Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Simpsons: Miracle on Evergreen Terrace (1997) and Grift of the Magi (1999)

A few years ago, I looked at Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, the series' pilot/Christmas special. It held up incredibly well. But while that was the first, the series has certainly racked up some additional Christmas episodes in its twenty-four seasons on the air.

The two I'm looking at today were included on a DVD called "The Simpsons Christmas," along with the pilot and two others which really shouldn't count as Christmas episodes at all. But the DVD was released in 2003, back when they only had a handful of actual holiday episodes to choose from.

First up, we've got "Miracle on Evergreen Terrace," from season nine. I remember those years: we used to debate whether it was time for the show to wrap up. It seems almost quaint now. At any rate, Bart accidentally destroys the family's presents and Christmas tree, hides the evidence, and blames their disappearance on a burglar. While the plot meanders from there, the jokes are solid and the character work - particularly around Bart, who's especially troubled by the town's sympathy - is clearly a priority.

"Grift of the Magi" came out two years later. The plot is even more of a tangled mess. Springfield Elementary has closed due to a lack of funds and gets reopened by a private company, which forgoes actual education and instead uses the kids as market research to design a new toy. There's really no connection to Christmas until the last act, when Bart and Lisa discover the toy is programmed to destroy other toys. Naturally, they decide they need to steal every one of the toys on Christmas Eve then destroy them. The episode doesn't really resolve the plot: it just kind of ends with some jokes about Gary Coleman, who randomly guest stars.

I enjoyed "Grift of the Magi" well enough, but it was not done any favors by my having just seen the far superior episode before it. And it's probably best I didn't watch "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" right before them both: I doubt they'd have fared well in comparison.

Both episodes lacked direction (the second more than the first), but both were still funny (the first more than the second). I enjoyed watching them again, but they're ultimately forgettable.

It’s a SpongeBob Christmas (2012)

We got a tip (thanks, Mom!) that this new special was going to be airing on network TV, so we sat down to check it out.

Now, I’m only passing familiar with Spongebob, although that’s more than Erin is. My takeaway from this is mostly that I respect the attempt, but don’t think it fully came together. Maybe it’s funnier if you know the show better.

This episode was entirely filmed in stop-motion, and the effort is appreciated, although it’s not an unusual choice these days when one wants to evoke the feeling of Christmas specials past. (See Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas for a better example.) However, I’m not sure all the character designs really make sense in three dimensions, particularly when they tried to replicate some visual tropes of the usual animation. The sets were neat, though, and while I didn’t ever think the voices completely matched the fuzzy little dolls, the aesthetic of the thing overall was kind of cool.

The story follows the villain Plankton trying to get on Santa’s good list by feeding everyone in town fruitcake poisoned with jerktonium, thereby altering the grading curve, I guess. It’s a fun idea, and SpongeBob driving around in a fruitcake dispenser was amusing. The visual choices for the jerk-ified citizens were rather uninspired, though.

There were some funny moments and some cute songs, although nothing really blew us away. I’ll give this new special a decent middle-of-the-road pass and say it was fine. Only seek it out if you like SpongeBob already. I did really like the Holiday-ized and stop-motion version of the theme song, though.

Christmas Do-Over (2006)

The short explanation for Christmas Do-Over is that it's a made-for-TV Christmas rip-off of Groundhog Day. The longer explanation is that it's a quasi-remake of a made-for-TV movie called "Christmas Every Day," that's almost certainly also a rip-off of Groundhog Day, but is also a quasi-adaptation of a 19th century story of the same name.

But I'm pretty sure the only thing important here is Groundhog Day.

The premise of Christmas Do-Over is that the main character is visiting his ex-wife's family on Christmas to see her and his son. Due to a boulder falling on the only road out of their town (which isn't nearly small enough to plausibly have only one road out), he's forced to spend the entire day, instead of just a few minutes. He meets his ex's new boyfriend, who gives her a car for Christmas, goes to a Christmas fair where his ex-father-in-law is competing, has Christmas dinner, goes caroling with the family, and watches his ex agree to marry her new boyfriend, who proposes that evening. Through all of this, he's a total jackass, but that doesn't stop his son from wishing it were Christmas every day, which magically creates a time loop that only the main character is stuck in.

In addition to using the same premise, the movie follows the same structure as Groundhog Day: after going somewhat crazy, the lead character starts working to fine tune the day by mastering specific skills and the laws of causality. Eventually, he gets the day right, realizes he needs to keep Christmas in his heart all year or something, and breaks free of the loop.

Overall, the movie is pretty awful, though it had more good moments than I'd expected. The first thirty minutes or so are just abysmal: there's nothing likable about the lead, and the fact they made his rival (his ex's new boyfriend/fiance) even more unlikable to compensate was just pitiful.

The movie started to imply it might dig its way out of its hole when the main character realized the boyfriend was actually a good person. For a while, it seemed like he'd realize he'd have to move on with his life... but that didn't play out. Despite the fact the new guy was nice, far better off financially, and more committed to the lead's ex and son, part of getting the day right was winning her back. I'm not entirely sure how this constitutes a happy ending for most of those concerned.

Like I said before, there were some good parts. A scene where a fight breaks out at the fair involving the main characters brawling with people dressed as Santa, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus was the high point. In addition, there were a few sequences where some drama crept through as the lead recognized he was responsible for the failings in his life.

But a few bright spots don't come close to redeeming this thing. As a whole, the movie is long, boring, and sparse on humor. In short, definitely not recommended.

Fiction: The Perfect Gift

Today's installment of holiday cheer in our "25 Christmas Eves" series is a nice little zombie survival tale, set in a post apocalyptic wasteland. Just in time for the holidays.

By: Erin L. Snyder

Deb woke up while Keeve was strapping the shotgun to his back. She stood up, stretched, and came towards him. There wasn't a lot of light in the room - just what seeped through the boarded up window - but it was enough to see she was worried. Keeve, satisfied the shotgun was secured, held her and kissed her on the lips.

“Uh,” he said, laughing. “Your breath’s not too good.”

“Yeah,” she laughed back, before growing serious. “Where are you going, babe?”

“Oh. Yeah. I left you a note. Thought I’d grab some supplies from town, you know.”

“Jesus. I should come,” she said.

“No. Look, I love you, but we both know I’m faster.”

“I can outrun any bee,” Deb replied.

“I know you can, but I don’t want them following us back here, clawing at the door and all that. Remember October? We had to kill them right on the porch. Still doesn’t smell right out there, either.”

“That wasn’t my fault,” Deb reminded him, poking him square in the chest.

“Didn’t say it was,” Keeve said, defensively. “I just don’t want it happening again. Look, there are just some things I want to pick up, okay? It’s no big deal.”

Deb tilted her head and crossed her arms. “This better not be about tomorrow.”

The corner of Keeve’s mouth curled up into the slightest smile against his will. He wiped his face with his palm to try and hide it. “No idea what you mean. Is it our anniversary or something?”

Deb smacked him on the arm. “Come on. You know as well as I do tonight’s Christmas Eve. Come on, Keeve, I don’t need anything. You’re enough, and... I don’t want to lose you.”

“Relax,” Keeve said, “it’s me. I can handle myself.”

“Isn’t that what Chuck said? He was good, too. But sometimes, people go out alone and don’t come back. Or worse. Keeve, I love you. I can’t stand the thought of ever having to....”

“You won’t,” Keeve said, gently raising her chin up with his thumb. He looked her in the eyes and said, “I swear, Deb, I’d never put you in that spot. I’ll take so much care nothing’ll ever happen. But if I ever screwed that up, if I ever got bit... I’d make sure I didn’t put you in that situation. I’d end it there, the way Chuck should’ve. Nice and clean, out like a man. I promise.”

“Please don’t go,” Deb said. “I know you’re good; you’re the strongest man I’ve ever met, but I want you here with me today.”

Keeve smiled. “Don’t worry so much,” he said. “I’ll make it back. Nothing’s going to happen to me out there. I won’t do anything stupid: if the bees are out in force, I’ll bail.”

Deb nodded. “You’ll need the glock,” she said, her voice cracking a bit.

“I was just about to grab it.”

“And one of the bats,” Deb said.

“I take too much with me, I’m not going to be able to carry much back,” Keeve said.

“Yeah, well, long as you come back, I don’t care about the rest. I mean it: the only thing I want for Christmas is you. Nothing else matters.”

