Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Christmas Shoes Part Two

Erin and I are on the same page with this one, I mainly want to add two small observations to Erin’s excellent write up.

Patton Oswalt was right
If you’ve ever heard the horror that is the Christmas Shoes song, hopefully you’ve also seen Patton Oswalt’s hilarious take-down (NSFW!!). One thing that I noticed watching this extended version of the story is Patton Oswalt's complaint about the moral of the song is even more pronounced here. The poor woman’s death is there, primarily, to benefit the rich couple. If what’s-her-name hadn’t been sick, would Kate ever have found her true calling taking the poor woman’s place as the volunteer music teacher? Would she ever have been truly fulfilled? And of course the whole kid+shoes scene causes Robert (Rob Lowe) to reevaluate what’s important in life, and fix the incredibly minor made-for-TV-style problems with his marriage.

I mean, for their part, I guess the widower learns that he should let his son have a puppy.

Those are some ugly shoes.
I mean, the filmmakers couldn’t make them sexy shoes: she’s a mom! So they’re these weird things (in a couple shots you can see that they have little heels) that really look like something you could buy for eight bucks at Pearl River Mart.

Possibly my favorite moment in the movie is when the kid brings in the shoes and says, in his tear-choked voice, that he brought her shoes to wear in heaven, and both parents look at the shoes, and there’s a beat before they say anything. I’m sure it was supposed to be that they were so struck by the child’s kindness, but really it seemed like any other time that a kid has brought home a god-awful gift and the parents have to take a moment before saying, “Oh honey, how nice of you to buy me these Hello Kitty potholders! They’re so… nice!”

Moral: Kids buy crappy gifts. Everyone knows this.

Oh, and if you're not quite ready to be done with this, or you're still wondering what the heck we're talking about, here's Nostalgia Chick with the full low-down, featuring some of the delightfully cliche dialogue from the film:

The Christmas Shoes (2002)

The Christmas Shoes: the legendary song by NewSong which has topped numerous lists for the all-time worst Christmas song ever recorded. As we all know, nothing this bad can go unadapted. Even before the song was finished being written, it was being turned into a book, which in turn became a televised movie in 2002.

And now, eleven years later, we sat down to watch it.

This movie is manipulative. It is not subtle about being manipulative, either: it's quite up-front about its intent. It wants you to empathize with its characters. It wants you to cry.

It probably did not want us to laugh our asses off for most of the movie. Oh, well: you can't get everything you want.

The Christmas Shoes starts out so bad it's good, then gets aggressively worse as the TV-movie goes on. I can't imagine watching this alone: you need someone with you, to help you retain your sanity. It's incredibly, amazingly - almost impressively - stupid. Written without a shred of nuance or actual depth, it uses every cheap trick in existence to elicit sympathy and compassion. It's like a kid pretending to cry so you'll feel bad and give them a cookie.

Do not give the people who made this movie a cookie.

This stars Rob Lowe as a depressed lawyer who's having TV-friendly marriage problems that could easily be solved by both people sitting down and having a simple discussion. Another family across town has a different problem: the mother is dying. The two plots are interwoven in a manner that's clearly supposed to suggest a grand, divine plan. The point of that plan is to kill a child's mother and maximize the amount of emotional development for all involved.

In this movie, not even God is a sympathetic character.

As the title suggests, the entire story hinges on a pair of shoes. No, I'm sorry: Christmas Shoes. And, yes, they are called that at least once in the movie.

The significance of the shoes is established throughout, starting with a scene where the sick mother starts crying while her son's teacher reads a fairy tale about shoes. I'm not entirely sure why he's reading a book of fairy tales to fourth graders, but I don't really care so I'll move on. Later, she tells a story about meeting her husband at a dance class. Yes, she loves to dance.

She loves to dance in shoes.

If you think this movie is above having her son tell her he bought her shoes to wear in heaven, you're grossly overestimating it. This is THE CHRISTMAS SHOES, and there's no line they won't cross in a desperate attempt to make the concept resonate.

Okay - there actually is one. The kid never says he wants her to have the shoes so she looks good when she meets Jesus. You'd have to be an absolute asshole to put a line like that in a movie. Or, you know, a song.

This is clearly intended to be a family movie: show this to any kid under the age of eight, and they'll be bawling. Anyone older should realize that every character, every line, and every shot is a cliche. And it's all tied together with a premise so monumentally stupid, it is almost unbelievable anyone would write a song about it, much less adapt that song into a ninety-minute movie.

A movie about faith. And miracles. Not big miracles, but little miracles. Really little miracles. Crappy miracles, in fact. The sort of miracles that make God look either absurdly stupid or like a total dick.

But it's also about good people who do good things, like... help farmers against a corrupt environmental group trying to push them off their land. Yeah, that's right. It's not enough to make an aggressively pushy TV-movie about faith: they had to slip in some propaganda about evil environmentalists. Doesn't even move the plot forward.

This thing is bad, but don't make the mistake of thinking it's worthless. No, far from it: this thing is ripe for the MST3K treatment. Get some friends together, pour some drinks, and see how much you can stomach. We made it through the whole thing.

