Saturday, November 28, 2015

Quantum Leap: A Little Miracle (1990)

I don't think I can come up with a better way to start describing this episode than to quote Erin: "Now I remember why I didn't watch more Quantum Leap."

Quantum Leap, for anyone who doesn't know, was a fairly ambitious show with a premise that is somehow both over- and under-explained. The main character, Sam, 'leaps' through time, but only within his lifespan. He inhabits the body of another person, and helps fix something about their lives. He is helped in this by a Al, guy with a high-tech remote control computer that allows him to project himself to whenever the main guy is and provide advice and guidance, like Jiminy Cricket in an ugly 80's suit.

The downside is that it seems all this intriguing sci-fi set-up is just in the service of overblown melodrama.

In this episode, Sam leaps into the body of the butler of a super-rich development mogul on Christmas Eve. Raise your hand if you already know it's the plot of A Christmas Carol again!

Said mogul, named Blake, is very, very rich, and very, very cranky and callous, and very, very set on demolishing a downtown Salvation Army Mission by New Years to make way for a new high-rise plaza. Conveniently, the person making the case for the mission is a pretty girl who goes by Captain Donovan.

Sam and Al decide to open go for the Scrooge plotline, and initially go about it in a low-tech way. Sam snoops in a box of old photos and then 'accidentally' brings Blake to the neighborhood he grew up in on the bad side of town. He's handed an amazing coincidence: Blake finds out that his childhood friend died in a drunken accident after being laid off from a company that Blake automated (thereby firing all the employees). Sam is a terrible Spirit of Christmas stand-in, though; he doesn't even seem to realize what a stroke of luck that news is, or that it's pushing Blake in the direction Sam wants him to go until Al spells it out.

For Christmas Present, Sam brings Blake to the mission for some choir singing. The sound designers gave a mighty effort to strike a balance between the sound of the professional chorus and the visual of a bunch of random people singing relatively extemporaneously. They fail, of course, and the singing just sounds like what it is: a professional chorus with a few extra people and kids told to shout or sing off key, but only at the end of the line, so as not to spoil the harmony.

Here's when my favorite part happened. Erin and I had just finished rolling our eyes at the Dickensian-styled urchins in the 1962, clearly present to provide the proper tone, when Blake declared that the whole thing was a set-up, and he was not going to be taken advantage of. Hey, he's not an idiot!

Sam and Al finally pull the gambit you can see coming from the start. Early in the episode, it's revealed that Blake's unique brain means that he's on the same 'wavelength' as Sam, or something, so he can see Al. So Al puts on a get-up like some kind of zombie-witch-doctor and proceeds to use his holograms to scare the shit out of Blake. See your future, grave, etc, blah blah... The actor playing Blake does an impressive amount of scenery chewing, really wringing every drop of overwrought emotion out and finally he stumbles to the mission (following an unexplained star, even) to be helped to salvation by a pretty girl. Mission Accomplished.

The main thing to know regarding all this running about is that it was boring. And when it wasn't boring, it was distasteful, as with Al leering at the buxom maid. There was no resolution with a lot of plot threads that seemed to be happening early on. It's all so ridiculously pat, as well, because as I said at the beginning, the opponent to the big developer is a conventionally beautiful, single woman. *insert eyeroll here* There was no reason to care at all about the outcome.

Doctor Who: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (2011)

Yet another solid Doctor Who Christmas special, The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe tells the story of the Doctor's interactions with a family at Christmas. Or, more accurately, at two Christmases.

The episode opens with a quick Star Wars homage, revealing a massive warship orbiting Earth. Right as it's about to open fire, something seemingly goes wrong and an explosion cuts it in half. What's gone wrong, of course, is the Doctor, who's still on board and fleeing the blast. He survives by catching a space suit while being blown through space and putting it on as he plummets towards Earth.

This sequence is the low-point of the episode. It was a cool idea, but something was off in the pacing leading to the explosion: we really needed a few more seconds to accept this as a potential threat before the punchline. Likewise, the Doctor's leap through space was a little too cartoonish, even compared to the comic-book shenanigans that typically permeate this series.

When he crash lands on the surface, his helmet is on backwards. He can't fix this, because the suit's locked while it provides him needed medical assistance. All of this was really just a convoluted way to introduce him to the episode guest protagonist, Madge, a British mother prone to taking home strays. She helps him find his Tardis without having seen his face, a plot point for what comes next.

Three years later, it's right before Christmas, Madge has just received word her husband's plane was lost during World War II, and she's taking her children to the country for Christmas. The kids still think their father is coming, a fact she doesn't want to dissuade them from, fearing it will ruin the holiday forever. When they arrive at her uncle's house, they discover a new caretaker has taken residence.

The Doctor, of course, is there to repay her favor and try to give the children a great Christmas. To facilitate this, he's transformed the house into a whimsical play land. This is all supposed to culminate with a trip through a portal the most Christmasy setting he could find: a snow covered planet of beautiful trees that grow ornaments.

Only one of the children sneaks down and opens the gift early, leading to the Narnia homage that gives the episode its name. The Doctor and the other child discover what's happened and follow through, and Madge is close behind. She runs afoul of some loggers and winds up stealing their ride.

The trees, it turns out, are sentient, and the world is about to end, thanks to an intergalactic mining operation. To save themselves, the trees have created a massive ship, but it needs a pilot to contain their essence. The whole thing has a druidic vibe.

