Saturday, December 1, 2012


Anyone who knows anything about Christmas knows that Mainlining Christmas is the only site on the internet that truly encapsulates the holiday in its entirety. Normally, I wouldn't think a statement so manifest by the unnatural light of a million multi-colored bulbs would require further explanation. But apparently, I'd be wrong.

Because, apparently, we're not the only ones laying claim to Christmas. Recently, I came across The bottom of their page proclaims, " is the Official Website of Christmas 2012."

First off, who the hell approved that? Do they have a notarized letter of permission from Jesus? You'd think something like that would belong on their About Us page, and I just checked: it's not there.

I guess they feel comfortable backing up that claim. So let's compare content.

Mainlining Christmas has reviewed more than a hundred fifty specials, movies, and Christmas-themed television episodes to cull the half dozen or so that don't suck. We've got e-cards and original fiction. We review toys, books, and plays. We keep you updated on who's winning in the War on Christmas.

In comparison, is little more than a digital doormat where their corporate sponsors can shill gifts.

Face it, you've brought a stick of cinnamon to a coal fight. You think slapping the label "Official" above stock photos of white people wearing Santa hats gives you yuletide cred? I've got news for you: we are Christmas. We watch shit that would give you nightmares. Have you ever even seen the Star Wars Holiday Special?

"Official site of Christmas 2012." Fine. You want that title, it's yours. But you know something? We're the official website of the FIRST Christmas. That's right: year one, birth of Jesus - that's ours. And if Jesus comes back to life this year, he won't give a rat's ass about your crummy little site: he'll be catching up on two thousand years of shitty holiday specials with Mainlining. And then Jesus will buy us presents on his birthday, Hobbit-style. Because we're that integral to the season. And you're just a bunch of phonies.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

This is the second time I've seen How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the first being in the theater when it was originally released. That was quite a while ago, but the experience stuck with me: I remember thinking it was a poorly conceived, ill-advised attempt to adapt a near-perfect classic into a full-length movie which resulted in a mess that insulted Dr. Seuss, the viewing public, and common taste.

But it turns out my memory was faulty. When I actually sat down to rewatch this, I discovered it was far, far worse than I was remembering. Calling this a poorly conceived mess is a compliment. This isn't some innocent insult; it twisted Seuss's brilliant designs into grotesque horrors. It doesn't merely mangle his lines: it actually goes out of its way to mock them, without so much as a hint of humor or shame.

For those of you who have never had the opportunity to watch The Grinch or slowly have your hand run through a meat-grinder, allow me to to attempt to discuss a little of the experience you're missing out on. If you ever read the story or saw the original animated special and thought to yourself, "Hey, that was good, but an expanded back story, love interest, and antagonist would make it GREAT," then you most likely produced this movie and don't need me to summarize it for you*. Because no one else - NO ONE - could possibly think any of that would add a damn thing to How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Likewise, expanding the relationship between Cindy Lou Who and The Grinch doesn't help matters.

If these things had been stellar, they could conceivably have felt unnecessary but innocuous. As the writing and direction was utter crap, they instead dragged the brilliant story through the mud. Throughout the movie, they actually drained meaning from the remaining bits.

Then we reached the end, which was heavily reworked to drive home the filmmakers' critique of consumerism, which replaced the far more intelligent and interesting reflections on consumerism at the core of the story they failed to understand.

Also, let me just add that millionaires making Christmas movies criticizing consumerism is seriously pissing me off. That's not subversive; it's sickeningly hypocritical. Hey, Ron Howard: your entire fucking life has consumed vast resources from the moment you were born. I don't begrudge you for taking advantage of your opportunities, but the next time you feel like shitting on the rest of civilization for wanting to put up some lights, maybe you should shut the fuck up instead.

Where were we? How about the Grinch's motivation? Apparently, the filmmakers thought it would be easier to relate to the character if he was reacting against a cruel world that failed to understand him. Needless to say this does not work as well as intended.

But maybe I'm being too hard on The Grinch. After all, this production was clearly more focused on style than substance (nothing intrinsically wrong with that). So, let's put aside the hack job done on the plot, theme, characters, dialogue, and every other element that is meant to appeal with people with long term memory and instead focus on design and visual effect. How are those?

Well, those are just as shitty as the rest of the movie. It's clear that the movie wanted to recreate Seuss's art in the real world, and it's clear that someone really, truly believed they were capable of doing so. But it's also clear they were dead wrong, as every second of this movie is disturbing to look at. If it's any consolation, the music is horribly executed, too, so at least the movie's consistent. Sure, there are occasionally bits of songs from the original special, but the film pretty uniformly finds ways to screw them up or make jokes at their expense.

In summation, this is one of the worst movies Lindsay and I have seen in three years of this blog. Sure, there's a sizable (and growing) list of competitors running neck and neck with this thing, but it's still towards the top. The one joy I got from this was looking over at Lindsay while it was playing and seeing her expression - a sort of mix of horror, disgust, and outright disbelief - and remembering when I saw this for the first time twelve years ago with the exact same look on my face.

Ah, the nostalgia.

*If you are an executive who green-lit this with any notion of what the finished product would look like, (also, Ron Howard and Jim Carrey should pay attention: this applies to you guys, as well) it is my genuine pleasure to inform you that there exists a very special place in Hell reserved for artless hacks who shit all over the works of Dr. Seuss. You'll never guess what they play there on an endless loop.

Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century: The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle (1999)

I knew that this show existed, although I don't recall ever seeing an episode before. It's odd, but kind of charming.

From what I gathered of the premise, Holmes has been awoken/resurrected in the far future, Captain America style, except with even more super-science. Watson is rebuilt as some kind of robot, and the new Lestrade is a lady cop. I liked her, she seemed to be the muscle. Overall I enjoyed this. It had some awkward made-for-children 'humor' and some cut corners in production here and there, but as a rather unique version of Holmes, I'm actually really on board with this.

The tone of the setting was really interesting, and the whole pastiche seemed to be right on the best line between taking the source material seriously while being delightfully tongue in cheek when appropriate.

I was wholly amused with the adaptation of the Blue Carbuncle story, in this case a popular animatronic toy with a program hidden inside, rather than a goose with a gemstone. There was definitely some handwaving around the technology, but I was surprised and impressed by how much of the story was kept. Holmes snarking about holidays in the future was an enjoyable addition.

Was it brilliant? No. Does it deserve a spot on your holiday playlist? If you're a fan of Holmes or animated cyberpunk, the answer may actually be yes! Just don't expect it to be more than it is, be aware that there's some stuff stuck in for little kids, and you’ll enjoy it just fine.

Fiction: A Ring

Every day at midnight between December 1st and December 25th I'll be posting genre fiction about Christmas Eve. The first installment is a short science fiction piece.

By: Erin L. Snyder

Even before he lays a finger on the small, wrapped box, Charles Windmire knows precisely how it will feel. He is surprised by this, at least in part. He’d expected a sense of nostalgia, being here, being now, but this transcends that. He knows the texture of the gold paper and the way the soft fabric beneath it will give the tiniest bit when he squeezes it. He knows the how firm the gift tag is, just as he knows what’s printed on it.

“To my dearest Lin, in celebration of our first Christmas together... and to all the others that follow.”

The irony is not lost on Charles as he lifts the box from its spot beneath the tree. And looks at it. All, just as he remembers. It isn’t happening once, but many times. He feels dizzy and sits down.

It is an effect of the journey, he suspects. He needs to regain his bearings. Catch himself. He doesn’t dare speak aloud, because there’s nothing that scares him as much as the idea he might wake the people sleeping upstairs. Not even getting caught at the lab terrifies him so much.

