Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Brain Scoop: The Nondenominational Holiday Botanical Celebration (2013)

Christmas is past, but we're still working our way through a backlog of online holiday shorts. The Brain Scoop is a Youtube series hosted by Emily Graslie, the Field Museum of Natural History's "Chief Curiosity Correspondent," a custom-made title that makes a lot more sense after you watch a few episodes.

The series is sort of a science education show on speed. It delivers everything you loved about shows like Bill Nye, but doesn't dumb down the subject matter. The show feels like it's primarily aimed at adults who grew up watching PBS, though - for the most part - the subject matter's appropriate for kids, as well.

This episode focuses on various decorative Christmas plants, with a focus on toxicity levels and side effects. If that doesn't sound awesome to you, I don't know what you're doing on this blog.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Doctor Who: Time of the Doctor (2013)

I found the final Matt Smith Doctor Who episode to be engaging, though it lacked a satisfying payoff. That is to say, it's a good example of his entire run. Fortunately, it was a Christmas special, so I can discuss it here.

Oh, and just so no one complains later, discussing it will include details. So then. Spoiler. Warning. Got it? Good.

They certainly went to great pains to establish this as Christmas-related. The doctor follows an unknown transmission to a planet besieged by all his enemies. Once he gets down, he finds a town named Christmas. They play with this quite a bit: there are no shortage of lines about how the Doctor is protecting or saving Christmas. This is in addition to a Christmas dinner playing out in Clara's apartment in the present.

In some ways, a Christmas special is the perfect time for a regeneration, at least from a symbolic standpoint. They play with this, as well: the days in Christmas are almost impossibly short.

In the town, he comes across a crack in reality and discovers the Time Lords are trying to break back into the Universe. With a word, he could bring them through, however this would precipitate an attack by the combined forces in orbit. Likewise, an assault would trigger the Doctor bringing back the Time Lords. Oh, and he discovers the world he's on is Trenzalore, the planet that will one day house his corpse.

Those of you who aren't following the show will have to take it on faith that the above makes some semblance of sense.

So the Doctor tricks Clara into leaving and decides to stay and defend Christmas. She gets back, but three hundred years have passed (he looks about ten or fifteen years older). This occurs once more, and she finds the Doctor dying of old age. They don't quote a number, but it seems likely the Doctor's overall age must have doubled in the middle of this episode - I wonder if they'll address that next year.

By this time the war is going poorly, the Daleks are attacking, and the Doctor knows he's going to die. The Time Lords are still shouting "Doctor Who?" through the crack in reality, but the real question is why the Doctor doesn't answer. I can think of several possible explanations, but I feel a little cheated Moffat didn't provide one.

Regardless, he goes to face his death, and Clara answers the Time Lords, though not like I'd expected. She should actually know the Doctor's original name thanks to "The Name of the Doctor," so it seems odd she doesn't give it to them. Instead she essentially says "The Doctor" is his name, and they should help him.

Of course they do, which resets his exhausted regenerations and allows the show to swap out leads.

I liked a lot of elements here. The Silence were cool as something other than a villain, and I like the new character, Tasha Lem (hopefully she'll be back in the future). Likewise, there were a few answers provided to lingering questions about The Silence. Plus, the parallels between Clara skipping centuries (if not milennia) as the Doctor fought a long war on Trenzalore and the tenth Doctor episode, The Girl in the Fireplace, were fascinating.

But, as a resolution to the eleventh Doctor, it was a bit of a letdown. Moffat's been teasing Trenzalore for years now, and this was nowhere near satisfying enough. The war wound up feeling small and dull. There was some narration implying the war had been great, but the idea that "Christmas", a single small village, could withstand the vast armies around it is absurd. Where were the fields of vanquished armies?

Still, we got some good moments between Clara and the Doctor. We even got some great scenes between the Doctor and a re-purposed Cyberman head. The episode grew sappy at times, but that's long been part of the series's charm.

Overall, not a bad episode of Doctor Who, though they clearly bit off a lot more than they could chew. Between fulfilling their Christmas obligations, attempting to resolve the Silence plot, giving Matt Smith an emotional sendoff, and setting up the next series, they didn't leave themselves much breathing room.

Super Santa in Jingle Bell Justice (1998)

I just came across this 7 minute short on Youtube. Stylistically, it feels a lot like Powerpuff Girls, with some great homages to the Adam West Batman and 60's spy shows. I particularly like the super-spy spin on Mrs. Claus, who isn't stuck at the North Pole this time.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Reflections and Modulations

Wow, December flew this year, didn’t it? For me, it wasn’t just because the span between Thanksgiving and Christmas was as short as it can be. My job is more involved and takes more of my brain than last year, plus I have more outside-of-work commitments too. All that’s just to say that I’m a little sad that it’s Christmas already, I feel like I barely registered time passing.

I’m really glad we finally saw some Bing Crosby specials (Meta, 1, 2, 3, 4), and I’m also glad we eviscerated The Christmas Shoes. We also found a few hidden gems this year, perhaps most notably Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July. Who knew that was good?

This is the fourth year, and Mainlining has become… a tradition. I don’t mean that in a sarcastic way, either. This: the watching of bizarre and terrible and wonderful Christmas stuff, collecting new music, new books and movies and decorations, finding more and different things to see and do, this is now part of how we celebrate the season.

Stay tuned as the year turns. We’ll probably go back to posting occasional ‘marginal’ works: those movies that have a Christmas connection but not a strong enough one to save for December. Our list of things to watch grows faster than we can check things off, after all. I picked up the first issue of a comic book about Krampus and the Secret Society of Santa Clauses; if the rest of the series is as good as the first issue, I’ll throw you a review by next year.

I used to have a complicated relationship with Christmas that was largely negative. Mainlining Christmas has given me a new way to engage; I still have complicated feelings, but now they’re positive.

I like being a geek about Christmas. I like knowing the songs, even the obscure ones. I like having complicated and engaged discussions about the merits of various animated specials.

Besides which, according to the Pew Research Center, I am far from alone these days: 8 in 10 Non-Christian Americans say they celebrate Christmas, and 32% of all Americans who celebrate say it’s more of a cultural than a religious thing.