“I’ll be careful,” Keeve promised again, before putting the glock in his pack, alongside a bottle of a water, a jar of peanut butter, and a flashlight. He pulled the pack on one shoulder and adjusted the strap until it was as comfortable as it would get. Then he grabbed the bat, looked out through the boarded windows, and opened the door, keeping the bat in front of him. Deb had picked up the rifle, in case there were any “surprises” on the porch, but it seemed safe.

Keeve headed out, while Deb locked the door behind him. There was nothing outside the house they were living in, so he hurried down to the street and climbed on the motorcycle he’d found a few months earlier. He walked it down the street a ways - starting it would make noise, and the last thing he wanted was to attract the bees. Once he felt he was far enough, he climbed on and fired it up.

He started toward the city, veering around the rusting husks of cars crashed years before. Every now and then, he’d see a bee stumble out of the woods, likely drawn to the noise. Even at the relatively slow speeds he was moving at, he didn’t have any trouble avoiding them. A few years earlier, back when they’d first risen, he’d have stopped to fight, shot them up until he was out of ammo then turned tail back to wherever he’d been holed up with other survivors. Back then, most everyone was angry, panicked, and itching for a fight. A lot of people died in those days, trying to fight this like it was a war. Hell, that was almost him. It would have been him, if he hadn’t found Deb. She’d saved his life by giving him a reason to live it.

At some point, it became abundantly clear there were too many to kill. The trick was finding a way to outlast them. Sure, bees are tough, but they need to eat. And, frankly, there wasn’t much of a food source left. The human survivors were holed up in small communities or pairs, like him and Deb, and the bees had managed to get most of the dogs, cats, rats, and mice they were likely to get.

When bees get hungry, they’ll go for bugs. But half the time, they don’t chew them right, and the bugs wind up eating the bees from the inside out until they just fall apart. It’s not pretty, seeing a decomposing human body crumble like that, but that’s dropping a hell of a lot more than bullets or chainsaws.

Keeve parked his motorcycle on the outskirts of the city. Driving it into the city was more dangerous than being on foot. It was easy enough to see bees coming in the country, but the city was compact; too many places to hide or scurry out of. Besides, there might be worse things in the city than bees. Most survivors were just trying to get by. But it wasn’t like the outbreak favored good people over bad. Everyone came to the city to scavenge, and seeing as he was alone, Keeve wanted to keep as low a profile as possible.

There was a time stepping foot into the city meant certain death. More people meant more bees. But they used up their supply pretty fast. By the end of the first winter, the majority of bees were just bodies again. As for the rest, most were missing limbs and so slow you almost wanted to pity them. Others just wandered out into the wilderness in search of food. As the years passed, their numbers kept dwindling.

The problem is, a lot of the ones who were still out there - the ones who still had both legs and arms - they were real dangerous. Natural selection in motion: the bees who were left were deadly. Some were stronger, others faster. Some just seemed to have better instincts for the hunt. It didn’t really make sense: bees couldn’t think, not really, but they didn’t all always behave the same way, either.

Of course, some of them were just new. Hell, Keeve had more than one friend who was likely still lumbering through those streets, looking for roaches, rats, or people to gnaw on. He just hoped he never turned out that way.

He started in, avoiding any obstacle that could potentially be hiding bees. He’d seen enough people who’d crept up along cars only to get dragged underneath to resist the urge to attempt to use cover. Same went for building fronts: bees don’t hesitate coming through glass. Not for a second

The best strategy is to stay out in the open. That way, if anything comes at you, you can deal with it.

He didn’t have to wait long before finding something to deal with, either. A bee missing its legs began crawling out from beneath a car. He used the bat and made short work of its head. Another two appeared in the shattered doorways of what had once been appartment buildings. Keeve maneuvered so they wouldn’t reach him at the same time. He considered the gun, but decided the noise would make too many problems.

The first moved a good clip, though, and he found himself second-guessing his decision to stay with the bat. But Keeve had some experience with bees: he swung away, breaking bones in both arms, then taking out its right knee. The bee kept at him, of course, but it fell over and was forced to crawl.

Keeve stepped back, then brought the bat down. In all likelihood, this bee had been around for years and had likely killed more than a few people in that time. But in the end, it didn’t fare any better than the one he’d shut down trying to get out from under the car.

That left one more, and it didn’t look too tough. It was short and, as Deb would’ve said, already busted. It moved with a limp, and its arms didn’t work so well. Even so, Keeve took it seriously. He stayed focused and finished it off with a sideways hit to the head. Then, after making sure there were no more around, he retched from the smell. Rotting flesh and decomposing brain are odors you never get used to.

He forced down some of his water then pushed on through the streets. Another bee showed up at the corner of Eighth and Main. He took out one of its legs, then left it hobbling. It was considered somewhat unethical not to finish bees since they were still dangerous, but he didn’t want to push himself. Crushing human skulls wasn’t exactly pleasant work.

He reached what had once been the shopping district soon after and pulled out his flashlight and gun. He found what he was looking for - a jewelry store - and set the bat and pack down outside. Then he pushed the door open with his shoe, and raised the gun.

He didn’t see anything, so he said in a low, firm voice, “Hey. My name’s Keeve. I’m not a bee, so if anyone’s in there, don’t shoot.” He shined the light around and didn’t see anything. He glanced over his shoulder, too, in case there was something coming up behind him. There wasn’t.

“Look, if anyone’s in there, I don’t want to hurt you. If you’re in there, let me know.” Still nothing. He stepped in. It was dark and musty, but so was everything. It didn’t smell particularly bad, though, and he didn’t see anything. He moved in slowly, half expecting something to come at him from behind the counter. But there was nothing there. He checked the back room next, starting with the same greeting. There was no one there either.

Once he decided the place was secure, he shined the light into the first case. It mainly held necklaces, so he moved on. A few of the glass cases had already been smashed open, and a handful of the jewels were gone. He found the engagement rings soon after. Unfortunately, those cases were still intact and locked, so he’d have to break the glass.

He chose the one he wanted first, then smashed the top of the glass with the butt of his gun. The sound reverberated through the building, and he cringed.

He grabbed the ring, shoved it into his coat pocket, and ran. There were three bees on the street when he reached the door. One was missing most of its face: Keeve shot it through the head first, so he wouldn’t have to keep looking at it. Then he picked off the other two.

He scooped up his pack and started running, leaving the bat behind. The noise brought more, but he ignored them. The only bees he took out were the ones in front of him. The rest, he just outran. He was exhausted by the time he reached the bike. He started it up and took off as soon as he was seated.

When he knew he was free of the city, he stopped to rest and finish off his water. Then he pulled the ring out of his pocket. Would Deb find it tacky? A marriage proposal in a post-apocalyptic wasteland? Who did he think would perform the ceremony?

He pushed those thoughts away. Deb would understand: this was a symbol. It represented his love for her and his commitment to spend the rest of his life - however long that might be - at her side. They didn’t need a priest: they’d marry each other. He relaxed: an engagement ring: the perfect gift. What was he worried about?

He took his time returning home: this would be a Christmas to remember. He thought about stopping off at a gas station and rummaging through the ruins to see if they had any wrapping paper, but he decided that really would be stupid.

The only question he had left was whether he should wait until tomorrow to give her the present or hand it over tonight.

It was early evening by the time he approached the area where he lived. He stopped early and began pushing the bike back. He was tired, and his attention was elsewhere. By the time he heard the bee stumbling towards him, it was almost too late.

He dropped the bike and jumped away, just the bee lunged at him. If it hadn’t tripped over his falling bike, it would have had him. As it was, he barely got the shotgun out in time, barely leveled it at the bee’s head and pulled the trigger.

From the neck up, the bee just dissolved in front of him, its body collapsing on the ground. Keeve stood up and looked around frantically. He’d had close calls like that before, but this was different somehow: he had so much to lose now. That, and he was so close. If it had gotten him... if it had bitten and killed him before he could turn his gun on himself... it was too horrible to think about. The idea of dying was one thing; breaking his promise to Deb was another.

He was breathing frantically, glad to be alive. “I’m alive!” he shouted, since Deb must have heard the shot. He didn’t want her thinking he’d been too slow.

He still couldn’t hear too well from the gunshot, so he had no idea whether she was calling back. He hurried towards the house, shotgun still in one hand. With the other, he rooted around his coat pocket until he found the ring.

