Saturday, December 3, 2011

Scrooged (1988)

I see this movie about once every five years, enjoy it quite a bit, then promptly forget every joke in the film. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - in a way, the fact that Scrooged is so forgettable gives it re-watch value it wouldn't otherwise have - but it also puts a limitation on the film's impact.

Scrooged attempts to ride a line between tones and genres and pulls it off well enough to be entertaining, but not so well as to leave a lasting impression. The movie's concept is ambitious: a cold-hearted network executive in the middle of producing a live televised production of Scrooge is visited by the three legendary ghosts of the story. There was a lot of potential here to build a sense of vertigo by playing off the inherent surreality of the situation. Unfortunately, the movie didn't fully embrace this. At no point did the main character reflect on the similarities between his experiences and Scrooge's: he seems completely unaware he's living A Christmas Carol, despite clearly being familiar with the story.

The movie wants to be more than it is, and thanks to Bill Murray, you root for it to succeed. But in the end, it's a tad too timid to be truly subversive and lacks the heart to deserve being dubbed a classic. The film moves along and makes you laugh, but there's no emotional connection established. Likewise, the ending toys with the concept that the main character's redemption takes the form of a mental breakdown, but it doesn't follow through. With the addition of some consequences, that could have struck a nerve, but as it is the movie concludes with the same generic "happily-ever-after" every other Christmas movie offers.

This is still a good movie, and if it's been a while since you saw it, it's worth checking out. But lacking the heart of Elf or the darkness of Bad Santa, Scrooged feels a bit outdated. This is worth seeing once every five years for a laugh, but no more than that. It's a solid flick, but a long way from being a classic.

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker (1993)

Hey, it turns out that totally by accident we saved the best for last! First we saw the pretty mediocre Nutcracker: The Movie, then a version with pluses and minuses starring Mikhail Baryshnikov. This one, though, was definitely our favorite. I should mention here at the front that one of the stars is Macaulay Culkin. It was good anyway, I promise.

That's not to say it doesn't still have some problems, but the balance between film and stage is much better here. This one was actually enjoyable to watch for the whole first half!

The first act is very strong. Stage magic is used instead of movie magic 99% of the time, the camera angles are well chosen, the makeup works in closeup, and overall the balance between movie-realism and the stylized nature of ballet is very well handled.

The costumes and sets are great, but most important of all, it's well shot. Plus there's a plot! Sort of. The young dancers are surprisingly good. Drosselmeyer is fun, the story, such as it is, actually follows fairly sensibly, and the additional information given by narrator Kevin Kline isn't too grating or obvious.

Things start to stagnate a little in the second half, but frankly, the second half of The Nutcracker is boring the way it's written. The group numbers are quite nice, but I found the soloists' choreography mostly uninspired and dull. Plus the Cavalier definitely needs a better costumer. (White dance belt under thin tights equals awkwardness for everyone involved.)

I still thought this was the most fun Nutcracker we've seen on film. Personally, I really like that the girl and the Nutcracker are played by kids: it gives the whole thing a better vibe, more Christmassy, more magical. It does kind of break the structure of the end though, so I understand why a lot of versions change it.

If you're looking for a Nutcracker on film, I don't know that you can do better than this. Ballet is always better live, but this is really fun, at least for the first 45 minutes.

The Sith who Stole Christmas

I've seen the Star Wars Holiday Special. Twice.

I've heard the 1980 album, Christmas in the Stars more times than anyone should have to.

This is the direction they should have gone instead.

A Johnny Bravo Christmas (2001)

Lindsay came across a DVD at the local library from Cartoon Network called Christmas Yuletide Follies. Or maybe it's supposed to be Cartoon Network Christmas: Yuletide Follies. I don't know.

Anyway, only about half the cartoons on it are actually Christmas related; the rest are tangentially related at best. This one's a full half hour (well, American TV half hour, which translates to about 22 minutes), and it's certainly Christmas themed.

Of my thirty-two years on this planet, I subscribed to cable TV for exactly one, and that was the year of 2002-2003, my first year out of college. During that time I watched almost exclusively Cartoon Network. When Johnny Bravo came on, I generally lost interest. It wasn't that the show was bad; it just didn't grab my attention the way Powerpuff Girls, Dexter's Laboratory, or Courage the Cowardly Dog did. However, when I actually did sit through a few episodes, I remember liking them quite a bit.

This one blew those all away, though. It was kind of awesome.

The premise was an old one: Johnny forgot to mail his letters to Santa and now has one day to try and get them to the fat man. While there's nothing new about the plot, the jokes are hilarious. Not to mention subversive: Suzy's explanation for the meaning of Christmas, the birth of Jesus, and the significance of gifts gets delivered in one breath, summing up how absurd this holiday really is so subtly that I doubt anyone took offense (but perhaps they should have).

I've had a lot of luck with Cartoon Network Christmas specials and episodes, and this is no exception. If you're flipping through the channels this holiday and stumble across this, I highly recommend it. It's not one of the best specials out there, but damned if it isn't funny.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Courage the Cowardly Dog: The Nutcracker (2002)

I have fond memories of Courage the Cowardly Dog. The show handled tone extremely well, delivering a surreal mix of horror and comedy. I haven't seen much in years, but I remember being really impressed with some of the episodes.