Now THAT'S a goddamn miracle.

Spongebob Squarepants: Christmas Who? (2000)

This is the first Spongebob Christmas episode made, but the second we’ve seen. It features a bizarre framing device and a plot about bringing Christmas to the inhabitants of Bikini Bottom. It’s actually hilarious.

The episode opens with a holiday-ized version of the theme song, and then launches into a live action framing sequence with a “pirate”, similar to classic children’s TV. This guy recurs throughout the episode with a terrible puppet and commentary on the episode. It’s surreal, and ludicrous. We laughed a lot.

The main plot follows Spongebob himself. After Sandy the squirrel explains about Christmas and Santa, Spongebob spreads the word to the other people of the town, and helps everyone decorate and write letters to Santa (via bottle-messages). There’s a funny musical number as they prepare for Santa’s imminent arrival. Squidward, of course, doesn’t believe Spongebob, and says that everyone will be angry when Santa doesn’t arrive after all.

The resolution of the plot is pretty funny, and while this isn’t an instant classic or anything, it was an enjoyable way to pass a half-hour.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Ref (1994)

It's strange that it took me so long to see The Ref. It's relatively well known, but somehow it always slipped below my radar. But it finally came up on my Netflix queue.

The plot revolves around a thief who takes a dysfunctional family hostage on Christmas Eve to hide out from the cops. By and large, comedies about families with issues are just about the worst genre holiday entertainment has to offer, but miraculously, The Ref is actually pretty good.

While there's a long list of things this movie did wrong, the filmmakers made several extremely smart decisions that elevate this to something worth watching. First of all, they cut the slapstick down to a minimum. Second - and maybe more important - they wrote some depth into the main characters. If the husband and wife had been two-dimensional, this thing would probably have been as bad as Surviving Christmas. Well, maybe not that bad, but you get the point.

Fortunately, the husband and wife were well cast (Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey) and written with surprising depth. It takes a while to become clear: their first scene is in a therapist's office, and they come off as generic. But as the movie delves into their issues and their pasts, they gain progressively more depth, and their problems start to feel believable. By the end of the movie, I was sympathetic to both of them.

It also helps that the thief, played by Denis Leary, is appropriately dark. While the character is a decent person deep down, he still comes off as a hardened criminal, giving the movie some tension.

The movie falters when it incorporates the usual holiday movie cliches. The extended family is ruled by the stereotypical rich, controlling mother. The character is better here than most places, but she still feels like a convenient villain introduced to deflect blame from the leads. In other words, lazy writing.

Likewise, there are a handful of moments where the movie makes a cheap joke or injects some forced holiday cheer. The worst of these occurs at the end, when everyone suddenly resolves their issues, including those between the criminal and his hostages. The film has an absurdly happy ending that doesn't fit the overall tone. According to Wikipedia, the movie originally ended with the thief turning himself in and was redone after test audiences flipped out. Pity: a darker ending would have resonated better.

Nevertheless, this is easily the best "dysfunctional family" Christmas movie I've seen. It's funny, engaging, and dark. This actually falls right on the line between "highly recommended" and not. What the hell? I'll give it the label.

Extreme Christmas Trees (2011)

We came across this on Netflix and watched it on a whim. It's essentially a series of segments about Christmas trees and Christmas tree-inspired displays judged by TLC to be "extreme."

The first segment is about a thirty-two foot tall Christmas tree that gets wedged into the Biltmore House by hand. There was a ridiculous amount of pageantry surrounding this: they actually drove it up the house in a horse-drawn carriage, a choice that almost led to disaster because horses, unlike trucks, don't have an emergency brake.

The narration was particularly egregious while the tree was going up: they tried to ratchet up the tension. "With victory just a few feet away, the unimaginable happens." For those of you following along, the unimaginable was that they ran into a moderate snag which they quickly corrected before any damage was done. Of course, they did - these people are professionals, and they can get the job done even if they have to do so without machines, presumably to keep this "authentic."

Next up was a tree-shaped display in Rockland, Maine built out of lobster traps. The whole thing is ridiculous, of course, and the editing and narration makes a point of playing up the danger. That said, this is clearly being done without the budget of the other segments, and you can't help but appreciate the community's display. It may be built out of lobster traps and decorated with buoys, but I'd say it's a hell of a lot more authentic than the pine they put in the Biltmore.

The third segment is about a Michigan "singing Christmas tree," otherwise known as a high school choir with way too large a budget. The tree-shaped stage is certainly impressive, but the adults running the event are fairly unlikable. I'm glad everyone's in the "Christmas spirit" and all, but is holding the record for the country's largest singing tree really worth having kids pass out from heat exhaustion?

Next up was a ten foot tall cake shaped like a Christmas tree. It's impressive and all, but anyone who's spent any time watching Food Network has seen much better.

The next segment was part cool and part disgusting: it featured an artist specializing in antlers who made an "antler Christmas tree." I'm not sure it really qualified as "extreme," but then there are better terms for most of the trees and displays this special focused on. It's certainly a different take on the concept, though, and the final result was impressive.

