Saturday, December 8, 2012

Eight Crazy Nights (2002)

Eight Crazy Nights performs an important service by virtue of its 12% Freshness Rating, which establishes a much needed margin of error on the Tomatometer (turns out it's 12%). Upon finishing this movie, the very idea that someone out there could conceivably have liked it is sickening. This is, without a doubt, the worst Adam Sandler movie either of us have ever seen. Think about that for a minute.

The film is an utter mess. Worse still, it seems to think it's actually funny, charming, subversive, and touching, while offering absolutely nothing of value. The jokes, often punctuated by the narrator restating the obvious intent, come off as mean-spirited and pointless. The movie's premise is somewhat similar to Bad Santa's, but it misses its mark to a degree that's almost incredible to behold. Not only is it painfully clear that the producers have never made an animated film before, we found ourselves wondering if they'd ever actually seen one. The timing was so far off, it sometimes felt like they wanted the audience to walk out.

The tone was just as broken. The movie involved heavy drinking, swearing, sexual innuendo, and fecal matter, making it entirely inappropriate for anyone under the age of thirteen. But the humor and moral were so stupid as to annoy anyone over the age of five or six. The remaining demographic represents the entire audience this movie had to work with.

The movie was apparently made to offer a Jewish alternative to the scores of Christmas specials and movies out there. After Sandler's "Hanukkah Song" met with considerable success on Saturday Night Live, he tried to repeat the trick with an animated movie. However, for a Hannukah movie, there's a notable absence of Hannukah. Technically, it takes place over the holiday and a few of the characters are Jewish, but it never comes up in a way that seems remotely significant. Ultimately, Eight Crazy Nights feels closer to a spin on A Christmas Carol than anything else.

The weird thing about Eight Crazy Nights is that there's no real reason it was animated. Most of the "action" is grounded enough to have been shot with actors. The end result would still have been bad, but watching the actors ham it up would have been more interesting than seeing poorly animated versions of identifiable actors recite their lines with limited expression.

Sure, they couldn't have exaggerated two of the more absurd characters as much in live action, but that really would have been an improvement: Whitey and Eleanore Duvall are two characters any world would be better off without.

Boring, obnoxious, and idiotic, there's not a single redeeming factor in Eight Crazy Nights. I can only be grateful that no one with one iota of talent seems to have been involved with this movie, as that fact alone saves Eight Crazy Nights from having been a waste of talent.

This is beyond bad. Without re-watching Casper's Haunted Christmas, we couldn't reach a consensus on whether this could actually be the single worst holiday movie we've ever seen, but it's certainly in the running.

However, I can say without hesitation that I'd rather watch the Star Wars Holiday Special three times in a row than sit through this again once.

Interview with an Elf

Five years ago, Shortcake Jingleberry, a Christmas Elf with experience at the North Pole, was transferred to Santaland (located in Macy's New York flagship) to assist Santa Claus at that location. Since that time, she has blogged about the experience. Despite being extremely busy, Shortcake graciously agreed to answer some questions from Mainlining Christmas, offering us a rare opportunity to glimpse inside the life of the elusive Christmas Elf.

MC: Do you commute from the North Pole or do you live in New York?
SJ: Shortcake lives in New York City. It's too much for the reindeer to move everyone from the North Pole to Macy's and back every day, so they just move Santa, and the elves find housing in New York. This way, the elves are also well positioned to keep an eye on boys and girls during the year for Santa's Naughty and Nice lists.

MC: Do you travel by reindeer or do you use public transportation? 
SJ: Santa travels by reindeer from the North Pole. Shortcake uses public transit to get to Macy's.

MC: Reindeer: Leaded or unleaded gas?
SJ: Unleaded. If lead got into the carrot supply, all kinds of things would go wrong.

MC: Are there many elves living the greater New York area, and, if so, is there a 'Little North Pole' somewhere within the five boroughs?
SJ: There are many elves living in NYC. With a city of over 8 million people, it takes a lot of elves to keep track of who's Naughty and who's Nice. We do not have a Little North Pole, as we are spread out amongst the boroughs, but we do get together every so often.

MC: Do the living snowmen at the North Pole ever go rabid and have to be put down?
SJ: Well, rabies only affects warm-blooded animals, so the living snowmen are fine on that front. We have had instances of Snowmen on the Naughty List. If we are talking about evil Snowmen who have gone on killing sprees, Santa advocates a containment policy. He believes everyone deserves a second chance and does not believe in capital punishment. If we are talking about a disease that causes untold suffering to the snowman, then Santa would endorse euthanasia, if death was the only way to end the misery.

MC: What is the politically correct term for an elf born with a growth anomaly causing them to grow to six feet or higher?
SJ: Elf. We have elves of all sizes, in order to fit in with humans and not draw attention to ourselves. Tannenbaum is 6'4".

MC: Are Christmas Elves unionized?
SJ: We are not. Macy's has to abide by US Labor Laws, and those apply to elves as well as humans. At the North Pole, Santa is very good about wages and hours and benefits. And we have the greatest benefit of all - we work for Santa!

MC: In the landmark 1947 court case, the US Post Office conceded that Kris Kringle was actually Santa Claus, and therefore was also the legal addressee of hundreds of thousands of letters. Is there any animosity between Macy's mail room and the North Pole delegation due to this seasonal influx of mail?
SJ: No, Macy's has embraced it. In fact, for every letter to Santa that comes through Macy's, Macy's will donate $1 to the Make A Wish foundation.

MC: Is Santaland legally recognized as a consulate of the North Poll and, if so, do the elves stationed there receive diplomatic immunity?
SJ: Santaland is not recognized by the United States government as far as Shortcake knows. Macy's kindly lets Santa use their premises for visits. As such, elves do not receive diplomatic immunity, and Shortcake fervently hopes it would never be necessary.

MC: Has Krampus ever had to be forcibly removed from Santaland by Macy's security?
SJ: No. Krampus is actually a manager at Santaland. He needs to be around in case we get a particularly naughty child. It is rare for him to toss children into his sack, since Santa is pretty good about keeping the naughty kids above danger level.

Thanks again to Shortcake Jingleberry for answering our questions. You can follow Shortcake's ongoing adventures at An Elf Story.

Treasure: We Love Animals/Nightmare on Oxford St. (2002)

Yes, this is the book,
not the animation.
There are things even
the internet can't find.
This was another interesting find on the cartoon compilation DVD we bought this year. Treasure is a show from the UK, based on a popular newspaper column in which a woman wrote about the troubles of raising a teenage daughter. I found the show rather endearing, although at first it wasn’t clear whether it was really a holiday episode.

The episode is broken up into sequential subplots in which Treasure and her mother clash, including fighting over her friends and whether she has time for a part-time job. It culminates in an ill-fated shopping trip in which the daughter’s desire for the newest best things and her mother’s desire to just finish the holiday shopping both crash against Treasure’s sudden awareness of social injustice, in the person of a person begging for change outside the department store.

The dialogue is snappy and snarky, and the emotional relationships are complicated and touching. In short, I really enjoyed this show. It was a confusing choice for this DVD, though, because it’s clearly aimed at a teen and older crowd. It’s not that kids couldn’t watch it, but they probably wouldn’t get it.

This was a nice way to break up the cloying feeling of watching too many holiday episodes, although it doesn’t go on a must-see list. If you have a chance to see any Treasure, though, give it a chance.

Incidentally, this is loosely based on a true story, and the troublesome teen known as Treasure? She grew up to found a charity:

Fiction: In a Field Beneath the Stars

It's day eight, which means we're almost 1/3rd done with 25 Christmas Eves. Today's piece is titled "In a Field Beneath the Stars." Hope you guys like it.

By: Erin L. Snyder

The highway was almost empty and dark clouds stretched out in every direction. There were small patches of grayish snow along the road. Every now and then, Tina’s car would make a clunking sound, but she’d been assured by the mechanic it wouldn’t give them any trouble.

Susan was sitting in the passenger seat, just staring through the windshield. She was wearing headphones, but her CD player was almost out of batteries. She could hear the sound wavering, dying. Dead. She pulled them off her head and eyed the radio.

“How you holding up?” Tina asked from behind the wheel. She’d interpreted her sister’s action as a sign she wanted to talk.

“Huh? Oh, fine.” She lied with all the subtlety a fourteen year-old girl was capable of.

“I’m not in love with this situation, either. But this is the way it is, so we might as well make the best of it.”

Susan sighed audibly and turned to look out her side window. Trees and marshes drifted by. She wished her parents could have been there, even though she’d just be fighting with them, too. She wouldn’t have been any less angry, but she’d have felt better.

“Did you bring anything to eat?” Susan asked.

“Beside the cooler that’s right beside you?”

“Yeah, beside the stupid apples.”

Now it was Tina’s turn to sigh. “I think there’s some candy in the glove compartment.”

“Mom usually brings sandwiches,” Susan said. The family was supposed to be doing this together, but her parents had gone on a trip to visit her grandmother. Their flight had been cancelled due to a storm. The airline could have rescheduled them for yesterday, but they couldn’t risk traveling this close, so they decided to wait until the twenty eighth. That meant she got to spend Christmas morning alone with her sister and a cooler full of apples.

