Saturday, December 24, 2011

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

I just watched an awesome movie. Here's what I knew going in: It's a Horror/Fantasy movie about Santa, it's from Finland, and everyone on the internet loved it.

If that is enough to convince you, be off with you to your Netflix queue or your to-watch list! It has occasional bits that are slower than any film made in America would have, but it's a fantastic film.

Want a few more details? Still skeptical?


Tone spoilers and minor plot spoilers below!

The more detailed premise runs as follows: Pietari is a young boy in a remote town on the Russian border. As the movie opens, he and his friend are spying on some Americans who are excavating something on the other side of the fence. Pietari becomes convinced that the site is where Santa Claus (old-school baby-eating Santa) was trapped, and that they'll all be in danger if he gets out.

Of course no one believes him, but Christmas is getting closer...

Even though you've passed a set of spoiler tags by coming this far, I am so reluctant to deprive anyone of the experience of watching this without knowing what will happen. It's so great.

If there's any flaw in the film, it might be that occasionally I was thrown by how fast (or just how) some characters knew certain things or accepted new information, but it's a very minor detail.

For horror skeptics like me: One thing that I loved was that as the situation grew darker, the film really ramps up the black humor. By the end it's almost an R-rated fantasy action-adventure flick. Here's a less horror-looking movie poster:

The movie is based on two excellent, funny short films by the same director, but I don't recommend you watch them until after you see the full movie; otherwise it gives away some of the twists.

I don't quite know what else to say except that I thoroughly enjoyed this quirky, creepy, awesome little film.

Ernest Saves Christmas (1988)

A lot of people speak negatively about the spectacle of drying paint. I'm really not sure why that is. When I reflect on the gradual transition between its initial shimmering, almost glass-like surface to its final matte state - which is in itself brighter and more vibrant than it will ever appear again, before the dirt and grime settles, before years of greasy fingerprints and scuff marks - it hardly seems tedious at all: if anything, drying paint symbolizes the fleeting beauty of youth maturing into stability.

In fact, given the choice between the two, there is no question in my mind that I would far rather watch paint dry than see Ernest Saves Christmas again, and would - without hesitation - recommend the same to anyone else faced with a similar set of options.

The central problem with this movie is that, at its core, it is a pointless, boring sequence of events, a vapid and uninspired waste of time devoid of humor, meaning, or entertainment. I do want to stress that this is the movie's primary issue: there are certainly other flaws that I'm glossing over in the interest of time.

For those unfamiliar with the character of Ernest P. Worell, the concept revolves around a well-meaning idiot from Kentucky armed with a handful of catchphrases kids found funny in the 1980's for reasons anthropologists have yet to agree on. There is another insignificant character named Vern, who appears to be a anthropomorphic camera.

I'm operating under the assumption that this movie was supposed to be a comedy, based on the constant string of what appeared to be jokes. It is difficult to determine the actual intent, however, as nothing in the movie was in the least bit funny. In addition, there seemed to have been a coordinated effort to film this in the least interesting manner possible.

Perhaps this was done to drive audiences from the theater before the end of the film, in order to empty the theaters early and free time for additional screenings. If so, the producers should be commended for such innovative and forward strategic thinking, which clearly influenced numerous contemporary filmmakers like Brett Ratner.

Setting aside the ability to drive viewers to the brink of suicide, the only other thing competent in the entire picture was its portrayal of Santa. The actor did a surprisingly capable job playing a version of St. Nick similar to the one in Miracle on 34th Street. It's unclear why he bothered trying so hard, given that he seemed to be the only one putting in effort.

I consider it needless to say, but I'll do so anyway: do not watch this movie. And do not let your kids watch it. Dear God, imagine if they liked it: you’d have to get it for them on DVD, then they’d make you sit through it year after year.

Sesame Street Christmas Sing-Along (LP 1984)

I adore this album, so I saved it for last. This was a ridiculously large part of the holidays of my childhood, maybe only eclipsed by John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together. This is a much more solid work, though, every song here is good. There's such energy and good cheer here, I just grin whenever I hear it.

The structural premise is simple enough: it's a sing-along. So you sing. Along. Got it?

Song List:

  • Christmas Sing-Along / Deck the Halls
  • Santa Claus is Coming to Town
  • Counting the Days
  • Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow!
  • The Twelve Days of Christmas
  • Jingle Bells / Silver Bells
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  • Frosty the Snowman
  • Keep Christmas With You
  • We Wish You a Merry Christmas

The first song introduces the Sing-Along, welcomes us all in, and includes some blank Fa La La La Las in the Deck the Halls portion to encourage said singing along.

All these tracks do a great job balancing just doing a good version of the song, and adding in little character moments. For example, I usually don't much like Santa Claus is Coming to Town, but all the little lines done by Muppets just work. Cookie Monster, Grover, Bert, Ernie, etc; each sings just the right line. This version also adds in a nice bridge that I think fills out the tune.

Counting the Days, written for Sesame Street, should be on everyone's favorite holiday song list. It's a fun doo-wop style number with energy and heart. Plus Oscar gets his own verse.

The lyrics to Let it Snow, Let it Snow are tweaked just a little, but I really like the choices. What is “goodbye-ing” anyway? “Snowflakes multiplying” is a better rhyme.

This version of Jingle Bells is the one that I knew as a child, and Oscar's commentary is absolutely why I have always remembered that the lyric is “upsot”. The Silver Bells (Ernie and Bert sing this) portion of the song isn't perfect, but the delicate harmony is very nice.

Grover leading Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is pretty cute, and that track includes a time through with call-and-response, in case anyone somehow doesn't know these lyrics.

I'm not too fond of Frosty the Snowman, but this calypso-themed take isn't half bad.

Keep Christmas With You is the classic Sesame Street Christmas song, so of course it's here. And, I admit, I'm a total sucker for this particular sappiness.

Best Song: Counting the Days

Worst Song: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, I guess, only because it's not quite as unique and wonderful as the other tracks. It's still pretty good.

I wholeheartedly recommend this album; I think it's ridiculously cute, and fabulously fun. Come on, it's Sesame Street! What's not to love?

Fiction: Sleigh, by: Erin L. Snyder

It’s not like we were looking for it. But I’m not going to lie, try to make it sound like we were out on a roof at 1:00 AM on December 24th and weren’t up to no good. Look, we were kids, punks. That’s just how it is. We weren’t thinking of our futures, our families, our girlfriends: none of that, none of what was on the line if we got caught, or worse. We were out to make some mischief, grab some cash, and score some revenge.

See, Mr. Colmoore, he’s our bio teacher, was going away for Christmas break, down to the Bahamas. How’s a high school science teacher afford a trip to the tropics? His wife’s a scientist, too, but while he spends his days making our lives hell, she spends hers raking in the dough at some research firm or something.

Colmoore’s got it in for us. I don’t know, he’s a scientist, so he’s a nerd, so he probably got his share of swirlies back in the day. So now he’s got to take it out on all jocks. I’m just guessing, but there’s not a guy on the team getting better than a C in his class, not even Paulman, and he’s actually smart.

