Thursday, December 25, 2014

2014 Draws to a Close

It's that time again. Time to cut down the Christmas lights, knock over the tree, and throw out whatever mistletoe didn't get eaten before it goes bad. It's Christmas again, and you know what that means: it's time to say good-bye to Mainlining Christmas for another year.

Granted, the next year starts in a week, and we typically post reviews whenever the hell we feel like it, so it's not like we'll be out of your lives entirely. But we'll be out of holiday-mode, so the 3 to 10 posts a day pace is over and done with for the foreseeable future.

I'm relieved to get the holidays behind me, but - as is always the case - it makes me a little sad, as well. Sure, the near-constant barrage of Christmas specials and movies gets a bit much, but it's also tradition.

On top of all that, this has been a pretty good Christmas. We've excavated a whole other level of holiday movies and found a number of unexpected gems. We saw old, forgotten films: Beyond Tomorrow, The Bishop's Wife, Prancer, and Christmas in Connecticut; episodes we enjoyed from Moonlighting, Leverage, and The Flash; and newer, less famous movies we enjoyed: Joyeux Noël, Happy Christmas, Young Sherlock Holmes, In Bruges, I am Santa Claus, Go, and All is Bright. We also finally got around to The Lion in Winter, which deserves to be remembered as one of the all-time great Christmas films. Meanwhile, The Snowman and the Snowdog wound up being an unexpected pleasure, and both Peace on Earth and its remake, Goodwill to Men, were phenomenal shorts that we should have gotten to years ago.

That's not to say it was all great. We endured all three Santa Paws films, the last two made-for-TV Home Alones, and things so bad, I'd rather not list them all here (I didn't initially realize how many awful things we saw).

But let's just put those behind us.

Overall, it was a pretty good year. In addition to an - okay, let's go with "mixed" - assortment of specials and movies, we also put together thirteen Nerdtivities, one of which is, in fact, now officially award-winning. Yup. A pretty good year overall. Can't wait for next Christmas.

No. No, wait. I can wait. In fact, eleven months sounds like a reasonable stretch of downtime.

Damn, I'm tired.

Said The Night Wind...

We’ve come to the end of another season of Mainlining Christmas. This is our fifth year, and we’re running out of pithy things to say to close out the holiday.

However, even now, even year five, we’re still learning new things.

Long-time readers may remember my complicated relationship with Christmas carols. I’ve been sporadically looking for a version of “Do You Hear What I Hear” that matches the ideal version in my head for years. And I’ve always felt especially uneasy about my love for this song. It’s a weird one for me to get hooked on; much of the time I tolerate the semi-religious songs and only really latch on to more secular tunes. But “Do You Hear What I Hear” has always been an exception.

Last weekend, we were in the car, listening to Christmas radio, and a version came on. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. For one thing, it had a lead singer, and I really wanted a chorus. But it reminded me that I hadn’t tried to look up my ideal version of the song in a few years, so I pulled out my phone.

And I was startled to discover that this song, that sounds, to my ear, like a classic carol, was written in 1962.

And it’s about the threat of global nuclear annihilation.

The Christmas story, in this case, is being used as a story, a story that shifts as the speaker changes, but one that culminates in a plea for peace among all people.

It was first recorded by the Harry Simone Chorale, and it turns out that arrangement is the one I was looking for. A steadily building harmony of voices, changing to evoke the wind, the song, the people, leading to the final call for unity and light.

Now, don’t be misled. I’m still not Christian, and I don’t find the story of Jesus any more inspirational than most any enduring myth. But to quote one of my favorite holiday specials: “The meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning.”

And it can mean a lot of things. Holiday specials and songs bring us many of the options. Christmas can be about childlike wonder, the end of childhood, forgiveness, compassion, family of origin, family of choice, stress, depression, good fortune, generosity, and more.

We live in a media-saturated age, so let’s embrace it. I hope that all of you find a movie or a song or an animated special this year that speaks to you, that helps you find some good cheer, feel less alone, or brings hope for the future.

You don’t have to be religious to wish for peace on earth. Here’s to goodness and light in 2015.

Father Christmas (1991)

Absolutely charming. Father Christmas is an animated special based on two more of Raymond Briggs’ children’s books. It features a very stereotypical-looking Santa Claus who acts very un-stereotypically.

Father Christmas is exhausted, and decides to take a holiday in the off-season. He first tries France, only to be put off by the food (the resulting bathroom humor, while extremely tame by today’s standards, is not for everyone. Then goes to Scotland, only to be put off by the weather. He finally stays in Vegas for most of the summer months.

This is a very grounded Father Christmas. He’s old and crotchety, and prone to using ‘blooming’ as an all purpose word in every sentence. He loves Vegas because he can swim and tan, gamble, drink and watch the showgirls. But eventually he has to fly his homemade camper (pulled by reindeer, naturally) home, retrieve his pets from boarding, and prepare for Christmas.

The special follows him all the way through Christmas deliveries, with a side reference to The Snowman, as he greet the boy at the snowman party. (Technically this little scene breaks the logic of the Snowman in a not dissimilar way to The Snowman and the Snowdog, but it was just a side note and didn’t bother me nearly so much.)

The main gift delivery sequence features a fun montage and a catchy song: Another Bloomin’ Christmas.

Finally he gets home for some well deserved rest. I found this special so endearing not just because Father Christmas was amusingly grumpy, but because he was so real and also so… Santa. He was grumpy, and annoyed when people recognized him, and cranky, and he cared very much about his work, and about the kids, and his dog and cat and reindeer.

He was a bit lonely and tired, but he had purpose. It’s a very warm feeling, for the dark time of the year.

You can track this one down on Youtube, but BE WARNED, there is apparently a terrible American version loose somewhere. Make sure you’re getting the British cut. (26 min, copious use of the word “bloomin’”).

Elves (1989)

In this world, there are bad horror movies. There are crappy horror movies. Then there are horror movies so unbelievably awful you honestly can't tell whether they were intended to be comedic or not. Since those categories aren't mutually exclusive, it shouldn't come as any surprise that Elves is all three.

I first heard about this on Red Letter Media's Christmas Special. I immediately rushed to Netflix to add it to the yuletide queue, only to discover that Netflix has never heard of the movie. It turns out this isn't too surprising, since - as far as I can tell - it has never been released on DVD.

Unfortunately, someone had converted an old VHS copy and uploaded it to Youtube.

The movie is about a girl named Kirsten, whose grandfather is a Nazi scientist who impregnated his daughter to create a pure woman, so that one day she could be mated with an elf and give birth the master race and/or the Anti-Christ (the movie is slightly unclear on this point).

There's also a former detective who takes a job as a mall Santa after the elf (contrary to the movie's title, there is only one) murders the prior Santa by stabbing him repeatedly in the groin. This character says almost 100% of his lines in a calm, almost sedated tone. Even when Nazi enforcers are shooting at him, he seems kind of bored.

Elves, in the context of this movie, are more like what we think of as trolls. The characters seem to agree: they call it a troll several times until they're corrected. Even then, there's not much to connect this to Christmas elves (there's a scene that might imply some sort of connection with toys, but it comes off as more of Easter Egg than an actual story point). A generous assessment of the monster's design would be that it plays off of European folklore about evil elves. A more accurate assessment would be that it looks like there was a sale at the costume shop after Halloween. I'd have preferred a movie about killer Christmas elves to go with Gremlins and Rare Exports, but that's life.

It's difficult to convey how bad the acting and writing were. It really did reach the point where you couldn't tell whether the filmmakers thought they were being funny, scary, shocking, or dramatic.

That said, the movie was nowhere near as boring as most of what we watch. It didn't cross into "so bad it's good" territory, but it was definitely scratching at the door. There was one scene involving a car bomb that had both me and Lindsay laughing out loud.

We think that particular scene was supposed to be suspenseful. But we're really not sure.

Nerdtivity: Ceramics

Tonight's Nerdtivity is meant to remind us that, whatever else they represent to people, Nativity figurines are fundamentally ceramic containers. And you never know what you'll find inside.

Don't worry, though: as soon as Link leaves the room, I'm sure the guard will replace the figurines.

In case anyone's wondering, all the Nerdtivity scenes we're posting were done without digital alteration beyond cropping and/or minor color correction. All objects were physically present at the time the image was taken (and yes, that includes the heart).