“Look. I need gas, anyway. I’ll pull off at the next stop, and we can see if they have a McDonalds or something.”

“I hate fast food,” Susan said.

“Well then eat a damn apple!” her sister screamed back. Neither spoke for a few minutes after that. Finally, Tina said, “Look. I’m sorry about that. It’s just... I’m under a lot of stress, too. This isn’t exactly the way I want to spend Christmas Eve, either. Most of the time, I’m used to it, but this just sucks.”

“It always sucks,” Susan said. “I hate having to wake up like that. God, imagine if anyone ever saw us.”

“That’s why we have to go into the woods,” Tina said. “To make sure no one ever does see us.”

“Yeah,” Susan rolled her eyes. “I’m not a little kid anymore. I get it. It just totally sucks. And it sucks even more that we have to spend Christmas Eve in a field or something.”

“It’s not so bad,” Tina said. “I mean, it’s kind of nice, you know? Under the stars, like the first Christmas.”

“What stars?” Susan asked. “All I see are clouds. And you know that stuff about the first Christmas is a crock, right?”

“Well then. If it snows, at least you’ll get a white Christmas.”

“Not quite as comforting when I’m out in it.” Tina started to laugh. So did Susan. “I’m sorry,” Susan said. “I’m just pissed about all this.”

“I get it,” Tina said. “It doesn’t get easier. But this is the last time it falls on Christmas Eve for something like twenty years.”

“Yeah, well, I just wish we could spend it at home.”

“Hell with that. I’d rather spend tonight at a party. But... I can’t imagine that would go well.”

Susan laughed. “Hey. There’s a gas station!”

Tina put on her signal even though there was no one else on the road and pulled in. She filled up the car while Susan ran in to look around. Beside the clerk, there was one other person in the store, a man in his forties who kept staring at Susan.

She stayed as far away from him as she could, grabbed a soda and a handful of sandwiches wrapped in plastic, paid for the gas and food with a twenty her sister had given her, and ran back to the car. She climbed back into the passenger seat and handed her sister the change.

“This it?” her sister asked. “How much food did you get?”

“I bought five sandwiches.”

Tina laughed. “How hungry are you?”

Susan hit her sister in the arm. “Shut up. I... look there was this creepy guy in there. I was uncomfortable. Besides, this way we won’t have to stop anywhere tomorrow morning. We can just go home.”

“Take it easy. I was just teasing,” Tina said, starting the car. She pulled back on the highway. Behind her, another car pulled out of the gas station.

Susan took one of the sandwiches out of the bag and offered it to her sister. “Tuna?”

“Did you grab any roast beef?” Tina asked.

“No. I don’t think they had any.”

“Tuna’s fine then. Could you unwrap it for me?” She took the sandwich from Susan once the plastic was off and tried to eat it was cleanly as she could.

Susan took out a turkey sandwich and took a bite. “Ugh,” she said, grimacing. “This is awful.”

“What’d you expect from a gas station?” Tina asked.

Susan alternated between bites and sips of soda to help the food down. “Not much of a Christmas Eve dinner, is it?”

“I guess not,” Tina admitted. “Hey, you want to turn on the radio?”

Susan turned the dial, but all she found was Christmas music. “Wish you had a CD player in here,” she said.

“What’s wrong with yours?” Tina asked.

“Battery’s dead. I meant to get more at the gas station, but I totally forgot.”

“Sorry. I don’t know when there’s another one.”

“Whatever,” Susan said.

A few more minutes of relative silence followed, save the music. Droplets of water were appearing against the windshield, but they were far too small to make a sound. Eventually Tina turned on the wipers, which dragged against the glass.

“How’s school going?” Tina asked.

“Huh? Oh. Fine, I guess. I’ve got Kirkmire for Algebra.”

“Really? I took a class with him when I was in high school.”

“Yeah. I know. He asks about you every other day.”

Tina laughed again. “I’m sorry. That can’t be fun. What do you tell him?”

“I just say you’re doing fine. I tried telling him I don’t know once, but he just asked again the next day.”

“Well, I am doing fine,” Tina said. “College is so much better than high school. I just wish I could live on campus. But... you know how it is.”

“How are things with... uh... what’s-his-name?”

“His name is Trevor,” Tina said. “And I think things are going really well. He invited me out tonight, but... yeah.”

“Yeah,” Susan agreed.

“You know how it is,” Tina echoed herself. “It’s so hard sometimes. I hate keeping this from him. And I really don’t know how he’d react.”

“You could just... you know... bring him sometime. I mean, eventually you’ll want to--”

“Whoa there. I said things were going well, but I’m not sure of anything. You know what mom always says, right? You bite ‘em, you buy ‘em. I like Trevor, and I think he really likes me. But you got to be sure about these things.”

“I was mostly kidding,” Susan replied. “But, for what it’s worth, I think he’s cool. He’s the one with the blond hair, right?”

“No! He’s got--” Tina briefly looked over at her sister, realized she was joking, and both girls started laughing again.

By the time they pulled off the highway, it was late afternoon. They took a series of small roads for another hour.

“Crap,” Tina said, checking in her rearview mirror. “There’s a car behind us.”

“So? There’s nothing out here, so they must be driving through, right?”

“I guess,” Tina said. “I just... I don’t really want anyone for a hundred miles. I know that’s not realistic, but it freaks me out having someone this close. World’s getting way too crowded for us.”

She continued down back roads and side streets. Every now and then they’d catch a glimpse of the car when they came to a long stretch of road. “Christ,” Susan said, “Is he following us or something?”

Tina looked at the clock then up at the sky. “Hope not. We’re almost there.”

“We’ve still got at least an hour, don’t we?”

“Sure. But I don’t want to risk it.”

The car wasn’t in view when they turned off onto the dirt road, and it didn’t materialize as they drove down it. Tina finally relaxed. “We should be good out here. Old logging roads; no one comes here in the winter. Hell of a lot easier than in June, right?”

They stopped beside an open field, climbed out, and stretched. Tina opened the trunk and pulled out the blankets. She handed one to her sister. Then she began removing her clothes. Eventually, she was naked save for her socks, which she left on. She pulled her blanket close around her, folded her clothes, and set them on the back seat of the car, along with the keys and her shoes.

Susan removed her clothing, as well. Soon, both girls were shivering, clutching their blankets close.

“You remember an extra pair of socks this time?” Tina asked.

Susan looked up, suddenly concerned. She looked at her feet and began weighing her options.

“Relax, kid,” Tina said. “I brought enough for us both tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” Susan said. “I almost wish it would happen sooner. I’m freezing.”

“I know,” Tina said. “I’m cold, too.”

Susan heard it first, and she immediately stopped breathing. Tina saw her sister afraid and listened. Now she heard it, too: the distant sound of an engine. “We got to get to the woods,” Tina said.

“We’ll never get far enough,” Susan pointed out. “Shouldn’t we try to scare him off or something?”

“Who’s going to be afraid of a couple naked girls in the woods? Besides, he could be a hunter.”

That shut Susan up, and both girls ran to the tree line. It was almost dark now, so there was no way whoever it was would be able to see them.

The car pulled up beside theirs, and the occupant climbed out and peered into their windows. He turned and looked out at the field. Then he took a few steps and began studying the ground.

“Wait,” Susan whispered. “I recognize him. He’s the guy at the gas station. The creepy one who wouldn’t stop looking at me. What’s he doing here? Did he... did he follow us?”

Tina studied him. “Quiet,” she whispered.

The man walked back to his car, opened his trunk, and removed something long, metal, and sharp. He tested the blade with his finger and started back toward the field.

“He’s one of them, isn’t he?” Susan whispered.

“Quiet!” Tina snapped. She began sniffing the air. Overhead the clouds began to clear up.

“I don’t... I don’t smell it,” Susan said.

“Me either,” Tina replied. She could smell the man across the field. She could of course smell the lingering odor of gas from his car, as she could smell the rubber from his tires, his cologne, the dried blood on his machete, and even the change in his pockets. But not so much as an ounce of silver in the mix.

“You mean...”

“I think he’s just a serial killer or something.” Tina started laughing. Loudly and without control. Both girls did.

The man in the field heard them and started walking towards the sound. He was halfway through the field, and the girls were still laughing at him.

But by then the sun had set. And by then the full moon had started to rise. By then the sound he heard was no longer laughter, and the girls were no longer girls.

By then he’d stopped moving, because he could see their silhouettes rising against the treeline. He turned and started to run. But he was nowhere near fast enough.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Barney: Night Before Christmas (1999)

I've hated Barney on principle for years now, but until now, I haven't actually seen an episode, nor did I know anything about the character beyond the fact he was an annoying purple Tyrannosaurus Rex who sung badly and cultivated the company of young children. But I didn't know, for example, that he was a normal-sized plush toy who gets turned into a not remotely full-sized dinosaur by the children's imagination. Nor did I know that he has similar dinosaur friends, one of which is named BJ.

You know, I think the fact that the show's producers couldn't think of a single good reason not to name a character "BJ" tells you a lot about the people who made Barney and their understanding of America's youth.

This special starts at the home of one of Barney's friends on Christmas Eve. All her friends are coming over to help decorate and for Christmas dinner. I'm assuming they're all orphans whose parents were eaten by dinosaurs, because otherwise you'd think they'd be spending Christmas Eve with their own families.

