Monday, May 23, 2016

Mainlining Movie Discussion: Home (2015)

Home is a CG science fiction comedy from last year that’s ambiguously a Christmas movie. It’s loosely based on the 2007 novel, The True Meaning of Smekday. It’s not a clear enough example to be covered in the normal season, but we felt it deserved a spot in our archives.

We’re trying something a little different on this one: instead of posting a review written by one of us, we’re presenting this as a discussion.

Let us know what you think of the format: we're thinking of adding it to our standard repertoire.

Erin: Let’s start with the story. The movie is set immediately after the events of a disappointingly bloodless alien invasion where the human race is transported to Australia. A girl’s left behind, and she befriends an outcast alien who’s inadvertently endangered the planet by sending a party evite to another alien race.

The girl’s trying to find her mom, and the alien’s trying to undo the damage he’s done. You get the idea.

Unlike me, you actually read the book. How’s the premise differ?

Lindsay: The outline of the premise is the same: technologically advanced but somewhat bumbling aliens forcibly relocate the people of Earth, girl (Tip) runs into alien on route to find her mom, adventure ensues.

The big difference, and the big weakness, with the adaptation is perspective. The movie follows the alien character primarily, but the book is told entirely from the girl’s perspective - in fact, it’s an essay she’s writing about the invasion (somewhat grudgingly) after the fact.

There are some significant differences in the plot - the book takes place over more time, involves more humans, and is overall less ridiculous. The resolution is entirely different and the alien’s role is different, but I think all these changes stem from making the alien the center of the story.

Erin: That’s a good point. My biggest issue with the movie (aside from it not being funny) was its childish tone. The Boov were portrayed as Looney Toon-style characters, and very little was taken seriously.

Lindsay: The book is more serious. It’s appropriate for children, but there is genuine tension and adversity. It’s funny, I read the book to try and figure out if we should do it (and the movie) for Mainlining. But the movie has more Christmas in it.

Erin: And even then, not all that much. I think EVERYTHING we watch counts as a Christmas movie (I'm still not backing down from Frozen), and - honestly - I can’t even seriously claim this one as any more than a technicality. There’s just enough to make a case, but it’s a contrived one. Especially since things like this typically come down to a question of intent, but we actually know the reason this time… and it’s not thematic. Some of this movie is set at Christmas, but it’s really just an homage to Smekday, a concept that was basically cut entirely.

Lindsay: To be fair, Christmas is implied in the title of the novel. The Boov follow Captain Smek; the day they land is renamed Smekday in his honor. The Boov don’t care that it used to be called Christmas. Most of the action of the book takes place later, but the name of Tip’s essay is a bit of a joke. Get it? Tell us the true meaning of Christm-Smekday.

Erin: So, if I understand this right, Smekday is intended as an alien replacement of Christmas, similar to the way Christmas replaced Saturnalia.

Lindsay: More or less. Here’s a fun little video explaining Smekday!

Erin: That short is better than ANYTHING in the movie.

At any rate, the movie starts at Christmas. The lights and decorations are still up, and there’s a light plot point about Tip wanting to bring her mother a Christmas present. Should we spend time explaining the J.Lo thing? Because, again, that’s better than any joke that was included in this movie.

Lindsay: Sure. In the book, the Boov take Earth names that humans can pronounce, and the Boov that Tip travels with calls himself J.Lo Because they learned English (and other languages) somewhat haphazardly from a handful of abductees.

Erin: Back to Christmas. Tip and Oh (since they decided against calling him J.Lo, even though the Jennifer Lopez was in the cast and would almost certainly have been cool with it) take off on what I’m pretty sure was late night on the 25th. There’s snow on the ground - remember that.

Because the director doesn’t. When they land in Paris a day later, there’s grass in the fields, green leaves on the trees, not a decoration in sight, and it’s sunny. Other than the unopened present and a brief flashback to seeing Tip’s mom getting abducted with the rest of our species, we’re through with Christmas.