He ran towards the door, still keeping an eye out in case there were any other bees around. But he didn’t see any. At least not until he reached his lawn.

There were at least twenty - more than he’d seen in years - lying in front of his house. The bodies were scattered, each with one or more holes in its head. There were more dead on the porch, mainly around the door.

The door they’d clawed open.

Keeve charged. “Deb!” he screamed, approaching the stairs. A half-decomposed bee stumbled out at him and he took its head off. Another was in the hallway: he pulled out the glock, blew it away, and kept going.

The thoughts came quickly now. He should have been here. Why did he leave? How did this happen? It’s okay - she could be holed up in the back. Deb’s a survivor: she’s lived through worse than this. She....

She stepped out from the kitchen. Keeve was standing on the other side of the living room. He stepped back, as she stepped forward.

Not stepped; lunged. When the bees got to her, they must have eaten some of her leg before reaching her throat. There were chunks missing from her all over, but not so much she couldn’t come back. As one of them.

She was still beautiful, even now. There’s no greater compliment Keeve could have paid anyone: even with the wounds and empty eyes, she was beautiful.

“I should have been here,” he said aloud, raising the gun with both hands. She took another step towards him, and he took another back down the hall. He stared at her down the barrel. At her face. Her lips.

He stepped back again and she forward, like it was some kind of dance. His eyes went out of focus from his tears, and he looked at the gun then at his hand. There was something in it. Something....

He opened it. The engagement ring lay still in his palm. He aimed the gun with the other but couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. Slowly, he lowered the gun and distantly felt it fall from his grip. Then he let the ring tumble, hitting the floor and rolling against the wall.

It was stupid. The idea it meant anything. It wasn’t a symbol: it was cheap garbage. All Deb ever wanted was what she still wanted. He held open his arms and closed his eyes as she embraced him.

The perfect gift. Himself. All she’d asked for on Christmas.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Phineas and Ferb's Family Christmas Special (2011)

Phineas and Ferb's second Christmas special was quite a bit smaller and less ambitious than their first. I also liked it quite a bit more.

This is essentially a half-episode, which is a format the series is used to: most Phineas and Ferb episodes are broken into two unconnected 11 minute shorts. This differs from the norm in that it's a standalone: there's no "second short" following it. My guess is it was produced to be aired along with the much longer special from the prior year (with commercials, they should fill out an hour together).

The plot to this episode is intentionally thin: the boys are putting on an old fashioned Christmas TV special in the middle of summer. While this ostensibly uses the show's normal formula, it doesn't really commit to it. The sequences with Perry and Doofenshmirtz are far shorter, and Candace's attempt to bust Phineas and Ferb is tacked on. I don't think this is a problem: in fact, it demonstrates the writers' commitment to a different formula: that of the TV specials they're parodying.

A large portion of the run time is devoted to songs, which I'm thrilled to say are much better than most of the ones filling the 'Vacation' special. Buford and Baljeet's duet was particularly clever.

The pace moved along at a good clip, the jokes were funny, and the whole thing was simultaneously sweet and sappy (like I said, they committed to the format). It was short, but it was a lot of fun. I'd recommend this to anyone who enjoys Phineas and Ferb, which is readily available on Netflix.

Toy Review: Arthur Christmas Figures

One of last year's best surprises was Arthur Christmas, a brilliant movie which re-imagined the Santa myth and told a nuanced holiday story. Like most big budget production, this one included toy tie-ins. At the time, these were going for around four bucks a pack, so I waited until they were less than a buck.

I bought these several months ago, so I wouldn't swear my memory's accurate but I think I paid ninety cents for each of these 2 packs. And, honestly, that might be a bit more than they're worth. I love these characters, but these toys are kind of pitiful.

The detail work just isn't here: if anything, these remind me of toys you'd expect to get out of a vending machine. The plastic is cheap and rubbery: Arthur barely stands up straight and requires occasional adjustment.

The paint work, while partially hidden by the scale, is still below expectations. There's not a lot of detail here.

The best of the bunch is Santa, who at least has some mass. I don't regret picking them up (like I said: I go them for next to nothing), but they're definitely not worth retail price.

Book Review: Letters to Father Christmas

Letters to Father Christmas
J. R. R. Tolkien, 1976, 1999

Premise: This whimsical volume reproduces a series of letters that Tolkien’s children received from “Father Christmas” between 1920 and 1943.

This was very interesting, as a student of early fantasy writing and as someone with interest in different ideas of Santa. It is not, however, exciting to read.

These letters were clearly never intended to be published. They were purely a gift from a father to his children, and while they are often elaborate and entertaining, there is very little in the way of plot here. Plus we are only getting half the story, as Father Christmas often thanks the children for their letters or answers their questions.

The time and skill involved in creating these mementos is obvious. Most letters came with an enclosed drawing, all reprinted in lovely color here. As more characters were introduced over the years, they developed their own writing styles. Happily, the text is transcribed for ease of reading, although I’m glad the book preserves examples of Father Christmas’ shaky scrawl, the Polar Bear’s use of a broad marker to make marks like runes, and the scribe elf Ilbereth’s small script.

Most of the letters tell of some happening at the North Pole that year, whether the bears were mischievous and delayed packing the sleigh, or local gnomes help flush attacking goblins out of a tunnel. Bear in mind, though, that the intended audience here is quite young, so there’s never any real sense of tension or danger, and anyway all the stories are being told after the fact.

The first few are more unfocused, before the style and the cast of characters were really formed, and the last few are a bit melancholy, as war ripped through Europe. Tolkien’s own Anglo-centrism shows through every so often, most notably when Father Christmas exclaims at how busy he is because in addition to his normal routes, he is “getting stuff down to the South Pole for those children who expect to be looked after though they have gone to live in New Zealand or Australia or South Africa or China.”

It’s more biographical than anything else, revealing little hints to the relationships between the children, or the children and their dad. It’s a very pretty book to flip through, and an interesting piece representing a minor work of a creative person.

I enjoyed reading it, although it wouldn’t be for everyone.

Fiction: 25 Christmas Eves, part 4

This is the conclusion of the title story of '25 Christmas Eves'. Please note this only concludes the STORY, not the series: there will be more fiction tomorrow night, same Christmas channel, same Christmas time. If you missed parts 1, 2, and 3, you'll want to give those a read before proceeding.

By: Erin L. Snyder

The following year was even better than the one before. Hector took a job in the video store just as business took off. He was promoted to manager soon after. And, even better, he met Laurie.

Laurie was one of their best customers. She came in almost daily to rent some old monster movie or science-fiction flick. She’d ask him questions about films he’d never heard of, and he found himself pretending he’d seen them, just so he’d have something to talk to her about. Then he found himself taking home movies as soon as she returned them. And then it was movies he thought she’d be interested in before she got to them.

Pretty soon, they were going to the movies once a week to catch old flicks at midnight showings in theaters Hector hadn’t known existed. Were they even dates? It was so informal, he wasn’t sure. After a few months had passed, he thought he was ready to make a move, but he never got his chance: she beat him to it, and then they were a couple.

“I really like her,” Hector explained to the devil. “A lot.”

The devil smiled. “It’s always discouraging to see you looking so upbeat,” he said pleasantly. “Discouraging, but... good,” he added with a wry smile. “I take it we won’t reach an agreement this year.”

“I don’t think so,” Hector said. “Guess I’ll see you next year.”

When the next Christmas Eve rolled along - the sixteenth they’d met up - the devil found Hector pacing around an empty parking lot blowing into his cupped hands to keep warm.

“Hector! Is everything alright?”

“Oh, hey! Yeah,” he laughed. “Actually, everything’s fantastic!”

The devil looked around. “Where are we? Gas station?”

“Place closed a few years ago. I wanted someplace no one would show up, you know. Remember Laurie? I told you about her last year? We moved in together six months ago. The apartment’s pretty small, and the walls are paper-thin.”

The devil nodded. “It sounds like everything’s going well.”

“It is,” Hector replied. “It really, really is. I... can I show you something?” He ran over to his parked car, opened the passenger-side door, and reached in. He flipped open the glove compartment and pulled out a small box. He removed the lid and showed the devil what was inside.

“Hector... she’ll love it.”

“I wish I could afford more, but I don’t think she’ll mind. You think she’ll say yes?”

“They almost always say yes,” the devil said.