The lab. They would fire him at the very least. Would Dr. Veirdin do something more? The doctor had once alluded to the possibility. “If I ever found someone using my machine.... I... I sometimes wonder. I wonder if I ever did. Because, if anyone ever used it without permission, I could make sure they never had.”

In the early days of the experiment, Veirdin had once came in while Charles and Trevor were joking about the possibility of going back in time and killing Hitler. To their surprise, Veirdin hadn’t scolded them on the dangers of changing past; rather he simply asked, “Why kill? Find their birthday. Find their mother’s name. Go back nine months before and give her a flu or a cold. It would be enough. The man wouldn’t be born. A different man would be, but not the same.”

He’d seemed so clinical about the way he’d said it. Charles had always wondered if Veirdin had ever done such a thing. But then, perhaps Veirden wondered the same. When the past is altered, the future is replaced, as well: for all intents and purposes, as soon as the action was done, the act itself would be replaced, as would the actor.

Charles was counting on this. When he was finished here, everything from this night onward would change. Veirden would never catch him, because he’d never sneak in to use the time machine without permission. He’d lose the last three years; nothing would please him more.

It is December 24, 2009, the night before the biggest mistake in Charles’s life. A mistake he’s holding in his hand right now.

Linda: the greatest thing that had ever happened to him. The greatest woman he’d ever known. They’d fallen in love madly over a summer in grad school. They’d moved in together soon after. And then, in a childish attempt to keep her forever, he’d chased her away.

An engagement ring. After less than a year, he’d asked her to marry him on Christmas. What had he been thinking? She was a free spirit; she loved him, but she wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment.

She said “yes” when he asked, of course. Briefly, it had all seemed so perfect. But almost immediately, the second thoughts had started, followed by bickering and eventually fighting. She’d returned the ring when she moved out that spring, and by then Charles was almost relieved.

But as time moved forward, it became more and more clear what he’d lost. He met other women, had flings and short relationships, but they all seemed so pointless. With Lin, he’d felt so much more alive, so much happier.

Until it all fell apart because he'd been young, because he hadn't understood her. He never dreamed he might be able to correct that mistake. Even when he'd started working for Veirdin, he never actually thought the research would lead anywhere.

But it had. A real, working portal through time. A chance to fix a mistake that had destroyed his life.

Charles had been sentimental but also skittish. If things had gone wrong, he’d have tried to cover it up and move on. If, say, the ring had disappeared, he wouldn't have asked Lin. He’d have given her the rest of her gifts and pretended everything was as it should be.

And that was precisely how he was going to ensure it had been. Charles stood up slowly, still dizzy and confused. He’d given this next part a lot of thought. He couldn't take the ring with him, because he wouldn't be going anywhere: when his job was done, he should just disappear, replaced in a future in which he’d never travel back to this instant.

He had to hide the ring someplace he wouldn't look for months, but preferably somewhere he’d find it eventually, when he was thinking a little more clearly. Then, when the time was right - when Lin was ready - he’d know to ask.

He’d spent days considering his options before he settled on the fireplace. He’d never once used it, so the ring wouldn’t be in any danger. In addition, he’d never think to look there. But he cleaned it every spring, like clockwork.

There is a brick missing from the inside. He reaches up and locates the opening, which is completely hidden by the wall, and he sets the box on the ledge.

A sense of nausea overtakes him. It’s strange, like he is remembering something as it happens. His head is numb, but there is no pain. “This is it,” he thinks, “the moment where my mistake and all that comes after it ceases to be.” It should be a frightening thought, but Charles finds it comforting. It is a chance no one has ever had before; the chance to start over.

He’ll disappear, leaving the younger version of himself free to follow his life the way it should have gone, the way it was meant to go.

Just as soon as he corrects the bizarre event that destroyed his life.

Years before, he’d intended to ask Lin to marry him. Lin, the only woman who’d ever mattered to him. He’d bought an engagement ring for her - a perfect ring for the perfect woman - and he’d wrapped it and hid it beneath the tree.

But on Christmas Day, it was gone. Vanished. He pretended nothing was wrong, but as soon as he was alone he tore the house upside down looking for it. He checked everywhere it could possibly be, but with no success.

It was months before he found it tucked inside his fireplace. How it had gotten there remained a mystery, albeit a trivial one: by then, it was too late. Their relationship had already fallen apart.

In his heart, Charles knows that if he’d only proposed to Lin, they’d have gotten married. Sure, there relationship would still have faced difficulties, but they’d have gotten through.

When he found himself working for a scientist who’d developed a machine capable of sending someone to the past, he saw an opportunity. He traveled back to this night, Christmas Eve 2009, to correct whatever strange twist of fate had hidden the ring.

He reaches into the fireplace and locates the box, just where he’d come across it cleaning so many years ago. Stranger still, even after so long, he knows how the box will feel to the touch. It’s as if... as if.... It doesn’t matter. Some after-effect of time travel, perhaps. In a few moments, he knows he’ll cease to be. No thought could please him more.

He’s dizzy as he takes the small package over to the Christmas tree and returns it to its rightful place. In the morning, he’ll give it to Lin as ask her to be his wife. His life will....

Dizzy. So dizzy. Charles shakes his head. He knows he’s about to vanish. He’ll be gone, along with the cursed events of the past few years. It will happen in a moment.

Just as soon as he corrects the biggest mistake of his life. He looks down beneath the tree. Even before he lays a finger on the small, wrapped box, Charles Windmire knows precisely how it will feel.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Mainlining Christmas Presents: 25 Christmas Eves

Remember two years ago when I wrote five short stories for the blog in the midst of trying to review dozens of crappy specials and movies, and by the end of it I was almost ready to put my head through a brick wall?

Good times.

But at least my hard work was appreciated. I mean, just check out these enthusiastic quotes about the free compilation I dumped on Smashwords afterward (download yours today!):

Nothing cheery about these Christmas stories. Would not recommend it.
-Anonymous reviewer on Barnes & Noble's website

Though this collection of short stories was better than the other free books/short stories I've purchased on my nook, I still will not say it was very much worth reading.
-Reviewer on Goodreads

If the people want more, who am I to say no? With that in mind, I'm ready to announce something a little special this year. After slacking last year (three stories - really, I am embarrassed), I felt like I owed you a bit more this holiday.

That's why, starting at Midnight tonight, I'll be uploading fiction every day between now and Christmas. Think of it like a advent calendar, only with fiction instead of really crappy chocolate. Will the fiction sometimes be crappy? Almost certainly: I'm pumping this stuff out like no one's business. But I think there'll be a few good stories in there, too.

Oh. One more thing. Because I like to keep things thematic, every single one of these stories is going to be about Christmas Eve. What that means will vary from piece-to-piece. These will represent a wide variety of genres: I'm going to have horror, comedy, fantasy, science fiction, and others.

Okay, a few notes about logistics, just so I don't hear any of you whining about this later. I'm promising new fiction every day: that will usually entail a complete story, but a few of these are going to be too long. In total, I'm planning to post twenty-two new stories about Christmas Eve. For those of you who feel cheated, I'd point out that I posted three stories taking place on Christmas Eves last year, so that will, in fact, still add up to twenty-five.

First one goes live in six hours.

Phineas and Ferb Christmas Vacation (2009)

I'm a recent convert to Phineas and Ferb. The series is evocative of Dexter's Laboratory, almost to the point of feeling like a rip off. But - frankly - Phineas and Ferb eclipses Dexter's Lab. The show's concept may feel derivative, but its use of tone, subtlety, and complex characters built on a deceptively simple backdrop consisting of an intentionally repetitious formula make it stand out as one of the best animated series to come along in a long time.

