supercalifraglisticexpialidocious?” Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke star in Disney’s delightful musical fantasy about an extraordinary nanny who changes the lives of a London family in Edwardian England (otherwise known at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, just over the hill from our offices in Hollywood).

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) — Saturday, 8 p.m., CBS

In case you missed it the first time CBS aired it, everybody’s favorite red-nosed reindeer is back for an encore.

SPOILER ALERT — if you haven’t seen it, don’t watch this video!

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) — Saturday, 8 p.m., USA Network

A lapse in the copyright for this Frank Capra film turned it from an unmemorable flop into a holiday staple — since TV stations could play it over and over for free!

Call it luck or Divine Providence, but that legal hiccup bequeathed to the world a Christmas classic (the copyright was renewed, and the film was restored to its pristine B&W beauty). If you pay attention to the whole movie, and not just its hugging-and-loving ending, you’ll discover that this Christmas rose has thorns.

As Catholic deacon and movie reviewer Steven Greydanus points out:

“A figment of simple Pollyanna platitudes,” New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote in 1946. “A terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams,” another New York Times writer wrote in 2008.

Neither description is even approximately correct. Variously celebrated or castigated for its sentimentality and schmaltz or for its darkness and subversiveness, It’s a Wonderful Life is wiser, richer, and deeper than many of its fans and nearly all of its critics allow.

The truth is that It’s a Wonderful Life is both darker and more subversive than its popular reputation as cheery holiday “Capra-corn” would suggest, and more robustly hopeful than cynics and hipster deconstructionists would have it.

Christmas Eve becomes the night that despondent George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) decides to take his own life — and it’s also the night that the Lord, knowing George’s pain and hearing the prayerful petitions of all those who love him, sends a angel-in-training (Henry Travers) to save him.

It’s not perfect theology (angels don’t have wings, when bells ring or not); and humans in heaven don’t turn into angels), but it’s a near-perfect holiday treat.

Frozen (2013) — Sunday, 8 p.m. ABC

A gargantuan hit and spawner of untold numbers of toys, Halloween costumes and cover versions of “Let It Go,” Disney’s animated fairy tale (loosely inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen”) still gives Deacon Greydanus some pause.

I recommend clicking here and reading his whole review, which mentions, but doesn’t address at length, the calls for some in entertainment to give Elsa — half of the separated-sister-princess do at the heart of the film — a same-sex relationship (which may be implicit in the film to some, but is not explicitly stated at all).

Here’s a bit:

Frozen may be the most tragic fairy tale in the Disney canon, which is saying something. Sure, Rapunzel was stolen from her parents and raised in a tower by a witch, but at least she had her books, her art, her astronomy and her pet chameleon Pascal. Her life was painfully limited, but within those constraints, she achieved some measure of accomplishment, fulfillment and even happiness.

Now consider poor Anna, who grows up literally outside Elsa’s closed door, plaintively singing Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” And Elsa never, ever opens the door to her sister: literally at first, and later emotionally, for pretty much the entire movie.

Throughout the film, Anna talks as if she knows Elsa: “Elsa would never hurt me,” she keeps saying, but all she really has of her sister are childhood memories — and even those aren’t reliable, because they’ve been magically tampered with. You see, Elsa did hurt Anna once, though it was an accident.

I haven’t seen “Frozen” (heresy, I know), but reading Greydanus’ review doesn’t particularly make me want to. But if you have a preteen girl in your house, I think I know how you’ll be spending your Sunday TV night.

Image: Courtesy Walt Disney Studios

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Can I Take the Kids? Bad Moms, Dads, Little Ponies and Agatha Christie

The weekend is nearly upon us. Is there anything currently in theaters that the whole family can watch together?

First off, a lot of the movies we discussed last week — including “The Star,” “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” “Coco” and “Wonder” — are still in theaters, and are all thumbs-up (with some concerns for the theology of the afterlife, or lack of it, in “Coco”).

For Catholic parents, the top choice would still be “The Star,” a charming and funny animated take on the Nativity, from the POV of the animals. If you haven’t taken the little ones, get to it — and grown-ups will find some laughs as well. It only gets 45% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but the Fandango audience gives it high marks. Tickets and showtimes here.

As to what else is out there:

A Bad Mom’s Christmas (R)

If the rating wasn’t enough of a clue, here’s what the Catholic News Service had to say:

Aggressive vulgarity is the incongruous hallmark of the holiday-themed sequel “A Bad Moms Christmas” (STX).

Like a stocking stuffed full of nasty surprises, the script, as penned by returning screenwriters and directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, is a grab-bag of low-minded jokes and sight gags.

The film contains blasphemy, cohabitation, drug use, strong sexual content including partial nudity and much obscene humor, several uses of profanity and pervasive rough and crude language.

So much for that. Think we’ll skip the trailer on this one.

Murder on the Orient Express (PG-13)

Likely not the best adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie mystery, but the cast (including Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Leslie Odom Jr. and Daisy Ridley) and lavish production quality may interest some lively and curious teens — and perhaps even get them to read the original.

After all, Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, is a Catholic.

But the film is not without its flaws. From Variety:

For those who know the outcome of “Murder” going in, the question isn’t so much whodunit as how Branagh will keep audiences guessing, and though he succeeds in creating the most memorable incarnation of Poirot ever seen on-screen (upstaging even Johnny Depp’s competing cameo), the movie is a failure overall, juggling too many characters to keep straight, and botching the last act so badly that those who go in blind may well walk out not having understood its infamous twist ending.

