Saturday, December 29, 2012

Santa Claus Delivers Pornography to Minor

CNN is reporting that Santa Claus personally delivered a Nintendo 3DS to a child containing pornographic imagery. The 3DS was purchased - by Santa or one of his elves - from a GameStop. Against North Pole policy, the gaming system was purchased refurbished: the imagery had been installed by a previous owner.

GameStop has apologized for the mistake and has given a replacement system - along with additional merchandise - to the family.

The North Pole has yet to issue a statement.

Friday, December 28, 2012

So I've Been Thinking....

I know I said I'd see you next year, but that's days away, and... I missed you guys. Besides, I've got something to say.

When we started Mainlining Christmas, Lindsay and I discussed, among other things, what would and would not constitute a "Christmas movie." It's not as easy to delineate as you'd think. Originally, I excluded Die Hard, reasoning that an action movie wasn't a Christmas movie, regardless of when it was set. We went ahead with it this year for a few reasons, not the least of which being that we wanted to watch something good.

But there's more to it than that. As we've covered more and more classics, the line's gotten blurred. Holiday Inn is considered a Christmas classic: hell, it's where the song "White Christmas" originated. But Christmas actually only represents a small portion of the film's time and attention.

The rule of thumb I've been using so far has been that if something feels like it's quintessentially a holiday film or special, it's been fair game. It's been a good rule, and I believe a necessary one. Die Hard qualifies, but we don't want to "water down" the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas deluge of holiday cheer with Lethal Weapon or Long Kiss Goodnight: that would feel like cheating. And yet... our archive of reviews is growing. It's reaching a point where Mainlining Christmas could - perhaps should - strive to be something more.

But those two goals are conflicting. If we want this include everything, we need to start interpreting the phrase "Christmas movie" a hell of a lot more broadly than we have been. But that would lesson the intensity that lies at the core of this experiment.


Unless we continued updating after Christmas. That would give us a chance to expand our archive without changing the experiment this blog was built on. I'm not saying we'll be updating every day - or even every week, but there's no reason we can't review movies with a holiday aspect as we see them. We'll reserve the holiday season for the stuff we've been doing - the stuff that's indisputably holiday oriented - but open up the rest of the year for related movies and specials.

Things that might feel like a stretch around Christmas but are still connected to the holiday will be fair game. The most obvious examples are the myriad action movies set during the holidays, but there are others. The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe is winter-themed and even has Santa show up for a scene. It also means we can get to the Grinch sequels, Rudolph's Shiny New Year, and other things that exist on the fringe.

In addition, I'm sure there'll be a handful of more traditional Christmas fare mixed in. Hell, we just saw the new Doctor Who special: there doesn't seem much point in waiting a year to review it. Plus, there are always short pieces we come across. Half the time, we forget about these by the time Christmas rolls around.

I'd like this blog to be the biggest and best. I'd like it to be a tool where you can find a review of damn near anything Christmas related. I want Mainlining Christmas to be the premier place to go for anything holiday-related.

Because, frankly, most of our competition sucks.

I think it's time we stepped up our game here. We've got a respectable archive, sure, but there's too much missing for my taste and not enough time between every Thanksgiving and Christmas to get to it all. So, with that in mind, I'm pleased to announce that Mainlining Christmas is going to honor Christmas in our hearts all the year. You know, just like cholesterol.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

See You Next Year

Those of you hoping Christmas would be cancelled this year were once again disappointed: despite opposition to the holiday from both secular groups opposed to the fundamental religious nature of the holiday and religious groups angry about the fundamental pagan nature of the holiday (this is my personal favorite example), and the prophesied end of the world, Christmas came just the same.

Of course it did. Christmas is a cultural juggernaut ten-thousand years old. It's survived the fall of empires and religions. When early Christian leaders tried to destroy it, it ate their savior and took his name. It's the granddaddy of all holidays, the mother of all festivals, and the drunken, lecherous uncle of all celebrations. As long as the seasons change, Christmas isn't going anywhere.

Oh, and we're still here, too.

That's right: not VeggieTales nor Barney nor Adam Sandler could break our commitment to the true meaning of Christmas, whatever the hell that is. Mainlining Christmas has stared into the red and green abyss a third time without blinking. And you know something? Bring it on.

That's right; you heard me. BRING IT ON. We've done one Barney special, we can do them all. There's a made-for-TV Home Alone 4 we never knew existed? We'll watch that shit. Snow 2: Brainfreeze? Keep the DVD player warm: we'll sit through as many crappy sequels as ABC Family can produce.

You know why? Because we haven't got any goddamn choice. Christmas cheer is addictive: you pump enough of that shit in your veins, and it takes over. When the air gets cold next November, when a flock of turkeys gets trampled underfoot on Black Friday's Eve, we'll hear the call of Christmas.

And you can be goddamn sure we'll answer. Because we're part of the holidays now.

We're a tradition.

Lindsay's 2012 Wrap-up

I don’t have a ton to say about this year. I was very busy through most of the Thanksgiving-Christmas run, so getting all of the Mainlining done was more work than I remember it being in past years. I’m still getting used to our new home on the West Coast, so I couldn’t go to my normal shopping destinations, etc.

Anyway, this year we watched 92 separate things, which is a new high-water mark for this blog.

Shorts: 3
Movies: 18
Episodes: 51
Specials: 20

Erin bought way more Christmas music than we have in past years, I reviewed more books and comics, and we posted more often overall.

I don’t know that we saw anything this year that I’d say belongs among the best of the best, but we did have some in the running for worst of the worst.

Some of my favorite new things from this year were:
Bump in the Night: T'was the Night Before Bumpy
Die Hard (okay, this could be best of the best)
Doctor Who: Voyage of the Damned
Nature: Christmas in Yellowstone
Paddington: Christmas
The X-Files: How the Ghosts Stole Christmas
White Christmas

Among the worst:
Barney: Night Before Christmas
Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (live action)
Eight Crazy Nights
Olive, the Other Reindeer
Shrek: Donkey's Caroling Christmas-tacular
VeggieTales: St. Nicholas, A Story of Joyful Giving
and many more...

The Mainlining Christmas project gets a little harder each year, as we have a more difficult time finding things we haven’t seen that are actually good. However, it was fun seeing some of the more surreal things, episodes of television shows we’d never even heard of.

I’m sad that it’s over, though, because I was so busy blogging this year that I didn’t really feel like I got time to enjoy the season. Maybe I’ll listen to Christmas music a bit longer... at least through New Year’s.

25 Christmas Eves: A Retrospective

I wanted to say a few parting words about this series, both because I'm proud of it and because it was a pretty intense experience. I don't have exact notes on this, but this definitely felt like the vast majority of time I devoted to the blog this year.

By my calculations, I wrote more than 55,000 words of fiction for the blog this year. The total word count for the stories published is actually a little more (just shy of 58,500), but three of these stories were started last year, then finished and published this year. If you're interested, those were "Mistletoe", "One Night in Bethlehem", and "Tribes of Gypsies". Actually, Mistletoe's inclusion on that list is misleading: I had a version started but completely rewrote it from scratch. The first third of "One Night in Bethlehem" was already done and was basically unchanged. "Tribes of Gypsies" gets complicated. I had about a quarter of it done, but that got overhauled (actually, that piece has been written and re-written more times than I can remember: I spent a lot of time last December trying to get it to work).

My favorite stories are "25 Christmas Eves" (the title piece), "Department of Letters", "Last Minute", "Milk, Cookies, Whiskey", "The Christmas Thief", and "Tribes of Gypsies." Include last years' stories, and you can add "Sleigh" and "He Came Down the Chimney" to that list. There aren't as many I'm embarrassed about as I expected to have when I started , but I think the weakest are "Mistletoe" and "Christmas Conquers the Universe".

Like I promised in my intro, I put up twenty-two stories this year. The title story was carved into four chunks, so fiction was, as promised, posted every day. The stories were a pretty even mix of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. On average, the stories aren't as dark as the ones I did in past years, though there are still a handful of bleak, pessimistic tales ("Wings in the Night", "A Ring", and "The Perfect Gift" are about as dark as anything I've done for this blog).

Along with the three Christmas Eve stories published last year, this puts us at exactly twenty-five stories about Christmas Eve posted over two years. And yes, that was intentional. The kernel for this idea started last year, when I'd realized that all the stories I was working took place on Christmas Eve or could be easily adjusted to do so (there's no reason Mistletoe had to be set on Christmas as opposed to a week before, but it works just as well). The prior year, I'd written five stories and released them as an e-book on Christmas Day. I thought it might be fun to do so again, and what better thematic tie than having them all be about Christmas Eve.

Thus was born the idea for Five Christmas Eves: five tales about the day before Christmas. But things didn't pan out. Mistletoe wasn't coming together, and my ideas for "Tribes of Gypsies" (then titled "Chasers of a Star") were all over the board. I was busy and a little overwhelmed. Plus, I'd started late in the year. By the time Christmas rolled around, I only had three stories posted. I was too tired to even finish "One Night in Bethlehem."