The sixth segment was the strangest, focusing on a "entrepreneur" in England who set up a 30' tree in his house, upside down, going through a few floors. It's never really clear why he's doing this - he half-joking claims the idea came to him in a "moment of madness," but I get the impression it's some sort of publicity stunt. The end result is neat, but it's not hard to come up with alterations which could have improved the effect. Or, at the very least, not have necessitated punching holes in his floor and ceiling. It would have been nice to get an actual answer as to why this was done, who this guy is, or at least how the project was paid for.

The last segment is about a bed and breakfast in Georgia where they put up a Christmas tree decorated with two-hundred-thousand dollars worth of blown-glass ornaments. As a rule of thumb, I generally consider blown-glass ornaments to be the worst you can get, though I'll admit these were incredibly impressive, and the finished tree was awesome. Was it $200,000 worth of awesome? No, probably not. But I can certainly appreciate a great collection.

The selection of features wasn't bad, but the overall special was, mainly due to the generic and cheesy narration. If they'd gotten a better narrator and writer, this would have been far less annoying. It also could have used a more appropriate gimmick. To tie it all together, they got at least one shot with someone involved explaining why this tree was extreme. But of course they weren't all that extreme. What this did accomplish was showing how varied Christmas trees get. That would have been a far better approach.

This is floating around Netflix, if you actually can't think of anything better to watch.

Dexter’s Laboratory: Dexter Vs. Santa’s Claws (1998)

This isn’t a full episode, just a short. The nice thing about shorts is they don’t overplay their gimmick. In this piece, Dexter disbelieves in Santa, while DeeDee says he’s real.

To prove his sister wrong, Dexter sets up a series of elaborate traps to prove that their father is Santa. I, uh, may sympathize with this a little too much.

Due to classic cartoon logic, Santa is real, and Dexter ends up chasing him all over town using a rocketship built in their chimney. He’s convinced until the very end that it’s his dad, breaking out the special effects to trick the kids. This ends badly for all involved.

It’s not brilliant, but it’s an amusing few minutes. If you want to hunt it down, it's part of Episode 37 in Season two.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Fox News Discusses Santa

In what may be the single greatest Fox News clip ever recorded, Megyn Kelly hosts a frank discussion about race with a bunch of white people. This video is required viewing:

To recap, Jesus and Santa Claus are historical figures. And they were white. This actually contradicts the prevailing view that Jesus's precise ethnicity is unknown (though probably not "white") and Santa Claus is a mythical being representing an amalgamation of figures from folklore, as well as stories about a fourth-century bishop.

But according to Kelly, both are historic figures, both are white, and this is a "verifiable fact."

Break out the champagne, people, because this is the best news we could have hoped for. You see, there's only one way she could possibly be that certain about Jesus's skin color: time-travel must have been invented.

That's right. Time travel.

Because no self-respecting journalist - really, no human with even a shred of integrity - would ever say something like that unless they'd already gone back and checked. We can only assume Kelly's interview with Jesus in the Judaean Desert will air soon. I hope she asked some tough questions about the Psalms!

Of course, I'm even more excited by the news that Santa Claus is a verifiable historical figure. I'm not sure why she's so preoccupied with his race, through. I mean, the mere fact that he was a living, breathing elf makes his skin color kind of irrelevant.

Book Review: The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story, by: Lemony Snicket, Illustrations by: Lisa Brown

This is a neat little book. It does a good job simultaneously existing as a children's book and a mock-children's book, which isn't an easy feat. We wound up getting this as a Christmas present from my parents, which was a good guess on their part: we'd been wanting to track it down for a while.

The story is about a Hanukkah latke who's made, then winds up running around in pain and frustration, in part because of the boiling oil he was initially cooked in, but also because he can't find a place where he belongs in a world built around Christmas. The humor is sharp and dark, but not quite as dark as you might expect. Like Roald Dahl, Snicket has a good sense of what kids find funny and adults find horrific, and he exploits that line proficiently. Depending on the reader's tone of voice, this could easily be read as a silly storybook to a young kid or dark satire to an older crowd.

The story works metaphorically for the sense of alienation felt by Jewish kids during the Christmas season. It's a tricky subject to tackle, but Snicket does an admirable job here. Lisa Brown's minimalist art works well with the story, and the overall design gives the impression you're reading something unmistakably Christmas-themed (which is kind of the point).

My one complaint is that it does feel a little padded. There are several pages featuring identical pictures of the Latke screaming with identical text of the same scream on the opposite page. While this works as a running gag, it seems just as likely it was done to increase the page count to a point where it could be published in hardback.

Nevertheless, this is a great little piece. If you're looking for a cheap Christmas gift for a Jewish kid - or adult - with a sense of humor, you couldn't do much better than this.

Christmas Cupid (2010)

Wow, what a terrible movie. I mean, we knew it was almost certainly terrible going in, but it descended to unanticipated levels of terribleness.

It’s a TV movie from ABC Family. Do I need to say more?

Okay, here goes. A rising-star publicist by the unlikely name of Sloane faces a ridiculous riff on Christmas Carol when her recently deceased client shows up to fix her love life. It’s… almost cute in places, but the whole package is just horrible.