So four of us got together and got to thinking. Colmoore was going out of town, and he had some cash, thanks to that wife of his. It’s not that hard to find out where a teacher lives, not if you’re serious. And it turns out Colmoore was living in an apartment building in Brooklyn. We figured it wouldn’t be that hard to break into an apartment, as long as we could reach the fire escape.

The hardest part was getting out on Christmas Eve. Jason somehow convinced his folks he was going caroling. At midnight. Jason’s folks aren’t too bright.

Paul had it easy: he’s Jewish, and his parents could care less what he was doing Christmas Eve. Kevin and I, we just snuck out when our folks were asleep. So long as everything went as planned, we should have been back long before they were up.

We met up in the alley behind the apartment complex, boosted ourselves up to the fire escape, then started up towards the fifth floor, making as little noise as possible. Paul, Kev, and Jason were on the fifth story, all crammed in together, while I waited on the ladder.

Kevin had brought a crow bar, and was trying to figure a way to open the window without smashing it and waking everyone in the neighborhood. Jason was trying to direct, but it was pretty obvious he didn’t know the first thing about breaking and entering, no matter how much bragging he’d done the past week. Paul was just trying his damnedest not to fall over the rail, since he was behind the other two.

Me, I was started to get scared, starting to feel the weight of it all. So I was looking around to make sure no one had noticed us. I got that feeling, like I was being watched, so I checked the alleyway below. There’s no one there, not even a bum. The windows on the facing building, a duplex, were dark. I was about even with the roof across the way, so it was hard to get a look into the windows beneath us. I peered down as well as I could. No one was looking back; no one I could see, anyway.

Absently, I glanced up at the roof and almost jumped. There were two sets of eyes looking back. I relaxed for a moment, as I realized they weren’t human: just some reindeer decorations.

Then the decorations moved.

“Jesus!” I shouted, slipping backward and grabbing onto the rail. Three voices shushed me in unison.

“Fuck sake, Mark. You’ll wake someone,” Jason hissed.

I just pointed up at the deer, and the others turned around and tilted their heads. “What?” Kevin mouthed. He looked to the others and to me, as if trying to get an explanation.

Paul stared, straight into one of the animal’s eyes. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out besides his breath and a barely audible gasp.

“Are they fake? Got to be fake,” Jason whispered. One of the deer snorted, sneezed, then looked away. Its breath was as white in the winter air as ours.

Kevin regained his senses. Either that, or he lost them entirely and said, “Hey. I think… I think if we go up another level, we’ll have a better view.”

I wanted to say we shouldn’t, wanted to say it was all too weird, and that we should just go home. That’s probably what we all wanted to say, and it’s certainly what each of us should have said. But the one of us who said that; he’d have been a pussy. So we all kept quite and started up to the fifth level.

“There are… onetwothree—“ Paul started.

“Eight,” Kevin interrupted, not needing to count. We knew, deep down, all knew there’d be eight. Even Paul knew, never mind that he’d never celebrated Christmas, that this shouldn’t even have been fantasy to him, shouldn’t even have been on his radar.

“Eight reindeer,” Jason said, “One sleigh. So. Where’s the jolly fat guy?”

Paul chuckled quickly. “Inside, right?”

“That’s right,” Jason said. “Look at those sacks.”

“But… this can’t be real,” I said. “I mean, it can’t be what it looks like.”

“You believe your eyes or not?” Jason asked. “Look. Those sacks, they got to be worth a fortune, right. Games, electronics, and all that.  It’s not far. We can make it, grab a few bags, then be gone. But we have to do it before San… before he comes back. We got to move.”

“What about Colmoore,” Paul asked.

“Forget Colmoore,” Jason replied. “Colmoore’s small time. This is once in a lifetime. Never going to get another shot like this.”

“All right,” Kevin said. “But we got to be quick. And… just the sack, right?” That question lingered for a minute, and I didn’t understand what he meant at the time.

“Yeah,” Jason replied, smiling. “Of course. What else is there to take?” He didn’t give Kevin a chance to answer. “Come on. Let’s go.”

He went first, in part to show it was safe and in part to show off. He grabbed hold of the rail, stepped over, then leapt. He seemed to hang in the air for a moment, arms circling to his sides, before he landed on the roof. Paul was next, and he went with a look of determination, maybe even anger. Now that we were the last two on the fire escape, Kevin cupped a hand over my shoulder and whispered, “I don’t like this. Last summer….”

“Hey,” Jason hissed, waving frantically for us to follow. “Let’s go, ladies.”

“It’ll be okay,” I said, and Kevin just rolled his eyes. We went at the same time. I hit hard, and almost went off the edge before catching myself. No one seemed to notice, and I was more relieved at not losing face than my life. Hell, when you’re seventeen, right?

There we were, on a roof in Brooklyn at one on Christmas morning, staring at something that couldn’t be real. The deer had stepped back a bit as we jumped, but other than that they didn’t seem concerned. One leaned over to chew some snow; another relieved himself.

Paul laughed, unable to believe any of it. He wasn’t being quiet, either. Jason hit him in the arm. “Come on. Keep it down for Christ’s sake.” But Paul just laughed again.

Kevin kept an eye on Jason. “Let’s get what we’re here for and go, all right?”

“You scared, Kev?” Jason asked, smirking.

“No. But I don’t want to get caught up here.”

“Then let’s do this,” Jason said, clapping his hands together.

Paul was already heading towards the sleigh. He was moving slowly, savoring every step over the snow-covered roof. He was like… I don’t know… one of those kids in Christmas specials. He had one of those grins on his face, one of those impossibly wide smiles you think can only exist in cartoons. Yeah, well, he was actually smiling like that as he climbed into the back and started rummaging through one of the bags.

The sleigh was red, not bright red but more a deep burgundy. The runners were silver, as was most of the trim. The reins and harness were leather – we could smell it before we ever got near it. The whole thing looked like an antique, but you could tell it’d been kept up. I remember thinking how sturdy it looked, even at a glance.

Jason hurried to join Paul in the sleigh, while Kevin and I hung back a bit. “Hey,” Kevin said, seeing that Paul was hesitating. “Hey, we can go through it later, right? Just grab one and let’s go!”

But Paul and Jason weren’t paying much attention. Paul had his head almost immersed in one of the bags, and Jason asked, “What’s in there?”

Paul looked up. His eyes were wide open in almost a reverent stare. “Everything,” he said.

Jason looked back over his shoulder at us and motioned for us to follow. Then he jumped into the front seat.

“No,” Kevin said, starting over towards the sleigh. “Get out, Jay,” he said.

“What is it?” I asked Kevin.

“He lied to us,” Kevin said. “Last October, we jacked a car. He does it sometimes. Joyrides around the Bronx.”

“What, you’re my mother?” Jason asked. “So I like to drive, what’s the big deal?”

“The big deal is you crashed, could have gotten us killed.”

“We didn’t get caught. No one got hurt.”

“In a car, no.”

“This isn’t the time for this,” I said. “We got to get the bag and get down.”

“How do you think Jay’s planning on getting us down?” Kevin asked. It came together for me then: the stolen car, the smirk on Jason’s face, and the sudden realization this house didn’t have a fire escape. Jumping over was one thing: getting back wouldn’t be so easy.

