Saturday, December 10, 2011

1950s Hymnalogues

I've never heard of a hymnalogue before, but apparently back in the stupid ages, these were sing-a-long video recordings with words superimposed over them. I had an opportunity to subject myself to a pair of these, one for "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and the other for "O Come All Ye Faithful."

To call these uninspired feels like an understatement. These are black holes in which inspiration is sucked then never seen again. They're vapid, boring, and pointless videos. Hey, geniuses in the 50's: you know what the advantage is of video? That it allows things to MOVE. So, next time, why not recording something that isn't standing still. Just a thought.

The audio recordings weren't bad, but neither were they impressive. Just generic, uninteresting versions of the songs.

Don't believe me? Have a look for yourself. I can't find a video of Bethlehem, but here's O Come All Ye Faithful, for your viewing "enjoyment."

Bad Santa (2003)

I've never seen this movie before this year, despite the parallels in tone with this blog. Going in, I was aware the movie was based on the theory that having Billy Bob Thornton drinking and swearing while wearing a Santa suit would somehow equal comedy gold. That they somehow managed to prove this theory is kind of amazing.

This thing is very well made and does a good job knowing precisely how far it can go without actually crossing the wrong line. The movie wants to create the illusion it has no limits or sense of decency, but that's not the case. The lead character never really does anyone any actual harm (well, at least not where we have to see the consequences), which prevents the audience from having to confront any dark truths, save the requisite criticism of consumerism.

I'm no fan of gross-out humor (in fact, it repulses me), but nothing in here bothered me. I remember seeing the trailers and thinking this would be a dark comedy, but it isn't; not really. Ostensibly, the subjects of the jokes get vile at points, but there's a lighthearted - dare I say "whimsical" - charm to the whole thing that made it hard to find anything offensive.

I think that's the most surprising thing about this movie - despite the vile jokes, violence, and swearing, it's light popcorn entertainment, far more interested in making you laugh than cringe. It's a solid flick for those who love and/or hate the holiday season: strongly recommended if - like me - you missed this when it came out.

144 Days of Christmas

I've been listening to a lot of Christmas music recently, and reflecting on the difficulty of The Twelve Days of Christmas. It's a long song, and while it can be fun to sing counting songs like this one, it can be dreadfully boring to listen to them. Hence why most successful recorded versions of 12 Days include jokes, asides, or other little tricks to keep your interest. I'm going to provide a bunch of decent versions of the song below, let's see if I can get to Twelve.


1: The Muppets and John Denver

Here you can see some classic tricks: different voices on each verse, some humorous asides, including Fozzie forgetting his lyrics. They actually redid this version almost moment for moment with Jimmy Fallon a few years ago, but the internet does not seem to want to provide me with the video of that.

2: Straight No Chaser

This a cappella group does a really fun medley mashing up 12 Days with a ton of other holiday and non-holiday tunes. The humor exploits the listener's knowledge of the song. It sort of has to be seen to be believed.

3: The Chipmunks

You have to be patient for the funny in this one, but eventually it starts to come apart at the seams for a bit...

4: Bela Fleck and the Flecktones

This is both impressive and fun to listen to; the group changes lead instrument, style and tempo for every verse.

5: The Night Heron Consort

No video, but you can listen to a clip of the song at the link. I talked about this song on last year's review of the CD. This is really inventive for a wordless version: they use different instruments for each verse, evocative of the different gifts.

6: Prairie Home Companion

Another version based in humorous sound effects.

7: The Addams Family: The Musical
This one, I can only tell you about, because apparently it's so new that no one has added it to the internet yet, and I'm not about to be the first. On my shiny new CD: Broadway: Carols for a Cure Vol 13, the cast of The Addams Family Musical does a fantastically funny Twelve (13) Days of Christmas. But you'll just have to take my word for it. It does involve bedbugs biting.

As in that recording, a popular way to make the song unique is to change up the lyrics, here's a few more versions:

8: Phineas and Ferb


9: Disney Princesses

...but just on principle, I'm not as big a fan of those as of the versions in which the traditional lyrics are kept, but the song is still interesting to listen to. Besides, even new lyrics get old by verse 12 if that's all you're doing.

