Friday, December 19, 2014

Nerdtivity: He Bent for Your Sins

Between now and Christmas, we'll be posting a "Nerdtivity" scene every night at midnight. Tonight, we're presenting this portrayal of the construction of the robot Savior who kills for his own sins. Futurama fans will of course recognize this scene as being set in Mexico.

By the way, the contest for best Nerdtivity has entered the "audience voting" phase. You can view all the pictures and vote for your favorite here. Once you've looked at the options, just scroll to the bottom and comment with the number for your pick. Our entry, Away Team in a Manger, is #26.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Very Brady Christmas (1988)

I haven't seen very many episodes of The Brady Bunch, but from the little I remember, A Very Brady Christmas managed to capture the stone and style of the show perfectly. Incidentally, I believe the previous sentence ranks among the all-time most condemning insults I've ever lobbed in a review for this blog.

It should be noted that this was produced in 1988, which was about nineteen years after the series had started. By this time, the Bradys had actually expanded into something of a cinematic Universe. Most of the kids had gotten married in earlier reunions and spin-off series, opening up a whole new generation of cloying Brady children.

The best description for the plot is that in a blender. What little story exists does so in brief, unrelated chunks. The impetus for the reunion revolves around Mike and Carol Brady trying to surprise each other with a Christmas vacation. The special sets this up as a potential major plot point, before defusing the tension in a scene about thirty minutes in. They run into each other at the travel agency and quickly decide what they really want to do is fly their kids' families home for Christmas.

Almost all of the kids have a secret. One is separating from her husband (who comes with her to the holiday party for reasons that don't begin to make sense). Another has dropped out of college to become a race car driver. One is ashamed his girlfriend is his boss and makes more money than he does (she comes along, as well, instead of doing something rational like firing him to solve the problem then dumping him, because he's an asshole). Another's husband just lost his job. The youngest is bothered that she's still treated like a kid. That just leaves one more of the boys, the only one without a real secret. His wife skipped the reunion to spend the holidays with her family, so they try to ratchet some drama out of that.

Oh, and if you care, Alice's husband just left her for someone younger. Of course, he comes back at the end, and she forgives him. Not sure why, honestly.

Everyone else's problems evaporate about as quickly. For the most part, all it takes is a brief conversation or an admission that something was off. A few platitudes later, and everything's fine. Mike and Carol accept their son drives race cars. The separating couple decide they don't really have emotional scarring or complex feelings. And so on and so forth.

Mike and Carol's problem concerns a mutual business acquaintance. Carol sold him some land, and - at her advice - he hired Mike to design a building. He's angry Mike wants him to invest in safety measures above what the law requires, and he tries blackmailing Carol into getting him to relax. He fires Mike and hires someone else. Then, while the family is getting ready to eat Christmas dinner, Mike's called away because the building has collapsed and a few security guards are trapped.

Keep in mind, all of this - the firing, the rehiring, the redesigns, any approval process, the altered construction, the building, and the accident - occur in the process of a few days. Oh, and Mike's an architect, not a structural engineer. Regardless, he goes to the location and heroes up. He tells the owner to dig a few trenches to relieve pressure, then he goes in to free the guards. He gets them out but somehow gets trapped himself.

If you were hoping the producers of this thing had grown a pair and were willing to kill off the patriarch of the Brady family in an act of self-sacrifice, you're giving them far too much credit. Instead, the whole Brady clan shows up. There's a flashback to an old Brady Christmas episode where Carol sang, and - in the present - she starts singing. Everyone, extras included, joins in.

This actually could have had a little impact - just a little - if they'd just worked that flashback into an earlier scene. But by placing it here, it comes off as hilariously and obviously manipulative. When Mike stumbled out, I didn't know whether to laugh or start hitting my head against the wall.

This was awful. Just awful. It was sort of a dramedy utterly lacking any tension or anything remotely funny. It just sputtered along for a few hours, a bunch of character sung, and everything ended happily ever after.

Worse yet, it reminded us that there are more Brady Christmas specials out there.

Elf: Buddy's Musical Christmas (2014)

The stop motion characters were capably animated, and the minimalist theatrical backgrounds served as a strong connection to the special's Broadway connections. Likewise, the cast was good - it was great hearing Ed Asner reprise his role as Santa, and (as is so often the case) I didn't even realize I was listening to Mark Hamill as Buddy's father. The music, while somewhat mixed, included at least one great song, which opened the special.

Yes, this was made by talented people. And that's the tragedy. Because they wasted their goddamn time on a soulless special that systematically guts everything substantive from a great Christmas movie.

Buddy's Musical Christmas seems to be primarily based on the Broadway musical, which I've never seen. Based on the fact it was well received, I have to believe it was better than this. The music was pulled from the show, though I'm guessing most of the songs were truncated.

