Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Toy Review: NECA Home Alone 25th Anniversary Harry Lime

This is from a wave of three figures released by NECA last year in recognition of Home Alone's 25th anniversary. I came across this on clearance in February and picked him up. I'm not a big fan of the film it's based on, but I figured I could always use a generic thief. Besides, I was curious about the style.

This is a little larger than most action figures produced these days. Or rather it would be if Joe Pesci wasn't a little shorter than most actors. The scale is designed for an average character to ring in at around eight inches, but Harry measures in at 6.5 - more or less the same as most 6-inch action figures these days.

Here's a comparison shot with a few other NECA figures. The Weird Al is in the same style and comes in at 8-inches, while the fully sculpted Terminator is about 6.5:

The 8-inch figure with a cloth outfit is something of an homage to Mego, one of the most influential action figure companies in the history of the industry. A lot of toy collectors a bit older than me are still obsessed with that scale and style.

But I missed them by a few years. Still, I appreciate the nod to history.

That said, I'm more appreciative that they weren't beholden to it. NECA borrowed the concept from Mego but seriously updated the sculpting and tailoring. The head is fantastic at this price point (even before mark-down), and the costume looks good.

As you can see, they got a little clever. The character's stockier than the toy's body, but the layers of clothing make up the difference. The use of a sculpted neck and upper chest helps, as well.

It should be noted that the figure's articulation is limited by the outfit, however. It's not a huge deal, but it is a minor issue.

To their credit, NECA included a handful of extras. Along with Harry, you get an alternate head showing him scorched and covered in feathers, a crowbar, a sack, and a... um... kaleidoscope, I guess.

Okay. Cards on the table here. Harry having a kaleidoscope is familiar, but I can't recall what the deal was, and the internet isn't helping much. I'm sure it was relevant in some crucial scene I don't remember.

The crowbar is by far the most useful extra - my guess it's the one most people will display him with. The second head is cool, but not actually all that useful to me. Maybe some fans will want their burglars wounded, but I think the figure works better with the normal head, in part because the outfit really doesn't match due to the lack of feathers.

Still, the sculpt and paint work is at least as impressive as the default head, maybe more so.

I have mixed feelings about the sack. It looks more like a dice bag than an accessory, which is an issue. On the other hand, I appreciate the utility of having an accessory that can store the character's other accessories. I wish they'd invested in a slightly better looking string, but I can't complain too much - I wasn't expecting it, at all, so finding it in the box was sort of like coming across an unexpected present under the tree. Even if it's a pair of socks, it's a pair of socks you weren't counting on.

If I'd picked this up at full price, it would have run me about $30. I got him at FYE last February for $7.36, including tax. Like I said, this isn't exactly a property I feel deeply passionate about, though I am crossing my fingers that I find a Kevin on sale before they disappear completely. These are well made collectibles that are - for better or worse - extremely iconic representatives of the holidays.

I actually think $30 is a fair price, given the quality. Seven and change is a downright steal (insert joke about turning on the faucets).

Because I really couldn't stop myself, here are a few more pictures of Harry, just to prove his Christmas could have been worse:

Monday, December 5, 2016

Yes, Virginia, Die Hard is a Christmas Movie

Last year, Public Policy Polling asked 1,267 Americans a series of idiotic questions about the holidays. Among them was whether or not Die Hard qualifies as a Christmas movie. Much to our nation's shame, the vast majority claimed it wasn't.

This is hardly the first time I've seen Die Hard's holiday credentials called into question. It's a pervasive idea that seems to show up at least a few times every year. Most of the time, the argument boils down to an arbitrary distinction between a Christmas movie and a movie that's incidentally set at Christmas, which is a can of worms that shouldn't be opened lightly. I mean, there's actually no reason It's A Wonderful Life has to be set at Christmas.

Hell, if you move it to the states and change their names to the ghosts of Thanksgiving Past, Present, and Future, you can swap out the season of A Christmas Carol without impacting the plot or moral, if that's how low a bar you want to set.

But I'm actually less interested in ripping apart the logic behind this misnomer: I'd rather break down why Die Hard is quintessentially a Christmas story.

In fact, it's a variation on the oldest Christmas story.

Strip the plot down, and you've got a story about a man trying to survive the night and reunite with his wife. And, in case you forgot, Christmas Eve is no ordinary night: it's one of the year's longest.