I stared at Jason, who just shrugged. “Guess we’ll have to borrow the sleigh,” he said, matter-of-factly, as if that was the plan all along. Paul just laughed from inside the bag.

“Like hell I’m riding in that thing,” Kevin replied.

“Way I see it, you guys don’t got much choice,” Jason said. “In a few seconds, something’s coming up from that chimney. I’m thinking you don’t want to be here when he does, especially not with the sleigh missing.”

Kevin grinded his teeth, but he realized Jason had us. As soon as we leapt, our fates were sealed.

“Right,” I said, grabbing a hold of the side and pulling myself up into the back of the sleigh beside Paul. I offered a hand to Kevin, who took it after shooting me a look. It was as if I made him do this, as if I’d put him in this situation. I helped pull him onto the side, then he vaulted over, so he was in front with Jason.

“Don’t look so down,” Jason said. “We’re getting a hell of a lot more than we bargained for. Just hold on and enjoy the ride.” He grabbed the reins, whipped them as hard as he could, and screamed, “Mush!” like they were sled dogs.

The deer looked up in unison, eyes pointed straight forward. “Getyup!” Jason added, swinging the reins again. This time, they bolted to the right, pulling the sleigh towards the edge. They leapt off the roof, and over they went, two-by-two, with us right behind.

We were screaming now, even Jason, who was pulling at the reins. Only Paul was still laughing.

It was like we were falling and running at once. The deer were flying, I think, or maybe they were charging through the air, but they were heading downwards at an angle, skimming the building we’d ascended just minutes before. The deer in front skidded against the corner as we swung by, and the wall took a chunk out of the sleigh, as well.  Jason seemed to figure out some of what he was doing, because he got them to turn up. We began gaining altitude.

But that one deer was limping now, and even over the wind we could hear his forced breathing. Jason whipped the reins again and called, “Mush!” again. A hundred bells along their harnesses rung out as we went. We were moving quickly, but not steadily. The sleigh shook as the deer bound on, as if we were riding over stones. As we lurched up and down, we’d rise a few inches into the air then crash back down back onto the seat. I gripped the side to try and keep my balance.

“We gotta land!” I screamed over the whipping wind. I looked down at the streetlights and uncommonly quiet streets below.

“Screw that!” Paul yelled. “Let’s see what this thing can do!”

Jason cheered the reindeer on, driving them harder. I looked down and realized we were leaving Brooklyn, heading over the river towards Manhattan. The lights were replaced by a black expanse.

It had been an unseasonably warm night, but I’d never been that cold in my life. I don’t know how high we were, but between the wind and elevation it was freezing. I didn’t even dare pull my coat closed for fear of falling out.

“Where the hell are you taking us?” Kevin yelled at Jason.

“I got no idea!” Jason yelled back. “Hell, I don’t even know how to steer this thing!”

From beside me in back, Kevin grabbed Jason’s arm to make sure he had his full attention. Kevin was glaring at him and looked like he might hit him. “This isn’t funny!” he yelled, despite the laughter emanating from Paul.

“You want to drive?” he asked, thrusting the reins into Kevin’s hands. “Be my guest!”

“Jesus!” Kevin screamed, as the sleigh entered into a spiral. “Take them back!”

“I want to drive!” Paul yelled, trying to climb into the front before the sleigh’s momentum pushed him back. I grabbed a hold of him to keep him from falling out. He just looked annoyed.

“Fine,” Jason said. “Then quit your whining.” He managed to get the sleigh straightened out again, and we were on our way into Manhattan. We sailed by City Hall before gliding over some of the smaller buildings and finally winding up over Broadway. After that, Jason just followed it north until he veered onto Fifth. He picked up altitude, then started circling in, closer and closer to the Empire State Building. He had the sleigh in control by that time, and the ride was no longer so shaky. The red and green lit tower was incredible as we swung around it, again and again. It was beautiful. I forgot about the cold, and even Kevin gasped and seemed content.

Just as we flew over the tip of the radio tower, it all went wrong. The deer at the front-left of the team – the one who grazed the building earlier - stumbled, and tripped. I don’t know how a flying reindeer tripped, but then again I don’t know how a flying deer flies. It was like he just stumbled and dropped. But he was in the lead, so half the deer tried to follow him, while the other half just kept going. The sleigh entered a corkscrew, spiraling through the air.

I don’t know what kept the sacks in place – magic, maybe – but whatever it was didn’t seem to have a hold of us. I clung to the side; Kevin and Jason managed to keep a hold of a bar in front.

But Paul… I remember looking over at him, no longer laughing, but not screaming like the rest of us, either. He was just still, silent like he was in a daze. He didn’t move to catch himself or react at all. He just… went limp. And, like a fleck in a snow globe, he drifted away, out of his seat and into the air. And he was gone, skimming down towards the streets below.

We weren’t that far behind. Even when the deer got upright, we weren’t in control. They were running like a herd, while the one who’d collapsed was dragged below, pulled along by the harnesses linking them. It was like a fish on a line being pulled by a motorboat, drifting and bobbing. It looked sort of funny, but none of us were laughing.

“Do something!” Kevin shouted.

“I’m trying,” Jason screamed back.


“I’m… I’m sorry!” Kevin said. “I didn’t… Why didn’t he hang on?” Then, at me, “Why didn’t you grab him?”

I didn’t say anything; I just braced myself as the sleigh lurched back and forth. There was nothing we could do: the reins had dropped off the side and were dangling below the collapsed deer.

We saw them veering towards the building, and Jason actually yelled at the deer: “Look out!” as if they were listening.

The one being dragged touched down first, and the others tripped over it. The sleigh rolled, and we held on as best we could.

It was over so quickly. I couldn’t believe at the time they’d landed without going over the edge, but on hindsight they must have had a lot of practice. I remember trying to pull myself out from under the sleigh, only to discover my arm hurt too much to move. I’d seen enough injuries on the field to know what it meant.

My face was half pressed into the snow, but I could still see out. I saw what happened next.

There was a flash of dim light, then he was there, dressed in red. Just like the stories, right? All fat and red coat and white trim. But he didn’t seem happy.

I think I blacked out, because the next thing I remember the sleigh was upright. I was sitting, propped up against the ledge. Jason was limping, holding Kevin, who was completely still. He was moving towards the man in red.

Jason was rambling. “Come on, man. You got to help him. Listen to me. He’s hurt bad, but he breathing. He’s still alive, but we got to get him to a hospital, right? You got to take him.”

The figure in red cleared his throat. He stepped forward and started to raise a hand, as if to help. But then he stopped and stepped back. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them he seemed so sad. I’ve never seen anyone look that sad, not in my life. And he said, “I’m sorry. I want to help your friend, but I can’t. I’ve lost too much time already, and I have too much left to do. I really am sorry.”

With that, he turned away and climbed into his sleigh. Two of the deer were lying in back with the sacks. I’d like to think they were just asleep, but I don’t really believe that. He cracked the reins and said, “On Prancer,” and he was off in a flash.

They found us on the roof a few hours later. By then, it was just me and Jason: I don’t know if anyone could have saved Kevin if we’d gotten him to a hospital, but I wish he’d have had a chance.