To be fair, the gift does come up again, along with a quick call-out to the holiday. It’s what I’d call a light plot-point: the present is used to save the day in typical MacGuffin fashion. Weirdly, it’s not actually played up emotionally, though. It’s purpose is to be used as a mirror in a brief call-back, not as any kind of symbol for family, love, seasonal affective disorder, or any of the other traditional Christmas messages.

That’s why I say this really isn’t a Christmas movie, at least not in any meaningful sense. The fact the gift is technically present for the entire story and is required to resolve the story gives us an excuse to talk about it, but the holiday is clearly just here as an allusion to the book. They couldn’t even be bothered to maintain the facade when they switched locations.

Lindsay: So the presence of Christmas has no emotional weight. My opinion’s skewed - was there anything you thought did have gravitas, or otherwise emotional impact?

Erin: Gravitas? Not really. But that doesn’t mean I hated everything.

I really liked Tip. She was tough, quick-witted, and fun, without feeling overpowered. I thought Rihanna did a good job voicing her, as did Jennifer Lopez with her mother.

Lindsay: Tip was great, and points for featuring a female main character of color. I mean, they’d get more points if she’d actually been the star, but...

Erin: I don’t actually agree that Oh was the lead. He got some time at the beginning, but I felt like I was watching Tip's story get interrupted with his, not the other way around. She was definitely the POV character throughout the movie.

Lindsay: Except that Oh’s narration opened and closed the movie. All the most terrible scenes didn’t have Tip in them. There’s that.

Erin: Narration doesn’t necessary imply lead status. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. At least we can both agree that Tip was a billion times better, and every second Oh was on screen was painful.

In addition to Tip (or maybe because of her), I found the movie’s story arc mostly satisfying. It wasn’t at all moving or insightful, but it worked just well enough for me not to hate the movie. High praise, I know.

Also, I kind of love that the Boov were basically Americans. There’s not a lot of substance to this film, but at least that subversive point survived the process of adaptation.

Lindsay: I didn’t hate it either. I found parts boring, and parts annoying, but I laughed a few times, and the resolution was kind of okay for sci-fi aimed at very small children. Not as funny, smart, or satirical as the book, but I would say younger kids might like it.

Erin: Speaking of boring and annoying, I just realized we forgot to give a shout out to Jim Parsons, the voice of Oh.

I agree this has some value as a kids movie. It’s not great entertainment, but it provides a good POV character in Tip and plenty of jokes that might appeal to anyone whose brain hasn’t finished forming.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Cards Against Humanity: Eight Sensible Gifts for Hanukkah

I'd hoped to get to this by Christmas, but the eighth day didn't reach me in time. I just got it today (12/26), so I'm wrapping up this article and posting it now.

I've only played Cards Against Humanity once, and I'd describe the experience as somewhat mixed. Cards Against Humanity is an intentionally offensive card game where players try win points by shocking or disturbing each other. I don't actually own a copy of the game though I do now have an expansion (more on this later).

This promotion ostensibly has nothing at all to do with the game, though. The company advertised that, for fifteen dollars, they'd send people eight "sensible" gifts over the month of December. While I'm not a huge fan of the game, I've been extremely impressed with other promotions the company has done over the years, so I signed up.

I honestly had no idea what to expect. I hoped for something fascinating but half expected eight pairs of socks.

Night One
I got a pair of socks.

White socks, to be specific, with a small menorah symbol at the top containing one lit candle. The socks were attached to a paper card containing a sock-related quote.

In addition, there was some info about the promotion, explaining why these were showing up in case the recipient was getting it as a gift.

There was also a letter enclosed, written by one of the game writers' Jewish fathers. Each subsequent gift contains one, as well. The content of the letters varies. Most, but not all, are typed. I've at least skimmed through these: they're generally clever and some are humorous. About what you'd expect, actually.