That's... actually almost certainly why Die Hard is set at Christmas. Also, it's why CHRISTMAS is set at Christmas. We come together when the world is at its darkest to bring back the light. Or, you know, take out a bunch of European criminals. It's all one and the same.

To put this simply, Die Hard is a Christmas movie, because it's a Solstice movie. Unlike, say, First Blood, whose holidays connections reference Christian doctrine.

But that's a topic for another day.

Book Review: Murder in Christmas River

Murder in Christmas River
Meg Muldoon, 2012

(Note: Many of the Christmas books I am reading this year have one notable thing in common -- they were all cheap or free on Kindle some time in the last few years. No other qualifications.)

Premise: Cinnamon Peters is determined to win this year’s gingerbread house competition. It’s good press for her pie shop, and showing up her rival is just icing on the proverbial cake. But when one of the judges turns up dead behind her shop and an old flame cruises back into town, she’ll have more than a contest to worry about.

This is one of those cozy mysteries that’s closer to the romance end of the spectrum, but I think it works.

Cinnamon is a likable protagonist: emotional without being too sappy, short-tempered at times, snarky but overall kind. Other characters include her friend Kara, her grandfather she’s looking after, her rival in the competition, her new/old crush, her jerk ex-husband, and other townsfolk. They are each interesting without being too unbelievable.

Is this great literature? Of course not, but it has what I’m generally looking for in a cozy mystery: a goodhearted but realistic protagonist who stands up for herself and others, a mystery which is solved by the end in a satisfying manner, a cute setting, and a happy ending.

As I said above, this one is heavier on the romance and the interpersonal relationships and lighter on the mystery. I did really like Cinnamon’s relationship with the ultimate villain; she was able to see the other person’s position and sympathize in a way that humanized the whole story.

The very end is heavier on the sappiness, but it wasn’t too bad.

It’s harmless fluff, but enjoyable enough that if I see more of this author’s work on sale, I’ll probably pick some up. It’s a perfect commuting read, or a comforting brain break from holiday stress.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Also, this author is supposedly coming out with an even more explicitly Christmas cozy mystery soon, so I’ll definitely be on the lookout for that.

The Dead (1987)

The Dead is an adaptation of a James Joyce story about an Epiphany party, which I suppose we're now annexing as part of Christmas (to be fair, January 6 would have been considered the conclusion of Christmastime when the movie was set, a fact outright stated in the film).

This is John Huston's last film before his death, and it seems to be widely beloved with a 92% Freshness rating and several honors. While this isn't unfair - the movie is well constructed and acted - it's definitely not for everyone.

For example, it definitely wasn't for me or Lindsay: we found it boring as hell.

The plot is essentially contained in the last five minutes of an hour and twenty minute long film. Until then, the entire thing takes place at a party being thrown by three women I'm assuming are sort of standing in for the three wise men. If you want to know whether this is a heartfelt ode to Irish culture or some sort of ironic mockery of tradition, you'll have to go find a Joyce scholar - I don't care enough to look it up.

People at the party eat, drink, sing, and bicker. Someone shows up drunk and makes an ass of himself and embarrasses his mother, who's something of an ass, herself. This manages to capture the essence of being at a rather boring party that goes on longer than you want it to. To Huston's credit, this seems to be exactly what he was going for: thematically, it plays into the resolution.

The last couple of minutes center around a husband and wife after they leave the party. Someone at the party sang the wife a song which impacts her deeply. Her husband questions her and discovers she'd been in love with someone before him, and that he'd died at seventeen after enduring the cold while sick to see her. The song was one he used to sing to her, and it's brought back old memories.

Nothing really happens, but the husband reflects on the weight of this, how he's never felt deeply enough about anyone to have done anything like that, how memories of the dead linger, and some stuff about it snowing in Ireland.

Did I mention that by this time I really stopped caring?

I'm assuming I'd have felt more charitable if I'd been familiar with the story. The monologues at the end are beautiful, and I'm assuming they were lifted more or less verbatim from the text. But, frankly, I didn't find it interesting to watch. This is almost certainly better suited to film students and English majors: I wouldn't recommend it to anyone else.

The holiday elements were fairly heavy, though somewhat obfuscated. The party occurs on the Feast of the Epiphany, which was likely chosen as a symbol of conclusion. I also doubt it was a coincidence that the feast celebrating three wise men was hosted by three women, but - as I said before - I'm just guessing as to the meaning. It's worth noting that the script did make sure to draw attention to the date and the holiday's meaning.