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Nerdtivity: The Way of the Dead

I have to admit I'm breaking a self-imposed rule on this one. When I started, I planned not to re-use the same figure in the same role. But this is the second time I've had Skeletor stand in as a shepherd. I could have side-stepped this by swapping him out for one of the three kings, but all three of them are kings, while he's just an overlord. I decided technical accuracy was more important than arbitrary rules, so here you go.

Go (1999)

If you've never seen Go, here's what you need to know: it's a fantastic movie that's better experienced than described. Even though I'm barely going to mention the plot, I'm about to spoil the whole movie. So stop reading, watch the thing, then come back.

We good? Good.

The genius of Go is its tone. What tone is that? Well... that depends whether it's your first time watching it. If you've never seen it before, Go is a disturbing, twisted, suspense movie broken up by bits of dark comic relief. On subsequent viewings, it's a fun and lighthearted comedic romp. It all comes down to point-of-view, which is exceedingly appropriate, since it's about point-of-view.

The film is set on Christmas Eve, a fact that feels almost incidental at times. There's a number of holiday decorations, but nowhere near the quantity most holiday-set movies incorporate. There are a few bits of dialogue alluding to the season, but by and large no one seems to care. Christmas isn't particularly significant to these characters' lives. But it is extremely significant to the structure.

The movie opens with a brief speech about being surprised by a gift. The rest of the movie proceeds to demonstrate this in the strangest manner possible. You spend the movie shifting around the characters and story, literally exploring it from multiple angles. The director plays with assumptions, creating false expectations through implication. Like a video game in a sweater box, Go leads you to a false conclusion before revealing the truth.

The film has always reminded me of Much Ado About Nothing, despite the fact there isn't a love story at its core. But like Much Ado, if a few scenes had unraveled differently, we'd be left with a tragedy. Instead, we're given a traditional, happy ending, a comedy in both the classic and modern sense. The entire movie is, metaphorically, a Christmas present.

Highly recommended to anyone who hasn't seen it. And, if you have, it's worth revisiting: there's a lot to explore here.

Fiction: Double Feature

By: Erin L. Snyder

Luis’s legs felt like they were on fire. Worse, his toes felt like nothing at all. The rest of him was ice, like raw meat in the freezer, and his chintzy felt coat and hat were about as effective as plastic wrap. For what little it was worth, he pulled his fake beard tight to his neck and looked out at the water.

Despite the pain, he took some pleasure in the scene. In the moonlight across the river. In the hum of cars driving over the bridge just to his right. Even at the cracking the frozen ground made beneath his boots. It wouldn't be long before the water was a sheet of ice covered in snow.

Mostly he took pleasure in a job well done. He’d dreamed about it for so long, and now that he’d finally worked up the courage, he felt relief and joy. Even the ache in his legs from wading into the bitterly cold river felt right. Musicians and painters suffered for their art: why should he be different?

His teeth chattered as he breathed in the air and grinned beneath the fluffy white beard tied to his face. “You did good,” he whispered to himself. “First of many.”

Then something caught his eye. It looked like a bubble bursting on the surface of the water, but that would be impossible. But then there was another and a third. And then, like a rising submarine, the dead body breached the surface of the river and bobbed up and down.

“No,” Luis said. “No! It’s not fair!” He clasped a hand over his mouth, suddenly conscious of how close he was to the road. He looked up at the bridge in case there was someone there. But he was safe. Besides a truck speeding by, he was alone. And there was no way the driver could have seen him or the body from that far away. Was there?

Of course not. It was more than sixty feet to the bridge, and it was dark out. The moonlight wouldn’t be enough to…. He shook, suddenly aware of the cold and the night and the unfairness of it all. He stepped along the bank, following the body as it began drifting with the tide. He’d weighed down the body with rocks. He’d laid them against the corpse’s chest and zipped up his coat over them. Then, when he realized he wouldn’t be able to throw the body far enough, he’d waded into the water until he reached the drop off and gave him a send off. His toes felt like they were about to snap off for the trouble, and now this son of a bitch had just shaken the weights loose and was floating downstream like he had somewhere to go.

Luis stared at the body, realizing what he had to do. “Luis,” he whispered to himself. “You got to swim after him. Get him back, cut him open, and fill him with rocks. Then sew him up and toss him back in.” Luis stepped towards the edge, but the muscle memory of the icy water stopped him. Instead, he stood on the bank, shivering, just watching the body drift towards the bridge. A car pulled across the bridge, and Luis could have sworn it slowed down as it did. He’d have sworn it on the Bible.

He swallowed and hurried towards his car. He fumbled in his pockets for his keys, but they weren’t there. He began to turn in terror towards the river before remembering he’d left them in the ignition. He opened the door, slipped in, and started the engine. Cool air spilled out of the vent, and he had to bite his lip to keep from screaming. He bit his lip so hard he tasted blood.

He wanted to wait until the car warmed up, but he didn't dare. Even with his headlights off, his rear lights could attract attention. So he shifted into drive and started up the dirt road. He didn't turn his headlights on until he reached pavement, and then only after reminding himself it wouldn't attract attention to have them on. “People drive with their lights on all the time,” he whispered.

It wasn't right that he should feel so scared. The guy in the river… that had been a good thing. It had been the right thing to do. As much a present to the world as to himself.

The vents finally started to warm up, and Luis turned on the radio. “ make sure your doors are locked. We are still waiting for details, but the police believe a man dressed like a mall Santa Claus may be armed and should be considered dangerous….” Luis hit the brakes, and his small car slid to a halt on the unlit back road. “It’s not possible,” he said, shaking. They couldn't have found the body so soon. Not unless… those lights driving across the bridge came back to him. Someone had seen him and the body.

And he was sitting in an unmoving car in the middle of nowhere less than two miles from the scene. He pressed the gas and was going forty in an instant. The station had shifted to Christmas music, so he started cycling through channels. Nothing but commercials and Christmas music. Country, jazz, used cars, rock and roll, classical, the best place to hawk gold and jewelry in town… no news. No information on what the police knew or how they knew it.

He had to get away. The guy in the river was supposed to be the first, not the last. One a year, always on Christmas Eve, always in a different town forty miles or more from Luis’s house, where he wouldn't be recognized. He’d invested so much time to make sure this would be perfect. Why was this happening?

He drove on, wishing he were home. But he was more than an hour from his apartment. He could cut the time in half if he took the freeway, but the roads were probably crowded. He should stick with his original plan, stay on back roads and avoid any interaction. He’d memorized a route that would get him home and minimize crowded areas.

He drove on, taking the turns he’d memorized in advance. Until he heard the siren.

It came out of nowhere, and he almost drove off the road checking his rear view mirror. But it wasn't behind him. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw flashes of light that seemed to come out of the woods. There were other lights, as well: some kind of housing complex to his left. Without thinking, he put on his right blinker and turned away from the sound.

He immediately regretted it. He passed an open convenience store, a sign for a private college he’d never heard of, and numerous houses. And all along the road were lines of streetlights, glaring down at him. He could see the blood stains on his sleeves and gloves. He’d thought they’d be invisible against the red fabric, but there was no mistaking it. He was exposed here, caught in a web of light from the lampposts, the Christmas decorations, and the moon above. Behind him, he thought he heard the siren grow louder.

They couldn’t be closing in on him. It was impossible. Utterly impossible. But they might be searching, trying to root him out. And if they found him dressed like this, covered in blood, he’d have no escape. Just the choice between a blaze of glory and a lifetime in prison. Luis wasn’t afraid of dying, but he didn’t want to go yet. Not when he’d just figured everything out.

But he couldn’t run. Someone would see through a window or he’d be pulled over by a cop searching for Santa Claus. If he wanted a chance, he needed to get cleaned up and change his clothes. He needed to warm up, so he looked like something other than a crazed serial killer who’d dressed up in a costume to stalk and kill a real-life Scrooge on Christmas Eve as a warning to all the rest.

He stopped his car before he understood why. If he needed a place to hideout, he was in luck. All he needed to do was find an abandoned house and break in before the cops drove by. Then he could take a shower, steal a change of clothes, and make a pot of coffee. Turn himself back into a cleancut retail clerk out for a drive to see the lights on the 24th.

He jumped out of his car and shut the door as quietly as he could. Then he ran for the nearest house that was pitch black. He knew he’d probably have to circle around back and break a window, but he tried the front door, just in case.