Instead of forcing myself to rush through a few more stories, I decided to hold off and write them next year. I'd do two stories in 2012, which I'd combine with the three from 2011 and publish as an e-book. Perfect.

Then things got... interesting. I moved across the country and started working from home. In New York, I'd been spending two hours a day commuting: suddenly I had that time back. I was working on a novel in the early fall, and I hit a wall. Nothing impassable, but I decided I needed a break. I started thinking ahead to Christmas, and I got some ideas for my unfinished stories. Then I started getting more ideas. Five Christmas Eves became ten. But I had even more ideas I wanted to explore.

At about that time, I realized if I wanted to do this right, I really needed twenty-five, one for each day in December leading up to Christmas. The rest is pretty self-explanatory.

So. Where's the e-book? Well, you're going to have to wait for that. We edited and assembled "A Man of Snow" that first year in about a week, and it was a hell of a lot of work. Most of that was done by Lindsay, by the way, who was between jobs at the time. Well... she's working now. In addition, this is a hell of a lot longer than the first collection. All told, this will clock in at 65,000 words; it isn't getting assembled overnight. But we'll have it eventually. Until then, you can read the stories right here on Mainlining Christmas. Hell, we even set up this handy landing page to make it easier for you.

At this point, I am absolutely not planning on doing anything remotely similar to this next year, but if you'd asked me in 2011 if I'd be posting 22 stories in 2012, I'd have laughed at you... so I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Oh, and in case anyone was curious, I made all the intro-art pieces myself. They were done in Photoshop from scratch. I thought some of them turned out pretty well. Others... not so much. But, hey - I've been busy!

For those of you who stuck with this - or even just read a story or two here and there - thanks for taking the time. I hope you enjoyed what you came across!

Tenth Doctor Christmas Specials! (2005, 2006, 2007)

You knew we were going to get to these eventually. They’ve actually been on the list since the beginning, we have them on DVD, but we kept holding off on them, keeping Doctor Who as a sort of fallback option for when we ran out of other stuff or got too tired of terrible things. And then that didn’t happen. So one day last week we just decided to finally re-watch these.

Doctor Who: The Christmas Invasion (2005)

I have very fond memories of the first time I watched this episode. It introduced David Tennant’s Doctor and I loved it. I loved it a little less on this viewing. The murderous robot Santas and trees are still fun, but a lot of this hour is humans being whiny. Whenever Tennant is on it really picks up, but there’s a big boring chunk in the middle without him. The writers were still sort of trying things out with Ten at this point; his character doesn’t solidify for a bit, and that adds to the surreality of watching this episode. Plus the end with Harriet Jones is kinda nasty and makes me sad. I still love the scene with the Doctor and the “big red button”, though.

Doctor Who: Runaway Bride (2006)

DONNA! I would like this episode for giving me Donna even if I didn’t like anything else about it. But I do like a lot about it. Ten’s all busted up over the end of the last season, and that affects how he acts here, but this adventure stands enough on its own with the crazy Queen of the spider-things and the deadly Christmas Star Spaceship. And Donna. She’s sometimes a bit of a joke here, but still full of sparks and determination. I’m not sure why the Santa-bots are so much more badass in this one, though.

Doctor Who: Voyage of the Damned (2007)

I always forget about this one, but it’s quite fun. Erin had a good point as we were watching it, that the killer angel robots on the Space Titanic were a lot less scary now that we’ve had so much from the Weeping Angels, but they’re still cool, because: robots. This is a survival story set on a cruise liner crashing (naturally) towards Earth. If you’re a Brit-com fan, there are familiar faces like Geoffrey Palmer and Clive Smith, who both turn in great performances here. Actually, all the guest stars are pretty awesome in this one, and the story is great. Parts of the climax and end are really a bit too hokey, though I really like the very end. This is the one I hardly ever go back and watch, but I think it might have been my favorite on this year’s viewing.

Fiction: One Night in Bethlehem

We're finishing 25 Christmas Eves up the only way that seems appropriate. We've looked at quite a few Christmas Eves so far, but it's time to take a gander at the granddaddy of them all. So, without further ado, Mainlining Christmas presents the greatest story ever told... now improved.

By: Erin L. Snyder

Based on a TRUE story
The innkeeper was a fat man, and he was exhausted. These were the first two observations going through Joseph’s mind upon setting eyes on the owner. And why shouldn’t he be tired? It was late – nearly midnight. And here was a couple, the woman clearly in labor, on his doorstep.

The innkeeper rubbed his eyes. He didn’t wait for Joseph to start in. “Look, kid. We’re full up. Sorry.”

“What? You can’t be,” Joseph said. “You must have, what, two dozen rooms in this place. Who’s renting two dozen rooms?”

“Almost three dozen,” the innkeeper corrected him. “And it’s these damned stargazers. Pouring in from every town for a hundred leagues. Astrologers, astronomers, you name it. Everyone’s got to come gawk at the giant bloody light in the sky. Or didn’t you notice it?”

“Yeah, we saw the stupid star,” Joseph said.

“Well, apparently this spot’s got the best angle for viewing. I don’t just mean in Bethlehem: I mean this exact inn. Lucky me, right? Goddamn astronomers. I thought Roman soldiers were demanding, but these bastards take the cake.”

Mary cried out in pain.

Joseph sighed. “Look. Can’t you bump someone? My wife’s with child here.”

“Yeah, well my inn’s with mortgage. Word gets out I’m tossing paying guests, folks are liable to steer clear. Before long, I’ll be out of business.”

“We’ll take anything,” Joseph begged.

“You can stay in the manger,” the innkeeper said with a shrug.

“With animals?” Joseph glared.

“You said anything,” the innkeeper replied.

“Joseph,” Mary interrupted between deep breaths. “The manger’s fine.”

“No, it’s not fine,” Joseph said. “I don’t want my wife giving birth knee-deep in cow shit. There’s got to be something else.”

“Sorry,” the innkeeper said, showing no emotion whatsoever. “We’re full up.”

“Look,” Mary said, grabbing her husband’s shoulder hard enough to make him cringe. “I’m sure you keep a very clean manger, and we thank you for your generosity.”

“Yeah. Look, I’ll have my boy follow you out with some water and some rags,” the innkeeper said, relaxing his demeanor a bit.

“But—“ Joseph started.

“Let’s go,” Mary interrupted with a hard tug on his arm.

A few minutes later they were in the stables. The animals were all gathered round, bathed in the light of the star pouring in through the open door. Joseph elbowed a goat in the ribs to get it to move, and it gave him a look that suggested it wanted to show him the business end of its horns, but it thought maybe - just maybe - that wasn’t such a good idea.

Since this whole debacle had started nine months earlier, animals had acted weird around him. It was nothing compared to how they were around his wife, what with birds landing on her fingers and squirrels dropping nuts at her feet and other batshit crazy stuff like that, but there was this bizarre understanding. It was like they knew Joseph would be raising the son of God and they knew better than to fuck with him.

“That’s right,” Joseph said to the goat, as it backed away. He straightened his robe, grateful for the chance to seem tough after the emasculating exchange with the innkeeper.

“Honey,” Mary said, “I could use some water.”

“Yeah. He said the kid would meet us here.”

“That’s peachy, but sooner would be better.”

Joseph rolled his eyes. “Fine.” He walked out of the stable and looked around. A few minutes later he caught sight of a boy, no older than six, carrying a pail of water. He had a handful of rags tossed over one shoulder.

Joseph met him halfway there, tipped him, and headed back into the stables. “Hi, Hon. I’ve got the water.”

“Thank God.”

“Yeah. Let’s thank HIM again,” Joseph muttered under his breath.

“What was that?”

“Oh. Nothing. Nothing at all.”

Mary was sweating and breathing quickly. “Could you give me a drink?”

“Uh...” Joseph set the pail down and started going through his things.

“Oh. Are you kidding me?”

“The cup. I must have left it on the mule. I’ll go get it.”

“Go quickly. This baby isn’t going to wait.”

“Are you sure? I mean, you know what today is, don’t you?”

“Joseph. I really don’t think--”

“I know, but... it’s the Solstice. Don’t you think that’s a little... inappropriate. This is the son of the true God, right? Shouldn’t his birthday not fall on the center of the pagan calendar? This is already the birthday of, like, a half-dozen deities in the Roman pantheon alone.”

“JUST GET ME A DAMNED CUP!” Mary yelled.

Joseph hurried out of the stable and headed over to where they’d parked the mule. The thing looked up at him cross eyed and half-yawned, half-belched. It didn’t bother getting up first.

It turns out you can get a mule dirt cheap in the desert, provided you don’t care how ugly, old, or stupid the damn thing is. Or how bad it smells, for that matter. Joseph held his nose while he fished through the saddlebag.

In Joseph’s defense, it had been a long nine months, full of prophecy, supernatural visitation, and strange portents. Like any good, God-fearing Jewish man tasked by an angel of the Lord, he was doing his due diligence. But that sure as hell didn’t mean he had to like any of this. He’d put up with a lot of shit these past few months, and it just kept piling up.

