Tuesday, December 27, 2016

I Can't Remember a Worse December

Between the unrelenting anguish of current events and the exhaustion of moving into a new house, this has been a sparse year here at Mainlining Christmas. I still wanted to take a moment to thank you for sharing the season with us.

This year we looked at more than 70 movies, episodes, and specials that spanned 69 years. They included everything from lesser-known classics, to shows we had watched in years past, to new specials and episodes that were just released.

We'll continue to post sporadic updates about holiday-ish media in the off-season, so make sure you're following us on Facebook or RSS to keep updated.

And we'll be back next year, so long as civilization doesn't collapse. If it does, you're welcome at our fireside for some post-apocalyptic carol singing.

In the meantime, I wish for all of you health and strength in the face of dark times, and may you each have love to keep you warm.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Brady Bunch: The Voice of Christmas (1969)

Despite going on for four abysmal seasons and spawning numerous spin-offs, the Bradys only seemed to produce two holiday-themed installments: this and the 1988 made-for-TV movie, A Very Brady Christmas, which we sat through two years ago. That means as soon as this article is over, we'll be free of the Bradys forever.

What I'm saying is Christmas miracles do exist.

Which is actually the thesis of this crappy episode. The premise centers around Carol Brady getting laryngitis right before the holidays. This is devastating to her, because she's supposed to sing "O Come All Ye Faithful" at church on Christmas. Just so we're clear, there's no, "because if she doesn't an orphanage will close" coming. The sum total of the stakes at play are that she won't get to sing like she wants to if she doesn't get better. That's it.

Naturally, everyone freaks out. The maid makes a family recipe that's supposed to cure laryngitis but mainly just smells like a dead animal. The kids want to cancel Christmas, because they can't imagine being happy on such a miserable occasion. And the youngest, Cindy, goes to tell a mall Santa that the only thing she wants for Christmas is for her mother to be able to sing.

That last bit is most of the plot, incidentally. He promises her a miracle, which doesn't sit well with her father, who confronts the mall Santa in the break room. They trade words, and the episode is slightly more ambiguous than usual as to whether or not he's the real deal. But by now Cindy's certain Kringle will deliver, and nothing her dad can say will shake her faith.

At any rate, Christmas morning rolls around, and low and behold, Carol can sing again. I guess miracles can happen (at least to privileged, upper-middle-class white people in California). With her voice restored, she gets to have her damn solo in church. The family watches on gleefully, and Cindy gloats about being right. I guess Christmas is saved or something.

Of course, those of us who sat through the aforementioned TV-movie already knew this was coming: the whole thing culminates in a flashback to her singing. Because apparently this moment was such a cultural milestone it justified a callback.

I've never understood the significance of this series: it's wholesome far past the point of being cloying, the jokes are empty, and the characters are cheesy and one-note. None of it's funny, touching, believable, or relateable - it's just congealed idiocy.

The best thing I can say about it is what I said before: at least they waited nineteen years before acknowledging the holidays again.

Book Review: A Christmas Party (originally published as Envious Casca)

A Christmas Party (originally published as Envious Casca)
Georgette Heyer, 1941

Premise: When the far-flung Herriard clan comes together for Christmas, sparks fly. It's a classic locked-room mystery with the death of a wealthy patriarch and a house full of suspects.

Even though this felt like deja vu, (how many times have I read/seen this plot?) I enjoyed it thoroughly, mostly because the characters were so interesting.

The characters are more colorful and complex than I've found in many mysteries of this style. Joseph the affable aging actor who's masterminding the party, his stolid wife Maud and her obsession with reading biographies, Paula and the aspiring playwright she drags to the party. We spend the most time shadowing cousin Mathilde who's stylish and practical, down-to-earth and gently sardonic in the face of ludicrous situations.

I spotted the murderer right away, (seriously, have I read this story before?) but there was enough fun in watching the characters play out their suspicions and the police piece everything together. There were a few subtleties I missed that had good reveals.

