Sunday, September 10, 2017

Alien: Covenant (2017)

When this movie came out, I asked the first person I knew who watched it one question. I didn't care if it was good or bad, intelligent or idiotic, whether it tied to Prometheus or to the original movies... I just wanted to know if it was set at Christmas. The person I asked assured me it wasn't.

Turns out, he was wrong.

To be fair, you really needed to be paying attention to catch it. The first shot after the intro provides the movie's only date: December 5, 2104.

The ship is almost immediately damaged, requiring repairs before they can continue on their journey. Helpfully, the movie tells us it will take about 48 hours to make those repairs. That takes us to December 7. At this point, they decipher a message and change their destination to a planet "a few weeks" away.

Assuming "a few weeks" translates to fourteen days, they arrive at the film's alien-infested world on December 21. Where do I remember that date from?

Yup - it's the date the Prometheus reached LV-223 eleven years earlier. And of course it's the solstice, as well as a few days before Christmas.

I'll admit it takes some assumptions to get the date exact, but at the very least it's within a week and change. There's absolutely no reason to give a date at all (check out the original Alien - the overlaid text doesn't bother with month or day), so this really has to be intentional.

Or, to put it another way: "Yes, Virginia, that is a xenomorph punching its way out of your chest."

For those of you who didn't see Covenant (or did but forgot it due to the utter absence of anything memorable), the movie focuses on the crew of a ship hauling two thousand sleeping colonists (along with a bunch of fetuses) towards a distant world. Like Prometheus, this ship also comes equipped with a Fassbender unit (please insert girder).

This time, Fassbender plays "Walter," a somewhat sterner and less affable android. But he's also less murdery than David, so I guess it averages out.

Actually, he plays David, too. The intro shows us David's awakening, back when Weyland flicks the switch on his back from off to on. They establish David's sense of superiority towards humans, who are looking for their god, while he's already surpassed his own. Whatever.

Cut to Walter looking after the ship in a relatively dull callback to Prometheus. Out of nowhere, a neutrino burst fries the ship and kills the captain while he's in hypersleep. The rest of the crew (though not the passengers) wakes and are understandably shaken. In particular, the captain's wife, Janet Daniels, is devastated. Though, since she's the movie's Ripley stand-in, she pushes through her grief and gets to work pretty fast.

While repairing the solar sails, they find a transmission coming from a nearby planet, one that's more habitable than the world they were going towards. Since no one really wants to trust the hypersleep pods again, they decide to check it out, despite the fact Daniels is against it. There's no logical reason Daniels is opposed to the idea, mind you; protagonists just have a weird sixth sense in these movies.

They land in a shuttle, split up, and pretty quickly get a refresher course in why you'd generally want to wear containment suits while exploring new worlds. A couple of them get infected by spore versions of the black oil from the X-Files the black goo from the previous film. They of course die horribly when neomorphs burst out of their bodies.

Neomorphs, for those of you who aren't familiar with the toys, are streamlined, white versions of the classic alien. They're fairly cool looking, at least compared with anything in Prometheus. In a better movie, they might even have come off seeming creepy.

The shuttle is of course destroyed in what I can only describe as a farcical comedy of horrors, and a passing storm knocks out communication with the ship above. The crew is ambushed by more neomorphs, who are suddenly everywhere.

Just when it seems like they're all going to die, David shows up and scares the neomorphs off with a bright light (to be fair, Pitch Black stole from the Alien franchise first). He then brings them back to his evil lair and lies about how he got there.

I'll skip over the layers of deceit: between movies, he murdered Elizabeth Shaw, exterminated the home world of the Engineers with their own bio-weapons, and has been genetically engineering a better alien. In other words, he's created the facehuggers from the original movie.

Congratulations, Scott: you've done the unimaginable. You've made me miss the now out-of-continuity backstory from AvP.

David uses a facehugger to impregnate the new captain, who dies in an unintentionally hilarious scene, then attacks Ripley Alexa Shaw Daniels. She's rescued by Walter, who stays to fight his counterpart while Daniels runs off to join the other survivors (there aren't many at this point).

The rescue ship arrives just in time for an obligatory battle with the xenomorph. The android who is totally, 100% Walter shows up, as well, and the survivors make it off after a fairly pointless fight that probably cost tens of millions in effects. Everyone gets back to the ship and takes a breath... until an alien bursts out of the chest of a wounded survivor. The movie shifts gears into an Alien rehash, culminating with a ridiculously over-complicated finale in - you guessed it - an airlock.

