Saturday, May 10, 2014

Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated: Wrath of the Krampus (2012)

Do not make the same mistake we made: do not start with this episode.

I've always kind of liked Scooby-Doo as a concept and as an early attempt at animated horror/comedy. But I've never actually seen an approach that worked. The originals had some cool designs on some of the monsters, but the stories were never interesting.

Well, this is where that changes.

Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated updates the concept and characters in a way that remains true to the show's original concept and history, while simultaneously offering extremely intelligent writing, complex character and relationship development, as well as multi-season plot arcs with satisfying payoffs along with way. I don't just mean "satisfying for a cartoon," either: this is the kind of in-depth, multi-dimensional story telling that's rare on live-action TV.

We, of course, stumbled across it because of the Christmas episode. Only it's not really a Christmas episode, at all. The hook is that Krampus is attacking misbehaving children of Crystal Cove, and the gang are trying to trap him.

Yes, Krampus, the demon who drags away bad children to torture them is around. It's summer, so his presence is a little odd (they do acknowledge that, by the way). The show did a good job depicting him, tongue and all, and he's a little scary. Nowhere near as scary as the abandoned doll factory they chase him into at the end, though: that place is the goddamn stuff of nightmares.

In the end, it turns out Krampus was a robot. It's not immediately clear who's controlling him or why. When they reveal who's really behind the mask, the explanation is completely ludicrous (intentionally so: this trend dates back to the 60's, and the writers of Mystery Incorporated are very conscious of what they're doing). It's also awesome.

That said, everything having to do with Krampus is really more a B-plot. The episode is far more focused on a massively complex story line that's been in development since the first episode.

This is a lot of fun. On top of that, the comedy was witty and entertaining, particularly in the resolution. The horror elements are even decent. But I can't stress enough how important it is not to start with this. This show is absolutely amazing. Lindsay and I immediately jumped back to the first episode after watching this one, and we're working our way through the series.

I'm dropping a "highly recommended" label onto this episode, but - as is often the case for TV shows - it applies to the series as a whole. This is the Scooby Doo you probably never realized you always wanted. But hey, uncovering secrets is what the gang does.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Prometheus (2012)

If you're like most people who have seen Prometheus, you're likely wondering why I'm talking about it on a blog devoted to Christmas. Actually, if you're like most people who saw the movie, you're probably more interested in when you're going to get the two hours you wasted watching it back. Well, I can't help with the second question, but I can shed some light on the first:

I'm talking about Prometheus here because it's a Christmas movie. No, really. The crew of the ship wake from cryo-sleep a few days before Christmas. One of them sets up a Christmas tree. There's some subtle Christmas music in at least one scene. The sole survivor flies away on New Years Day.

Oh, and the movie is about Christmas.

That last statement is 100% true and at least twice as meaningless. This is because Prometheus is about a lot of things. It's about faith as it pertains to God and the concept of God as it doesn't pertain to faith. It's about sacrifice; death from life and life from death. It's about childbirth and the act of creation. It's about the drive for answers and the search for truth.

And, on some level, it's about a once-brilliant director obsessing over a bunch of first-year comparative religion questions, sticking them in a blender and hitting puree (this is what the black goo* was supposed to represent).

More specifically, the movie focuses heavily on the nativity story. In fact, Prometheus can be described as a re-imagining of the nativity story in space. Only this time Jesus is an alien starfish-squid monster which dies to give birth to a weird proto-xenomorph. Other than those tweaks, the story is pretty much unchanged.

While we're describing Prometheus as things, I'd like to add boring, badly written, and childish. And, (sigh) also beautifully shot. He might not be able to tell a compelling story anymore, but Ridley Scott is still able to handle atmosphere and design.

Where were we? Oh yeah, the miraculous birth of the alien monstrosity that occurs on Christmas. Actually, I might want to adjust my earlier description of this as a re-imagining. It's actually more of a sequel. You see, all of this is kind of intended to tie back to Jesus. Only, in this version, his origin has been retconned to make him one of the space giants. It's a notable twist, though I think the retcons Prometheus imposes on the original Alien are actually more extreme.

The movie doesn't come out and say any of that stuff about Jesus being one of the giants, but it's surprisingly thorough about implying it. I should add this interpretation started as a theory on the internet, but has since pretty much been confirmed. The movie basically lays out the elements: something happened about 2000 years ago that caused the "engineers" to want to destroy humanity, but they were mostly killed off by... something... before they could. That "something" is strongly implied to be xenomorphic in nature, but the movie provides frustratingly few details, nor does it explain the connection between the death of Jesus and the catastrophe that hits the aliens.