By contrast, the film’s opening is as elegant as they come, an invention of screenwriter Michael Green that introduces the world-renowned detective as a cultivated gentleman, whom Branagh himself plays, wearing the character’s thick French accent like a fine waistcoat — with pride, and the slightest dash of buffoonery. We meet Poirot obsessing over whether his Jerusalem hosts can prepare the perfect four-minute soft-boiled egg when the theft of an important relic demands his attention. In the most theatrical fashion imaginable, Poirot examines the scant evidence and delivers what for him can be the only logical conclusion to the crowd, anticipating even the guilty party’s escape plan.

Daddy’s Home 2 (PG-13)

Even though it stars devout Catholic Mark Wahlberg and troubled Catholic Mel Gibson, Catholic News Service warns that parents may want to steer clear of this one, even for teens.

 Silly slapstick predominates in “Daddy’s Home 2” (Paramount). Though this follow-up to the 2015 comedy about the blending pains of a post-divorce family is mostly harmless, late scenes mix lame holiday-themed sentimentality with weirdly uncomfortable humor concerning a preteen boy’s emerging sexuality.

Returning director and co-writer Sean Anders’ film should, accordingly, be considered strictly off-limits for young viewers.

Subsequently, as the movie shows us just how successfully the 11-year-old has overcome his innate shyness, with the camera panning a long line of girls awaiting their chance to kiss Dylan under the mistletoe, from within their ranks the face of a boy pops out, beaming with anticipation.

And a Merry Christmas to you, Hollywood.

My Little Pony: The Movie (PG)

This toy-based fantasy seems harmless enough — at least that’s what Catholic News Service has to say:

 Looking for an instant sugar rush but don’t want all those empty calories? Saddle up and lasso “My Little Pony: The Movie” (Lionsgate), a super-sweet animated musical featuring those candy-colored Hasbro toys.

Amid relentless prancing and preening, smiles and squeals, and some toe-tapping tunes, these magical quadrupeds have an important message to convey to their young fans: Friendship is paramount.

Director Jayson Thiessen deserves a great big hug for keeping the adventure moving and juggling multiple characters and personalities. Some of the action scenes may be a bit intense for the youngest of viewers, but not to worry — there’s always a rainbow and a smile just around the corner.

That’s all for now. See you at the movies!

Image: Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Learn more about Family Theater Productions’ upcoming, new and vintage productions as well as our Hollywood Outreach Programs; and, of course, you’ll find us on Facebook.

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Santa Claus and St. Nicholas — A Tale Told in Videos

From “Miracle on 34th Street” to “The Santa Clause” (and sequels), Santa Claus has been the subject of movies and TV specials, and used to sell everything from Coca-Cola to M&Ms.

The origins of Santa Claus have tantalized filmmakers, who’ve come up with all sorts of fanciful tales about how the gift-giver came to be, where his elves came from, and why he has reindeer. Here’s a clip from “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” a 1970 stop-motion animated special that may be one of the more … imaginative versions of the origin tale.

But something that has Fred Astaire can’t be all bad …

In the real world, Santa Claus is a blend of Norse, Germanic, Catholic and Dutch traditions, filtered through folklore and two major 19th-century influences — Clement Moore’s poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and the work of artist Thomas Nast.

Speaking of the famous poem …

Our current iteration of the rotund man in a fur-trimmed red coat is a gift of the Coca-Cola Company, a creation for an ad campaign in the 1920s (and not coincidentally, he’s wearing the signature colors of the beverage maker).

But Catholics know that the true beginning of the Santa Claus legend was in 4th-century Turkey, with the famed Bishop Nicholas of Myra. Born into wealth, which he inherited while young, devoutly Catholic Nicholas gave all he had to assist the sick and needy.

Made a bishop early in life, he became known for his generosity, and his love for children and for those who go down to the sea in ships.

Bishop Nicholas suffered for the Faith under Roman Emperor Diocletian and spent time in prison. He died on Dec. 6, 343 A.D., and that day is now his feast day. Nicholas’ fame grew after his death, and many legends are told of him.

European tradition states that children who leave their shoes out on St. Nicholas Day Eve find them filled in the morning with treats and small gifts (if they’ve been good).

According to news reports from October, the tomb of Saint Nicholas may have been found in southern Turkey — under a church named in his honor, in the town where he was born (where else, indeed?).

But does this mean Santa Claus is dead? Of course not. St. Nicholas is in heaven, waiting to pray on our behalf. And as for Santa Claus, he is the spirit of generosity, and as long as that exists, he lives on.

Oh, and a group of filmmakers is trying to make a movie about “Nicholas of Myra,” which, according to the IMDB, is to come out in two parts, in 2018 and 2019.

Click here for the official Website, and this is what they have so far:

 

Remember to watch the skies on Christmas Eve, when the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) begins its annual satellite tracking of Santa Claus’ journey across the world.

Here’s a preview:

And here’s a look back at how NORAD took on this very important duty — which has the feeling of a bit of divine intervention …

Head to the official site to follow the Jolly Old Elf as he makes his rounds.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Learn more about Family Theater Productions’ upcoming, new and vintage productions as well as our Hollywood Outreach Programs; and, of course, you’ll find us on Facebook.

Visit our YouTube and Ustream Channels for our contemporary and classic productions.