The knob turned, and he slipped inside. He closed the door behind him and looked around. It was silent and dark, but warm. Then he realized it wasn’t completely silent or dark. There was a dim light spilling out from the bottom of a door at the far end of a hallway to the left of the entrance. The room was in back, which is why he hadn’t seen it from outside. He almost dashed out to seek shelter in another building, but the siren was right behind him. Red and blue lights flashed in through the living room window, and Luis ducked to make sure he was out of sight.

Luis crawled toward the back room. He could hear a sizzling sound now and smell cooking eggs - it was the kitchen, he realized. He reached to his belt and pulled out the long knife that had been his tool. He couldn’t leave, and whoever was in the kitchen would draw attention. That left two options. He could tie the house’s owner up or he could add a second victim. It would depend on the owner’s disposition, Luis decided. He wasn’t interested in killing people who didn’t deserve it, unless there was no other choice. But he knew his work was important. He knew it in his soul.

Luis held the knife up and slowly pushed the door ajar. He’d hoped to be able to survey the scene before being noticed, but the door squeaked as it opened. Luis stepped in, just as the man cooking turned to look at him.

Before Luis could process the scene, the man on the opposite side of the kitchen grabbed a massive object from the counter beside him and pointed it at Luis. “Who the hell are you supposed to be?” the man demanded in a deep, slightly slurred voice.

Luis froze and stuttered. The object pointed at him was a three foot long ax. And the man pointing it was dressed like Santa Claus. The white fur lining on his coat was spattered with brownish blood, and the head of the ax was discolored, as well. His eyes were bloodshot, and he had a short gash on his left cheek.

“Wait,” this new Santa Claus said, squinting. “Do you live here?” He seemed confused, probably strung out.

Luis’s mouth hung open. “I just… I just came in to get cleaned up,” he said.

“Then what the hell’s that for,” he pointed his ax at the knife in Luis’s hand.

“Same thing that’s for,” Luis replied, pointing back. “I… I think I’m like you.”

“No, man. You ain’t like me. Look at you. You’re a damned disgrace. You get that whole suit at a drugstore?”

“No. Just the… just the beard.”

“Christ, man. Should have gone to a better drug store.” He shook his head. Behind him, an egg sizzled in the pan. “Ah, man. It’s… see, you’re making me burn it. Just… put the knife down and sit for a minute.”

Luis sat at the table and set the knife in front of him.

“No. No way, man. Knife’s on the floor, where you can’t… is that, like, a kitchen knife? You brought a kitchen knife?”

“I’m keeping this where I can get it,” Luis said.

“Man. You are trying me.” He flicked his wrist, reminding Luis there weren’t a lot of places to run. “On the floor.”

Luis set it beside his chair. “You happy?”

“Don’t know,” the Santa said. “I’m alright, I guess.” He set his ax down beside him and tended to his egg. Every few seconds, he looked over his shoulder to make sure Luis wasn’t trying anything.

Luis eyed the ax. “Who are you, anyway? You don’t own this place, either.”

“Who am I? I’m Santa Claus, man. I mean, look at me.”

“Well, I’m Santa, too. Give me something I can call you. Like, you can call me Will.”

“No way, Will. I ain’t telling you my secret identity.” He flipped the egg. “But. I don’t know. I guess you can call me Joey or something.”

“Right. And the owner of this house. Do I have to worry about him?”

Joey glanced at the closed basement door. “No, man. He’s not going to be bothering us.”

“So that just leaves the cops,” Luis said.

“Yeah. Thanks a lot for that.” Joey worked his spatula under the eggs and moved them to a plate. Then he rummaged through cupboards until he found a fork. He grabbed his ax with his left hand and held it just beneath the head. Then, holding his plate and fork with his right hand, he turned and sat down at the table. “That couple on Pine has them spooked. I had, like, eight other places on my list tonight. Now, I got to cut it short, go right to the sorority.”

“What place on Pine? What’s Pine?”

“What do you mean, what’s Pine. That couple on Pine Street. It was all over the radio. I had plans. What were you thinking?”

“I don’t even know where Pine is. I didn’t kill anyone!”

Joey gave him a sarcastic look and motioned at the bloodstains on Luis’s coat and fake beard.

“Alright. No, okay. I did kill a guy. But he wasn’t from around here. And it was just one guy, not a couple.”

“Whatever, man. Police are looking for a killer dressed like Santa. And no one knows about me yet.”

“You sure of that?” Luis asked.

“Yeah, I’m sure. Already told you, this was house number one. I really wanted to get to that one by the lake. I mean, come on, that’s just….” He shook his head.

“Okay. How about the guy in the basement. You know him?”
"No, I don’t think so. I mean, he had one of those faces, right? You’re trying to place him, cause he looks familiar, but it’s probably nothing. Maybe someone I met at the hardware store. I wish I hadn’t gotten him in the head, cause now you wouldn’t know him from your brother.”

“Then why’d you do it?” Luis asked, trying to keep his voice level and focused. Random killings made him sick. There was supposed to be order to the world, purpose.

“What do you mean, why? Isn’t it obvious? I’m doing the Lord’s work tonight,” Joey explained. “You saw the place, didn’t you?”

“What’s wrong with the place?” Luis asked.

Joey tilted his head. “It’s Christmas Eve. And there’s not one goddamn light outside or in. Not one.” He sliced through a section of eggs, speared it on his fork, and shoved it into his mouth.

“You killed him because he’s Jewish?”

“What? No. No, I mean… he wasn’t Jewish. I’m not like that.”

“How do you know he wasn’t Jewish?”

“What kind of bullshit question is that? You can tell. Besides, what the hell did you do that couple for?”

“I didn’t kill the…. The guy I killed, he was a banker. I overheard him--”

“--Oh, banker,” Joey cut him off. “Yeah. I guess that makes sense.” He looked Luis over again. “I still don’t get the outfit.”

“What’s not to get? It’s a statement. A reminder that the holidays aren’t supposed to be about money.”

“Yeah, yeah. I get that part. But, dude, you look like shit. I mean, your beard’s not even on right, your pants and boots are coated in mud, and your coat, man. Your coat. What’d you do, string up the sonofabitch and bleed him out over you?” Joey chuckled and took another bite of his eggs.

“What do you care?” Luis asked.

Joey got silent and slid his chair back. Luis shifted, as well, putting a foot over his knife, in case he had to get at it quickly. “I care cause it’s Christmas. If you’re going to dress up like Santa, you got take that shit seriously. I mean, what if some kid sees you? You ever think about that?”

Luis had not, in fact, given that idea much thought.

“Man, I don’t know.” Joey gestured wildly. “It’s like you’re not taking any of this seriously. These boots ran me two hundred dollars. For boots! Nevermind what I spent on the coat. And the beard, man. Wanna give it a tug?”

“No. No, I can see it’s real.”

“Damn right it’s real. And you can wipe that look off your face. You’re not better than me.”

“I never said I was. Never even thought it!” Of course, Luis had been thinking it. He was answering a calling, while this lunatic was just knocking off random strangers. No dyed beard or expensive suit could give Joey - or whatever this junkie’s real name was - a cause. This was all random to him. That couple he kept rambling about… did Joey kill them then forget about it? There’s no telling how many civilians he’d taken out.

Maybe even the guy in the river. Luis’s head started spinning. There were only two ways things would end for Joey: a cell or a morgue. And either way, they’d pin the banker on him in a heartbeat, as long as he was the only Santa they found.

He turned the situation over in his head a few times. He still needed to get cleaned up and changed into different clothes. Only he couldn’t do that here, not with Joey watching him. Hell, if he turned his back on the maniac, he was pretty sure he’d find the head of that ax buried there.

“I’m just saying. You got to take this stuff seriously. Otherwise, you’re as bad as….” He trailed off without finishing his sentence and glanced at the ax handle.

Luis didn’t like the look in his eyes. He cleared his throat to get Joey’s attention and forced himself to smile. “Look, I respect the work you’ve done here. And I like your suit. Maybe you could give me some pointers.”

Joey looked up. Then he shook his head and squeezed the bridge of his nose. “Hold on,” he said, fishing a handkerchief out of his back pocket. He blew his nose loudly and tossed the handkerchief onto the floor. “Sorry, what?”

“The suit. You were going to tell me where you got your suit.”

“Oh, right. I had to send away for it. There’s this company in Ohio. They’re not just throwing together crap for department stores. They do costumes. Man, that’s the key, right there. You want to go through people who do professional costumes. And you have to be willing to spend money on this. You got to look at it as an investment.”

Luis nodded. “I get that. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll order a better suit for next year.”