I should probably mention that every few minutes, someone breaks out in song. And "breaks out" is absolutely the right word: think of the way a rash appears. The traditional Christmas songs used here are horribly adapted, but they're goddamn works of art compared to the original stuff. This pattern continues for the entire one-hour run time of the video.

Regardless, all the kids help decorate, along with Barney and the other dinosaurs. Of course, whenever parents step in, the dinosaurs have just stepped out and vice versa. Once everything's ready, someone realizes that while Santa fills everyone's stocking, there's no one to fill his stocking. Obviously, the only solution is to make a ton of crappy arts-and-crafts gifts, then travel to the North Pole via the power of imagination to give them to Santa.

There's a snow globe involved, too.

So. They arrive at the North Pole instantaneously and proceed to break into Santa's house and cram their garbage into his stocking while he's asleep. They finish just as one of the dinosaurs wakes him by accident. He knows Barney for some reason, and he shows the kids his lists of who's been naughty and nice, then sends them on to the workshop, where Mrs. Claus takes over the tour.

The factory tour mainly involves a ride in a train through some sort of CG toy wasteland. There are no elves, supposedly because they're at home with their families. The kids help wrap some presents (I guess the elves' union sent them home once they'd wrapped one billion, four hundred thousand, six hundred and seventy-six of the world's one billion, seven hundred gifts - hey, five is quitting time), say goodbye to Santa, who finds the gifts they left him and thanks them, then head home. After a few more songs, of course.

Nothing interesting happens for the rest of the special, but then again nothing interesting happened so far, either. This was tedious, but it was kind of fascinating to watch it flop around pointlessly for an hour, sort of like a fish out of water.

I bet the other Barney specials this one came packaged with will be just as interesting.

Musical Interlude, Part 5

I hope you didn't think we were done. Plenty more holiday music for me to sit through.

Album: Come All Ye Faithful: Rock for Choice
Artist: Various

This one's interesting. It's a alternative rock compilation of Christmas music that was produced to raise money for pro-choice causes. Of course, like 90% of my new music, I found this used for a buck, so I can't exactly pretend that I was doing any good by buying it. I wasn't expecting much from this: I'm generally skeptical when it comes to politically motivated entertainment, even when it's something I agree with.

However, this is easily one of my favorite new albums - it may even deserve a spot on my all time favorite Christmas albums list. The music is a major deviation from pretty much everything else in my collection, and I honestly don't believe there's a track on here I don't like.

Album: Under the Mistletoe
Artist: Justin Bieber

I kind of felt bad that I'd ended up with so much decent music this year, so I decided to buy Justin Bieber's album to atone. As expected, it's pretty painful. Stylistically, it's basically just modern pop, which is damn near the bottom of the list of things I'd want to listen to.

The one track I didn't completely hate was "Drummer Boy", which was done with Busta Rhymes. The result was kind of fun, but that's mostly in spite of Bieber.

Album: Peace
Artist: Jim Brickman

Not much to say about this: it's just piano music for the most part. Some of the tracks feature various other musicians and singers: these are definitely more interesting to listen to, but they're still nothing all that special.

Album: Raffi's Christmas Album
Artist: Raffi

With all due respect to the generation of children who grew up with this guy's music, as well as his commendable political and social stances, I found this pretty tedious to sit through. This album has another version of the song "Old Toy Trains," which I was introduced to on the Nana Mouskouri CD I picked up, but I find this one far less interesting to listen to.

Album: Silly Songs and Other Christmas Classics
Artist: Various

This is an odd little compilation. It's just eight tracks, including Grandma Got Runover by a Reindeer, (I'm Gettin') Nuttin' for Christmas, and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. That said, there's a version of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas on here by Art Carney that's bizarre and fun. I got this for next to nothing, so that one track made it worth it.

Album: Silver and Gold: 24 Best Loved Carols
Artist: Burl Ives

Oh good. Another Burl Ives album. While these classics certainly have their place, a little goes a long way. I'm honestly not sure why anyone would want to sit through twenty-four tracks in a row.

Album: Snowed In
Artist: Hanson

Sure, it's cloying, but I can now attest that Hanson's Christmas album is significantly better than Justin Bieber's. This blog sure is expanding my horizons.

Book Review: Manga Claus

Manga Claus: The Blade of Kringle
Writing: Nathaniel, Marunas, Art: Erik Craddock, 2006

Premise: One small disgruntled elf plus a large amount of black magic spells trouble for the North Pole. Can even his magic swords help Santa save Christmas now?

This was an odd, cute little book. The art was fun, and the story was silly. The beginning was probably the best part, and I wish it had been a story about Santa just hanging out in feudal Japan.

I really wanted to like this more; it seems like a cute idea and one of the creators thanked a (sadly now-gone) comic store I’m rather fond of. But it wasn’t great, just fine.

The evil magic teddies were cool. The larger plotline of the elf messing with magic worked at times, but the resolution felt really wrong to me.

I just don’t have much more to say about this. It was really short.

Fiction: Milk, Cookies, Whiskey

It's day seven of 25 Christmas Eves, and I've got a short fantasy piece I think you'll enjoy.

By: Erin L. Snyder

How do you know the real one’s the real one? I mean, twenty-seven years of shopping malls, Christmas movies, candy commercials and the like: how do you know all those Santas are fake? The truth is, you just do. You see them there in their garish red suits and stupid hats, and at a glance you know they’re fake. Even kids know. They might lie about it, even to themselves, but no one’s ever really been taken in by the old farts they bring into department stores every winter. Because deep down, we all just know. We can tell the difference between a fake Santa and the real thing. I guess I never gave that much thought when all I’d ever seen were scores of the knock-offs.

But... Jesus. You walk into your living room middle of the night Christmas Eve and find a jolly fat-ass in a red suit and mittens washing down a plate of oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies with an open bottle of whiskey left over from your Christmas party, well... you’ve got to stop and reflect on that.

From the second I saw him, I knew this wasn’t some burglar or nutbar or anything like it. This was Santa-fucking-Claus in person. The legend, the myth. The real one.

A few points. You know those crappy, garish outfits I mentioned before? The ones the phonies wear? Yeah. Spot on. The hat, the coat; you name it. Same hideously bright red you see on TV, except turned up to eleven. There he was, the spirit of the season, and he looks like he just fell off a soda billboard.

But he smelled - he smelled like he crawled out of a sewer. I’m telling you, I’ve hit up some pretty awful bars in my time. I’ve come across some foul smelling sons-of-bitches, but this guy was something else. Let me put it this way: you ever stop and consider that Santa flies all over the world, speed of light or something, and the whole time he does it, it’s behind eight reindeer?

Me either. Until, like I said, I was standing there in front of him.

“Well. If it isn’t little Martin. All grown up. Quick gawking and sit down.” His voice was deep and a little slurred. I sat down, about as far from him as I could manage without being too obvious. “Where’s the wife, Marty?”

“Lauren, she’s... uh... she’s asleep. It was....”

“Rough party?” He asked, sneering. He shook the bottle. “Not a lot left when I got to it. Little less now. Hope you don’t mind, but it was on the table.” He tapped the wooden coffee table which held the remnants of the cookies, as well as a full cup of milk. “If it’s on the table, I figure it’s fair game, eh?”

“Uh. Yeah. I... I guess.”

“I’ll tell you something, Martin. You look like you got something on your mind. Why don’t you share whatever’s bothering you with dear old Saint Nick?” He took another gulp of the whiskey. The bottle was almost empty now.

“It’s nothing,” I said.

“Come on now. Out with it.”

“Fine. I mean, what the hell is this?”

The fat man laughed again. “Just taking a break, Martin. Hope that isn’t too much to ask.”

“No. Of course not. It’s just... you’re drunk.”

“So’s your wife, Marty. And, unless these very experienced senses deceive me, you’ve had a few drinks tonight, too, haven’t you? And why the fuck not? It’s Christmas!”

“All right, but... you’re Santa Claus. What would you do if some kid saw you like this?”

Santa leaned towards me with a sarcastic smirk from cheek to rosy cheek. “This might surprise you. Might shock you even. But it turns out in the one-thousand plus years I’ve been delivering gifts to the world’s children, I have, in fact, had a drink or two in the past. And I have, in fact, been seen by some kid after the fact. And the world has, in fact, continued to turn on its goddamn axis. Kid sees me, I flash them a grin, slip them an extra toy and a candy cane, and send their ass to bed. No big deal.”

“But shouldn’t you, you know? Be better than that?”

“Oh. Ha. I get it. This is great. You’re pissed because I’m not what you hoped for. Don’t measure up to your expectations. That it Marty?”


“No, no. You’re right. I mean, I’m sorry I’m such a disappointment to you,” Santa said, awkwardly pointing through thick, black mittens. “Look, Marty. I’m sorry to keep shocking you like this, but you’re not exactly living up to expectations, either. Remember... remember when you were seven? Little airplane? Red? You remember that?”

“Ah... yeah. I guess.”

“Good. Now, you remember why I got that for you? Do you?”

“I don’t know. Because I liked planes?”