Fortunately, there are a couple of Christmas episodes: an extended special in season two and a half-episode in three. I'll tackle the short at a later date; for now, I'm focusing on the 33 minute "Phineas and Ferb Christmas Vacation".

In addition to being longer than any of the previous episodes, this also has the distinction of being the first episode of Phineas and Ferb that doesn't take place over summer vacation. Not surprisingly, they've animated a special opening, which is basically a winterized-parody of the norm. The first half of the episode basically plays out the same way almost every episode is structured. The second half then throws out the formula when things go horribly wrong.

I'm actually a little torn on this. On one hand, this special is exceptionally clever: there are some brilliant moments and jokes. On the other hand, the pacing feels off to me. The series's quick pacing and high energy is a big part of what makes it successful. This special fails to maintain that, and as a result drags at times. Likewise, there are a lot of songs here, and the majority fall well below the series's normal level of quality (though Dr. Doofenshmirtz's song about his motivation is a welcome exception).

In addition, some of the fantasy elements seem out of place here. The Christmas elves look like they walked out of a different cartoon and clash with the show's established design scheme. It's also questionable whether Christmas elves belong in this world at all - while it's not entirely consistent, Phineas and Ferb occupy a world that's almost entirely science fiction in nature; these are somewhat tone-breaking.

But none of that takes away from the humor of this special, nor does it detract from its heart. This is funny, sweet, and intelligent. While some elements feel out of place, they're still well executed. And while most of the music doesn't live up to the series's expectations, it's certainly not bad.

In addition, this special gets better the more you think about it. I've actually seen this twice, because I couldn't make up my mind whether to label it "Highly Recommended". One scene, which first seemed like a missed opportunity to incorporate a Christmas trope, I now believe to be an intricate subversion of that same trope. Likewise, the more I consider the ending in relation to the series as a whole, I find myself wondering if this special may have been conceived as a shockingly complex theological exercise (or I could be reading way too much into it).

Regardless, this is a very good Christmas special. The fact it failed to live up to my expectations says more about the series than this special as a stand-alone story. I am, therefore, recommending this... just not as highly as I'd recommend the rest of the series.

Book Review: Deck the Halls

Deck the Halls
Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark, 2000

I found this book on a list of books tagged “Christmas” on goodreads. Apparently the Clarks, mother and daughter, have written a list of novels together all set at Christmas.

Premise: Two successful novelists decide to cram all their popular characters together in the space of 200 pages. For Christmas.

This book was an absolute mess. As I said above, it appears to be that both women took the protagonists of their successful suspense series and put them in a book together. This book is so short that you don’t get a sense of any of the characters, just told “this is person X and they are a Y” and the fact that you should care about them is assumed. The villains are petty and boring, the heroines sort of useless and bland. There are really useless, dull red herrings, and none of the sundry investigators do anything productive that actually leads to the resolution.

On a certain level, there was something a little creepy about this mother-daughter novelist team writing about a woman who was a novelist and her private investigator daughter dealing with the violent kidnapping, complete with ransom, of the woman’s husband. I mean, I understand write what you know, but that really gave me pause. There’s another amateur investigator, though, a Miss Marple type, and all her supporting characters.

At times it doesn’t completely suck - one woman’s worry about her children feels somewhat real, even if that’s her only character trait - but overall, there’s too much surface detail (purple prose alert!) and basically no character development. There’s some tremendously forced “romance” around the edges. Somehow the romantic plotlines manage to be present enough to be annoying and absent enough to also be completely annoying that it’s just assumed that these characters will get together, because that makes it a “happy” ending. Bleck.

The only good thing I can say about this is that it was short, and by and large not offensive.

I have to give special note, though, to a line that completely pulled me out of a scene, such that I reeled back, such that I lost any sympathy I might have scraped together for the guy whose kidnapping is the focus of the story. Rich dude actually verbally blames his fellow kidnappee, his female chauffeur, for not dating this skeezy guy she’d turned down who was now in on the kidnap plot. He takes it back almost immediately, and she doesn’t react strongly, makes a joke out of it, but it made me feel ill that I was supposed to give a shit what happened to this guy.

Gadget Boy's Adventures in History: A Gadget Boy Christmas Around the World (1998)

Continuing our string of Christmas episodes on the "Christmas Cartoon Collection" from series I've never heard of, we reach "Gadget Boy's Adventures in History," which is apparently a spin-off of the series "Gadget Boy and Heather," which I've also never heard of.

You may be asking yourself, "What the hell is Gadget Boy?" And the answer is, "You don't want to know."

But since I'm a horrible person, I really want to tell you. Gadget Boy is basically a reboot of Inspector Gadget, only instead of being an incompetent adult cyborg inspector who's constantly being saved by a brilliant human child, he's an incompetent child android constantly being saved by a competent adult woman.

In case you were still wondering, he's still voiced by Don Adams.

So, let's review: Inspector Gadget was an animated spin on Get Smart, itself a parody of the spy genre. The Adventures of Gadget Boy and Heather was an attempt to update Inspector Gadget by spinning it off into something more kid friendly. And Gadget Boy's Adventures through time was an attempt to spin that off into something ostensibly educational for the History Channel.

Incidentally, the entirety of Plato's Cave allegory is inscribed in the above paragraph, provided you can unravel its mysteries.

Where were we? Oh, yes: Gadget Boy's Christmas special. How do I describe this? I think it goes without saying that the show's premise sounds abysmal, so let me just say this was worse than it sounds.

The plot it... uh.... actually, that's not entirely clear. There was a six-armed villainess named Spydra who wanted to destroy Christmas for no discernible reason whatsoever. She used a time machine to go back in time to kidnap Saint Nicholas of Myra, so Christmas wouldn't exist, but this had no real effect for no discernible reason whatsoever. She therefore kidnapped a couple other historical figures ostensibly tied to Christmas, also without effect. Gadget Boy tried to stop her with mixed results: he didn't manage to prevent her from kidnapping anyone, but he did manage to annoy her (and us).

While they're in the 16th Century, Santa Claus (from the present day - there's no explanation for how he got there) invites Gadget Boy to come to his workshop, because he needs help with the presents. In addition to Gadget Boy, he also invites Gadget Boy's team, the historical figures who were kidnapped, Spydra, and her goons. For no discernible reason whatsoever.

Shockingly, Spydra betrays them once they're in Santa's workshop. They defeat her with reindeer and Christmas is saved or something.

I do want to be clear about something: if the synopsis I wrote above makes any sort of logical sense or conveys any sense of cohesion, I've failed miserably in describing this episode. Nothing - I mean nothing - added up.

Normally, something this bizarre would be a shoe-in for the "so bad it's good" honor. But, despite having a soft spot in my heart for Inspector Gadget, I couldn't engage with this at all. The lack of continuity was so pervasive, I couldn't even enjoy it as a train wreck. It was just a boring barrage of garbage. The closest thing I could find funny that was even tangentially related to this was the discovery that it was made for the History Channel and was intended to be educational. There was nothing - NOTHING - in this that even remotely had educational value.

You know what? Strike the word "educational" from that last sentence.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Small One (1978)

Let's get one thing straight from the start. The Small One is an animated piece directed by Don Bluth (and very much in his style) when he worked for Disney. Nestor the Long Eared Christmas Donkey is a stop-motion special by Rankin-Bass.  Both of these pieces are about the origins of the donkey who carries Mary to Bethlehem. Both of these pieces are not very good.  However, The Small One is only mediocre, so compared to the steaming pile of excrement that was Nestor, Small One comes out pretty far ahead in the donkey-story quality scale.