I want to thank those of you who’ve been with us from the start: faithful readers like Jesse, Marci, Sam, and more; Shiraz for being patient with the apparent descent into lunacy; my mom for not pointing out every typo she spots; and thank you, new fans and friends (did you see we have a Facebook page now?)

Merry (secular gift-giving day we call) Christmas, everyone: I hope we’re a little part of your tradition, too.

Thanks the most to Erin, for coming up with this. I love Mainlining Christmas, because I do it with you.

The Best Christmas Movies of All Time

So, cards on the table: I tried to put together a simple top 10 list of the all-time best Christmas movies, but I ran into a snag - 40% of the list would have been Shane Black action movies.

But, as I listed things out, I started to notice that a lot of movies were falling nicely into pairs. So, rather than try to assemble a blanket pool, I'm breaking these into five categories, each of which will feature the two best holiday films that genre offers.

From these, I'll whittle it down to a simple "top 5" list. What that will represent is a look at the best Christmas films from the entire range of the holiday selection.

Best Animated Christmas Movies
There have been a lot of animated Christmas movies, but surprisingly few great ones. Both of these movies under-performed at the box office, but both are phenomenal films.

Nightmare Before Christmas
An homage to Rankin/Bass specials, Nightmare Before Christmas displays all of Tim Burton's style unencumbered by his limitations as a director (let's just be honest about this). In the hands of Henry Selick, the movie is able to thrive as a stylish, operatic masterpiece. It's beautiful and hilarious, and the showdown between Jack and the Bogeyman stands as one of animation's finest battles. A lot of Christmas movies are called "classics," but this deserves the title.

Arthur Christmas
The mix between absurdist humor and subtle drama is managed as well in Arthur Christmas as any movie I've ever seen. It's wistful, dark, and methodical, and as a result earns its happy ending completely. The film features a wholly original concept for Santa Claus that retains enough respect for history to somehow be instantly recognizable. It's one of the best Christmas movies ever made, and I look forward to the day it gets the attention and respect it deserves.

And the winner is.... Nightmare Before Christmas, but it's a lot closer than most of you probably think.

Best Christmas Comedies
I don't think there's another genre with as many overrated entries. There are dozens of sites that will list "A Christmas Story" and "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" as classics, and neither are worth your time. Fortunately, there are others that are. In fact, there are quite a few Christmas comedies that are at least fun. But there are at least two that are fantastic:

I've said it before: Jon Favreau was hired to churn out a crappy vehicle for an SNL alum, and he failed so badly he wound up crafting one of the greatest holiday films ever made. There are many reasons this works as well as it does, but one stands out for me: rather than take the easy road and treat it like a parody, the movie is deeply sincere in its approach. The result is a sweet, charming holiday film.

Fred Claus
Perhaps the most underrated movie up here, Fred Claus has a measly 24% on Rotten Tomatoes. While the movie has a few flaws (there's no excuse for the cartoon sound effects making it into the final cut), it's remarkably complex and intelligent. This movie approaches Santa Claus like the mythology it is, and it does so with a purpose. It has something to say, and it delivers its message with skill.

And the winner is.... Elf. I really enjoyed Fred Claus and think it deserves a place on the long list of the best holiday films. But, between the two, Elf is the movie that goes on the short list.

Best Holiday Action Movies
It's shocking just how many great holiday action movies are out there. Boiling it down to two was surprisingly easy, though, and that's because these are that good. You could remove the word "holiday" from this section, and these would both remain serious contenders.

Die Hard
On every level, Die Hard delivers an experience that hundreds of films have attempted to duplicate. The movie is tense, exciting, funny, and brutal. Unhindered by the decades of similar movies that followed it, Die Hard perfected the tropes before they became cliches. The movie is simply fantastic.

The Long Kiss Goodnight
Shane Black has written a lot of movies that would have claimed this spot if The Long Kiss Goodnight didn't exist. No one has had as big an influence on so many of the best Christmas movies, regardless of the genre. But - at least in my opinion - this one rises to the top for the simple reason it's the most fun of his films. Geena Davis is awesome here, and Samuel Jackson delivers more quotable lines than I can easily count.

And the winner is.... Die Hard. I love The Long Kiss Goodnight, but let's be clear: the definitive action movie was the first modern one.

Best Black and White Christmas Movies
Yes, that pun was intentional. And no, I won't apologize. There are a lot of classic Christmas movies, but only two that really stand out as cultural juggernauts. The fact that they're both genre films fills me with holiday cheer.

It's a Wonderful Life
The prototype for more science fiction movies involving time-travel than I can count, It's a Wonderful Life is probably the single most famous Christmas movie. Every year, more parodies and homages show up in specials. For many, it's synonymous with the holidays. And all for good reason: the movie is a remarkably clever inversion of A Christmas Carol where the character - already a good man - has to learn that his life has meaning to those around him.

Miracle on 34th Street
I'm not going to go through Miracle on 34th Street and cover all the movie's merits. There are too many phenomenal character moments, hilarious situations, and great twists to cover. But I will reiterate the one thing that has made this endure, the movie's single most impressive feat. It makes us believe in Santa, whether we want to or not.

And the winner is.... Miracle on 34th Street, hands down. Not to take anything away from It's a Wonderful Life, but there's just no competition.

Holiday Horror
There have been many Christmas horror movies, and - in all honesty - I've only seen a small portion of them. I feel like I've seen most of the ones considered the best, though.

Am I cheating with these picks? Perhaps a bit: neither are exactly "traditional" horror movies. Then again, most Christmas horror movies are at least half comedy (many are much more).

Rare Exports
Mixing horror, comedy, and adventure tropes, Rare Exports offers a truly fresh spin on the killer Santa premise. The movie is bizarre and fascinating.

A classic in its own right, Gremlins has some of the best production values you'll find in any holiday horror movie. It's inventive, intriguing, funny, and at times genuinely scary.

And the winner is.... Rare Exports. This was another close one, but after re-watching Gremlins the movie's PG-rated limitations, baffling tone shifts, and abandoned subplots need to be taken into account. It's still a great holiday movie, but I think Rare Exports takes the lead.

Here are the five winning movies, in no particular order:

  • Nightmare Before Christmas
  • Elf
  • Die Hard
  • Miracle on 34th Street
  • Rare Exports

Don't read it as the five best - several of the movies knocked out in the primaries are better than some that made the list, since some sub-genres have stronger offerings than others. Instead, you're seeing broader picture, a look at the best the cornerstones of holiday entertainment have to offer. Hope it helps you pick what to watch next year.