10: Sesame Street

Sample at the link. This version has a lot of that same charm that I love in the Muppet version at the top of the page: characters lending their particular commentary to the traditional lyrics.

11: Frank Kelly's Christmas Countdown

This is more a comedy skit to music than a song, but it is highly amusing.

Okay, I guess I only got to eleven versions, or 132 Days of Christmas in total. I think that's plenty, though, don't you?

I mean, let's be honest:

Friday, December 9, 2011

Christmas Comes but Once a Year (1936)

I know I've seen this eight minute short from Fleischer Studios before. It's relatively simple in concept: a bunch of orphans' Christmas is ruined until Grampy (one of Fleischer's reoccurring characters) breaks into their kitchen, transforms a bunch of stuff into toys, then disguises himself as Santa Claus to hand out the gifts.

It's a simple concept, but the execution was ahead of its time. Like Grampy, Fleischer Studios invented some tricks of their own. Half a century before computer effects, they were developing innovative methods to create the illusion of 3D environments, as evidenced in the opening shot.

Like most old cartoons, if you're not interested in animation and its history, you won't find much to like here. If, however, you appreciate the art form, this is a great piece.

The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)

I remembered this one from my childhood and wanted to track it down. It might be my favorite Christmas Carol I've seen yet this year, but it's a very odd one.

This is actually an animated remake of a live action musical version (also a TV special) from 1956. It's full of songs and music; there's actually very little dialogue. I really like the music, although bear in mind the style has a lot in common with old-fashioned movie musicals.

Some of the songs are wonderfully surreal. Near the start, Erin asked me to confirm that we'd just heard a bunch of alley cats singing about how Scrooge was so stingy that Satan was going to complain about him in Hell. Yes, yes we had.

They manage to fit digressions about both Santa Claus and Jesus into an hour-long Christmas Carol, so there are a few common scenes missing from this adaptation. Nothing about young Scrooge at school, and if you blink you'll miss the Ghost of Christmas Future.

I like the voice acting most of the time, but the animation is too uneven to really support it well. It has strong moments, but the low budget shows, and there are occasionally very ugly sequences that might be caused by miscommunication with the Japanese animation studio about the character designs.

Even so, I'm glad I tracked this down. If you're looking for a unique Christmas Carol, and you like musicals, you might enjoy it too.

Old Spice MANta Claus

We're not the only ones in the holiday spirit.

This week, The Man Your Man Could Smell Like (spokesperson/actor/action hero Isaiah Mustafa) is giving away 7 billion holiday gifts on Youtube.

Click here: http://www.youtube.com/oldspice#p/p
for the full playlists with each day's announcements.

Here's a sampling:





Russia, Switzerland, Billings Montana, women named Lorraine and Matt Lauer also already have their gifts. Do you?

You're Welcome.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948)

Note the year of release - this isn't the famous Rankin/Bass stop-motion special, but rather a short directed by Max Fleischer. It's only about 8 minutes long, and it's an earlier adaptation of the song.

I've known for a while that there were multiple versions of Rudolph out there, but somehow I missed that this was directed by Fleischer. If you're not a big fan of animation, he's the guy responsible for the Popeye cartoons, as well as the extremely influential Superman animated shorts.

His take on Rudolph is, if nothing else, extremely bizarre. The story starts with Rudolph shunned for his nose by his peers, as you'd expect. What I didn't expect was the level of anthropomorphism used. These Reindeer walk upright, live in houses, and speak. The coach's whistle in the Rankin/Bass special seems realistic in comparison.

In fact, Santa's the only human in the short. He comes across Rudolph when he's dropping off gifts in his town then enlists him on the spot. After delivering gifts to the deer, they head to drop off presents to a city of rabbits.

The writing's nothing special, and some of the designs are off-putting, but there's no denying the animation itself was revolutionary.

If you're a fan of the medium and have eight minutes to kill, you could do worse than having a look:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Lord and Taylor Windows 2011


This year the Lord and Taylor windows were based on a collection of solicited children's drawings... or something. So the first window is a girl drawing, and then there's just a selection of somewhat generic holiday scenes. 