His wife was to give birth to the son of God. Great. And before they’d been officially married. Sure. Oh, and it wasn’t enough that it’d been a virgin conception: to officially count as a fully-sanctioned miracle, it had to be a virgin birth.

Yeah. That seemed fair.

Where had Mary even met God? And who gave God the right to shit all over Joseph’s life like this? Ha. Who gave Him the right - who else? God. No conflict of interest there.

Joseph finally found a cup and headed back to the stables. He gave his wife something to drink and did his best to keep her relaxed. A few hours later, the baby was born. Mary looked at the child and teared up, and Joseph was speechless, as well. It was a beautiful boy, and the couple smiled at each other. Joseph gave his wife something to drink and yawned. Mary held the baby close and whispered, “Could you close the window? That star’s light is blinding, and I really need some sleep.”

Joseph walked to the window and found himself staring right into the eyes of a shepherd. More specifically, he was staring at the nearest shepherd in what appeared to be a roving gang of shepherds. And they weren’t alone: a good portion of their flocks had come with them.

“What now?” Joseph asked.

The shepherd gasped. “Are you... is that... we saw the star from our fields. It led us here.”

“Yeah. Star. Got it.”

“It is the sign we were promised!” another shepherd proclaimed, shoving the first out of the way. He faced Joseph at first, then spun to the rest. “Within this manger, our King is born! Oh tidings of great joy!” The shepherds cheered in unison.

Behind him, Mary said, “What in God’s name is going on out there?”

Joseph looked back to try and explain, but before he get a word in, someone yelled from a window overhead, “Shut the hell up!” And someone else: “We’re trying to sleep here! You want me to call for the guards?”

Joseph wanted no trouble. “Look. If you... if you can all promise to be quiet, I’ll let you in for a minute.”

Another cheer rose up, and the crowd poured in through the stable doors. They gathered round a confused Mary, who had only heard bits of the conversation through the window. “Uh... Joseph. Could you... WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?”

Joseph was trying to reach his wife, but he kept tripping over shepherds prostrating themselves before his infant child. “Would you... please... move?” he hissed through his teeth. He eyed one of the shepherd’s canes and briefly wondered if he might be able to pry it away from the guy and, if so, how much damage he could do to the assembled mass.

But that’s when the damned kids showed up. There was a good dozen of them, and they snuck in through the back and hung out behind the shepherds. A few had instruments - flutes, horns, even... God, no... drums.

“No,” Joseph said, frantically. “Do not play.”

“But, Sir. It is the only thing we’ve to offer our Lord.”

“I don’t care. He needs sleep. His mother needs sleep.”

“Sir! Are you the husband of yonder maid?” The voice was different than that of a shepherd, and Joseph looked up in shock. The speaker was large, broad shouldered, and dressed in fine fabrics - finer than anything Joseph had ever seen up close, in fact.

Joseph was dumbstruck. Before he could begin to fathom who this new visitor was, he had to contend with the realization he wasn’t alone: two more men in similar dress appeared beside him, and a large crowd of servants stood behind.

The rich visitor cleared his throat. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Balthazar. My associates, Melchior and Caspar and I have come some distance to be here.”

“Oh. Oh God. Listen,” Joseph said, tripping over another shepherd. He quickly regained his footing. “Listen, please. My wife and I don’t know these people, and I don’t know why they’re here. I’m so sorry they woke you and--”

“Nonsense!” Balthazar laughed. “We haven’t slept in two nights. Had to make haste getting here and all. Besides, you’re the one we want to see. Well, more to the point, your wife and her child.”

“Oh. Ah. Good,” Joseph said, looking to Mary, who was trying to push back shepherds seeking the blessing of her newborn baby. “Uh... how can we help you?”

Balthazar laughed again. “We are kings of a sort, and we’ve come to gaze upon the King of Kings, as prophesied.”

“There he is,” Melchior added, pointing at the baby with his thumb.

“Can’t argue with that,” Caspar put in.

“Oh, my!” Balthazar added. “Where are my manners? We’ve brought gifts for our newborn Lord, of course. Servants! Get those chests in here!”

“Gifts?” Joseph asked.

“Oh my, yes,” Balthazar said. “We’ve brought frankincense from India. It symbolizes ascension. To honor the prophecy the child fulfils, we bring myrrh. And lastly, in recognition of his standing as King of Kings, we brought you gold.”

“Wait. What was that?”

“Frankincense, from far off lands, to symbolize--”

“Oh, yeah, I got that, but what was that last part?” Joseph asked.

“What? You mean the gold? The symbolism isn’t so refined, but--”

Joseph stopped him again. “Just to be clear. Is this symbolic-gold or gold-gold? I mean, first of all, thanks for coming all this way, but I just want to make sure I’m understanding. Is this--”

Melchior interrupted, stepping in front of Balthazar with a bow. “It is both symbol and reality, for this is symbol made real. Just as the child is God and man, so too must the gifts--”

“Joseph,” Mary called out. “Did he say they brought us gold?”

“I... I think they did.”

“How much?” Mary asked.

“The amount isn’t actually so important as what it represents. But I brought a chest full, just in case,” Caspar said. Some servants came in with a massive chest.

“That chest? Is full of gold? For... us?”

“Oh, no. That one’s actually the myrrh. The gold’s coming up next.” Another pair of servants came in with another chest. “But yes. This is for you. Well, technically it’s for the child, but as the boy’s legal and heavenly appointed guardians.... Excuse me, miss. Are you... crying?”

Mary was indeed crying, so Joseph stepped in. “You have to understand... I’m a carpenter. We came across the desert on a mule.”

“Oh,” Balthazar said. “We were actually wondering why you were choosing to deliver the child in a manger.”

“We’d been discussing it, actually,” Casper added. “Melchior thought it was supposed to be symbolic.”

“Not really,” Joseph said.

“But what about these shepherds? Surely anyone with so many slaves and goats--”

“They’re not ours,” Joseph explained. “We came here with nothing but ourselves, a dying goat, and a small pouch of coins.”

“Huh,” Casper said. “So. By the way, where should we put this stuff down?”

It was almost dawn before the wise men departed, and most of the shepherds started to pick up after them. As the last rays of the heavenly star above began to fade from view, Mary turned to Joseph and said, “Before the shepherds all leave, why don’t you see if any of them want some myrrh or frankincense.”

And so was born our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in the town of Bethlehem in the year 1ish. And henceforth was this to be known as the first Christmas, which coincidentally fell more or less on the 4000th Winter Solstice, which was also the birthday of Hercules and Dionysus and a shitload of other gods associated with the sun, death, rebirth, and all that.

So Merry Christmas, one and all, and rejoice in these glad tidings.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Tales From the Crypt: All Through the House (1989)

This is only the second episode of Tales From the Crypt produced, and it was directed by Robert Zemeckis (keep in mind this is Zemeckis in '89, back when he making the Back to the Future movies and still awesome; not the current Zemeckis who's been producing CG abominations). I saw a handful of episodes of Tales From the Crypt back in the day, but I certainly never watched religiously. Actually, I suspect I would have watched it religiously had I been able to, but I never had HBO growing up (this also means the episodes I did get to see were tragically edited for content). Lindsay tracked this down on Youtube, and we just finished watching it. I'm really, really glad we did: it was a lot of fun.

The episode starts with a woman brutally murdering her husband for the insurance money while her daughter's asleep. When she tries to dispose of the body, an ax murderer dressed as Santa Claus shows up. As you can probably tell, there's not much in the way of plot here. The premise was adapted from a story which took up a quarter of an issue of Vault of Horror. They expanded it here by injecting some action in the middle of the story.

Lindsay said she thought the extra bit hurt the ending, and I have to agree. The "twist" felt underwhelming given the extra action. Looking at scans from the issue, I get the feeling we're not supposed to feel too bad for the woman in the comic. Here, I was definitely rooting for her. Sure, she was a cold-blooded killer, but she was a hell of a fighter who took on some tough odds. I wanted her to win and get away with it. As you've probably guessed, that's not how this resolves. I appreciate that they were trying to be faithful to the source material, but that ending was intended for a shorter piece. It just doesn't work here.

But that's a minor quibble, because overall I really enjoyed this thing. It's suspenseful, darkly hilarious, and campy in just the right way. The comedy hits its mark everywhere but the end. Throw in some fantastic direction from Zemeckis in his prime, and you've got something worth watching.

I've seen quite a few Christmas horror movies for this blog, and this thirty minute episode buries the lot of them. Highly recommended to anyone who likes the genre.

I'm considering tracking down some more episodes. I'd forgotten how good this show was.

Itsudatte My Santa! (2005)

Japan has an incredibly bizarre relationship with Christmas. Without getting too involved in the details, the holiday has been appropriated and transformed into something akin to Valentine's Day. That said, they do seem to understand what Christmas means to Europe and America and the concept of Santa Claus. They understand, but they clearly have no problem reinventing it as something completely different, as they did in the two-part OAV, Itsudatte My Santa! I suppose I should mention the first episode is based on a manga.