If you're upset your favorite movie got overlooked, keep in mind I had to pare things down a great deal to arrive at these lists: it doesn't mean I don't love the movie. Unless you're pissed I'm snubbing A Christmas Story, Home Alone, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Black Christmas, or one of the other overrated pieces of crap that have a following for some unidentifiable reason. If that's the case, the problem is you have bad taste in movies. Simple as that.

Stalking Santa (2006)

Stalking Santa is a good example of a cool movie made for virtually no money. To give you an idea of how little they spent, IMDB estimates its budget at $100,000, and it's narrated by William Shatner.

But the premise didn't require a lot of cash. The movie is a mockumentary about a self-proclaimed "Santologist" out to prove the existence of Claus. The writing is strong, and the direction effective. The movie borrows heavily from X-Files and takes the viewer in a number of unexpected directions - some surprisingly dark for a "family comedy."

The tone and genre switch gears several times, hinting at government conspiracies, fantasy, or science fiction, depending on the lead being explored.

Throughout the movie, the film cuts away to interview experts and children. Surprisingly, the kids don't come off as overly cloying. They stretch the tone, but... damn... their answers are adorable.

This is a very enjoyable film, but it does have a few issues. First, there's a disconnect between the main character and the resolution of the movie. The supporting characters are all sympathetic, even when they come off as foolish, but it's hard to feel for the lead given what he's putting them through. His quest for Santa Claus has taken a toll on his family: it's good comedy, but it creates an expectation for some real payoff at the end.

Instead, the film concludes abruptly. It's not the worst resolution they could have gone with, but it doesn't really fit the rest of the movie. Another five minutes providing some character development and growth would have given this resonance.

In addition, the movie has a couple of jokes that are a tad racist. Nothing egregious, but the name of a Chinese artifact made Lindsay and I cringe, and a punchline from an interview with a Thai character suggested a pattern. Neither of these jokes were truly awful, but both fed into stereotypes. If this had been made in the 80's, I'd overlook it, but not in this millennium.

That said, this is still a really good movie. We enjoyed it quite a bit: Stalking Santa offers a very inventive take on Christmas movies and delivers some great comedy on a shoestring budget. It's clever and definitely worth your time if you can track it down. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done: this never received a major release, and Netflix doesn't seem to have it in stock. Your best bet is to grab a used copy on Amazon or Ebay (you should be able to find one for less than five bucks, including shipping).

Becoming Santa (2011)

I stumbled across this on Netflix, where it stood out like a sore thumb. I'm used to seeing Christmas stuff there, of course, but this really jumped out at me. Why? Netflix, for those who don't know, gives everything an estimated rating, based on your personal ratings of things you've watched previously. So in a sea of items marked with one or two stars, this was rated at four. We put it on before we even realized it was a documentary.

The movie follows the adventures of Jack Sanderson as he sets out to become one of the countless Santa Clauses who appear every Christmas. Occasionally, the documentary cuts away to interviews with a slew of experts and Santas who have been at the game longer.

There's an awful lot to like here. The documentary begins with Jack having his beard and hair bleached, a process that turned out being pretty unpleasant (well, unpleasant for him - it was hilarious to watch). He then took a two-day course in becoming Santa Claus and headed to the East Coast for a series of gigs in Massachusetts and New York.

Jack's story was fun, and he certainly offered a good point-of-view. He approached the whole thing sincerely but kept a sense of humor and never seemed to lose his perspective. But the real stars were the peripheral characters: the eccentric woman running the Santa school, the stereotypical Bostonian who hired Jack for a parade, the veteran Santas interviewed, and - of course - the kids.

The historical tangents were decent overall. I was glad to hear the Coke archivist discredit the myth that his company's ad campaign invented the iconic Santa suit, and there was some good info about Black Peter. I'd have preferred a little less time be given to the head of the St. Nicholas Center, whose analysis seemed questionable to me. I'd also have liked a little time spent on other sources that contributed to the modern Santa. It seems like things like this give credit to either Saint Nicholas or pagan sources, but never both. I'm not sure why.

But those trivial details had little impact on the overall documentary, which was simultaneously witty and sweet. This was one of the best Christmas movies I've seen in a while, and I highly recommend you check it out.

Santa's Slay (2005)

Like Saint, Santa's Slay takes the "killer Santa" concept a step further than most. Unlike Saint, it's surprisingly entertaining and a lot of fun.

The movie opens with Santa Claus, played by wrestler Bill Goldberg, interrupting a family dinner and killing all present. The fact the victims included Fran Drescher and Chris Kattan should give you a good idea for the tone they were going for.

The credits roll, and the movie jumps to the leads, a young couple who work at a Jewish deli. It's already Christmas Eve, and Santa starts knocking off minor characters almost immediately as the leads start piecing together what's going on. They're helped by the boy's grandfather, who's been preparing for this night for a long time.

Just to clarify, this isn't a psychotic killer dressed as Santa: this is the real deal, complete with an evil "reindeer" (well, a flying ox, but they call it a reindeer). He's the son of Satan, and he was bound to the job after losing a bet with an angel in disguise. For a thousand years, he's been forced to deliver toys and spread goodwill... and he's not happy about the situation. The duration of the bet is up, so he's free to run amok murdering people with Christmas decorations.

Some key exposition was delivered via a stop-motion sequence, which I appreciated. The movie was about as campy as you can get, complete with over-the-top gore. As a rule, I dislike gore, but this was too cartoonish to bother me. Overall, the movie is far more comedy than horror. For the most part, it doesn't even try to scare you: it knows the concept is funny and just runs with it.

The writing is fairly solid, and the twists - while not particularly surprising - are handled well. The movie's premise feels like it's coming out of a convergence of holiday specials and horror tropes: I was pleasantly surprised to find it had a grasp of both. There's not a lot to the back story, but what we get is satisfying. In the wrong hands, this would have been nothing more than an excuse for a murdering Santa. Here, there's a bit more to it: the story actually answers a lot of questions about Santa's powers and immortality. As a result, it's as much like a new, shockingly authentic spin on the Santa myth as it is a parody.