Night Two
A second pair of socks, identical to the first, save that these have two candles lit. There was another quote and a different letter from a different writer's Jewish father. I wasn't entirely surprised at the prospect of getting eight pairs of nearly identical socks. And, of course, I wasn't certain that was what was going on. But it seemed likely.

Night Three
Take a guess. A third pair of socks, this one with a quote against socks attributed to Adolf Hitler. The letter accompanying it was probably my favorite of the batch, featuring some geeky Star Trek references. I resigned myself to the probability I'd be getting nothing but socks for Hanukkah.

Night Four
That's what they wanted, actually. That sense of disappointment, of complacency. But that's when the socks stopped and the promotion got interesting.

Night four essentially had two gifts. The first, which was the "official" sensible gift, was a US Treasury bond valued at $1. In addition to this and the letter, there was also the first part of a "Jew Pack" of Cards Against Humanity expansion. Here's the exterior:

And, here are the cards. This should provide a good sense of the game itself:

Night Five
The next envelope I received introduced another twist. The gift this time was a little more nebulous: they'd taken the money from Night Five and donated it to Chicago Public Radio, which has the added effect of making Mainlining Christmas an official member of the station. In keeping with public radio donations, we got a membership gift.

The notebook is a fun addition, but mainly I'm amused by the decision to donate the cash. They were clearly expanding their concept of a gift, and I was getting more and more curious to see where this went over the next three days.

Night Six
If you've already heard about the gifts of this promotion, I'm betting this is the one you heard about. This, like several others, essentially has a two-part gift: the official and the thing they spent money on. The official gift was a newspaper-style page of comics commissioned from cartoonists. Some of these were funny, though I wasn't overwhelmed. Also, the vast majority were about Christmas tropes, which was a little odd given the Hanukkah theme. But who cares - that's not the interesting part.

The interesting part is that they took the day's money and essentially paid the Chinese factory that produces their cards to give their workers a week off. Along with the "Funny Pages," they included an envelope full of photocopied letters and pictures from the workers offering brief descriptions of what they did over their vacations.

The information detailing this explains that this is unprecedented, that the factory didn't even have a policy for paid vacations. It doesn't point out that this only cost a trivial amount of money - I guess they trusted us to figure that out for ourselves.

All told, it was a surprising and moving twist to the promotion.

Night Seven
Here's the other one you might have heard of. For night seven, Cards Against Humanity purchased a Picasso titled Tete de Faune. I've read subsequent articles which clarify that this is likely a signed print, one of fifty, not the original. Still, a rare piece from a famous painter. Here's the photocopy they sent me:

"How is this a gift?" you might be wondering. Well, that's actually up to me and the other 149,999 subscribers. Here's what the back of the card says:

So, depending on how the vote goes, this is either getting donated or chopped up in minuscule pieces and mailed to us.

Based on a quick web search, the conventional wisdom seems to be that everyone plans (or claims to plan) to vote for donation, but everyone expects the vote to go the other way.

As much as I'd enjoy owning 1/150,000th of a Picasso, I went ahead and voted to donate it. But... yeah. We'll see.

In addition to this, they also sent the other half of that "Jew Pack". Interestingly, the front implies this was intended for the fifth night, not the seventh:

Here are the cards contained in this part of the set:

Night Eight
Well. Mainlining Christmas is now royalty. Or, at least we're going to be royalty this August:

So on August 13th, from 10:48 to 10:51 AM PST (who the hell uses Central?), Mainlining Christmas will officially be crowned the ruling monarch of Castle Sensible, which is apparently a real castle in Ireland. What does this mean for us practically? Bragging rights, I suppose. When we come back next Christmas, we'll have formerly been king of some tiny castle Cards Against Humanity bought.

Aside from the decree, we received yet another letter from a writer's father and a fold-out map to our castle. Sort of:

So, it would be less useful for locating the castle (or whatever it is they're calling a castle) than for standing in as a map for a D&D campaign, but - honestly - I prefer fantasy maps to real ones, anyway.

