Posts

Showing posts from December 22, 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.

Doctor Who: Time of the Doctor (2013)

Image
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 crac…

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.

Reflections and Modulations

Image
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 evisceratedThe 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 y…

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 limitat…

Stalking Santa (2006)

Image
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, th…

Becoming Santa (2011)

Image
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…

Santa's Slay (2005)

Image
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 t…

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Image
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…

Christmas Evil (1980)

Image
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 …

Gremlins (1984)

Image
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 …

Craft: Angel Re-Paint: Devils

Image
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.



The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t (1966)

Image
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 look…

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

Image
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 …

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)

Image
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'…

Book Review: A Yuletide Universe: Sixteen Fantastical Tales

Image
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
Absol…

Bluetoes the Christmas Elf (1988)

Image
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 …

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

Image
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 th…

Fred Claus (2007)

Image
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 charac…

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)

Image
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…

Photos: Evergreen Community Church Light Show

Image
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)

Image
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 alienati…