While this wasn't one of the best episodes, it was entertaining. The premise was particularly strong: Courage and his family were "shopping" at the dump, when they got locked in. Courage winds up with an antique nutcracker, and they're besieged by ROUSes out to make a meal of Eustace and Muriel.

The entire thing quickly devolves into a tribute to Tchaikovsky's ballet (fortunately, the rats are excellent dancers). It's quirky and interesting, and it maintains the series' dark style and disturbing designs. It's only a half-episode, so it ends before the gag gets too old.

We found this on a Cartoon Network Christmas Yuletide Follies DVD Lindsay found at the library. I'm not sure whether this was originally intended as a Christmas episode or if they were just playing off the Nutcracker. I didn't notice any other Christmas elements, which suggests the latter. On the other hand, The Nutcracker's synonymous enough with the holiday that Cartoon Network decided it belonged on the DVD, so I'm discussing it here under the same logic.

Make Your Own Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments

Okay, I think we can all agree that Hallmark makes some cool Christmas ornaments. If you don't agree with this statement, then you probably haven't been to a Hallmark store in a while, which really isn't something you need to be embarrassed about (in fact, it's a sign of good character).

But, like it or not, Hallmark produces some extremely awesome pop-culture ornaments. Unfortunately, they charge a crap load of money for the things. We're talking $17 for the "cheap" ones and $35 if you want something with lights and music.

Or you could make your own, in just three easy steps.

1. Go to Toys R Us (or Walmart, Target, or any other large, corporate owned superstore) and buy some toys. It doesn't really matter what you buy, so long as it's small, from a recognizable property, and isn't too expensive.

Here are several examples I found lying around my apartment.

You don't have to worry about being consistent in terms of style, size, or anything else: Hallmark certainly isn't. Just try and avoid toys that are too large or have obvious joints. Other than that, the only thing all the above toys have in common is that they were purchased for less than it would have cost to buy a goddamn Hallmark Keepsake Ornament.

2. Buy a bunch of jump rings and attach them to the toys. Surprisingly, you're not done yet.

3. Store your ornaments in an expensive glass display case. Tell people that you collect Hallmark ornaments. Never let anyone touch them. Now you're done.

Some Hallmark ornaments have electronic lights, sounds, and motors. If you want these higher priced ornaments in your collection, you'll need to do a little more work.

Head down to your local RadioShack and buy some small buttons. Glue one to the ornament in question. Provided you're following rule #3, this should be fine. If someone does get into your ornament collection and try the buttons, just explain that you remove the batteries to prevent the corrosive acid from damaging the electronics.

The Nutcracker w/Mikhail Baryshnikov (1977)

Overall, this is a better version of The Nutcracker, but it still isn't great.

After our experiences with Nutcracker: The Motion Picture, I was leery of anything that crossed the line between filming a stage production and making a movie. This special made this error less, but I yelled at the screen several times anyway. “Stop with the poor special effects and just film the dancing!”or something. Maybe Erin recalls, I was somewhat incoherent in my frustration.

Happily, when they did film the dancing here, the dancing is very strong. The costumes were better, the choreography was better, it was just overall better done than the blatant cheesiness of the first one we watched.

Now, there are a few aspects of the costuming that make it clear that this is ballet, filmed in the 1970's. There is no hiding of bodies, no shying away from ridiculously tight shiny pants. So be aware of that.

This version does actually manage to get across my favorite thing about professional ballet: that it should be amazing, and look effortless. The leaps and poses and lifts make the dancers look weightless, almost inhuman. I often think of this style as something I want more of in superhero movies: superhuman physicality, that looks completely natural.

Of course, all this great dancing doesn't quite save it from the fact that The Nutcracker is a pretty boring ballet. However, I did find using Drosslemeyer near the end to draw Clara back from the dream world to reality, whether she would or no, to be a haunting sequence. And all the better for not being explained, or completely clear.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

NewsRadio, Season 2 Ep. 10: XMas Story

I only saw a fraction of the episodes of NewsRadio when they originally aired, but I saw enough to have a positive impression of the show. Most times, when you're nostalgic for something you saw years ago, the show's nowhere near as good as you remember. If this episode is any indication, it might be a whole lot better. The show has a cynical undercurrent bordering on a sort of cheerful nihilism. If that isn't perfectly suited for a Christmas episode, I don't know what is and probably shouldn't be writing a blog about the holiday. Certainly not a blog children could stumble across and accidentally learn there's no Santa Claus. Or God.

The main plot, largely centered on the boss getting presents for the office, seemed predictable at first, but the writers sidestepped the obvious twists. There was also a subplot involving Phil Hartman and a Salvation Army Santa that almost had me falling over laughing.

The episode was dark without being depressing, and funny without feeling pointless. It wasn't the greatest Christmas special ever, but it's definitely worth adding to your holiday set list.

We watched NewsRadio on Netflix Streaming, but it's also streaming on Amazon

Playmobile Santa Playset

This is all this guy's fault. I saw that review and became obsessed with getting my hands on a Playmobile Santa. One trip to Toys R Us later, I had this carrying case, containing a slightly different Santa Claus, an elf, sleigh, reindeer, tree, snowman, and gifts. All for about $12.50, which seems pretty good in today's market.