All the displays are surrounded by drawings done by little kids. It's a cute collection of slightly animatronic dolls, but nothing too exciting. Enjoy.









There are Snow Pets in my Pocket


Ah, Big Lots. When something just isn't good enough for Conway or National Wholesale Liquidators, it just might wind up there.

Lindsay and I wound up at a Big Lots a few months ago, and we came across this for five bucks. That's right: just five bucks. Needless to say, we had to own it.


You can see the love in their eyes as they stare through you. I mean, sure, their flocked fur is a bit mangy, and they look as though they might be carrying a disease, but this family of deer aren't short on love.


The antlers are incredibly flimsy: you can press them until the tips are touching with almost no pressure, then watch them snap back. That right there is play value.


In addition to the delightful family of reindeer, you also get a bonus pet. If you believe the back of the packaging, this guy's name is Grady, the Snow Grouse. If you instead believe your eyes, it's some sort of insect which wants to burrow into your flesh and lay eggs.

Christmas eggs.

Home Alone (1990)

To my surprise, this movie is not actually terrible, just sort of boring. It's decently shot, and it has good music, but the characters are uninteresting and the plot is thin and slow.

From the beginning, the whole set-up is heavy-handed; the level of anger and actual evilness from the family members is so over the top that it's hard to get behind the later desire for reconciliation. They are all jerks, and the kid is kind of better off without them.

There are some truly random tone shifts; it feels as though most plot elements were added piecemeal, and moved around somewhat at random. It doesn't help that the continuous schtick prevents the characters from gaining any real emotional momentum. Macaulay Culkin mugs through the whole thing, seeming determined to prove he can't act.

And then of course, there's the house of death. You remember the house of death, it's probbaly the only thing most people remember about this movie at all. It's the part where the kid sets up horrible maiming booby traps for the burglars, who then bounce from pain to pain like cartoon characters. For the only part anyone remembers, it's short: it really only makes up about 15 minutes or less of the film. I hate this kind of humor, so I'm really not the best to judge, but I found it basically as boring as the rest of the film, plus a lot of cringing. I wince when characters fall down stairs. It HURTS to fall down stairs. I probably thought this was funny when I was a kid, but most kids have no visceral memory for bodily injury.

For all that, I still say it isn't awful. There are a few scenes that are kinda cute, although most turn trite before the end. Is it bad? Yes. Dull and seemingly endless? Oh, yes. So, worth your time and eyeballs? Nah.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Santa and the Fairy Snow Queen (1951)

What the HELL was that?

Okay, so Lindsay and I recently ordered a collection on Amazon titled Holiday Family Classics, containing more Christmas specials and movies than you can shake the severed arm of a snowman at. One of the first was titled,"Santa and the Fairy Snow Queen", and I was curious. I mean, I like Santa Claus. I like fairies. Putting them together should be a no-brainer.

I don't know where to start. This live-action special is introduced by a brownie - not an elf, interestingly enough - named "Snoopy" (no relation - had this been narrated by a dog, it would have been far, far better). Apparently, Snoopy's no longer tasked with making toys, but is rather the brownie charged with sneaking into children's rooms late at night to talk to their toys and get information on whether kids have treated them well.

I feel it's significant that Snoopy is one of the most annoying characters to ever grace the screen. She has a high-pitched laugh that sounds like the unholy love-chid of a mouse and a horse. Also, she never stops smiling. And not in a natural way either: she has this impossibly huge grin that would make the Joker jealous.

After she explains her job in a manner that no doubt inflicted dozens of children with nightmares, she offers to tell the story of how Santa's toys first came to life. I know from experience that no amount of screaming at the screen can prevent her from doing so.

At this point, the special transitions from frame story to Toyland, the home of Santa Claus. And when I say "transitions", I mean that she crosses to the other side of the stage, where they've constructed one of the crappiest sets ever to grace a Christmas special.