Recurring themes (beside money and the inheritance thereof) include theatricality/acting, with multiple characters with experience on the stage, and marriage/gender roles. Stephen, the heir, is engaged to a woman he doesn't much like, who doesn't much like him; Paula, his sister, invited a man to the party who she insists that she is not romantically interested in; and no one understands the emotional Joseph's long marriage to the quiet, dull Maud.

Overall, it could have been trimmed back to be a little shorter, but it was a mostly satisfying read.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Snowy Day (2016)

This new special based on the classic children’s book is a sweet, simple celebration of multiculturalism. It’s really targeted at young kids and those patient enough to watch with them, but it was pleasant enough for us to watch sans children.

It follows Peter through his adventures on a snow-filled afternoon. He wakes up to discover the huge piles of snow, and after snowman pancakes for breakfast (a new tradition, his mother points out) he heads out on a quest down the block to his grandmother’s apartment.

He encounters many denizens of the block, including shopkeepers and shoppers, friends and relations. Everyone is kind and friendly, even if some of them don’t have time to play in the snow.

Erin pointed out that this feels like it comes from the same place as some earlier Sesame Street: it’s an idealized version of New York City, where every nationality, race, religion, age, etc. lives together in harmony.

After Peter and his friend Layla chase off a cookie-eating dragon and build a snowman, Peter runs into a group of older kids, but while they’re not really mean about it, they don’t want to slow down to play with a kid as young as Peter.

He then makes it to his Nana’s. She’s made a special macaroni and cheese for their Christmas Eve party, and they head back together.

On the way, Nana stops to encourage the older kids to let him play, and everyone joins in the resulting snowball fight. Unfortunately, in the ruckus, the macaroni is spilled and some presents damaged.

Peter feels terrible that they won’t have their traditional food for the party, but both Nana and his mother reassure him, and he feels better.

At the party, all the friends Peter spoke to through the day come by to celebrate, and they each bring a little of their traditions to share.

The style of the animation is perfect - it pays tribute to the original while keeping it active and easy to watch. The action is punctuated with verses of a pretty, lilting song about the snow, and the child-friendly narration is by Laurence Fishburne.

As I said at the start, this is definitely for kids, but it was a calming, peaceful, cozy way to spend an hour. It's streaming on Amazon Prime.

Revising the List

Three years ago, I put together a list of the all-time best Christmas movies: five films meant to represent the absolute best of their respective genres. I stand by the concept and remain proud of what's on there.

But.

I've seen a lot more movies in the past three years, and I wanted to revisit and update it where appropriate. Luckily the format I used lends itself nicely to this. Last time, I presented my picks for the two best installments in each genre and let them fight it out until a winner emerged and claimed the prize.

Well... here comes a new challenger.

At the end of this, we're going to be left with two lists: a revised top five and an expanded top 15.


Best Animated Christmas Movies

Previous Winner: Nightmare Before Christmas
Previous Runner-Up: Arthur Christmas
New Challenger: 101 Dalmatians

You'll see a few movies showcased on this update that were overlooked the first time due to their holiday credentials being subtle. 101 Dalmatians isn't a movie most people associate with Christmas, despite being set during the holidays and embodying one of the most recognized holiday tropes out there: a family trying to reunite.

This is a beautiful, classic movie that deserves recognition as one of the greatest animated holiday movies of all time. But not quite the greatest. I've got to stick with my first instinct in this catagory and leave the top animated spot on my list unchanged.

Winner: Nightmare Before Christmas


Best Christmas Comedies

Previous Winner: Elf
Previous Runner-Up: Fred Claus
New Challenger: Millions

Millions wasn't even on my radar when I put the last list together - if it had been, Fred Claus wouldn't have made it into the finals (that said, Fred Claus remains an underrated gem - track it down if you haven't seen it). But Millions isn't just a brilliant Christmas comedy: it's one that stands out tonally from the rest. It's a surrealist fantasy/comedy/drama that delves seriously into its characters' emotions. It's a beautiful film, both visually and conceptually, and that makes this one of the harder choices I'll be making on this list.