“I’m going to give it to her tonight,” Hector said, closing the lid and returning it to the glove compartment. I thought about waiting until tomorrow, but I think this is better.

“Congratulations,” the devil said, with a grin.

“Thanks,” Hector said.

They talked about various things for a while: the growing video industry, ongoing diplomatic tensions between heaven and hell, politics, books they’d read, and complaints about traffic patterns, both Hector’s about the freeway and the devil’s from interdimensional shifting. Finally, the conversation petered off, and the devil said, “I should get going, but good luck tonight.”

“Thanks,” Hector said. “Sorry we never got around to discussing my soul.”

“Oh, think nothing of it! You’ve got bigger things on your mind this year. We’ll take it up again next time.”

“Yeah. I want to give it more thought. But I’ve been thinking I might want to do something for people. My life’s been so good, I kind of want to use it to give something back. I mean, if that’s even allowed.”

“Of course it’s allowed. It’s your soul: you can exchange it for whatever makes you happy. For a lot of people, that’s charity. I’d say, roughly ten percent of the spirits I buy are sold to benefit the less fortunate or the environment or a loved one. Just last week, I helped a lovely old lady trade her soul to ensure the survival of her church. Things like that aren’t unusual at all.”

“Oh,” Hector said, a little disappointed. “Well, I’ll give it some thought for next year.”

By the next year, Hector’s interest in philanthropy had evaporated. When the devil appeared, Hector was sitting in a small office, reading a magazine. “Hi!” Hector said, setting it down.

The devil looked around at the room. There were pictures on the wall - nothing expensive, but all framed - and there wasn’t an empty can of beer or soda in sight. He smiled and said, “I told you she’d say yes.”

Hector laughed and offered him a chair with an open back where his tail could hang unimpeded.

“Thank you,” the devil said, accepting the offer. “So, where is Laurie?”

“Party at her sister’s,” Hector said. “I told her I’d meet her later. I’ll get in trouble for being late, but at least it gives me an excuse to make our appointment.”

“I’m glad things are working out so well. Are you still at the video store?”

“Yeah. It’s going pretty well. I’m starting to think I could probably use a change, though. I could use more money with the baby on the way--”

“Baby?” the devil asked, surprised.

Hector grinned. “Laurie’s three months pregnant. It’s scary, but it just....” He stopped, looking for a word.

“It changes everything,” the devil said.

“Yeah. Everything. Do you have any kids?”

“Oh, no. Nothing like that. I’d have liked some, I think, but it’s... it’s different for us.”

“Sorry. I hadn’t meant to pry,” Hector said.

“Don’t give it a second’s thought,” the devil said. “I don’t mind talking about it. Everyone - human, demon, angel - has to make do with what we’re given and what we can get. I’m very happy, I think, all things considered. But, if I have a regret, it’s that I can’t have children.”

“It’s exciting,” Hector said. “I have no idea what to do. It’s so strange. I don’t know what kinds of diapers to get or where you even go to find out about diapers. Then there’s the name. Laurie wants to name him Marvin if he’s a boy, after this comic writer she likes. But I don’t want to do that to the kid. ‘Hector’ was bad enough - believe me. I’m thinking something simple. Steve, Mike: something like that.”

“I’m sure it will work out,” the devil said. “These things generally do.”

“Maybe you can help,” Hector said. “Like I said, I could use a better job.”

They negotiated for a while, but it was a path they’d been down before. Any job the devil could have traded him had some caveat: the hours would have kept him from his family, it was too tedious, or the pay just wasn’t quite good enough. So they parted as they had sixteen times before.

The scene in Hector’s office was mostly unchanged from the year before, save that it was a little messier. Hector, however, was very changed. His beard was trimmed back, and his hair was short. And there was one other difference - he wasn’t alone. Cradled in Hector’s arms was a sleeping baby.

“He’s beautiful,” the devil whispered, standing over Hector’s shoulder. “I assume Laurie’s resting, too.”

“She was exhausted. I told her I’d watch Stan tonight as an early Christmas present.” Hector’s voice was muted, too, and he rocked the baby as he spoke.

“Clever,” the devil said.

“I thought so,” Hector replied. “I look good, I can make our appointment, and it even gives me a chance to show him off.”

“You must be so proud,” the devil said.

“I really am. Between me and Laurie, I think everyone at the video store is sick to death of the pictures and stories. But I could care less: I’ve got about a dozen rolls of film, and I’m using up every one of them in the morning.”

The baby started to stir. Slowly he opened his eyes and looked at the devil. For a moment he lay still. Then he tilted his head, opened his mouth, and began crying.

“Oh. I’m sorry,” Hector said. “Really.” He lifted Stan up onto his shoulder, stood up, then started to move around, trying to lull him back to sleep.

“No. That’s all right,” the devil said. “I should get going. I don’t want to scare the boy.”

“I really am sorry,” Hector said.

“Nonsense. We’ll talk next year,” the devil said, before vanishing in his usual way. Stan stopped crying, instantly enchanted by the swirls of smoke and mist left in the devil’s stead. He giggled until the colors faded, then he began crying again.

The next few Christmas Eves were likewise uneventful. There was always something Hector wanted - the first year it was to own a house; the one after that, his own business - but he never seemed interested in closing the deal, even when the devil made a very generous offer to set him up with his own video store with the potential to spin out into a chain. Hector’s heart simply wasn’t in the negotiation, perhaps because he suspected he’d wind up with these things anyway - and with good reason: a promotion for him and a new job for Laurie put them in a house before Stan turned four- or perhaps because he was getting older and starting to think more about the future after the future.

But mostly it just seemed like life had given him new priorities. Most of the visits weren’t spent on tempting offers or bargains: they were monopolized by Hector’s stories. He never brought Stan with him again, of course, but Hector always brought out the photos. These weren’t “the year Hector wanted a new home” or “the year he wanted to be his own boss,” but rather the year Stan took his first step or spoke his first word.

The devil, to his credit, never pushed or rushed Hector. He seemed content to hear the stories and see the pictures. He still made offers (he’d have been remiss in his duties not to); in fact, he came as close as he ever had when he casually suggested Hector consider a college fund one year. That got the bargaining going, with Hector pulling out his calculator to check interest rates. Pretty soon, the pot was sweetened with promises of guaranteed admittance to certain schools. In fact, had the devil been able to promise Stanford, he’d have left with a signed parchment. But Stanford is a hard school to get in, and the devil’s counter-offers just weren’t good enough. It seemed a trivial detail, but it was enough to derail the discussion, at least for the time being. Nevertheless, it was real progress, and the devil left encouraged that this line might lead to a resolution. He’d return the next year, after brainstorming options to perhaps sweeten the pot a bit more.

That was the twenty-third Christmas Eve the devil met with Hector. He left him in his study, an expansive, clean room containing a typewriter, an oak desk, and a bulletin board where Hector had pinned a number of drawings Stan had given him over the years.

When he returned on the twenty-fourth year, he found a very different scene. Hector’s office was disheveled; papers everywhere, half-eaten plates of food were sitting on his desk, and the scent of alcohol was prevalent. Hector’s beard was a mess, and there were rings under his eyes. He was sitting almost completely still facing a second chair.

The devil sat in front of him. Hector barely recognized him. The devil paused. “What happened?” he asked softly.

Hector didn’t blink. “He’s... it....” his eyes began tearing up, then he bit his lower lip and locked his jaw. “If I offered you my soul,” he said, “could you bring my son back?”

The devil opened his mouth but didn’t say anything. Instead, he shut it a moment later, then grew stern. He closed his eyes and concentrated. A moment later, he opened his eyes, then placed a hand on Hector’s shoulder.

“I had to be sure,” he explained. “Listen to me, Hector. You’re in shock now, but you’ll understand later. I can’t bring your son to you, not in any capacity, because his soul is not in my power.”

Hector’s resolve faltered, and his head slumped to the table. He wasn’t exactly crying, but he was utterly drained, utterly empty.

The devil rose to his feet. Then he patted Hector on the back gently. “I am so sorry for your loss,” he said.

Hector didn’t notice him leave.

It was raining on the last Christmas Eve the devil came to visit Hector. It was a slow, heavy rain, the type that reverberates when droplets drum against the air conditioner, the type that permeates the air so nothing truly feels dry, even inside.

The devil appeared as he always did in Hector’s office. Hector had cleaned himself up: his beard was neater than it had ever been, and he was wearing a nice, button-up shirt with a vest. But he still seemed sad.