Closing Thoughts
Honestly, this exceeded my expectations. In an odd way, the promotion had a narrative structure, starting with the three pairs of socks, before going in some jarring directions. There was a mix of comedy, shock, and genuine intelligence to the whole thing. Using some of the cash to provide a factory's workers with a week off made a powerful point about how little money it takes to do something wonderful for workers. Holding a Picasso hostage is obviously a bit more controversial - I'll be interested to see how that resolves in a few days. Either way, it's certainly interesting.

Value is obviously a subjective concept in a situation like this, but I absolutely feel like I got my money's worth. Even setting aside the intangibles - the donation to Public Radio, the week's vacation, and the "king for three minutes" - this generated an impressive stack of artifacts I plan on keeping around.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Reflections On Another Christmas Gone

It was a close one this year, what with the Grinch armed with a machine gun holding Santa Claus hostage in the old McCallister home. For a while there, it looked like Christmas might have to be cancelled. But some quick thinking from Dooley and the Christmas Narwhal saved the day, and...

You know what? I don't need to recap this. You caught the news last night; you know the gifts were delivered, the Grinch is safely back in Arkham, and Santa Claus destroyed that asteroid before it reached orbit. We don't need to go over all the details or spend more time mourning Donner.

What matters is Christmas 2015 came on schedule, and - aside from a few mishaps - it was a merry one. Here at Mainlining Christmas, we spent the season as we always do, force-feeding ourselves holiday cheer. Overall, our slate of movies was surprisingly good this year: we really weren't expecting that.

That's not all, though. We hung out with reindeer, marveled at sculptures of Christmas dinosaurs, went to a fantastic concert performed by the Seattle Men's Chorus, and hung out on a beach while carolers on a cruise ship blasted songs over a PA system.

Oh, right - we didn't actually write up any of those adventures. I guess we were too busy with the movies. Well, no time like the Ghost of Christmas Present.

The Cougar Mountain Zoo has a "Reindeer Festival" every year, which is essentially a clever way to extort $14 a ticket to see eight or nine exhibits that aren't closed for the winter. The centerpiece of this is the reindeer, in all their glory.

I'd like to say these pictures don't really do the experience justice, but other than a handful of kids hurling bits of apple at the animals, this is pretty much the extent of this particular exhibit. The male deer were on the other side of the path. They didn't label which were male or female, presumably to prevent contradicting the specials which show Rudolph with his antlers on Christmas Eve (males lose their antlers for the season).

The whole zoo was holidayed up. Well, the portion that was open, anyway. The decorations were somewhat tacky, but you really have to admire the commitment. Here's the outside of the bathrooms.

In addition, the zoo made a point of lying to children through the use of these signs. All the animals had them.

Did you know Santa uses tigers to make candy canes? Clearly the North Pole needs sanitation experts:

Whining aside, they had the cougars and tigers on display. The tigers were especially active, and that alone was probably worth the entry fee.

This is video we took in Carkeek Park of the Seattle Christmas Ship Festival. The main ship is the one in the center blasting holiday music. The others were smaller decorated boats which tag along with fun. It's a cute concept, but the actual effect is pretty cheesy. I'm sure the singers are talented, but by the time they're run through a PA system and broadcast over the Puget Sound, you lose most of the nuance. Lindsay discovered we could get a really cool effect turning our heads ninety degrees so the echo on the shore created a sort of harmony.

The performance only lasted about twenty minutes. By the end, we were happy to get back in a warm car.

We also got out to see decorations, went shopping, and all that. It's been a full Christmas, and yet... I wish there were more. I know that will seem crazy to most of you. Hell, it seems crazy to me. But it's true: these late Thanksgivings are irritating me. I want more time to enjoy the holiday.

Ah, well. There's always next year. Until then, keep Christmas in your heart (or really any blood-soaked organ of your choice). Hope your yuletide was a jolly one.