The best of the songs was aforementioned opening number, "Happy All the Time." The song, sung by Ed Asner, provides a quick overview of the North Pole from the perspective of a refreshingly irritated Santa. It's surprisingly subversive and a little dark - for approximately sixty seconds, I almost thought I was going to be watching something worthwhile.

Unfortunately, it also sets up the premise of the special. And, even more unfortunately, it's just the premise of the movie, minus Bob Hope's Papa Elf character. Actually, the elves this time are weird, blue monsters. Odd choice, but that's far from the special's worst aspect.

It becomes clear almost immediately that, in order to fit the network's schedule and still have time for a bunch of songs, any nuance or complexity is gone. That's never a good sign, but here it's particularly damning. The movie's strength comes from that complexity. James Caan's Walter Hobbs has problems, but he's believable and sympathetic. Here, they strip him down to a generic cartoon caricature. Likewise, Jovie's part is cut so far, you wonder why they bothered including the character at all. There's no emotion or reason to become attached to any of the characters.

Instead, they try to reuse as many jokes from the original as possible, again stripping away the context that made them actually work. They rewrite major sections and condense minor characters into composites just to recycle sequences we've already seen far better executed in live-action.

The special wasn't actually bad. There were some new jokes that did work, and the animation was cool. But it never actually provided any kind of reason or explanation for why it exists. The movie Elf already played like something with one foot in a Rankin-Bass special, but it knew how to balance placing the other in our world. This thing is just bizarre. It comes across as an over-polished, under-thought cash grab born in a marketing meeting.

Honestly, I found it far more infuriating than specials and movies far worse. I'd have loved to see these animators working on something with a purpose. Instead, it all feels like a wasted effort, at best.

Toy Review: Hallmark "I Move to Your Music" Grooving Moose

There were three things about this that appealed to us. First, it was a Christmas toy. Second, it was cheap. And third, it was just about the dumbest thing we've seen since buying these.

Let's start with the demo feature. This is, of course, what we experienced in the store.

For those who'd rather not subject themselves to the horror, when you hit a large red button on the toy speakers the moose is sitting on, the whole thing starts blaring "Up on the Rooftop" while the stuffed animal starts bobbing back and forth. An announcer than tries to sell you on this action: play your own music, and the moose will groove to it!

The speaker is surprisingly loud, which is kind of shocking since, the minute you pull that tab out of the back, it's effectively dead. All sound effects beyond the cold grinding of its motor are exclusively used in the demonstration.

Its normal play mode is kind of boring in comparison. Its function is extremely specific. If you hit the same button, it will dance to whatever sound is playing, driving by, or screaming obscenities at it.

To its credit, it seems to pick up sound pretty well. It's corny, but relative to most of these things, it's fairly well made. I'm mostly baffled that they'd go through the trouble of setting up a playback option just for the in-store "Try Me" option, then not incorporate it into its normal operation.

It's particularly odd given that, other than the candy cane scarf, that song is the only indication this is remotely connected to Christmas. Pull the tag and cut off the scarf, and you've got a generic grooving moose. Who the hell wants one of those?

We got this for 75% off, which was still a little pricey. This started at $29.95, so we still wound up paying close to $7.50 for him. I realize this is higher quality than the crappy knockoffs you can buy at Big Lots, but I find it hard to imagine anyone paying thirty bucks for one of these things. Then again, there's not much indication anyone did.

Here's a clip of the moose in action. You'll notice it starts moving at the start of the video: that's because of the beep my phone makes right before it starts recording. I'm of course giving it Christmas music to move to, because I understand the true reason for the season.*

Oh, if you're wondering what the kickass song in the background is, the answer can be located here.

*Clearly, it's that Bullwinkle J. Moose died for your sins. On an unrelated note, I think I just figured out what Bullwinkle's middle initial stands for.

The Partridge Family: Don’t Bring Your Guns to Town, Santa (1971)

Oh man, The Partridge Family. I’ve had sort of a lingering urge to see The Partridge Family again since Shirley Jones appeared in style on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me last year.

I hope you enjoyed that, because this episode was not what I would call a winner. If you’re blissfully unaware, The Partridge Family was a sitcom about a single mother with five kids who become a traveling musical act to support their family. So the episode opens with, what else, a song. And it’s not bad. I mean, none of the people on film are singing, but the song is just a corny 70’s pop version of a holiday tune.

The family packs up after this gig and is headed home for Christmas. In an unlikely turn of events, their bus breaks down in a Hollywood backlot. Sorry, I meant a ghost town, complete with one picturesque local living alone with a donkey.

The donkey’s only in one scene. Maybe his agent was a good negotiator.

So they can’t get help, and the old guy invites the mom and young kids inside while the oldest son and the band manager look at the engine. And for two whole minutes I thought maybe this would be a quiet little vignette about making the best of the holidays, just being with family even when you can’t have what you want.

Nope. Oh no. The old guy starts to tell a story about the Old West town they’re in, and the episode flips into a fantasy sequence starring all the main characters as the most unlikely ‘historic’ characters since Nathan Detroit put on a fluorescent-pin-striped suit.