“Hi,” Hector said. “Glad you could make it.” He had a pair of glasses in front of him and a bottle of whiskey in his hand. He removed the cap and poured. He took one for himself and offered the other to the devil. “Sorry it’s not something more festive,” he said.

The devil looked him in the eye. “Ah. I think I see.” He accepted the glass and took a sip. Then he cleared his throat. “I’ve dealt with tens of thousands of men over the years. Maybe hundreds of thousands. You get a feel for things in that time. You can feel it after a time, when a deal’s about to close or when it’s going to fall through once and for all.”

I’m sorry,” Hector said. “It’s just... I’ve never really cared for my soul. I never really believed in heaven. I mean, is an eternity in clouds really better than in fire? I thought about that a lot after I met you.”

“You’re smarter than most who devote their lives to the subject,” the devil replied.

“But I do know... I know I want to see my son again.”

The devil smiled. “I know you do, Hector. I’m sorry we never reached an agreement, but I want you to know that I’ve enjoyed these meetings. Time well spent is never time lost, damn the business end of things.”

The devil extended a hand, which Hector shook. Both looked as though they might say something, but neither did for the longest time. Hector didn’t mention his marriage and whether he thought it would survive. The devil didn’t mention any other appointments. Neither said a thing about the weather or politics or movies or theology. They simply sat together and finished their drinks. Hector poured himself another and offered the devil a second, as well, but Satan declined.

“Thank you, but I really should be going.”

“You won’t be back next year, will you? I mean, we could keep meeting, just to talk.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t. There are--” he cut himself off with a sigh and a smile. “I’m afraid I simply can’t,” he said instead. He stepped to the center of the room, then turned back. “Oh. Hector. Before I go, there is one thing. Beneath your tree, when you have a chance. No need to wait for morning.” He smiled one last time, and then he was gone.

Hector sipped his drink before leaving his study. In the living room, beneath the plastic Christmas tree Laurie had bought the year Stan was born, there was a long, thin box which hadn’t been there before. On the lid, he found a simple note. The penmanship was meticulous: “Think nothing of it - just a parting gift from an old friend.”

Inside was a pair of silver, fibreglass skis.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

I Don't Want To Hear It

Sure, Christmas is largely about tradition, but there are some I can do without. You know what I'm talking about: every year, some jackass has to go repeat the same Christmas cliches, as if they've got something worthwhile to say. Well, here are a few "holiday reflections" I can do without, along with my standard response for the offending perpetrator:

"It's not ______ and stores are already putting Christmas displays up?"
How often I hear it: Every year
Proper response: Yeah, Christmas starts earlier every year. You know what that means? It means those of us with a preschool-level understanding of mathematics were expecting it to start earlier this year than last. So why don't you shut the hell up, start charting this shit, and brace yourself for the holiday season to overtake Memorial Day by 2016.

"I like Christmas, but I hate how commercialized it's become."
How often I hear it: Every damn year
Proper response: Nothing pisses me off more than a yuletide paradox. Listen up, because I'm only going to say this one more million times: Christmas, at its core, is the manifestation of commercialization. That's the true meaning of the holidays. It's the living symbol of the rebirth of the retail fiscal calendar, all right? So if you can't take the heat, get the hell out of line: the rest of us have some clearanced plastic crap to buy.

"I am so sick of Christmas music... and it's only December sixth!"
How often I hear it: At least once a year. Without fail.
Proper Response: Take your medicine and like it. What you're hearing is the soundtrack to Christmas.

"Happy Holidays!"/"Seasons Greetings!"
How often I hear it: About ten thousand times a year
Proper Response: I am so sick of your politically-correct bullshit. Sorry if you're offended by the name of a holiday you THINK you don't celebrate, but I've got some news for you: if you live in this civilization, you celebrate Christmas. You can't avoid it: you walk through stores decked out in red and green, you either have the 25th off or your job exists to keep the rest of us entertained on Christmas. Avoiding the word might let you pretend you're recognizing other people's beliefs, but when you actually pull the wrapping paper off, you discover that all those "other holidays" are just ornaments on the Christmas tree.

"Merry Christmas!"
How often I hear it: About twenty thousand times a year
Proper Response: I am so sick of your bullshit religious fanaticism! You know what Christmas trees, wrapping paper, ornaments, and mistletoe have to do with the birth of Jesus? The same thing Christmas does: jack shit. That's right, suckers: you're worshiping pagan symbols while your kids bow down to their lord and savior, Santa Claus. You really think just because the holiday was renamed seventeen hundred years ago that changes the fact it's built around the changing seasons? Here's a news flash: you may be too daft to pick up on the subtle clues, but people have been decking their halls with magic plants and graven images of animal spirits for two millenia now. Put zero and one together, back off, and let the rest of the world celebrate the season however they damn well want!

"Relax - I wasn't pushing a political agenda. I was just wishing you well this season."
How often I hear it: About thirty thousand times a year
Proper Response: Like hell. You really expect me to believe you just strolled in here with that shit-eating grin on your face and dropped a bomb in the culture wars with no clue what you were doing? Yeah. That's right! Just back away with that look on your face, as if I'm the crazy one. As if you weren't promoting a radical agenda when you wished me... wait. Were you the one who said "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays"? I... I kind of lost track there.

Seattle Winter Train and Village

The other day we stopped by Seattle Center to see what our new home has in the way of Christmas cheer. We found a pretty sweet model train village decked out for the holidays.

The carousel spun and lit up, and there were two flying vehicles suspended from the ceiling.

Not sure what's going on here, but we think that's a widowed doll coming out of the graveyard.

I liked the bits of wreckage at the bottom of the canyon.

It was slightly odd that the dollhouse scale people didn't match the scale of the trains and some of the vehicles, but it wasn't too noticeable.

Not a bad little set-up, overall.

What's New, Scooby-Doo?: A Scooby-Doo! Christmas (2002)

This is one of those specials that comes a hair's breath from being "so bad it's good," but can't quite overcome the aspects that are just bad.  The series it's from is about a decade old, which puts it well past the era when Scooby-Doo seemed ahead of its time.

The plot centers around a mystical living snowman which can remove its head and is obsessed with destroying chimneys. It's about twelve feet tall and has supernatural powers, meaning the "guy-in-suit" won't work this time. Well, unless it's a guy in a robot suit using stupidly unrealistic science to pull off the effect.

Spoiler alert: it's a guy in a robot suit using stupidly unrealistic science to pull off the effect.

Here. Have more back story. There's a local legend about a headless snowman who's animated by the ghost of a robber who died a century ago after hiding some gold in the town. There are a couple of townsfolk acting as red-herrings: a sheriff who always seems to be around after a crime and the owner of the inn, who's making quite a lot sheltering the victims of the snowman. But it's pretty obvious the culprit can only be the character who's utterly superfluous and who's presence doesn't even make sense.

I refer, of course, to the college professor who wrote a book about the snowman and the robber.

Now, you might imagine that the guy who wrote the book about the myth and who's pretending to be said myth actually invented the story entirely... but you'd be wrong. The robber was real, and the gold he hid is, as well. The professor is directly descended from the gold's original owner, and he wants it back.

The meddling kids uncover his plan, capture him, then find the gold for good measure. For some reason, the town then forgives him and presumably decides not to press charges... despite the fact he's caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages and endangered the lives of their kids. But, hey! It's Christmas! As icing on the cake, they even agree the gold is his property, despite the fact it turned out that it was literally built into their homes.

The special ends with the professor discovering the meaning of Christmas specials and deciding to share the gold with the town and the Scooby gang. He hands them a gold brick, which has to be worth several hundred thousand dollars. They seem happy, but not nearly happy enough, if you ask me.

Well, this wasn't really boring, which is pretty high praise these days. But it was stupid, and not quite that fun way: more like they should have tried harder.

Fiction: 25 Christmas Eves, part 3

This is part three of '25 Christmas Eves'. If you missed parts 1 and 2, you'll want to give those a read before continuing.

By: Erin L. Snyder

When they met a year later, Hector was renting an apartment with two friends, both of whom were fortuitously attending a Christmas Party Hector had feigned a stomach ache to avoid attending. Things were going well with Vanessa, and they’d started talking about moving in together. They hadn’t figured out next year yet - she was applying to colleges in the area, and he’d already dropped out of high school to work at a department store - but they were optimistic they’d figure it out.