Just as Daniels is about to fall asleep, she realizes that Walter is... wait for it... ACTUALLY DAVID. I know. You're as shocked as Picard was when he realized Wesley was right about Data/Lore all along.

This revelation comes a little too late, though - she's already locked in her pod, which puts her to sleep. The movie ends with David gaining access to the colonists, the fetuses... everything he needs to carry out his experiments.

Normally, I hate endings like this, but by this point... I was mostly just glad the movie was over.

To be fair, this wasn't as much of a mess as Prometheus. There were definitely pacing issues, but nothing as egregious as what we saw last time. Likewise, the minor characters acted stupidly, but not to the same degree. I mean, sure, you have to accept that they're wandering around an alien world without hazmat suits, but the movie actually sells this better by never introducing them in the first place. At least they're not pulling them off and poking giant worms.

And, yes, it constantly feels like characters walk into clearly delineated "death zones." And a few characters deliver "Here's my dumb trait/motivation" speeches. And COME ON: WHY WOULD YOU ASSUME ONE IDENTICAL ANDROID COULDN'T IMPERSONATE ANOTHER?

But all of that together still can't compete with the level of unsurpassed stupidity that was Prometheus. Even accounting for the fact that almost all traces of what should have been the most complex civilization in the history of the galaxy disappeared after ten years, this still makes more sense than its predecessor.

In case it wasn't obvious, that's still not saying much. The aliens were fine, but the staging of the action and horror scenes were pretty rote. There are far more cliches than surprises, and I found myself bored when I wasn't laughing at the absurdity of it all. I'm usually a wimp when it comes to horror, so that's kind of pathetic.

So then. Let's talk about Christmas. Or rather, let's try to. Unlike Prometheus, which offered decorations, music, celebrations, and discussions, this one slips the date in under the radar. If you're not looking for it and willing to do the math, you'll miss it entirely. In normal situations, I'd rule the timing was accidental, but here... I know better. Because this is following Prometheus - because he's reusing the season (and, as far as I can tell, the exact same date) - we know that Scott has a reason for this. It's just a question of how much brainpower we want to waste wondering what it is.

Alright. The obvious is the whole inversion of the birth of a savior thing. David certainly sees himself as being a god (arguably, he views himself as being above the gods, since he wiped them out), and the xenomorphs are basically his children. Thematically, it makes sense for them to be born at Christmas - they come from a twisted version of an immaculate conception, after all.

I'm guessing that's what Scott was going for. Then again, it's certainly possible there's a more pretentious backstory I'm missing. I didn't catch any more connections to the alien Jesus like the ones in Prometheus, but that doesn't mean there wasn't something in the background.

There is plenty more religious symbolism, though I'm not sure it adds up to much. The birth of what's essentially the first xenomorph culminates in it holding up its hands in a crucifix to mirror David, there's a big deal about the faith of the man he bursts out of, near the end we're shown a photo of the crew that more or less recreates the last supper, Daniels is basically cosplaying as the Virgin Mary in her last shot... and so on and so forth.

Ultimately, I'm not sure it matters. These two movies are easily some of the strangest holiday installments out there. As a Christmas nerd, I love that they exist. As a fan of the first two Alien movies, I wish they'd never been made.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Easter Bunny is Comin' to Town (1977)

Shockingly, this stop-motion Rankin-Bass special is not the same as the 1971 Here Comes Peter Cottontail. However, it is essentially identical to the 1970 special, Santa Claus is Coming to Town. The plots and setups are basically the same - they've just changed the character names and lowered the quality to make them distinct.

In this version of the Easter Bunny's origin, he's a baby rabbit located and adopted by a town of orphaned kids called "Kidville," because contrary to what the special's narrator would have us believe, there is clearly no God. He's discovered in the woods on Easter, so the kids call him, "Sunny," after the Easter Sun, which is not a thing. I'm pretty sure they're thinking of the Winter Solstice, which is (for all intents and purposes) Christmas.

Within a year, the bunny has enslaved the children of Kidville (at least that was my reading). For some reason, he convinces them they need to introduce capitalism and trade with their neighbors across the Big Rock Mountain.

He sets out with a basket of eggs on Easter, only to run into "Gadzooks," the crappiest carbon copy of the Winter Warlock imaginable. Gadzooks, a mentally deficient bear living on the mountain, steals the eggs, so he doesn't get to deliver them in year one. Unfortunately, he has four or five more years to get it right.