There are aspects of this special that aren't terrible, even. The story follows a young boy forced to sell his beloved but undersized donkey, who just wants to find his friend a new home. The animation is quite well done, both the boy and the donkey are cute, and there are some sweet interactions between them.

The story ends with the purchase of the donkey by Joseph. We don't follow them to Bethlehem, we never actually see Mary. This actually keeps a nice focus on the relationship between the boy and his donkey, which is the point.

That said, it was still boring. Really quite boring. The story takes forever to go anywhere and while the horror when they stumble into a tanning facility is surprisingly effective, I didn't really care in the end whether the kid sold his donkey successfully.

There's also some humor based around a bunch of broad caricatures that I think I might have liked as a little kid who didn't know any better, but the whole thing is a little uncomfortable now.

So to sum up: not terrible, just mediocre. Not worth seeking out, though. If you have awkward relatives or some other reason you absolutely have to watch a religious-ish Christmas special, you could do worse.

Toy Review: Lego Santa (Lego Minifigures Series 8)

If you're a serious Lego collector (and, statistically speaking, you're almost certainly not), you already know about Lego's line of blind-packed minifigures, which are being sold damn-near everywhere for about three bucks a pop. Series 8 includes a ton of cool characters, but the only one I was really interested in was Claus here. That left me with three options:

1) Buy a veritable shitload of overpriced Lego minifigures in the hopes of getting what I wanted,

2) Head on over to eBay and pay an even more inflated price for one that had been opened, or

3) Try and game the system using the almost indistinguishable code of raised bumps on the back of the pack.

Yeah. Tough call there.

So, I was probably standing in the toy section of Fred Meyer for ten minutes, painstakingly comparing the bumps on each pack to picture on my cell phone I'd gotten from a toy review site (is this a good time for a shout out to the always fantastic blog, "A Year of Toys"? I think it is). For those of you who haven't had the opportunity to experience the joy of "bump codes," they're a series of tiny, uncolored bumps embedded in the side of the pack that correspond to the toy inside. They're a pain in the ass, by the way. It's not always clear what's a bump and what's an air bubble, and on top of that some of the packs were unlabeled. It's almost as if Lego doesn't want me finding figures this way.

If you're a fan of vintage minifigs, you'll probably be disappointed. The new ones include unique faces (Santa, for example, has bushy eyebrows), so these aren't quite as interchangeable as the ones you had as a child. If you're under the age of - say - thirty, you have no idea what the hell I'm talking about, since your Lego Star Wars figures had unique heads, and the idea of people being disappointed that their toys are more complicated sounds backwards if not outright stupid.

Other than that, this is a fairly run-of-the-mill Lego figure. Since that's all it's supposed to be, it meets expectations. Lego makes solid toys; these are a hell of a lot sturdier than what most toy companies are churning out these days. The joints are strong, and the pieces lock together without a fuss. I'm sure that sounds obvious to most people, but believe me: Lego's competitors have yet to pull this feat off.

The "special" pieces -namely the beard, the hat, and the sack - are decent enough. The body piece, which depicts Santa's coat, is a bit underwhelming, though. Also, A Year of Toys complained that Santa's black boots weren't painted, and I'm inclined to agree. You also get a rectangular Lego stand, if you care (you probably won't).
"Sorry, Superman. Lex was surprisingly good this year, and the only thing he asked for was a kryptonite-powered mech-suit."

This is certainly cool. At $2.99, he's simultaneously absurdly overpriced yet cheap enough to make the point moot. I kind of think Lego missed an opportunity here: if this wasn't blind packed, he'd have far more value as a stocking stuffer. I bet they could have sold a million of these at three bucks a pop if they'd played their cards right.

If you're specifically looking for a Lego Santa and don't mind burning some time in a toy store squinting at tiny bumps on black plastic, this isn't a bad way to go. However, if you're just looking for a kitchy Santa toy, I'd say Playmobile has better bargains.

"Unless you've got my parents alive and well in there, I honestly don't care which list I made. I've got work to do."

Santa Who? (2000)

When you pick up a made-for-TV movie called "Santa Who", starring Leslie Nielsen as an amnesiac Claus who takes a job as a mall Santa, on a VHS tape for fifty cents, you brace yourself for what you assume will rank among the worse movies ever made. But I was actually pleasantly surprised.

That doesn't mean this was great or necessarily even good, though it treads shocking close to that line. There are a few short sequences that are awful, several that make literally no sense, the entire ending is a mess, and the production values are just shy of what you expect from college film projects these days.

And yet... it's oddly appealing. The script showed shocking care and restraint in developing its characters. Sure, they're all tired cliches, but they don't come off as unbelievably stupid or simplistic (well, at least not until the last ten or fifteen minutes, when the whole thing starts unraveling). The main character is your usual Scrooge stand-in, but he comes off as having a sense of humor about the whole thing rather than the obvious hostility you expect in this type of thing. Likewise, his girlfriend - a single mother, as if this needed another parallel to Miracle on 34th Street - doesn't berate him with old lectures about the importance of the holidays; instead, she respects his point of view and cracks a few jokes back.

Despite a horrible fat-suit, Nielsen does a decent job in the title role, conveying a sort of whimsical absent-mindedness that gets the job done. The idiotic slapstick his career devolved into is blissfully absent: the comedy around Santa is almost entirely relegated to the plot.

I found myself thinking of Elf a lot while watching this. It's not in the same league, of course, but both had a similar premise and avoided many of the same pitfalls. I don't want to imply this was anything spectacular - it really wasn't - but it wasn't a painful experience, and it delivered a handful of laughs. There's no real need to seek this out, but there are many worse flicks to sit through.

It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown (1992)

During the first year of Mainlining Christmas, we reviewed the original Charlie Brown Christmas Special. Well, Erin reviewed it. I sidestepped that one, in deference to the fact that my discomfort with it is rather personal. This, on the other hand, was just good fun.

It’s Christmastime Again was released nearly 30 years after the first one. As an attempt to create another beloved classic it’s a failure, but as an animated Peanuts special, I found it solid. It’s an animated adaptation of several holiday-themed storylines from the comic strips; the half-hour special has no overarching plot.

The upshot of this approach is that even if you don’t like the storyline about Charlie Brown selling wreaths door-to-door, you might like the one about Sally learning her lines for the Christmas Play, or Peppermint Patty and Marcie bickering about the same play. There’s a few nicely subversive scenes as well, which poke some fun at the original special.

I laughed, I smiled, I rolled my eyes at the occasional animation short-cut. Overall, a fun little piece.

Networks don’t tend to play this one in December, but it’s been released as an extra on the DVD of the original special.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wimzie’s House: The Perfect Christmas (1996)

It was rather odd to find this on the DVD that claimed to be all animated holiday episodes. While intended for children, Wimzie’s House is a show starring puppets. Really boring puppets.

Wimzie and her family are dragons, and Wikipedia helpfully identifies her friends as goblins and a troll, but they might as well have just been kids. Elmo is more of a monster than these guys. And probably smarter.

The plot of this episode revolves around Wimzie’s idea of a “perfect” Christmas, so of course everything goes wrong. Her infant brother misunderstands something and puts all the gifts the kids got for each other in with the gifts her dad is taking to sick kids at the hospital, so the presents disappear. Due to a blizzard, Wimzie’s mom’s plane is late getting home. Her friends’ parents can’t come over to pick them up, so they have to stay over. This is all presented with maximum little-kid whining. “But WHY can’t we [whatever] I don’t underSTAND! Boo Hoo Hoo!”