Jason had it worse than I did. I got out with a fractured arm: he’d broken… Christ, two bones in his left leg, three fingers, two ribs, his nose… I think there were a few more, but I don’t remember what they were.

I guess we should have spent those hours on the roof agreeing on a story or something, some kind of explanation we could offer the authorities. But I don’t remember saying a single word to Jason the entire time we were up there. Not one word.

And you can damn bet they had questions for us after they’d patched us up. Who can blame them? Two injured teenagers where they shouldn’t be, a third dead beside them. And then Paul: Paul’s body wound up half a mile away, skidded over half a block of city street before embedding itself in the grill of a parked delivery truck.

I spoke to cops, lawyers, the FBI, and even Homeland Security. They said they’d charge us with treason, that terrorists must be involved, and so on. But none of that materialized. I didn’t tell them the truth, didn’t tell them anything, honestly. I just shrugged and kept saying I didn’t remember how I got up there, and I didn’t know how my arm was broken.

Lying to the cops was easy. Lying to Kevin and Paul’s parents… that was tough. They knew I wasn’t telling them everything, just like everyone knew. If there was something I could have said, truth or lie, that they’d have bought, I’d have said it. Hell, if I could have explained it by saying we were international jewel thieves, I’d have done it and gone to prison. Whatever.

But in the end, what could they charge us with? No one could come up with a plausible theory for what happened, so they had to let us go.

A few years later, Jason enlisted with the army, and they sent him to Afghanistan. I think I was the only one not surprised when they shipped him back with a medal. Awarded posthumously, of course. I guess it’s easy to get honored for courage when you’re looking to die.

Not me, though. Yeah, I know some of what happened was my fault, and yeah, every December I start thinking how I don’t deserve to be here. But I guess it’s just me now, and someone’s got to remember what happened.

Holiday Inn (1942)

You could make a case that Holiday Inn isn't actually a Christmas movie, since it actually takes place over an entire year and devotes a substantial amount of time to several different holidays. The movie does begin and end at Christmas (actually, it encompasses three Christmases, thanks to a sort of preface starting a year before the real action starts), but the film's real credentials are a tad more specific.

Holiday Inn's real claim to fame comes from one of its songs, a short piece called "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas." Maybe you've heard of it.

The movie's plot centers around a pair of entertainers competing for the affections of a woman. The movie's title (and gimmick) revolves around an inn opened by one of the two competitors which is only open during holidays.

The movie has some decent twists and turns, and some good song and dance numbers. It cleverly pushes against the boundary of the fourth wall when movie producers create a supposed facsimile of the inn in question, in effect exposing the reality behind an earlier scene. Like I said, it's clever, but of course it's been done since, so don't expect something you haven't seen.

Well, actually the movie does offer one sequence you probably haven't seen, unless you're a fan of the period. In fact, if you watch this on TV, you still won't see this particular sequence.

Remember how I mentioned this highlighted several holidays? Well, Lincoln's Birthday made the cut. If you think that's a good thing, then you might not be familiar with the 1940's. The musical number is performed in blackface, which is about as horrific as you'd expect. What's really weird is that the number offers pretenses of sensitivity. Ostensibly, the song is meant to be about the plight of slaves, and it almost seemed as if the filmmakers thought they were portraying African-Americans in a positive light. However this only draws attention to how racist the portrayals actually are (and they are really, really racist).

Of course, all of this elevated the sequence to being the most fascinating in the movie, albeit for entirely different reasons than the producers must have intended. It's like driving by an accident: it's horrible, but you can't look away. For those brief moments, at least this thing held my attention.

Which brings up the other major issue: this movie drags. There are some good numbers, but the plot is thin (characteristic of the genre, I'm afraid), and it takes forever for the end to arrive.

I wouldn't recommend Holiday Inn to anyone who's not already a fan of the genre. Old movie musicals are definitely an acquired taste. To be honest, I don't think I've quite acquired it yet.

Have yourself a Mythic Little Christmas

I've spoken here before about my long-standing struggle with Christmas music. I like a lot of it as music, but I don't get on board with the whole Jesus thing, so I feel awkward about the fact that I like it.

This year I have found a solution to my problem.

It occurred to me that there are plenty of Kings and Princes and Lords whose birthdays I would be happy to sing about. Won't you join me?

Come they told me, Pa rum pa pum pum
The newborn King to see, Pa rum pa pum pum

We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar, 
Field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star

Uh, you might not want to follow that particular star, guys.

Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king!

(Hallelujah Chorus) ...And he shall reign forever and ever, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords

Oh holy night! The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior's birth 

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
"Do you see what I see? …....
The Child, the Child sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light, He will bring us goodness and light 

Silent Night, Holy Night, All is calm, All is bright... 
Holy infant, so tender and mild

Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let Earth receive her King

DIC Christmas Specials: Inspector Gadget Saves Christmas (1992) and Sonic Christmas Blast! (1996)

We watched these two specials back to back – they're actually packaged together on Amazon Instant Video – and I feel that I should talk about them together.

They have a lot in common: both revolved around the main character unmasking a villain standing in/taking over from Santa Claus, and both were made as a sort of afterthought to their affiliated series.

Both were really awful.

It's hard to identify one as being worse, though, because in that respect they were different.

The animation was far worse on Inspector Gadget, as well as its egregious use of badly recorded singing. The voice recordings were so poor that I really thought they'd gotten different voice actors.

The plot was arguably stupider on Sonic, the misuse of supporting characters worse, plus it added “X-treme” winter sports for no good reason.

I know I haven't seen any Inspector Gadget in a while, but in this one they basically said flat out that if Dr. Claw hadn't sent agents after Gadget, NO ONE WOULD HAVE KNOWN HE WAS UP TO SOMETHING. I mean, animated villains are usually stupid, but he's really really stupid. Plus every time I see the cat I wish I were watching Rescue Rangers instead (Which hasn't aged particularly well either, but is miles above this).

Plus his plan was really stupid. And there were scary clone-looking elves who sang really bad music.

Sonic was more boring-bad and less yelling-at-the-screen bad, but I'm pissed off that they borrowed setting and character elements from the better Sonic series (the name of the city, Sally has a non-speaking cameo that makes no sense) for just this special for no discernible reason. Maybe because Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog always sucked.

If you feel the need to punish your younger self for something, by all means track these down. If not, just let sleeping franchises lie.

Dinosaurs: Refrigerator Day (1991)

God, this series is weird. Part of me wants to see more, just to see if my memories are accurate. There's no question that this show had guts (the last episode ended with the extinction), but without seeing more I'm not quite ready to render a verdict on whether the show was actually good.

This is the only episode of Dinosaurs I've seen in years, but it provides a good example of the dilemma I run into when thinking about this show. On one hand, it's a fairly scathing criticism of capitalism and consumerism. On the other, it's about as subtle as a rampaging T-rex.

The premise is that, due to its importance in their lives, the dinosaurs celebrate the invention of the refrigerator with the same significance (and more or less all the same trappings) as Christmas.

When Earl's Refrigerator Day bonus doesn't materialize, the family winds up having to make some hard choices between material objects (represented by gifts) and spiritual fulfillment (symbolized by their refrigerator).