The entirety of the set consists of some giant-sized presents in the background, some actors dressed as toys everywhere, and a pair of giant boots representing Santa Claus. Every now and then they cut to an actor playing the part. And how is this master thespian? Well, picture the worst mall Santa you've ever seen in your life. Now, imagine his younger brother stole his costume and fake beard. That's what's in this special.

Here's the plot, in all its grandeur: Santa's invited the Fairy Snow Queen over for sugar cookies, but when she gets there, he's so exhausted from busting his ass making toys, he's asleep (at least that's Snoopy's explanation: if you ask me, he looks smashed). Since the Fairy Snow Queen likes playing jokes, she brings all of Santa's toys to life. Santa wakes up and is amused for no good reason. The toys dance, sing, and march around like idiots. Santa asks the Fairy Snow Queen to turn the toys back before they break or fall in love, but she can't, since her magic can't be used without the consent of the target and - for some reason - the toys are reluctant to give up their newfound life. Santa guilts them into a compromise: they agree to be toys, provided they can come to life for an hour a day. The Fairy Snow Queen waves her dollar store-wand, and the special mercifully comes to a close.

If this had been, say, a five minute animated short, I can imagine that story being kind of sweet. Unfortunately, it was a half-hour. How did they fill that half hour? I'm glad I asked. Mostly with dancing. Really, really, bad dancing. To music lifted from The Nutcracker (plus a random song from Sleeping Beauty).

It's almost like someone saw The Nutcracker, decided it was too complex for kids, and transformed it into this monstrosity.

On the historical side, there are some interesting elements, if you're a geek after my heart. First up, Santa's helpers are brownies, not elves, and the Fairy Snow Queen is one of his friends. This harkens back to Baum's "The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus," which is more or less the ancestor of every Christmas special you've ever seen. The use of Toyland was almost certainly ripped off of Babes in Toyland, which isn't particularly interesting by itself, but part of Snoopy's job - reclaiming discarded or broken toys for eventual reuse - is reminiscent of King Moonracer and the Island of Misfit Toys in Rudolph. I'd be interested to find out where this idea originates from a like source (I find it hard to believe it originated here - apparently, this never exactly had a large audience).

A few minutes online confirmed this special's pedigree: this was local entertainment, not intended for a national audience. And it certainly shows. Unless you're us, there's no reason for anyone to watch this. Ever.

The Santa Clause 2: The Mrs. Clause (2002)

In the middle of The Santa Clause 2, there's a fifteen minute stretch where the movie is kind of good. It's during a more grounded portion of the movie, where Allen's lost the fat suit and is trying to woo his son's principal, that you start feeling optimistic. Allen uses his diminishing magic to perform a series of minor miracles, mostly to salvage an office Christmas party. For these brief moments, the movie hits its stride, drops most of the slapstick, and hints at developing into something worthwhile.

Unfortunately, this is the only portion of the movie that doesn't completely suck. The rest of the film is utter crap, an appropriate sequel to part one.

The issue is a common one with holiday fare: the film actively tries to mimic cartoons without bothering to learn what makes a good cartoon work. Sticking in zany sound effects and using cheap effects isn't enough to make a movie fun. Incorporating artifacts from animation into live action can be successful when done right (Elf jumps to mind as a good example), but you need strong writing, a carefully constructed tone, and good direction for it to work. Otherwise, you end up with something that feels cheap and cheesy.

That's what happens here. Lacking even passable writing, this comes off as corny and worthless. There's a sense that each scene was designed to convey the cynical message, "This doesn't matter; it's just for kids." To that end, there are squeaky, farting reindeer, idiotic elves, and a pathetic villain.

And, in the middle of it all, fifteen minutes hinting at how much better it actually could have been. If you can't imagine how a movie about Santa Claus could be genuinely good, then you have no business making one.

Rainbow Brite Christmas (LP 1985)

Remember Rainbow Brite? Sure you do, it was a short-lived but much remembered 80's cartoon for girls. But did you know that Rainbow Brite released two records of music? And that one of them is a Christmas album? That you might not have known.