Overall, you can consider this one of those movies I respected more than I liked.

Available on Amazon.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a Japanese/British film about a POW camp during World War II directed by the controversial Japanese film maker Nagisa Oshima. I have a few complaints, but overall it's a well-made, engrossing movie exploring some fairly large questions about culture and human nature.

The movie centers around four characters: two prisoners and two jailers. The titular Mr. Lawrence is the sole English character who speaks both languages, and he has a fairly good grasp of Japanese culture. Also held prisoner is a South African soldier, Jack Celliers, notably played by David Bowie, who the camp commandant, Captain Yonoi, becomes obsessed with. Also key is Sergeant Hara, a man who oscillates between cruelty and compassion.

The movie's plot is somewhat murky, as the events are intricately linked to the complex motives of its characters. I'm not going to try to offer a complete synopsis - I don't think it would begin to make sense - but I'll focus instead on an overview of the characters and themes.

Both Yonoi and Hara are obsessed with one of the prisoners: Yonoi with Celliers and Hara with Lawrence, though the nature of that obsession is very different. Hara seems driven to come to some sort of understanding with Lawrence, only prisoners he deems capable of understanding him or the Japanese. He wants to understand the English, as well - he spends a lot of time trying to reconcile Lawrence's merits with various elements he associates with cowardice.

Yonoi's interest in Celliers is even more complex, and I'm not certain how much I actually gleaned. The simplest explanation would be to describe it as repressed sexual desire, which is certainly implied. But it seemed to be more intricate than that: Yonoi's obsession bordered on a spiritual fixation - he seemed to legitimately question Celliers' humanity at times, thinking he was some sort of demon. The two characters also shared a deep sense of guilt over others being punished, and they may have both seen the other as a force meant to punish them. Yonoi seemed to want to die at Celliers' hand - or at the very least to confront him in combat - and Celliers seemed to take great delight in denying this to him.

The movie's title and holiday connections come most of the way through, when Celliers and Lawrence are imprisoned and sentenced to death on Christmas Eve. Presumably, almost the entire movie must take place during the lead-up to the holidays, though the amount of time passing isn't entirely clear. It's during their incarceration that Celliers provides details of his backstory - his guilt stems from failing to protect his younger brother when they were schoolboys. There's a fairly jarring flashback accompanying this revelation, made especially confusing by some awkward decisions around casting a child actor to portray Bowie at 12 but only using a single actor to play his brother in multiple time periods. This may have been symbolic for Celliers remembering his brother at a single point in time, but it just came off as muddled.

The two men are finally collected and taken before a drunken Hara, who informs them they are being cleared of charges. He insists he is Father Christmas and wishes Lawrence Merry Christmas before releasing them back into the general prison population.

Celliers doesn't last much longer - he's eventually beaten, buried up to his neck in sand, and left to die (an end which mirrors the humiliation his younger brother endured, when he was lowered into a pit by a crowd of children).

The movie then jumps ahead four years, past the end of the war. Lawrence, now free, visits Hara, who's now a prisoner of the Allied forces. Hara is set to be executed the next day, and Lawrence has come to pay his respects. Lawrence hates that Hara is going to die, but he has no power to stop it. Hara is actually far more at peace with his fate. They have a philosophical discussion about how both Celliers and Hara are going to be killed by men too certain of themselves. The movie closes on Hara laughing and repeating his holiday greeting.

I found it a strange yet fascinating movie featuring complex character and difficult questions. Lindsay found the pacing a bit tedious, but I found it engrossing throughout. My largest complaint is with that flashback, which felt both out of place and confusing.

The holiday elements were fairly light - it wasn't so much about Christmas as it was about human nature, though it's not too much of a stretch to think Lawrence's indictment of men believing in their own righteousness may be applied universally to religion and culture. Still, this is less a Christmas movie than a movie with "Christmas" in its title.

Available on Amazon.com.

Carol (2015)

Erin decided we should watch this based purely on the Santa hat in the trailer. And sure enough, it fits our rubric for a Christmas movie.

Carol is a romance that takes place at Christmas, and over 50% of the movie’s run-time takes place directly before or after the holiday.