Santa started laughing harder, deep belly-laughs. Not that ho-ho-ho shit from TV: this was the laugh you get in bars from angry truck drivers. “Liked airplanes? LIKED AIRPLANES?” The old man sure as hell wasn’t laughing anymore. “You were gonna be a pilot when you grew up! What the hell happened, Marty? You find your true calling repairing office equipment? You decide, hell with the sky; I’d rather wade up to my ass in toner? You think those toy planes make themselves? That thing took one of my elves three days to finish. Guess I should have just given you a ream of computer paper and saved him the headache.”

“Are you kidding me? I was a kid: I had no idea what being a pilot meant. I didn’t know what life meant or what I really wanted out of it.”

“Yeah. Tell me something. Now that you’re older and you got that all figured out, how’s it going for you. Really. On a scale of one to ten. How are you doing?”

“I don’t know. I’ve got a job. That’s something in this economy. And a family. Good kid. So you can go to hell, old man. I’m not doing so bad.”

“That so, Marty? That so? Way I see it, you barely see your kid, do you?”

“So? I work long hours.”

“Bullshit. You’re out by five and at the bar by five-fifteen. How long you really expect to have that family you’re so proud of, things stay like this?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.

“You know what it means.”

This son of a bitch was out of line. “Fuck you. I’ve never cheated on Lauren. Never.”

Santa smiled. It was a big smile. Mean. “Guess that makes you a real saint, right? You’ve been true to your wife. Never even thought about it, did you?” Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a notepad. He flipped it open. “Certainly not the kind of guy who’d approach a blond grad student at Morrin’s Pub on November 16 at eight forty-seven, after telling his wife--” he flipped back a page-- “He’d be out looking for a spaceship for his kid.”

“How do you--”

He gestured to himself and rolled his eyes. “Who the hell do you think you’re talking to? I know shit.”

“Right,” I said, apologetically. “Right. For what it’s worth, nothing happened.”

He closed his notepad. “Yeah. Like I said, I know.” He finished the bottle and set the empty bottle down. Then stood up and stretched. Then he lifted his sack up from behind the couch and opened it. He fished around and pulled out a box wrapped in red and green paper.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“It’s a toy rocket-ship, Marty. For your kid. I must have forgotten the card. Why don’t you fill one out for me?”

“I... look... thanks.”

“Whatever. Mind if I hit up your bathroom before I head out? Oh, and don’t worry about me driving in my condition. Deer do all the work, anyway.”

“Oh. Okay. Yeah. Hey. I’m sorry I lost it. I’m sorry--”

“You were a good kid, Marty. Now, you got one. Don’t blow this.”

He was gone after that. I had a hell of a time trying to explain the bathroom to Lauren the next morning - it smelled for months in there. But... I think I’m a better person now. I’m not perfect. I still go out after work sometimes, but not all the time. And I sure as hell never approached anyone again. Even if I wanted to, I get it now. I get the real meaning of Christmas. It’s a reminder: that he’s always watching.

That was five years ago to the day. And every Christmas Eve since, I’ve done what I’m doing tonight: getting the presents down early and getting to bed before ten. Because I never want to see that old bastard again, long as I live, no matter how much I owe him.

But, right before heading up, I always do one extra thing. I leave out a bottle of Scotch beside the milk and cookies, because I really do owe him a lot. And I wonder sometimes whether he’s doing what he really wanted to do in life. I wonder if maybe he wouldn’t have been happier with a family of his own, or - hell - maybe a job fixing printers.

Shit, I don’t know. But I know he likes a drink from time to time. And it is Christmas, after all.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Craft: Beaded Candy Cane Kit

I bought this kit last year, really cheap:

And then I forgot to take a picture of the pieces in progress. Oops.

The kit came with a bunch of red and clear glass beads, a long piece of wire and some silver thread, I suppose for making ornament loops. 

The instructions were slightly confusing, but boiled down to: 
  • Cut two long pieces of wire.
  • Thread one with red beads and one with clear.
  • Fold them in half and twist together at the half-way point.
  • Twist all the way along so it looks pretty.
  • Use pliers to bend the ends of the wire under.
  • Bend into cane shape.

So I made a bunch of canes:

And they were fun to make, but they actually look kind of tiny and lame on the tree:

And then I thought, I have all these beads and wire left over. So I cut two really long pieces of wire, and added beads and twisted them together as though I were making a giant, ill-proportioned candy cane. Only this time I left some wire on each side and added jump rings to one side and a clasp to the other:

Which means now I have a peppermint striped Christmas necklace.

It's a little fragile, so I probably won't wear it much, but I still think it's cool for an art kit that cost a dollar or two on sale.

Musical Interlude, Part 4

The holiday cheer just keeps coming. This is part four of my look at my new Christmas music.

Album: Gregorian Christmas
Artist: CantArte Regensburg & Hubert Velten

I'm a sucker for a bargain: Amazon was selling all 49 tracks of this for 99 cents. That's two cents a track. Granted, I don't really need more chant in my Christmas collection... but still: TWO CENTS A TRACK.

The music's good, but certainly not essential.

Album: Joy of Christmas
Artist: Giovanni

Pretty decent piano music. There are a handful of tracks I like quite a bit.

Album: Country Christmas: A Christmas Welcome Thomas Kinkade
Artist: Various (country)

The only thing that pisses me off more than this album's existence is the fact I kind of enjoyed listening to it. See, here's the thing: it's got Thomas Kinkade's name on it, so I was all excited that I'd be able to hate it out of spite (no, his death wasn't enough).

At any rate, the CD's a collection of country Christmas tunes, a genre which still represents a minority of my Christmas collection. I don't think Kinkade had anything to do with any of these songs; as far as I can tell, this is all marketing. I'm happy to have these tracks, even if it means seeing Kinkade's name on the album title whenever they come up.

Album: Merry Christmas [2 disks]
Artist: Riga Boy's Choir

It's... choir music. Two whole disks of it, in fact. Cost me a dollar. And 1.7 hours of my life. Guess which I miss more....

Album: Merry Christmas to You
Artist: Reba McEntire

I've said several times now that I could use more country music in my collection, but I'm not loving this particular album. I don't think it's especially bad; just not my taste.

Album: More Twisted Christmas
Artist: Bob Rivers

Christmas parody is a tricky subgenre. For my purposes, it's a good way to sneak some alternatives to traditional holiday music into rotation. Nothing on this disc approaches the quality of Rivers's own "I am Santa Claus", but there are a few decent tracks. Toy Sack's lyrics aren't particularly inspired, but it's basically just Love Shack, so you can be damn sure it's going in a few of my playlists. Same with Sled Zeppelin: not especially clever, but I'll take it. Holidaze (a parody of Purple Haze) is probably as close to clever as the album gets (also my favorite track). Most of the rest aren't worth your time.

Album: The Muppets: A Green and Red Christmas
Artist: The Muppets

This a collection of relatively recent Muppet Christmas music. Is it as good as their older stuff? No. Is it still pretty damn great? Of course: it's the Muppets.

Album: Christmas with Nana Mouskouri
Artist: Nana Mouskouri

I had to look Nana Mouskouri up: apparently, she's a Greek singer. I bought this on a whim, and I'm glad I did: there's good stuff on here. My favorite track is a version of Old Toy Trains, a nice little Christmas lullaby.

Album: Now That's What I Call Christmas (2 Disk Set)
Artist: Various

I've got another compilation in this series called "The Essential Now That's What I Call Christmas". Yeah - real creative naming conventions there.

The concept is fairly straightforward: collect a ton of "essential" Christmas pop music in one package. To their credit, they certainly pulled it off. The first disk is the classics: Elvis, Crosby, Sinatra, and so on. I've got a lot of that, but I'm no longer even trying to weed out the duplicates - it's far easier to just accept a margin of error on my estimates for how much Christmas music I've got.

Disk two is more recent material: Celine Dion, Diana Krall, Paul McCartney, Boys II Men... you get the idea. Most of this is pretty bad, as you'd expect, but there are a few stand out tracks.

Home Alone 3 (1997)

God, Home Alone 3 is a strange movie. Wikipedia sheds a little light on this thing: originally, they wanted Culkin back. He'd have been a teenager at this point, which would have explained the escalation with the villains. Obviously, they couldn't get him to return, so they wound up relaunching with a new character, who was about as old as Culkin in part one.

This led to the second most disorienting aspect of the movie (I'll get to the first in a minute): the discrepancy between the tone and the threat the villains supposedly represented. Along with Culkin, the robbers from the original two were gone this time around. In their place was a team of elite espionage professionals fighting to regain a computer chip they'd stolen from the US Air Force only to lose because they failed to exercise common sense when going through airport security. The implication seemed to be that their employer would have them killed if they failed to recover the object.

The computer chip inevitably made its way to a kid who was stuck at home sick with the chicken pox (not that he ever seemed sick at all). Oddly enough, he wasn't really "alone": his mother was staying with him, save when she would leave to run errands or get called into work for an hour or so. It was during these interludes that the "action" took place.

The criminals had traced the chip to the street, but weren't certain which house it was in. This quickly devolves into a cheap "Rear Window" scenario, where the kid winds up watching the criminals break into houses with his telescope, but no one believes him.