The case seems relatively sturdy. I'm not sure it's going to be much use to me, but it never hurts having storage options around. The biggest surprise for me was the sheer number of pieces and amount of construction required. The figures come mostly complete (other than their hats), but just about everything else requires some work.

Here's the main man, Santa Claus. I like this figure overall, though I'd have preferred the other version for the beard. Still, this is kind of awesome. The arms, wrists, and neck move, and the figure's legs move in unison, allowing him to sit. In addition, his beard has a little articulation, helping it stay out of the way when you're turning his head.

I really love the reindeer. There's just one joint, allowing the reindeer to  look up or down, but it works incredibly well.

The elf has the same basic articulation as Santa (and, as far as I know, pretty much every Playmobile figure out there).

My only complaint with this set is with this guy. While he looks fantastic, mine seems to be missing his carrot nose (I've substituted a red peg above). There's a chance I might have missed it while unpacking the figure, but I kind of doubt it (I was pretty careful). Besides, this set has an extra harness that's a little smaller than the main one. I'm betting they got switched in the factory somehow. It's a shame, because it mars an otherwise fantastic piece.

Here are the other assorted accessories. The race car required assembly - despite its small size, it started in four pieces that had to be snapped together. The presents are made of cardboard and likewise needed to be put together.

The sleigh is awfully cool. Once again, there were a number of pieces, as well as a few decals, one of which covers a peg, meaning there's no easy way to disassemble this without damaging it. Not that you'd really need to, mind you.

Playmobile is, of course, incredibly stylized. Personally, I like that style, and really like this Santa. The only disappointment here is the missing carrot nose, which is pretty minor, all things considered. Given how expensive some toys are getting, this feels like a bargain at $12.50.

Disney's Twelve Days of Christmas (CD 1991)

I'm sure that if I didn't have memories of this album, I would find it pretty weird. I mean, it is really cornball. However, I do have fond memories of listening to this music as a kid, so now I find it charmingly cornball, rather than annoyingly so.

This is an album with a premise: a bunch of Disney characters get together to practice caroling, then they decide that they're going to actually celebrate Twelve Days of Christmas with a new activity each day. Most of the songs are prefaced by a little riff of "On the ____ day of Christmas, we play in the snow/go shopping/visit Santa/etc." It's odd today to listen to an album like this, which is heavily designed to be listened to in order, which was easier on the cassette tape of this I had originally than it is on my iPod.

So all the songs are sung by actors (there are few specific credits on the CD, just a list of Vocals By:...) doing character voices, backed up by a studio choir keeping them on key. The professional singers are given an in-character explanation in the first track, when Scrooge introduces them as "The Duckburg Glee Club." Uh-huh.

It's a rather amusing mix of standards and original songs:
  • 1. Twelve Days of Christmas
  • 2. Jingle Bells/Sleigh Ride Through the Snow
  • 3. Christmas Together/O Christmas Tree
  • 4. Dear Santa
  • 5. A Gift of Love
  • 6. Here We Come A-Caroling/We Wish You a Merry Christmas
  • 7. Snow Ho Ho Ho
  • 8. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
  • 9. Downtown Holiday Hullabaloo
  • 10. I'd Like to Have an Elephant for Christmas
  • 11. Deck the Halls
  • 12. He Delivers
  • 13. Around the World Christmas
  • 14. The Twelve Days of Christmas (Reprise)

About the Songs:
I really enjoy quite a few of the more unique tracks, several of which, so far as I can tell, are original to this recording, or at least copyrighted to Disney's music department. Sleigh Ride Through the Snow is a fun one of these: upbeat and charming, similar to existing holiday songs while not retreading the same exact ground. I also particularly like Downtown Holiday Hullabaloo: a song about shopping, crowds and decorations, in a pattery imitation boogie-woogie style. In He Delivers, Huey, Dewey and Louie sing about how awesome Santa is, and Dear Santa earlier on the disc is a rather silly celebration of wish lists.

As far as the traditionals go, doing Santa Claus is Coming to Town as a brassy quick-march brings a brightness that song often lacks. Twelve Days and Deck the Halls are passable, if nothing special.

Around the World Christmas and A Gift of Love are both pretty sappy (and mostly sung by the choir), but, I don't know, it doesn't really bother me here. Those are lightened by the character commentary here and there. All of the tracks are at least a little cutesy, full of character asides commenting on the songs or the singing, or setting up the next sequence.

The final track is a little reprise in which they sing back over their twelve fun days and bid farewell and Merry Christmas to the listeners.

Best Song: Jingle Bells/Sleigh Ride Through the Snow

Worst Song: Christmas Together/O Christmas Tree (Just really dull)

I think this album is cute and amusing, but it's really heavy on the Disney cheese, that "golly-gosh isn't it swell to all be here for the holidays" sort of stuff. You have to be ready for that if you want to brave this album.