There are a few laughs, mostly at the very end, and the puppetry, overseen by Brian Henson, is pretty neat. On top of that, it was bizarrely fascinating to realize that Kevin Clash (of Elmo fame) voiced the baby. However, the heavy-handed nature of the messages is a lot to put up with.

Despite the fact the whole thing was kind of surreal, I can't quite recommend this particular episode.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Lamb Chop's Special Chanukah (1996)

Shari Lewis, the late ventriloquist and puppeteer behind Lamb Chop, was a beloved entertainer. That makes this a tad awkward, because this special was a steaming pile of shit.

To be fair, Lewis is a phenomenal ventriloquist. But her sock puppets kind of suck, the writing is idiotic, and this thing makes little to no sense. The main plot revolves around Charlie Horse trying to win a contest by designing a superhero using a computer program which brings his creations to life. There's a subplot about Lewis and Lamb Chop trying to put on a Chanukah party for some washed-up guest stars, but that seemed fairly inane.

The characters are astonishingly stupid, the jokes aren't the least bit funny, and the lessons drag even more than you'd expect.

I appreciate the need for holiday options for Jewish children, but it seems tragic this is the sort of thing trying to fit that niche. Lewis comes off as genuinely talented, and I appreciate that there are people out there who are nostalgic for these characters. But I sure as hell don't understand why.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)

Watching these movies as an adult is a surreal experience. By all rights, Kevin's actions should have killed those two burglars several times over. And never mind the fact that he leaves his uncle's house a literal deathtrap.

But, to be fair, neither this movie nor its predecessor were intended to be realistic. No, they're supposed to be comedies, which is how they should be judged.

Hey. You know what would have helped? If these movies had actually been funny.

I'm going to try to separate this from part one, which is actually pretty difficult, since they're the same damn movie. I mean, sure, this one's set in New York, but other than that, there's not really a single discernible difference in the plot. Even the jokes are reused.

The movie starts with Kevin and his family getting into another ludicrously unbelievable fight over his behavior. They oversleep... again... but all make it to the airport together. He winds up separated and on his own in New York City, where he cons his way into the Plaza Hotel.

Due to an extremely bizarre coincidence, the two robbers from part one have broken out of jail and made their way to New York. They run into Kevin, and stupidity commences. In order to ensure that they're sufficiently evil, they plan to murder the kid. This seems... excessive, but then again he did do some horrible things to them in part one.

He easily escapes them, after they've told him their plans to rob a toy store which is planning to donate all their Christmas income to charity. At this point, he of course goes straight to the police, who show up at the store in time to arrest the felons red-handed, then promptly reunite the boy with his family.

Hahaha! Just kidding. No, instead he breaks into a house owned by a relative who's out of town for the holiday. The house, located in midtown near Central Park and therefore worth tens of million dollars, is being renovated. At least, we're told it's being renovated: in reality, it's a dilapidated urban deathtrap BEFORE Kevin goes to work.

He lures the criminals there, proceeds to torture them, then leads them into the park. They randomly get the upper hand for a moment, before an old man with a shovel an old woman with pigeons comes to his rescue.

Quick aside about the old homeless lady: does anyone know why she has an Irish accent? This is New York, not Dublin. Also, why is she discussing her trust issues with a kid? And why am I asking stupid questions?

So. This movie sucks. I'm not sure whether it's actually worse than the first, but it's certainly more boring sitting through the same damn thing again.

Next year: Home Alone 3.

Community Christmas Episodes (2009, 2010, and 2011)

To date, Lindsay and I have actually only watched four episodes of Community, three of which were about Christmas. To give you a sense of where this is going, we just bought the season one and two DVD sets on the strength of two of the Christmas episodes.

The episodes in question are completely different - in fact, each of the three is fundamentally in a different genre - but they're absolutely fantastic, both as Christmas episodes and as comedy. I'm going to look at them starting with the oldest, which is completely different from the order we actually watched them in.

Season One: Comparative Religion

This was actually the last one we watched, because we didn't even realize it existed until we bought the DVD sets. Unlike the other two, it doesn't have a major hook or gimmick - ostensibly, it's just an episode of a sitcom. However, it's also just about the funniest goddamn half-hour of television I've ever seen in my life. As much as I enjoyed the other two episodes, this was my favorite of the three.

The plot was structured around a conflict between Shirley and Jeff stemming from another conflict between Jeff and a bully. The comedy is fundamentally slapstick, but there the writing is nuanced and intelligent. The result is just about the most fun I've had watching anything this year.

Season Two: Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas

I'm actually seeing this one for the second time: I did catch this last year, right after Christmas. The blog had closed down for the year, so I resolved to catch it again this year and review it. Fortunately, it wasn't available online, thus prompting us to get the aforementioned DVD sets.

I get the sense this is probably the most famous episode of the series, and for good reason. The entire thing is shot in stop-motion, which is of course both expensive and time consuming.

The story is fundamentally a psychological comedy-drama where Abed tries to come to grips with the true meaning of Christmas. While not as funny as the season one episode, it delivers plenty of comedy on top of a surprisingly dark little tale.

Season Three: Regional Holiday Music

Having recently survived watching the Christmas episode of Glee, I found this therapeutic. This is a not-so-subtle parody of the campy musical series. And, as you'd expect, Community accomplishes this by turning into a musical, itself.

The songs are primarily parodies of holiday musical genres, and they're pretty good overall. There's been a healthy number of shows experimenting with musical episodes since Buffy: Once More With Feeling, and, while this doesn't rise to the level of that one or the Batman: Brave and Bold episode, Mayhem of the Music Meister, it certainly stands on its own.

All three of these were among the best holiday entertainment I've seen this year. If you've never seen this show, I strongly recommend checking it out. The third episode is streaming on Hulu for the time being, and the DVD sets seem to be a good price on Amazon and Best Buy.

Kung Fu Panda Holiday Special (2010)

I am so glad that this was wonderful. So much of what DreamWorks puts out is awful, except for this one franchise. But this franchise is absolutely fantastic.

This half-hour special, set between the two movies, deals with the same themes as the series as a whole: family, choices, self-knowledge, parents and mentors. Shifu assigns Po to host an important fancy holiday dinner for a group of Master martial artists. Po is excited and stressed with the responsibility, but also dealing with his father's disappointment that he's leaving behind their holiday traditions.

It's sweet and touching, and also absolutely hilarious. There's a fantastic frenetic montage as the pace of preparations for the holiday picks up, and some completely silly sub-plots that I loved. The animation is wonderful, the voice acting delicate and lovely.

The ending gives me the warm-and-fuzzies, which is really what you're looking for in a holiday special. This is a strong addition to the series, and I'm really happy we watched it. If you're already a fan of Kung Fu Panda, this is highly recommended. If you aren't, maybe you should watch the first movie first. But you should watch the first movie anyway, because it's awesome.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Blue Carbuncle (1984)

Yeah, I sort of suckered Erin into doing this one. But it is a Christmas episode! So it COUNTS.