In the 80s  there wasn't a lot of concern for voice actor fidelity in children's media, so only a few of the voices on the disc are actually the voice actors from the series. That doesn't prevent this from being an exercise in blended nostalgia and a sort of bemused horror.

Song List:

  • A Gift of Love
  • Jingle Bells
  • The Twelve Days of Christmas
  • Silent Night
  • Joy to the World
  • Christmas in the Pits
  • The First Noel
  • Deck the Halls
  • Christmas Medley: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, O Christmas Tree
  • We Wish You a Merry Christmas



About the Songs:

First off, let me tell you how surreal I find the song choices. Between Silent Night, Joy to the World, The First Noel, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (of which they do more verses than many other recordings I have) and Hark the Herald Angels Sing, over a third of the songs are religious carols. To me, that seems like a really high percentage for a kids album based on a fictional character. Especially since said fictional characters are a bunch of super-powered children who live in a sort of magical pocket dimension in the sky, who are ultimately responsible for light, spring and color, and thus continued life on earth. I find the image of the Color Kids singing about Jesus completely and utterly bizarre. Don't forget they have chipper little voices, and are backed up by synthesizer.

I mean, just listen: http://www.rainbowbrite.net/sounds/RainbowBrite-TheFirstNoel.mp3

Another important point: A Gift of Love is a song that I had only ever heard on Disney: The Twelve Days of Christmas. It apparently originates here, and the lyrics make much more sense for Rainbow Brite than for Mickey and Co.

Christmas in the Pits really grew on me on re-listening, because it's just so weird. It's an upbeat sort of ditty about how Murky hates Christmas. Except of course Lurky only hates it sometimes, so it becomes a little dialogue about how much Lurky likes Christmas, but he'll hate it for Murky's sake. http://www.rainbowbrite.net/sounds/RainbowBrite-XmasInThePits.mp3

Two of the songs that aren't religious (Twelve Days of Christmas, Deck the Halls) have all their lyrics revised for the setting, and are amusing, if not actually good.

Best Songs: Christmas in the Pits, A Gift of Love

Worst Songs: Deck the Halls (for bad rhyming), Silent Night

I'll readily admit, I'm softer on all this cheesy kids music than Erin would be, because little-kid Christmas is about the surest way to my nostalgia button. And while I never had this album as a child, there was a time when the other Rainbow Brite music cassette: Paint a Rainbow in Your Heart, was on continuous play in my house.

This album has been out of print basically since it came out, but you can find the tracks for download on rainbowbrite.net

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Jack Frost (1979)

Jack Frost is one of the later Rankin-Bass stop-motion specials, and as such represents a trade off. The animation is far more refined than most of the more famous specials: the movement is far more fluid and natural than Rudolph, Year Without a Santa Claus, or Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, for example. However, the special is missing any of the charm that made those work, which is probably why this hasn't endured in the same way.

I think a lot of the blame goes to the concept of the narrator, a groundhog named Pardon-Me-Pete, who drains the energy from the special every second he's on screen. Say what you will about the best Rankin-Bass specials, but there's a sort of fairy-tale mythology they seem to inhabit. Pete just doesn't belong in that world, and he kills any chance this might have had to gain some gravitas. And it does try: the story used in Jack Frost is actually structured as a sort of tragedy, with the main character having to sacrifice his chance at happiness for the sake of those he loves. There are themes of growing up and sacrificing dreams for the greater good, ideas which could have delivered some emotional punch.

But all of that is basically laughed off or ignored altogether. The story is there, but the emotion isn't: it's as though the producers had a grand idea that fell apart when they realized they might depress children if they went through with it.

So, instead of a grand tragedy or even a decent drama, we get a bunch of crappy musical numbers. Somewhere, buried in this mess, was an ambitious idea, but it never floats to the surface.

As always, Rankin-Bass delivered some cool designs. The King of the Cossacks has some great steam and clockwork servants, and the immortal winter sprites, while nothing significantly different than what we've seen in other specials, are well imagined.

But, in the end, I just found this too boring to recommend to anyone who isn't a diehard Rankin-Bass fan. There's some great animation, sure, and one sweet line at the end, but it just feels too timid to actually rise above the myriad other specials.