Characters who are supposed to be “awful” are immediately and obviously “awful” in the most stereotypical ways. Oh, and the main character used to date a cute doctor? Guess who she’ll end up with? The whole beginning is ridiculous as they try to establish a ludicrous status-quo. Sloane is dating the boss’ son and has a rivalry with an ex-boyfriend! Sloane sometimes doesn’t have time for everyone in her life because she has a busy job! Wow, sounds… normal. Sloane deals absurdly poorly with the whole haunted-by-the-ghost-of-your-client thing, in an unsympathetic and overdramatized way.

Once the story finally gets going it just gets worse and worse. The movie really tries to have it both ways, to say Sloane should succeed at her career, while condemning her for leaving her college boyfriend (doctor-guy) to pursue said career. As is often the case with romances, about halfway through I was furious that the character would consider dating any of these needy jerks who required her to put their egos above everything else in her life. This absolutely includes doctor-true-love-guy.

The character tries to stand up for herself, and hangs a bit of a lampshade on the idea that she shouldn’t be criticized for trading up a few times for a better boyfriend if that’s what she wanted and what was going to get her ahead, but of course in the morality of TV-movie-land, dumping a guy marks you as a “bad person”. Naughty, naughty. Coal for you.

There’s a particularly useless “Christmas future” scene in which the character WINS, but is in the hospital unconscious for no stated reason. By wins, I mean she marries the asshole she’s with at the beginning, and thereby gets the promotion she wants, and then they divorce, and she’s financially and professionally set. Probably sucked to live through, but good job! Now, all the movie had to do was establish that she was in the hospital because her new lifestyle caused her to become a party girl and overdose or something, but it’s not established. For all we know, she’s still going to die in three years from a congenital heart defect or something, because her being in the hospital is never tied to that future life.

The ending isn’t as terrible as it could be. Sloane wins in the end by doing her job competently and being nice to people who she had (to all appearances) been nice to in the past, breaking up with the asshole, getting together with the doctor and getting her friend to hang out with her lonely mom on Christmas. Aside from getting together with needy-doctor-guy, who she has no reason to believe she’s even compatible with anymore, it’s not too awful. She doesn’t abandon her career or anything. But there are so many dialogue references to nothing (mark of haphazard re-writes or re-cuts) and the whole thing is tedious. Plus the starlet-ghost becomes an angel or something, complete with ugly CG sparkles.

Please avoid this one for your blood pressure’s sake, or someone really will need a doctor.

Saturday Night Live Christmas Past (1999)

The name on this thing is somewhat ambiguous - the DVD is simply labeled "Saturday Night Live Christmas", but the special includes the word "Past." I'm going with that, because it's a more interesting name.

I'm pretty sure I saw this compilation when it aired in 1999 (the selection of shorts was really familiar). It's a mix of old stuff, along with stuff that was new when it aired, but is now just slightly less old. In total, there are 18 skits on this DVD, which comes out to around an hour-fifteen. They didn't bother including any extras, which is a little baffling.

The skits aren't all great, but with twenty-four seasons of holiday shows to pick and choose from, they were certainly able to find some entertaining bits. Like most SNL compilations, this makes the show look a hell of a lot better than it's ever actually been.

There are a handful of high points, including "The Lost Ending of It's a Wonderful Life," where SNL gives the movie the ending generations have wanted to see. I also loved "Deserted Island Christmas," about a couple exchanging gifts after being shipwrecked.

On the other end of the spectrum, this includes several segments which haven't aged so well. I remember finding Dana Carvey's Church Lady funny when I was young, but... not so much now. I don't think I ever found the fake NPR skits funny, and re-watching the "Schweddy Balls" puns didn't change that.

As for Adam Sandler's Hanukkah Song, it remains fascinating as a historical pop-culture oddity but certainly doesn't explain why Sandler was ever popular.

This is a fun collection highlighting some of SNL's best (or at least most memorable) holiday skits, and there are enough good moments to make this worth watching.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Craft: Angel re-paint: Vampire

After I had so much fun last year re-painting angels into geek icons, I thought this year I'd create a few monsters. 

I bought this little statue (just under 4") at a thrift store. Here's the before pictures:

Really all I did to this was clean it and repaint it. The white wash on her skin looks better in person, but the rest of it photographed well. 

Back view:

The Gift that Keeps on Analyzing

Freakonomics did a 15-minute podcast on Christmas gifts last year.

It features an extended interview with Steve Levitt, who offers some surprisingly sweet advice on gift-giving. In addition, you get a handful of clips with other economists on the subject, most of which serve as good reminders that economists are extremely intelligent creatures which shouldn't interact with humans.

It's certainly worth a listen, but then Freakonomics usually is.

Rugrats: The Santa Experience (1992)

It turns out I remember Nicktoons better than I thought I did, because I remembered this episode as we watched it. That’s always an odd feeling. It was also odd that it never once came up in this heavily Christmas-themed episode that one of the adults is Jewish, and the main kid is thus half-Jewish.

At first I thought: maybe they hadn’t decided that about the characters at this point in the show (The Rugrats Chanukah special didn’t hit ‘til 1996) but a little googling tells me that it was in the first episode. So… that’s weird. I guess they didn’t think the viewing kids could handle more than one religion at a time.