Despite an early misstep with an unintentionally silly montage running under the opening episode credits, this is a fantastic episode. A solid adaptation of the story, like most episodes of this series, it stays true to most of the original, while breaking up monologues into more entertaining dialogue and expanding the roles of the minor characters. A highlight here is that John Horner, the man accused of stealing the jewel, is given a wife and kids and a little emotional plot of his own, to give the episode a bit more holiday poignancy.

The Blue Carbuncle (about a stolen jewel found in a Christmas goose, and how Holmes traces it back to the culprit) is not one of my very favorite Holmes stories, but it is a solidly entertaining one.

I loved re-watching this episode; it really showcases why Jeremy Brett was, in my opinion, the ultimate Holmes. All his charm, his wit, his hypnotic presence, his disdain for people who are not useful, his sense of justice and his tenacity - all are highlighted here. It also is a great episode for the banter between Brett's Holmes and David Burke as Watson. I love Burke's Watson, too, his easy affection and sense of humor.

Right: Sidney Paget's original illustration. Left: still from this episode. Yes, they are that perfect for these roles.

For holiday elements, there are plenty of decorations and of course the story is explicitly set at Christmas. More impressively, the score for this episode is continually weaving in lovely variations on God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, which I think keeps a nice haunting holiday tone. It's even mixed with the theme song for the ending credits.

I recommend this entire series for fans of Holmes, but I recommend this to everyone as a holiday-tinged breath of fresh air in a cloying season.

Toy Review: Charlie Brown's Christmas Tree

I'm tagging this a toy review, even though it isn't really a toy. Actually, it's a replica. Granted, it's on the low end of low end replicas, but that's still what it is.

It's also a commercially sold artificial version of a pop-culture symbol of the importance of not giving into the artificial or commercial aspects of the holidays. But then, isn't selling out what Christmas is REALLY about?

I first came across one boxes of these things last Christmas in the local CVS. I held off on buying one, despite morbid curiosity, then when I came back a few days later, they were gone. They didn't reappear last Christmas, but lo and behold, they're back now, and still dirt cheap. This was marked at $9.99, and a general 25% sale on all Christmas crap brought that down to an entirely reasonable seven-fifty.

I'm not sure what I expected this to actually be like, but I was a little surprised when I opened the box. The tree itself is basically a two-foot long wire-and-plastic branch, the "blanket" is a small piece of felt, and the base is (gasp) actually made of wood. Cheap plywood that's liable to give you a splinter, but wood nonetheless.

The ornament is comes rolled up in the "blanket." It's nothing special or complicated, just a simple, fragile, Christmas ornament. If it breaks, I guess I can just replace it with any other red bulb.

Here's the tree assembled:

It's actually not half bad. No, I take that back. It is half bad, but isn't all bad. Hell, it's not even three-quarters bad.

For better or worse, you're getting a box of pieces that feel like they were purchased at Michaels and packaged as-is. In fact, if one were so inclined, they could probably pick up parts to make something at least as close to the original at a craft store. But, of course, that would require work. Who needs that?

The tree is made of wire, so it's bendable. I'm not sure it bears a perfect resemblance to the original, but it's certainly recognizable. At ten bucks or less, it's a fun decoration and a perfect visual representation of the definition of irony.

Scrooge (1951)

There have been many, many adaptations of A Christmas Carol. This isn't the first we've looked at, and assuming this blog pops up again next Christmas, I don't think it'll be the last.

The 1951 version starring Alastair Sim is generally recognized as the best of the bunch. I haven't seen nearly enough to render that verdict, though this is certainly better than the Jim Carrey vehicle that came out a few years ago. If we're counting parodies, though, it's not even close to Blackadder's Christmas Carol or Scrooged, and I actually prefer Mickey's Christmas Carol if only because it's shorter.

But if we're just talking about versions that are relatively accurate to the source, aren't parodies, and don't replace the characters with anthropomorphic animals, then yes: this is the best I can think of.

The depiction of the various characters is about as close as is humanly possible. Sim's Scrooge is particularly well done, both as the curmudgeon and as the repentant festive do-gooder at the end. Most of the minor parts are good, too, though Marley was a bit ridiculous as a ghost, and they overdid Tiny Tim (as does everyone). The spirits are limited by the effects of the era, but the actors did good work with what they had.

In order to pad out the running time, the script included several new scenes fleshing out Scrooge's relationship with his sister and Marley, as well as some back story on his business dealings and rise to prominence. All of this was decently executed but ultimately unnecessary. It dragged out the story, but I suppose that was the intent: as Lindsay's remarked in the past, this really isn't a movie-length narrative.

If you're looking for a classic Scrooge, this is probably the one to see. But I'm not sure there are that many people out there who really need to sit through such a thing. One of the things I've learned from watching multiple incarnations of this story, along with various parodies and actually reading the damn story, is that I already knew the entire thing.

I have a feeling I'll be relearning that lesson again and again over the next few Christmases, too.

TaleSpin: Jolly Molly Christmas (1990)

Not much to this little Santa-themed episode. In my opinion, TaleSpin holds up better than many of the Disney Afternoon offerings, mostly because, like Duck Tales, it's spinning its tone and plots out of a old-fashioned pulp sensibility. In other words, it's dated on purpose, not by accident.

TaleSpin also fascinates me because it's loosely based on a live-action television show from the 80's (set in the 30's) called Tales of the Gold Monkey. Only with the character designs and voices from The Jungle Book. Why did someone think that was a good idea? Why does it actually kind of work? I admit, I love Sher Khan the ruthless businessman and Baloo as a layabout pilot/adventurer. I like the new characters: Becky and Molly, Kit and Wildcat. I like that the plots are big and pulp-a-licious: hidden temples and secret spy missions and pirates.

Unfortunately, this episode was basically none of those things.

This episode was about Molly trying to ask Santa to make it snow for Christmas, and Baloo tries to keep her convinced Santa is real long enough for him to find a way to grant her wish. It's occasionally cute, but nothing special. Oh well.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Macy's Windows 2011

I wasn't overly impressed with the Macy's Window Displays this year, although the elf-like marionettes photographed fairly well.

The cover story about what all these fellows are doing is something rather thin about magical ornaments. I found it particularly crass that the windows are anchored at most corners with ornaments labeled with whatever celebrity contributed them to the display.

Don't misunderstand, the marionettes are pretty.

At the last window, there are touch screens, encouraging people to make their own digital ornament and/or contribute to the Make a Wish Foundation. At least, I think that's what the window is. I couldn't actually tell from where I stood:

Fiction: The Sixth Stave, By: Erin L. Snyder

London, 1894

There was a breeze through the door as Timothy slammed it shut and made his way through the foyer. He walked slowly, with intent, never letting his weak leg drag behind, but forcing it in a natural arc. He was old but was no cripple, nor had he a stomach for pity. A man once called Timothy lame, thinking him out of earshot, and received a kick to his shin so hard he limped for a week. Timothy fared worse: the kick left him off his feet three days, and it had been a month before he could move naturally once more, but the message had been sent.

Timothy sneered at his wife’s portrait, hung over the fireplace. She’d commissioned the painting herself, a gift from some long-ago Christmas. That she’d commissioned it with his money would have meant nothing to her. Never had a woman more accustomed to comfort and wealth walked the Earth. She’d never known a cold winter’s night, a barren stove, an empty plate. She’d never known disease that went untreated, never a Christmas morning without gifts.