In Memory of Donner
1807 - 2015
Your Sacrifice Will Ever Be Remembered

Is It Really Christmas Already?

It seems like it was just Black Friday last week.

Even though we crammed a lot of holiday cheer into this season, our list-of-things-to-watch is only getting longer. As I mentioned this year, researching one holiday special keeps leading us to more and more. Netflix sees our patterns and recommends more Christmas-themed stuff. We buy obscure movies and specials all year long whenever we find them cheap. So don’t worry about us running out of material anytime soon.

The thing that most surprised me this year was how many honestly enjoyable, quality movies we watched.

Some of the highlights of this year for me were:

  • Meet Me in St. Louis - a classic movie musical, expertly crafted and gorgeously filmed
  • The Apartment - another classic, this one quietly subversive, biting, and extremely clever
  • 8 Women - a french film about family, anger, passion, and the judgement of women by women
  • Mrs. Santa Claus - a sweet family musical about feminism and social justice in the 1910s, starring Angela Lansbury
  • A Christmas Horror Story - a series of interlocking dark fantasy stories full of interesting characters and bloody twists

Of course, in the spirit of the holiday, we put up with a bunch of crap, too. But even terrible films and specials are fun to write about.

Some of my favorite reviews to write or read this year were the low-lights, like:

And then there were things that defied characterization.

We hope you had fun following along with the insanity this year. As always, we’re not going far, and you’ll see some off-season posts for things which are particularly timely or on the margin of ‘Christmassy-enough’ for us.

P.S. Did you get your gift yet?

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

I'd been meaning to rewatch Edward Scissorhands for a while, though I bumped it back because I was a bit skeptical of its status as a holiday movie. Now, I feel pretty confident describing it that way.

The movie opens with a brief frame story of an old woman telling a story to her granddaughter. Since we're talking about holiday connections, I'll add that it's snowing outside and the patterns on the wallpaper bear a resemblance to the Star of Bethlehem.

We soon cut to Peg Boggs, an Avon saleswoman going from door-to-door in a town of pastel houses laid out on a curved road ending in a cul-de-sac. It's a sunny, bright day in what looks like a suburb of LA in the 1960's. When she doesn't have luck with her neighbors, she turns her attention to a giant castle atop a dark mountain that sits just beyond the cul-de-sac.

You really have to admire Burton's flair.

She drives up and discovers a courtyard of stone gargoyles and meticulously maintained topiary bushes. No answers, so she barges in and comes across Edward, whose hands are made of knives. His skin is pale, his face is covered in scars, and his clothes appear to be done by the same designer who handles Pinhead's wardrobe: visually speaking, he's a horror monster.

But Peg quickly realizes he has a gentle spirit and the mind of a child, so she brings him back home with her. He's of course confused and frightened by the world he's introduced to. At a barbecue, he's introduced to several of the town's housewives, one of whom takes a romantic interest in him. But Edward only has eyes for Kim, Peg's daughter, who's involved with Jim, the movie's primary antagonist.

At first, things look good for Edward. His skill at topiary quickly gets him attention, and soon he moves to grooming pets, then cutting hair. He winds up on television and seems headed towards opening his own salon. But things take a turn for the worst when Jim convinces Kim to ask Edward to help them steal some of his father's expensive equipment. Edward's caught, and Jim prevents Kim from helping him.

Everyone assumes Edward arranged the theft to cover the costs of opening his salon, since his loan application was denied. To protect Kim, he keeps quiet as other characters reprimand him. Kim breaks up with Jim, who's furious she's choosing Edward over him.

At this point, we shift to the holiday season, as the Boggs - with Edward's help - prepare for their Christmas party. In one of the movie's most iconic scenes, Edward is carving an angel in the backyard while Kim dances in the snowflakes falling off.

Jim sees this and shouts at Edward, startling him, which causes Kim to get cut. This results in Edward running away while Kim tells Jim to leave and not come back.