And anyway, this one’s all about Santa.

For most of the episode, it’s actually quite well done. The episode is just packed with intertwining plots. Angelica’s dad is concerned about her being traumatized by the unmasking of a mall Santa (she’s just pissed that the toys the store gave her for her temper tantrum aren’t the expensive stuff she wants). Chuckie is afraid of anyone who “breaks into your house in the middle of the night”, and Tommy’s trying to convince him that Santa is nice. The parents all get together and decide to rent a cabin for the holidays, and both Angelica’s and Chuckie’s fathers work on how to convince their kids that Santa is real. Meanwhile, Angelica plays out a manipulative twist on “Gift of the Magi” with twins Phil and Lil, only to panic that because she tricked them, the real Santa won’t bring her anything and tries to undo her cruelty by Christmas.

If that sounds like a lot for 22 minutes, it is, but it all flows together and at least it never drags. The kids’ different reactions to Santa and gifts all feel surprisingly grounded and plausible for a cartoon about intelligent-ish infants. Unfortunately, after actually wrapping up basically all the plots in a heartwarming way, there’s a totally cliche magic ending that’s 100% out-of-tone with the rest of the episode.

Except for the ending, though, this was surprisingly watchable, and even kinda good.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Holiday Products: Unexpectedly Peppermint

In our quest to experience the full breadth of Christmas, this year we purchased a good number of products that were slightly... unexpected. 

This is not an exhaustive list by a long shot of things going candy-striped for the holidays, just some of the ones we came across.

First we'll take a look at a Limited Edition ice cream. Dreyer's (Edy's east of the Rocky Mountains) has a seasonal flavor: Peppermint Wonderland.

This is the low-fat version. The full-fat variation has more explicitly Christmas packaging, with candy canes and all. I really couldn't say why the low-fat is more 'generic winter' looking...

In any case, it's peppermint flavored ice cream with slightly gooey peppermint candy bits.

I liked it, although it was a bit strong. Erin was less enthusiastic.

 With the addition of a little Hershey's syrup, however, even he pronounced it "fine". 
And then he ate the rest.

Next, let's add mint to something that is already a mint.

Take a look at this package:

Real Junior Mints made with a real candy crunch. Because counterfeit Junior Mints rolled in fake glass candy are so plentiful..?

These.... look even less appetizing than normal Junior Mints. They have uneven boils:

They don't taste half bad, and the peppermint bits add an interesting texture, but actually the whole effect is a little too much mint at once for my palate. 


Not Peppermint. Candy Cane. 

Complete with gift tag for stuffing the stockings of those who don't deserve actual candy.

And here's what it looks like:

Actually I like this quite a bit. It doesn't taste like anything, but the mint smell is quite strong. It makes my lips tingle and feel cold. This isn't entirely a pleasant feeling, but it's very interesting. Also, Erin keeps getting confused about whether or not I'm brushing my teeth at odd times in the day. 

I call that win-win-win.

Trading Places (1983)

If you haven't seen it, Trading Places is a comedy directed by John Landis about two men, a white commodities broker (Dan Aykroyd) and a black conman (Eddie Murphy), whose lives are switched by a pair of rich businessmen in the service of a twisted bet. It's sometimes described as a take on the Prince and the Pauper, which is a bit of a stretch but not entirely inaccurate.

It's not a bad movie, but it's nowhere near as good as Landis's previous two films (it was made right after Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London). Trading Places works better the less you think about it: there's some solid comedy here, largely thanks to the actors. The satire never builds to much of a message other than the obvious lip-service to racial inequality being cultural rather than genetic. I don't know if this was a controversial idea at the time (I certainly hope not, but I'd don't want to credit the decade which popularized trickle-down economics with an abundance of intelligence). Regardless, while the jokes hold up, the ideas don't pack much of a punch anymore.

The events of the movie are centered around the holidays. One of the movie's better sequences focuses on Aykroyd's character having a mental breakdown, dressing as Santa Claus, and invading his old company's office Christmas party. This serves as a catalyst for Murphy's character learning the truth about his good fortune.

The two team up on Christmas, which occurs about two-thirds of the way through the movie. At this point, the movie shifts from satire to all-out farce, as the characters put together an elaborate heist to beat the rich businessmen at their own game. All this plays out over New Years Eve.

This is where the movie falls apart. The satire might not come off as deep, but the tone had kept the movie enjoyable. From here on out, it's just a jumbled mess of absurd actions and jokes being hurled at the audience. A solid fifteen minutes is devoted towards contriving a scenario where one of the movie's villains could be dressed in an ape suit, locked in a cage with an actual ape, then (presumably) raped repeatedly by the animal.

Yeesh. The scene where Aykroyd shows up in blackface almost seems tasteful in comparison.

I hate to dwell on this portion of the movie. It's unfortunate the worst was saved for last, because it's the part that winds up in the front of your mind. Most of the movie featured some clever jokes and solid comedic acting, not just from the two leads, but the entire cast: I wish it had wrapped up on a stronger note.