Oh, and there’s a truly awful song or two.

But then, twist! Or what passes for a twist in well-meaning but boring children’s television. Wimzie’s dad won’t be able to deliver the presents to the kids at the hospital after all! He’s coming home, but the sick kids won’t have Christmas! Good and Bad! Helpfully, Wimzie and her friends make a pact to stay up to meet Santa and ask him to deliver their presents to the sick kids. They feel proud of their generosity, but only Wimzie manages to stay awake. Santa does actually show (it would have been so much more interesting if he hadn’t) although he somewhat nonsensically makes Wimzie forget their conversation, then leaves her a note explaining that per their request, he took the toys to the hospital. It makes it funnier to read this as Wimzie having a dream and the grandmother (who’s watching all these kids) just hiding their presents and leaving the note to make the kids feel good about themselves.

Of course, when Wimzie’s dad gets home finally, they find out their original presents didn’t disappear without a trace after all! And everyone’s parents get there safe through the blizzard! And Santa took care of that pesky feeling-sorry-for-others problem.

So there you have it a truly dull, annoying half-hour of television with the take-away message: trust in magic elves to help the less fortunate.

Frosty's Winter Wonderland (1976)

Frosty's Winter Wonderland is a sequel to 1969's Frosty the Snowman. Unlike Frosty Returns, Frosty's Winter Wonderland is actually a sequel to the original, complete with Jack Vernon returning as Frosty. Unlike said original, this is neither worth your time or attention.

With the magician from part one absent, Jack Frost steps in as the villain, motivated by jealousy over a perceived slight: the children of this one particular town seem to like Frosty more than they like winter itself, despite the fact the snowy weather gets them out of school. Naturally, Jack Frost decides to steal his rival's magic hat, transforming him back into a normal snowman.

So, rather than move on to another town, he decides to go with murder.

This is all occurring concurrently with Frosty confronting loneliness due to the children's absence at night. For some reason, they think its a good idea to make Frosty a wife. In a fairly troubling scene, he provides the specifications for her construction (I couldn't decide on the better punch-line, so take your pick between Pygmalion Ice Sculpture or Stepford Snow-wife). The best scene in the special occurs when the kids take a bonnet off a horse and try to use it to bring Crystal to life. The chorus kicks in with, "There must have been some magic..., for when they placed it on her head...." And then nothing.

Unfortunately, the special doesn't end there. Frosty makes Crystal some ice-flowers, which animate her frozen form, transforming her into a snow-golem. She comes to life, and the two of them run off together. Jack Frost shows up and steals Frosty's hat, but Crystal just brings him back to life by making another magic ice flower.

I should probably remind you that Frosty's hat contains a flower, suggesting that was the source of the dark magic that brought him to life in the first place. I suppose this means that all flowers will animate snowmen, which makes it a good thing flowers die before it snows. Seriously, an army of snow-monsters is not something our military's prepared to handle.

With that resolved, the kids head into town to get "Parson Brown", so he can marry the two vile snow-demons. Of course, he refuses, as marrying two inhuman monstrosities would be an affront to Christian teachings or something. But apparently creating a third inhuman monstrosity in his own image to perform the ceremony is fine, so that's what they do.

You'd think they'd whip up some more ice-flowers to bring the snow-parson to life, but instead Brown uses the inherent powers of his Bible to perform the deed. Now, I'm not religious myself, but it surprises me that I've never heard anyone complain about the fact the Bible functioned as a conduit for unholy power in this special. Of course, this thing first aired before I was born, so what do I know?

If you haven't put one and one together yet, this entire plot was built around a verse of Winter Wonderland, allowing them to incorporate the song into the special, the way Frosty was sung throughout part one. Needless to say, the effect seems somewhat more forced this time around.

In the scheme of things, Frosty's Winter Wonderland is relatively innocuous and inoffensive, but it's still boring as hell. Even the bizarre, surreal elements fizzle out pretty quickly. It's lacking in energy, but isn't otherwise painful. And, like I said, I did like the moment when the "magic hat-trick" failed.

Seeing as I just spoiled everything remotely interesting in the special, you can feel free to skip over this one. You're welcome.

Holiday Comics: The Tick

I’m going through my collection of holiday-themed back issues, looking at two issues every week until Christmas!

The Tick’s Big Yule Log Special 1999
Concept: Ben Edlund, Writer: Marc Silvia, Penciller: Gabe Crate, Inker: Tak Toyoshima

In this holiday story, The Tick and Arthur head to New York for a Christmas party at the Superheroes-only Comet Club. Meanwhile, Barry (the wannabe Tick) hires a villain to crash the party so he can ‘save’ everyone and show up the Tick. This is a funny story, although I could have used maybe a couple more pages; it felt quite short. It was a great read though, with a downright heartwarming-ish speech from Tick, and ninjas hiding in the party decorations.

The Tick’s Big Yule Log Special 2000
Concept: Ben Edlund, Story: Clay and Susan Griffith, Pencils: Gabe Crate, Inks: Tak Toyoshima

The story in this one is called It Came From Outer Space to Ruin Yet Another Christmas. Tick brings Tunn-La (not of this Earth) home for the holidays, and Arthur tries to convince Tick that he can’t convince an “implacable enemy of humanity” to play nice. Another fun story complete with good jokes and great art.

Reading these two back-to-back was maybe not the best idea, because they are slightly similar in some respects. Both are solid, entertaining reads though.

Saint (2010)

Saint (or "Sint") is a Dutch horror movie about a murderous zombie Saint Nicholas who descends upon Amsterdam every few decades to wreak havoc with an army of undead Black Peters when the full moon coincides with December 5th.

The selling point for me was the promise of a killer Saint Nicholas, not just another Santa Claus. That sounded surprisingly gutsy: risking the rage of the Catholic Church on top of myriad family groups. Well, I wound up disappointed. While the zombie killer was an undead bishop named "Niklas," the film made it abundantly clear he wasn't Saint Nicholas of Myra, but rather some psychotic bishop from the late fifteenth century. On top of that, it was stated that Nicholas of Myra was a fictitious character invented to cover up the murderous crimes of this zombie. I guess that was done so they could tie his origin to Amsterdam and Saint Nicholas' Eve. Personally, I felt ripped off.

None of it really made much sense. It was clearly attempting to make some sort of point about the commercialization of the holiday and the violent history of the church, but in the end I was too bored to care.

All right. In the interest of full disclosure, I saw this on Netflix, which meant watching it dubbed. So, pretend I cared enough to write some kind of disclaimer about how the story might have been butchered or something.

But that wouldn't have helped with the lack of suspense. None of the horror was scary or funny: just kind of idiotic and boring. The kills felt derived and generic, and there was far, far too much time felt on the set up.

The characters weren't any better. They were two-dimensional and unsympathetic. The dialogue (again, badly dubbed) was painful, and some of the voice-over actors were absurdly miscast.

Like so many other films in this genre, Saint was clearly trying to pretend it was subversive, funny, and "so bad it's good." And, like the vast majority, it failed on all counts. If you want a darkly comedic foreign movie about an evil Santa and his deadly helpers, go check out Rare Exports. Saint doesn't come close.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

'Twas the Night Before Christmas, by C. Moore and E.A. Poe

I'm fairly certain this won't be the only time this song gets mentioned this year, but I wanted to highlight it somewhere it wouldn't be buried in a dissertation of holiday music. I came across this video on YouTube earlier this year.

The song is from the album "Yulenog 3: Hardest Workin' Man in Christmas", which I promptly bought. I'll discuss the album in it's entirety elsewhere, but I really love this video and want to make sure everyone gets a chance to check it out.