The devil gave him a brief rundown of political developments in hell, of how various demons were vying for power and of how the economy there was tightening. “None of it really adds up to much. It gets repetitive after a while. Not so bad as in heaven, but close some days.” He sat down on Hector’s couch, taking care not to damage the upholstery with his tail. He’d leaned his pitchfork up against the coat rack.

“Hey, my mom sent some Christmas cookies,” Hector said, fetching a tin. “My roommates snatched most of them, but I hid these.” He offered the tin to the devil, who took one.

“Thank you,” he said, biting it in half. “So, is there anything on your Christmas list this year?”

“I was thinking,” Hector began, “Musing might be more accurate. I took up the guitar last spring. I’m getting pretty good, too.”

“And you want to know whether I can make you a rockstar?” the devil asked.

“Yeah. I thought it might be an avenue worth exploring,” Hector replied. “I know these things get complicated. But I know it’s... well... a lot of people say things about some of the guys they play on the radio, and your name comes up.”

“For good reason,” the devil admitted. “I’ve got more sway there than in any other industry, exempting politics. But you’re right - it does get complicated. If I could snap my fingers and make anyone a rockstar, the world would be overrun with them. I can improve ability, make connections, and push fate, but that’s all.”

“I figured,” Hector said. “Seemed worth a try, though.”

“Well, don’t give up too fast,” the devil said. “Let me hear you play, see what we have to work with.”

Hector ran to his bedroom and emerged with an acoustic guitar. He played a few Stones covers, along with some Zeppelin tunes. “So,” he said.

“Not bad,” the devil answered, thoughtfully. “But not great. I could make you better, so much so that you’d have a real chance of making it some day, provided you were willing to dedicate your life to music and work through a few hard years.”

“That doesn’t really sound like me, does it?” Hector laughed.

“I guess not.” The devil laughed as well, and Hector started playing a version of We Three Kings. It wasn’t a particularly good version of the song, and Hector didn’t really do it justice, but the devil sat back, helped himself to another Christmas cookie, and smiled.

The next year, the devil found Hector in a new apartment. It was much smaller, but it was a studio, so there were no roommates to worry about. At a glance, the devil could tell there was no one else to be concerned with, which explained the state Hector was in.

It was dark in the apartment. There was a table lamp in one corner but the light barely reached the other side of the room, where Hector was sitting on his bed.

“Hi,” the devil said.

“Hey,” Hector said softly. He looked up, his eyes bloodshot. “Vanessa broke up with me. She said there wasn’t anyone else, but... I don’t know. College, right? I guess that’s what happens.”

“I’m sorry,” the devil said.

“So,” Hector continued, “I’ve been thinking. Maybe I should sell my soul to get her back.” He laughed in an ambiguous way. Not even he could have said for sure whether he was being serious or not, but the devil seemed to take it that way.

“We run into some familiar paradoxes. We’d be negotiating for something I don’t own. Depending on the situations of her life, I’m not entirely certain I could manipulate her through direct means. And, if I did, there’s no telling she’d stay. For this reason, I’d have to insist my obligation only went so far as getting her to return to you.”

“And I’d just be back here next year, with no soul left to bargain away, is what you’re saying.”

“I don’t know,” the devil replied. “It’s possible it would work next time. There are addendums we could try to add, say making alterations to your personality, fixing elements of your situation, and that sort of thing. If you really think her enrollment in college was a factor, I’m sure I could find a way to terminate that arrangement.”

“You mean getting her thrown out,” Hector said, looking at his floor. “She probably deserves that. But... God, maybe I’m the one who deserves having their life screwed up. I shouldn’t even be considering this. I’m sorry. I thought this was the year, that maybe this was what I was waiting for. But this is petty.”

The devil sat down beside Hector. “It’s your soul,” he said. “In the end, you’ve got to determine what it is you want most. I’m in no hurry - let’s pick this up next year.”

A year later, the devil found himself back in the same small apartment, face-to-face with Hector, now twenty years old. He’d grown a beard since they’d last met, though the devil had no difficulty recognizing him.

“How’s it going?” Hector asked.

“You know how it is,” the devil replied. “Rather dull, all things considered. The market for souls is good, I suppose, but that really just makes things more tedious, to tell the truth. How has life been treating you, Hector?”

He shrugged and motioned to the apartment, which had been less cluttered the previous year. At least now there was more light. “I’m working in a warehouse now,” Hector said. “I guess things are tedious for us both.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” the devil responded. “Anything I can do?”

Hector grinned. “That’s the big question, isn’t it? Let’s see. Finances? New job? Better place?” He brushed a pile of clothes off a chair at his table and offered it to the devil, who thanked him and had a seat. Then he moved some magazines, revealing a notepad. They negotiated for the better part of an hour, but when the devil presented his final offer - guaranteed acceptance into a state college, a part-time job at a decent (but not overwhelming) hourly rate for the duration of his education, a full-size one-bedroom apartment at less than he was paying now, and (provided Hector managed to graduate on time) a managerial position with a growing company - he balked.

“I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate the offer. It’s just....”

“Don’t say another word,” the devil said. “I understand completely. Your soul’s worth a great deal and you’re not comfortable parting with it.”

“I guess,” Hector said. “I don’t know, it’s just... I feel like whatever I get should really move me. And, while this all this sounds good, it just isn’t making me excited.”

The devil nodded. “Next time, then?”

“Next time,” Hector replied.

The next year was a mixed one for Hector. His landlord increased his rent, so he had to give up the apartment and move in with an old friend of his from high school. He met Jennifer, but they spent most of their time together arguing; when she finally broke it off, all Hector felt was relief. Meanwhile, a friend of his father’s told him he might be able to offer him a job in his video store after the holidays. It took all of Hector’s willpower not to quit his job in the warehouse on the spot.

There were certainly things Hector wanted, but nothing so much to consider surrendering his immortal soul. The devil was about to head along when they heard a sound from the other side of Hector’s bedroom door.

“Oh, don’t mind that. It’s just Gerard.”

“Your roommate? Aren’t you worried he’ll hear us talking?”

“Nah. Gerry wouldn’t barge in without knocking, no matter how high he is. Besides, he’s experimenting with acid, so I’m not sure it would.... why are you looking at me like that?”

Indeed, the devil’s face had lit up. He smiled mischievously and whispered, “Hector, would you be kind enough to introduce us?”

Hector started to laugh. “No,” he said, but by that time he was almost doubled over. “No!” he repeated.

A minute later, the devil opened the door and stepped through. Hector followed behind at a distance, biting his tongue to keep a straight face. Gerard was sitting in a recliner, facing away. He was studying his hand with a disappointed look on his face when the devil stepped in front of him. Gerard’s mouth opened in shock.

“Oh, hello,” the devil said. “You must be Gerry. My name is Rick. Hector told me all about you. I work down at the warehouse, and I just stopped by to drop of his Christmas bonus. He said I should introduce myself before taking off.”

The devil extended a hand, which Gerard didn’t touch. To his credit, he did manage to blurt out, “It’s good to meet you. I have to get going. Last minute shopping.” He half jumped, half rolled out of the recliner, going over the handrest to avoid contacting the devil.

“Oh. Are you heading to the mall? I can give you a ride, if you’d like,” the devil offered.

“No. No, that’s... I wanted to walk. Bye.” He never took his eyes off of the devil, which worked out for Hector, who was having a hard time maintaining a straight face.

Gerard was out the door in a few seconds. Hector and the devil fell down laughing. “I can’t believe I let you mess with him.”

The devil nodded. “I know, it’s horrible, right? But you can’t tell me you didn’t love his expression.”

“Have you ever done that before?” Hector asked.

“Mess with someone while they’re tripping? Are you kidding? I’m the devil. Every damn chance I get!” They both started laughing again.

The Conclusion of 25 Christmas Eves can be read here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Merry Madagascar (2009)

Urgh. I tried to give this the benefit of the doubt. And at the beginning, it actually seemed like it might be good.

And then the “jokes” started.

Another sub-par mess from Dreamworks. No big surprises there. With the notable exception of the Kung Fu Panda Holiday Special, which is excellent, I don’t think anything we’ve seen from Dreamworks for this blog has been very good.

This tried. It had moments of greatness, but the sum total wasn’t even good.