The first two-thirds aren't perfect, but they are fun. Even the end has a few good moments, but it's hard not to be disappointed. Despite featuring Murphy and Aykroyd in their prime, I can't say this is highly recommended. However, it's a decent enough holiday comedy, if your standards are kept in check.

Danny Phantom: The Fright Before Christmas (2006)

This is the second episode of Danny Phantom I've seen, the first being the pilot. Had the pilot been more interesting, I might have watched a few more. The series is about a kid who winds up with ghost powers (flight, phasing, the ability to shoot blasts from his hands for some reason, and a handful of others) in a lab accident. He uses these abilities to battle actual ghosts, like you do.

From what I've seen, the show's biggest problem is its uneven tone: the premise leans towards superhero, but the style is aiming for Hanna-Barbara. It's a mix that can work in the right hands (Powerpuff Girls being the obvious example), but this lacks a distinct voice and interesting characters.

That's a critique of the series, not the episode. Actually, thanks to a cool premise, "The Fright Before Christmas" sidesteps these pitfalls and delivers something that's actually pretty cool.

The episode opens the day before Christmas. Everyone's in the holiday spirit except Danny, who's upset his parents spend every Christmas arguing whether or not Santa exists (this should offer a good gauge for how much the show respects its characters). He goes into a ghost dimension to let off some steam and accidentally destroys a poem a ghost has written.

The wronged spirit is a new character called "The Ghost Writer," who reveals he has the power to write Danny into one of his poems. This leads to a "Visit from St. Nicholas" style poem chronicling Danny's day where Danny alone is conscious of the narration and constant rhyming. It's not a new trope, but it's certainly effective.

From here on in, the plot is bizarre but fun. Danny's forced to contend with a giant nutcracker made of possessed presents and an army of possessed Christmas trees (leading to a particularly cool sequence where his mom comes to his rescue wielding a pair of double sided axes).

The ending shoehorns in a bunch of the series' villains, but does so in a way that works. I have no idea whether being familiar with these characters would have made this even better or just annoying, but I liked how they played into the resolution.

This is a surprisingly cool holiday episode, held back by its shortcomings as a series. There's a lot here that's great, but most of the characters feel like generic knockoffs of Cartoon Network's. That description works for the show as a whole, in fact: this was clearly in the same era as Powerpuff Girls and Dexter's Laboratory, but it doesn't approach their ability to balance whimsical and badass.

If you come across this episode, give it a chance: it's a lot of fun. Just don't expect to like the minor characters.

Monday, December 9, 2013

O Christmas Tree (2005)

"O Christmas Tree" is a PBS documentary made in 2005 (or 2006 - it's seems to be a little difficult to get the date clarified). Lindsay and I found it at the local library and picked it up on a whim. The description claims it "traces the history of the Christmas through the ages - from its origins as a pagan symbol of fertility to a Christian symbol of rebirth." Technically, there is a section of the DVD devoted to that, but it's about as in depth and comprehensive as the sentence above: there's very little meat to that or anything else the documentary touches on. It's slightly less educational than the Frosty sequels with a fraction of the production values.

But that's not important. All you need to know is that this thing is the Plan 9 of Christmas documentaries. It's completely fucking hilarious.

First of all, it's narrated by Richard Karn. Don't bother with IMDB: he's Al from Home Improvement. And he just phones this in. Even relative to the effort he normally puts into his work: he's not trying here.

Despite the fact it's ostensibly a documentary, there's sort of a frame story where Al - I'm sorry, Richard... no. Screw that. Where Al is looking for the perfect Christmas tree on one of those cut-your-own-tree lots. This is mainly memorable for the scene where he picks one out. Let me paint the picture. It's snowing - in fact, there's snow everywhere - and Al finally comes across the tree he wants. The camera focuses on the tree, but doesn't show the bottom where it's supposedly growing. It is not the same kind of tree that's growing in the lot. I don't mean it's "slightly different" or anything - it's not remotely related. The one he found was a pine, and EVERY TREE ON THE LOT is a spruce. There's a shot of the tree shaking with saw sound effects added. And cut to Al walking up to the guy who owns the lot. It's sunny now, by the way, and there isn't a flake of snow on the ground.

Ah, the magic of film.

But this is nothing to the segments. Where to begin? There's the descendant of Charles Dickens who has a one-man play about his great-great grandfather. They showed a few cringe-inducing clips: it's pretty obvious he wouldn't be making a living doing this if it weren't for his heritage.

Did I mention there's music? They got Jon Walmsley (I guess he was on The Waltons or something) to write them a song called, "Christmas in America"*. I tried to find a clip of this, but - for some reason - there doesn't seem to be a record of this recording anywhere on the internet. Since I can't give you that, let me transcribe the lyrics in the chorus, so you can have some inkling of what you're missing out on:
Christmas in America,
Christmas in America,
Christmas in America,
It's Christmas all over the world.

My favorite segment was an interview with a couple of decorators who specialized in decking out wealthy clients' homes for the holidays. I really wish some of these clips were on Youtube - there's a section where they describe decorating a house that's haunted by a dead girl who once knocked over the tree they were working on. They tell this story in the same basic tone they used to describe working for the Hiltons. I wish I could do it justice - I almost fell out of my chair laughing.