Before we go on, I want to make it clear the episodes we saw were dubbed, not subtitled. Setting aside the fact dubbing is usually pretty bad, it injects an element of uncertainty around whether or not what we saw accurately reflects the original. There were plot points and ideas here that seemed absurdly random, which adds to my skepticism. I tried to find some indication online as to whether this was accurate or not, but I had very little luck one way or the other.

Okay, so instead of being a single old, overweight elf, Santa Clauses are some sort of magical race devoted to bringing happiness to good people on Christmas. Oh, and the vast majority of the ones we see are teenage girls.

Got that? I hope so, because we haven't gotten to the weird part yet. The Santa who played the largest role in the episodes was Mai. She was sent to try and make the main character happy.

The main character is a teenage boy named... Santa. You see, he was born on Christmas Eve, so his parents gave him the name. Oh, then they basically abandoned him to do charity work in Africa. At least, I think that's what happened: it didn't make a lot of sense, honestly.

Between his name and having Christmas overshadow his birthday, Santa hates the holiday. Mai appears to try and turn him around. What comes next is bizarre beyond words. After some angst, Mai reminds Santa that the true meaning of Christmas is Jesus's birth. There's some more angst, and then Santa realizes that Mai really is a Santa Claus. His belief in her returns her Santa-powers. This leads to a Sailor-Moon style transformation sequence in which Mai appears naked, turns from brunette to blond, gains bigger breasts and larger hips, as well as gloves and a skimpy Santa suit. Santa (the... human Santa, not the Santa-Santa) travels with her while she delivers gifts all over the world.

The second episode is bit less insane. It focuses on the year after part one. Mai is told she needs to return to Santa Academy, but she doesn't want to leave Santa. There's more angst, a rival Santa Claus, then Mai's younger sister shows up along with Miss Noel, who's basically a dominatrix version of Mrs. Claus. Got all that?

In short, this thing is batshit insane. It makes no sense, it contains blatant fan service sequences which exist solely to show Mai's breasts. In the transformation sequences, these inflate like balloons.

It's awful, but kind of hilarious. I don't think I'd suggest sitting through both parts, but it might be worth seeing the first.

Craft: Archangel Statue

One more Angel before I leave you for the year. This one was actually the inspiration for the whole project... I bring you, Archangel! (Somewhat gender-bent)

Like the others, this project started out with a statue I bought at a craft store.

I sanded it down and primed it with my plastic-friendly spray primer:

The next step was painting all the silver areas. I got the depth of color I wanted by starting with a coat of dark blue, purposely dark in the cracks and rubbed partially off of the raised designs:

The silver got the reverse: only lightly in the depths and bright on the high parts. Then the rest of it needed paint.

A good deal of paint later, and I'm very happy with the finished product.

Die Hard (1988)

We held off on this one for a few years, because it kind of felt like cheating. But, when you look at it, Christmas permeates Die Hard a hell of lot more thoroughly than it does Holiday Inn. There's a lot of Christmas woven into Die Hard's soundtrack. Along with the background of the Christmas party and the (brilliant) elevator sequence, it gives the entire film a holiday feel.

Beyond that, Die Hard is arguably the quintessential action movie. At the very least, it's the quintessential action movie of its generation, and it could easily be the best action ever made.

It's been a few years since I last watched it, and it holds up marvelously. Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman are both amazing in their respective roles as the ultimate cop and robber, and they've got great material to work with, thanks to some fantastic writing and directing. Decades of knock-offs would follow this, but none would figure out what made Die Hard work as well as it did.

There's a lot that contributes to the film's success. While it's by no means the only reason the movie worked, the element other films seem to have the most trouble duplicating is the villain. Hans Gruber is simultaneously likable and repulsive. He's brilliant: technically, I don't think he made a single mistake in the entire movie. He's methodical, logical, and driven. To overcome him, John McClane has to be better.

In addition, while Die Hard isn't remotely realistic, it shows a hell of lot more restraint than the vast majority of its imitators. We never see John McClane take on dozens of bad guys. In fact, on a scene-by-scene basis, he hardly ever fights more than one or two at a time, and when he is confronted by more than a single opponent, he flees. Even one-on-one fights have real suspense, thanks to the director remembering something few others would after him: that these guys are supposed to be professionals.

If you haven't seen this in a while, I strongly recommend doing so. And, needless to say, if you somehow never got around to watching Die Hard, this one is highly recommended.

Batman: The Brave and the Bold: Invasion of the Secret Santas (2008)

Batman: The Brave and the Bold isn’t just a mouthful to say, it was quite a fun show. I really liked the crazy balance they tried between darker plotlines and zany villains, with both real emotion and corny dialogue. It’s a take on Batman that I really like, casting him as stoic and determined, maybe a little too serious, the guy who all the young heroes look up to, and the older heroes are jealous of.

This episode (after the cold opening with Blue Beetle helping take down Sportsmaster) focuses on Red Tornado’s desire to feel some Christmas spirit. Since I’ve gotten used to the version of Red Tornado in Young Justice, it was a bit surreal to watch this now, but I got into it pretty quickly.

I really liked the subtle musical allusions to A Charlie Brown Christmas at the beginning of the episode. Batman’s flashbacks (now Christmas-related) are a bit on the melodramatic side, but not terrible. Red Tornado and Batman are up against Fun Haus, who seems to be a villain unique to BATB, a maker of evil toys. First he sends a fleet of UFOs to attack the town, demanding Santa. This is cited as a reference to a movie called “Holiday for Neptunians”, whereas it’s actually an allusion to a real movie: “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” Then there are evil Santa robots and evil action figures, etc. Red Tornado does a lot of the heavy hero work, while Bats tries to apologize for not having any Christmas spirit to share without actually saying that.

In the end, Tornado gets pretty banged up (that’s sort of par for the character) but he is happy about Christmas, and although Batman doesn’t take a holiday, he’s not having a bad day either. It’s a pretty good episode, not one of the best of the show, but solid.

Book Review: A Christmas Memory

A Christmas Memory
Truman Capote, 1956

Premise: A ostensibly autobiographical story about an unlikely friendship. The narrator, known only as “Buddy”, describes his memories of celebrating Christmas with his best friend, an older relative whom no one else seems to understand.

This was recommended to me by a friend, and I’m so glad I sought it out. It was just lovely.

‘Buddy’ and the elderly woman called only “my friend” have a lot in common; they are both thought of as strange and they both have a rather whimsical view of the world. The relationship here is touching and sad, you only get little subtle snippets as you follow them through the ritual of making holiday fruitcakes for all the people they like. Not “friends”, but rather shopkeepers and politicians and other public figures; anyone who they feel a connection to or think could use a fruitcake.

The larger family seems to be somewhat low-income, but not poverty-stricken. It’s worse for the two main characters, though, who both rely on what they can scrounge from odd jobs and scrimp from gifts. It’s another connection between the very old and the very young, along with never being far from home and a vivid internal life.

The most important thing about this story, though, is the lovely prose. It was delightful to read the words; I could almost taste the descriptions.

Both melancholy and uplifting, this is a perfect Christmas read.

5 Stars - An Awesome Story

Fiction: Tribes of Gypsies

It's day 24 of Mainlining Christmas's "25 Christmas Eves." Today, I've got another science-fiction story, this time set a bit further out. It's called "Tribes of Gypsies," and I think it's one of the better ones. Tomorrow, we'll wrap up this series with something... a little different.

By: Erin L. Snyder

If I’m going to hold the books someday, I have a lot to learn.

Today is December 24, and tomorrow is Christmas Day. It’s an old story, and the old ones are hardest to grasp. Truth and myth are entwined; fable and metaphor are one and the same with description. Learning the words is easy. Memorizing is only a matter of time. But untangling what is from what’s said is a skill my grandfather spent his life mastering.

There were never such things as dragons, but there are fish large enough to swallow a man whole. Alligators are not mythical; vampires are. There are wolves, but not werewolves. I spent weeks studying the writings about dinosaurs before I asked father.

“No. They’re made up,” he answered, paused, considered, then corrected himself. “No, I’m sorry. Dinosaurs are real. Or they were once.”

I’m used to this. I should have asked Grandfather instead, but I didn’t want him to know I was having so much trouble. Father’s an engineer; the things he sees make it hard for him to think, to remember. I understand, and am glad I’m not suited for that work. My sister, Lue, and our brother, Thom, are. They’re learning the trade with Father, who says it’s for nothing; that they’ll never need to practice the trade in earnest. “We’ll reach Earth before that,” he says. But he yells at them if they don’t pay attention to his lessons about grav condensers or air circulaters. He says they’ll never have to carry on the tribe without him, but we’re so far. And he’s not as strong as he was once.

Lue and Thom have always been smarter than me, and I pity them. If you’re human, being smart makes you an engineer, and they’re starting to show the signs. Staring into the core changes a person. Working on machines that bend space bends the mind. I used to think there was something wrong with my dad, because Grandpa isn’t like that. But Grandfather keeps the books, like I’m going to. Until Lue and Thom went to learn Father’s trade, I didn’t understand.