I didn't expect to enjoy this, but I really did. It's not brilliant film making, but it really isn't supposed to be. I've seen a lot of camp horror Christmas movies, and I'd pretty much dismissed the genre as a whole. But this one delivered on its concept.

At less than an hour and twenty minutes, it doesn't outstay its welcome, either. The movie never drags or gets boring. I can't believe I'm saying this about a Christmas camp horror film, but... if anything, it felt a little short.

If you're looking for some ridiculous dark comedy/horror to cast a shadow over your Christmas, this is a good choice. It's not as a good a movie as Rare Exports, but that's really an adventure story. This is more akin to Jack Frost... just far, far better.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Rotten Tomatoes has a list up of the top 25 Christmas movies. I was embarrassed to count six we hadn't seen. However, only one was in the top ten: Tokyo Godfathers. Well, Christmas miracles being what they are, that was actually available on Netflix streaming (and subtitled, no less). Naturally, we decided to give it a shot.

This is a Japanese animated movie about three homeless people who come across an abandoned infant on Christmas Eve and set out on a quest to find its parents. On the way, we uncover what brought them to the streets. One is a drunken gambler, the second a drag queen, and the third is a young runaway.

There's no shortage of social commentary stemming from the fact the world dismisses them as trash, but I didn't find it preachy. The drag queen is used as comic relief at times, and there's more than a little stereotyping here. Nonetheless, the character is cast in a very favorable light. Be aware there a few moments that might make you cringe, but the filmmakers do right by the character in the end.

The movie crosses over about a half dozen genres. I can easily imagine it described as a comedy, drama, mystery, crime story, holiday classic, satire, or a cartoon, depending on who's looking at it. It doesn't just contain elements of these genres: all of them run through the entire film, somehow without interfering with the others. That's an impressive feat.

The writing is topnotch, and the characters are all intricately developed. It's a beautiful piece; definitely worth checking out.

Christmas Evil (1980)

This is one of the first movies in the "slasher-Santa" sub-genre (though certainly not the origin of the idea). Wikipedia says it has a cult following, which I can definitely believe. It's a bizarre movie; not entirely bad but certainly not what I'd call good, either.

This is generally considered a slasher, but I think that's misleading. The story is entirely told from the perspective of the killer, and his victims aren't portrayed in a sympathetic manner. To my mind, that plants this firmly in the category of revenge-flick, rather than slasher.

The movie focuses on Harry, a toy-factory employee who loves Christmas and is emotionally scarred from seeing his parents together when his dad was dressed as Santa. He's bullied at work and lives a reclusive life, and  is utterly obsessed with Christmas (no jokes, please).

The character spends his downtime spying on the neighborhood children and recording their good and bad deeds in a pair of books. He sets out to punish the worst of the bunch, but doesn't wind up hurting him (it's not really clear whether he'd have done so given the chance). At this point, it really felt like the movie was going to devolve into having Harry kill the bad kids (or possibly even the good ones), but - fortunately - they went in a different direction.

Harry has a nervous breakdown and decides to become Santa. Despite the movie's provocative title, he doesn't really go evil, though. He's mostly interested in giving gifts, though he does kill a few people who seem especially awful. The movie's body count is relatively contained - four, unless I miscounted, in two separate scenes, neither of which are especially disturbing.

The movie kind of sputters on. It's more interesting than a lot of similar films, partially due to some bizarre filming choices. I think they were going for psychological thriller, but Harry never feels real enough to deliver on that. Still, the sheer surreality of the thing is enough to keep it from being a total loss.

The ending swerves into extremely strange territory. Chased by a mob wielding torches, Harry's van careens out of control and drives off a bridge. Instead of crashing into the water, it flies off into the night as we realize that Harry has truly become Santa Claus (or something). It's absurd, completely out of tone, and not especially original, but I like it better than any of the more conventional endings they could have slapped on.

The movie oscillates between fascinatingly weird and boring. It's never really scary, though I'm not sure it wanted to be. If anything, it seemed to trying for a Hitchcock vibe but couldn't pull it off. Still, if you're looking for an off-kilter killer Santa, you could do much worse than this. Granted, you could do far better, but that's another matter.

Gremlins (1984)

I'm not sure why it's taken us this long to officially get to Gremlins. I've owned the movie for years, but for some reason it never occurred to me I should re-watch and review it as a Christmas movie. It's especially bizarre given how much effort the movie makes to subvert the holiday. It plays with holiday music in a manner similar to what Die Hard would do a few years later. It also utilizes imagery to twist the holiday: look at the eerie green and red lights emanating from the pool when Mohawk jumps in and spawns an army of gremlins.

You can even interpret the gremlins themselves as being evil Christmas elves (though that's admittedly a stretch).

Gremlins is also at least partially responsible for popularizing the myth that the suicide rate shoots up around the holidays: this is certainly where I first heard it claimed. It's easy to believe, but not remotely true. Suicide rates actually drop in December, and with good reason: who has the time?

Setting that aside, the movie is extremely bizarre in tone and concept. It's tempting to compare this to Ghostbusters (also released in 1984), but Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness are probably closer matches to the tone.

I can't imagine there are many people out there who've never seen Gremlins, but I'll recap just in case: The movie is about a young man who receives a cute, magical pet as a Christmas gift. The pet, called a Mogwai, comes with three rules: one to ensure its safety and two to ensure yours. Exposing the creature to water will cause it to multiply, and feeding the creatures after midnight transform them into horrible, reptilian monsters. The last rule is that sunlight will kill them.

The movie doesn't have much plot beyond the obvious: an army of evil creatures are accidentally created and go on a rampage Christmas Eve. The main character, his family, his girlfriend, and the original Mogwai have to stop them.

On its own, the premise is fairly common for an 80's movie. But whenever I re-watch it, I'm always surprised just how strange the tone is. It oscillates from outright horror to cartoonish humor at the drop of a hat. The sequence where the main character's mother is alone in a house with four gremlins is as tense as any slasher scene from the era, but other scenes are full of slapstick and zany sound effects.

The movie's weirdness largely ties into the concept's roots: stories of gremlins originated in World War II and were quickly adapted into animated shorts. The movie goes to a lot of lengths to pay homage to these; the results are debatable.