There's a reason this one's mostly been forgotten.

If you need to see it for yourself anyway, you can pick it up on DVD.

Radio City Supplemental: Photos

Even though the stated policy wasn't "no photos", but rather "No Flash Photography", and plenty of people even ignored that, I only took a small handful of pictures at The Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Just enough to give you a taste.

In the lobby, when we came in, we were greeted by this:

It has to be at least 15 feet tall, it spins, and all of the little crystals are snowflakes. 
Here's the stage from our seats in the mezzanine:


And here I'm looking sideways across the mezzanine itself:


I took a few shots of one of the numbers I loved most: Christmas in NYC

The Rockettes rode the bus in choreographed fashion
and eventually changed their costumes for the finale of the sequence.

The Multiple Santa number was cute, but very odd:

and the Living Nativity was damn impressive. I mean, look:

Cool, right? Lots of people and bright costumes coordinated together, and there are live camels. I mean, not as cool as any number starring the Rockettes, but impressive. 

The video game number really made everything after it seem a little lackluster anyway. I didnt get any pictures of the video game number, but you can get an idea of how crazy and fun it was from the following:

The Radio City Christmas Spectacular (a second opinion)

Right now, Lindsay's sitting beside me on the train back to Queens, typing her love letter to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. I can appreciate that reaction. But mine was perhaps more... complicated.

The Radio City Christmas Spectacular was, I think, the best and the worst thing I've ever seen.

It was madness. It may be the last surviving vestige of vaudeville; this is a show which has lasted since the 1930's. But make no mistake: it paid a horrible price for survival.

It sold its soul to Christmas. The show is a blur of dancers in skimpy outfits being pimped by a fat man in red while multi-colored lights and projections of the New York City skyline whirl by. And then the 3D glasses come out.

A mother and her daughter learn the true meaning of Christmas by hunting digital Christmas fairies and blasting them with holiday cheer. The Rockettes dress as reindeer, Christmas presents, and - worst of all - tourists in a series of dances masquerading as family entertainment. The North Pole is a clockwork monstrosity of so many projections and set pieces, the mind loses the ability to tell what's real. And then the baby Jesus makes his appearance, surrounded by elaborate, gaudy sets and live animals.

It's spectacular and horrific at the same time. It's an unparalleled spectacle of light and color and costume. And it's the deepest pit of Christmas Hell, where everything holy is mocked, and everyone uses Chase Bank.

The product placement alone is incredible.

I still don't know whether I liked it. But I do think that nothing I've seen before so perfectly encapsulates the mandate of this blog.

Seeing this was seeing Christmas. What else can be said?

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Radio City Christmas Spectacular

OMG! THAT WAS AWESOME!

I mean, it was awesomely weird, and awesomely impressive, as well as awesomely awesome.

The Radio City Christmas Spectacular may be the most purely Christmas thing I've seen ever. It was entirely made up of shiny shiny sparkly things, spectacle, and ridiculousness.

I loved it, in case you didn't notice.

From the first number, in which the lovely Rockettes danced impressively in some disturbingly sexy reindeer costumes... and then their antlers LIT UP, I knew I was going to like this.

There were low points, of course; the 3d movie of Santa's sleigh was pretty corny, the all-teddy bear Nutcracker had moments, but went on too long, and there was one awkwardly heartfelt song that was just boring given what had come before it. However, since nearly every odd or out-of place moment was clearly a vamp so that the Rockettes could change their costume, I can't judge too harshly.

Besides which, the Rockettes got to star in a 'video game' presented in '3DLive'! That was hilarious.

Given my fondness for city Christmas, it should be no surprise that I was transported by the Christmas in NY number. PLUS THERE WERE ICE SKATERS. THEY CAME UP THROUGH THE FLOOR!

I was also surprised by how much I liked the Live Nativity. It might have been the way one camel kept eying the scrim like it was tasty, but the sheer spectacle of it kept me fascinated.

I love ridiculous spectacle, after all. Throw in some impressive high-kicking, sparkly costumes, live animals, a double-decker bus and pyrotechnics and I'd say you've got a recipe for a damn good time.