Joey half laughed and half snorted. “Next year?” He shook his head. “You’re worrying about next year?”

“Aren’t you?” Luis asked, as sincerely as he could. “You said yourself we’re doing good work here. Shouldn’t we keep--”

“I said I was doing good work,” Joey interrupted. “That business on Pine Street… I don’t know what that was supposed to be about.”
“That wasn’t… no, remember? I did the banker. I don’t know anything about the place on Pine.”

“Right,” Joey said, eyeing him suspiciously.

“Listen. I don’t want to argue with you,” Luis said. “And I don’t want to keep you from what you have to do.”


“Your work. You said you weren’t finished tonight, that you still had plans. Well, maybe I could help you. Maybe we could team up, make up for lost time.” Luis smiled. He needed Joey to trust him. Because he didn’t have much chance against him if Joey was ready, not if he had the ax. But if he could get him to turn his back… the ax wouldn’t matter if Joey had a twelve inch carving knife sticking out of him.

Joey scratched his head. “I don’t know, man. There’s only supposed to be one Santa Claus.”

“But… I could be your helper or something. Look, let me make it up to you. It’s Christmas, right?” He nodded, trying to sound like every character in every made-for-TV movie he’d ever seen.

Joey considered this for a minute. “Maybe,” he said. “But you got to do what I say. And first… man, you got to fix that beard.”

“Of course,” Luis said, tightening the strings binding the false beard to his face. He maintained eye contact while he worked.

“All right.” Joey stood up, taking his ax with him. He moved towards the back door, slowly, keeping Luis is sight.

“I’m going to need my knife,” Luis said, bending down slowly. He saw Joey about to object, so he added, “I’ll keep it tucked into my belt until we need it. I wouldn’t be much use without it.” When he stood up, he saw Joey squinting at him. He didn’t trust him yet. Of course he didn’t. Even a strung-out ax-murdering junkie has some sense. It was just a question of how much and whether Luis could turn the tables. And, of course, he had to do it without attracting attention. The police were still nearby, after all.

He swallowed and approached casually while Joey maintained some distance. As soon as he was outside, he felt the ground turn slippery beneath his boots. His toes were still numb from the river earlier, and he wondered if he might lose a few. All things considered, it seemed a small price right now. The icy ground could work to his advantage. If Joey fell, this would be over quickly. Cleanly.

Joey moved away. “Close enough, man,” he said when Luis was just four feet from him. Luis stopped and waited, looking as casual as he could manage. He kept his hand away from his belt and knife. “You go first,” Joey added, stepping back and motioning to the left.

The flaw in Luis’s plan came crashing down at him. What possible reason did he have for thinking that Joey wasn’t planning the same thing he was? If he went first, Joey could take him out with ease. Luis wasn’t even sure he’d hear him coming. But if he refused, it would just prove he couldn’t be trusted. It’d mean a fight without the element of surprise, and Joey’s ax gave him a hell of an advantage.

Luis smiled and started walking. It was faith now, that Joey really thought they’d be able to work together. That he wouldn’t take two steps and embed the head of that ax in the back of his skull. He hurried and listened to the rhythm of Joey’s footsteps as they broke the surface of the shallow snow or rested on the icy path. He tried to estimate how far back he was and keep him at a distance.

“Take a left by that hedge there,” Joey said. “We’ll walk along the treeline, should keep us out of view.”

Luis eyed the trees which ran closer than he’d have liked to the row of houses, a few of which had porch lights on. He wasn’t sure they’d get much cover at all. But he wasn’t the one with the ax, so he did as told.

“Keep going till you’re almost to the end of the block,” Joey muttered from behind him. “Then turn into the woods when you see it.”

“See what? Where are we going?”

“Man. You got to learn to pay attention,” Joey said. “The big one. The sorority house.”

Luis swallowed. He knew he couldn’t let Joey get that far. A place like that… someone was guaranteed to get out and call for help. Then it would just be a matter of time. The roads here were wound too tight, and there were too many houses. If the police descended, it would be a fox hunt. Nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

“Sounds good,” he said, trying not to sound scared. He continued on until he saw the place, just on the other side of a thin patch of trees. He started in and heard Joey behind him. Then, when they were about halfway through, he ran to a tree, as if he were hiding and motioned for Joey to get down.

“What is it?”

Luis motioned for quiet. He tore off a glove and held up two fingers. Then he mouthed, “Cops.”

“Where?” Joey wasn’t even speaking softly. “I don’t see no one.”

“Just by the… they’re going to see us.”

“Man, I don’t see a soul.” Joey looked more annoyed than anything else. Then he simply stared at Luis, as if making up his mind.

“You gotta trust me,” Luis whispered. “They’re by the house. We have to hang low until they leave.”

Joey sighed. “You’re skittish, too? I just don’t… I don’t think this is going to work, man.” He swung the ax at Luis’s body, and Luis dove out of the way. A thick mist of snow and pine needles fell on them as Joey’s ax struck the tree.

“Just stop! Think!” Luis said, clamoring to his feet and pulling his knife free. “If we do this, someone will hear, call the police.”

“No, man. I’ll be quiet.” He swung again, and Luis moved back.

“I won’t. I’ll scream for help.”

Joey stopped for a moment and gave Luis a disgusted look. “You’d do that? After everything, you’d just.... Man. You really don’t have a once of the Christmas spirit in you, do you?” He clenched the ax. “I mean, the suit was bad enough. But… you said you understood. This is about Christmas.”

“No. What I do is about Christmas. You’re just some psycho in a costume.” He edged forward to test Joey’s reflexes, but Joey shifted position immediately.

“No, man. You’re just like the rest of them. You say you care about Christmas, but do you even have a tree?”

Luis was speechless, not because he didn’t have a tree (though it was true he hadn’t bothered this year), but because of the utter inanity of the question.

“That’s what I thought. You’re too busy thinking about yourself to care about anyone. You’re not taking any of this seriously. Just trying to get through to next year.” Joey started to move forward. He had the same look in his eye that Luis had had in his own earlier that night when he killed the banker.

Luis turned and ran, as fast as he could. He heard Joey charging after him. Luis tripped over a bush and rolled out of the way just as Joey’s ax crashed into the snow beside him. He swung his knife, mostly just hoping to keep Joey away, but the blade bit into the meat of his arm.

Joey cried out and leapt back, dragging the ax in his left hand. “Shit! That hurts!”
Luis stood up. “Just wait till I get started. I’ll cut you open like a… like a Christmas present.”

He hoped to scare off Joey, but it backfired. Joey charged forward, gripping the ax with both hands. Blood spilt out of his wounded arm and splattered across the ax handle, his expensive Santa suit, and the snow. Luis didn’t make it more than five steps before he felt the corner of the axe swipe against the back of his left shoulder. It was more a glancing blow than a crushing one, but it still threw him off balance and sent him tumbling into the snow. He rolled over and tried to protect his face as Joey swung the ax overhead and yelled.

Luis screamed and shut his eyes.

Then there was a whistling. And the scream stopped. Luis’s shoulder ached where it had been hit. He opened his eyes. Joey was still standing over him, but his expression was changed. No, not changed: his expression was gone. The ax fell behind him with a thud. Then Joey collapsed to the ground. In the center of his back, a long, thin shaft was sticking out.

“Jesus, this thing’s good. Better than my old one.”

“What about the other one?”

“I’m going to be sick.”

“As long as it’s out here. We just cleaned the carpet.”

There were four girls in all. One held a bow which still had a silver ribbon attached to one end. Another held a quiver of arrows. She drew one out, offered it to the one with the bow, and said, “Gracie, you should probably look away.”

The girl with the bow strung the arrow and pulled back the string.

“No. No, wait. I can--” Luis raised his hands, forgetting he was still holding the knife. There were a thumping sound and the sensation someone had punched him in the chest. He rolled back into the snow. He drew in a breath and felt something burning inside of him. He started to shake.

“Seriously, Grace. You should go lay down on the couch. Keep Liz company. She hates dealing with this sort of thing, too.”

“I… should I… call the police? I really think we should tell them.”

“Fuck no. We went through that my first year, and they woke up the whole neighborhood. We’ll just dump these two in the shed with the other and figure out what do with them in the morning.”

“I can’t believe we got three this year. Last Christmas was bad enough. That one guy who got his beard caught in his chainsaw. Egh.”

“Hey. Alicia. The second one is still moving.”