At the end of the day, though, I think I have to stick with Elf in the top spot, only because I was somewhat underwhelmed with Millions's ending. Still it's extremely close, and I make no promises the order won't flip if I revise this in a few years after re-watching both several more times.

Winner: Elf


Best Holiday Action Movies

Previous Winner: Die Hard
Previous Runner-Up: The Long Kiss Goodnight
New Challenger: First Blood

First Blood, Like 101 Dalmatians, is one of those Christmas movies that camouflaged itself as something else for so long, most of its fans don't even recognize it. When I wrote it up, I tripped over myself just trying to figure out WHY it's set at the holidays, since it never really comes up save in the background. Lindsay came up with the best answer I've heard: the setting is meant to play off the "no room in the inn" motif.

Setting all that aside, it's a hell of an action movie. Is it as blatantly Christmassy as Die Hard? Obviously not. But is it as good?

My opinion might flip in a few years, but... I kind of think it's better. They're both phenomenal action movies, but First Blood delivers that while being about something. And the ending is just so much more mature and intelligent.

I love Die Hard, but - at least for the time being - I've got to push it out of its slot.

Winner: First Blood


Best Black and White Christmas Movies

Previous Winner: Miracle on 34th Street
Previous Runner-Up: It's a Wonderful Life
New Challenger: The Apartment

When I wrote the first list, I struggled with how to frame this category. I went with B&W in order to get some mileage out of that "White Christmas" pun, not realizing how relevant it would become.

See, if I'd gone with some sort of category bucketing movies made before 1950 together or something, The Apartment wouldn't have made the cut - it came out in 1960. The decision to film in black & white was a bit anachronistic... but it lets the movie qualify.

If I were going off of the movie I most wanted to rewatch, I'd probably leave Miracle in the top spot - I love that movie. But it's not the best of the bunch: that honor passes to The Apartment. As I said in my review, the writing in this is ahead of its time... and probably ours. It explores gender roles and patriarchal systems in a way I never would have expected. It's a fascinating, complex picture, featuring fantastic performances and surprising twists. Track this down immediately, if you've never seen it.

Winner: The Apartment


Holiday Horror

Previous Winner: Rare Exports
Previous Runner-Up: Gremlins
New Challenger: A Christmas Horror Story

Horror is tough. I'm less certain of the movies I've selected here than in any of the other categories. There's part of me that thinks Krampus and Santa's Slay deserve a spot up there - I really need to re-watch them to be sure.

But for now, I'm going with my gut... and choosing a direct-to-video horror anthology.

A Christmas Horror Story was significantly better than it had any right to be. The movie juggled four story lines exploring very different aspects of the genre. While I continue to question the wisdom of telling them in parallel, I found the movie both enjoyable and engrossing.

Even though it's not a perfect movie, it's my pick for the best Christmas horror movie I've seen since last making the list.

And maybe before. It's a tough call - the three movies I have listed are very different. All have problems and merits that make them very hard to rank. But, at the end of the day, I feel like A Christmas Horror Story delivers the best all-around experience.



Summary

Here's my revised "Top 5" list. Keep in mind, these aren't exactly the five best - this is designed to generate a variety across multiple genres, and the best of the best aren't exactly clustered around Christmas horror offerings. All the movies listed above are very good and highly recommended. But the winners are:

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Brooklyn Nine-Nine Christmas Episodes (2013-2016)

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is essentially a parody of every other cop show on TV. In that sense, it's sort of an update of Police Squad. Based on the holiday episodes I just saw, that comparison might actually be fair - this was surprisingly good.

"Christmas" (2013)

The episode's A-plot concerns death threats made towards Captain Holt. His boss commands him to accept a protection detail, so he assigns Detective Jake Peralta (the series' lead, played by Adam Samberg) the job, assuming he'll blow off protocol as usual. However, the assignment gives Peralta total control over the movements and activities of his Captain, so he instead abuses the situation.