The 12 Dogs of Christmas (2005)

This movie makes me think of Equilibrium. No, stay with me here - I'm going somewhere with this.

In Equilibrium, the government is more or less run by Nazis who have outlawed emotion. As such, the point of the movie is that emotions are good and Nazis are bad.

Surprisingly, I've never seen another situation arise where this moral has been especially enlightening.

The 12 Dogs of Christmas takes place during the depression in a town where dogs have been outlawed. The moral of the story is that dogs can be good and sadistic dogcatchers who use captured animals in dogfights are bad.

Once again, while I don't disagree with this assertion, neither do I feel particularly enlightened.

This is - unfortunately - a full length movie. I'm not entirely certain whether this was made-for-TV or released direct-to-video. Usually, I just get trivial details like that from Wikipedia, but this movie doesn't actually have a Wikipedia page. Having just watched the movie, this doesn't surprise me.

The movie is more or less the dictionary definition of safe, family entertainment (or it would be if it was actually entertaining). There's no real sense of danger, even when characters are being chased by the absurdly evil dogcatchers. Since I've forgotten the two dogcatchers' names (and don't care enough to check), I'm going to refer to them as Murky and Lurky going forward.

Murky and Lurky are quite possibly the least threatening villains I've ever seen in a live action movie. That they manage to capture anyone or anything is baffling - it should be noted that their few victories are almost always off-camera. When they're on camera, they're regularly undone by a child kicking them in the shin then running off. Criminal geniuses, they're not.

Production values vary. The actors are decent (in fairness, it's occasionally entertaining seeing them enjoy the campy dialogue), and the movie looks fine. However, there are clearly issues with the setting - a quick glance on IMDB revealed what I already suspected: the movie was filmed in May, and the snow was shipped in from a ski resort. As a result, the cars in the movie are magical. When in motion, it's always summer through the windows; when they stop, there's snow on the ground.

This movie isn't aggressively bad, at least no more so than any other disgustingly cheerful celebration of the human spirit out there. However, it's as boring as you'd expect.

I can't imagine there's anyone out there seriously considering watching this, but just in case: skip it.

Book Review: The Nutcracker and the Mouse King

The Nutcracker and the Mouse King
E. T. A. Hoffman, 1816
Translation by Joachim Neugroschel

Crossposted at The Blue Fairy's Bookshelf

So, after watching several different versions of the Nutcracker Ballet for Mainlining Christmas, I wanted to go back and read the original story. That proved to be harder than it sounds, but I finally got access to a Penguin classics edition at the library.

(This volume also included the slightly sanitized retelling of the tale by Dumas that the ballet is technically based on, but I'm only looking at the original.)

As a work this story seems to consciously evade categorization. The story is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fairy tale, a surrealist fantasy, with a story within a story that seems to want to mock the conventions of fairy tales but is still a fairly classic example. I found it intriguing throughout, but a bit exhausting to read.

The basics of the story are the basics of the ballet: Marie becomes obsessed with the Nutcracker that Godfather Drosselmeyer brings for Christmas, her brother damages it, mice attack her late at night and she is defended by the Nutcracker leading an army of dolls and toy soldiers. Then it gets a little more complicated. Drosselmeyer tells her a story of how a princess was turned into a hideous beast because of her foolish parents' feud with the Mouse Queen.  She is eventually rescued, but the curse rebounds on the young man doing the rescuing, and he is turned into the first nutcracker. Or something. Of course, Marie loves the Nutcracker despite how ugly he looks, and her love and fidelity helps him defeat the Mouse King (son of the Queen from before) and be restored. Maybe.

The story isn't actually that complicated, but there is a narrator with a sense of humor, and reality and fantasy are so interwoven that I had a hard time being sure whether certain words or names were errors in translation, typos in the book, or intentionally confusing or vague. Part of the confusion comes from that fact that often the children's playtime is described in terms that they might have used. For example, at one point Fritz (the brother) puts his new toy soldiers away, but what the text says is that the Hussars set up camp and went to bed.