It was getting hard for Luis to make out shapes, but he saw one of the girls step over him. Slowly she came into focus.

“Huh. I guess I’m not used to this thing yet. Every bow’s a little different, you know. It takes a while to get--”

“Quit yammering,” the girl with arrows said, handing one over. “It’s cold out here. Oh, Christ. Look at his outfit. That’s got to be the worst Santa suit I’ve ever seen! At least his friend had some taste.”

The one with the bow drew the string back. “The one in the shed's pretty nice, too. Reminds me of the guy in Macy's in that old movie.” She was looking him right in the eye, aiming down the shaft of the arrow. But Luis’s attention was drawn away to the silver ribbon fluttering in the breeze like tinsel hanging from a tree.

In Bruges (2008)

Nothing says Christmas like violence and bleak depression. This was a fantastic movie.

Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) are professional hitmen. After a job, they’re sent to the Belgium city of Bruges to lay low and await instructions at Christmastime. Ken enjoys the city, the younger Ray chafes at being in the middle of nowhere. But something deeper is eating at Ray, and…

You know what?

We usually do a bit of a synopsis in our reviews here, but I really enjoyed watching this twisty plot unfold, so I’m not going to give too many more specifics. One of the final twists, I saw coming (and Erin didn’t! Call the papers, that might be a first), but watching it was still incredibly compelling. Suffice to say that this movie contains quiet, atmospheric scenes, emotional breakdowns, public brawling, graphic violence and lots of historic buildings.

The cast does a fantastic job portraying the complexities of the characters. The subtlety of the performances was just lovely. Most of these are fairly unpleasant people, but you’re drawn into their problems anyway. Related note: there is a great deal of profanity, sexist and racist language in this film. Like, a lot. But it works.

The Christmas setting is mostly important in a thematic sense, in that most of the characters are struggling with morality, and what sort of redemption could be possible for them. There are a few decorations in the background, but it’s mostly for juxtaposition of family and children with the inner lives of men who kill for a living.

This makes it all sound very dramatic. It is very dramatic, but it is also wickedly funny. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, it’s a fantastic example of a super-dark comedy. The dialogue sparkles and manages to be believable while being completely hilarious. I am actually laughing right now, thinking back on the movie.

Still, despite not dwelling on the holiday, it is technically set at Christmas. We found this on Netflix Instant, so if you’re looking for something far outside the usual holiday fare, we definitely recommend In Bruges.

Nerdtivity: The Animated Series

This Nerdtivity is intended as something of a tribute to the various animated incarnations of the DC Universe. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't something of a Nerdtivity of convenience, but it would have been criminal not to use the Super Best Friends Forever as the magi in at least one of these.

Peace on Earth (1939) and Goodwill to Men (1955)

"Peace on Earth" is an animated short from 1939. It was made by Hugh Harman, one of the founders of the Warner Bros. animation studios. "Goodwill to Men" is a remake made by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera fourteen years later. The two pieces are extremely similar, so I'll talk about them together.

As works of animation, these are beyond topnotch. "Peace on Earth," in particular, is absolutely breathtaking. If this had been made a half-century later, it would still have been cutting edge. The remake is also great. You can drop every association you have with Hanna-Barbera: this is beautiful work. Both versions were clearly labors of love, stories the animators and directors clearly believed needed to be told.

If you've never seen these, the fact they exist is utterly shocking. In fact, if you've never seen either of these - and especially if you've never heard of them - you owe it to yourself to stop reading and watch the original. It's under nine minutes and easily found on Youtube. Here - I'll make it easy.

For those of you ignoring my advice, I'll summarize. Both versions open with the song "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" being sung on Christmas Eve, with altered lyrics. The setting varies a touch: Peace on Earth is occurring in what looks like a quaint European village (though the houses look like helmets), while "Goodwill to Men" is occurring in the ruins of a church.

We zoom in to be introduced to the narrator, a relatively generic elderly cartoon animal (squirrel in the original; mouse in the remake). The squirrel is visiting his grandchildren, while the mouse is conducting a bunch of choir mice. But both versions are focusing on the song, and in particular the lyrics "Peace on Earth, goodwill to men." This prompts one of the younger animals to ask, "What are men?"

At this point, it becomes abundantly clear that we're seeing a post-apocalyptic world where humans have wiped themselves out, and animals have taken over the planet.

The grandfather/choir director is old enough to have seen men, but his impression was somewhat skewed. He remembers them only as soldiers and mistakes their gas masks for part of their faces. Mostly, though, he remembers them fighting and killing each other. He remembers them making more and deadlier weapons.

In the original, he tells how mankind fought until there were only two humans left and they killed each other rather than seek peace. The '55 version updates the resolution to mutually-ensured nuclear destruction. In the aftermath, animals found a copy of the Bible and rebuilt civilization upon its rules; in particular, "Thou shall not kill."

That brings us back to the start. And it leaves the audience with some uncomfortable questions. I actually think they left us with at least one more question than they'd intended, but I'll get back to that in a minute.

The shorts certainly aren't subtle, but the animation alone is enough to make these required viewing. Add on the sci-fi aspects, and it's even more fascinating. Likewise, the tone of the war scenes is incredibly dark, and the cute animals and holiday music only make it seem more so in contrast.

Now. Let's talk about the theme, the moral, and the aspect of these I find even darker than the intended subject matter.

Obviously, these were anti-war stories. They've been honored as such ever since and for good reason: they do a fantastic job portraying the horrors of war and the futility of hatred. When the United States is pulled into unnecessary wars like Iraq and Vietnam, it seems horrifically prophetic.

However, the original wasn't made to protest the war in Vietnam. It was made in 1939, at a time when war was engulfing Europe for the second time that century. And it was made in the United States, where nonintervention was an extremely popular sentiment. We now know that our hesitation to become involved cost an immense number of lives.

The moral I take from something like this is that we, as a nation, need to become far better at determining when to fight and when not to. Unchecked aggression will end in mutual destruction, like these shorts suggest (probably not with the extermination of the entire human race and rise of an animal empire, but you get the point). But adhering to a strictly pacifist philosophy implicates us in the horrors we're capable of preventing.

I'd like to hope that our species might one day develop the wisdom to analyze the likely outcomes of different actions and make intelligent, well-informed decisions, rather than picking unnecessary fights or following ideological rules.

But let's be honest: the squirrels will probably get there first.

Happy Christmas (2014)

This is a Christmas dramedy starring Anna Kendrick. It's a small movie, focused on a handful of characters and their relationships. The dialogue was improvised, which results in very believable interactions.

There's less a story than a premise behind the picture. A woman in her twenties who's just broken up with a boyfriend goes to stay with her older brother, his wife, and their infant for the holidays. Obviously, the younger sister's irresponsible nature creates conflict, but they sidestep sitcom shenanigans. Instead, we're shown the fundamental disconnect between someone still fixated on what happened and grown-ups more concerned with what could have happened.

There are a handful of other factors. The wife's desire to write more, the brother's attempt to juggle the various aspects of his life, and the sister's issues coming to terms with her new life. None of it really slides together in much of a story, but that's kind of the point. The character's lives aren't warped to fit a narrative structure.

In less capable hands, this kind of thing can grow tiresome fast, as you'd be left wondering what the point was. But here, the point is crystal clear: we're experiencing points of view and exploring where they intersect and clash. I can't say for sure whether the movie's success was primarily due to the actor's intuitions or painstaking editing work, but that's fundamentally academic. Either way, the movie was a success.

The Christmas elements are intentionally subtle. The holiday is almost there to be ignored. There's shopping to be done, decorations to be hung, and gifts to be wrapped and unwrapped, but these feel more like incidentals in the character's lives. However, whether or not the characters want to be present for Christmas doesn't matter: Christmas seems intent on being relevant.

To that end, Kendrick's character sets off the smoke alarm on Christmas Eve. The movie's resolution is played out on Christmas day. Of course, there's a reconciliation, but it's far more understated than the usual dramatic holiday scenes we're used to. Still, it's a family putting aside their difference on Christmas.

Sweet, funny, and sometimes sad, this is certainly a movie worth your time. It's currently streaming on Netflix, so give it a chance if you're in the mood for something a bit outside the norm.

Nerdtivity: Oh There You Are, Perry

Here's a BONUS Nerdtivity for you. It's relatively straightforward, but at least now we know the answer to one of the Universe's greatest mysteries.

Book Review: The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Part Eight)

This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. This is post eight, section ten, the end!