The town on the other side of Big Rock Mountain is cleverly named "Town" (not joking), which is a goddamn carbon copy of the town Burgermeister Meisterburger ran back in Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Here, the town actually has a kind but cowardly child king who's controlled by his cruel aunt, Lilly, who's effectively outlawed all children except her nephew and every kind of food that isn't a bean.

Oh, there's also a hobo named Hallelujah (still not joking about these names) who helps Sunny and summons an army of hobos to build a railroad in what has to be the single most convoluted excuse to wedge a song into a special I've ever seen. That would be a sanitized version of "Big Rock Candy Mountain," incidentally, and it's maybe the fourth or fifth most annoying musical number in this overlong piece of junk.

Except for the lame attempt at a title song, the songs have nothing to do with Easter and are completely random. It sounds as though the songwriters just pulled whatever junk they'd cut from other things out of the trash and then wrote a plot around it.

Like "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," this features a number of brief sequences ostensibly explaining elements of the holiday. *Spoiler alert* You've already figured most of them out by reading the premise above.

Unlike "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," this features absolutely no whimsy, artistry, or interesting characters. But, again, I expect you got that from the premise.

They deal with Gadzooks by giving him a new suit, much like they gave Winter Warlock a toy train. As for Lily, they give her a flower, unlike Meisterburger, who died alone and unloved. Okay, so there was one other change.

Rankin-Bass produced a lot of great stop-motion entertainment over the years, but this wasn't one of them. I'm not sure this is the absolute worst of the bunch, but it's definitely in the bottom tier of uninspired cash grabs. There's really nothing here worth wasting your time with - rewatch "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" instead, even if it is Easter. Seriously - verisimilitude isn't worth sitting through this.

A special "thanks" to Sam for suggesting this. And by "thanks", we pretty much mean "screw you." This was terrible.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Michael Bolton's Big, Sexy Valentine's Day Special (2017)

The second most surprising thing about Michael Bolton's Big, Sexy Valentine's Day Special is that's it's got a surprising amount of Christmas in it (the most surprising, obviously, is that it's actually worth watching, but I'll get to that in a moment).

This is a holiday special produced as a collaboration between Comedy Bang! Bang! and The Lonely Island. Blending together elements of old-fashioned Christmas specials, musical parodies, telethons, sketch comedy specials, and some 90's nostalgia, it sort of feels like a series of SNL music videos expanded into a short movie with a frame story.

The plot is pretty thin, but Santa Claus plays a crucial rule (hence this write-up). The elves made too many toys, so Saint Nick enlists Bolton's help, hoping that a Bolton Valentine's Day special will result in 75,000 more pregnancies and by extension 75,000 new babies born before Christmas. The special's opening number, "Ten Months 'Til Christmas," leads into this and does a nice job bridging the gap between Valentine's Day and the Christmas-special elements intrinsic to the format.

Ultimately, it's a bizarre premise. But of course it's aware of that, so a large number of jokes wind up being self-referential. The success of things like this always comes down to the comedy: if the jokes work, the special works; otherwise, it falls flat.

I really thought this one worked. Bolton does a good job deadpanning his lines and committing to the requisite parody musical numbers. My favorite two were the aforementioned "Ten Months 'Til Christmas" and a new version of Bolton and Lonely Island's 2011 song, Jack Sparrow.

For the supporting cast, they didn't skimp on the talent: an astonishing number of famous comedians show up for a skit, song, or a couple jokes. Not every gag or sketch was perfect, but I found the majority funny.

The special plays out like a parody movie from the 80's or 90's. That means there actually is a plot (at least nominally), but the story beats deliver laughs instead of drama or emotion. It's definitely a throwback to an era before homage became the dominant form of comedy, but it works well here. I'm as big a fan of homage as anyone you're likely to find, but it was refreshing to see an unapologetic spoof as a change of pace. We don't usually get things like this unless they're short or bad anymore - this is almost feature-length, and it's hilarious.

And obviously I'm always happy to see Santa given something to do outside of December. In addition to his scene early on, he mans one of the phone lines at the telethon, where a bunch of celebrities are keeping track of the number of kids conceived during the special. He also plays a pretty crucial role in the resolution, but I'm going to keep quiet on that for fear of spoiling it.

This is pure, undiluted comedy - if that doesn't sound interesting to you, you probably won't want to bother putting this on (unless, of course, you're a huge Bolton fan). But if you're looking for some laughs, this is definitely worth checking out.

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.