Well, see for yourself:

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

An All Dogs Christmas Carol (1998)

Watching An All Dogs Christmas Carol feels like watching a bizarre relic of a long forgotten era. Perhaps I'd feel differently if I'd ever seen either of the All Dogs Go To Heaven movies or a single episode of the TV series (which, prior to visiting Wikipedia, I didn't know existed). I assume there are people who are nostalgic for this series, though I don't think I've ever met a single one.

I actually find it a little disquieting that this made-for-TV movie isn't all bad. It has plenty of bad parts and cheap animation, but it also has a few clever puns, some decent voice acting, and a script that someone at least put effort into.

The story begins fairly generically, with what Wikipedia assures me were the main characters to the All Dogs movies and TV show celebrating the holidays. The villain, Carface, shows up with a magic dog whistle, and uses it to hypnotize the dogs and steal their stuff.

All of this ties back to another villain Wikipedia assures me comes from the show. Her name's Belledonna and - to her credit - she's a hellhound. Okay, they don't use the term, but she's clearly a hound and she's clearly from hell. Unlike her sister, who's an angel.

Jesus Christ: I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. Just go with it.

There's literally a demonic bitch who's enlisted the help of Carface and his minion to help her ruin Christmas with a giant version of the evil magic dog whistle that showed up earlier.

The main characters are then tasked by the aforementioned arch-angel dog (who is also technically a bitch) with finding the magic whistle and stopping Belledonna's insanely stupid plan. Because of some sort of arbitrary rule, the angel bitch can't just tell them where the devil bitch is located. Instead, she entrusts them with a magic dog tag, which has the power of miraculously transforming the entire thing into a version of A Christmas Carol.

And that's where things kind of get interesting. Surprisingly, the story stays fairly true to the spirit and structure of A Christmas Carol for this section. It also makes shifts the perspective from Charlie (the main character of the movies and show) to Carface: from this point on, it's his story.

I wouldn't say it's told particularly well, but it hits the required beats. Childhood trauma? Check. Injured kid he becomes attached to? Check. Confronting an eternity in hell (they're actually quite explicit here) if he doesn't change his ways? Also check.

In the end, he faces the demon bitch and stops her plan. Before she can kill him, the angel bitch shows up and unleashes the wrath of God in his defense. Well, a snow storm, but it has the same effect.

She also delivers a short speech on free will that struck me as fairly sophisticated for children's entertainment. It's nothing new, of course, but even generic theology is pretty rare these days.

None of it adds up to something you - or anyone else, for that matter - should ever see again, but that's precisely what I find fascinating. This is something that someone evidently believed in. This was a made-for-TV movie wrapping up one of the least important animated series in film history: there's no reason anyone had to put an ounce of effort into it, at all. But they did try. And they made something that isn't altogether bad.

But why would anyone ever watch it again? Kids now have dozens - hundreds - of better options at their disposal than sitting through the animated series leading up to this. Netflix, Hulu, and Youtube have plenty of far superior offerings.

Which leaves All Dogs Christmas Carol in an eternal Purgatory. It's not bad enough to damn, but it's not good enough to watch. It's almost sad, really.

It's a Wonderful Life? Not for that guy.

I haven't been feeling too Grinchy yet this year, but bashing It's a Wonderful Life feels like a good place to start. I have such oddly mixed feelings about this movie.

I sympathize.

I appreciate the overt message: each of us touches others' lives in ways we can never imagine, and you don't have to have a perfect life for life to be worth living. I'm just not as fond of the packaging.

Spoilers follow.

First off, of course I find all the beginning narration with the talking nebulas completely idiotic. I actually considered for a while whether the movie might be better without the supernatural elements, which is an odd idea for me. But Erin gave me a horrified look when I floated the idea by him, so I guess I can't say that.

It's well done. Well filmed, mostly well acted, parts were funny, but I just didn't enjoy watching the film. I found the pace slow, and the characters felt always on the edge of slapstick, never like real people. Like the people in Rockwell paintings: boring caricatures.

One of my main problems with It's a Wonderful Life was how oddly dated some aspects are, especially regarding the romance. I felt bad for George, trapped in a bad situation, but I thought Mary was sort of dumb to tie herself to a guy who was such a mess. There's no comeuppance for the villain - not even a little one that would have fit well in the plot - nor is their any acknowledgment that anyone but George sees how evil he is. It also bothered me a little that during the vision of the alternate present, George spent a lot of time wanting his life back, but not saying anything about wanting things to be better for anyone else. The film implied that plenty of people, among them the people he helped get housing, were worse off without George, but aside from his brother's death, George didn't seem to care about them, or even put two and two together.

Also, like many other reviewers, I liked Pottersville much more than the "real" world. I mean, to show how bad it was, the town had stores and bars open and bustling! Horrors!

I'm happy to have all the things that were inspired by It's a Wonderful Life, like Back to the Future, but in the end I'm ambivalent on the original.

It's A Wonderful Life (1946)

This was probably the biggest omission in last year's lineup of Christmas classics. Easily one of the top three most famous Christmas movies of all time (along with A Miracle on 34th Street and the grossly overrated A Christmas Story), It's A Wonderful Life is a quirky, stylish flick.