It starts slowly, but trust me - you want to watch the whole thing.

The Busy World of Richard Scarry: The Big Apple Christmas Caper, Santa Needs Help (1997)

I had a bunch of Richard Scarry books when I was a kid. They featured anthropomorphic animals in either short, simple stories or in labeled pictures that taught vocabulary. I am not terribly familiar with this animated adaptation of said books.

We found this Christmas half-episode on a DVD of various holiday cartoons. It’s two short stories that add up to under 15 minutes. The opening is cute and catchy, and some of the humor was kind of cute as well. This episode didn’t have much to recommend it to a viewer who was not a small child, though.

The first story took place in New York City, in which some unknown force was stealing things by floating them up into the sky. A french detective arrives to solve the case, and after a few false starts, finds his nemesis in a dirigible with a giant magnet. It’s not actually as exciting as I probably just made it sound. The detective is slightly bumbling, the villain doesn’t really have a plan, and the final sight gag of things ending up returned but in the wrong places is rather awkward to see now, given the flooding and destruction in the city this year.

The second story was cuter, if obvious, and it takes place in Busytown. Hilda reads a story she’s written about Santa to her friends at the library. That’s it. The plot of the story is simple and straightforward: Santa crashes in the snow, has some trouble getting back on track. The humor comes from occasional commentary on the story and the fact that Hilda wrote herself into the story as the “kind, considerate” heroine.

This looks like a fine show for the 3-6 set, and was worth a smile or two from me, but isn’t exactly something I’d tell anyone to seek out.

A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa (2008)

This is a made-for-television special starring The Muppets, their cute little girl neighbor, and an array of celebrity cameos. The cute little girl asks Gonzo to mail her letter to Santa, but hijinx at the Post Office prevent that from happening, so the Muppets put their various holiday plans on standby while they try to figure out how to get her letter through. Not a terrible premise, but nothing earth-shaking.

If you’re anything like us, you’ll score this special on two separate scales. First, how good it is as a Christmas special, within the scope of Christmas specials. Second, how good it is as a Muppets special, within the scope of all things Muppet.

On the first scale, Letters to Santa does rather well. It’s cute, funny, and at under an hour run-time, doesn’t overstay its welcome.

On the second.... not so much.

Let me put it this way: I’ve seen a lot of Muppet Christmas specials, and this is one of the weakest ones. (I was going to say the weakest, and then I remembered John Denver pretending to be a toy soldier. However, The Muppets were the strength of that special, and here they’re just the gimmick.) Most of the jokes are too tame, there is some truly annoying abuse of sound effects, and the end has no emotional payoff. There’s no weight or resonance to anything here, just unfocused wackiness with a little schmaltz lathered on top.

Plus if you think about it at all, the message of the ending is pretty gross. I would warn for spoilers, but it’s telegraphed really early. The Muppets can grant the little girl’s Christmas wish by jettisoning all their own plans to stay in town and make her happy. They’re the Muppets, so they’re mostly okay with this, but “the world revolves around you - yes you!” is not the best take away for a holiday special.

The celebrity cameos are mostly lackluster, although some extra scenes on the DVD implied that Jane Krakowski had more than one funny line when they were filming, but the other was cut from the final version.

All that said, let’s go back to Christmas specials as a whole. There are funny parts, the songs aren’t too annoying on the whole, they convey the message without saying it directly that Santa’s elves get seriously sloshed on Christmas Eve, and although it is boring for Muppets, it’s still Muppets. That gives it a leg up on everything else.

Overall I’m mixed on this one. If it were on TV, I wouldn’t change the channel, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend you seek this out unless you’re the kind of fan who needs to see everything or you’ve already memorized the dialogue to A Muppet Family Christmas, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie.

Date With the Angels: The Christmas Show (1957)

Seeing a young Betty White was even stranger than seeing a young George Burns in the Burns and Allen Show. Unfortunately, that dissonance was by far the best part of this thing.

The respect I lost for White from her involvement in this show was quickly rekindled when I looked on Wikipedia for some context: it turns out this series suffered from interference from its sponsor, which resulted in any interesting elements being pulled. Apparently, Betty White has since disowned this thing, which absolves her of any culpability in my book.

The plot of this episode revolved around an elderly neighbor who wanted to feel useful. Vicki Angel got him a job at a nearby store's toy department run by a miserly curmudgeon, despite the fact that her neighbor really wasn't mentally capable of... well anything. He was put to work as the store's Santa Claus, despite clearly being unqualified. Since the store lacked even the most basic of security measures or managerial oversight, he was able to give away five hundred dollars worth of toys to kids (that's $4,115.96 in today's money; thank you, Bureau of Labor Statistics).

As I'm sure you can guess, the plot was resolved through melodramatic and uncharacteristic Christmas generosity.

If you want to see this, you can track it down on Youtube easily enough: I'm pretty sure it's public domain.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Heathcliff: North Pole Cat (1986 or 1988?)

Huh. I wasn't expecting much from this, although I remember liking this show as a kid. However, this was surprisingly decent. (Note: the date is so late because it apparently took a while for these to play out in syndication. The show was made in the early 80’s.)

This is a half-episode story that follows Heathcliff and his sometime nemesis Spike on a jaunt to the North Pole to find out why their letters to Santa came back return to sender. There were some funny lines and some intriguing plot twists along the way. 

Everything gets resolved in maybe too pat a way, but Santa is well handled, the North Pole has a Seuss-like look that's pretty neat, and the disgruntled elf was a really fun and unexpected new character.

While there might not be enough here to merit going out of your way to seek it out, it was enjoyable to watch, which is more than I can say for a lot of the holiday episodes we've seen.

And it still has a really catchy theme song.

The Legend of Frosty the Snowman (2004)

Since moving out of New York, Lindsay and I have been frequenting used book stores, many of which have a surprisingly impressive selection of used Christmas merchandise. We found "The Legend of Frosty the Snowman" going for a buck in the clearance section of one and bought it. I'll admit it was a bit overpriced, but at least we didn't wind up paying something exorbitant - like $1.50 or $1.99 - for this piece of junk.

The front of the box proudly advertises that the story is "Told and sung by Burt Reynolds." Before watching this, I wouldn't have thought that Burt Reynolds could sing. Funny thing: now that I have seen it, that hasn't changed. Fortunately, he only gets one chance, and that's (of course) Frosty the Snowman. It's actually the only song in the entire thing, though there are a number of musical montages that feel like someone was planning on putting a song in later but never got around to it.

The Legend of Frosty the Snowman is a sequel to Frosty the Snowman created by people who don't appear to have seen the 1969 original. Unlike 1992's Frosty Returns, this actually is supposed to be a sequel: the designs are the same, and Professor Hinkle (the magician) comes up in a few flashbacks. In fact, the main character in The Legend of Frosty the Snowman is Hinkle's grandson, who lives in a town with extremely cliche rules outlawing magic.

I actually got briefly excited when I realized who the main character was. The original Frosty and Hinkle didn't part on the best of terms, so having him encounter a later generation seemed like it might have promise. Turns out I was gravely mistaken.

For reasons I can't even begin to fathom, the entire story in the original special was tossed out, and the flashbacks - courtesy of a magic comic book I'm not even going to begin to try and explain - present an entirely different origin for the magical snowman. The magician is no longer presented as an antagonist. His hat brings a snowman to life, but he never finds out, never hunts down Frosty and murders him in a greenhouse, and never faces down Santa. Not only does that not happen on screen, the special goes out of its way to frame Frosty's origin in a way that it couldn't have happened.