Opinions on the movie are somewhat mixed. In some circles, it's considered one of the great movies of the 1980's. In others, it's looked at as over-rated. I'm almost inclined to agree with both camps: the movie offers a very unusual spin on Christmas. Unless you interpret the gremlins as evil elves, this is a Christmas fantasy/horror that isn't strictly about a Christmas trope (i.e.: an evil Santa Claus). I can't think of single other movie that fits that meets those criteria.

But the movie drags at times. In addition, the characters are underdeveloped, and the movie introduces several subplots that are never resolved (we never find out what happened to the bank VP, for example). In fact, the vast majority of scenes are left ambiguous. A lot of minor characters presumably die, but the PG-rating opens the door for a lot of cuts leaving their fates uncertain.

Ultimately, it's a good movie, but a flawed one. It's definitely worth checking out if you're a fan of dark comedy... just be aware it stops short of being great.

Craft: Angel Re-Paint: Devils

I know it's a bit of a cheap shot, but I spotted these resin cherubs at a yard sale and had to have them.

I added little horns with Kneadatite, and painted the horns a base coat to match the figure.

Here's an in-progress shot:

More paint all over, and... ta-da:

These are pretty small, so fine detail wasn't easy. I had a lot of luck using watered down dark colors to give a bit of dimension.

They came out pretty nice.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t (1966)

Wow. We were warned about this one, but it still managed to reach pretty significant levels of awfulness. But the awfulness pales in comparison to how mind-numbingly boring this is.

Here’s the plot: a cranky Snidely Whiplash type named Prune has bought up all the land at the North Pole, and now he’s charging Santa rent. If the jolly old elf can’t come up with the funds by Christmas Eve, he’s going to repossess the land and all the toys. For help, Santa goes to a lawyer who apparently wrote him a thank you note as a kid. Ooookay.

Early on they establish that Prune hates Santa because he hates children, especially happy children. He sings about this. Throughout actors repeat the name Prune ad nauseum as if saying the word, by itself, is a hilarious joke. The lawyer gets Santa a job as the first department store Santa. (Insert facepalm here.) Santa is afraid of meeting children while they’re awake, but gets over it. After singing about it. Prune cheats them out of their pay, and it looks like all is lost.

Oh, how I wish that all had been lost. Santa and Lawyer run into a kid out in the street, the kid yells a lot, somehow waking up just the children in this town, and they all bring their pennies to pay Santa’s rent. Prune is crushed by his defeat. Santa and Mrs. Santa and Lawyer deliver all the presents to that town in a photo montage bookended by a dollar-store-quality flying sleigh miniature. This is apparently the only town, because they now have time to deliver an accidentally 30-plus-years-delayed Christmas gift to Prune, thus magically making him a loving, happy person who creepily chases children through the snow.

The cast actually seems like they could be decent actors, but the material here is so thin and so terribly written that they have no hope of pulling it off. The production values are really low and the film is terribly shot.

There are songs. Oy, are there songs. They don’t even rhyme properly, or they rhyme a word with the same exact word over and over again. The entire dialogue track is overdubbed, I think, and every so often it’s not synced right. The only halfway-okay song is the opening title, and it’s only saved by the fact that it’s sung by Glenn Yarbrough. You don’t know that name? If you’ve ever seen the Rankin/Bass ROTK or Hobbit, you know that voice, trust me. He gives the insipid lyrics a little 60’s-70’s style folk gravitas.

Prune actually looks like he’s enjoying himself, and he directed it, so I guess that’s why he’s the only one with something vaguely resembling a character arc. Santa always looks like he’s going to cry, and the best thing I can say about the lawyer - kind of a knock-off-Danny-Kaye type - is that he’s mostly inoffensive. The worst thing I can say about him is that he also wrote the script.

There’s a gaggle of elves being exploited in the back room at Santa’s House. I don’t know if they just cast every short/little person they could get their hands on or what, because these folks seem totally out of place here. They either can’t act or were told to act like mentally challenged martians. Actually, since the film was made in Rome, it’s really very possible that these actors didn’t speak English. While everyone else is exaggerated but not too crazy in their costumes, the elves look like some intern was given a tub of bits of bright-colored clothing, some clown makeup and a gallon of hair gel, and told they wanted the elves to look like Munchkins. This intern had never seen The Wizard of Oz.

I cannot impress upon you enough how boring this was. The dialogue sets new standards for the definition of inane. It was only about 90 minutes, but it felt like it went on forever.

Finally, I want to go back briefly to the end of the plot description. It’s supposed to be a Christmas Carol reference, but Prune (up until 5 minutes earlier the villain, the avowed hater of children and childhood, the one with the “villain” mustache, that guy) runs out into the snow in his nightgown, and then chases a small child around a bench and finally physically tackles the kid to give him a present. Then he leads a parade of children into his house. There is no dialogue, this is under music.

I hope this is needless to say, but no one should watch this. Maybe, MAYBE if you are drunk and/or high and are on purpose watching terrible things. But I’m sure even in that situation you can find something less boring.

My Life as a Teenage Robot: A Robot for All Seasons (2004)

I would say that it was really surprising for the best episode on a compilation DVD to come from a show we’d never heard of, but really that happens all the time around here.

My Life as a Teenage Robot was apparently a critical darling and a ratings flop which had its 3 season run strung out over 7 years on Nickelodeon. I don’t know about the rest of the show, but the Christmas episode was pretty darn good.

The show is about XJ-9, aka Jenny, who is the eponymous teenage robot. I would have assumed that a show about a robot girl who really wants to hang out with humans would probably be cringe-worthy, but I found the episode had a good balance between ‘let’s go to the mall’ and ‘let’s save the planet’. Mostly the latter, in other words. The visual style is sleek and angular, a nice blend of modern and classic sci-fi styles.

The episode opens with XJ-9 happily (if over-enthusiastically) filling in for an injured Santa Claus. She and her friends then hit the after-Christmas sales, where Jenny meets a little boy who declares that the only thing that will make him happy for Christmas is spending time with a real live robot. Always happy to help, Jenny goes home with the boy, but he turns out to be an evil brat with a plan to use Jenny to wreck Christmas. I won’t tell you the whole plot, but this brings us to a great section where we the viewers know most of what’s going on, because you and I recognize tropes, but the writers go farther than I’d expect for a Nickelodeon show, and there’s some real fear, tension and pathos here.