They used to be so fast. They used to hang around the Meb, back when we were on Esx, and the Meb won’t put up with you if you aren’t clever. More than clever: brilliant. Meb get bored communicating with humans. They get bored with almost anything other than themselves. But they made friends with Lue and Thom. They’d sit around, communicating with box-translators, making jokes I couldn’t understand, talking about math and science.

I’ve never seen a Meb become an engineer. I asked my father, but all he’d say is, “They don’t do that work.” I think they could but won’t. I think they know what it does to you.

These days, Lue and Thom can barely talk to me after a day in the core. Even when they get a day off, they usually just want to go somewhere and sit silently. It’s like something’s burning out inside of them, and they’re trying to remember what it was.

This will be our first Christmas on the Ile. Last year, we were on Esx Station. Grandfather jokes that he’s glad he’ll be able to die off of Esx, that if he’d passed there, the Jithi would have eaten him. Father scolded him for the jokes. He said stories of Jithi eating alien flesh were just old tales. But when the Jithi look at you, you’d swear they were wondering what you taste like. Sometimes old tales are true.

We spent a year and a half on the Esx. Father said he rebuilt half the systems on the station in that time, and I’m sure if the Jithi had their way, he’d still be there, earning our keep working on the other half. Humans make good engineers, I’ve heard.

There’s little good I can say about Esx, but when the station reached the right part of its orbit, you could look out across the stars and see Earth. Well, you could see Sol, but that’s the same thing. Grandpa used to point at it. “That’s home,” he’d say, softly. “My mother’s mother used to tell me about it.”

We were close on Esx, closer than our tribe’s been since our ancestors left to colonize Ulisin. But seeing the Earth and reaching it are not the same. The Jithi swore a human ship had left right before we arrived, that one came through every six months or so. But we waited a year and a half on the station, living in the lower cord, fixing the Jithi’s station, before growing suspicious. Trade routes are complicated. They change over time. Some are abandoned and others established. They’re easy to lie about and hard to verify.

I didn’t like Esx station or the Jithi who ran it. I still avoid the Jithi aboard the Ile, but at least they’re not in charge. They’re passengers like us. Just gypsies moving through the stars. Almost everyone on the Ile is. Maybe even the Helb.

The Ile is a Helb ship. I’d always heard it said the Helb were slow in the head, but at least you can trust them. I’ve never heard a Helb called a liar. I’m not even sure they know how.

It’s good to be moving again. We haven’t been on a ship since the Porpo, the only human vessel I ever knew. I miss the Porpo to this day. I loved it and wish we could have remained. But Father said it was time to leave and tolerated no questions. The core of the Porpo always made a tinging sound, like a bell. You could hear it everywhere on the ship, but it was quiet and never troubled me. But I think Father knew more about it. Lue said so, that a Master Engineer like Father knows when to leave a ship.

I asked Lue whether she thinks the Porpo ever made it to Earth, but she just shrugged. I think she liked the captain’s nephew, and doesn’t want to think about it. But maybe she’s just lost. Engineers are usually like that.

There’s another tribe of humans on the Ile. The Goeng are an engineering clan, like us. There are twelve of them here. Their leader, Zhen, arranged for us to be on the Ile. The Helb negotiate with him directly. The captain of the Helb’s translator only recognizes Chinese.

Fim, another Helb, has a translator which recognizes English, but he only speaks to me and my grandfather. I’ve tried to get him to speak with Father, but he’s always refused. His place on the ship confuses me. Grandfather suggested that maybe he keeps the Helb’s books. They don’t seem to have books like we do, but the comparison seems sufficient.

Grandfather’s asleep, and I’m studying the books. I’m reading the computerized versions, of course, so I don’t wear out the bindings on the Holy Books we travel with. The Holy Books are printed on paper; artifacts of Earth. If we ever lost the ability to use the digital, we would turn to them. I used to laugh at the idea, but we met a tribe on Esx whose family computers were destroyed a generation prior on an Pifi-Lur ship. Something had happened there involving radiation. My brother and sister understood the details and tried to explain, but it is increasingly difficult for us to communicate these days. We tried to help them by giving them a copy of our digital records. At first they were grateful, but that changed as they read. Eventually, they accused us of giving them false books, of spreading lies. They deleted the files we gave them.

“They’ve been out here too long,” Grandfather explained. “Telling stories from memory. They’ve lost sight of what’s real.”

He was right. They said things that made no sense, that the city of Chicago was built on the wind itself and sailed all over the world, and that snakes could grow so long they could circle the world. It was impossible to talk to them about Earth, and they’d yell at you if you tried. I once thought one of them was going to attack Thom for insisting whales couldn’t walk on land.

After that, I took my job more seriously. One day, we will reach Earth, and when we do, we will need to prove we belong. We will need to tell them who we are, so we must never forget.

I’m studying the books of Christmas. There are so many stories. Myths of Jesus and Saint Nicholas. Tales of Santa Claus and flying reindeer, which I’m now certain don’t exist. Accounts of trees growing inside of houses, covered in lights (there is some truth to this, though I do not fully understand). I have read of snowmen and elves, gifts and plants hanging from passageways which fill men with lust. These are old stories, and it is hard to know what to make of them.

Eventually I grow tired and go for a walk. In the hall, I hear arguing: my father and Zhen.

“We’re passing the nebula by!” Father screams.

“Helb won’t go in,” Zhen says. “They’re in a hurry. I’m sorry. I don’t know what to tell you.”

“It wouldn’t take more than a week. A week! We could get off at any of the stations. Please. Can you talk to the captain again? Make him understand.”

“I’ve done all I can,” Zhen says. “Why do you want to leave so badly? The Ile’s a good ship. She’s safe, clean. Better than any of those stations. Most of them are infected with bugs from a dozen planets. Not a good place.”

“We’re going further and further from Earth,” my father says.

“So?” Zhen replies. “Why are you so anxious to reach Earth?”

“It’s where we belong,” my father explains.

“Your ancestors didn’t think so.”

“And we know how well that worked out.”

“You have too much faith. I hear stories sometimes from young tribes passing through. I hear Earth’s gotten worse. War. Crime. Disease. Not a good place to be.”

“Maybe in China,” my father replies. “But not America. Never America.”

I hear Zhen laugh. “What does it matter? They’d never let you into America. I don’t think they’d let you into China, either.”

“My family is American,” Father says forcefully.

“Your ancestors were American,” Zhen says. “That’s not the same thing.”

“They’d take us,” my father tells him. “We remember who we are.”

“You remember who you used to be. It’s not the same thing.”

“They’ll take us,” my father insists. “Besides, it’s no concern of yours. Just take my message to the captain.”

“The captain’s plans won’t change,” Zhen says. “I’m sorry. But it’s for the best. You have it good here. And the Ile is better for having you. You’re a good worker, and your children are smart. Maybe someday, maybe our tribes become one tribe, eh? You’re younger daughter’s about the age of Qing. Who knows.”

There’s a moment of silence. “I don’t think you ever asked the captain to change course. Listen, Zhen, I’m getting my family off this ship and my daughters away from your sons.”

“Do what you think is best. But you’ll be making a mistake.”

I hear my father walking towards me. I quietly move back to the room I was studying in, so he won’t know I was spying. I sit down and pretend I’m still reading. He opens the door and steps in.

“Kija, I wanted to talk to you. It’s about... that Helb you keep meeting with. I know he won’t talk to me, but maybe you could take him a message. We’re nearing the Juthinar Nebula. There are some stations there, and... if we could reach them, I think we could... we might be able to book passage back to Earth. Or at least to Ottite. And that would put us near some shipping lanes. It would only be a matter of time if we can get there.”

“I... I’ll ask him,” I tell my father.

“Good. I think... I don’t think Zhen did. I think Zhen... there are people who hate being human, Kija. They... they don’t want to return to Earth, because.... I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Ask your friend. See if he’ll talk to the captain. See if maybe he’ll help us.”

I nod. I don’t remind Father that Zhen has always helped us when we wanted better quarters and food, and I certainly don’t tell him I kind of like Qing. He looks funny, but he seems smart and kind, and he holds the Goeng’s books like I hold ours. I don’t say these things, because while they are true, they aren’t what important. What’s important is getting home.

I think Fim is surprised to see me, but it’s difficult to read the Helb. They walk on two legs, like humans, but have three arms, like the Meb. Their middle arm is longer than the other two, and sometimes they lean forward and use it like an extra leg. Their heads are large, but flat. They have four large eyes, which occupy most of their face. They’re very sensitive to the light, so they keep most of the ship dark. They let us keep our areas as bright as we’d like, however.

Usually, Fim seeks me out. He seems more curious about us than the other Helb, but I don’t know why that is. Maybe he’s just the only one able to communicate with us.

“Hi, Fim,” I say.

He turns on his translator and utters a short series of clicks from his throat. “Hello,” his translator says almost instantaneously. I didn’t need the translation to recognize the greeting.

“I wanted to talk with you,” I explain. “It’s about my family. We’re trying to get home. If we could go through the Juthinar Nebula, it would be much easier. Zhen won’t convey our message to the captain, and we wanted to know if you’d help.”

Fim adjusts the dial on his translator. “Zhen speaks for humans. It would improper. I would be interfering with your species’s business.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Zhen negotiates for all humans. It would be improper for me to interfere.”

“But we want you to,” I explain.

“It would be improper.” If he’s irritated, it’s not coming through the translator. But then, I doubt my irritation is, either.

“Fine,” I say. “I’ll tell my father.”

“I regret if you are saddened.”

“That’s... that’s okay. Merry Christmas, I guess.” I mean it as a joke, but Fim touches his head with his left hand. It’s a sign of interest from the Helb, I think. “It’s... it’s a holiday. On Earth.”

“It is the star holiday,” Fim says.


He adjusts his translator again. “Christmas. It is the Earth celebration of the guiding star.”

“There’s a story about three men and a star,” I say. “That’s part of Christmas.”

“Follow,” Fim says, and begins leading me through the ship. It’s difficult to navigate in the dark, but I do my best. There’s some light, but not much. We travel for almost ten minutes. We’re deeper in the Helb’s section than I’ve ever been. Fim leads me into a room. He adjusts a dial on the wall, and the light begins to increase. It’s still dim, but it’s enough for Fim to shield his eyes with his outer hands. With his middle, he adjusts a control on the wall nearest to us.

The far wall opens to reveal a series of panels, each containing a piece of artwork. Fim enters some sort of command, and they begin flipping by, moved by a mechanical arm. I see a cutout of a stone wall go by, followed by some sort of animal hide and things closer to what I’d recognize as canvases. Each piece houses a picture, always of an impossibly bright star.

The slides stop with a picture from Earth depicting shepherds, animals, and angels overlooking the baby Jesus. Overhead, occupying the majority of the painting, is a star.

“The guiding star,” Fim says.

“Where did you get this?” I gasp.

“Earth,” he says.

“You... you went to Earth?”

“Seventeen..... ago.” It takes the translator a second, then it repeats, “Twenty-four point seven four years ago.”

“Could... could you go back?” I ask.

“There is no reason,” he says. “We seek the star. All through the galaxy, we follow it. It is like our own star made whole. Our star, on our homeworld, is its reflection. This is the true star.”

“I don’t understand.”

“No one but the Helb understand. And then, only some. Most Helb won’t leave. They think there is only the one star. But we have found proof.” He motions to the paintings. “The guiding star has appeared to many worlds. Even Earth. It is your Christmas.” With all four fingers on his middle arm he points to the star.

“Thank you for showing me this,” I say, “but I should be getting back. I have to get ready for Christmas Eve.”

“No hurry,” Fim says. He goes to a panel and enters some data. I can’t understand what he’s doing. Even if I could read their symbols, the screen is far too dim to make anything out. “On Earth, Christmas Eve was..... ago.” It takes the conversion programs on the translators a few seconds to catch up, and then it repeats, “On Earth, Christmas was three weeks ago.”

“No,” I say. “We have an electron clock. We’ve had it for generations.”

“It must have lost time,” Fim says. “Most do, if they’re not calibrated.”

“No. It’s... we always. I... I need to get back,” I say again. “I need to talk to my father.”

“Of course,” Fim says. “Follow.”

He begins leading me back the way we came. “My father won’t be happy about Juthinar,” I say, but Fim ignores me. He leads me back to the human section and thanks me for the discussion. He tells me he’s learned a great deal more about humans and about his own search. I nod, but I don’t care.

I don’t go in search of Father; not yet. I know he’ll find me soon enough to hear Fim’s answer, but I don’t want to tell him yet. He’ll be upset. He might even yell. So, I go back to the room where I study.

Grandfather’s awake now, and he’s going over the books. I’m crying when I come in, so he asks what’s wrong.

“They... they said our clock is wrong,” I say, and I tell him about meeting with Fim.

Grandfather shakes his head. “That’s impossible. The clock’s been with us for ages. It’s always worked.”

I smile, but I wonder. If a few seconds have been dropping away since our clan left Earth, we’d never have noticed. It could easily add up.

“The Helb visited Earth,” I tell him. “They have a painting of a star.”

“All these Helb care about is their star,” Grandfather mutters. “He tell you they’re seeking a magic star? They’re chasing nothing. A figment. Their planet... it never spins. It’s always night there on one side of the planet, and the other’s too damn close to their sun. Life only grew in the dark. But there’s a star close by. A sister star to their sun. They can see it part of the year. Their species evolved looking up at it. Using it to guide them. Their species is hardwired to want that light. Most Helb understand that. These... these are damn pilgrims. They think there’s a perfect star out there. One that heals the sick and brings back the dead and all that, and they’ll search the whole galaxy. But... it’s just a story, Kija. Just a stupid story.”

I listen to him, but it just makes me more conflicted. I hide it as best I can until my grandfather leaves to lie down. Then I go for a walk to the outer rim of the ship. I pass dozens of aliens; some are species whose names I don’t even know. The Helb make deals with many gypsies from many worlds. I wonder what they’re looking for. Stars. Paths home. A way to escape whatever war or plague they’re running from.

In the end, they’re all just chasing stories. They’re chasing made-up stars and imagined stories of worlds they’ve never seen.

When I reach the edge, I look out. We’re passing close to a solar system, and the star shines bright. I reach out and touch the glass. The light is blue and soft. Silent and peaceful.

“Kija!” I almost jump. My father is marching towards me. “Did you find him? Did you ask?”

“I... Fim said he wouldn’t do it. I tried to make him understand, but....”

Father just sighs. He doesn’t look angry, just sad. “Helb,” he says beneath his breath. “Their heads are thin. Do not worry. We’ll find a way. It might take longer, but we’ll find a path that leads back to Earth someday.”

“I... I know,” I say. I should feel bad lying to my father, but it doesn’t seem like a lie. It seems more like a story.

Father looks out the window with me for a moment. The light is beautiful. “We should get go. We need to get ready for Christmas Eve. We’ll put up lights. Lue and Thom have already started drawing the tree on the wall. If we hurry, maybe they’ll let you draw the star on top, if there’s any chalk left.”

I look at him and nod. “I’d like that.” I take his hand and we start back. This will be a beautiful Christmas Eve.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Surviving Christmas (2004)

Movies like Surviving Christmas make me reflect on the nature and meaning of awfulness as a quality in and of itself. Too often we revert to an overly simplistic formula, where movies are merely judged on how "good" they are. But things like Surviving Christmas highlight the weakness of such models: they suggest that a movie can be no worse than "not good." Or, to put it another way, nothing below zero.

This isn't to say Surviving Christmas is the worst thing we've ever seen or even the worst this year: it isn't, not by a long shot. There were two or three funny lines in the movie, and that's more than I can say about many comedies reviewed here. And there's nothing technically offensive about this: no gross-out humor or anything.

But that's what makes this movie so interesting from an academic standpoint. I've seen Christmas movies which weren't funny at all. I've seen things that were as boring as watching paint dry. I have a very well-developed sense of "absolute zero." And, of course, I've seen things far, far worse, due to their offensive content. But Surviving Christmas wasn't bad because it offended; it was bad because of its inherent badness.

Philosophy professors should use this movie to teach Platonic forms.

The plot of the movie is ludicrous. In an attempt to simulate a Christmas spent with family, the main character pays a family several hundred thousand dollars to let him stay with them for the holidays. Setting aside the fact that this is not a good premise to build a movie on, Surviving Christmas does a profoundly poor job constructing a movie at all.

The first and most obvious omission is character. Ben Affleck doesn't really play anyone or anything. There's no core to the character, no sense of underlying psychology. This goes beyond a lack of complexity: the character doesn't even feel like a character: just a collection of meaningless lines and actions said and done by Affleck. It's almost as if it was supposed to be farcical, but without the comedy. Most of the other characters were ultimately reactions to Affleck's character, so there wasn't much help there.

So, what made it so bad? Was it the absurdly unrealistic sequences that constituted the entire plot and permeated every character interaction? Was it the aggressively unfunny nature of the scenes? The fact the movie set out to make the viewer uncomfortable... and mostly failed?

In the end, I'm not sure. Maybe badness, like art, is something you have to experience to know. But there's no denying this movie was really, really bad.

Castle: Secret Santa (2012)

I haven’t been keeping up with Castle this season, so I don’t know whether this is normal now, but this was heavier on the melodrama than I really like.

Now, there was also plenty of charm in this episode, particularly at the beginning. Castle and Beckett investigate a dead man in a Santa suit who, predictably, fell mysteriously out of the sky. The case is interesting, and the banter is fun, but all the little sad subplots about the various characters got a bit tedious. Not every named character needs angst!

Plus, I am really tired of Beckett having only the one character trait for every occasion. (Best line of the night: after Beckett explained how the long-ago death of her mother keeps her from enjoying Christmas, Erin leaned over to me and whispered “So she became...a BAT.”)

All of that said, I did still enjoy watching this. I don’t know how much fun it is in total for someone who isn’t familiar with the show, but Erin seemed to really enjoy the first half or so, although by the end he was rolling his eyes a bit.

Castle is a quirky cop drama, fundamentally, and you have to embrace that if you’re going to enjoy it. It’s formulaic, and this episode tries to be a little more emotionally heavy than I think the cast really pulls off, but it’s a decent holiday treat overall.

White Christmas (1954)

As White Christmas opens, the film proudly announces that it was produced in VistaVision, which research tells me means that it was filmed in a special widescreen process that gave exceptionally high resolution for its time. While the Netflix version that we watched occasionally lost some of that gorgeous resolution, the care and artistry that went into this picture was still very apparent.

The plot is simple on the surface: Burl Ives and Danny Kaye play a pair of friends and showbiz business partners who fall for a pair of sisters who are a singing duo. On that level, it seems similar to Holiday Inn, the classic holiday musical which White Christmas (the song) originated in. But the experience here is miles above the earlier film.

For starters, all the characters are actually characters. The pair of guys are army buddies as well as business partners and that affects the plot throughout. The secondary romantic pair make it their business to get the primary pair together, and it was all done in a way that felt real and sympathetic to me, even while it was also comedic. Furthermore, all the music is great, the patter is clever, the dancing is solid, and the use of color and space on the film is just lovely. Most of the songs featured premiered in this film, except White Christmas, although some of them had originally been written for and dropped from earlier movies or stage musicals. Many of them will sound familiar to you. Irving Berlin was one of the great American songwriters.

There are missteps. For one, the use of awkward dramatic tension to eke a bit more drama out of the plot feels forced. In the middle, the musical numbers, while impressive, become much more presentational and much more dated, and they start to drag down the pace. There’s even one that was very contemporary in 1954, about the use of modern dance on stage, which I found fascinating, but very odd.

White Christmas is sung twice in the movie. I really enjoyed it the first time near the beginning of the movie, and I find it interesting that the film makes explicit one of the theories for the song’s popularity: it was at its height while soldiers were far from home in World War Two. The second time is the big production number at the very end of the film, and I was a little sad that the addition of pretty costumes and unhappy-looking child ballerinas really took away from the impact of the song, at least until the final chorus. By the end, I’ll admit, I got a little choked up.

This is all-around a fun, heartfelt film. Even Erin, who’s not a huge fan of film musicals, enjoyed this one, though not as much as I did. I loved it. I hope you love it too.

Christmas Music From Old Time Radio

I stumbled across this the other day, and it’s AMAZING.

It’s a compilation, in podcast form, of a bunch of classic radio recordings of Christmas songs which originally aired between 1944 and 1952. They aren’t all winners, but they’re really interesting recordings.

At least listen and marvel at the very beginning: Bing Crosby reciting the “GI Night Before Christmas.” Talk about your gallows humor... The “Jingle Jive” is a great version of Jingle Bells. Whenever the Sportsmen quartet comes on, you know they’re going to shill Lucky Strikes cigarettes. You get a bit of Bing Crosby and Jimmy Stewart singing Baby, It’s Cold Outside together.

The “Rudolph Jive” is amazing. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer would have just become popular in 1950, and Bing Crosby and Judy Garland see nothing odd about making adult jokes and adding a totally great ending to the song.

These are all live radio recordings, I think, so sometimes the singers laugh or react in the moment. There are a few songs I’ve never heard, or haven’t heard for a long time. Bing Crosby’s kids all sing, whether or not they’re any good, which is kind of surreal. There are bits that are downright odd and bits that are sincere in a way that is hard to imagine today. There are a few tracks right at the end that directly address World War Two.

Some songs are repeated with multiple versions, but it’s a fascinating hour to listen to.

Olive, the Other Reindeer (1999)

Olive, the Other Reindeer is an animated special produced by Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and Futurama, and features Drew Barrymore in the lead role. With that kind of muscle behind it, you'd expect Olive to be pretty good. And you'd be completely and totally wrong.

The design and animation tops the long list of problems plaguing this thing. The majority of the special is done using 2-D animation on 3-D environments. The backgrounds are fine, if underwhelming (think video games from a decade ago). The characters, on the other hand, are astonishingly and unbelievably awful. The special is based on a picture book, which uses highly stylized two-dimensional images that resemble (intentionally) something a kid might draw. The special attempts to recreate this effect and winds up with something resembling what a first-year college student might animate. It's painful to look at. A few years later, this would probably have been done in Flash, and the results would have been far better. As it is, the digitally animated mouths over the flat designs are almost reminiscent of the effect cartoons used to get superimposing live action mouths over drawings. But this actually might be worse.

Don't believe me? Want proof? Here's the first part: see how much you can stomach:

While nothing's as bad as the animation, the writing's pretty uninspired, too. Most of the jokes fall flat, though there are one or two that are worth a chuckle (I did like the bar on the outskirts of the North Pole, for instance).

On the whole, this thing is boring and idiotic. It's an abject failure on pretty much every level, and I wouldn't recommend watching it. If you want to give it a try anyway, it's all on Youtube. Part one is above.

Fiction: Scrap

We're almost done. This is day 23 of "25 Christmas Eves," my series of genre fiction about Christmas Eve. This one's called "Scrap." It's a short piece of SF. I think it qualifies as cyber-punk, in fact. Enjoy.
By: Erin L. Snyder

The box was four inches across, and the wires sticking out of the bottom were frayed. Its battery was long gone, so Ail pulled the cord connected to her hip pack. She sighed - if she connected it directly, it might short and fry the board. She could always hold off until she came across a breaker. She flipped the device over in her hands and decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. If the damn thing fried, it fried. What would she be out? A forty-dollar piece of junk she’d just picked up. What’s forty dollars buy you, anyway: burger and a Coke?

“Mother. I located several phones.” The voice came from beneath a pile of rusting electrical equipment.

“Fine. Pull them into the clearing. And I’m not your mother,” Ail said.

“That makes me sad,” the voice said. It’s head, which was not the origin of the sound, protruded from the rubble. It was almost twice as tall as Ail and made of metal. It pulled itself free, holding a half-dozen ancient cell phones in mechanical pinchers protruding from its back. Its basic shape resembled a wolf with a beaked head like an eagle’s. On its back, faded letters spelled out, “Gri-Finn Model X-9900. Property of US Army.” The outline where a sticker most likely reading “Decommissioned” had been cut through it, though the sticker itself had decomposed years before Ail had found the robot in a junkyard like this one.

“It shouldn’t,” Ail said.

“I love you, Mother,” the robot said. Ail wondered how many people it had killed before it was deactivated, its weapons were removed, and it had been tossed. If she’d cared enough, she could always plug its old memory core into a computer and try to activate it. But she wasn’t sure she really wanted to know.

“Just be careful with those things, Pick.”

“I’ll be careful, Mother,” Pick said. Ail was probably the only one alive who could tell, but he sounded the slightest bit sad.

Ail sighed and forced the power cord into the jack. The backlight flickered, but the display didn’t come up. She slapped the side. Twice. Again. And the logo finally appeared: “TeraCon Secure.” She didn’t recognize the brand, but it couldn’t be older than ten, fifteen years, judging from the font and design. A series of options appeared on the screen, and she began flipping through. After a few seconds a word appeared on the screen: “Connect.”

“Go ahead and try,” she whispered, pressing the word, which lit up. A ring of lights began cycling. A few seconds later, it reported, “Connection Established.”

“Wireless’s working,” she said. “That’s something.”

There weren’t many options, so she chose the top one: ID. A spot appeared for a thumbprint, so she pushed hers down. The ring of lights reappeared, and a few seconds later a brief rundown appeared, along with a picture of her as an infant.

Name: Ailleen Vishin
Age: 14
Mother: Kimberly Vishin (deceased)
Father: Alexander Treyson (incarcerated)

“Huh,” Ail said. It must be connecting to a police database or some government agency. Things like this were supposed to be destroyed, but most agencies contracted out disposal services instead of handling it themselves. It wasn’t that surprising to find something with access to “sensitive” data up and working. Ail shrugged. It might be worth more than she’d thought. She pulled the power cord and slid the device into her pack. Then she removed a bottle of water and took a swig. “Hey, Pick. Come here. I want to check your coolant.”

The drone approached but tilted its head. Still no idea what Ail was asking.

“Damn doll AI,” Ail muttered. When she’d dug out the robot, she’d replaced his behavioral processor with one she’d pulled from a junked toy. It took some work finagling the programs: she’d needed to keep the motor control from the original, but she sure as hell didn’t want the rest. Ripher, one of the scavengers who she’d learned from, had a drone just like this, but he’d tried building off the program that was already there instead of replacing it. Worked pretty well for a year, then something shook something lose. Ripher lost a leg, better part of an arm, and one of his eyes before spitting out the deactivation code.

But he was better off than Gret, a girl Ail had been friends with. Gret had scavenged alone; no group, no robot, nothing. Then one day a gang caught up with her and decided she was cutting into their business. No one ever saw her again. Rumor was she was buried in one of these heaps.