Here, Hinkle's son built Frosty, brought him to life with his father's magic hat, then failed to ever convince his father any of this occurred. A classmate of his then secretly got the hat and locked it in a safe for several decades.

The rest of it's gone. Karen, the main character in the original, gets a cheap nod when she's included on the front of the aforementioned "magic comic," but she's not part of the back story at all. Anyone who thinks female characters play too big a role in pop culture should love this.

So what's the point of feigning a connection? This is really no more in continuity with the original than Frosty Returns was. It's not like they didn't have time to include a real connection: the version we saw was over an hour long. I suppose I should also mention that this isn't in continuity with Frosty's Winter Wonderland, either, but I kind of think that's a good thing.

The Legend of Frosty the Snowman tries to live up to its name by portraying Frosty as some sort of mythical winter-spirit. This is normally the direction I like holiday stories to move in (is this a good time to plug my novel?) but Frosty might be too much of a stretch even for me. You want to play Rudolph as a mythical being; I'm right there with you. But Frosty? He's a goddamned snowman.

And this thing is just bizarre. When the magic hat isn't on a snowman, it's still possessed by Frosty's disembodied spirit and able to fly around of its own volition. It commits minor acts of vandalism and lures children into the woods, where it gets them to construct it a body it can inhabit.

Oh, yeah: did I mention this special was creepy as hell? There was a scene where Frosty fell on a kid, who then exploded through the snowman like an alien chest-buster. Needless to say, that was by far the best two seconds of the special.

Overall, The Legend of Frosty the Snowman isn't so much "bad" as it is extremely boring and pointless. And, if you're familiar with this blog at all, you probably know that's about a hundred times worse.

If you value your time at all, don't watch this.

Book Review: The Battle for Christmas

The Battle for Christmas
Stephen Nissenbaum, 1996

Premise: Non-Fiction book tracing the origins of American Christmas traditions, with emphasis on the shift from a more public-focused carnival Christmas to a more child-focused domestic holiday.

I found this book really interesting, if a bit long. Nissenbaum is a little too enamored of his own narrative, and sometimes doesn’t completely back up his proposals with evidence. That said, all of the stuff that is corroborated is really interesting.

I most enjoyed the accounts of how Puritans fought the celebration of Christmas and then later, in the early 1800’s, how gift-buying became fully central to the expectations of the season. It was fascinating reading about the creation of “Gift Books”, which became popular very quickly in the mid 1820’s. They may be one of the first products produced specifically to be purchased as a gift, and one of the first items sold to specific demographics created by marketing. What I mean is, you might buy a girl a doll or a young lady a dress or a boy a top, but for these products you wouldn’t buy a book, but rather specifically a “girl’s book” or a “lady’s book” or a “boy’s book”.

There’s also quite a bit of interesting biographical information on the authors of many seminal works which influenced Christmas in America.

The author is pushing the idea that over time, specific groups of people convinced the public to want to celebrate Christmas a) sober, b) with purchased presents, c) with family, and d) without rising above their station. And he’s probably at least partially right, although I don’t really buy every one of his leaps of logic as to why this happened.

I do like the thesis as stated in the epilogue: that “traditions are always changing and...the domestic Christmas idyll is surprisingly new...[also]...most of the problems we face at Christmas today - the greedy materialism, the jaded consumerism...are surprisingly old.” And the data backing this up is really interesting. Nissenbaum’s style loses me at times, though. He doesn’t seem quite able to separate himself from his subjects, which can work to convey the opinions and stances of people who thought quite differently than we do today. However, it can get rather awkward when it goes too long before a reality check when he’s talking about, say, the Antebellum South.

Still, for all that I don’t quite swallow every last argument put forward, and it focuses on American traditions with a singlemindedness that might put off those looking for a more holistic view, it was a really interesting book and well worth a read for any students of the history of Christmas.

Annie Oakley: Santa Claus Wears a Gun (1957)

Okay, I’ll admit it, I thought this one was cute. And not just because I’ve had an unreasonable affection for Annie Oakley since I chose her as my “person to dress as from history” in elementary school. I mean, that’s partially it.

Excuse me, I have some Wikipedia-ing to do.

Okay, I’m back, and now I have remembered my fully reasonable, founded affection for Ms. Oakley. Yay for historical levels of awesomeness. What was I talking about? Oh, right, the tv show.

The show was cute. It features Gail Davis as Annie, and she seems to (functionally) be the law in this little Western town, along with her beau. The other main character is her scrappy little brother who is clearly always running into danger. This episode is about an old sharpshooter who drifts into town. He looks like Santa and goes by Snowy Kringle, which, yeah, is pretty silly. There’s also a guy who says he’s an investigator who thinks Kringle is a thief planning to steal a big army payroll that’s coming through town. Annie and company have to get to the bottom of things, or at least beat the bad guys when they realize what’s going on.

I liked that nothing got too unreasonably complicated. When the main characters had enough evidence to make a conclusion, they acted on it, rather than stick to their original assumptions the way too many sitcom characters would. Annie was pretty badass, although not inhumanly so, and while I found her hairstyle really silly, I liked her charm and warmth.

This has the lighting problem common to film at this time, in which nighttime scenes look just like daytime scenes, but other than that it was fairly decently shot. The plot twists, while mostly obvious, were interesting. Erin doesn’t agree with me, so your mileage may vary.

It’s far from brilliant, but I laughed and smiled and the ending was sweet, so if you’re looking for something a little different this year, you could check this out. It’s not as awesome as Annie herself, but what is?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Jack Frost (1996)

Not to be confused with Jack Frost (the animated short), Jack Frost (the Rankin/Bass special), Jack Frost (the family comedy from 1998), or any other Jack Frost production I'm forgetting, I just sat through the 1996 horror film. I use the term "horror" loosely: this is one of those campy horror/comedies that isn't remotely scary. Of course, it's no closer to being funny, but them's the breaks.

The movie opens with shots of a bunch of holiday ornaments while a voice-over sets up the backstory. This is really badly done and yet still somehow remains the high point of the movie, thanks to the fact everything that comes after it is utter crap.

The premise revolves around a serial killer who was arrested by a small-town cop. The killer's actual name is Jack Frost. He's being transported to his execution in the middle of a blizzard. If you're wondering why they didn't move him earlier, then you're clearly not drunk enough to be watching this movie. At any rate, the vehicle carrying him collides with another carrying an experimental acidic genetic mutagen, which also probably shouldn't be getting moved at 11:30 at night in the middle of a snowstorm.

As you'd expect, Jack gets dosed with the acid and bonds with the snow around him with the help of a cartoon interpretation of his DNA turning into ice or spikes or something. For the record, this appears to be hand-drawn, not CG, and is reminiscent of what you'd expect from something animated in the 1970's. It's also the best effect in the entire movie, once again by default. Most of the time, they just have characters turn around and unexpectedly come face-to-face with a snowman. If you were expecting much suit or puppet work, you're going to be disappointed.

At about this point in the movie, there were a number of questions going through my head. Why was this movie made? Who the hell thought this was a good idea? Was this thing's budget even in the six figures?

For the record, I have no answers for any of those questions, despite devoting the entire runtime to contemplating them. Calling this thing brainless is an understatement: I am a less intelligent human being now that I've seen it than I was before it began.

Oddly enough, it felt like this thing was trying - and failing - to be clever. There were a lot of jokes, usually made by Frost after he murdered yet another minor character. They weren't remotely entertaining, by the way: just really obvious puns that left me wondering why the writers bothered to include them. We're talking lines like, "Gosh. I only axed you for a smoke," after he murdered someone with an ax. It seems like they were trying to make this horrible in the hopes it would gain cult status (which it kind of has - more on that in a moment). Only, it's not like the movie was particularly violent or gruesome. Pull back the language and remove the infamous bath scene, and this would be PG-13 by today's standards.