I mean, I’m sure that the show didn’t ever refer to the huge, giant, massive things which happened during this episode again, because it’s not that kind of show, but it’s nice that they went there for an episode.

In any case, the final climax falls a bit flat, but the obligatory song (reprised from the beginning) is really cute. And major props for using the word gay in a Christmas song in a kids show.

We were pleasantly surprised by this show overall, and I recommend all you fans of sci-fi kids shows give it a try.

Arthur Christmas Plush Talking Santa (Toy Review)

I just posted another brief toy review (and I use that word in the loosest sense possible), this time for a plush Santa from the underrated holiday masterpiece, Arthur Christmas. Here it is, in case you're interested:

Stalag 17 (1953)

Stalag 17 is considered a classic. Along with It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story, it's on the IMDB's top 250 movies of all time (as a society, we really need to get A Christmas Story off that list). Between the IMDB and its 97% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it was pretty much a given this was going to be good. Well, this late in the season, we're ready for some good movies.

This is, indeed, worth seeing, providing you're a fan of the era. The movie is well written and directed with a genuine sense of mystery and suspense broken up by occasional comic relief. The entire movie takes place inside a German POW camp during World War II. It's a few weeks before Christmas, and the Americans held there are continuously undermined in their attempts to escape or conceal information from their captors. The consequences aren't sugar coated, either: the movie opens with two of their number being gunned down in an escape attempt.

It becomes apparent they're being sold out, and suspicions quickly turn to Sefton, a gambler and conman who's managed to amass a small fortune in cigarettes and other items. It's clear to the audience that it isn't him, if for no other reason than it's too obvious, but I found the other characters' reactions believable.

Things escalate when they're joined by a lieutenant who operated as a saboteur in Germany before his capture. This is leaked to the Nazis, and the situation escalates into a game of cat and mouse as the Nazis struggle to gain the information they need to prove his guilt, Sefton works to uncover the traitor, and the others - largely convinced of Sefton's guilt - seriously consider murdering him.

There's not a huge number of Christmas tropes in the movie, though it uses the holidays as a constant time table and backdrop. There's also a holiday party which plays on the darkly comedic nature of the characters.

The reveal was fairly satisfying, as well. There were a handful of possible ways they could have gone, and they didn't take go with anything absurd or obvious.

The movie did include a handful of over-the-top choices, though. The Nazi guards were ridiculously stupid, and the actual security seemed pitifully inadequate - couldn't they have just rushed the guards and taken their guns? In addition, the plot required a character remaining waist deep in a water tank for several days and nights in December and not dying of hypothermia.

But overall this was a great movie. It was very focused in scale, which allowed for some good character work (though some of the comic relief got old by the end). It deserves its status as a classic Christmas war film. If you're not a fan of older movies, however, you'll want to avoid this one: it's certainly not paced like a modern film.

Book Review: A Yuletide Universe: Sixteen Fantastical Tales

A Yuletide Universe: Sixteen Fantastical Tales
Editor: Brian M. Thomsen, 2003

Crossposted from The Blue Fairy's Bookshelf

Hooray! Despite opening with an epigraph/poem that made me cringe (it started out rhyming, and then… stopped?) this was a much better collection of holiday cheer than the others I've read this year.

My favorite stories are starred(*).

The collection opens with three super-short pieces:
“Nicholas Was . . .” by Neil Gaiman, 1989
“Cyber-Claus” by William Gibson, 1991
* “Holiday” by Richard Christian Matheson, 1982

The Gaiman and Gibson are brief and forgettable, but the Matheson (this Matheson is the son of the more famous author) is a nice, subtle piece about a guy who runs into Santa on holiday in the tropics.

“Nackles” by Donald E. Westlake, 1964
Westlake is mostly a crime fiction author, and this little spooky story about the creative power of belief is well done, if not (in 2013) particularly original.

“Santa Claus vs. S.P.I.D.E.R.” by Harlan Ellison, 1968
Absolute shit. Extremely dated, pedantic, unfunny, and gross parody of a spy novel. Avoid this one at all costs. I'm already repressing having read it.

“O Come Little Children . . .” by Chet Williamson, 1989
This is a finely written piece about belief and the “real” Santa, along with parental fears and a decent twist.

“It’s a Wonderful Miracle on 34th Street’s Christmas Carol” by Brian Thomsen, 2003
The most recent piece, a trope mashup taking place mostly in a therapist's office, is also the one by the editor of the collection. It’s not terrible, but maybe he should stick to editing.

“The Yattering and Jack” by Clive Barker, 1984
While I found some parts of the ending unsatisfying, this tale of the struggle between a demon and an average man was often fascinating.

“Icicle Music” by Michael Bishop, 1989
A creepy ghost story that starts with a boy receiving a shotgun and a visitor.

“Miracle” by Connie Willis, 1991
Nope, not reading that one again. It’s not horrible, I just didn’t like it much.

* “A Foreigner’s Christmas in China” by Maureen F. McHugh, 1993
A poetic, lovely piece about travel, ghosts, and the paths people walk.

“Household Words, Or The Powers-That-Be” by Howard Waldrop, 1993
This was very very odd. Parts of this meditative, half-biographical, half-alt-steampunk-world story about Dickens and Christmas Carol are intriguing, but it never really goes anywhere. It felt like the author was just showing off a handful of ideas he really liked, without a real story to put them in.

* “A Kidnapped Santa Claus” by L. Frank Baum, 1904
An earlier version of this story was in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, but certain aspects of it are much more interesting in this. A handful of demons decide to kidnap Santa in order to cause the children of the world to indulge in vices. In the public domain! 

* “How Santa Claus Came to Simpson’s Bar” by Bret Harte, 1873?
A Western! It’s got excellent style, and it’s a sweet story with rough edges, which is just right. In the public domain!

* “A Proper Santa Claus” by Anne McCaffrey, 1973
Just lovely, a fantastic story about a young boy and his ideas about “proper” art. Recommended for all who were young artists.

* “The Plot Against Santa Claus” by James Powell, 1970
FINALLY! Someone wrote an actual Christmas noir! Rory Bigtoes has a lot of problems as head of Security for Santa, what with threats against the big guy and civil unrest among the elf population over new toy production techniques. This is probably my favorite piece in this whole collection.