Edward, furious at the injustice he's seen, throws a tantrum, wrecking several of the topiary bushes he's made around town. He also punctures a tire then carves a bush into a demon's head on the lawn of a woman who'd been especially cruel to him. When he sees a police car searching for him, he runs back to the Boggs' house, where he finds Kim waiting. For a brief moment, it seems like everything will be alright, but then Edward sees Kim's younger brother crossing the street in front of a swerving van. He pushes the boy to safety, but cuts him in the process.

Kim, realizing the townspeople will blame Edward, tells him to run. He heads back towards the mountain and castle, followed by a mob. Somehow, Kim beats them there, but Jim shows up soon after. He attacks Edward, who finally fights back to protect Kim. He kills Jim, who falls out of a window into the courtyard, where he's found by the mob. Kim tells Edward she loves him, a connection that seems to offer Edward peace, then she runs out and convinces everyone Edward was killed, as well.

The movie closes with a return to the old woman relating the tale. Of course, the grandmother is Kim, and - while she never saw Edward again - she knows he's still alive because of the snow, revealed to be caused by him carving ice sculptures in his castle.

It's a good movie, though it's not exactly a consistent one. The first act, where the setting is unveiled, is fantastic, as is the ending. But it's the middle portion that falls a little flat. There's a lot of time devoted to the woman who falsely accuses Edward of assaulting her, and I'm convinced there were better uses for that time (no disrespect intended towards the actress, who does a great job with the part - it's just an unnecessary subplot). Likewise, a great deal of Edward's rise in the community feels like it's part of a different movie: the core of this story is Edward's relationships with Peg, Kim, and the inventor: the rest of the script seems to be killing time. It's not bad; it just doesn't add much beyond a repetitious condemnation of suburban America.

First and foremost, this is a movie about being an outsider. Edward is viewed first as curiosity, then as something special, and finally as a threat, and none of it is really his fault. He's just who and what he is; the judgments of others reveal more about their own limitations than his.

The last thirty minutes of the movie are clearly set at the holidays. Actually, there's an argument that might be true of the entire movie. Since it's set in an area based on southern California, the pleasant weather doesn't necessarily imply summer, and it's unclear whether any significant time passed between Edward being released by the police and the Christmas party. It's entirely possible that the movie starts, for all intents and purposes, in early December and unfolds over weeks, not months. It's just not clear.

But the decorations don't go up until the final act. Other than that, the only times Christmas elements come into play are in flashbacks. Edward's creator was inspired to make him while watching an earlier automatic contraption produce what appeared to be holiday cookies. In a later flashback, he tries to present Edward with hands, which he calls an early Christmas gift. Unfortunately, he dies before he can attach these, which gives Edward some negative associations around the holidays.

Between the climax and these flashbacks, it's clear Christmas plays a significant role in the movie, though it's not immediately clear why. It may have had more to do with the visual imagery than anything else. The character of Kim, played by Winona Ryder, is depicted as something of a Christmas angel, and the image of Edward literally creating snow as he carves away ice offers some connections to midwinter.

In fact, you could interpret the story as one about a winter god descending into the world of man, judging us lacking, then returning to his castle and sending down snow in memory of his visit. The closing moments outright state that there was never any snow in the town prior to Edward's presence.

But you could also interpret this as a variation on the nativity story. Connecting Edward's creation to Christmas offers potential Christ parallels, which are also echoed in the depiction of his hands. He holds these open at times in ways reminiscent of Christ displaying the stigmata, an image also invoked when he inadvertently pierces his own hands over his dying creator. Burton may have wanted to draw a connection between the crucifixion and the mobs that have hounded monsters in movies since the start of the genre. This is a movie about being an outsider, a description that fits Jesus. There's a sense in which humanity's response to Christ was the same as their response to Edward and all who don't fit in.

It's admittedly a stretch, but - whatever the reason - Burton seemed to go out of his way to give his movie a holiday feel. In addition to the story elements, the movie was originally released in December, which may have helped it gain a foothold as a Christmas movie, even if it lacks most of the usual holiday tropes.

Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas (2009)

This is adorable. It's adorable and charming and whimsical and sweet. It's fun and it's funny, it's safe for all ages without being insipid.

In short, it's quality children's programming.

I've seen a few episodes of the show this special is spinning out of, because I watch kids' shows on PBS. If my vague recollections are accurate, this is equivalent to an especially good episode.

The special opens with some friendly narration explaining how excited George is about Christmas. Soon he wakes up and runs into the other room to jump on the Man with the Yellow Hat, only to be told that like yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, it is not yet Christmas. The Man (it's so awkward to call him that, but take it up with H.A. Rey) gives George a chart to track the rest of the days (12) until the big day, and reassures him that they have a lot to do to get ready, so the time will pass quickly.

Cue the first musical number! It's all about getting ready for the holiday and the different things people are doing. It's not brilliant songwriting, but it's cute.

George and the Man run into most of the recurring characters from the show during and after this sequence to find out how their holiday preparations are going, including some of the other animal-human partnerships: the doorman and his dachshund, the chef and his cat, and two kids and their dog talking about presents outside the toy store.

Talking about gifts brings up the central plot thread of the piece. The Man asks George to point out what he wants for Christmas in a catalog, but George 'writes' a list and insists that the Man can read it. Considering George's art skills, that's asking a lot. Meanwhile, George wants to get the Man something really special, but he doesn't have any money, and he doesn't know what to make.

Funny and clever scenes follow as the days pass. Some examples: George finds out one of the Man's favorite holiday treats and attempts to recreate it with somewhat messy results. The Man takes George to the museum to meet with their genius researcher friend in the hopes that she can help decipher George's list. (Professor Wiseman gets some of the best jokes in the whole special - she's awesome.) George causes a snow machine to go haywire, then tries to build one himself. George's friend Betsy (one of the dog owners) mentions that she's trying to write an original Christmas song as a gift for her aunt, but she's having trouble. In the meantime they also get a unique tree for their apartment (it comes decorated with a free chair!) and run other holiday errands.

George and the Man are both running out of time, and the day before Christmas Eve they each get the idea to follow the other, hoping for a clue to a good gift. That goes about as well as you'd expect. The humor throughout is deftly-handled; we found it thoroughly amusing.

They perform in the community recital where Betsy is supposed to premiere her song, and she's finally inspired to write a funny ditty about a Christmas Monkey.

Finally George has a bright idea and makes his gift, but the Man has a nightmare. He dreams about all the other animal-human partnerships and how well they understood each other, and he dreams a 'what if' that pictures George living with other humans, trying to see whether he would have a better life with someone else. This dream is hosted by the Ghost of Time Going Sideways, by the way.

The dream gives him the key to reading George's pictograph, and everyone has a merry Christmas. A very monkey Christmas seems like an awfully nice thing to have.

A Cadaver Christmas (2011)

We've had this one sitting in our DVD stack for more than a year after picking it up for a buck or two at a dying video store. We meant to watch it last year, but decided at the last minute we didn't want to devote our limited time and energy to something that looked quite this unpleasant.

We assumed too much. A Cadaver Christmas is far better than I'd seriously hoped for. It's not a great movie - 'good' might be pushing it - but it's a solid low-budget indie horror/comedy. In fact, as long as you preface it with 'low-budge' and 'indie,' you don't have to qualify the label 'good' any further. Within its limitations, it's a resourceful, fun movie.

The back of the packaging describes it as "A cross between 'It's a Wonderful Life' and 'Night of the Living Dead'", which I think is more than a little misleading. I'd describe the zombie aspects as being more in the vein of Evil Dead 2 than Night of the Living Dead. The reference to It's a Wonderful Life centers around a single character who spends the movie drunk. In the opening scene, a bartender alludes to this character undergoing an annual yuletide suicide attempt, which I take as a subtle nod to George Bailey.