Ironically, I think this movie is probably best the way it's least viewed: beginning to end. As one of the mainstays of holiday television, I suspect most people have seen this in bits and pieces. But the movie's most effective when you see how the pieces snap together, and to do that, you've actually got to sit through the whole thing. At two hours and change, you'll want to avoid the extra padding added by commercials. This movie has a reputation for being slow - I suspect most of that comes from the fact so many people grew up watching it with commercial interruption. Most of it: to be fair, there are plenty of slow parts left over.

It's A Wonderful Life is fundamentally a comedy, though a restrained one. There's quite a bit of drama in it, as well, not to mention almost every other genre you can think of. It's easy to view it as a fantasy - which it is, in some respects - but one shouldn't overlook the elements of science-fiction intrinsic to its premise. In addition to influencing thousands of holiday specials and Christmas movies, aspects of the alternate universe here are clearly present in Back to the Future, Part II. It's A Wonderful Life almost feels like a precursor to The Twilight Zone.

The first two thirds of the film are an admittedly slow exploration of George Bailey's character, as defined by his connections to others. While some sequences start to drag, there's a sense of weight that moves the story forward. The movie is surprisingly subtle in its work, too, layering causality beneath a more traditional narrative. If it makes one mistake, it's in laying out its cards too soon. The existence of angels could have been entirely left out until the bridge scene, and the film would be no poorer for it.

I'm always surprised how long it takes to reach the alternate universe, but, once there, the film kicks into overdrive. On this viewing, I was caught by how believable George's reaction to the alternate universe seemed. He displays a manic, violent refusal to accept the truth. Since he was already in the midst of a mental breakdown, it's easy to accept this reaction.

There are, of course, a handful of dated references and concepts - the horrible fate George's wife would have suffered if he'd never been born was growing up to become a single librarian - but overall this holds up. If you've got the time, there are worse ways to spend a few hours than seeing this, though I'd never recommend it over A Miracle on 34th Street.

It's A Wonderful Life isn't complete with the movie, itself, though. Once you've finished seeing it, you owe it to yourself to watch SNL's take on a lost ending to the film:

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Christmas Notes: A to Z

So, I entered this holiday season with 1049 holiday songs, and I decided it only made sense to start out by listening to each and every one of them.

That adds up to about 59 hours, in case you were curious.

I decided to go in alphabetical order by song title (I actually put a lot of thought into this beforehand and came to the conclusion it would actually break up the slow parts more than going by artist or album name).

I had so much "fun" doing this, I decided to share the experience with all of you. What follows is not meant to be comprehensive. It's just a series of notes I compiled highlighting, by letter, the songs that left an impression. Because I was listening while doing other things, I'm sure I glossed over some good and bad songs while I wasn't paying attention. Further, because I was busy, many of these notes were written at the end of the day (or even a few days later), when I got around to it, so I'm sure I'm forgetting things that seemed significant at the time.

It took me about a week and a half to get through everything (I started a few weeks ago). In the interest of full disclosure, this reflects the holiday music I had at the time. In the past few days, I added another hundred songs or so, and I still need to listen to all of those.

"All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth" might be the most irritating holiday song ever written, and that's a damned high bar. Even without the Chipmunks, this is squeaky and annoying. Though The Count from Sesame Street does an awesome version, and Dread Zeppelin has a cool spin on it, as well.

I can't remember the last time I heard a traditional version of "Angels We Have Heard on High". I spent all last Christmas listening to Brian Setzer's spin, that I forgot what it was supposed to sound like. I far prefer the swing version.

"Ariel's Christmas Island" from the Disney Princess Christmas Album. It's, ah... actually better than most versions of this song, which is kind of like defending a flu as "mild."

Oh my god, "Around the World Christmas" is worse than "Ariel's Christmas Island." My brain just imploded.

"Away in a Manger". What a weird song. It seriously sounds like a parody of Christmas music, despite the fact it's supposed to be sincere.

In this day and age, "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is really unpleasant to listen to. I know this is supposed to play out as a skit, and I'm sure it's a fun duet, but come on, man: NO means NO.

Melissa Etheridge's version of Blue Christmas is actually GOOD (Nicole Atkins' is solid, too).

I think "Carol of the Bells" is the first song I've come to so far where I wished I had MORE versions.

Christmas in ____: America, Boston, Heaven, Prison, The Ghetto, The Ocean (Disney Princess: Ariel), The Pits (Rainbow Brite), The Stars (from the Star Wars holiday album of the same name). Listening to "Christmas in the Ghetto" transition into "Christmas in the Ocean" has to be one of most surreal experiences I've had listening through this list so far. And believe me, there's some serious competition.

Christmas Island. If there was one Christmas song I could wish away, I think it would be this one.

Apparantly I have something like 14 versions of "The Christmas Song." If it wasn't for iTunes' inability to differentiate Jethro Tull's "A Christmas Song" from "The Christmas Song," I think I'd have dropped into a coma by now.

Ah, "Deck the Halls." One version after another. Something about this song brings out the sickeningly cute variations. Chipmunks, Disney, and Rainbow Brite are all on my iPod doing a rendition. So are Muppets, but they get a pass.