And yet she appealed for his money on behalf of the poor. The poor! Ha! What did she know of poverty? What did any of them know? The men in suits who’d come begging on Christmas Eve, the ones on street corners, even those who called Timothy “friends.” Those born to comfort always pled on the poor’s behalf. He’d little interest in any of them, this day or any other.

They were from a different world, these men and women of privilege. Who were they to lecture him on poverty? Timothy, who’d spent the first years of his life in its grip before finding a benefactor, who’d worked and fought and made his way through life, until he had the means to pull himself up. Who lived through illness and pain, and a leg that seemed intent to drag him to an early grave.

He could not stomach it, any of it. So he threw out the charity workers and, as for his wife, he’d sent her to her father’s house in the country to save himself the trouble of her company this Christmas. Let her pester him for gifts. Let her demand a goose from his wallet, cooked by his servants.

If it’d been up to Timothy, he’d be working through the next day, anyway. And why wasn’t it up to him? What right had his employees – those whose feasts he was benefactor of – to demand this day off? What made Christmas different than other days?

He made his way to a cabinet against the wall, where he kept a bottle of fine whiskey, the best he dealt in, and poured himself a glass. “To Christmas,” he toasted.

No sooner had he returned the bottle to its shelf than a chill fell over the room. He sipped his whiskey, dismissing the cold as a change in the weather. What did he care for a little cold? When he’d been a boy, he’d known real cold, real want. This was nothing.

At first, he questioned his own hearing. Then he began to think that there were carolers outside, perhaps shaking bells. But no, the noise was real and it was close. It was the sound of metal grating against metal, and it was coming from inside his own house.

As fast as he could, Timothy began moving towards the door, towards the sound. Someone had broken in for his money or silver. They’d not get it without a fight. He reached for the door handle, but stopped when he saw it reaching back. Or rather, there was a hand like moonlit mist reaching through the wood toward him. He moved away, frightened now, as the hand became an arm, weighed down with chains. Still it came, lurching forward, pulling a great weight behind it.

By the time the apparition was through, Timothy had fallen into his chair. He pushed himself back, but couldn’t find the strength to stand.

The apparition spoke. “Tim. Tim Cratchit.”

There was no animosity in the specter’s voice. If anything, Timothy felt a swell of pity in his stomach. It had been years since he’d felt such compassion, and he was overtaken with a sense of nostalgia. Now, as the specter came into focus, Timothy squinted and recognized the form before him.

“Ebenezer? Is that you, old man?”

The specter nodded. “Aye. It is I. Or part of me, perhaps. The worms took the better half, I’d wager, but the rest… yes, I am Ebenezer Scrooge.” He stood there, tired, fighting against the weight of his chains as they pinched and tore at his spectral body.

Timothy looked at his glass and squinted, and this amused the spirit. “No, Tim. I’m not some drop of wine or piece of undigested meat. I am real, and I’ve come to warn you. Do you remember when you were a boy, Tim, do you remember the Christmas I changed?”

“Yes,” Timothy answered. “They still tell stories of it. Of the Christmas morning you….”

“The day old Scrooge lost his sense, you mean. Do not parse words, Tim. The dead hear the living prattle. I know what they say of me. I know… what you’ve said, Tim Cratchit.” He seemed sad for an instant, but raised his hand as Timothy tried to speak. “No, it is all right. I haven’t crossed the boundary between the lands of life and death for an apology. As I said, I’m here to warn you, so that you may avoid my fate. Remember what happened.”

“You gave my father a raise and gave to charity. You paid my medical bills and my way through school. There were… questions… about your sanity.”

The spirit snickered. “I was not mad, I think, but close. What you don’t know – but I fear soon will – is what occurred that Christmas Eve. I was visited, Tim, as I visit you now, by a man I’d known. Old Jacob Marley. Do you remember the name?” Timothy shook his head, and Scrooge continued. “No, I suppose you wouldn’t. In life, he’d been a partner to me. He came before me draped in chains. Chains like these.” He rattled the links, and they shook around him. “He told me they were coming, the three spirits, of Christmas past, present, and future. He told me they were coming to help me change my ways, before it was too late. That if I continued down the path I was on, I’d be shackled in chains forever. But he said there was still time. Time to change, to save myself, if only I’d learn to love my fellow man and keep Christmas with me.”

The spirit of Ebenezer sneered. “He lied to me. Aye, they all did. These chains are forged over a lifetime of ill deeds. They wanted me to think a few years of good would balance the scales, that my soul could be reclaimed. But it was too late for that; far too late, and they weren’t there for me. They came to trick me into helping others. The poor. The sick. Yes, you, as well. But I don’t regret that. I’ve always liked you, Tim. I regret the rest of it, but not what I did for you.”

Timothy stood at last and finished off the rest of his drink. “I deal in whiskey these days,” he said. “If you like, if you’re able, I mean....”

“No. I wish I could, but that part of me, the part that could eat and drink, is the part that isn’t before you. Don’t abstain on my account, though.”

Timothy returned to his desk and poured another glass. “Am I to understand these spirits, these Christmas ghosts, will come for me, then?”

“Always shrewd, Tim, even as a boy. Yes, I fear it is so. They want your money, as they wanted mine. They’d have you die in poverty, as I did, removed from the comforts you’ve earned.”

“And your part in all this?”

Scrooge grinned. “I was to play their Marley, to convince you that you need only hear them out and avoid my fate. But I fooled them, Tim. Aye, I fooled them good. Whatever they show you, whatever you see this night, it’s all a lie. They may show you those you’ve loved, those you care for. They may show you gravestones and shadows. Do not heed them: it is a trick. They come on behalf of the dregs of mankind, for those in gutters and those who belong in prisons, not for your own good."

Timothy nodded. “Thank you. But I have to ask. Is there a way to avoid your fate?”

“No, Tim. Twenty years past, perhaps there was time. But they don’t come for us when there’s time, when we’ve nothing they can use. They wait until we’ve sold our souls for money and property. Then they come to swindle us of those earnings. I’m sorry, but I learned the hard way a soul can’t be reclaimed. You can pawn it for gold, but it can’t be bought back. The only comfort I can offer is this: cling tightly to that gold while you can and take what pleasure you can in its use. Don’t be fooled as I was.”

His business concluded, the ghost left as he'd arrived, passing effortlessly through the closed door. Timothy shuddered at the sight. In life, Scrooge had been as a second father to him, and it pained him to see the man's spirit brought so low. He grew angry. Let these spirits come, he sneered, recovering his old walking stick from the corner. He rapped it against his palm and delighted in the force of its bite. Let them come and try to take what was rightly his.

The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)

What an odd film. I think I enjoyed it, although it certainly had its share of boring, slow, and inexplicable bits.

The Lemon Drop Kid is a holiday film starring Bob Hope based loosely on a Damon Runyon story. It's mostly notable for being the source of the song “Silver Bells”.