We meet these two for a few minutes, sitting together on Christmas Eve, when the movie's hero walks in. He's got a name, but everyone calls him, "The Janitor," almost like he's a superhero (which, in a sense, the movie makes him into). When we first see him, he's covered in blood and irritated. The bartender refers him to the bathroom, then calls a friend he thinks is a cop - we'll later learn he's left the force, though this is less a plot point than a joke.

Most of the characters are essentially jokes; only the Janitor and drunk live long enough to start getting any development, and even then only just a bit. This isn't necessarily a problem - the movie is more interested in entertaining us than engaging us emotionally, anyway.

In addition to the cop, some shambling corpses follow the Janitor into the bar. He manages to subdue them and offers some backstory. He works at a nearby University and was attacked by a bunch of cadavers. He resists other characters' instincts to dub them zombies, though he eventually makes an exception for faster, still living versions they fight towards the end.

The cop freaks out and refuses to believe what's happening. He forces the Janitor to take him and the others to the University at gunpoint. The cop also has a suspect he arrested for bestiality in the back of his car, so he's dragged along, as well.

The group is separated, and they run into various mishaps. There's also a rather stupid scene where the suspect has sex with a corpse, which of course turns out to be undead. Most of the comedy in this worked for us, but this seemed aggressively idiotic.

Eventually, they all meet up with a student security guard, but she's not with them long. They find notes in a professor's lab explaining the outbreak - it's an experiment gone wrong, of course - then quickly start getting picked off. I was actually a little surprised how long it took them to start killing characters, but the movie works its way through the cast pretty quickly once they get going.

In the end, it comes down to the Janitor and the drunk, who's been bitten by a zombie. They kill what they think are the rest then have a moment where they reflect on the holidays. The drunk then reveals his bite and asks the Janitor to kill him quickly. He almost does, before stopping at the last minute to make sure the wound's infected. Much to both their surprise, it's actually started to heal: the copious amounts of alcohol he'd been drinking all movie killed the infection.

They're relieved for a moment or two before realized they just killed a dozen or so infected individuals they could potentially have saved, including several of their friends. Oh, and there's really no evidence they didn't simply murder those people.

The movie's resolution continues this story-line into the closing credits. This sequence was actually my favorite in the movie: arguably, there were more twists here than in the film itself.

The movie's synopsis doesn't really offer a sense of the experience, though. This plays out as sort of a throwback to 70's grindhouse pictures, both in the artifacts added to make it look like old film stock (cigarette burns, scratches, etc.), and in the writing. It works pretty well overall, though it's hard to deny this joke wears thin over time.

The movie's as much parody as homage, with characters directly challenging genre conventions. More than once, minor characters bring up the option of simply leaving, only for the leads to look at them like they're idiots. Again, this kind of thing gets a little tired by the end of the movie, but it works often enough to sell the conceit.

The effects are impressive given what I assume was a very low budget. It's a grisly, gory movie, though the end effect is (intentionally) much more silly than gross.

The Christmas elements are a little difficult to identify in some cases. There's a decent amount of surface stuff - warped holiday music, weaponized decorations, and zombiefied carolers - but there may be more going on here. Specifically, I'm thinking about the archetypal situation, where characters survive Christmas Eve, one of the darkest nights of the year, to emerge with a new outlook on their family and friends. This conceit is used quite often - Die Hard is a principal example, though it's really a variation on A Christmas Carol.

But it's not at all clear whether the filmmakers were considering any of that. Characters surviving the night is also the basic premise of Night of the Living Dead and countless other zombie movies: there's no reason to assume they were conscious of the subtler holiday connections. Regardless, it works on that level and further provides a bridge between zombies and Christmas.

Ultimately, this is an impressive low-budget throwback to cheesy horror flicks of the past. I definitely wouldn't recommend it to everyone, but if the concept sounds appealing to you, I will say this was much, much better than I anticipated.