Short and sweet: just 13 songs starting with 'E'. The standout is "Elf's Lament", by Barenaked Ladies

Feliz Navidad, The First Noel, Frosty the Snowman.... and that's about it. If I didn't have a crap-load of gimmicky versions of each, this letter would have been as quick and painless as 'E'.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Good King Wenceslas, and Greensleeves amount to a damn good letter and almost makes up for 'F'. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer is a black eye on an otherwise fantastic letter, but mercifully I've only got one version here.

There are good versions of "Hark the Heralds" and bad versions. The ones that remain true to the song's original sentiment aren't the good versions.

I've heard "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" hundreds of times in my life - haven't we all - but until I sat down and listened to version after version, I don't think I ever paid any attention to it before. Apparently, the lyrics kept getting revised to make it less depressing. The versions closer to the original are incredibly sad and melancholy. I far prefer those.

"How the Grinch Stole Christmas." I love this music. Hey, I guess I've also got a 22 minute track containing the entire special, including narration. When the hell did I get this? Who cares - it's a nice break from all those goddamn songs about angels.

This letter starts out right with "I am Santa Claus" by Bob Rivers, one of the best holiday parody songs ever recorded, followed immediately by two versions of "I Believe in Father Christmas." Then, a few songs later, you've got Oscar the Grouch singing "I Hate Christmas." Classic. But then I hit the string of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and it went downhill. I do have a soft spot for "I Saw Three Ships," though, so it did recover.

I thought listening to 12 or so versions of Jingle Bells was going to hurt, but it turned out being kind of awesome. Apparently, most are kick ass re-imagined versions. Bela Fleck, Brian Setzer, Diana Krall, Ella Fitzgerald... this is a hell of a line-up. Oh, for fuck's sake: the Chipmunks ruin EVERYTHING.

Joy to the World gets a bit redundant about a third of the way through the first of eight versions....

Just seven songs in 'K': three variants of "Kidnap the Sandy Claus" from Nightmare before Christmas (the original was good, but the alternates are incredible), three versions of Sesame Street's "Keep Christmas with You" (er... one would have been plenty), and one "King Holly, King Oak."

A decent number of 'L' songs here, including a mixed assortment. Jethro Tull's "Last Man at the Party" is a standout, and there's nothing wrong with "Last Christmas." But, before long, I moved onto "Let it Snow" and eventually "The Little Drummer Boy", both of which would have been fine in moderation. But moderation isn't the game here; I think my ears started to bleed.

In fairness, there was an interlude before those, including a couple versions of "Linus and Lucy" from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Sometimes I think that special exists to protect the world from Christmas, and that its holiday elements are there so it could infiltrate the season and take it down from the inside. But then I remember I've been listening to nothing but Christmas music for about a week, and I start to question any conclusions my mind reaches.

I could have done without some of those versions of "Little Saint Nick." A Little Saint Nick, after all, goes a long way.

Masses, Medleys, and Messiahs: I don't think there's much more to say.

There are a handful of assorted songs here, some of which are quite good. But it all gets overshadowed by a complete version of The Nutcracker Suite, which I'm already sick of. I've got another coming up that filed under 'T' for Tchaikovsky, too.

It's time for another fill-in-the-blank. O ______. If you said "Christmas Tree", "Come All Ye Faithful", "Come Emanuel", "Holy Night", "Little Town of Bethlehem", and "Tannenbaum", then you're a third right. Because you're forgetting that all those songs are ALSO classified under O' and Oh, so the six versions of each I just sat through were only the beginning.

O Come, O Come Emanuel - It's weird. I have no associations with this song at all from my childhood. I'm sure I heard it growing up, but I can't actually remember having any feelings about it at all. That changes now, because I'm in the middle of a half dozen versions. And, actually, I'm really digging most of them, especially the traditional ones. This is a really pretty song, even after hearing it ad infinitum.

Can't really say the same for the rest of the songs in the above list...

"Oi the World" by No Doubt is one of the best Christmas songs ever recorded. I can't believe I didn't have this last year.

Only 17 songs appearing under 'P' with not a "classic" in sight.

Just two songs starting with the letter 'Q': "Quant je voi la noif remise (When I see the white snow)" by Stevie Wishar and "Queen of the Winter Night," by The Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

I've only got six versions of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, seven if you count the kick-ass Mambo by Alvin Stoller. I'm pleasantly surprised how painless this was. Most of these were different enough from each other to prevent fatigue.

Oh, here we go. Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Nine versions, most all but identical to each other.

24 versions of Silent Night, the largest number of any song on my list. Apparently, every damn singer who puts out an album feels compelled to record a version of this song, and very few of them feel the need to try a non-traditional take. Look. I've got nothing against Silent Night. It's a pretty song... once. But I was ready to pound my head against a brick wall after the third or fourth version. And it kept going. And going. And going. Making matters worse, one of the few outliers, Bela Fleck, was the first on my list. I'd have loved to get this halfway through to break up the tedium, but no such luck.

After Silent Night, it jumps almost immediately to "Silver Bells". I like this song more than most people, but it certainly isn't picking up the pace as much as I'd like. And, once again, there's not a huge amount of variation going on here.

Thanks God for "Sleigh Ride". Ten tracks of uptempo holiday music, most of them are fairly unique approaches.