I've read some Runyon stories, and find them fascinating. His work is the inspiration for Guys and Dolls, and The Lemon Drop Kid plays off similar tropes: gangsters both fierce and puppyish, money owed, bets, strong-minded dames, and tangled schemes. The Lemon Drop Kid is closer to the tone of the original stories than Guys and Dolls; it's more bloody-minded, though not by too much.

The central plot follows con-man Kid (Hope) as he tries to raise ten thousand dollars he owes to a murderous mobster named Moose Moran. The scheme he finally hits on involves establishing a charity for elderly women so he can get a license to collect on the street, then conning a bunch of soft-hearted grifters into raising money for the charity as sidewalk Santas. He intends to steal the money to pay his debt in the end, but everything gets complicated. He has a main squeeze, and rivals, and a twisty sort of morality.

Of course it has a happy ending, although how it gets there is pretty forced. Erin objected, but I'm kind of glad that The Kid isn't really redeemed or changed in the end. He's still a twisty-minded con man, but gets out of his trouble while letting the money go to the old-folks home.

I did love the Silver Bells scene. I found it beautifully evocative of the good and bad of city Christmases. I think the dialogue is often strong, and I liked the visual style of the film.

Overall, though, this movie is slow and odd, and too much of the humor is forced or based on ugly camera tricks that I'm not convinced anyone ever found funny.

I'll call it a curiosity more than a classic, but I'm glad I saw it once just for the uniqueness of the experience.  

Christmas in the Stars (LP 1980)

A 'supportive' friend gave us a ton of random holiday music, compiled from who knows where, near the end of last year's Mainlining project. Much of it was unique, or terrible, or - like this - both. So, uh, "Thanks", I guess.

This is one of the weirdest, most nonsensical things I've ever listened to. The fact that this even exists blows my logic circuits, so to speak.

Okay, lets start off by saying that all of these songs are awful. I could have written better Star Wars Christmas songs as age six. Because even at six I was reluctant to make rhymes just by repeating the same words over and over again.

Also I feel bad for Anthony Daniels, the only voice actor with the misfortune to be involved with this. Maybe he really got a bad deal in his initial contract? It seems like he did a lot of these sorts of odd appearances.

This is also horrible because it even dispenses with the Life Day cover story, and just decides that droids make presents for Santa, and everyone celebrates a sort of nonspecific holiday called Christmas about gift-giving and love? I hate it when people can't even be bothered to hand-wave in an explanation. What happened to a galaxy far far away?

Song List:
  • Christmas in the Stars
  • Bells, Bells, Bells
  • The Odds Against Christmas
  • What Can You Get a Wookiee for Christmas (When He Already Owns a Comb?)
  • R2-D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas
  • Sleigh Ride
  • Merry, Merry Christmas
  • A Christmas Sighting ('Twas the Night Before Christmas)
  • The Meaning of Christmas

About The Songs:
Christmas in the Stars exemplifies all the things I described above. It's just a flat out terrible song.

Bells, Bells, Bells: Here's a definition of bells, actually suitable for droids: a percussive musical instrument consisting of a metal outer shell and an inner piece that strikes the shell when shook, producing a tone. There, I saved you time and idiocy.

The Odds against Christmas: Wow. Someone actually wrote this awful song. I mean, in idea, execution, everything, it's just hideously bad. This one also has the highest percentage of random Earth stuff. There's a line in here about how lucky Earth is to have Christmas, but in all the other tracks, everyone has Christmas, so...I give up.

What Can You Get a Wookiee for Christmas (When He Already Owns a Comb?): This is stupid, but the sheer weirdness of it makes it slightly less annoying than some of these other tracks. The internal logic is dumb, but at least it exists.

R2-D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas: These songs get weirder and weirder. Now a scary child chorus and some dude with a soft-rock voice are singing a gift to R2. Or something.

Sleigh Ride: Arrgh. This is so painful to listen to. Why is a character who cannot sing talk-singing about singing? I'm embarrassed on behalf of everyone who was involved in this.

Merry, Merry Christmas: More from the elf-droids, or whatever they are. At least this is less offensively bad than the rest of the songs. It's even almost funny, occasionally.

A Christmas Sighting ('Twas the Night Before Christmas): This is a restyling of the poem casting C3PO as the narrator. It's actually kind of okay, and the best use of the character on the album.

Wait, what? Now they're codifying the enslavement of the droids as a gift for them. "Every time you build a toy, you've gotten a gift" WTF? And it turns out the Santa Jr. is responsible for all those not-Earth children. O-kay...

And then there's a terrible ballad. A really terrible ballad.

The Meaning of Christmas: The dude with the bad rock-ballad voice is trying, here, to create something meaningful, that will have resonance beyond some gimmicky record, that will have some deeper meaning. They're really trying. But they're failing. Really failing. It's just excruciating to listen to how hard they're failing.

Best Song: Merry, Merry Christmas
Worst Songs: odds, bells, stars, sleigh... are there any more?

Do not subject yourself to this, unless you have a high tolerance for terrible music and a taste for the completely strange. It flutters around the so-bad-it's-funny line, but I think your feelings about singing on pitch and Star Wars will determine which side of the line it falls on for each listener. As in, the more you like those two things, the less you will like this album.

Yes, Virginia (2009)

There is, inside of me, a swell of rage and hatred, and it's all thanks to the 2009 CG production, "Yes, Virginia."

Now first off, I want to acknowledge what's good about the special. And, as much as I hate to admit it, there's a quite a list. The animation looks good, the designs are generally inspired, the dialogue was competently written, and the voice acting - featuring both Doctors Horrible and Octopus - was pretty solid.

So why then does this special make me angrier than anything else I've seen this year? Because of what it is, what it does, and why it exists. I appreciate that most Christmas specials are designed to make money - hell, it's part of what I love about the holidays - but generally those specials are direct in their strategy. A special's produced and sold to a network, advertising revenue changes hands, and on the back-end maybe DVDs are produced. It might not be charitable, but at least there's something honest about the system, something pure.

"Yes, Virginia," on the other hand, was dreamed up by Macy's, along with their advertising agency, as a tie-in to their existing "Believe" campaign and to create a mascot based on the historical figure of Virginia. It'd be like if McDonalds had funded a Christmas special staring Ronald McDonald right before introducing him as their symbol.

Now, let's discuss what this special does with the historical figures involved, along with the famous editorial, because that pisses me off even more.

This isn't the first time that the "Yes, Virginia" editorial has been co-opted into a endorsement of faith, but it still infuriates me. Look. Here's the Wikipedia article about the editorial. If you go there, you'll see a scan of the actual text. You'll notice it's significantly longer than edited versions you hear recited in specials like this thing.

Read it. Read the entire thing.

It's not about faith. It's not about blind belief. It's about the beauty of childhood stories, the vastness of the unknown universe, and speculative wonder. It's about the real importance of fantasy to our lives; it's not a dismissal of rational thought.

I'm sick of seeing this editorial abridged into something that appeases the religious right with a message of faith. That's not what it's about.

And it's certainly not about selling sweaters, either.

So, if you're looking for cheap pablum you can shovel down kids' throats, this is actually a pretty good special. I actually mean that - good production values, well made, and all that.

But this shouldn't exist. It's insulting that it does.