The plot runs as follows: Santa gets shot down over Madagascar by the crazy Lemur army (that part was definitely the highlight), bumps his head and gets amnesia, and the main characters take it upon themselves to deliver the presents and, on the way, deliver themselves home to New York for the holidays. It comes close to being funny a few times, it comes close to being sweet, but most of it was dull as dishwater and as predictable as paint drying.

The characters are divided neatly into categories: funny and heartwarming. Never shall a character be both (except maybe Santa, and his heartwarming scenes sucked almost as much as his funny scenes). Neither monolithic tactic makes for characters who are anything other than flat and bland.

Avoid this one. Go see the Kung Fu Panda special again. Or Prep and Landing. There’s plenty of good animation, no need to suffer through this.

Musical Interlude, Part 7

You know that part in a horror movie when the supposedly dead monster isn't dead at all? Welcome to part SEVEN of my increasingly longer investment in holiday tunes.

Album: Big Christmas Box
Artist: Various

I bought this collection containing 13 hours of classical Christmas music on Amazon for and because it was two bucks. It's a decent collection, all things considered, provided you're looking for background music that won't constantly repeat the same few tracks.

Album: Mistletoe & Wine
Artist: Mediaeval Baebes

Some friends recommended this one, so I listened to a track on Youtube, decided it was worth owning, and picked it up. The group performs medieval songs in sort of a modern/classical fusion. The album's quite good. While I have plenty of classical Christmas tracks, these are some of the best.

Album: Chanukah at Home
Artist: Dan Crow, Various

When we started this blog, we initially set out to focus as much as possible on Christmas, to the point that I specifically avoided Chanukah music. But this turned out to be impossible, as a number of holiday albums include Chanukah songs alongside Christmas ones. So, just as we've begun incorporating Chanukah specials and movies, I think it's time to remove the blockade. Because, in its own way, Chanukah is a part of Christmas.

You're welcome, three-thousand years of tradition: now you get to be a footnote to a holiday most people think has something to do with the birth of Christ.

Anyway, this album is a collection of children's music. It's not bad for what it is, but keep in mind that what it is involves kids singing on several tracks, so that's a low bar. Even so, I'd be lying if I said I didn't get nostalgic during a few songs.

Album: Great Voices of Christmas, Volume II
Artist: Various

This is essentially operatic interpretations of Christmas carols. I suppose it's fine, but I had a hard time stomaching the whole album.

Album: Christmas Pickins: A Banjo Christmas
Artist: The Clarke Family and Billy Oskay/The Smokey Mountain Band

Amazon was selling thirty bluegrass Christmas songs for $1.29 total, which works out to about four cents a song. I wouldn't be honoring Mainlining Christmas's mission statement if I ignored a deal like that.

There are two different bands represented here. I like the songs attributed to "The Clarke Family, Bill Oskay" more than the tracks from The Smokey Mountain Band, though both are decent.

Album: Phineas And Ferb Holiday Favorites
Artist: Various

This album includes the music from both Phineas and Ferb Christmas specials, along with a few other tracks. I picked it up on Amazon for five bucks, which is a decent price. The music is of course mixed: the first Christmas special had some of the show's weakest music overall, though there were a few standouts. Actually, there's a song in the episode by the Big Bad Voodoo Daddies that I hate in context but love on its own.

The second special was more consistent. The extra tracks sound like they might have been recorded for this special and got cut for time (just a guess, but it certainly seems possible). They're not all great, but most are at least fun.

If you're not a fan of the show, I can't imagine this album will mean much to you. But if you're not a fan of Phineas and Ferb, you should really go over to Netflix and get hooked.

Album: The Alligator Records Christmas Collection
Artist: Various

Five bucks for a Christmas blues album? Sold! These are great songs that are definitely different than the vast majority of what I own. There are maybe two or three songs out of fourteen I don't really like. The rest, I pretty much love.

Holiday Comics: Marvel Universe

Marvel Holiday Special (1991)
Various Writers and Artists, including Scott Lobdell, Walter Simonson, Dave Cockrum, and many more.

There are eight short pieces in this double-size special, plus a selection of art pieces. Some I think might have been reprints, but it’s unclear. They’re a mixed bag, overall. The X-men story is rushed and strange, the Fantastic Four one is kinda nice and kinda heavy-handed. There’s a short Punisher piece with a nice melancholy tone, and a corny-fun Thor piece which is quite explicit about the Asgardians’ roles as gods, and Odin’s connection to Santa. After that is a sweet little story about Captain America meeting Bucky’s elderly sister, and a zany tale about a blind kid who mistakes Ghost Rider for Santa. There’s some badly written Marvel-themed lyrics to be sung to the tunes of various carols, and a farce about Captain Ultra (yeah, I don’t know who he is either.) The issue closes out with a piece about Spiderman visiting a children’s hospital over the holidays.

There’s redeeming qualities to these stories, but for the most part they’re dated and odd enough that most people shouldn’t spend the time to track this down.

Marvel Holiday Special (2004)
Tom DeFalco, Takeshi Miyazawa, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Roger Cruz, et. al.

This special issue contains three stories. The longest one, and the most fun, is a spin on Christmas Carol, featuring the Marvel U’s resident curmudgeon, J. Jonah Jameson, as Scrooge, and various heroes appearing as the spirits. It’s a really cute story. There’s also an X-Men story about Scott and Emma comforting a mutant student who doesn’t have anywhere to go for holiday break, and a story about Franklin Richards asking each of the Fantastic Four what the holidays mean to them. That one edges into schmaltz here and there, but it’s mostly sweet.

This is a pretty fun issue, and I recommend it if you get a chance.


This isn't a full post, but I wanted to mark a milestone. Today is December 12th, 2012, a day of significance to many people. Let me spell it out for you: this is 12/12/2012. Or, to put it another way, today is the 2000th anniversary of 12/12/12, the last repetitive date the Universe ever saw. If anyone claims today's date is repetitive, it's likely because they're unaware that when we drop the 20 from 2012, it's just shorthand.

If that made a difference, we could just start writing dates without the placeholder for ten in the year. Then we'd get repetitive dates all the time. March third, 2013 would be 3/3/3, as would the same day in 2023, 2033, 2043, and so on. Of course, we'd all know it would be BS: dropping a placeholder doesn't mean it doesn't exist: it just means we're lazy.

On an unrelated topic, you've got less than 2 weeks of shopping before Christmas.

Fiction: 25 Christmas Eves, part 2

The title story of 25 Christmas Eves continues. If you missed last night's installment, you'll want to start this story from the beginning, which you'll find here.

By: Erin L. Snyder

Turning fifteen brought a host of disappointments to Hector’s life, not the least of which being his failure to make the cut for his school’s baseball team. His more athletic classmates seemed to experience life far fuller than he, and he began to consider - quite seriously - whether this might be a direction worth pursuing. But trading one’s immortal soul, he reasoned, was not something to be undertaken lightly.

When the devil appeared, Hector was ready with elaborate checklists, notes, and charts. He began grilling his visitor right off the bat.

“What can I expect to be bench-pressing?”

“That depends how hard you work at it. I can guarantee more than triple your current maximum.”

Hector made a note. “What about throwing?”

“I can improve eye-hand coordination at least fifty-five percent.”

Another note. “And running?”

“Top in your school, off the back.”

“Will I be able to go pro?”

“That depends,” the devil began to explain, but was cut off by the door to Hector’s room opening.

“--thought I heard talking and wanted to make sure you weren’t listening to,” were the words Hector heard his mother say between her opening his bedroom door and actually looking in. As soon as her eyes fell upon the scene before her, she went silent. Quite pale, too.

Mrs. Steward had always had a powerful imagination, so if she’d ever pondered the various compromising activities she might one day catch her fifteen year-old son in the middle of, she no doubt could have assembled a robust list of possibilities. However, nowhere on that list would “negotiating a deal with the Prince of Darkness” have appeared.

Everyone was remarkably still for a moment. Hector and the devil looked at Mrs. Stewart. Mrs. Stewart stared back at the devil.

No one spoke. No one breathed.

Then, in barely a whisper, out of the corner of his mouth, the devil said to Hector, “Gotta go. We’ll pick this up next year,” and poof! A cloud of smoke and swirling mist.

Mrs. Stewart screamed louder than she ever had in the thirty-seven years she’d been alive.

“So,” the devil said almost exactly a year later. “How’d that go?”