There are a bunch of assorted tunes, then I'm on to the "Sweet Baby Jesus" and similar tracks. Fortunately, I've only got a handful of these, but they're pretty awful. Some of these sound like they should be parodies. These lyrics are atrocious.

In total, more than 100 songs starting with 'S' alone. By the time I get to 'T', I'm pretty happy. That is, of course, until I realize....

Pretty much the first thing in 'T' is the other complete version of The Nutcracker Suite. Nothing wrong with the music, but it's getting extremely old.

"This Christmas" is a really stupid song.

I'm pretty sure I could have gone my entire life without having to listen to ten versions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" back-to-back. God, this is getting painful.

Two versions of "Up on the Rooftop", and I'm through this letter.

One parody called "Violent Night" and that's it.

A lot of songs starting with 'W'. After a decent assortment, I get to four versions of "We Three Kings". I like this song, so no complaints.

Eight versions of "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" is a bit much, even with a handful of Sesame Street/Muppet versions mixed in.

Ah, the "Wexford Carol": very pretty.

Four versions of "What are You Doing New Years Eve". Once again, a fine song in moderation, but I don't think I need to hear more than one version in a row. Honestly, half of one version is probably plenty.

Eight versions of "What Child is This": I love Greensleeves whatever you call it.

Fifteen singers dreaming of a "White Christmas" and eleven "Winter Wonderlands". This is almost as bad as 'S'.

Just two songs starting with an 'X', both mash-ups starting with X-Mas.

Just five songs starting with 'Y', and they're all pretty good.

The only letter of the alphabet without a single track. This didn't mean the end, however: I still had to get through 46 songs starting with numbers. These were a mix - some were bizarrely labeled tunes starting with the track listing. Other than that, you can bet I discovered I had a few more versions of "12 Days of Christmas" than I'd originally thought.

The Nutcracker: The Motion Picture (1988)

I liked this more than Erin did, I think, but it eventually grated on me as well. This is also known as the Seattle Ballet Nutcracker, and that is a more appropriate name, as the largest problem with this was the tension between whether you were watching a dance piece or a movie.

I found the beginning rather charming, but eventually it was just long and strange. The surreal narration doesn't add much. The dancing is decently done, most of the time, and I'm sure it was fun to see live. The energy of the dancers just doesn't translate to film. The camera is often filming the least interesting part of the dance, and occasionally it seemed to me that the visuals were out of sync with the music.

Adding a few moments of awkward bluescreen does not change a piece intended for the stage to one suited for the screen. I had trouble staying interested through the Land of Sweets dances; some of the costumes and dancers were good, most just did not work on film. There were moments that I really liked in this, but they were almost entirely in the first half.

We're planning of hitting another version of Nutcracker or two this year, it remains to be seen whether anyone can adapt the ballet to film, or film the ballet, successfully. This production couldn't decide whether it was filming a stage version or making a movie, and so it doesn't really manage either one.

Book Review: Christmas: A Candid History, by: Bruce David Forbes

Reading this book was an odd experience for me, kind of like overhearing a conversation where you're familiar with the subject matter, but are coming at it from a drastically different point of view. I started out really disliking the book for reasons I'll get to in a moment, but ended on a more positive note.

Since it's the Christmas season, I'd like to start with the negative, which is easily done since it means starting at the beginning.

The book is billed as a history of the holiday, and indeed it opens with pre-Christian festivals. However, right from the start, Forbes defines Christmas as a Christian holiday which was inspired by pre-existing celebrations. While he's open about the significance of Roman festivals like Saturnalia, he's fairly dismissive of them. The term he uses for pre-Christian celebrations is "party," and he never explores a spiritual side to these events.

The reason, it seems, is that the book is written by a Christian for a Christian audience. To his credit, however, he actually does have something worth saying.

The book moves on through the history of Christmas's beginnings, where Forbes covers the fact the Bible offers little information on Jesus's birth (and certainly never offers a date), that Christmas didn't appear for several hundred years, and that the date was almost certainly due to existing holidays and festivals which also inspired a number of traditions.

My issue here is admittedly one of semantics: is Christmas a Christian holiday inspired by prior festivals, or is Christmas better understood as a new name for a far older holiday? If you were here last year, you know this is a topic I've written about myself, and you also know I'm a firm believer that the latter's the way to go. I don't begrudge Forbes for disagreeing on this point, but I was initially disappointed he didn't acknowledge it at all: he simply stated that Christmas was a Christian holiday and moved on.

With one exception, the book gave no indication there was another way to look at the matter. That exception, by the way, was a quote from a historian, neatly tucked in. So neatly, in fact, I found myself wondering if Forbes may be a little more clever than I'd given him credit for: the book seems to be leading the reader to question whether Christmas is truly a Christian holiday at all, even if Forbes shies away from asking directly.

Most of the book is a historical look at the development of Christmas over time. I didn't find much surprising, but then I was already something of fan of the season's history. Overall, I found the section on Santa Claus better constructed than the rest, though throughout there were some fairly large holes in his account. Most notably, the Middle Ages through the Renaissance are more or less skipped over. And while he wrote briefly about Black Peter, I don't think Krampus was mentioned once. I also question the weight he attributed to various mythological sources as opposed to Christian. He certainly acknowledges that Norse mythology (Odin, in particular) were influential, but I believe he far underestimates just how significant this was to the development of Santa Claus.