It stars Cate Blanchett as Carol and Rooney Mara as Terese. After a chance meeting in a department store (Carol is shopping, Terese is a clerk) the two become inseparable, causing strife with Terese’s lukewarm fiance and risking Carol’s custody arrangement with her ex-husband. They eventually travel cross-country together in an attempt to run from their troubles for a while.

The movie is adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, which she published under a pseudonym in 1952, when material about gay characters was often subject to obscenity laws. The plot elements are inspired by the real experiences of Highsmith and friends of hers, struggling with their sexuality in a culture that was entirely against them.

Let’s talk a bit more about Christmas. The movie is steeped in old-fashioned color palettes, which works out to extreme amounts of red and green.

Carol’s color is red. Bright, sensual, holiday red, but she’s not the only source of the color. Red clothing, red nails, red lipstick, red stripes on Terese’ hat, red chairs, red Santa hats combined with green light, Terese’s green sweater, green walls in Terese’s apartment, green upholstery, green olives in the drinks, green Christmas trees, gray-green automobile… When Carol tries to act against her desires late in the movie, her color palette shifts to black and white. The cinematography is not subtle - characters are often framed or boxed away from others.

Other holiday elements: preparing for Christmas takes up quite a bit of the characters’ time, and who Carol’s daughter will spend the holiday with is a contentious issue. Both Carol and Terese first prove their understanding and affection for each other with well-chosen gifts, before any confessional words are spoken.

It’s a well-made film with exceptional performances, but it’s kind of slow, so your enjoyment may vary. For example, I liked the way emotional connection and obsession were conveyed in long glances, careful lighting, and beautiful cinematography, but Erin found it a little dull. Even I wouldn’t run out and watch it again, but I’m happy to have seen it.

Celebrate It Merry Minis: Mini Garden Sets

Are mini gardens really popular enough to justify the mass production of these holiday-themed decorations? The presence of these in the Michaels's clearance section last year suggests the answer is no.

But they're weird. And fascinating. And useful to toy collectors. And, most importantly, Christmas.

So I picked them up. This is two sets, incidentally: I stacked one on top of the other in the above photograph. The backs contain detailed information about the product, the company that produces it, and other items they make.


Aside from one having "5 pc" stamped on the top sticker and the UPC, there's no difference in the label - not even a unique name for the different sets.

The first set contains six items: Santa, a snowman, a cabin, a table, and two stools. I like the pieces well enough, though the collection seems somewhat arbitrary. Why are we getting chairs and a table with figures who can't sit in them? If the set's meant to represent the outside of a house, why include furniture intended for the interior?

Likewise, it's worth noting the house doesn't remotely scale to anything else. It feels like a jumble of parts more than a unified display. Not that I have an issue with that - I just wanted the pieces, anyway.

Santa and the snowman are nice, though the furniture is the most impressive part of this. These look extremely realistic and detailed.

The house is pretty cool, too, though I wish they'd skipped the glitter. The fake snow is coated in the stuff, which means I am, too. Glitter is never worth it.

The other set contains a pair of Christmas gnomes, a fairy, a door, and a welcome sign. Between the two sets, this is the one I really wanted, on account of the gnomes. Nothing against a miniature Santa, but... come on. GNOMES. DRESSED LIKE CHRISTMAS ELVES.

The one leaning on the candy cane is my favorite. I love the concept here.

The fairy is held back by an even more egregious use of glitter than the house. Her wings are practically coated in the stuff.

The door is nice, though it's worth noting it's one-sided. Flip it over, and you're staring at a slate. Same goes for the house from the other set, actually.

These are ceramic, in case that's not clear in the pictures. All are painted well, given the scale. The figures are about 2.5 to 3 inches tall (the seated fairy's a little shorter, and the pointed hat of the gnome with the candy cane is about 3.25). The house comes in at about 4.5 inches tall.

These are relatively versatile, as long as you're careful not to break them or scrape off the paint. The gnomes scale well with most action figures (depending on just how tall you want them to seem). Beside 6 or 7 inch figures, they're about the size you'd expect a garden gnome to be.

The table, chairs, and even door could serve as tongue-in-cheek additions to gaming miniatures, if you're so inclined.

As far as low-end miniatures go, these are pretty decent. They started out $25 each. If memory serves, I picked them up at 70% off, which is still a little more than I'd have ideally wanted to pay. Still, they're a fun addition to the Christmas vault, and I expect I'll get some use out of them over the years.