There are some hi-jinks involving a safe house, where Peralta handcuffs himself to the captain and tosses the key down a grate; the sort of stuff that would normally be tiresome and dull. But the cast pulls it off, selling the slapstick through their bizarre characters. The same commitment and skill allow the B-plots to work: Terry Crews's Sergeant Jeffords spends most of the episode in therapy, while Detective Santiago tries to find a loophole in the Captain's "no gift" rule (which is a running gag in future holiday installments).

By the end of the episode, Peralta convinces the captain to accept help tracking down the man threatening him, and the precinct manages to catch the would-be killer, though one of the detectives is shot in the butt in the process.

The holiday elements here are more pronounced than the synopsis makes them sound: the show opens with an unrelated bit where Samberg and his partner fight a pair of disgruntled Santas, the gift gags come up several times, and there are quite a few decorations. All that said, there's nothing about the premise of the main plot that demanded it take place at Christmas - the setting is mostly incidental.

"The Pontiac Bandit Returns" (2014)

This episode opens with Peralta undercover as a Salvation Army Santa staking out a stretch of sidewalk where Doug Judy, the "Pontiac Bandit," was spotted. Apparently, the bandit was a criminal who escaped Peralta in an earlier episode. Despite blowing his cover, Peralta follows Judy to a Christmas Tree lot, where he manages to apprehend him. He also manages to set the trees on fire, but he's too thrilled at having finally caught his nemesis to care.

However, Judy doesn't go quietly. Instead, he arranges a plea deal: he'll help them catch a major drug lord in exchange for a reduced sentence. As usual, this spirals into absurdity - this time, they end up partying in a hotel room before Judy finally sets up the meeting.

They manage to shut down the drug ring and arrest the leader, but Judy escapes with the help of an accomplice. Despite catching the far more dangerous criminal, Judy's escape grates on Peralta.

Once again, the B-plots are more holiday-centered than the A. Two characters' parents are in a relationship they worry is getting serious: a Christmas gift seemingly defuses then confirms their concerns. Meanwhile, Santiago attempts to subvert the captain's gift ultimatum by making him a scrapbook of his career, only to uncover an error from his early career.

Like before, the actors sell the entire thing, even the stuff that should be too over-the-top.


"Yippie Kayak" (2015)

The previous two Christmas episodes were set at the holidays but weren't significantly connected. This one breaks the pattern in a major way. After forgetting to buy a gift for Boyle, Peralta ropes Gina into helping him, only for Boyle to tag along, thinking they're looking for a gift for Santiago. This leaves them in a department store at closing time on Christmas Eve.

That's when the robbers show up and start taking hostages.

Instead of being scared, Peralta is exhilarated: finally, he's getting a chance to live out a life-long Die Hard fantasy. He starts naming the criminals after villains from the film and taking them out using action movie-style antics. His utter dismay at discovering they're Canadian and not German is wonderful to watch.

At the end, he sacrifices his chance of getting a real John McClane moment in order to protect his friend, and Boyle gets to shine. Peralta comes clean about forgetting a gift, and Boyle points out that giving up his chance to be a hero was a gift. But by that time Peralta is more fixated on the fact Boyle screwed up the catch phrase.

While I felt that Peralta's character shifted between seasons (and preferred him in one and two), the premise of this was wonderful. This took a Christmas classic and ran with it in an original way - I really enjoyed this one.


"Captain Latvia" (2016)

Once again, Brooklyn delivered a quirky, fun holiday episode. The characters shifted again: Boyle is married with an adopted son now, and the captain's competency level and dedication definitely weren't on par with what I saw in earlier seasons, but I didn't really care. I get the feeling the show has quite a bit of continuity, but I didn't need context to enjoy it.

The A-plot for this revolves around Boyle and Jake trying to track down a missing gift for the aforementioned son. Only the present was part of a shipment stolen by a Latvian gang the two go up against. Boyle taps into - and he's extremely specific about this - his maternal instinct, which he's able to weaponize to incredible effect.