The real problem with Prometheus isn't that the background isn't properly explained, though. It's easy to mock the Jesus aspects, but they don't really hurt the film. The real issues are much more mundane: the vast majority of the movie simply isn't that interesting to watch, the dialogue is badly written, and the character motivations are outright silly.

Yeah, there are some great sets, and some of the action sequences - when we actually get to them - are fairly solid. But these moments are the exceptions. The vast majority of the movie is a tedious exercise in vague theological statements and philosophical musing. There aren't many reasons to bother sitting through this one.

*Not to be confused with the black goo from X-Files which was created by a different alien race which also bio-engineered humanity.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Brain Scoop: The Nondenominational Holiday Botanical Celebration (2013)

Christmas is past, but we're still working our way through a backlog of online holiday shorts. The Brain Scoop is a Youtube series hosted by Emily Graslie, the Field Museum of Natural History's "Chief Curiosity Correspondent," a custom-made title that makes a lot more sense after you watch a few episodes.

The series is sort of a science education show on speed. It delivers everything you loved about shows like Bill Nye, but doesn't dumb down the subject matter. The show feels like it's primarily aimed at adults who grew up watching PBS, though - for the most part - the subject matter's appropriate for kids, as well.

This episode focuses on various decorative Christmas plants, with a focus on toxicity levels and side effects. If that doesn't sound awesome to you, I don't know what you're doing on this blog.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Doctor Who: Time of the Doctor (2013)

I found the final Matt Smith Doctor Who episode to be engaging, though it lacked a satisfying payoff. That is to say, it's a good example of his entire run. Fortunately, it was a Christmas special, so I can discuss it here.

Oh, and just so no one complains later, discussing it will include details. So then. Spoiler. Warning. Got it? Good.

They certainly went to great pains to establish this as Christmas-related. The doctor follows an unknown transmission to a planet besieged by all his enemies. Once he gets down, he finds a town named Christmas. They play with this quite a bit: there are no shortage of lines about how the Doctor is protecting or saving Christmas. This is in addition to a Christmas dinner playing out in Clara's apartment in the present.

In some ways, a Christmas special is the perfect time for a regeneration, at least from a symbolic standpoint. They play with this, as well: the days in Christmas are almost impossibly short.

In the town, he comes across a crack in reality and discovers the Time Lords are trying to break back into the Universe. With a word, he could bring them through, however this would precipitate an attack by the combined forces in orbit. Likewise, an assault would trigger the Doctor bringing back the Time Lords. Oh, and he discovers the world he's on is Trenzalore, the planet that will one day house his corpse.

Those of you who aren't following the show will have to take it on faith that the above makes some semblance of sense.

So the Doctor tricks Clara into leaving and decides to stay and defend Christmas. She gets back, but three hundred years have passed (he looks about ten or fifteen years older). This occurs once more, and she finds the Doctor dying of old age. They don't quote a number, but it seems likely the Doctor's overall age must have doubled in the middle of this episode - I wonder if they'll address that next year.

By this time the war is going poorly, the Daleks are attacking, and the Doctor knows he's going to die. The Time Lords are still shouting "Doctor Who?" through the crack in reality, but the real question is why the Doctor doesn't answer. I can think of several possible explanations, but I feel a little cheated Moffat didn't provide one.

Regardless, he goes to face his death, and Clara answers the Time Lords, though not like I'd expected. She should actually know the Doctor's original name thanks to "The Name of the Doctor," so it seems odd she doesn't give it to them. Instead she essentially says "The Doctor" is his name, and they should help him.

Of course they do, which resets his exhausted regenerations and allows the show to swap out leads.

I liked a lot of elements here. The Silence were cool as something other than a villain, and I like the new character, Tasha Lem (hopefully she'll be back in the future). Likewise, there were a few answers provided to lingering questions about The Silence. Plus, the parallels between Clara skipping centuries (if not milennia) as the Doctor fought a long war on Trenzalore and the tenth Doctor episode, The Girl in the Fireplace, were fascinating.

But, as a resolution to the eleventh Doctor, it was a bit of a letdown. Moffat's been teasing Trenzalore for years now, and this was nowhere near satisfying enough. The war wound up feeling small and dull. There was some narration implying the war had been great, but the idea that "Christmas", a single small village, could withstand the vast armies around it is absurd. Where were the fields of vanquished armies?

Still, we got some good moments between Clara and the Doctor. We even got some great scenes between the Doctor and a re-purposed Cyberman head. The episode grew sappy at times, but that's long been part of the series's charm.