A Classic Little Christmas

  • The Flying Stars, G. K. Chesterton - Oh, I actually quite liked this.
  • Christmas Party, Rex Stout - Really good except for the unfortunate racism.
  • The Raffles Relics, E. W. Hornung - Unlike others starring a ‘classic character’, it makes me want to read more about the character.
  • The Price of Light, Ellis Peters - Definitely a favorite in this book. Classic Cadfael: just lovely and sweet and Christmassy.
  • A Present for Santa Sahib, H.R.F. Keating - Odd. I guess it could be charming in some lights. Not sure about the dialect..
  • The Christmas Train, Will Scott - A charming crook fools the police. Not amazing but decent.
  • Markheim, Robert Louis Stevenson - Huh. takes a while to get going and the language is thick, but actually its pretty good.
  • A Chaparral Christmas Gift, O. Henry - Eh. A bit tortured in plot despite decent style.
  • The Chopham Affair, Edgar Wallace - Shrug. I’m not sure what all the business is about.. possibly a reference I'm not getting.
  • A Christmas Tragedy, Agatha Christie - Not bad. Not terribly gripping but the plot is fine.
The editor saved a lot of their big guns for this last section. Most of them feature the author’s popular recurring character. I’ll run through them from least to most enjoyable.

“The Chopham Affair” is a bit odd. It is framed as a story of an unsolved case, but that frame story seems to have little to nothing to do with the actual story - about a blackmailer laid low by the husband of one of his victims. I presume that one or more of the characters was previously established and knowing more about them would make it make sense.

“The Christmas Train” and “A Christmas Tragedy” are both decent, serviceable stories, but not really anything special. I really want to like Miss Marple, but I haven’t read anything that’s sold me on her yet.

“A Chaparral Christmas Gift” gets points for style (set in the Old West) but not for plot, which is sort of clumsy and dull.

“A Present for Santa Sahib” is in one sense a cute story about a detective who clears a small-time con man who’s been falsely accused of pickpocketing, as a bit of Christmas goodwill. On the other hand, eesh have I had enough of British writers’ impressions of Indian accents.

“Markheim” takes a while to get going, but then it’s really good, right up until the obvious twist. It’s about a thief turned murderer tortured by his conscience, (and/or possibly the devil).

“Christmas Party” is a Nero Wolfe story, and “The Raffles Relics” is about the thief AJ Raffles. Both of these stories make me interested to read more about the characters. The Nero Wolfe story’s only flaw is a bit of recurring dated language and attitude toward an “oriental” girl. The Raffles story takes place late in that character’s life, and I found it a fun teaser for the world.

“The Flying Stars” features a crime-solving priest (not the only one, as I’ll get to in a minute) who helps discover a thief at a local party posing as a member of the family. It also features amateur dramatics.

“The Price of Light” is definitely in the running for my favorite story in this whole dang book. I’m not surprised - it is a Cadfael story, and I love Cadfael. If you’re unfamiliar, Cadfael is a medieval monk who solves crimes and grows herbs (and has a slightly dodgy past as a soldier). If you have a chance to watch the television adaption starring Derek Jacobi, take it! This story follows the donation of a set of silver candlesticks to the abbey on Christmas, and their subsequent disappearance. There are several motives possible just from the people who arrived in the train of the minor lord who donated the things. Cadfael solves the case, of course, but in his own inimitable and unfailingly kind way.

Overall, despite quite a few duds, I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for a bit of murder and mayhem to brighten up the holiday.

Nerdtivity: Melee

First of all, I'm pleased to report that our first Nerdtivity, Away Team in a Manger, has won the democratic portion of the Nerdtivity contest. Victory is ours!

Today's Nerdtivity is inspired by my all-time favorite video game, Super Smash Bros. Melee. They should really include this level in the next version.

In case anyone's wondering, all the Nerdtivity scenes we're posting were done without digital alteration beyond cropping and/or minor color correction. All objects were physically present at the time the image was taken.

I know I said we were going to do one a day, but got a little carried away creating Nerdtivities and ran out of days to present them. To that end, we're adding three bonus Nerdtivities to tomorrow's schedule. Look for them throughout the day.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Doogie Howser, M.D.: Doogie the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1989)

First off, a disclaimer: I have never before in my life seen an episode of Doogie Howser, M.D. I knew of it later, when NPH hit the spotlight, but didn't hear much when it was on.

Can anyone tell me why the theme song is MIDI? It’s… I can‘t explain it.

Anywho, we’ll take the premise as presented in the opening: kid genius becomes a doctor, deals with being both a practicing physician and a teenager. I don’t know whether that’s the plot of every episode, but ot was the plot of this one.

The episode opens with a lot of establishing material: Doogie (I’m sorry, side note. I cringe every time I type this. It’s terrible. Why on Gaea’s green earth would anyone call another human being Doogie when they weren’t actively shoving said person into a locker at the same moment? Okay, we’re back.) talks a lot of medicine and runs about being efficient and reminding the audience that he’s good at his job and his colleagues like him.

I was actually surprised and happy to see that he’s just good at his job. He’s not God’s gift to doctors, he’s just competent. That makes the character make a bit more sense, within the confines of the premise.

The abrasive head guy needs a bunch of people to stay late (on Christmas Eve) and he picks Doogie among others. There is a focus on a patient who’s brought in with no ID who’s raving, seems completely manic and seems to think he’s various famous and/or historical figures. Doogie’s annoying friend Vinnie, escapee from a more standard teen sitcom, shows up at the hospital and pressures Doogie into somehow getting out of work to go to his girlfriend’s party. And I guess if you really want to be convincingly sick, you could do worse than actually be a doctor, although most of the techniques are standard kid-fakes-an-illness stuff.

So he gets sent home, and there’s a short subplot about his dad struggling with Christmas lights, and then he’s off to the party. However, he feels terrible about skipping out on his coworkers, and after getting a clue from something Wanda (the girlfriend) says, he’s back at work in time to wear a silly outfit and hand out gifts.

There was a moment I really liked here where all the doctors and nurses are getting ready for this gift distribution in pediatrics, when there’s an alarm and they’re all called down to the ER to deal with incoming accident victims from a traffic pile-up. Whether or not it’s realistic that doctors would be participating in the gift delivery, the response to switching gears felt grounded, and seeing them dealing with emergencies still in the silly outfits felt natural, not humorous. Of course, it also gives us our requisite heartwaming moments, when the head guy saves a kid’s like while dressed as Santa.

The manic guy from earlier is found and helped, now that they know what’s wrong with him, and then Doogie finally goes home for some rest. Wanda and Vinnie drop by to wish him a happy holiday, Doogie writes banal crap in his diary, and we’re done.

Overall I was surprised at how decent this show was. The episode was enjoyable, and the gentle pace worked. The diary at then end nearly undermined the whole thing, though. Up to that point, we had both commented on the subtlety of the characterization. The diary bit, though, made us question whether the people writing the episode had any idea that their audience might be older than 6.

Brazil (1985)

The title of Brazil is drawn from its theme song, despite the fact the movie is not set in Brazil, and the nation of Brazil has absolutely no bearing on the movie, nor is it even mentioned. It should be noted that they considered several alternative titles while the movie was in development, and - miraculously - Brazil seems to have been the best they thought of. You can read a bunch of the others on Wikipedia.

If I could be so bold, I might suggest calling this the Metropolis Christmas Special, which is how I'm going to think of it from now on.

Recently, I found this on a couple of lists of science fiction Christmas movies, which surprised me, since I didn't recall it having taken place at Christmas. Granted, it's been more than a decade since I saw this, and I didn't think much of it at the time. For years, my summation was simply: any ten minutes of Brazil is gorgeous, but there's no reason to watch more than that.

Maybe I'm just mellowing as I age, but I think my opinion has softened. I now think that there's enough variation to make the whole movie worth seeing.

I recommend doing so on fast-forward, however.

The film's story is borderline incomprehensible. The protagonist is a bureaucrat in a dystopian parody of 1984. And yes, I realize implying something is a dystopian parody of the most iconic dystopian setting ever created is absurdly redundant. I'm comfortable with that, because SO IS THIS MOVIE.

The protagonist dreams of something greater, by which I mean flying around and trying to save a floating woman wrapped in sheets. He winds up finding someone who looks like the woman of his dreams, but she's tied up in a convoluted mess involving an error where a man was accidentally tortured to death due to a case of mistaken identity.