The story is about a ‘mean’ man who steals the town’s silver Christmas bell that the townsfolk ring to help Santa find their town. The oldest son plays the bumbling sheriff, another is the reformed gangster who tries to win the bell back in a card game. There are a lot of tedious running gags.

Of course, Christmas comes all the same, and the ‘mean’ man decides to be less mean after the townspeople are kind to him, and the bus is fixed, lets get the heck out of this one-donkey town!

Of course, part two, the family comes back to sing carols to their new friend so he won’t be alone at Christmas.

For a show about music, there wasn’t much in this particular episode, and according to everything I’ve read, this is the only Christmas episode the show had. They did, however, put out a best-selling Christmas album.

Nerdtivity: Bat-Mite's Christmas Spectacular

Between now and Christmas, we'll be posting a "Nerdtivity" scene every night at midnight.

Tonight, I'm posting a picture we're calling, "Bat-Mite's Christmas Spectacular."

By the way, the contest for best Nerdtivity has entered the "audience voting" phase. You can view all the pictures and vote for your favorite here. Once you've looked at the options, just scroll to the bottom and comment with the number for your pick. Our entry, Away Team in a Manger, is #26.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Passion For Truth Ministries: Truth Or Tradition (2012)

When right-wing pundits rant about "The War on Christmas," there's one group they always leave out, and that's Christians who boycott the holiday due to its pagan roots and lack of Biblical origins. These groups are incredibly inconvenient for both sides of the holiday debate: the right wants to paint a picture where atheists are attacking Christmas, and non-Christians certainly don't want them as allies (these groups tend to be even more hell-fire and brimstone than the ones they're battling). But Christians who don't celebrate Christmas are a significant group - about 5% of Protestants fall into this category.

I'm going to be considerate to these people and say that Jim Staley's reasons shouldn't be considered representative for the larger group.

Staley is the pastor for "Passion for Truth Ministries." He seems to be trying to recreate a more primal version of Christianity inline with what its founders believed. This 2-hour video, available on Youtube for anyone foolish enough to want to see it, is focused on uncovering the pagan origins of Christmas and Easter and encouraging Christians to stop supporting the holidays.

While I'm coming from a dramatically different perspective, I'm certainly interested in the origins of Christmas traditions. Unfortunately, Staley's video has all the research standards of a 6th grade book report, and his conclusions are laughable.

The video opens with a fairly standard intro, enticing the viewer to stick around. The voice-over starts making some bizarre claims almost immediately:

"Did you know the birthday of every Pagan sun god around the world was on December 25th? Did you know that Christmas was illegal in the United States until the mid-1800's?"

Both claims are repeated in the video itself. He provides some justification for the illegality of Christmas that offers some insight into his failings as a researcher. Yes, the Puritans made the holiday illegal in Massachusetts in the 1600's. Yes, it wasn't officially recognized as a state holiday until the 1830's. No, that certainly doesn't mean it was illegal to celebrate it anywhere in the United States between these two points. If he'd spent a little more time on Wikipedia, he'd have realized this certainly wasn't the case. I know he spent some time there, because he cited it as a source for at least one quote. Even worse, he quoted multiple encyclopedia sets.

If this had been shorter or if there were less videos attributed to him, I'd wonder if this wasn't some kind of elaborate joke. The number of factual errors were staggering. And these weren't minor details, either: the first half of the video was devoted to Easter and its Pagan origins. The centerpiece of his argument concerned the holiday's connection to the goddess Ishtar. He then went on to play connect-the-dots with numerous architectural designs, religious symbols, and iconic designs to demonstrate that it all tied back to Ishtar and her husband, and that every church steeple is really Baal's wiener (okay - that part was hilarious).

I'm assuming I don't have to debunk this. If anyone out there is under the misconception that Easter has jack to do with Ishtar, I recommend reading this article (or any other you find googling the two words).

There were other claims that were almost accurate or contained a kernel of truth, like when he claimed that Santa Claus was Odin (the Norse god was certainly one of several influences on the modern Santa, but equating one with the other is a gross oversimplification). He also plays a montage of clips of people dressed as the folkloric demon in order to drive home just how completely the holiday is in the hands of The Enemy. I feel bad characterizing his perspective on this as naive - after all, it's not hard to imagine how this looks from his perspective - but I feel like it's justified given his attempt to paint his arguments in an academic light.

The real punchline, as far as I'm concerned, comes when he explains how the devil operates: providing half-lies in order to poison and compromise the truth. One expects the irony is entirely lost the speaker.

Of course, if anyone wants to find pagan elements in Christmas and Easter, they don't need to look far. I certainly agree that modern Christmas is best understood as an evolving celebration that's been observed by humans for a very, very long time. Likewise, I don't fault him for choosing not to recognize the day (or to try, at least), but his "investigations" into the truth behind Christmas are ludicrously inaccurate.
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