As the episode progresses, he gets more and effective and driven, until he's about to risk his life to get the present back. Jake stops him, however, not wanting to get his partner killed on Christmas Eve. In the end, they take down the gang but fail to save the toy. Not that it matters: it's just a stupid toy.

Meanwhile, the rest of the cast is competing in an annual caroling competition that a group of MTA employees always win. They scheme, cheat, and ultimately make fools of themselves - just what you'd expect. If you handed this premise to most casts, I doubt the results would be watchable, but once again, this group pulls it off.


Overall, I really enjoyed watching these. I suspect I'd like the series, too, but - honestly - I just don't have the time. Nevertheless, if you're looking to kill thirty minutes this season, any of these episodes are well worth the time.

Plus, they're all streaming on Hulu.

Pokémon: Holiday Hi-Jynx (1998)

Yes, there’s a Christmas episode of Pokémon. Don’t blame yourself if you didn’t know, though. This episode is actually a little challenging to get your hands on in America. It was dubbed and aired with the original run, but not much since.

The episode opens with Jessie of Team Rocket pretending to be asleep until a snare net goes off, trapping Santa, who had been coming in through the window. Of course, this was a test run, and “Santa” was actually James. Jessie is pleased how well her trap works, and indulges in a brief flashback to being a bratty child, waiting for Santa, only to have a Jynx Pokémon dressed as Santa come in and steal her favorite doll.

Meanwhile, Ash and friends are on the beach when they spot a Jynx, holding a boot.

Now, Jynx is the reason for the problem with this episode. Jynx is vaguely female-person-shaped, and has black skin with big eyes and giant pink lips. Yeah, you probably know why this episode isn’t aired now. It’s unclear how much blackface iconography contributed to the design, but actually the fact that these Jynx are Santa’s helpers implies that the connection is intentional. (See Black Pete.) In later anime seasons and later games, Jynx is purple to sidestep this.

Anyway, Ash sends in Pikachu and then Charmander to fight the Jynx and tries to catch it. It doesn’t work, and Brock and Misty speculate that it might have a trainer already and just be lost. The Jynx comes over and tries to express a need for help, and helpfully the boot has a picture of Santa inside, indicating that of course, the Pokémon belongs to Santa.

Jynx uses a psychic power to confirm this and show them how it got lost. (It has a creepy kissing-sleep power, too, that it keeps trying to use on them.) Ash declares that they’ll get Jynx and the boot back to the North Pole. At first Misty has her water Pokémon pull them on a raft, but they get tired. (They have to be pretty far south - sunshine and warm weather in December, so it’s really weird that they just decide to swim for it.)

Then Ash pulls the raft for a while, but he gets tired too. They are rescued by a Lapras, a big friendly telepathic water Pokémon, who pulls them the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, Team Rocket is following in a pedal-powered submarine. It’s really unclear why they decided to go look for Santa instead of just waiting with the trap like they said they were going to.

Everyone arrives and Santa is reunited with his boot and his Jynx. Team Rocket take Santa hostage, forcing the (multiple) Jynxes to load all the gifts into their submarine. It comes out that the Jynx who took Jessie’s doll all those years ago was just going to fix it and bring it back, but she stopped believing in Santa, so he couldn’t return it.

O...kay…?

She declares that they’re stealing all the gifts anyway, but the submarine is frozen with them inside by Lapras. Then Ash stupidly fries them with Charmander, but that just melts the ice. Then Santa calls on the Jynx army and they use crazy powerful psychic powers to levitate the sub, shake all the gifts back out, and fling Team Rocket into space. One wonders why they didn’t do that in the first place.

One wonders a lot of things about this show. I always thought there should be a rights-for-Pokémon revolution. It’s more than a little screwed up that children are encouraged to roam the countryside to capture and train sentient creatures to fight each other.

Anywho, Santa heads off to bring presents to the world, and Team Rocket gets a sleep spell, courtesy of a Jynx. The End.

Even putting aside the kind-of-racist, definitely weird character design, this isn’t an especially interesting or good episode.