This is a much stronger collection overall than the others I read this year, despite a few missteps, and I can safely recommend it as a fun read. Just skip the Ellison.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book (If you delete that one story. Otherwise 3. Or 2. It’s really bad.)

Bluetoes the Christmas Elf (1988)

Gather round children, while I tell you the tale of Bluetoes, the Christmas Elf.

Bluetoes was born different than all the other elves, who mocked him for his short stature and wouldn't let poor Bluetoes join in their elf work. Then one Christmas eve, Santa came say, Bluetoes, with your toes so blue, won't you become chief operator in charge of stocking preparation and distribution? Then how the elves all loved him, as the special ended mercifully, and Bluetoes the crappy elf, was forgotten by damn near everyone.

Let me back up: I feel like I may have omitted some significant details.

Bluetoes the Christmas Elf was created by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, who you've probably never heard of because they probably don't matter. Presumably, they wanted to produce the next Rudolph. They wound up with something that doesn't even have its own Wikipedia page.

Information about Bluetoes' origins is difficult to uncover, due to two factors: first, as I mentioned above, it doesn't have a Wikipedia page. Second, it doesn't warrant me taking five minutes to see if I can find a fan page or something. And, honestly, I wouldn't trust a fan page to Bluetoes, because anyone who was a big enough fan of this thing to take the time to make a website devoted to it, clearly has something wrong with them.

But, based on the credits, it seems to have been based on a kids book, mostly likely copied by hand and exchanged by Canadian fir traders in the mid 1980's. At some point, there was a song written, as well, probably before the special, because otherwise it most likely would have had something to do with the special.

The song is cut in half and plays during the credits. In it, a crappy 70's folk singer describes Bluetoes as a mischievous elf, who learns a lesson or something. Doesn't really matter, anyway, because he isn't mischievous in the special: he's just unlucky. He screws everything up: he can't even pick ripe toys from the toy trees without it ending in disaster.

I'm just going to gloss over that.

His name isn't Bluetoes yet: elves, we are told, are named for what they do. For example, Chopper is an elf who cuts down trees. Another elf is named "Whitey". I'm assuming he's a white supremacist.

Small One wants desperately to help, but every time he tries, something goes horribly, horribly, stupidly wrong. Half the time it involves the special's antagonist, a large polar bear who is thwarted by water. At the end, Small One makes amends. They don't outright say the bear will put the star on top of the Christmas tree from now on, but they really don't have to.

Small One's only friend is a penguin, who is lost and needs to find his way home to the North Pole. I sincerely hope that Rakin/Bass sued the hell out of the SOB's who made this.

Small One promises to help the penguin get home, so naturally the two of them wind up in a sack on Santa's sleigh. Santa doesn't notice them, but he does discover he's missing two presents because... who cares why? Just go with it. Anyway, he takes off to get replacements, not realizing Small One is on the roof.

Small One thinks Santa's leaving for good, so he pulls a few toys out of his ass (or pockets - I forget which), then goes in to leave them for the kids. Lacking any wrapping paper, he comes up with the truly moronic idea of pulling off his own dirty socks, stuffing the toys in them, then leaving them to stink up the kids' room.

This, we are told, is where the stocking tradition originated.

He then leaves the kids' room to hang out on the roof. Apparently, having spent his entire life in the sub-zero temperatures of the North Pole wasn't enough to acclimate the elf to the cold, so he almost freezes to death in his bare feet. When Santa returns, he sees that the cold has turned the elf's toes blue. He changes his name to Bluetoes and decrees stockings will be a thing from now on.

Oh, one more thing. The special ends with the penguin with Bluetoes and the elves at the North Pole. In other words, he never makes it home.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Earthworm Jim: For Whom the Jingle Bell Tolls (1996)

Earthworm Jim was both a series of absurdist video games and a short-lived animated show. This was actually the last episode. The humor and style owes a lot to The Tick, although Earthworm Jim is more random, I think.

In this episode, the cold opening shows us what happens if you write secret hideout on your roof with Christmas lights. The main plot follows The Evil Queen Pulsating, Bloated, Festering, Sweaty, Pus-filled, Malformed Slug-for-a-Butt, as she learns about Santa (from Earth TV) and decides to kidnap and brainwash him, so that he will help brainwash all the children of the world into doing her bidding. Jim, Peter Puppy and Princess What’s-Her-Name set out to save Santa

This was hilarious. Highlights include the dark side of working for Santa (including a drunken rant from Rudolph in a bar for anthropomorphised concepts), and how Jim et. al. find out about the Queen’s plan (via the psychic beard link between Santa and all mall Santas)

Sure, there was a joke here and there that hadn’t aged well, but there were also a couple that we were surprised made it to a saturday morning cartoon. I was also surprised how much I enjoyed Queen Slug-for-a-Butt. I was ready to cringe, but she was pretty kick-ass in her evilness.

The climax, and how Santa eventually saves Christmas, had us both agape. We were quite impressed with the research and the cleverness of this episode. (Side note: I am aware that the creator of Earthworm Jim is kind of an asshat, but there's nothing objectionable I spotted in this episode and he’s not listed as the writer here.)

It’s only 20 minutes, you should go ahead and check this one out.

Fred Claus (2007)

Let me start by saying that we went into this not expecting much. We knew it was a Vince Vaughn vehicle about Santa’s brother, and that much made us wince.

But it was time, so we put in the DVD, and were amazed at what we found.

This movie is actually good. Not just good: in the scale of Christmas comedies it’s kinda…. great. But let me give you a few more caveats:

  • There are bad, distracting, “zany” sound effects. They are a terrible choice. But except for a few scenes, they’re easy to ignore.
  • Similarly: slapstick. The movie could have done with about 50% less slapstick.
  • There are a few aspects that would be annoying if we had certain meta-knowledge. Who is playing this or that small role, for example. But we didn’t know, so it was just a small, somewhat amusing role.
  • This movie is not exactly kind to its women. The female characters are almost entirely eye candy or shrewish or both. It could have been much worse, and it is possible to look past the jokes to see that there is some character under there. The filmmakers don’t get a pass, but I think the movie’s heart is in the right place often enough that I’ll partially forgive some dude-centric density in the writing and cinematography.

Now, all that said: we loved this. We were SHOCKED, but we really enjoyed watching this movie.