Hector nodded. “Not great. I thought... I don’t really know what I thought. That she’d kill me or something. No. More like she’d get Dad to kill me. She really freaked out. But, when Dad got here, I just... I didn’t say anything, like I was in shock. He didn’t know what to do. I mean, you weren’t here, right? So... it’s just her yelling about finding the devil in her house. She dragged me to church and even got a priest to sit down with us and talk about it. But... I just kind of tried to act confused. The priest said she wasn’t making sense, that the devil is a spiritual construct, not a physical person. And if he was physical, he wouldn’t look like you look. Pretty soon, she even started to think she was crazy. She began going to talk to a psychologist. Then, last month, she told my dad she was leaving. She said it wasn’t because of me, but... it all started last year.”

The devil gently placed a clawed hand on the boy’s shoulder. “It’s really not your fault,” he said. “These things just happen sometimes.”

“I guess. I just... if I wanted to... could you make her come back?”

“Is that what you really want for your soul?” the devil asked.

“No. No, I guess not.”

“Good. To be honest, I’m not sure I could do it anyway. I can’t really make people do things. I have ways of pushing them. But I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Probably not,” Hector said.

“I don’t suppose you still want athletic ability?” the devil asked.

“I don’t think so. I don’t know what I want?” They talked for a few more minutes, and then the devil left, leaving Hector alone on that very cold Christmas Eve.

Hector may have been in the dark that year, but by the next the sixteen-year old was pretty certain he’d made up his mind. Even before the devil got there, there was a tension in the air. Satan felt it as soon as he arrived.

“Hi, Hector.”

“Oh. Hi. There’s something I want to ask you about. But it’s... it’s kind of difficult.”

“It’s okay,” the devil said. “I might have faults, but the one thing I can’t be accused of is being judgmental. Worse case, you ask for something I can’t deliver and we’re back to square one. I won’t hold anything against you.”

Hector nodded. Then he walked over to his bed and pulled a magazine out from between the mattresses. He brought it over to the devil.

“Wondered when we’d get to this,” the devil mused.

“I feel so stupid,” Hector said.

“This is normal,” the devil said. “I’ve dealt with a lot of people. Boy gets about your age... well, there are things you start thinking about. Let’s talk.”

Hector flipped through the pages. “Here she is. September. Her. I want her.”

“In what capacity?” the devil asked, already a little worried. He had dealt with a lot of people, and he knew all too well where the pitfalls in these bargains were placed.

“I think I love her,” Hector said. “I know how stupid that is, but I think it’s true. I’ve never even met her, but I love her. I just want her. You know what I mean.”

“I’m not so sure you know,” the devil replied, “and that’s the real problem. Our deal has to correspond with your understanding of your request, otherwise it’s impossible for me to fulfill my end of the bargain. And, I’m sorry for being so blunt, but you’re a virgin, Hector. You don’t know what you’re asking for.”

“But... isn’t that true with everything? I mean, you’ve offered me money, objects, and abilities before. I was too young to really understand what those meant, wasn’t I? How is this different?”

“Those were things I could give you. I can’t give you this woman...” the devil paused to check the name in the margin then continued, “I can’t literally give you Marsha - I actually don’t think that’s her real name - the way I could give you a car or a house. She couldn’t be yours to own for a number of reasons, not the least of which being contemporary mortal legal systems. Besides, even if I could, she’d be too valuable: a person’s life is worth more than a soul. I know that seems counterintuitive, but it’s simple economics.”

“I don’t... I don’t want to own her. Not like that,” Hector said, somewhat shocked by the turn the conversation had taken. “I just....”

“Are you asking for her? For how long? One night? For the rest of your lives? I can’t promise either. I could get someone who looked like her to be with you for a night. I could get you someone even better looking. But I don’t think I could get her, even for that time. And, even if I could, I’m not sure she’d do... what you want her to do. I could try to persuade her, but I can’t make her.”

“I... wouldn’t want that, anyway,” Hector admitted. “I guess... I didn’t think this through. Not really. I don’t want someone who doesn’t want to be with me. But... I also don’t want just anyone.”

The devil smiled warmly. “You’re young. Maybe this wasn’t the year for us to close our deal. Would you like another year to think things over?”

“Yeah. Thank you,” Hector said.

The tenth year Hector met the Devil on Christmas Eve was something of a milestone. Along with a myriad changes in Hector’s life, there was quite a change in scenery. For the first time since the Devil had appeared to bargain for the boy’s soul, they didn’t meet in Hector’s room. In fact, when the devil appeared to Hector, he found himself standing on a dirt road about five miles away from the nearest house. There was a thin coat of snow on the ground left over from a snowstorm three days earlier. The sky was clear, and the air was brisk.

Hector was lying on the hood of his car, an aging blue Ford Falcon. He was staring up at the stars when the devil appeared, pitchfork in hand.

“Hey,” Hector said, sitting up. “I was worried you wouldn’t be able to find me. I wasn’t sure how it works, you know? I left you note in my room. Did you get it?”

“No. I can find people when I want to.”

“Yeah. I kind of figured it was something like that, but we’d never really talked about it. Oh, there’s an extra coat in the car, in case you’re cold.”

“Thank you, but no. I’m perfectly content as it is,” the devil chuckled. “Regardless of what you’ve heard, there are places in hell a lot colder than this.”

Hector shuffled over, and the devil sat beside him on the hood. “This is new,” he mused.

“Yeah. Dad got it for me for my birthday. Said a man should have a car. Guess that means I’m a man now. Dad’s gotten... I don’t know... kind of weird. Since mom left. But he’s seeing someone now. She’s a waitress, got two kids of her own. They’re cool and all, but I guess I felt like a third wheel. Besides, those kids are always sticking their noses around, barging in without knocking. I thought it might be better if we met somewhere else.”

“I don’t mind,” the devil said. “It’s a lovely night. I don’t get to see the stars much these days.”

“I guess I should say this right off the bat. There’s really nothing I’m looking for right now. I’m pretty happy with how things are. It doesn’t seem fair to keep that from you. I know you probably have a lot to do.”

“My schedule’s pretty busy,” the devil confessed, “but I’ve got some time free. There are worse ways to spend a few minutes on a pleasant evening than kicking back on the hood of a Ford, so unless you’re eager to get rid of me, I’d just as soon stick around.”

“No hurry. I was going to try and get together with Vanessa later, but her dad found out and put an end to those plans pretty fast.”

“Vanessa?” the devil asked, intrigued.

“She’s... she’s this girl I’m seeing. Real sweetheart. It’s getting pretty serious, too.”

“Glad to hear it,” the devil said. “Are you at least going to meet up tomorrow?”

“Yeah, but during the day, when her folks are around. Not really the same thing.”

“No, I’d wager not,” the devil said laughing. “Still, you don’t want to spend Christmas apart.”

“I guess not,” Hector said. “I’m surprised you think so.”

“Why’s that?” the devil asked.

“Well... I mean, Christmas. Isn’t it kind of as far from your thing as possible?”

“Christmas actually means a lot to me.”

“Really? But isn’t it, you know, for the birth of your enemy?”

The devil laughed again. “I’ve never thought of him as my enemy. Actually, that’s not true. I did once, but that was long, long ago. Before I realized what he’d done for me and my kind. Before Jesus, everyone - saint and sinner alike - came to us. I thought that was the way I liked it. I thought it was my victory over heaven. But how can there be victory without struggle? The souls of mankind were given to me by God; it was all part of His will manifest. And it was so boring. I never realized it at the time, but it really was. There was nothing to do, nothing to strive for. Not until the Son showed up. Like I said, I didn’t think about it that way then. At the time, I just thought he was God’s spoiled kid, busting into hell to steal half my souls. I fought him something fierce, but he prevailed, took the benevolent souls with him, and left me the rest. After that, it was never the same: there was a way into heaven. We had to work to get spirits. But... it gave us something to work for. He gave us something we’d never really had: an opportunity to thwart his Father’s will, even if the victories were small. I honestly don’t know if Jesus intended any of that or even if he’d thought it through. I don’t know what he thinks of us. But, whether he meant to or not, he saved us before we even realized we needed saving.”

Hector just sat silently while the devil spoke. Once he’d finished, Hector said, “Wow. All Christmas ever meant to me was presents.”

The devil almost fell back laughing. “Nothing wrong with that, either,” he said once he’d stopped. “Nothing wrong with that at all.”