Eventually they determine which house he's in and go after him. Of course, by then he's had enough time to set up a familiar gauntlet of traps (many of which should be - but oddly aren't - lethal). The villains are armed with numerous firearms, which never grant them an advantage. Ultimately, these guys don't come anywhere near as close to winning as the bumbling thieves in Home Alone 1 and 2.

The role of the shovel man/bird lady is taken by a seemingly mean old woman across the street, who the main character saves in the end instead of vice versa (this is the closest thing to a twist the movie had going for it). There's no real tension, and nothing is remotely funny. In fact, the movie is somehow more unfunny than the first two, which is really saying something, since those weren't funny at all. I think this can be attributed to the kid's brother's pet parrot, which (in addition to being inexplicably sentient) was primarily used for what was supposed to be comic relief. The fact this wasn't funny at all should say a great deal about the movie.

I mentioned something extremely disorienting about the movie, and that's the kid's sister, who has a minor role in the movie. It took me a few minutes to place the actresses, but when I realized I was seeing a very young Scarlett Johansson, I think my head partially exploded. That anyone made it out of this thing with their career intact is kind of shocking.

I have to admit there's not a lot of a Christmas connection here: the movie takes place in the winter, but I don't recall any decorations or indication that it was all that close to the holidays. Still, it's part of this franchise, so I'm counting it.

Hey - I just found out there's a made-for-TV "Home Alone 4." Guess I'll have to track that down.

Fiction: Ice on the Feathers

We're up to day six in our series, 25 Christmas Eves. For those of you just tuning in, I'm posting a new piece of genre fiction every day until Christmas, and every damn one of them is about a Christmas Eve. This one's a fantasy piece.

By: Erin L. Snyder

Toby’s Bridge isn’t called Toby’s Bridge, at least not officially. It’s called something else. No one gives a damn what that is, cause it’s on Toby’s land. Sure, it’s not really his bridge. It’s the town’s bridge. Town’s bridge, town’s road, and all that. Town’s river. But everything all around it - the forest the road cuts through, the old mill (that hasn’t been up and running in twenty years), the marsh... all that really is Toby’s. People in Renville are fond of calling Toby the poorest rich man in America. Might be something to that. Just might.

Toby’s is one of them old covered bridges. Sturdy, good build and all that. Don’t really make them that way much anymore. Not in Renville, anyway. Everyone wants bridges you can go over two cars at a time. In such a damn hurry, I guess.

Like I’m one to talk. The snow’s coming down faster than the damn wipers can wipe it off. Not smart, I know. Speeding in a storm, late at night. Good way to add another obituary on Monday.

But I know these roads well as anyone. When you’re sheriff in a town like Renville, you know every road, don’t matter the weather. I’ve done this job for fifteen years now. Before that, I worked homicide in New York. I was good, too. But after awhile, you get tired of the bodies. Then, it’s either the desk or something else. Never much cared for desks.

Decided to settle down. Nice, quiet place where the people are good. Course, there’s no such place. Not really. The people of Renville cheat, steal, and fight. One man in three drinks too much, and I’d wager half of them hit their wives. Way I see it, there’s one difference between most of this town and the murderers I used to hunt down: people of Renville don’t generally kill each other. Just doesn’t get that far. It’s not so comforting as you’d think: just means the worst of them stay out of jail and the cemetery. Just linger.

Of course, when someone does die, it’s a circus. The whole town knows in a few hours. People barge into the station demanding answers. And God help you if it is a murder. When Joe Caringer shot Buck Smith six years ago, we had people standing up in church proclaiming the end of days was upon us.

Course, Joe had the common decency to kill Buck in the middle of October. This - whatever it is - had to happen on Christmas Eve. In the middle of a snowstorm. The one silver lining I can find is that news of this shouldn’t spread for a few days. Country store’s closed till the 26th, and Maggie shut down her restaurant until two days before New Year’s.

Can’t imagine that’s much consolation to my deputy, who should already be at the farm. Course, having James on the scene isn’t much consolation to me: guy’s just about the dumbest man I’ve ever worked with. Which is a good part of why I’m not taking my time. Give James twenty minutes and he’ll touch every damn thing in the area, move the evidence into a pile, and stand there smiling like he’s a goddamn genius.

I slow down when I reach County Road #4. Like hell. Toby’s Road. It’s dirt from here on out, anyway. There’s a good six inches of snow on the ground with more piling on every minute. It takes some time - bridge is a good half mile down the road - but I make it without any real trouble. I park behind James’s truck, and he’s there to greet me before my door’s even open.

“Kip,” he says. “You ain’t going to believe this.” He’s pale, save for a nose turning pink. He looks scared and excited at the same time.

“Easy,” I say. “Do you know him?”

“Know who?” James asks.

“The body. Stacy called, said there was a body.”

“Oh. No, it’s... it’s not like that. It’s not even....” he trails off.

“Not like what, James?” I’m snapping at him now, but you got to be that way with him sometimes.

“You just have to look,” James says. Then he motions for me to follow and hurries up ahead to the bridge. I pass his truck and see Toby inside with the motor running. He’s wrapped in a blanket and shivering. I nod to him, but he just stares back.

I hurry up ahead to see what all the damn fuss is about. What I see has me as pale as James.

“Human,” I whisper. Not sure why I say it aloud. It’s what James was about to say a minute ago, and I guess I just need to hear it finished. It’s not even human.

“It’s an angel, ain’t it?” James asks, quietly. “I mean. I never thought....”

Hearing James stuttering like a toddler might be the only thing keeping me from the doing the same. But it snaps me back to reality, or at least whatever’s left of it. Far as I can see, though, that’s exactly what this is. A dead angel lying on the ground, his head mostly smashed in. Two white wings lying underneath his folded form. The wings have ice on the feathers. Like a giant version of some damn ornament hanging from a tree.

“What happened? Was he lying here?”

“Yeah. No. I mean, he was here when I got here, but Toby found him in the river and called us out.”

I send James to find a decent size stick, while I go see Toby. I open the door and find him wet and shivering. The heat’s escaping, so I climb in and shut the door behind me. “What happened?” I ask.

“I was out here, for a walk. I looked down in the water and... and I saw someone down there. Just a body, floating. I ran down, waded in, and started pulling him out. Thought... thought maybe he was unconscious until I grabbed him. There were these things on his back. Thought I was going crazy from the cold. God, Kip. It hurt so much, like my legs were burning off. How strange is that? Burning off from the cold. I don’t know, but it seemed that way.”

“It’s okay. You’ve been through a lot.”

“There were... there were wings. I kept rubbing my eyes, just waiting for them to vanish. But they just stayed there. I dragged him up onto the bridge. Was afraid he’d fall back into the water if I left him on the bank and just wash away. Then I ran home, called the station.”

“What were you doing out here without your truck?”

“Just going for a walk,” Toby say. But he didn’t seem keen looking me in the eye, so I asked again. “It’s nothing. I just... the holidays and all. I was feeling cramped in that place alone. Thought some fresh air might do me good.”

“Middle of a storm?” I ask.

“I... look. It’s the truth. I mean. It’s most of it. I don’t want to....”

“I need it all,” I say. “Look, Toby, I’ve known you for a long time, and I know you’re a good man. If this were anything else - hell, if that were the body of a human being, I’d nod and let this go. But, things being what they are, I need it all.”

Toby wipes a tear out of his eye. “Since Gretchen left, I’ve been low. You know that, don’t you, Kip?”

“It’d be hard on any man,” I say.

“Well, I didn’t think I could take Christmas alone. So. I don’t know. I was going out to think some things over.”

“You were going to jump.”

“I don’t know, Kip. I’ve been to that bridge a lot of times. Thought about it more than once.”

“It’s okay. I mean, I’ll need to put you in touch with some people, but we can be discreet. I’m sorry for pushing, but I had to understand. This one... it’s going to be too big.” I pat him on the shoulder and step out of the truck to greet James.

“This one good enough?” He hands me a branch.

It’s birch, and it’s long enough. I test it to make sure it’s sturdy then nod. “Good job, James.” Then I head back to the body.

“What are you doing?” James asks, while I wedge the branch under the angel’s back.

I push up slowly. “I have to know,” I say. “Got to make sure these aren’t glued on. Have to make sure they’re not fake before I call anyone.”

Unfortunately, the wings are real. Also, I learn something else: they’re cut up pretty bad. There are twin gashes about four feet apart. Pretty deep, too. I run back to the Jame’s truck, pop open the door and stick my head in. “Did anything happen to the angel while you were getting it up?” Toby shakes his head. I thank him and shut the door.

“This was murder, wasn’t it?” James asks. “Someone killed that angel.”

“I don’t know,” I say back. “But I’d rather have something to tell the bureau when they get here. Hand me your flashlight.” James does as told, and I walk off the bridge, moving alongside the bank. I shine the light up until I find what I’m looking for: a smashed in section of the bridge’s cover.

“What happened there?” James asks.

“The angel happened,” I say. “While it fell. It was hit from behind. Maybe it was an accident, maybe not. We’ll never know. No way we’ll ever know. Broke its wings - God knows how high up it was when it happened. It came down hard on the bridge. Maybe it was already dead. If not, that sealed the deal. Then it slid off, dropped into the river, and got stuck near the bank where Toby found it.”