Overall, not a bad episode of Doctor Who, though they clearly bit off a lot more than they could chew. Between fulfilling their Christmas obligations, attempting to resolve the Silence plot, giving Matt Smith an emotional sendoff, and setting up the next series, they didn't leave themselves much breathing room.

Super Santa in Jingle Bell Justice (2013)

I just came across this 7 minute short on Youtube. Stylistically, it feels a lot like Powerpuff Girls, with some great homages to the Adam West Batman and 60's spy shows. I particularly like the super-spy spin on Mrs. Claus, who isn't stuck at the North Pole this time.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Reflections and Modulations

Wow, December flew this year, didn’t it? For me, it wasn’t just because the span between Thanksgiving and Christmas was as short as it can be. My job is more involved and takes more of my brain than last year, plus I have more outside-of-work commitments too. All that’s just to say that I’m a little sad that it’s Christmas already, I feel like I barely registered time passing.

I’m really glad we finally saw some Bing Crosby specials (Meta, 1, 2, 3, 4), and I’m also glad we eviscerated The Christmas Shoes. We also found a few hidden gems this year, perhaps most notably Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July. Who knew that was good?

This is the fourth year, and Mainlining has become… a tradition. I don’t mean that in a sarcastic way, either. This: the watching of bizarre and terrible and wonderful Christmas stuff, collecting new music, new books and movies and decorations, finding more and different things to see and do, this is now part of how we celebrate the season.

Stay tuned as the year turns. We’ll probably go back to posting occasional ‘marginal’ works: those movies that have a Christmas connection but not a strong enough one to save for December. Our list of things to watch grows faster than we can check things off, after all. I picked up the first issue of a comic book about Krampus and the Secret Society of Santa Clauses; if the rest of the series is as good as the first issue, I’ll throw you a review by next year.

I used to have a complicated relationship with Christmas that was largely negative. Mainlining Christmas has given me a new way to engage; I still have complicated feelings, but now they’re positive.

I like being a geek about Christmas. I like knowing the songs, even the obscure ones. I like having complicated and engaged discussions about the merits of various animated specials.

Besides which, according to the Pew Research Center, I am far from alone these days: 8 in 10 Non-Christian Americans say they celebrate Christmas, and 32% of all Americans who celebrate say it’s more of a cultural than a religious thing.

I want to thank those of you who’ve been with us from the start: faithful readers like Jesse, Marci, Sam, and more; Shiraz for being patient with the apparent descent into lunacy; my mom for not pointing out every typo she spots; and thank you, new fans and friends (did you see we have a Facebook page now?)

Merry (secular gift-giving day we call) Christmas, everyone: I hope we’re a little part of your tradition, too.

Thanks the most to Erin, for coming up with this. I love Mainlining Christmas, because I do it with you.

The Best Christmas Movies of All Time

So, cards on the table: I tried to put together a simple top 10 list of the all-time best Christmas movies, but I ran into a snag - 40% of the list would have been Shane Black action movies.

But, as I listed things out, I started to notice that a lot of movies were falling nicely into pairs. So, rather than try to assemble a blanket pool, I'm breaking these into five categories, each of which will feature the two best holiday films that genre offers.

From these, I'll whittle it down to a simple "top 5" list. What that will represent is a look at the best Christmas films from the entire range of the holiday selection.

Best Animated Christmas Movies
There have been a lot of animated Christmas movies, but surprisingly few great ones. Both of these movies under-performed at the box office, but both are phenomenal films.

Nightmare Before Christmas
An homage to Rankin/Bass specials, Nightmare Before Christmas displays all of Tim Burton's style unencumbered by his limitations as a director (let's just be honest about this). In the hands of Henry Selick, the movie is able to thrive as a stylish, operatic masterpiece. It's beautiful and hilarious, and the showdown between Jack and the Bogeyman stands as one of animation's finest battles. A lot of Christmas movies are called "classics," but this deserves the title.

Arthur Christmas
The mix between absurdist humor and subtle drama is managed as well in Arthur Christmas as any movie I've ever seen. It's wistful, dark, and methodical, and as a result earns its happy ending completely. The film features a wholly original concept for Santa Claus that retains enough respect for history to somehow be instantly recognizable. It's one of the best Christmas movies ever made, and I look forward to the day it gets the attention and respect it deserves.

And the winner is.... Nightmare Before Christmas, but it's a lot closer than most of you probably think.