The book was best when it got to the point. Forbes is, as I stated before, a Christian writing a book about Christmas for other Christians. However, despite my qualms about his attribution of elements, his overall motivation and message are good. Pointing to the numerous non-Christian influences, he rightly dismisses the "keep Christ in Christmas" movement as misinformed. He then goes on to call for respect for other faiths and atheists during the holiday season, encouraging Christians to consider their perspective. While I wasn't all that impressed by the opening, I found the closing chapter downright heartwarming.

Ultimately, this isn't a bad book if you're looking for a quick overview of the holiday's history, though I'm sure there are better ones out there.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Macy's Parade Balloon Inflation

This year we went the day before Thanksgiving to see the Parade Balloons being inflated. It's free to go, but you have to enter at a particular place and deal with huge crowds.

The first few balloons we saw:

Kung Fu Panda's ass:

I liked seeing how many sandbags it took to stabilize the balloons:

Here's a look up the street:

Here's the head of the Kung Fu Panda balloon, and a small vehicle for size comparison:

A bunch of smaller round balloons:

Here some workers are securing SpongeBob Squarepants. I did notice that his arm was oddly bent by the straps, and still kind of bent the next day:

The sidewalks the crowd walked on surround the Natural History Museum. There were big floodlights set up so that the balloons could be easily seen.

Kool-Aid Man was being moved to a new position as we walked by, at first we thought he was deflating.

Erin took this picture of a balloon dog's butt.

All the balloons have spots where their tie-downs are secured

The Aflac Duck:

That pile that looks like a dying plastic jellyfish is actually Buzz Lightyear, in the process of inflating. 

Sonic was a great looking balloon, I may have taken a few shots:

As we rounded the corner, there was a line of news vans waiting like vultures.

The view over the crowd as we approached the second line of balloons:

Erin really wanted a picture of Spider-bunny:

The Snoopy balloon is getting a little worse for wear, (click to enlarge):

Better picture of Spiderman. The crowd got really thick here:

Pikachu was in progress:

Workers propping up a half-inflated Pokemon:

A giant smurf was trapped:

The last big balloon was Kermit:

X-Men: Evolution, Season 2: On Angel's Wings (2001)

X-Men: Evolution is a strange show. It started out with one of the worst premises imaginable: having the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants as students with secret powers enrolled in the same public high school. And, frankly, it didn't even do that premise justice for more than a year.

However, over the seasons, the show evolved into something else. Somehow, the characters and the setting evolved until it actually made sense calling them the X-Men. In a sense, most of the series wound up functioning as an extended and in-depth origin story, which is sort of cool.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad episodes to sit through before the series picks up.

This episode is after the worst of them, but it's still got a lot wrong with it. As the title implies, On Angel's Wings focuses on Angel, who inexplicably hides his powers in shame, despite the fact his mutation is more likely to get him laid then hunted (to be fair, this bizarre bit of illogic is lifted right from the comic). Cyclops heads to New York to find him, assisted by Rogue, who's clearly smitten with Scott Summers. Not that she could touch him, given her powers, to say nothing of the puritanical network standards.

Magneto shows up to try and enlist Angel, who believes the megalomaniac dressed in demonic gear, because everyone believes Magneto at first in this show. Of course, Magneto quickly starts acting evil, and before long Angel's formed an alliance with the X-Men.

There's a subplot about Angel playing hero and saving people, using his incredible powers, which really aren't all that incredible, given what most of the X-Men are capable of. In fact, why is Magneto even bothering with this guy? Last season he made a big deal about only wanting the most powerful mutants on his side, now he's risking his life to recruit some schmuck with the proportionate strength, speed, and agility of a dove.

So. This wasn't awful, but you can leave it off your annual list. If you're dying for some X-Men in your X-Mas, skip this and watch "Have Yourself a Morlock Little X-mas" instead. It's not that the '95 Christmas episode was actually better, but it's far more interesting, in a twisted, screwed-up sort of way.

If you must, X-Men Evolution is streaming on Netflix.

Book Review: Hercule Poirot's Christmas

Cross-Posted from The Blue Fairy's Workshop

Hercule Poirot's Christmas
Agatha Christie, 1939

I find Agatha Christie to be an acquired taste that I've never quite acquired. I enjoy her work, usually, but it takes me a long time to get into each book.

This was no exception. Once the story got going I quite liked it, but there were a lot of character introductions to get through first.

Once the extended family was all together at the manor house, they got right down to the business of Christmas: acrimonious backstabbing, awkward flirting, and murder. Poirot is brought along to assist the local police when patriarch Simeon Lee is found dead in a locked room. He'd assembled his clan of children together for the holidays to emotionally torment them, then threatened to make a new will.

So everyone has a motive, but only Poirot can peel through the misdirections and lies to figure out what happened. I especially enjoyed Poirot's amusement at the very British nature of the Lee family.

An enjoyable read, but the quiet tone isn't my favorite.

3 Stars - A Good Book