This leads into the confusion of whether Marie's toys actually came alive and defended her from the mice, or not. The conclusion of the story seems to fall on the side that it doesn't matter, so long as Marie keeps faith with her interpretation of events.

The interlude in candyland is from the story, but it's a brief dream sequence that makes basically no sense.

I enjoyed reading the story, but ironically I'm not sure that one would have any reason to read it nowadays if not for the ballet. I am intrigued by allusions in the introduction to Hoffman as a very early writer of surreal fantasy stories, though. Maybe I will track down some of his other work.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Parks and Recreation: Christmas Scandal (2009)

I think this is the second episode of Parks and Recreation I've seen, but I can't actually remember the first, so it's possible I'm imagining it and this is actually the first.

Either way, this is a really bizarre show.

I can't decide whether or not I enjoyed watching it. The show felt very character-driven, so I expect it's better the more you see it.  Not that I have much interest in testing that theory, mind you.

The plot focused on an imagined sex scandal involving the main character and a local politician. Most of the humor revolved around the absurdity of a small town trying to pretend it's a big city, and it worked most of the time.

This one was more set at Christmas than it was Christmas-themed. For what it's worth, the backgrounds contained plenty of decorations, and a few of the B-plots were holiday related. Still, if you're looking for something to fill you with Christmas cheer, you'd best look elsewhere.

Bewitched Season 4: Humbug Not to be Spoken Here (1967)

I went in expecting the worst and was pleasantly surprised. Actually, this was kind of engrossing. I haven't seen a full episode of Bewitched since... well, since I was far too young to remember it.

Among other aspects, I was kind of surprised by the show's portrayal of Samantha's magic, which she secretly uses against her husband's wishes. For some reason, I'd assumed this would be portrayed as a negative (i.e.: the man knows best), but in reality, he was kind of a bumbling - though well intentioned - fool, while her powers were effective. Anyone know off hand whether her powers were intended as a metaphor for the squandered potential of women in the era? There was a genuinely touching interaction between her and her magical daughter at the end regarding their shared secret that hinted at some larger themes. Or maybe I'm reading too much into a light sitcom.

Regardless, the plot was sort of a Scrooge template, with Samantha standing in for any ghosts, and Santa Claus standing in for... well, really anything happening.

Santa's Workshop, while fairly generic, was decently depicted, and Santa himself was better than most depictions. My only real complaint was that the overall tone was more indicative of a kid's show: if it had pushed the envelope a little further, I think it would could have been an effective fantasy. Granted, that's a lot to ask of show of this nature in the 60's, but there was definitely the potential.

While it's not perfect, this is definitely worth watching if you're a fan of the fantasy aspects of the holiday.

Bewitched was streaming on Hulu earlier this year, but it's still also streaming through Amazon.

John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together (1979)

I suppose even the Muppets can have an less-than-stellar special. This is far from terrible, but not actually all that good either. Really, the big problem is there aren't enough Muppets.

Whenever the Muppets are on screen, the energy picks up, the jokes are actually funny, and the acting improves. When the camera is focused on John Denver and legions of bland back-up dancers, it's dull as dirt. Now I generally like John Denver, or at least don't dislike him. But here he's incapable of acting like a human being, and he looks sort of like a robot. Plus he keeps adding boring religious stuff in between scenes of Muppets being sweet.

Also this isn't particularly well directed or well shot. Or even well structured: this special flirts with the idea of having a plot, but ultimately abandons it for ill-thought out musical numbers.

It's not all bad: Rowlf and Kermit both get in pretty songs, the opening Twelve Days of Christmas is classic, and Miss Piggy gets in some surprisingly ribald Bible jokes. But then there's a lengthy Nativity sequence in which the puppets are nice, but it's ultimately not interesting to watch.

It's a shame, because I really like the record that the special is based on, but aside from a few good scenes, there's not a ton to enjoy here.

But why am I still talking? You should be reading the hilarious write up by the folks at Tough Pigs. They'll give you all the info.

For some better Muppet Holiday Cheer, check out Muppet Family Christmas or It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie!