Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Midnight Clear (1992)

This was highly ranked on a list over at Rotten Tomatoes, so I decided to check it out. It's a Christmas war movie, which seems to be a fairly sparse sub-genre, especially when compared to the almost absurdly large Christmas action movie genre. It's a stark and fascinating film, at times sad, beautiful, and funny. It's got some issues which hold it back from being a bona fide classic, but it's still worth watching.

The movie follows a unit of "whiz kid" soldiers in World War II who are sent to gather intelligence. When the movie opens, half of their unit is already dead and most of the rest are sick of combat. Every synopsis I've seen focuses on the movie's second act, when they have a series of bizarre encounters with a German squad culminating in a Christmas celebration. There's some good film making on display here. These scenes are tense, funny, and engaging.

Gradually, we learn the Germans want to surrender, but there are some complications. The sequence resolving this section plays out the only way it can... and if you think that's happily, you haven't seen many war movies. The scene is painful to watch, in both a good and bad way. The "good way" is due to its emotional punch: the movie handles death extremely well. The "bad way" has to do with the setup. To be blunt, the sequence is contrived and unbelievable: the German's plan is unnecessarily complicated. More accurately, it's necessary to forward the movie's plot and themes, but not the characters' goals. This leaves one of the movie's most important scenes feeling like a bit of a cheat. Kind of like a character opening the basement door in a horror movie: we know what's coming and wonder why they can't figure it out.

I was kind of surprised when the movie didn't end there. Instead, it moves into more familiar territory for its genre, though - in its defense - it never devolved into action flick territory. Still, the entire last third of the movie could have been excised without detracting from the experience.

The movie is largely about death and rebirth, and the Christmas elements are professionally interwoven into these themes. The darker elements of the holiday permeate the film in a way you don't often see attempted. It's a great holiday film if you're looking for something dark and intelligent.

The cast, which includes Gary Sinise and Ethan Hawke, is impressive, and - with the exception of issues I've already harped on - the writing is fantastic. It was made on a relatively modest budget (wikipedia says five million), but it didn't need anything more.

I'm marking this "highly recommended", mostly because I'm impressed with its use of the holiday. It's a good movie beyond that fact, but the unconventional spin on Christmas is what pushes it over the line.

Book Review: Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas, by: Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin's new book is, more or less, a long-winded, nonsensical rant from someone who has absolutely no idea what she's talking about.

I'll pause to let the shock sink in.

The book is largely driven by a pervasive misunderstanding of the war on Christmas, who's fighting it, and what it's over.

In her worldview, those fighting Christmas are offended atheists who want to push Christ out of Christmas and replace it with a Solstice festival, ceremonies venerating sun gods, and even Islamic holidays. She doesn't mention push from Jewish households - both liberal and conservative - who are bothered by the holiday's status in schools, nor does she acknowledge the sizable numbers of conservative Christians who boycott the holiday because of its pagan roots.

She seems to have at least a passing familiarity with those roots. There's a brief mention that Jesus probably wasn't born on 12/25, and that the holiday's date was likely co-opted from Saturnalia, but she underplays the importance of this. As she puts it, "But over time those old pagan celebrations faded into obscurity because they weren't grounded in much of anything but myth, while Christmas gained ever more prominence and meaning."

Interesting. But wrong. To the extent the Roman Solstice celebrations died out, they did so because the religions they were founded on where systematically eradicated by Christians. To be fair, the pagans had tried to do the same to the Christians first.

But, in a real sense, those celebrations didn't really die: they evolved and changed their name to "Christmas." Many of the trappings survived, including elements of the decorations and even the central narrative of a god being born on the Solstice. They simply traded out the old gods for the new one, warping the nativity into a myth that fit the holiday.

As Christianity spread, it incorporated elements from other cultures' Solstice celebrations - almost every culture had one, since almost every culture was conscious of the changing length of the day and had attributed some meaning to it.

So Sarah Palin doesn't understand Christmas. She doesn't understand her opponents, either. She devotes a chapter to speculating on where the War on Christmas is going. This is presented as a riff on the "Ghost of Christmas Future" trope, and features two possible futures. She describes two imaginary trips to the University of Alaska - Anchorage, one where  "the Militant Atheists and Secular Liberals Have Their Way", and one showcasing "true religious freedom."

Needless to say, these don't shed any real insight into the future of this country. They do, however, provide us with a stark and disturbing look into the head of Sarah Palin.

The darkest time-line demonstrates just how little Palin actually knows about her enemy. In her example, the college has effectively outlawed Christianity and embraced pagan festivals, as well as other religious festivals. In the best-of-all-possible worlds, atheists and theists are sharing the same campus, placing their displays beside each other, and debating the merits of Christianity.

It's odd she'd describe the first as an atheist victory. By and large, atheists oppose other religions to the same degree they oppose Christianity. Replacing Christmas with pagan ceremonies wouldn't appeal to them. Nor, for most, would forcing religion out of view. It would be disingenuous of me to claim there weren't any atheists out there who'd like to see all religion pushed out of the public eye, but that's a pretty extreme position (akin to the small percent of extreme Christians who want to outlaw non-Christian religions). Most atheists just want it divorced from government.

Sarah Palin doesn't just build a straw-man argument here. She names her straw-man "Joe McScrooge" and uses him throughout the book.

Regardless, Palin can rest assured that a future where festivals glorifying sun gods are supported by colleges while Christian groups are outlawed isn't remotely plausible.

In addition, the left isn't entirely made up of atheists. A lot of liberals are Christian, and they want to celebrate Christmas as much as the right. They just tend to be more understanding of those who don't.

Bizarrely enough, Palin's "best case scenario" more or less describes what's occurring at colleges all over the country now as a result of liberal pressure to include other groups. Atheist organizations are now able to display their message beside Christians, as well as other religions. Free debate is welcome: that's what secularists are after.

Can you cherry pick examples from around the country that sound extreme? Sure, though I noticed that a large number of the ones Palin uses originate at private colleges, which have the right to set their own rules about groups, just as private religious colleges do.

All of Palin's talk about the War on Christmas is laid out as evidence for a larger assault on religion, freedom, and democracy. Palin writes, "Again and again, secular leftists complain that religion - especially Christianity - is a source of violence and repression, but in this country our Judeo-Christian heritage is the source of the very freedoms they so angrily use to denounce Christ and rid his very mention from the public square."

A good reminder that Sarah Palin doesn't understand history. Of course, the primary source of the freedoms laid out by American's founders was Greek philosophy, not Christian theology, which actually served as the justification for systems of European monarchy the colonists were rebelling against.

Regardless, liberals aren't trying to rid anyone from the public square. However, we do want the government's involvement to be neutral in matters of religion, and we want to ensure that public schools aren't pushing any kind of religious indoctrination. That doesn't mean we want them to teach that Christianity is bad - in fact, that's just as bad.

To put it simply, we don't think government - and that includes local - should be able to dedicate land or money to display a nativity scene, unless other groups - religious and otherwise - have an equal right to the same resources. Because there's at least one quote in Palin's book I do agree with: "A democracy without respect for individual liberty is just a tyranny of the majority."

There's a lot more I could go into: her mangled attempts to combat the phrase "Happy Holidays" as an attack on Christmas, her tedious accounts of her family's boring holiday traditions, the completely out-of-place snipes at Obamacare, the utterly random recipes wedged in the back... but I think I've gone on long enough. This thing is badly written, badly argued, and badly researched. It displays a profoundly idiotic point-of-view that's lacking even a basic understanding of history and culture. It wasn't even good for a laugh. The best aspect is it's length: I can't find an official word count, but I'd estimate around 55,000 words. I can't imagine trying to get through a 100k version of this tripe.

Oh, and in case anyone's wondering, I got this out of the library. No way in hell I'd risk a penny in royalties getting to Palin.

Crazy for Christmas (2005)

Once you’ve seen one Christmas dramedy with a side of romance, you’ve seen… well, you’ve probably seen a horrible movie, but isn’t that why we’re here? To come together, in this joyous season, over the wonders and horrors that Christmas inspires in us all.

Mostly horrors.

Crazy for Christmas is a tv-movie about a single-mom limo-driver who gets a last-minute job on Christmas to drive an old rich guy around while he gives copious amounts of money to strangers and acts suspiciously excited about getting to know her. You already know he’s her dad, right? I mean, I knew from the first scene they had together. Erin thought maybe the guy was Santa. No such luck.

Shannon (limo-driver) spends an hour and a half trying not to take the guy’s money and pitching awkwardly written emotional fits. I mean, they could have built a structure here where her reactions made sense, but no. She doesn’t trust him from the start, and then when he finally levels with her, she freaks out over something that happened 30 years ago and wasn’t set up in act one.

She comes around, of course, luckily for her kid’s college fund. Plus there’s the reporter dude who, by virtue of the fact that the camera has spent any time on him, we know is destined to fall for the lovely lady limo-driver. That happens too.

It’s not actually terrible straight through. There are some good jokes, and it occasionally rises to almost decent.

But so much of it is about a lonely guy trying to give money to a woman who’s poor, and seeming really genuine and nice about it, and her refusing him for what are very poorly articulated reasons. It’s just hard to accept. Hey, let’s solve all your financial problems and give your kid a new family member who seems to adore him, no strings attached. Deal?

I’m not going into the various ways in which none of these people live or work in New York City believably.

There are a number of minor characters. Several minor minority characters. I felt uneasy throughout, not sure whether I should applaud them for hiring a somewhat diverse cast, or whether I should be repulsed by the way the stereotypes so clearly circled around the main, white-bread couple. I mean, besides the woman, the love interest, the son and the rich guy, the next most important characters are the prim gay lawyer, the supportive black coworker, the hungry fat coworker, the crazy old neighbor lady with the strong “New York Accent”, and the multitudes of variously heavily accented “New Yorkers”.

Crazy for Christmas starts out meh, rises to semi-okay, but by the end, it’s just another hour and a half you could have spent doing something fun, like ignoring your families’ phone calls.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Book Review: The Ice Harvest

The Ice Harvest
Scott Phillips, 2000

Crossposted from The Blue Fairy’s Bookshelf

Premise: Charlie Arglist is making the rounds on Christmas Eve, 1979: the bars he likes, the strip joint he runs and the one that he patronizes. He’s not telling anyone that he’s leaving town in the morning. Charlie’s not having a good night.

I didn’t like the movie of this as much as Erin did, but I did really enjoy the book. It’s got a bleak humor that places it firmly in the best noir tradition.

Charlie’s a lawyer, and he works in the machinery of the mob that runs much of the town, managing businesses like porn shops and the Tease-O-Rama. He’s skipping town in the morning. That’s all you know at the start of the book, and I really liked the slow build. The movie hits you right at the start with Charlie’s partnership with Vic, and why and how they plan to leave town, but for fully half of the book, all you know is that Charlie’s leaving, and he has to meet Vic at two.

The book takes place over less than 24 hours, chronicling Charlie’s long, horrible night. The picture of the town from this perspective, of the 4 or 5 bars that Charlie visits, and then visits again in a different order, makes it clear how realistic and terribly sad it would be to live like that. Of course there’s action, murder and betrayal, but the best parts of the book are the quiet interactions with minor characters, each with their own tragedy of a life.

The minor characters get a lot more play in the book than in the film, and the family relationships are slightly different, and more interesting, I think. Charlie isn’t sympathetic or unsympathetic. You go along with his decisions because he’s the point of view character, but you don’t really spend time in his head. He’s not a nice guy; he’s just less awful than a lot of the others.

It’s the story of one man’s long, dark Christmas Eve, and it was a really satisfying read.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Ice Harvest (2005)

For a sub-genre that's not widely discussed, there is a hell of a lot of Christmas noir out there. The Ice Harvest is a long way from the best of the bunch, but it's an interesting flick.

The movie stars John Cusack as a lawyer who makes lawyers look good. I haven't seen a lot of movies which make Cusack seem unlikable, but this manages. Fortunately, the movie doesn't hinge on his likability: he's a desperate and pitiful man in a desperate and pitiful world.

The whole thing is set on Christmas Eve, right after Cusack's character (along with his partner, played by Billy Bob Thornton) steals two million dollars from his boss, a mobster who owns several strip clubs. He's played by Randy Quaid, who - along with Thornton - are fairly iconic Christmas movie actors at this point.

The movie does several things right and a few wrong. I liked the visuals - the world depicted here is a pale blue; you almost get cold just watching the movie. The actors do a decent job, and I found the story interesting.

On the other side of the coin, there were some major tonal shifts, particularly around a minor character played by Oliver Platt. Most of the movie walks a line between being a dark comedy and a crime story, but when he's on screen, it turns into a slapstick. He's got an important thematic purpose, but I can't help but think it could have been achieved with more subtlety.

And then there's the end. Not the resolution to the plot - I liked that quite a bit - but the epilogue, which provides a moment of hope and optimism, which is completely inappropriate for everything that came before.

Nevertheless, the movie is a decent enough downer, a bleak answer to an overabundance of holiday cheer. It's by no means alone on that count, but I'm always up for another depressing movie at Christmas.

The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy: Billy & Mandy Save Christmas

The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy was a bizarre show. Not quite as bizarre as Courage the Cowardly Dog, but it seemed to be trying. It ran from 2001 to 2007 on Cartoon Network, which makes it a contemporary of some the network's best programming: Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack, and so on.

I don't think Billy & Mandy reached those heights. The premise was kind of awesome, though: two kids essentially enslave death and force him to do their bidding. Billy is an idiot (though he usually has almost superhumanly good luck), and Mandy is a cruel, sadistic, and calculating child who routinely frightens Death himself.

No one watched this show for Billy.

It's been a while, but I seem to recall Mandy's power-level starting a lot higher than it was in this episode. If I'm remembering correctly, the original gag was that the monsters and demons they encountered were never as frightening or dangerous as Mandy. In this one... that wasn't really the case.

The special opens with the kids going to see a mall Santa, who Billy accidentally unmasks as a fake, leading to the best sequence in the special. We learn that Mandy doesn't believe in Santa, who Grim of course knows personally. They go to visit, and quickly discover that Santa exists but has been turned into a vampire.

Eh. I like my version better.

Mandy and Death head out to confront the head vampire, while Billy sticks around to give Mrs. Claus a hand. It turns out the head vampire is actually a pretty nice guy who isn't responsible for Santa's transformation. They want the HEAD head vampire.

And, in a twist that feels a little too similar to a classic Simpsons Halloween episode, that's Mrs. Claus.

The resolution is pretty solid, though the last half really drags. I don't think this was a full hour long, but it was definitely longer than a normal episode. I'm pretty sure they could have pared this back to 22 minutes without losing anything important.

It's a solid special but nothing outstanding. The first five minutes are worth checking out, if you have a chance, but there are far better options out there if you're looking to invest more time (starting with Cartoon Network's own Powerpuff Girls: The Fight Before Christmas). Still, this does offer one of the better animated horror/holiday crossover options, if you're looking for something specific.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Ten Reasons To Celebrate Christmas

Ten Reasons to Celebrate Christmas

10. Technically, there's no real evidence Jesus wasn't born on December 25th.

9. In a pinch, glass bulbs make excellent projectiles. It's good to have them around, in case of home invasion.

8. Millions of trees are cut down every year as decorations. Trees are assholes.

7. Retail employees need at least one holiday off, now that they're all scheduled to work Thanksgiving.

6. To celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Dionysus.

5. Irony.

4. It pisses off a lot of people who aren't Christian.

3. It REALLY pisses off a lot of people who are Christian.

2. Having a drying pine tree in your house for a month and half ensures you gets your money's worth from your fire insurance.

1. Presents.

Santa Delivers an Urgent Christmas Message from Greenpeace! (2013)

I stumbled across a story for this on CNN and thought it needed to be shared. This is a commercial ostensibly addressing kids. Since that's the intended audience, you should probably call them into the room if they're home. In fact, you should do that NOW, before you've viewed the video yourself to ensure it won't traumatize them for life or ruin this Christmas and future Christmases to come.

I mean, if Greenpeace put this on Youtube where anyone could come across it, it must be appropriate for all ages, right?

I'm going to set questions of morality, politics, and whether or not we're irreparably destroying the planet aside and focus on the video. In particular, I want to focus on this interpretation of Santa Claus.

I've long been a fan of more realistic versions of Saint Nick, and this certainly fits that description. I like the actor's take here - he seems to be taking this seriously, which is a nice change of pace from what we usually get.

With a little luck, maybe one of the kids who's traumatized by this video will grow up and be inspired to make a movie with a Santa like this one. I'd love to see a less jolly Claus make his way into popular culture.

Angelina Ballerina: The Nutcracker Sweet (2010)

I’ve seen a few episodes and half-episodes of this show before, and it’s usually at least inoffensive and fluffy. It’s okay CG with cute stories about friendship and such, starring a bunch of young mice who go to a special performing arts school. This special is made up of five short half-episodes, only two of which were Christmas themed, so those are the two I’ll address here.

“Angelina and the Front Row Ticket” In this piece, Angelina has to try to decide which of her friends to invite along to a special performance of the Nutcracker. Frankly, this felt really padded. There were musical interludes that really contributed nothing and not enough plot for 12 minutes. The resolution was pointless and obvious. Plus, it was laughable how much better this same plot was on My Little Pony.

“Angelina’s Holiday Treats” This was a better short. Angelina and Marco eat too much junk food on the day of the holiday showcase and risk ruining their performance. And you know what? Nothing magically saves them from the consequences of their actions. The amount of candy they eat is somewhat unbelievable in context, but it’s a cute story that hits its moral without hitting you over the head with it.

So far as holiday elements go, though, both these pieces are pretty thin. I don’t know whether their town is suddenly supposed to be someplace tropical or they were just too cheap for new background graphics, because there’s no snow or coats or anything winter-like outside, just decorations and such indoors.

This was just okay. I’d say it’s pretty good for its target audience of 3-8 year olds who like art, but not so much for anyone else.

Side Note: actual episodes of the show have live-action segments that profile real musicians/dancers/etc, and the group Black Violin, who I had the pleasure of working with a few years back, filmed a fun one:

It's a Very Star Trek Christmas this morning.

Just spotted this clever example of video editing via Fashion It So, a STNG fashion blog.  (You can stop watching after the song, unless you're really into the author plugging his video game project.)

If you're wanting a dash more Trek today, you can also jump over to the webcomic Larp Trek for last year's holiday special.

Don't forget, boys and girls, Star Trek is an integral part of Christmas. Hallmark says so.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past from the Future (2002)

Well, the good news is that this is the best best episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force I've ever seen. The bad news is that doesn't mean much.

The premise of the show - if you've never seen an episode - revolves around anthropomorphic fast food items living in New Jersey. I've seen several episodes and have never really figured out what they're going for, if anything. Maybe there's a statement about fast food icons like Ronald McDonald. Or maybe the showrunners just got high and put this together. Regardless, the comedy generally comes off as weird for the sake of weird. This episode is no different, but it is kind of Christmas themed. So here we are.

The plot centers around a robot alien showing up at the home of Carl (the next door neighbor of the main characters). The robot claims to be the ghost of Christmas and fills Carl's pool with blood. The majority of the episode is devoted to the robot providing a nonsensical explanation as to why he's done so. Most of it focuses on an ape Santa Claus and an army of Neptunian elves. The flashbacks were told using still illustrations, some of which were fairly amusing.

I wouldn't advise tracking this down, but it was better than I was dreading. I should probably also mention that Aqua Teen Hunger Force has a Christmas album. I haven't heard the entire thing, but I have listened to a handful of tracks. Most of them are mediocre, but the song, "Twas the Night Before Jesus" is actually kind of hilarious. That might be worth tracking down on Youtube; this episode: not so much.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

So You Don't Want to Celebrate Christmas

I've spoken to a lot of people who don't celebrate Christmas. No, that's not right. I've spoken to a lot of people who say they don't celebrate Christmas. They represent a very diverse group with different backgrounds and beliefs, but they all had two things in common: they all celebrate Christmas, and they all didn't know it.

It's not that they want to celebrate Christmas, nor were they betraying their beliefs. It's simply that Christmas is too big to be ignored, and recognition of Christmas is, by default, a sort of celebration. It's impossible to opt out of Christmas, at least in America, no matter how much someone might want to.

You might not celebrate the religious aspects of Christmas (I certainly don't), but you still celebrate the holiday, whether you want to or not.

There are a lot of people who protest the holiday. There are really only two reasons for doing so: some people fight the holidays because they're not Christian, others do so because they are. The first group generally considers Christmas a Christian holiday imposed on everyone else; the second considers it an ancient pagan holiday that's masquerading as a modern religious celebration.

I'm actually more inclined to agree with the fundamentalist Christians here, but that's a subject for another discussion.

Regardless, both groups opt out of the gift giving, the decorations, the specials, and as much of the holiday as they can avoid. Some of them stay at home in silent contemplation, a peaceful tradition to mark the holiday. Others spend the time with their families, who also don't celebrate Christmas: this is as touching a Christmas tradition as any.

Still others have different rituals. A surprising number involve movies or Chinese food, both of which are popular Christmas activities.

Some people take things further: they'll travel a long distance to try and escape Christmas. There's a good example of this in a 2008 article on Huffington Post offering suggestions for those who don't want to celebrate:
Go where people don't celebrate. The best place is one that doesn't much bother with Christmas and doesn't even remind you of it. Best is South Florida, or southern California, filled with Jewish folks, palm trees and beaches.
Going on an annual Christmas vacation to forget about Christmas sounds like a fantastic Christmas tradition, if you can afford it. However, it's still a way of celebrating Christmas.

But what if you already live in a place where Christmas isn't popular? Can't you avoid it then?

Ha, ha. Of course you can't. If you live in an area where people refuse to recognize the fact they recognize the holiday, you'll have to isolate yourself in that area for the day. You'll find others around you have done the same - it's a fantastic way to come together as a community on Christmas, just as people have done for thousands of years.

Christmas isn't about Jesus. It's not even about Dionysus or Horus: gods were thought to be born around this time because the season was significant, not the other way around. What actually makes it significant is that the days start getting longer instead of shorter. It marks the promise of brighter, warmer times, in the middle of a period too dark and cold to be productive. It's also the time when our ancestors had to eat or throw away a large portion of the food they'd stored, and disposing of food was unheard of.

Put all that together, and you've got a good excuse to have a party. Today, you can't opt out of the festivities that swallow American culture any easier than our ancestors could opt out of the seasonal shift.

But people still try. My favorite two examples are a list of activities for Jewish alternatives to Christmas:
In some cities, Jewish singles organizations sponsor "Matzah Balls," Jewish singles dances, on Christmas Eve or Christmas night.
I really like "Matzah Ball" as an alternate name for a Christmas party, which is the more common term for a dance on Christmas Eve or Christmas. But the next example might be even better:
Jewish people often volunteer to work on Christmas, especially if they work in 24/7 community service jobs like hospitals, newspapers, or police departments. This allows their Christian co-workers to get the day off.... A community in Mexico City organized a group of Jews to cover for Christians who would otherwise have to work on Christmas. This was called "Project Brotherhood."
Just to be clear, these workers, realizing the importance the day has for their coworkers, are working in their place, so they can be with their families on Christmas. It's a gift they're giving others in their community, which means they're not simply celebrating: they're demonstrating what the holiday should mean in a way few others do.

Code Name: Kids Next Door: Operation N.A.U.G.H.T.Y. (2005)

If you glanced away from Cartoon Network in the mid-00’s, you might have missed Code Name: Kids Next Door. A show about a group of kids who fight as a spy team against corrupt, bumbling and evil adults, it's exactly the sort of premise I loved as a kid. However, given that it premiered when I was was in my 20’s, I always found the premise more fun than the execution.

The holiday episode has been on our to-watch list for a while now, and I finally found it on a Cartoon Network holiday compliation DVD.

The premise is simple enough on the surface: The KND's arch-enemies (the Delightful Children from Down the Lane) are sick of being on the naughty list, and they're willing to destroy Christmas to get presents for themselves. Where it gets downright odd is that the whole thing is a Marvel comics parody. Tons of minor characters are thrown in as references, Santa's sleigh has a Cerebro-esque interface, and the narration that keeps breaking in (panning out to a page of comic panels) to recap and introduce these elements has a strong Stan Lee vibe.

I giggled a lot at Wintergreen, leader of Elf-a Strike, but the references felt more like padding than plot most of the time. I'm not really sure who these jokes were aimed at.

There's also a secondary plot about Number Three being frustrated (and insane) about the fact that none of her friends bought her presents. It fits with the internal logic of this episode, but isn't terribly compelling.

In the end, it's cute and sometimes funny, but I think there were better episodes of this show. If you are looking for a Marvel-Christmas-spy-kids mash-up though, look no further.

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

I'm pretty sure it's been at least twenty years since I last watched this thing. I actually had positive associations with it going in, though everyone around me set less optimistic expectations when I said I'd be watching it. I'm glad they did: this was pretty bad.

It wasn't terrible, exactly, at least not when compared to its peers, but sitting through it wasn't a pleasant experience. The movie is the third in the series, which focuses on the Griswold's vacations. Christmas Vacation actually has a direct-to-video spin-off of its own starring Randy Quaid. I'll... uh... I'll go add that to my Netflix queue.

Anyway, like I was saying, this one wasn't especially awful, as far as uncomfortable Christmas comedies go, but it didn't exactly transcend the genre, either. The movie centers around Chevy Chase, who's obsessed with giving his family the best possible old-fashioned Christmas ever for absolutely no reason. The movie rests on the shoulders of his character, which makes it problematic that there isn't really a character there. His motivation, mental state, and demeanor change from scene-to-scene, as does the movie's adherence to logic.

The movie trudges on: there are a handful of developments, but very little actual plot. Each sequence is built in an attempt to ratchet up the tension for the inevitable (and painfully obvious) comedic reveal. If they put subtitles on the screen warning you of upcoming punchlines and twists, they wouldn't have been any more obvious. There are a handful of jokes that deliver a little amusement, but 99% of the movie just drags on.

I don't recommend anyone sit through this. There are far better ways to spend your time.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Magic School Bus: Family Holiday Special (1996)

This special episode of The Magic School Bus was equal parts awesome and awful; a bizarre work of propaganda that removes the education from edutainment, yet is strangely intriguing.

There's a moment in this episode where the titular vehicle is hit by its own recycling-nullification ray and transforms into junk. That's an absolutely perfect metaphor for the episode. Maybe for the series. But damned if it isn't fun to watch.

The episode begins right before holiday break. It's definitely a 90's conception of the "holiday," too, complete with pine trees, green and red decorations, multicolored lights, and an near endless number of Christmas tunes with new recycling-themed lyrics. I don't think they said the word, "Christmas" once, though they did mention Hanukkah several times. My favorite shot in the special is one of a chalkboard with a picture of a menorah and other Hanukkah paraphernalia surrounded by a Christmas garland. They tried so hard to be inoffensive and yet, failed so miserably.

Oh, right. Plot.

Wanda, a particularly self-obsessed kid, is trying to rush her classmates through recycling so she can make it to a performance of The Nutcracker. Her admission is a nutcracker toy, to be donated to charity. This leads to the introduction of Murph, Ms. Frizzle's cousin, who runs a recycling plant and is voiced by Dolly Parton. Wanda's best friend, Arnold, accidentally recycles her nutcracker, which naturally leads to a spin on the classic Christmas story, It's a Wonderful Life.

Wait, what?

Instead of continuing with the Nutcracker parallels, Wanda remarks she wishes that recycling was never invented, so Ms. Frizzle decides to operate the decyle-inator (they didn't call it that, but they should have) and show Wanda what the world would actually be like without the practice.

Recycling is important. However, if there were no recycling, it's unlikely every tree in the world would have been cut down or their school would be buried under a literal mountain of trash. This portrayal of recycling as a clean, fun, quick way to transform old things into new ones is a gross over-simplification. I'm glad they're trying to get kids to accept the idea, but the image of a busload of kids hanging out in a factory where piles of post-consumer plastic are being melted down is a bit absurd. Shouldn't they at least be wearing masks to reduce the toxins they're inhaling?

At any rate, the decyle-inator accidentally shoots their bus, which reduces it to the frame and piles of plastic jugs, glass bottles, and aluminum cans. Fortunately, they're able to recycle these back into their bus. Now armed with a new found appreciation for recycling, Wanda asks if they can recycle more junk into a new toy soldier. They make dozens, for some reason, so now all of the kids can go see The Nutcracker.

Only there's another twist coming. Arnold's grandmother is sick, so he has to take a train to visit her for Channukah. He leaves, and the other kids feel bad.

Naturally, Ms. Frizzle immediately uses the time-travelling capabilities of the Magic School Bus to ensure Arnold can see his grandmother and the kids can all still make it to The Nutcracker. Then she brings about world peace, cures all major diseases, and goes back in time to kill Hitler.

Okay. That's what she SHOULD have done. Instead, the kids skip the ballet and visit Arnold on the train, where they sing a parody of the Dreidel Song with the lyrics changed to be about recycling. This is precisely why you shouldn't hand infinitely powerful artifacts over to aging hippies.

More Holiday Flash Games

What’s this, what’s this, here at the bottom of the internet? Why, it’s an early present just for you! Some games to play. Otherwise you’ll just work on that end-of-year report, and you’ve got plenty of time for that…

Monkey Go Happy Christmas 

PencilKids has made a cottage industry out of short silly games about monkeys and clicking. Choose your monkey, give him or her a holiday hat, and just click to explore. Find all the Christmas items to make the monkey happy. It only takes a minute. You don’t want the monkeys to be sad!

Infectonator: Christmas Edition 

Like most of these games, this had a non-Christmas version first. Click to start a holiday zombie apocalypse, collect coins from dying citizens to upgrade your zombies, and do it again!

Sugar, Sugar: The Christmas Special 

Sugar Sugar is a clever game of physics and patience with a pleasant mellow soundtrack. Draw lines with your mouse to direct falling sugar sprinkles into a mug. This game is all that in a holiday wrapper.

Plexus: A PieceFull Christmas

It’s a jigsaw, the pieces snap together when they’re places correctly. Simple, right? Nope. Plexus Puzzles exploit the fact that they’re just images and code, not physical pieces, to be fiendishly difficult. All the odd-shaped picture pieces do in fact fit together… eventually.

Robot Unicorn Attack: Christmas

Oh yes they did. The music’s not as straight-up awesome as the original, but they tried really hard. Dream your sugar plum dreams.

First Mainlining Christmas Flash Game Roundup (2011)

Christmas Time in South Park (1997 - 2004)

This is a collection of South Park episodes I found on Netflix. I guess it was released on DVD originally.

I'm not the world's biggest South Park fan, but I've seen a handful of episodes, some of which were brilliant. Others... not so much.

Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo (1997)
Jesus, really? All right, the premise of this episode revolves around magical, talking Christmas poop. I think there's supposed to be some sort of message about political correctness or something, but mostly it's just juvenile humor about poo.

Oh. Okay. Wikipedia sheds some light on this. Apparently, Mr. Hankey was supposed to be the main character of the show. Not this episode; I'm talking about South Park as a whole. An earlier version of their pitch was for "The Mr. Hankey Show."

Yeah. That would have been much, much worse.

Merry Christmas, Charlie Manson (1998)
This was a little better, thanks in no small part to Mr. Hankey playing a far smaller role. The episode revolved around the boys going to spend Christmas with Cartman's relatives. It turns out Cartman's family is as horrible as Cartman, which is a funny idea but kind of awful to watch. One of Cartman's relatives breaks out of prison along with Charlie Manson. They come to Christmas, as well, and things get progressively more screwed up. There's a plot twist when Manson is gradually redeemed.

It's fine - certainly better than the previous year's Christmas episode - but it's not particularly clever or insightful.

Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics (1999)
This one forgoes the plot altogether and instead is just comprised of musical numbers introduced by Mr. Hankey. Once again, the Mr. Hankey sequences were pointless. The rest was a bit mixed. Several of the songs were amusing, though none were fantastic.

A Very Crappy Christmas (2000)
This was a bizarre episode which incorporated footage from the "Spirit of the Holiday" short where Jesus fights Santa. The plot involves the boys making their own Christmas short to remind people what Christmas is all about. Unfortunately, it also involves Mr. Hankey and his family. Yes, now he has an alcoholic wife and three kids, all made of poo. It's extremely weird.

The idea of having the Santa Vs. Jesus short made by the main characters was kind of inspired and worth a few laughs. The scene where they're recording the dialogue is particularly clever. Overall, this is just an okay episode, but that's about as good as this collection's gotten so far.

Red Sleigh Down (2002)
Finally, an episode I can recommend. The plot of the episode is kicked off by Cartman's "Naughty-Nice" accountant informing him that it's virtually impossible for him to land on the nice list. I almost fell over laughing during this scene alone. In an attempt to get a robot toy he wants, Cartman sets out to "bring Christmas to Iraq." He enlists the help of Kyle, Stan, and Mr. Hankey (who - fortunately - has a pretty minor role to play), and sets out to convince Santa to bring them the holiday.

Santa gets shot down, captured, and tortured, so the boys track down Jesus for help. The last act is in extremely poor taste, but is utterly hilarious. This one succeeds where the others failed miserably.

It's Christmas in Canada (2003)
Another enjoyable episode, but nowhere near as funny as Red Sleigh Down. This one starts with Kyle's adoptive brother being reclaimed by his biological parents who are empowered by a new law passed by Canada's new Prime Minister. The episode quickly spins into a Wizard of Oz parody that's solid, if not hilarious.

The episode's enjoyable and - for a few brief moments - even a little sweet. Best of all, Mr. Hankey doesn't even get mentioned.

Woodland Critter Christmas (2004)
Another good episode thanks in no small part to the exclusion of Mr. Hankey. At least, I think it was good - I kind of enjoyed it. But then, I'm weird.

The episode starts with a John Denver vibe as it introduces a bunch of woodland creatures getting ready to celebrate Christmas. They meet Stan and get his help, first by making them a star for their Christmas tree, then by building a manger for the birth of their savior, and finally by killing a mountain lion who's planning to eat their savior.

Then it turns out their savior is actually the son of Satan. Things get progressively weirder as the episode progresses. It's bizarre and messed up, but kind of fascinating. It's funny, but most of the humor isn't really the laugh-out-loud variety. Honestly, it has more of a horror tone than anything else.

The ending has a twist that pulls the episode back to some semblance of reality (or at least as close as the show comes to it). There were some sections I thought dragged, but overall I liked this one quite a bit.

And that's it. The first half of this compilation was pretty awful, but the quality improved immensely once I got to the second half. "Red Sleigh Down" is something I'd recommend to anyone who isn't easily offended: it's up there with some of the series' better episodes. Those of you who have a fondness for the show should also check out "It's Christmas in Canada" and "Woodland Critter Christmas". Both are enjoyable in different ways.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Lady Gaga & The Muppets' Holiday Spectacular (2013)

Let's take a moment to ponder, in all its complexity and multitude of facets, the phrase, "missed opportunity."

I'm not a fan of Lady Gaga, but I respect her for what she is. I just don't really think she's a singer. It's not that she can't sing - she can. It's just that there's nothing special about her singing, and less than nothing special about her songs. Her music is generic, and her lyrics are gibberish. But that's okay, because - like I said - she's not a singer.

She's a performance artist. And a damn good one, if her popularity is any indicator.

Hell, she's practically a Muppet herself. She should be juggling porcupines with Gonzo - she'd be awesome at that. Why didn't she hang out with Animal or hire the Swedish Chef as a costumer? Her interactions with Miss Piggy should have been legendary, not trivial.

Like I said: missed opportunity. Instead, we got an hour of her singing songs off her new album, broken up by the occasional Muppet segment that's several notches below the quality we've come to expect from their Youtube channel.

The Muppets phoned this one in. Not that I blame them: they didn't receive top billing and were only in a small fraction of the special. For something called "Lady Gaga & The Muppets' Holiday Spectacular", there wasn't nearly enough of anything Muppet, holiday-related, and/or spectacular.

There were a few cool moments. "Baby, It's Cold Outside," sung by Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, was pretty good. Also, it's nice to see the Muppets associated with content that's not appropriate for kids again.

But, discounting two brief music gags, only two of this special's ten songs had anything to do with the holidays, and only four were performed with Muppets. That's an insult to multiple generations of Muppet holiday specials and movies.

This thing's up on Hulu, but unless you're obsessed with Gaga, you should save yourself the trouble. Just track down the duet with Gordon-Levitt on Youtube or something. Hell, that's not even required viewing.

Book Review: Christmas on Ganymede and Other Stories

Christmas on Ganymede and Other Stories
Edited by Martin H Greenberg, 1990

Crossposted from The Blue Fairy’s Bookshelf

I was so excited when I found this book! A collection of sci-fi themed Christmas stories, just the thing to break up the Christmas monotony, right?

Now I know why I kept finding copies of it for a dollar.

It’s not all bad. There are some stories I liked, but most of the authors are phoning it in here. It’s like everyone had one mediocre holiday story in them, and instead of reading it in a collection of other good stories on other topics or other good stories by the same author, it’s bundled with every other author’s one mediocre story.

But let’s be more specific, shall we?

“To Hell with the Stars” Jack McDevitt, 1987
To hell with your pessimistic cliche attitude, Mr. McDevitt, warp drive might still be possible - 1 Star

“A Midwinter's Tale” Michael Swanwick, 1988
A nicely creepy Solstice tale, well done - 4 Stars

“Christmas on Ganymede” Isaac Asimov, 1968
Cute humor story, fine for what it is - 3 Stars

“The Falcon and the Falconeer” Barry N. Malzberg, 1969
Okay example of mysticism, not my thing - 2 Stars

“Christmas Roses” John Christopher, 1943
Decent little character study, holiday somewhat incidental - 3 Stars

“Happy Birthday Dear Jesus” Frederik Pohl, 1956
Starts really strong, but the cutesiness of the setting takes over and the ending chickens out big time - 2 Stars

“The War Beneath the Tree” Gene Wolfe, 1979
One of the best stories in the book, dark and horrific, well in tone for December - 4 Stars

“The Santa Claus Planet” Frank M. Robinson, 1951
Cute premise, I guess, but overstays its welcome - 3 Stars

“The Pony” Connie Willis, 1985
Niiiiiiiiiiice - 4 Stars

“O Little Town of Bethlehem II” Robert F. Young, 1985
Really intriguing premise, somewhat lackluster execution - 3 Stars

“The Christmas Present” Gordon R. Dickson, 1957
Really? This was pointless - 1 Star

“The Season of Forgiveness” Poul Anderson, 1973
Decent, but at this point in the book, decent wasn’t impressing me - 2 Stars

“Christmas without Rodney” Isaac Asimov, 1988
Cute, but read like a story that was cut from I, Robot for not having an ending - 2 Stars

“Christmas Treason” James White, 1961
It’s almost good? The idea is neat, but the plot “twists” are so incredibly dated today that I just had to sigh - 3 Stars

Hits and misses aren’t that surprising for an anthology, but still I was disappointed. Nothing really blew me away, although most of the stories were at least okay.

In the end, it averages about 2.6, which sounds right. Not terrible, by any measure.

Lets call it 3 Stars - A Good Book, because I’m feeling generous.

Because all credit to these authors, but it’s not their fault that Mainlining Christmas’ collection of Christmas stories has amazing sci-fi that leaves theirs in the dust.

The New Woody Woodpecker Show: A Very Woody Christmas / It's a Chilly Christmas After All / Yule Get Yours (2000)

I don’t have a love-hate relationship with Woody Woodpecker. I have a hate-hate relationship with these characters. I found them annoying and abrasive as a child, and the slightly tamed version from the early 2000’s didn’t exactly make a great impression here. This isn’t an out-and-out terrible episode, but it’s pretty boring.

In the first segment, a couple villains are stealing presents with a fake gift-wrapping scheme. Woody gets involved when he gets tricked by them, and he then tricks the dumb henchman into helping him take back the gifts by pretending to be Santa. The writing is obvious, and the show seems to be uncomfortable with its characters, not sure whether Woody is a loveable prankster or a semi-sadistic trickster, instead trying to have it both ways.

The second segment is maybe a little better, just because there’s less voice acting, and the animation’s not awful. Chilly Willy (the mute penguin character) is trying to catch a ride on Santa’s sleigh to the Bahamas for the winter. There’s a pretty cute moment at the start when Willy gets to the North pole via a giant tunnel from the South pole. The rest of it is Willy foiling the efforts of a well-meaning but hapless dog-elf-guy to keep him off the sleigh. It’s exactly the sort of humor I generally hate, and sure enough, it doesn’t work for me here.

The third segment is at least okay, primarily due to the presence of Rob Paulsen as the head elf. Woody is worried about getting coal for Christmas (again), so he tries to film a bunch of fake good deeds to shift the scales. Everything goes poorly and then more poorly for him. Because Santa’s a big softy, though, he takes pity on Woody by the end.

Overall, the episode has moments of fun, and moments that are funny, but most of it just drags.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Frank Sinatra Show: Happy Holidays with Bing and Frank (1957)

This episode of "The Frank Sinatra Show" was included as an extra on a DVD set of Bing Crosby Christmas specials. I went to Wikipedia to determine what "The Frank Sinatra Show" was, and learned there's no clear answer to that question. It sounds like it was basically a thirty minute segment where ABC gave Sinatra free reign to do whatever the hell he wanted to. Apparently, what he wanted to do this week was hang out with Bing Crosby and sing Christmas songs.

There's some quipping between songs, but no real story. They exchange gifts - each gives the other a Christmas album they recorded - and then go caroling in a grey sound stage that's supposed to be an English street... I think. That section was pretty odd.

The outside set was blatantly fake: elements were less developed than you'd want to put in a live stage performance. I suspect it would have been less conspicuous in black and white - this episode was filmed in color, though I can't imagine many viewers saw it that way at the time.

There was an even stranger sequence where Sinatra shows Crosby the food he's had prepared for their get-together. The way they talk about it - and each other - definitely implies this is a date.

I'm not really a big fan of either of these two, but that didn't stop me from enjoying this as an artifact of a different time. Intellectually, I knew there was an era where the "classic" Christmas carols were contemporary hits, but being plunged into that time is quite an experience, especially when the stars are as significant as Crosby and Sinatra.

They closed with the song I've seen wrap up every Christmas special I've seen Bing Crosby involved with: White Christmas. I wouldn't say Sinatra added much musically to the piece, but it was cool watching a recording of the two of them sing.

It's not so much that this is good, as fascinating. These are two extremely iconic figures, and I enjoyed seeing them together. I wouldn't recommend tracking this down unless you have some interest in the singers to begin with, but it's certainly interesting to watch.

Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas (1977)

From Bing Crosby: The Television Specials Volume 2 - The Christmas Specials

The last, and possibly the most famous, of Crosby’s Christmas specials. Between the time that it was filmed and the time that it aired, he passed away.

It takes some inspiration from that first 1961 special: Crosby and family are invited to England by a distant relative for the holidays, and it’s mostly an excuse to have a group of British stars pop in and out. One of them plays 3 or 4 different characters, half of them in drag. That’s… slightly odd. I’m guessing there’s a reference that we’re missing.

This special is filmed on an actual set, which is a nice change, although it feels sort of like it should have a laugh track. The fact that it doesn’t actually adds an odd poignancy, because it’s unclear whether some things are intended to be funny. Crosby seems markedly older, but also more invested in his songs and scene partners.

Early on you get the scene that you’re watching the special for, if you’re watching this special. This is the source of the famous duet with David Bowie. The two men rib each other gently about their music, and then just simply sing. It’s actually quite lovely.

Unfortunately, the tone is broken immediately by a ridiculous extended sequence about meeting the ghost of Charles Dickens, and then Twiggy and actor Ron Moody sing a song taken from The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd, only adapted to be about Dickens characters. It’s indescribably weird. The background music does hints of “Consider Yourself”, but the number from Oliver! is never actually sung.

Twiggy and Crosby follow this up with a sweet rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, only to have the tone destroyed again, this time by the awkward insertion of a David Bowie music video. I have no idea why this is there. This music video is my new hypothesis for where The Star Wars Holiday Special got some of its no-good-very-bad ideas about "pace" and "structure" and "tone".

Oh, I forgot that there’s this entire plot with all the Crosby kids trying to figure out whether they’re actually related to this Sir Percy Crosby whose house they’re staying in. It’s okay. Sir Percy finally arrives, and I get the biggest shock of the day: It’s 1977, so, yup, they do a popular song of the time. What song? “Side by Side”, from Company, by Stephen Sondheim. It’s a fine rendition, I was just so startled to see it here.

We continue the pattern of alternating kinda almost good segments with terrible/mediocre ones by launching into a “humorous” sequence starting Bob Hope as the ghost of a jester. Finally we get to the big number, everyone sings, including some more professional kids trucked in for the last sequence. The carol medley is fine, and they manage to hit every song about bells I know and a few I wouldn’t have thought of. It is plagued by unmotivated choreography, though. Every so often, as they sing, everyone moves to a new place for no reason.

The special closes, of course, with “White Christmas”. Even if the producers/directors/family didn’t know how soon he would pass away, they had to at least suspect that this would be his last filmed Christmas special, and the presentation reflects that.

Do I recommend you sit through this one? Well, from the description you probably know by now whether it seems like your cup of tea. I think I’m glad I saw it, it was interesting, but the content is uneven enough that I’m not sure I can say it was good.

Bing Crosby and the Sounds of Christmas (1971)

From Bing Crosby: The Television Specials Volume 2 - The Christmas Specials

The third Bing Crosby special we watched, and it’s a doozy. At least I guess this one had a coherent theme.

This time around, Crosby is joined by his second wife and kids. I’m glad the trend of show business families performing together has gone mostly out of style. It just feels so forced. Just cast some dang kids! Also appearing are Mary Costa and Robert Goulet.

Everyone’s on deck for a boring opening number, in some of the ugliest costumes yet. The lighting design and set work are pretty decent though. There’s an interesting tension here between the idea of “live” television and scripted. Obviously this is all pre-recorded and a lot of it is lip-synced, but certain cuts and set moves are purposely intended to mask the fact that you’re not watching live.

Robert Goulet sings a boring, but booming, “Do You Hear…”, and then he and Crosby do an extremely odd extended song/sequence based loosely on an O’Henry story. No, not Gift of the Magi, another Christmas O’Henry story. It’s really surreal: Crosby plays an oddly colorful hobo.

Mary Costa (best known as Princess Aurora) does a perfectly fine “Carol of the Bells”, in a lovely sparkly dress that matches a lovely sparkly set. Crosby and Costa do a pretty actually good Jingle Bells duet. I absolutely love that she can switch from high opera to country twang at the drop of a hat. Rock on, Mary.

Unfortunately, then we have to be treated to the mediocre skills of the Crosby kids again. The daughter either does or imagines (I’m not sure whether it’s her) a Nutcracker ballet sequence that’s just…sad. And there’s a terrifying use of greenscreening and puppets and… here, click at your own risk:

That’s followed by an actually kinda cute Santa number complete with terrible Christmas puns. It’s the kind of corny number they might have done on the Muppet Show, and in that spirit, it’s fun.

An actual professional choir shows up, only for Crosby to talk over the middle of their song. (Also, the camera angle makes it look like one of them is sitting in the fire.) There’s another extended medley of carols, and then a slightly awkward joke about the fact that Crosby won’t let anyone sing “White Christmas” with him, but of course he does in the end.

Know what you’re getting into if you watch this one, but I think it’s weird and unique enough to be worth seeking out if you like older Christmas music or vaudeville-inspired work.