“But... what hit it? I mean, you think it was a plane?”

“A plane? If it had hit a plane, it’d be a bug on a damn windshield. No, this wasn’t no plane.”

“Then what?”

“What else? The gashes on its back were about four feet apart. Almost certainly metal. Only one damn thing it could have been,” I say. “He got hit by a sleigh.”

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Deck the Halls (2006)

A lot of people think the worst movie in Matthew Broderick's career was Godzilla - just a few days ago, I'd have said so myself - but I really think Deck the Halls might claim the prize. I've seen worse holiday movies this year, but I can't remember the last time I watched anything this vapid and idiotic.

The movie is supposed to be a comedy, which means it's supposed to be funny. It's not. At all. It is, however, structured like a comedy, as if someone set out with a checklist and systematically crossed items off a list. New neighbors: check. Rivalry based on male ego: check. Obligatory gross-out sight gag: check. Car destroyed: check. House destroyed: check. Dream fulfilled: check.

The wives are loving, loyal, and level-headed, but somehow unable to perceive anything in the world around them. The kids are two-dimensional jokes. There are cheap attempts at slapstick to placate kids and Kristen Chenoweth's cleavage to placate their fathers. My faith in our species was somewhat rekindled when Wikipedia confirmed the movie was a financial flop: real audiences, apparently, are smarter than the cynical producers of this film believed.

None of these elements are strung together with anything approaching narrative cohesion, nor do the characters ever behave in a manner resembling actual humans. Broderick behaves like he's in a cartoon: to be fair, I'm not sure how else he could have approached this role. Danny DeVito attempts to inject some pathos into his character, but he's got nothing to work with so it comes out even more awkward.

The real "star" of the movie, however, are the lights DeVito's character strings up on his house. Eh - I've seen better on YouTube.

Jingle All the Way wasn't a particularly high bar for a Christmas movie about male aggression, and the fact Deck the Halls fails miserably to measure up doesn't speak well for its creators. Needless to say, you shouldn't waste your time watching this. The excerpts on Rotten Tomatoes explaining why it's at 6% fresh are far more enlightening and fun than the movie itself.

Six percent seems a little high, though.

Musical Interlude, Part 3

Part three of my comprehensive look at my new Holiday albums....

Album: Christmas Wishes
Artist: Anne Murray

Growing up, I always hated country music. That's changed as I've gotten older, but I still don't have much in my music collection.

While it's still not my favorite genre of music, I'm finding that I'm enjoying the country Christmas albums quite a bit. I shouldn't be surprised: it's one of the most under-represented types in my now substantial collection of holiday tunes, so it's a much needed deviation.

I don't know much about Anne Murray - according to Wikipedia, she's a country/pop singer from Canada who was big in the 70's and 80's. This album is from 1981, and I'm enjoying it.

Album: Christmas with Jim Reeves
Artist: Jim Reeves

I'm going through these albums in alphabetical order, so it seems kind of odd that I get two country/pop albums in a row. This is also a solid album, though I don't like it quite as much as the Murray one.

Album: Christmas with Mario Lanza
Artist: Mario Lanza

I guess you can't go too wrong with operatic Christmas music. I suspect this sort of thing will have me wanting to smash my head against a brick wall by the end of the season, but for the time being I'm kind of liking it.

Album: Disney's Season of Song: A Traditional Holiday Collection
Artist: Various (Holiday Orchestra, Christmas Brass, Don Scaletta Trio, and Disney Christmas Carolers)

Ignore the fact Disney produced this: it's a collection of "traditional" holiday music. It's all well done, though I could care less about the carols, and there's nothing setting the orchestral music apart from the dozens of classical Christmas albums I have. But the Christmas Brass and Don Scaletta Trio are welcome additions to my collection. Also, this isn't a short album (25 tracks in total), so I'm definitely getting my money's worth.

Album: The Eyes of Christmas
Artist: David Pomeranz

I was getting worried that a string of good music would fill me so much goodwill I'd lose sight of the other side of Christmas: the cheap, gaudy, commercialism that permeates our world from Black Friday Eve through to the "exchange and gift cards" season of January. Fortunately, the next album on my list reminded me what Christmas is really all about.

For those who don't know who David Pomeranz is (everyone, I'm assuming), he's the guy who performed who performed the theme song to Perfect Strangers. This is apparently his Christmas album.

The vast majority of this thing is generic pop music at its worse; absolute tripe. That said, the second half deviates a bit. There are a couple of decently done classics, as well as a country/rock track called Santa's On Vacation that I kind of like.

Though on some level the revelation this guy is capable of real music makes the rest seem even worse in comparison.

Album: Fair with Her Firstborn
Artist: Doug Fullington - The Tudor Choir

This is an album of Christmas choir music, including some songs from the Middle Ages. No complaints - there are absolutely some cool tracks - but I don't expect I'll wind up listening to this much more.

Album: A Family Christmas
Artist: John Tesh

This is absolute crap. I assumed it would be when I bought it, but still... it's extremely bad; the kind of smooth, soulless jazz that sounds like it was made by a robot.

Holiday Comics: Generation X and Futurama!

Generation X Holiday Spectacular (1995)
Scott Lobdell, Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham

This little story about Generation X (Generation X is a team of teenage X-men, mostly second and third stringers I don’t know much about) intervening in a hostage situation in a Maine town isn’t terribly holiday related except for the snow. And the fact that the narration seems to be done by an elf hiding around the edges of the panels. That doesn’t have any bearing on the story, though. It’s okay, I guess, although the little snippets of characters unconnected to the story are more interesting than the story itself, and the villain seems awfully annoying.

Generation X Holiday Special (1998)
Joseph Harris, Adam Pollina,

The same super-lame villains strike again, this time trying to kidnap a kid on Christmas Eve who’s only wish for Santa is to not be a mutant. The art is stronger in this one, and there’s some interesting snippets of character stuff early on when all the young mutants are shopping at the mall. Then some of GenX gets captured, and the mutant kid holds Santa prisoner, and the villains keep screwing up... it’s occasionally amusing, but kind of a mess.

Neither of these are especially recommended unless you’re a super-big fan of these characters. Jubilee does get a few good scenes, though.

Futurama #64 (2012)
Script: Ian Boothby, Pencils: James Lloyd, Inks: Dan Davis

Hey, a new holiday comic! I picked this up at my local comic shop last week. It's a pretty cute little tale of blackmail and Robot Santa, but it's not great, just fine. There was one part that really threw me, since I thought it showed a fundamental misunderstanding of Futurama, but Erin tells me that the show was inconsistent on the point. It still marred the experience of reading it for me.

Fiction: The Christmas Thief

Day five of 25 Christmas Eves brings us a short horror/fantasy piece. Hope you enjoy.

By Erin L. Snyder

I know you’re not going to believe any of this. And I know I should be keeping my mouth shut, asking for an attorney or something. I’ll probably wish I had, come tomorrow. But right now... it’s all I can do not to pull my hair out. I got to tell someone what happened tonight, and, well, you’re the one asking.

So, Merry Christmas. Here goes.

I got the idea for the suit off some old TV show. I couldn’t tell which if I cared: it was something I saw when I was a kid, and it stuck with me. Guy dresses up like Santa, busts into a house, and cleans the place out. If a kid wakes up and sees the guy, “No worries, son. It’s me, Kris Kringle. There’s a light on the DVD player that doesn’t work on one side.” Send the brat to bed, and I’m gone before anyone’s the wiser.

Yeah, it’s a lousy thing to do to a family at Christmas. But I guess I’m just a lousy guy at heart. But... look. I’ve got a code, right. The thing I like about this is it means you’re never in a position where you got to threaten a kid. Cause that’s not okay. Yeah, I’ve swiped some stuff. But I figure, the houses I’m hitting, they can swallow the loss. And I’ve never hurt anyone doing this, not really.

I’ve... look. I know you don’t care about why I do this stuff. All you want to know is what happened tonight. I know what you think I am, but... you’re wrong. I didn’t hurt that kid. I didn’t even... look. I don’t know if he’s ever going to be able to talk about this. But if you just show him my picture or something, I don’t think he’ll freak out. I know how this sounds. Seriously, I do. But it’s the truth: I saved that kid’s life tonight.

All right. I know you don’t buy a word of it. But this next part’s easier to swallow. I broke into that house on Rocky Brook to swipe some electronics. You could tell at a glance those people have money. Hell, look at the cars in the driveway. You could see they celebrated. I mean, that whole street’s decked out with lights, but they had that sleigh on the roof and the candy canes along the walkway. No sign of a dog, either, so I’m thinking, perfect place to hit up, right? I come by about one in the morning and get to work.

The alarm’s a joke, but then most are. And get this - they didn’t even lock the back door. I spent a solid minute trying to pick it before I just turned the handle. No one thinks anything bad can happen on Christmas Eve. Jesus. It almost seems funny now. Nothing bad.

Anyway, once I’m in, I have a look around. Last thing you want is to get blindsided by someone tripping over you while you’re working. Good way to get yourself killed.

At first I don’t see anyone. I certainly don’t hear a soul.