For one thing, it starts in the distant past, when Nicholas is born. And he’s perfect. And if your sibling is perfect, it’s really hard to live with that. Even if he becomes an actual saint and makes himself and his immediate family immortal (apparently that’s how it works - just go with it). You’re always going to struggle with that, no matter how much you love each other. And that relationship is what the movie played just right all the way through.

The strongest themes here are sibling and family relationships and the troubles of children, specifically the kinds of hurt that affect kids out of all proportion, and how ‘bad’ kids often are just reacting to their circumstances.

Fred is a schmuck and a bit of a loser, but he tries when the chips are down and he cares about others, he just needs to learn better ways to show it. Paul Giamatti's Santa is long-suffering and completely caring in a perfect balance. The head elf is played by John Michael Higgins, who plays straight man in a crazy world with pathos and certitude. There’s a villain: an efficiency expert from an unnamed agency who apparently has power over Santa. (It’s not explained, but I like the idea that God hires bureaucratic paper-pushers in dark suits.) He’s played by Kevin Spacey. He’s absolutely delightful.

Sure, it’s disjointed and unbalanced here and there, but what it does well is sweet, wonderful and hilarious. The use of music is spot on: they used a lot of songs I love in interesting ways. The climax with the villain is perfect. If you have a soft spot for stories about Santa or stories about brothers, give this one a chance.

We enjoyed this so much that despite its flaws we’re calling it Highly Recommended. We might be the only ones who liked this movie, but goddamn did we like it.

Forever Fun Peanuts and Frosty Figures (Video Toy Review)

There's a new video review of three miniature toys I picked up at Toys 'R Us:

Die Hard 2 (1990)

The premise of Die Hard 2 is incredibly similar to that of the original: John McClane is meeting his wife on Christmas Eve, only for her to be taken hostage by terrorists along with others. McClane has a short amount of time to figure out their plans and save her. I grew up thinking this was written to be a facsimile of part one, but a few minutes on Wikipedia reveals that the truth is a bit more complicated.

Die Hard 2 was based on a novel called 58 Minutes, which wasn't in the same series as the book the first Die Hard was based on. 58 Minutes was published a year before Die Hard came out, meaning it couldn't have been inspired by the movie's success. I suppose the writer might have been inspired by the novel "Nothing Lasts Forever" (there are a lot of parallels), but I don't see any evidence for that. Interestingly, both novels involved the hero (whose name wasn't John McClane in either) trying to save his daughter. The movies changed it to his wife on both occasions.

I guess the producers read the book and decided the premise would work well for the second movie in this series. I'm not sure I agree. Die Hard 2 isn't really a bad movie, at least not when compared to most action movies from the 80's and 90's, but it's impossible to overlook its shortcomings in comparison to the original. The original Die Hard remains the epitome of the genre: in contrast, Die Hard 2 just feels forced.

First of all, the tension around McClane's chances is gone. A key sequence in the film involves McClane discovering the villains use blanks to fake a gunfight during a key scene - I'm not sure what the big deal is: the bullets never seemed dangerous in the first place. McClane barely has to move to avoid getting hit, nor is there any suspense in the constant string of hand-to-hand fights.  In the first movie, he wins because he's sneaky, clever, and refuses to give up and die; this time, he's just lucky.

For what it's worth, there is some tension around Holly's predicament, though it's undercut by the coincidental presence of the smarmy reporter from part one. This movie had way too many coincidences and parallels throughout.

I like a lot of Renny Harlin's work, but I think he was a bad choice to direct a Die Hard movie. He's at his best when working with super-spies and pulp heroes, while McClane needs to be grounded to work.

The holiday elements, while not quite as pervasive as they were in part one, are certainly present, though they feel more like call backs than anything else. This is the last Die Hard movie to take place on Christmas Eve, which means it's the last I'll be reviewing here. If anyone's interested, I kind of like the third, was bored by the fourth, and skipped the fifth entirely.

Photos: Evergreen Community Church Light Show

Our never-ending quest for the shiniest sparkliest Christmas-ness brought us, in time, to the Evergreen Community Church in Bothell, WA. This is the second year they have hosted a synchronized light show for the holidays.

You walk through a pretty cool tunnel to get to the viewing area. (The guy at the end is handing out candy canes.) A sign on site said that the tunnel alone contains 7,600 lights.

There's a little side display with trees and reindeer that's pretty cute. Inside the building pictured is a train set, some informational signs, a place to donate to the YMCA, and free snacks: cider, hot chocolate and cookies.

 But the real show is the front of the church itself. 270 independently controlled sections of lights, 2 miles of extension cords, 2 "Mega Trees" with 12,800 lights each...

Enjoy some excerpts:

All in all, it was a damn fine display!

I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown (2003)

This is an hour-long Peanuts Christmas special from a decade ago. I wasn't expecting much, on account of the fact it's fairly recent, but I was pleasantly surprised.

The special focuses almost entirely on Rerun van Pelt, Linus and Lucy's younger brother. I know that sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it actually had a pretty neat effect, particularly on Charlie Brown. For once, he's not a martyr: in fact, Rerun envies the fact he has a dog. It has the effect of making the Peanuts' world less one-dimensional, while providing some sense that these characters are starting to grow up.

There's not a lot of plot here, but Rerun's desire for a pet holds this together. There's a sort of kid-friendly existentialism at play here, as Rerun ponders the unfairness of the universe. The whole thing has a very melancholy tone you wouldn't expect, either. There are a lot of jokes - most of which are genuinely funny - but at it's core, this is about alienation and the quest for meaning, companionship, and understanding.

Rerun doesn't get a dog at the end. While that robs this of a defined narrative arc, it does make it feel surprisingly honest: you don't always get what you want, and the world isn't always fair.

The special's largest issue is its lack of sympathetic female characters. Lucy is the only one with a substantial part, and she comes off as even more sadistic than usual. Making matters worse, there are some sequences where Schroeder is physically abusive while trying to drive her off. Granted, Lucy is just as bad to her brothers, but it feels like we're supposed to sympathize with them when she's being cruel and with Schroeder when he's getting rid of her. It comes off a little misogynous. I'm sure that was unintentional, but it's certainly unfortunate.

Setting that aside, it's a good special. You might want to give it a try if you've got an hour to kill.