As he tries to find and help her, he digs himself in deeper with government agencies that are bizarre, comical, and ruthless. Eventually, he goes crazy. He's captured by the government, but winds up escaping into his dream world, where he's effectively out of reach of his tormentors, who are still trapped in their dark nightmare.

Okay. Fine. Now why the hell couldn't Gilliam have told that story in a brisk hour and a half? Whatever - you're not here to read me rant about this thing's two hour twenty minute run time. You're here... for Christmas.

Christmas is essentially a character in and of itself in this film. However, in the context of Brazil, that means it's a repetitive 2-dimensional joke. It does, however, show up a lot. The holidays are ubiquitous, but they seem to keep coming back up, usually in the context of societal obligations or consumerism. There certainly doesn't seem to be much warmth associated with Christmas in the film, and it more compliments than contrasts the twisted setting.

It's certainly an unconventional way to spin Christmas, particularly in something that owes so much to film noir. But then Brazil certainly isn't lacking for visual brilliance: almost every image is awe-inspiring. Likewise, the actors are topnotch. What else would you expect from Robert De Niro, Ian Holm, and Michael Palin?

The story and message, on the other hand, feel like they're bogged down in random elements and weird turns introduced to disguise the fact there's very little substance underneath. In a shorter movie, this wouldn't have been an issue: I don't mind overlooking narrative flaws in exchange for art. But this was far too long to excuse the weak script.

Beyond Tomorrow (1940)

I found Beyond Tomorrow listed on a list of theatrically released Christmas movies I found on Wikipedia that we're using as a checklist. I didn't remember ever hearing about it, so I added it to my Netflix queue. But before it came up, I found a copy in one of our bins of unwatched Christmas DVD's. Actually, I found two copies; one in a compilation, and another remastered version.

I'm starting to think we should invest the time to re-organize our collection.

I should probably mention that the remastered version was also re-branded as "Beyond Christmas." That was released in 2004 and included a color version along with the original. I'm not sure if their were legal reasons for the title change or if they just thought it would sell better with the word "Christmas" stamped across the top.

The movie has a lot in common with Bell, Book and Candle and The Bishop's Wife, though it seems to be even less well known. It's a shame, because - aside from one very unfortunate decision late in the movie - it's a pretty phenomenal film.

The story opens by introducing three elderly businessmen living together in New York. All were intriguing and likable, even the Scrooge of the group. After their dinner guests cancel on Christmas Eve, they make a wager on whether if they toss wallets out the window containing ten dollars and their address, any will be returned. The optimist of the group plans on inviting anyone who shows up to dinner, thereby solving their lack of guests.

The first wallet is returned by a handsome young man with a great singing voice, the second by a beautiful woman, and the third isn't returned, at all. Of course, the three old men befriend the pair, who are a couple by the end of the night. This sequence is about as light tonally as is possible. It's sweet, funny, and fun. The banter and genuine goodwill of the world remind me of things like Amélie.

It takes a little more than a third of the movie's run time to move to the next act, which starts with the three old men - the movie's protagonists - dying in a plane crash.

Bet you didn't see that coming.

Don't think they're out of the picture, though. Their ghosts return home, and they're able to subtly affect the world and those around them. They give characters premonitions, and they can casually move objects that could have moved by chance. They continue operating as they did in life and try to bring their loved ones whatever happiness they can.

Only their interference goes wrong. They nudge the young man into trying his hand at show business. He's successful, but in the process becomes involved with another woman.

As the movie progresses, things get even darker. The afterlife has rules and properties. And one of the old men didn't exactly live a spotless life.

For the most part, I like the story's resolution quite a bit. But, like I mentioned at the start, there's a pretty massive caveat. This time, it's the aforementioned "other woman." There's fundamentally nothing wrong with the character or her actions, at least not from a modern perspective. The dark cloud following her is nothing more than a divorce, which has resulted in a jealous (and ultimately violent) ex-husband.

The movie's judgment on her is a sickening example of victim-blaming far too extreme to be mitigated by its era.

However, I found the rest of the film so intriguing, I'm recommending it regardless. Just be aware anyone with a soul is going to cringe at least once.

Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962)

Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol's claim to fame is that it was the first animated Christmas special created for television. Its success paved the way for Rudolph, Frosty, the Peanuts' special, and all the rest. From a historical perspective, this is extremely important. But from a practical standpoint, it's pretty dull.

This thing starts with a brief frame story, which serves no purpose other than establishing why Mr. Magoo is Scrooge. It's a fairly simple set-up revolving around a Broadway production of "A Christmas Carol" starring Mr. Magoo. Why is Mr. Magoo starring in a play? No clue. But there are a few quick gags involving his sight. He crashes his car, goes into the wrong building, goes into a woman's dressing room instead of his own, then causes the play's director to be horribly injured just as the play starts.

All of this takes about three and a half minutes. The next forty-seven minutes are just "A Christmas Carol." Ostensibly, it's supposed to be the play he's starring in, but this doesn't really work. The characters aren't constrained to realistic sets, and events occur which couldn't be done in real time. We get a pan out into a stage and cartoon audience when there's a commercial break, but this feels tacked on.

In addition, there's almost no use of the character of Mr. Magoo until the end. He's simply Scrooge in demeanor and in abilities. Throughout the vast majority of the story, there's no allusion to Magoo's infamous vision deficiencies. This changes in the last few minutes of the special, when they suddenly start dropping in mistakes the character would make, such as being unable to differentiate between a comically over-sized turkey and the seller carrying it. But, prior to the character's transformation, he never makes any similar mistakes.

The story itself is surprisingly faithful to the original, in many cases right down to the lines and tone. The only major deviation occurs when they invert the order of the first and second ghosts. They also cut out Scrooge's extended family. But, then again, they did a truncated version of the sequence where Marley shows Scrooge the myriad spirits consigned to walk the Earth as shadows, and that's almost always cut.

The special includes several songs. There's nothing particularly impressive, but they did seem to take them seriously for the most part. There are, however, a few exceptions, most notably the musical number built around the now farcically dastardly thieves who stole from the deceased Scrooge's estate. This wasn't the only bad call made, but it was probably the most obvious.

The animation was about as simple as you can get: this clearly didn't have much of a budget. That said, the backgrounds were fairly well designed and evoked isolation, depression, and claustrophobia, as needed. It was clear that effort was poured into this special.

But despite all the hard work, it just didn't age well. The premise was lacking a point: there was no reason to have Magoo play Scrooge if they weren't going to use him. Likewise, anything remotely well done in the animation or music has been done far, far better a hundred times since. Sure, its success opened the door for other specials, but there's absolutely a reason those became legendary and this has faded to barely warranting a footnote.

Bear in the Big Blue House: A Berry Bear Christmas (1999)

If you’ve hung out here with us for any appreciable time, you have probably noticed that while we are open to anything with a Christmas flavor, we each have our specialties. Partially because of what we have history and context for, partially just our individual taste. Erin tends to handle the true Christmas classics and the modern mainstream comedies. I take lesser-known classics, the BBC and movie musicals. We occasionally flip for the truly terrible stuff. Erin deals with most horror. I take children’s media, particularly when it involves Henson.

Bear in the Big Blue House is a Henson Company production that aired on the Disney channel from 1997-2006. I may have seen some episodes in 1997 and 98. Yes, I was a teenager, what of it?

It focuses on the titular Bear and his varied friends: a tiny mouse named Tutter, a baby bear, Ojo, two otters, Pip and Pop, and a lemur with a speech impediment who goes by Treelo. They all live together in a, yes, big blue house. The episodes tend to deal with simple problems for the friends to help each other with structured around a theme to learn about, things like seasons or shapes or color. Bear is the ‘adult’ character of the group, and often has to gently and kindly show the others how to do something, or why they shouldn't worry about a problem.

I am actually pleasantly surprised how well this holds up. We enjoyed it, although it is definitely targeted toward young kids. It has a lot of direct address (Bear welcomes you to the Big Blue House at the start of each episode) and each episode has a consistent, expected structure.

This double-length episode is about the holidays. After a special opening musical number, Bear welcomes you in, compliments how festive you smell (I turned to Erin and said ‘I think I just got hit on by a giant Muppet bear’), and then introduces the theme of the episode. In the first five minutes, this show demonstrates a more comprehensive knowledge of the origins and relationships between the winter holidays than most adults, capping it off with another song: ‘A Holiday for Everyone’.

By the way, the music is really well done for a kid's show. Some of the songs are gorgeous and slow and haunting, some fast and hilarious.