Hell, I’m already in the living room when I see her. Scares me half to death! This woman, lying on the couch, completely still. I’ve seen a lot of people passed out, but this... this is something else. First thing crosses my mind, I’ve stumbled across a stiff. Then I realize she’s breathing. But real soft. So, I’m thinking she’s stoned or something. I mean, rich folks are into that stuff, too. Right about now, I’m thinking I got it made. I mean, even if she does wake up, she’s not going to call you guys if she’s a coke head or something.

I head right over to the blue-ray player and get to work. A few seconds later, that’s in my sack. Next, I grab an iPad and a couple MP3 players out of the study. There’s a purse in the dining room, so I grab that, along with some candlesticks that look like they might be worth something. I’m just about ready to bounce, when I hear a noise by the back door.

I go for the one hiding place I think I can reach: the closet. I slip in between some coats as fast as I can. I don’t have time to close the door. By the time I’m in, I can hear that whatever’s here is in the room.

It’s a hard one to call. If the light goes on, I know I’m busted. I mean, maybe I can fight my way out, but that’s my only option. If they leave the light off, I should be fine, long as they don’t look too close or try to hang up their coat.

I hear the footsteps before I hear the voice. I’ll tell you about the footsteps first. At first I thought they were dancing shoes or something. They hit the floor like a hammer. And they hit the floor... wrong, I guess you could say. They remind me of something, but I can’t place it, not just yet.

Then the voice. Its talking on a cell phone. The accent is, I don’t know, English or something. It’s loud, though, and clear. “Yes, the wine seems to have done the job again. Do thank the herbalist for me. The woman’s downstairs; she should be out for hours. I haven’t seen the father yet. Yes, of course I’ll disengage if he sees me.” He keeps talking as he passes in front of the closet.

What I see... I don’t even know how to explain it. It isn’t... He’s not....

No. I’m sorry. I said I’d tell the story, so I’ll tell it. I’m not going to BS you or say I didn’t get a good enough look or anything. I’m not going to say I don’t know what I saw, because I damn well know exactly what I saw walking by the door of the closet.

It was a demon.

I knew from the first second it passed by that door. It wasn’t a guy in a suit, either. It’s a demon, all covered in fur with these two horns sticking up out of its head. Like goat horns, you know? And it walks on hooves. Its legs didn’t bend like a person’s: it’s all wrong. All different.

“I imagine the boy’s in his room. Yes, I’ll go to the cabin to conduct my work, as planned.” He’s passed the closet in an instant, but I can hear him as he starts up the stairs. “Then off to Indiana, I believe. Yes, a long night indeed. But it’s only once a year. Of course I’ll call if I run into any trouble, but how often does that happen? Thank you again.” He doesn’t say anything after that, but I can hear him continue up. The stairs run right over the closet, so I can hear those hooves strike each step.

I consider running when he reached the top, but I can’t find the courage. I’m thinking he’d hear me for sure. And I can’t escape the idea he’d catch me somehow. Or that I’d reach my car, get inside, look in the rear view mirror, and... yeah. I know. A lifetime of horror movies, right?

So, I’m hiding in the closet, panicking, biting down on my arm so I won’t scream, and then, upstairs, I hear this scream. It’s a child, and it’s only for a second. Then there are more noises, like a short struggle. I’m sitting there in the closet, dressed as Saint Nick, trying to stay still, while the damned Devil’s probably murdering some kid upstairs.

Then I hear those hooves again, but this time they sound heavier, pounding against those steps. When the thing passes in front of the closet again, I can see it’s carrying a sack. And the sack is moving, struggling. But it don’t seem to bother him none. He just carries on, taking his time.

I don’t move an inch for five minutes. But then I remember where I am and what’s going to happen if I stay put. So I lean out, make sure the coast is clear, and head out the way I came. When I reach the back door, I open it with my sleeve, because I can’t stand the thought of touching it after... after... he touched it.

Then I step outside.

I had every intention of going home. But then... I don’t know. I honestly can’t say what makes me stop. Maybe it’s knowing I’m that kid’s only hope. Maybe I’m just more scared if I do nothing and that kid did show up dead, you guys would find me. I mean, I know you guys have ways of doing that. Finding arm hairs or something. I don’t know. Fibers from my suit. I mean, no one really cares about some electronics, but a rich white kid goes missing, you’re not just going to let that go. You’re going call up the CSI guys. Yeah, too much TV. I know.

I don’t know what it is. Honestly, I thought a lot of thoughts standing there in the snow staring at that thing’s footprints heading off into the woods. I’m not trying to sound like I got all heroic. Maybe it was just too much to walk away from, like it would be worse living my entire life wondering than it would be to just follow those footprints.

I don’t know why I go after him, but I do. The trail’s pretty easy to follow, even in the dark. I mean, those prints don’t look like anything else. They’re like horse prints, I guess. What I imagine horse prints look like, anyway. But laid out like a person’s. Just one foot behind the other in a straight line.

Somewhere along the way I drop my own sack containing the take. I’m guessing you guys have found that by now and have it in evidence or something. Anyway, I had no idea how far I’d have to go. Hell, I half expected to follow those tracks forever or freeze out there. But then, all of a sudden, I find I’m standing in front of a cabin. The tracks lead right up to the front door. But then there’s another line going back and forth to a car parked in front. The windows of the car are tinted, so you can’t see inside at all.

I sneak over to the cabin and peak in a window. I don’t know what I’m expecting to see: maybe something out of a horror movie or Dante or something. But there’s nothing like that. It’s just a cabin, like a hunting lodge or something. The light’s on, and there are trophies of bucks, deer, that kind of thing, all around. It’s got a fireplace, TV, radio, everything you’d expect. It’s just normal.

The sack’s on the table. It’s tied shut and moving. Nearby, there are whips, knives, and a dozen other things I don’t want to think about. The demon, he’s just pacing around, talking into his cell phone again. He starts towards the door, so I dart around the corner, praying he doesn’t notice my footprints.

As soon as he clears the door, I can hear him again.

“--Most disappointed in this oversight. You promised me the gas would be functional. I understand perfectly well what you believed, but I hope you can appreciate that has little bearing on our arrangement. Yes, I know precisely what night this is. Yes. Yes, I see. Yes, I think thirty-percent would constitute a reasonable accommodation for this inconvenience.”

By now, he’s too far for me to hear. I figure this is my only chance, so I run around to the back and try the handle. Much to my relief, it’s unlocked. I move in as quickly as I dare and dart over to the table.

I grab a knife from the table. It’s old and rusty, with a dark layer of dried blood staining the blade and handle. I try not to think too hard on what that means, and I cut the ropes. Then I pull the sack open. The kid inside... I’ve never seen anyone as scared as this kid is. As soon as the sack’s open, I can smell that he’s soiled himself. Hell, I don’t blame him for a minute: if it had been me in there, I’d have shit my pants, too. His eyes are closed, and he’s flailing. His arms and legs are bound, and he’s gagged. All the knots are professional, too.

“Shh!” I say. “It’s not... look, kid. I’m here to rescue you.”

His eyes open, and he sees me. He stops fighting me, but this kid isn’t any less afraid. If anything, I think he’s more terrified.

“I’m going to cut your legs free,” I say, already starting on the ropes. It only takes me a second. I help the kid stand. “This way,” I say, grabbing his arms, which are still tied.

We hurry to the back door and run out. Behind us, through the open door, I hear a howl of rage and fury that’s right out of some old monster movie. We keep running.

I’m not thinking now: neither of us are. We’re tearing through the woods, just trying to get farther and farther away, all the while wondering if that thing is just getting closer.

Eventually, the kid trips, and I stop to help him up. I also cut his arms free, and he pulls off his gag. He looks like he’s half frozen to death, so I hand him my Santa coat. We look around, and can’t see or hear anything. I don’t think we relax much, but we take our bearings and change direction. The kid takes over and leads us back towards his house. We haven’t said a word to each other since the cabin. Eventually, we meet up with my footprints, which makes it easier.

We’re so close we can see the lights in the house up ahead. We’re almost there. But then we realize we’re not alone.

“Good evening,” the voice says. The kid gasps and freezes up. He grabs me, clutching as if I can offer some sort of safety. I hold up the knife, unsure if I should try to fight or just try to kill myself.

The creature steps closer. We can see each other in the moonlight now. He’s far worse like this: his eyes practically light up like a wolf’s, and up close I can see his teeth. There are so many, all of them small and needle-sharp. His tongue’s long and flickers over them like a snake’s. He looks me over and then he laughs. Jesus Christ, that laugh. You ever heard a hyena laugh? That’s as good a description as I can give. It doesn’t do it justice, but... it’s like that. It makes me feel cold in a way the night and snow couldn’t. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s like I’m dead and buried in the ground. All that, just from hearing him laugh.

“Santa Claus! How wonderfully appropriate!” He sighs when he’s finished laughing. “I know you’re not a sibling, because Earl has no brothers or sisters. And there were no relatives in town, nor where any friends expected. Just a quiet night alone for the parents to share a bottle of wine while their darling boy dreamt of Christmas morning. Our research was impeccable.” He scratched his scalp at the base of one of his horns. “There was no DVD player in the living room, was there? I noticed, but dismissed it. You were, where? The attic? One of the closets?”