I half expected Tim Allen to show up at the end, but he didn't. No, they went a more somber direction, with a conclusion starting with the passage, "After the experience of September 11th...."

This thing is awful, but it's absolutely watchable. Just invite some friends over, get hammered, and have fun.

*You might think you know this song: you don't. You're thinking of a different song called "Christmas in America." This one is even worse.

Book Review: Miracle and Other Christmas Stories

Miracle and Other Christmas Stories
Connie Willis, 1979

Crossposted from The Blue Fairy’s Bookshelf

Awww, man! More disappointing Christmas stories. I went into this one with high hopes, because Willis’ story “Pony” was one of my favorites in Christmas on Ganymede. Unfortunately, it was one of my favorites here, too.

It starts strong, with an introduction that was worth borrowing the book from the library for, just for the snark about Hans Christian *overrated hack* Andersen and the list of other recommended stories and movies, some of which weren’t on our radar yet! Sure, she thinks The/A Christmas Story is actually quality, and that's just wrong, whether you’re talking about the myth as literature or the movie as cinema (she likes both). But Willis is a Hugo winner! Surely, there are some good genre stories in here, right?

Sort of.

Lets run through the contents, shall we?

Starts strong, woman receives visit from accidentally conjured hippy Spirit of Christmas Presents, makes a cogent compelling argument for why “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrible movie. All good right? Unfortunately, about halfway through you see the “twist” and it devolves into another bad holiday rom-com. Sigh.

Now, credit where credit is due: In this story, Willis probably comes closer than anyone else in my entire life in getting me to give a good goddamn about a baby in a manger. It’s a good solid story about a woman in a church choir with an unexpected visitor.

“In Coppelius’ Toyshop”
Has a nice creepy vibe in some of it, overall too obvious.

“The Pony”
Read before. I still like it, although it doesn’t have much of an ending.

Okay story about a bookseller meeting characters from A Christmas Carol fallen on hard times.

“Cat’s Paw”
This one confounded me at first. It is clearly presented as the latest in a line of Holmes/Poirot/etc. style stories, although the characters are aware of this. I just wasn’t sure whether these characters did in fact predate this story, and if it would make more sense if I knew more. Turns out no, and no. Still, it’s kind of a neat little murder mystery, if the ending is a bit clunky and I found the style grating.

BEST story in the book. Really fun first-person tale about a possible alien invasion at the holidays. Everyone is nice, you see… too nice.

This story about a preacher with a sudden urge to drive into a snowstorm starts strong, but goes on a smidge long. Then the end, which is supposed to leave a sense of mystery and be open to interpretation, just undermined the whole thing for me, leaving me unsatisfied.

Short stories often have the problem of just being vignettes, but most of these were long enough ‘short’ stories that I thought the plots should have some closure, and only half of them did, it seems.

It’s not a terrible collection, overall, but I was so annoyed by the first one that it took me a while to give the other stories a chance.

3 Stars - A Good Book on average.

All Grown Up!: The Finster Who Stole Christmas (2004)

This was one of several holiday episodes and specials we got when we picked up a DVD titled "Nick Picks Holiday." I've heard of most of the series represented on the disc, but this is an exception. Apparently, this is a sequel to Rugrats, picking up ten years after the original series left off. Wikipedia informs me it lasted fifty-five episodes over five seasons, which is pretty impressive for an animated spin-off.

I can't help but wonder if this would have made more sense if I'd ever actually seen an episode of Rugrats. I guess I'll find out soon enough - there's a special later on the disc.

The first word I'd use for this is bizarre. And that applies to every level of the episode. The animation is extremely weird, likely a side-effect of being based on a show about toddlers and committed to making the characters identifiable ten years later.

The writing might be even stranger. Note I didn't say "bad": just... strange. The comedy and dialogue actually display an impressive amount of nuance, especially early on. Until the plot kicked in, I was really enjoying this.

So. About that plot.

Chuckie Finster hates that his father doesn't fully embrace the trappings of the holiday. He wants a big Christmas, but his dad always opts for the smaller tree and less gaudy decorations. There was actually a brief period where I thought the plot might be set up to teach his father a lesson about embracing the commercial side of the holidays. Had this been true, there'd be a "highly recommended" tag at the end of this, and *spoiler alert* there isn't.

Instead, Finster is so focused on getting the Christmas of his dreams, he winds up accidentally stealing a giant tree after mistaking its proximity to the trash as a sign it's being disposed of. Once he learns about his mistake, the episode devolves into an awkward, melodramatic mess.

That said, it does have some decent writing and solid jokes. Plus, its treatment of religion felt surprisingly mature (at least compared to most animated programs, which are terrified to touch the subject).

It wasn't awful, but I don't see any reason to recommend it, either. It's certainly possible I'd feel more charitable if I'd seen more episodes and knew the characters better, but I don't really have much interest in doing so anytime soon.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales (2002)

Much like It’s Christmas Time Again, Charlie Brown, this is a compilation of shorts. It’s an odd length though - 17 minutes - because it was initially produced to fill out an hour along with the original Charlie Brown Christmas.