The gangs would do the same to Ail if they knew the military issue attack drone following her around was running a program off a chip yanked from a kid’s plaything. But Ail had written some simple protocols into Pick: when other people were around, Pick went silent. As long as Ail didn’t act scared, everyone assumed they should give her - and her drone with enough power to rip a jeep in half - some space. Not even the cops hit her up for money these days, though she still made a point of slipping some cash to Cleves, the senior officer who patrolled her neighborhood. Only an idiot never paid off the cops. You want to make sure someone with authority has a financial interest in your freedom.

Ail removed a plastic plate on Pick’s side, unscrewed a cap, and squinted at a semi-transparent canister embedded in his chest reading, “High performance coolant only. Consult operations manual.” The line was a little low, so she poured some of her water in.

“That should do it. Let me know if your coolant gets low, okay?”

“I don’t understand, Mother.”

He should. Even doll AI’s were supposed to learn and adapt faster than this. “Don’t worry about it,” Ail said. “Look, you did good with the phones. Good job. Now I want you to find some servos.”

“Yes, Mother,” Pick said, before scurrying into the junk. Once there, he slid through bits of scrap and pieces of outdated technology like a shark in the sea.

Ail turned back to the hill she was working on. There was no way she’d get further than a few feet down in any of it, but the best stuff was usually on the surface, anyway. She started pulling off broken monitors, old tablet computers, and the like. She tossed these to one side and kept going. The front plate for an old washing machine was wedged beneath the axle of a truck. Annoying: automotive parts were supposed to be dumped in their own section instead of clogging up electronics. She tried pulling the piece loose to see what was under it, but gave up after a few minutes. There were easier sections to root through.

There seemed a lot of business computers, which was also annoying. The best finds - beside government equipment - usually came from consumer merchandise. Businesses tend to check the value of their old computers before tossing: rich people will junk damn near anything.

It wasn’t surprising the pickings were slim. This was the day before Christmas, after all: ebb of the tide. The real catch would come next week, when everyone threw out last year’s tech and replaced it with their new gifts. That’s when everything would change and this life would start to net some real money again. And damned if Ail didn’t need it: the family she was staying with was pushing for their rent.

Ail dug around the pile, but didn’t see anything else of much value. She was about to call it quits when her attention turned back to the washing machine pinned down by the axle. If there was anything under there, no one else would have seen it, either.

“Pick! Pick, come over here!” Ail shouted. The robot charged up the pile.

“Yes, Mother.”

“You see that axle? Get it out of there.”

“Where should I put it?”

“I don’t know. Toss it over there.” She motioned to the side of the scrapheap.

Pick jumped over to the axle, took it in his beak, and pulled it loose. Then he dragged it over to the area Ail had pointed out.

Ail lifted the washer plate and tipped it over. There were a handful of objects beneath it: a number of broken monitors, a few microwaves, some old routers, several feet of coiled cable, and some computers too old to be useful. She shifted these around, then came across something else.

“Pick! Get back up here! I need you to dig... dig that out!” Ail tapped on a steel plate.

It took her drone several minutes to finish. When he was done, there was a block of wires and parts. It was the control box for an old mechanical butler. These things were rare: the parts were almost always recycled. They were worth some money, but more than that, they were useful. If the behavioral unit functioned, it might prove to be very useful.

Ail pulled out a ratchet and went to work. She removed the outer case and reached the guts: the processor, memory drives, and motherboard. She pulled these out and shoved them into her pack.

The walk out of the junkyard was long, and the fact Ail needed to haul a pack filled with mechanical parts didn’t make it go by any faster. There were hills, mountains of old scrap, rusting vehicles, and appliances from long before Ail had been born. Robotic hands picked through piles, scanning the pieces for metal content, and sorting them into gigantic trucks. The better pieces could be melted down and reused; the rest would linger here.

“Hey. Look at that.” It came from one of the piles the robots hadn’t reached yet. It was a gang; one Ail hadn’t run across before. There were four of them, and they looked young. One had a robotic assistant with him. It was less than half the size of Pick, and appeared to have been acquired the same way.

“Hey! Hey, girl! What’s in the bag?”

Ail ignored them but addressed Pick. “Public mode,” she said. Pick closed in near her. He was already silent, as per his programming.

“Why don’t you let us have a look?” one of the boys said. They were approaching cautiously.

“Pick. Defensive mode,” Ail said, loud enough they’d be able to hear. Red lights in Pick’s eyes turned on.

One the boys - the one who owned the robot - froze. “Guys. Not worth it,” he said, likely recognizing the model. The others started backing away, as well.

“Jo’s right. Look at her. She ain’t got nothing,” one said.

“Yeah. We’ll see you later, girl.” They headed back over the pile they’d emerged from.

When they were out of hearing distance, the red lights in Pick’s eyes clicked off. Turning those on was the only thing the code, “defense mode” did, but it seemed to be enough.

Pick walked alongside Ail and said. “They scare me, Mother.”

“It’s okay,” Ail replied. “Remember what I said: they’re more scared of you.”

They reached the exit around mid-afternoon, and Ail went directly to the gatehouse. There was an old man inside sitting and eating something from a can.

“Kimp,” she said.

“Looks like you had yourself a good day,” the keeper said. “Let’s have a look.” Ail emptied her pack onto the table and Kimp started going through the circuit boards and parts. “Hmmm. What’s this?” He picked up the small security device Ail had found. Looks alright. Bet you get two-hundred for it in the shop. I’ll let you take it for half that.”

“For that? I just grabbed it to use as a Christmas decoration. I was thinking thirty or fourty. What is it, anyway?”

Kimp smiled out of the side of his mouth. “Who you think you’re fooling, Ail? The naive little girl routine stopped working after you rebuilt that security drone.”

“Seventy-five,” Ail said.

Kimp laughed out loud. “And only because it’s Christmas. Now let’s see what else you’ve got here.”

It wound up costing her five hundred to walk out with her finds. With luck, she’d be able to get close to fifteen hundred selling to dealers in town. And that wasn’t including the pieces she’d skim for herself. The chips from the butler were promising. Assuming they were compatible, that is.

It took Ail almost three hours to walk home. She couldn’t bring Pick on one of the buses; the automated drivers wouldn’t permit robots. If Pick functioned better, Ail could just command him to run home and meet her there, but she didn’t trust him on his own. He wouldn’t get lost, but she was worried he’d do something that would tip someone off to the nature of his programming. Not that the buses were fun - the transients who lived in the back gave them a vile odor - but they were faster and easier than walking.

Ail was staying with a family in a large apartment. Her room wasn’t large, but it was big enough for her, Pick, and a number of computers she’d cobbled together. When she entered, Faith was sitting in the kitchen, the only room that didn’t have anyone living in it, other than the bathroom.

“You’re behind,” Faith said. “A week now.” Faith was large, giving her the ability to block an entrance seemingly by accident.

“I know,” Ail said. “I’ll have it early next week. I just scored some good parts. Had to front the money, but I should be able to liquidate on the 26th.”

Faith stared at her, trying to tell whether or not she was lying. “Alright. But I want it on the 26th, on the dot. Also, rent’s going up in January. Another five hundred a month.”

Ail bit her tongue and nodded. Living here was getting expensive: she needed a new place. But it’s hard finding people who will let you bring a military attack drone into their home. She expected Faith didn’t really understand what Pick had been in his previous life, and that she’d throw her out if she ever found out.

“Oh,” Faith added, “And Merry Christmas. She grabbed a package from the counter and pushed it at Ail. Then she moved out of the way.

Ail went into her room with Pick following behind. She shut the door and open the package from Faith. It was full of cookies. Not as good as canned soup, but food was food. She turned on one of her computers and brought up Pick’s schematics. She found what she was looking for and smiled.

“Mother. Would you like to clean the room?”

“No,” Ail said. “Just... sit in the corner. I’ll plug you in in a minute.” She started digging through the pack until she located what she was looking for. The behavioral processor for the butler. Simple, elegant, and easily customized. She plugged it into her computer, bypassed the password protection, and accessed the files.

She spent most of the evening working on it. Finally, she was satisfied. “Pick. Come here, Pick.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“I need you to power down for a few minutes. Can you do that for me?”

“Of course. I love you, Mother.”

The robot’s head slunk down and the whirl of fans faded away. Ail pressed on Pick’s side and removed the faceplate. Behind it was a metal box, containing the processors, chips, and wires that allowed Pick to function. She reminded herself where everything was and began disconnecting the chip she’d pulled out of a broken doll the year before. She was almost done when she stopped. Something was bothering her.

She returned to her computer and double-checked the butler processor was compatible. It was. Then she researched the butler unit itself to check for any known issues. She couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary.

She returned to Pick and looked at the wires spilling out of his chest. She looked at the processor in her hand, then at the one in Pick. Then, finally, she looked at Pick’s face.

“Oh, you got to be kidding me,” she whispered.

She walked to her pack and put the piece from the butler back in. It would be worth a lot in town, anyway. Then she walked back over to Pick. She reattached all the wires and reactivated the drone.

“Good morning, Mother,” Pick said.

“It’s not morning,” Ail said. “It’s... it’s still night. It’s Christmas Eve.”

“Merry Christmas, Mother,” Pick said.

“Merry Christmas, Pick,” Ail said, patting her metal head.