I don’t say anything. I just hold that knife up and try not to shake.

“Oh well. I really have been growing careless. But there’s little point dwelling on past mistakes. I am running late. So then, moving forward. We’ve established what you are, Mr. Thief. Do you know who I am?”

“I... I know who you are. You’re the devil.”

“The devil? The devil has more important things to do on Christmas Eve than trade words with a burglar. There was a time when the name Krampus had some resonance, you know. Now, I’m barely a footnote in academic discourse. Regardless, I assure you I am not someone you can fend off with that utensil.” He points at the knife with a sharpened fingernail.

“I’ll try if I have to,” I say, trying to sound intimidating. But I don’t question his words for an instant.

“So then, how to proceed? We shall either need to come to some equitable arrangement or finish this barbarously. I suspect the former would be preferable to you. So, I propose this offer. Relinquish your rights to the child and leave. In exchange, I shall not cause you injury or harm in this life. Is that acceptable?”

I know if I give him the kid, anything he does will be pinned on me, but I’d be lying if I say I didn’t consider it.

He sees me hesitate, so he goes on. “If it helps, the child you’re protecting is far from the angel you’ve imagined. He has found his way onto a most exclusive of lists, from which my itinerary is crafted.”

There’s something familiar about how he’s talking. I don’t know if it makes him less scary, but it makes me think I have a chance. So I say something to him I didn’t say to you: I blurt out, “I want a lawyer.”

He laughs again. It’s no less disorienting the second time, and it doesn’t help that it goes on longer than before. “Mr. Thief. We don’t use lawyers from where I’m from. I know, seems a pity, given how plentiful they are. No lawyers, I’m afraid, but we do have laws. Often we follow them; sometimes we don’t. How much pleasure does it give you then, for me to inform you that our law is on your side in this situation?” He grins at me, and I can’t speak. His laugh is nothing to that grin. “But, then, it is Christmas. And I do respect a thief more than most. Besides, you’ve given me a laugh and that alone may be worth the lives of a couple sinners. Especially since I’ve lost too much time to really enjoy myself, anyway. I’m needed elsewhere before the sun rises.”

He comes towards me, and I just stand there. Soon, he’s just a few feet away.

“There is one thing, though. That knife has some special significance to me. It has been in my collection for a very, very long time. I need to ask it be returned.”

Part of me thinks if I hand it over, he’ll turn around and gut me. But looking in his eyes... I know he wouldn’t need the knife. So I turn it around and hand it over, handle first, like he asked.

He grabs it with one hand, then catches my wrist with the other. He’s so fast and so strong, more so than I’d expected, and I expected a lot. I try to pull free, but it’s like I’m pulling against a truck.

He’s smiling again, and I brace myself for the end. But instead he lowers the knife and shakes my hand. “I meant what I said before, Mr. Thief. You’ve done our craft proud this evening, and that has merit in my eyes. So do take care. I wish you the best. And do have yourself a Merry Christmas.”

By then, the kid is long gone. I just wander back the rest of the way in a daze. When I get there, when I see you guys and your flashing lights, and you shout for me to give myself up... you know, I’m grateful. No matter what else it means, at least I’m not alone. I don’t think I could have taken much more of that.

I know you think I’m crazy. But if you can get that kid to talk, if you can ask him if I took him from his bed, I think he’ll do right by me. And if you look behind the house, you’ll find some tracks. Mine and others that’ll look like an animal’s. Follow those, and you’ll find a cabin. Look into it. Who rented it. See where the trail stops. Because I promise you, it will stop cold.

And it’s not just here. All over the country - probably all over the world - if you look hard enough, you’ll find other cases. The way he spoke was so methodical, it was just a routine.

I get how this sounds. And I don’t really care if you believe me. I don’t care if you let me go tomorrow or if I spend my life in jail for something I didn’t do.

Right now, I’m just grateful I get to see Christmas morning. Even if it is from behind bars.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion: The Boy Who Found Christmas (1955)

What. The. Hell. Is. This. Shit.

I mean, besides awful. It’s clearly awful. This show stars Buster Crabbe, a guy who would definitely take a different name if he were working in Hollywood today. And his son. And a comic character actor playing himself, sort of, which makes no sense, but nothing here makes sense. But let’s get back to the fact that there is no excuse for how terrible the kid is.

The kid is truly terrible; both at acting and in the story. The 3 minutes of plot in this 30 minute slog tell the story of how this brat, disappointed that the train with his christmas presents is stuck in a sandstorm, runs off to try to bring the packages himself. Alone. Through the desert.

The whole base turns out to look for the kid, and we get some really boring footage of the kid, I guess scared by being alone? I don’t know. I didn’t feel bad for him and I’m sorry he didn’t die alone in the desert for being a thoughtless moron. But instead, the adults catch up with him and forgive him for putting their lives at risk and then they have a campout and a terrible version of the Nativity story. And the kid gives each Legionnaire a shell, I guess to prove that he’s learned the spirit of giving? Or the spirit of placating the dangerous men who left their warm beds to haul him home by showing them how pathetic he is, maybe. I don’t know where he got all those shells on a desert base. And every exchange is shown. There’s like a dozen guys, so it’s a solid minute or two of “Merry Christmas [soldier]”, “Merry Christmas, kid”. I don’t know how anyone would want to watch this.

Also, apparently this show filmed on location, so I have no idea why it all looks like backlot and soundstage. Ugh. Just Ugh. Avoid this one, friends, it’s utter drivel.

Musical Interlude, Part 2

I'm continuing my trek through my new holiday albums, one-by-one. So far, it's been pretty mixed. On to round two!

Album: The Christmas Angel - A Family Story
Artist: Mannheim Steamroller (narrated by Chip Davis and Olivia Newton-John)

I've been meaning to pick up some Mannheim Steamroller for a while - mainly, I felt obliged given the band's success - but I haven't been willing to drop any real money on the acquisition. Well, I came across a couple CD's for dirt cheap, so I picked them up.

This particular album basically consists of short bits of narration spoken over synthetic music. Imagine a picture book, but instead of images you get really boring music: that'll give you some idea. There are a few that don't suck (I kind of like "Messengers of Christmas"), but most are pretty awful.

The story tying this together isn't any better. Basically, it's about a Christmas angel who gets kidnapped by a monster (or wizard or something - it wasn't entirely clear), then rescued by a woman and some living toys. Setting aside that it's bone thin and idiotic, I don't even think it works as a "family story:" while there's certainly nothing blatant, the capture and imprisonment of the angel is certainly constructed to imply rape (for example: "He pounced on the angel and held her arms tight/ Then he spread his dark cloak and disappeared in the night").

So, ultimately, I don't think this has much value to anyone for any reason. Hopefully, the next Mannheim Steamroller album will be better, because that's next on my list.

Album: Christmas Celebration
Artist: Mannheim Steamroller

Christmas Celebration is a compilation of Mannheim Steamroller's holiday music. I was all set to dismiss this as a mix of over-produced versions of classical Christmas pieces and crappy synth-pop tunes for the first half of the album, but there were actually a handful of decent tunes in the second half. Not enough to redeem the album, but plenty to justify the dollar I spent on this thing.

Overall, I can't help but compare Mannheim Steamroller to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which I'd much rather be listening to. Granted, Steamroller was first, but most of their music just doesn't feel all that distinctive.

Album: Christmas Classics
Artist: Various

This is a collection of stars doing classic Christmas songs. I know I've already got some of these; others are new to my collection. Most of the songs are pretty straightforward, which kind of defeats the point in my opinion. I don't really care that Moody Blues is singing "What Child is This" or Boys II Men includes a version of "Silent Night" if they're just doing generic renditions.

Album: Christmas in the King's Court: Celtic Harp and Pan Flute
Artist: Ann Heymann and Robert Windenhill

Yet another clearanced CD. This one seems to be divided into two sections: one featuring harp (Heymann)  and the other for Windenhill's pan flute. The harp section is far better: it's very pretty, though I've got much prettier. Still, it's good background music for the holidays. The pan flute tracks are less impressive: way too much use of synthesized music for their own good. On top of that, pan flutes are far cooler in person than on a recording.

Album: The Christmas Song
Artist: Nat King Cole

I'm not a big fan of Nat King Cole's Christmas music: overall, I find it kind of boring to listen to. Still, you can't inject yourself full of Christmas cheer without the classics.

Album: Asylum Street Spankers
Artist: A Christmas Spanking

I had never heard of this before, but - like so many other Christmas material I find on clearance - I picked this up without worrying about the consequences. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from a band called the "Asylum Street Spankers", but I thought the odds were better than not it was going to hurt.

When I actually listened to the album, I was extremely - and pleasantly - surprised. Turns out, this is a really cool blues/jazz/country/folk band performing some really innovative and beautiful holiday tunes.

What I assumed was an act of masochism wound up one of my favorite holiday albums: this is fantastic stuff. I highly recommend you at least listen to some of the samples.

Album: Christmas to Elvis from the Jordanaires
Artist:  The Jordanaires

This is basically a tribute album by musicians who had worked with Elvis. It's a decent album, all told. I'm not a huge fan of Elvis (I've never really liked his voice), but I'm finding I kind of like his arrangements without him.