Best Christmas Comedies
I don't think there's another genre with as many overrated entries. There are dozens of sites that will list "A Christmas Story" and "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" as classics, and neither are worth your time. Fortunately, there are others that are. In fact, there are quite a few Christmas comedies that are at least fun. But there are at least two that are fantastic:

I've said it before: Jon Favreau was hired to churn out a crappy vehicle for an SNL alum, and he failed so badly he wound up crafting one of the greatest holiday films ever made. There are many reasons this works as well as it does, but one stands out for me: rather than take the easy road and treat it like a parody, the movie is deeply sincere in its approach. The result is a sweet, charming holiday film.

Fred Claus
Perhaps the most underrated movie up here, Fred Claus has a measly 24% on Rotten Tomatoes. While the movie has a few flaws (there's no excuse for the cartoon sound effects making it into the final cut), it's remarkably complex and intelligent. This movie approaches Santa Claus like the mythology it is, and it does so with a purpose. It has something to say, and it delivers its message with skill.

And the winner is.... Elf. I really enjoyed Fred Claus and think it deserves a place on the long list of the best holiday films. But, between the two, Elf is the movie that goes on the short list.

Best Holiday Action Movies
It's shocking just how many great holiday action movies are out there. Boiling it down to two was surprisingly easy, though, and that's because these are that good. You could remove the word "holiday" from this section, and these would both remain serious contenders.

Die Hard
On every level, Die Hard delivers an experience that hundreds of films have attempted to duplicate. The movie is tense, exciting, funny, and brutal. Unhindered by the decades of similar movies that followed it, Die Hard perfected the tropes before they became cliches. The movie is simply fantastic.

The Long Kiss Goodnight
Shane Black has written a lot of movies that would have claimed this spot if The Long Kiss Goodnight didn't exist. No one has had as big an influence on so many of the best Christmas movies, regardless of the genre. But - at least in my opinion - this one rises to the top for the simple reason it's the most fun of his films. Geena Davis is awesome here, and Samuel Jackson delivers more quotable lines than I can easily count.

And the winner is.... Die Hard. I love The Long Kiss Goodnight, but let's be clear: the definitive action movie was the first modern one.

Best Black and White Christmas Movies
Yes, that pun was intentional. And no, I won't apologize. There are a lot of classic Christmas movies, but only two that really stand out as cultural juggernauts. The fact that they're both genre films fills me with holiday cheer.

It's a Wonderful Life
The prototype for more science fiction movies involving time-travel than I can count, It's a Wonderful Life is probably the single most famous Christmas movie. Every year, more parodies and homages show up in specials. For many, it's synonymous with the holidays. And all for good reason: the movie is a remarkably clever inversion of A Christmas Carol where the character - already a good man - has to learn that his life has meaning to those around him.

Miracle on 34th Street
I'm not going to go through Miracle on 34th Street and cover all the movie's merits. There are too many phenomenal character moments, hilarious situations, and great twists to cover. But I will reiterate the one thing that has made this endure, the movie's single most impressive feat. It makes us believe in Santa, whether we want to or not.

And the winner is.... Miracle on 34th Street, hands down. Not to take anything away from It's a Wonderful Life, but there's just no competition.

Holiday Horror
There have been many Christmas horror movies, and - in all honesty - I've only seen a small portion of them. I feel like I've seen most of the ones considered the best, though.

Am I cheating with these picks? Perhaps a bit: neither are exactly "traditional" horror movies. Then again, most Christmas horror movies are at least half comedy (many are much more).

Rare Exports
Mixing horror, comedy, and adventure tropes, Rare Exports offers a truly fresh spin on the killer Santa premise. The movie is bizarre and fascinating.

A classic in its own right, Gremlins has some of the best production values you'll find in any holiday horror movie. It's inventive, intriguing, funny, and at times genuinely scary.

And the winner is.... Rare Exports. This was another close one, but after re-watching Gremlins the movie's PG-rated limitations, baffling tone shifts, and abandoned subplots need to be taken into account. It's still a great holiday movie, but I think Rare Exports takes the lead.

Here are the five winning movies, in no particular order:

  • Nightmare Before Christmas
  • Elf
  • Die Hard
  • Miracle on 34th Street
  • Rare Exports

Don't read it as the five best - several of the movies knocked out in the primaries are better than some that made the list, since some sub-genres have stronger offerings than others. Instead, you're seeing broader picture, a look at the best the cornerstones of holiday entertainment have to offer. Hope it helps you pick what to watch next year.

If you're upset your favorite movie got overlooked, keep in mind I had to pare things down a great deal to arrive at these lists: it doesn't mean I don't love the movie. Unless you're pissed I'm snubbing A Christmas Story, Home Alone, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Black Christmas, or one of the other overrated pieces of crap that have a following for some unidentifiable reason. If that's the case, the problem is you have bad taste in movies. Simple as that.