And that brings us to the bath scene. Odds are, if you've heard about this movie, it's been in the context of this. For the rest of you, allow me to spoil the closest thing this movie offers to shock-value: the snowman rapes a women, presumably using his notably absent carrot. The sequence is about as stupid as you'd expect, and the fact the writers found the idea funny tells you a lot about the folks who made this thing. The fact this scene has given the film a modest following speaks very poorly about us as a species.

Ultimately, the movie was painful, though I've seen much worse. It was boring, but at an hour and a half, it was mercifully short. We're talking about a movie that was clearly made to be offensive and couldn't even really pull that off. They limited the killings to minor characters, and they went out of their way to paint most of them as horrible people first. Considering that Jack Frost's motivation was built around taking revenge on the main character, Frost didn't seem too interested in actually going after the guy's family.

This thing was built to be "so bad it's good": I can only assume those words were spoken to everyone involved to get them on the same page. But it falls so short of that line as to be almost laughable.

I think it's the only thing about Jack Frost that was.

Jack Frost (1998)

This is a movie from the 90's about a man coincidentally named "Jack Frost" who was killed in the aftermath of an automobile collision in a blizzard and is then reincarnated as a snowman, giving him an opportunity to fulfill some unfinished business in a small town.

Please note that everything written above applies both to this movie and to the 1996 horror film of the exact same name. If you get confused, just remember that this is the one that's actually kind of creepy.

Ostensibly, this is a family comedy about second chances, a boy getting over the loss of his father, and a dog peeing on a living snowman's leg. I'm not sure it did an adequate job of conveying any of those themes, though judging by the use of musical montages, someone really wanted to pretend it had. The film tried to convince the viewer that they were being moved, but clearly had no idea how to accomplish the Herculean task of incorporating actual human emotion into the picture. So instead they just stuck "Landslide" by Fleetwood Mac in the middle, which I personally found far more offensive than the infamous snowman rape scene in the other Jack Frost movie.

I don't know what to make of the fact that this thing actually had decent production values. It was edited, for all intents and purposes, the same way someone would film a real movie. Hell, it was even starring Michael Keaton, who coincidentally never starred in another major live-action movie again.

Most of the effects seemed to involve puppetry, courtesy of the Henson workshop, who - to their credit - seemed to be trying a bit less than usual. The effects were generally pretty bad, but not awful. This is one of those cases where awful effects might have helped the movie out, as having something to laugh at in Jack Frost could only have been a positive. It also might have brought down the movie's $85 million price tag, a sum which was almost certainly not recouped (kudos to the human race for that, by the way).

The plot is an utter mess, of course. I guess the movie deserves some credit for letting Jack die at the end, rather than pulling a last-minute miracle out of its snowy ass and restoring him to life. Mostly, it just felt fake through and through: it pretended it was funny, sad, touching, hopeful, and resonant. But in reality, it was just empty slush, pointless and meaningless drivel. The movie even had the gall to close with a reflective montage that elicited nothing. Honestly, if they had started flashing the words, "CHRISTMAS CLASSIC," in blinking red and green letters across the screen, I don't think it would have felt any tackier.

Needless to say, you shouldn't bother seeing this. Unless you're really, really drunk and you're up for watching both this and the '96 Jack Frost back-to-back: you might blend them together into a single movie, which actually might be kind of interesting.

A Very Merry Cricket (1973)

Okay, do you remember the book A Cricket in Times Square? Me too. Do you remember the animated special adapted from the book, or at least that there was one? Yup. This is the holiday-themed sequel to that animated special. And it’s really quite good.

We meet back up with our heroes from the first story: Harry the cat and Tucker the Mouse, who live in the tunnels near Times Square. Tucker is upset with how loud and angry everyone seems to be, even though it’s the holidays. The two mull it over for a while, then decide to get their friend Chester (the musical cricket) to return to New York to bring everyone a little Christmas Spirit.

It’s Chuck Jones animation, which means that the movement is kinetic without being totally unrealistic, and the character designs are lovely. The soundtrack, however, might be the biggest star here. The montage that opens the special is meant to convey the insanity of New York City, and it does a pretty good job. There are a few songs sung or spoken-in-time by the characters, and they are well done, but the incidental music is what is really solid and intriguing throughout. About the only misstep, I’d say, is near the end they bring in a choir when it really isn’t needed. There’s a traveling theme earlier, though, that matches up the sound of a train with the song “White Christmas”, and it’s just a spectacular choice.

There’s a lengthy flashback which wouldn’t be necessary for anyone who’s seen the original recently. Other than that and the fact that the end section runs a smidge long, though, this is just great.

There’s gentle humor and only mild tension, but in this case that never felt boring, only warm and reassuring, like a fire in the hearth. It might be slightly dated for some tastes, and it’s not perfect, but it is a nice change from the modern everyday, and I recommend it.

You can probably find A Very Merry Cricket on YouTube, I did. Or it’s available on a few DVD collections of Chuck Jones Animation.

The Christmas Orange (2002)

This is going to be the year of the really boring obscure specials, isn’t it?

The Christmas Orange is a weird little piece from Canada based on a kids’ book. It’s about a kid named Anton whose birthday falls on Christmas, and he gets upset when he realizes that most kids get presents on their birthday and on Christmas, but he only gets one day of gift giving. (Incidentally, this is a totally acceptable gripe, but the proper way to deal with it is instituting half-birthday parties.) Anton asks Santa for 600 gifts, Santa brings him a nice shiny orange instead, and so Anton decides to answer a sleazy late-nite tv ad and sue Santa for breach of contract.

That sounds much more interesting than it is. This special is basically a mess; nothing makes much sense, the only plot twists are visible miles away, and the moral, I guess, is that oranges are nice and kids get too many toys? It’s really dull. However, I did notice something kind of odd. All the people live in a town called Bleakney. And it is pretty bleak. No one, even the little kids, visibly ages over the year of the story. Even the orange in question is still fresh and shiny a year later. Most importantly, Santa seems to have a personal relationship with the people of the town, and when Santa quits, Anton thinks he can solve the problem by giving a gift to every person in Bleakney. All one thousand and a bit people. Just, you know, save Christmas by giving a gift to a thousand people.

Clearly, these are the last survivors of some sort of horrible apocalypse, possibly trapped in a kind of limbo. More specifically, the mash-up of styles and random allusions that make no sense indicate that these characters are all from children’s storybooks, although their worlds are now gone.

I blame the Nothing.

I mean, it’s the only thing that makes sense. The weird vaguely Scottish narrator wouldn’t use that kind of awkward repetitive language unless he was a traumatized refugee from Dr. Seuss. The angry, lonely lawyer’s childhood friendship with a crocodile shows that he’s from either the neighborhood of Lyle, Lyle Crocodile or Alligators All Around. The two oddly identical French girls next door must be the only survivors of Madeline.

There’s really no excuse for why the music sounds like damned children doing a holiday-themed take off on “The Song That Never Ends.”

So, as a creepy depiction of the last gasp of a tiny society of delusional characters struggling to keep a sense of normality before they puff into nonexistence, I recommend The Christmas Orange.

On the other hand, if you don’t examine the characters that closely, it looks like some company just threw together a lot of thoughtless allusions with a pedantic story and some cheap animation. If you can’t see past that level, it appears to be nothing but a boring mess and should be avoided.