That just means it’s short and sweet.

The vignettes start slow, each focusing on a different character, and I think the best one is Sally, who’s in the middle. They’re overall cute, but nothing amazing, and not as clever as the other collection.

Not much more to say about this, really. If you’ve a hankering for more short Peanuts tales after It’s Christmas Time Again, you can probably find this one on Youtube or Netflix.

Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979)



We just watched the epitome of stop-motion Christmas specials. I know, I know, you don’t believe me yet. Just give me a minute.

You know Rudolph, and Frosty, and Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, and Frosty’s Winter Wonderland, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and The Year Without a Santa Claus. But did you know that every last one of these takes place in a vast shared universe, which involves still more epic figures deserving of winter myth-making? No? Then you haven’t seen this one.

For me, Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July retroactively improves all the specials that came before it.

The premise is straightforward on the surface. An evil wizard who used to rule the Arctic wants to destroy Santa’s hold on winter, and to do so, he decides to take down Rudolph, using his friendship with Frosty as a lever against the young reindeer.

Oh, and we happen to establish the source and purpose of Rudolph’s magic, which I don’t want to spoil for you. What? You didn’t think Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was an epic fantasy hero? You thought wrong, my friend.

Sure, there are plenty of comedic scenes where the pacing starts to drag, more than a few plot holes, and a few of the minor villains fall rather flat. Some of the villainous moments are amazing, though, plus Ethel Merman stars in a supporting role, and the cameos and references to the earlier specials just keep coming. There are allusions to a much larger world of wintry magic, which we kept being intrigued by. I found the songs very sweet and mostly pretty good; they were written by Johnny Marks, the songwriter behind the original Rudolph song.

There’s also a huge amount of romance in this one. New minor characters Milton and Laine, Frosty and Crystal, Mr. and Mrs. Claus; the action keeps pausing to really let us feel the love in each couple, often in song.

This is a sequel that improves vastly for having seen the previous specials, but I think it would be a pretty entertaining watch for any fan of stop-motion and Christmas stories.

But for folks like us, fans of both Christmas and super-mega crossover events, this is downright awesome.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer & the Island of Misfit Toys (2001)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer & the Island of Misfit Toys was a direct-to-video CG sequel to the original stop-motion special. Before we go on, I'd like you to stop for one moment, close your eyes, and count in your head all of the direct-to-video CG movies made in a five year period around the year 2000 that didn't utterly and completely suck.

Take your time: make sure you're not forgetting any.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say you were able to think of zero examples. Once you add Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer & the Island of Misfit Toys to the potential pool, you'll find the final tally hasn't changed.

Let's start with the animation. I appreciate this was a different era and CG animation was still new. But this was just pathetic. The characters were lifeless, the movement was constricted, and even elements you'd expect to be easy - camera movement and crowds - were lacking. I'd be extremely surprised if this thing's director had ever worked with CG before.

For those of you keeping score, the animation is better than Olive the Other Reindeer and about on par with The Happy Elf. It's good to keep these things in perspective.

The script was bizarre. For better or worse, the folks making this clearly loved the original, or at least liked it enough to retain continuity. Bumbles couldn't swim in 1964; Bumbles can't swim in 2001. It sounds like the kind of thing no one could ever screw up, but a surprising number of Christmas sequels can't be bothered. So credit where its due. They de-aged Rudolph back to adolescence, but they did the same thing in Rudolph's Shiny New Year so there's precedence.

They definitely wanted to make this an actual sequel: pretty much every character who appears in the first one gets at least a cameo here, usually containing a reference to part one. They're joined by some new characters, most notably Queen Camilla, a hippopotamus who takes in damaged toys and nurses them back to health. There's a musical number about this in the style of a sultry jazz song. If you think that's out of place, you should see the scene where Rudolph and Clarice fall down and briefly end up in a mating position.

I guess the animators figured they could put whatever they wanted into this thing, since no more than a handful of people would see it.

If you're curious about the plot, it centers on a new villain known only as "The Toy Taker," an international toy thief. Wait - I may have spoke too soon. At the end, we discover he's also known as Mr. Cuddles. He's a stuffed bear whose owner threw him out, and he's trying to save all other toys from such a cruel fate. There's a musical number about this.

Funny thing about 2001: it's two years after 1999. And, funny thing about 1999: it's the year Toy Story 2 came out. Of course, Toy Story borrowed a lot from Henson's The Christmas Toy, so I guess it's only fair Christmas movies should be able to borrow elements from it in return.

Needless to say, this was pretty awful. The Toy Taker plot was abysmal, and they screwed up one of the best characters from the original, King Moonracer. He comes off as a simpering wimp in this thing. It's also worth mentioning that, despite being called Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer & the Island of Misfit Toys, they spend a smaller portion of their time on the island than they did in the original.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer & the Island of Misfit Toys is not a movie you, or anyone else, ever needs to see. Skip it and re-watch the original. Come to think of it, you can do better than the original, too. Skip that and watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Snowman, Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, or A Muppet Family Christmas instead.