I should mention here a character I haven’t named yet. Bear has a friend called Shadow, who is a literal shadow. She pops in once an episode to tell a story with shadow puppets. These segments don’t have as nice production values as the rest, but we get a bit about Kwanzaa in the first half, and Hanukkah in the second. Not bad.

After a detour to visit Santa Hog at the mall and another fun song, we get to the crux of the holiday plot: the inhabitants of the house discover a dog, dying in the snow. They take him in, discover that he's homeless, and insist he stay with them for the holidays. Tutter the mouse sings a quite moving song grappling in a childlike way with the idea of homelessness. He feels empathy, but he’s also suddenly worried about losing his own home. By the end, of course, Jake the Dog finds a new home, and all the characters have tried to be kind to each other. Also there’s a whole sub-plot in the second half about the annual search for a magical wish-granting Winter Berry. I really enjoyed that the Winter Berry isn’t proven to be either magical or not magical. It’s a nice subtle touch - the animals have a holiday tradition that involves a myth and magic, they believe, but it isn’t proven true.

I just found this whole special sweet. But there’s one more character I’m forgetting. At the end of every normal episode, and in this case both halfway through and at the end, Bear recaps the events of the day to Luna. The moon. The actual moon. He flirts with her. The Bear is in love with the Moon. It’s sort of mystical and beautiful, while STILL being a kids show from the late 90s.

If you like puppetry and you appreciate children’s television that’s sweet without being cloying, you should consider looking this up. Better yet if you have little ones.

Nerdtivity: Child of No Father, Born to Save the World

For the last week and a half leading up to Christmas, we're posting a "Nerditivity" scene every night at midnight. I hope this photo speaks for itself.

(Hint: one of the things it says is f*ck you, New 52.)

In case anyone's wondering, all the Nerdtivity scenes we're posting were done without digital alteration beyond cropping and/or minor color correction. All objects were physically present at the time the image was taken.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Christmas Story 2 (2012)

You might think a direct-to-video sequel to A Christmas Story would have no chance of living up to the original, but I thought it was a worthy successor. Granted, I consider the original one of the most overrated pieces of crap ever produced, but I think it says something that WB's home entertainment division was able to meet the same level of quality. Specifically, it says they're two-bit hacks who could barely figure out which way to point the camera, and even then I spent most of movie wishing they'd get that wrong and save me from at least a scene or two of utter agony. Watching this on DVD is enough to make one nostalgic for the days of televised movies, where you at least get the soothing respite of a commercial break to dull the pain.

A Christmas Story 2, referred to in its trailer as A Christmas Story 2: The Official Sequel is set 6 years after the original, and Ralph is about to turn 16. If such a thing is possible, the plot is slightly less defined than it was in the original. Once again, we get a series of loosely connected events which make little to no sense and involve someone's tongue stuck on something.

The movie's main conflict focuses on a car Ralph dreams of owning. He accidentally damages it at the dealership and owes $85. This leads to him and his friends taking jobs at a department store right before Christmas. Despite being desperate and determined, they behave idiotically. The results aren't funny, though they manage to generate a sense of awkward embarrassment that will make you hate and/or pity everyone who worked on this movie.

Meanwhile, Ralph's cheapskate father is trying to save a few bucks by ice fishing to catch Christmas dinner. Yup. Believable and interesting: you won't resent a single one of the ten or fifteen minutes of your life you waste on this subplot.

Oh, did I mention the obligatory street urchin, the random love interest (who's given all of two minutes of screen time, about a third of which is spent being threatened by a Nazi interrogator in a dream sequence), or the seemingly endless barrage of references from the first movie? I didn't? Good: I was planning to gloss over those.

The movie ends the way these things typically do, with everyone learning lessons, coming together, and getting everything they wanted. Not only is Ralph's pointless debt resolved, he miraculously gets the girl and car (is his stingy dad secretly rich or something?) and drives off into a CG sunset.

It's the sequel no one asked for, but it's what A Christmas Story probably deserved.

Needless to say, if it's a choice between seeing this and undergoing a root canal performed by a Nazi war criminal, you might as well get your teeth fixed out of the deal.

Richie Rich’s Christmas Wish (1998)

Let’s start with something positive: this movie is better than any of the Home Alone films. That is to say, it isn’t terrible, but don’t look so surprised-I’m not saying it was good either.

The people who worked on this were stuck adapting Richie Rich, but I guess the best way to handle it is to do what they did and just embrace the insanity. The sets are insane, the characters way over-the-top, and the plot ridiculous.

The movie opens with Richie’s first Christmas, just to establish that his parents planted a special Christmas tree for him in their front yard. Fast forward to the ‘present’, and Richie is excited to go play with his friends on Christmas Eve. He races down a bunch of endless hallways, taking and leaving bits of outerwear with an endless row of servants seemingly without any rhyme or reason, and then he and his friends race about in some fancy snowmobiles, only to have their fun cut short by Richie’s social obligations.

Ducking his responsibilities, Richie goes down to Professor KeenBean’s lab (you have to just accept these names and move on) to establish the invention of a wishing machine. Next we introduce the VanDough family, and their evil son Reggie. Seriously, the kid is evil from minute one. Reggie finds a ‘universal remote’ at the Rich family mansion and uses it to derail, somewhat literally, Richie’s ceremonial Christmas trip to bring presents to the orphanage. The fancy motorized sled tears through town destroying property and presents, and everyone blames Richie for losing control of the vehicle. In despair, he wishes to have never been born… while sitting by the wishing machine.

Not really great at spacial awareness, this kid, considering how surprised he is by what happens next. He gets sucked through the machine into a parallel world where Reggie somehow manipulated everyone so that he could become the Rich’s son and then take over their fortune and business. It’s not plausible, but none of this has been plausible so far. We get that seemingly important call-back where Richie finally believes that he actually wished himself into a different reality when his special Christmas tree doesn’t exist.

Richie steals back his dog, who trusts him for some reason, and this sets off a town-wide manhunt for the dognapper. A series of somewhat repetitive chase sequences later, and Richie manages to convince his old butler (now a roadie), the Professor, and his friends to help him fix the world.

Namely, by stealing a giant dinosaur wishbone from a museum, in order to repair the wishing machine. They do this, the machine is briefly stolen away by Reggie, who makes the much more sensible wish of flight, and the kids end up in jail, only to be saved by the dog and the butler’s bandmates from earlier.

Of course they get to the machine just in time and Richie wishes everything back to normal. When he wakes up, some unspecified amount of time has passed, because everyone in town was worried sick about Richie. There is no follow-up to the whole original plot line with the runway sleigh and blaming Richie for the lost presents for the orphanage. Not even a line. So I guess the takeaway is that ‘I’ll run away, and then they’ll all be sorry!’ is a viable strategy.

This isn’t, as I said, a truly terrible film. Just mediocre to bad. There are a lot of strange matting/blue-screening choices in scenes where it doesn’t make sense, but other than that the production is pretty polished. The acting is over the top, but it’s clearly a consistent choice, and Richie manages to eke out a hint of sympathy despite all the situations being stupid. The ending is odd and lacks quite a bit of resolution. Wikipedia tells me that there is an alternate edit sometimes shown on TV that rectifies this. How incredibly bizarre that it wouldn’t be on the DVD release!

This probably entertained kids with nothing to do when it came out, and that’s all it had to do to be a success. I have one more positive thing to add: despite not actually being any good, it was much better than we expected.

Toy Review: Monster High Abbey Bominable Scary Cute Howliday Figure

Still on the lookout for last minute gifts? This little lady is just three bucks at Target this year.

Monster High dolls are VERY popular, and thus they're expanding rapidly from the original doll line into every conceivable bit of merchandise. These little Christmas-themed figurines aren't fantastic quality, but again, they're only three bucks.

The back of the package shows all the choices. Each one is an established Monster High character, with a few appropriate holiday-themed additions.

I chose Abbey because she already had a bit of a winter theme, being an abominable snowwoman and all. It's just a short step to give her a little holly and her friend there a Santa hat to make her a Christmas character.

She stands about 3 inches tall, and is permanently attached to her base, which features the Monster High logo. The paint work is far from perfect, but I've seen much worse on things this size. 

The snowflake piece is made of flexible plastic, so those spines are unlikely to break off or injure anyone. Overall, really not bad for a cheap stocking-stuffer.

Abbey contemplates her tiny plastic doppelganger.