The episode offers an unconditionally happy ending, a rarity in the series. It's worth noting that the resolution was inline with the rules established within the episode. Granted, those rules were more fairy tale than science fiction, but the time travel stayed in the proverbial lines, and there were no major plot holes. Also a rarity in this series.

It's a sentimental episode, but it's effective, sweet, and charming as hell. It's not my favorite of the Doctor Who Christmas specials, but - despite a rocky start - it's great television.

Sofia the First: Holiday in Enchancia (2013)

Aww, Sofia. I wanted you to be fun. I wanted you to be clever. I like the idea of a Ur-princess narrative. But you were only sticky-sweet and not-too-terrible.

Sofia the First is an animated series from Disney Junior, about a girl whose mother marries into the royal family of a fairy-tale kingdom. According to Wikipedia, she is the bearer of a mystic amulet that connects her to advice from other Disney princesses.

In this episode, we're introduced to their traditional winter-gift-giving holiday: Wassailia! It's a fairly simple fantasy Christmas. There are presents, decorated evergreen trees, and traditional foods. The most prominent point unique to Wassailia is the lighting of a special candle in honor of the season's not quite clear, but it seems to bring blessings on the family.

The kids (Sofia and her step-siblings James and Amber) sing about how they celebrate the holiday to open the episode. Sofia is excited for her first Wassailia in the castle, but the party can't start yet because the king has gone into town for some last minute shopping.

Sofia goes out to the stable to check on her tiny punk Pegasus, Minimus. By the way, her animal companions are a little weird. The rabbit is ‘urban’. Not quite offensively so, but just odd.

Also, apparently other people don't know she can talk to animals. It seems a little unfair that she has princess powers and Amber doesn't.

In any case, we start the actual plot as the king heads home to the castle, only to crash in a rising blizzard. The horses run off, and the king and his party are rescued by a local...woodcutter? I'm not clear why this guy is wandering the woods in a blizzard. Anyway, the woodcutter brings them to his home to wait out the storm.

Up to this point, the episode has been hokey, and the animation a bit cheap, but it hasn't been stupid. Now it gets stupid.

Once the queen realizes that the king must have been delayed somehow, rather than sending a trained rescue party, or even going out with a trained party, she takes all the children in a flying carriage to look for the king. Really? Way to jeopardize the entire royal family.

They find the fleeing horses, but the storm is getting worse, and the Queen’s party prepares to wait out the storm in their (landed) carriage. Sofia wanders off briefly, determined to do something to find her dad. Her amulet helpfully sparkles, and today's princess mentor is…. Aurora!

CG Aurora is actually well designed, but her advice is stupid. She suggests Sofia enlist her animal friends to get the forest animals to look for the king. My problem with this is that Aurora’s animal friends were useless. As Erin pointed out, “The only thing Aurora's animals ever did was pretend to make out with her.”

Sofia’s animals are inexplicably helpful, after an almost kinda pretty montage they return with news of where the king is, and the queen and kids get to the woodcutter’s cottage in time to share their holiday.

So far we've learned to charge out into danger no matter what action makes sense, because animals will help us.

But Sofia has one last ridiculous lesson to teach. She gives the present her dad bought her in town to one of the woodcutter’s kids, thereby guilting her step-siblings to do the same. (This charity should be somewhat overshadowed by the mountains of gifts waiting for the three royal kids back at the castle, but no one mentions that.)

One more song and we're done. It's kind of a cute example of a generic fantasy Christmas, but overall I can't recommend this being worth your time.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The 1st Annual Mainlining Christmas Black Friday Party

I always get depressed this time of year.

I mean, sure, I love Black Friday - who doesn't? But it always seems like something's missing. When I think back to when I was a kid, Black Friday always seemed so magical, so special. It was a time for families and friends to come together and celebrate the season.

But I feel like somewhere along the way, we all lost sight of that. Now, it seems like all Black Friday is about is saving a few bucks, improving profits, or scraping bodies off the floor of a Walmart entrance.

Where did we go wrong?

I really don't have an answer to that, but Lindsay and I came up with a possible solution. This year, we decided to skip the shopping trip altogether and throw a good old-fashioned Black Friday party for some of our closest friends. We picked up Black Friday decorations weeks ago - for some reason, they got really cheap at the start of November. I know - I was surprised they dropped the prices right when people would be thinking of Black Friday, too, but I've never understood marketing.

We set up the apartment the night before and snapped a few pictures while we were at it. Take a look.

We wanted to really capture the spirit of the holiday right from the get-go. Here's our front door - I bet the neighbors are thrilled!

Here's part of our living room. You can see the traditional Black Friday Spider in the back, coming to offer candy canes to all the good boys and girls. You're free to grab one, but be quick about it!

In the foreground, you can see Prancer, the magic re-animated dog skeleton. More in him in a moment.

Little known fact: the Black Friday tree originates from New Jersey! Once again, we stuck with tradition, decking it in festive razor wire and skulls.

A close up, so you can see some of the decorations. I know a lot of people are starting to buy artificial Black Friday trees, but we went with actual plastic.

This is the table where we put the snacks. Also, the souls of the damned bound to watch over them.

We like to incorporate our normal decor into our festivities, as you can see in the above photograph.

Here's another example of our holiday decorations!

And even more!

Before we wrap up, I want to give you a closer look at Prancer. He loves candy canes, which is why the Black Friday Spider is one of his best friends. Here's a video showing what I mean.

I hope you were able to spend Black Friday with family and friends. From all of us here at Mainlining Christmas....

Toy Review: Diamond Select Nightmare Before Christmas Jack Skellington

It's been over a decade since NECA started their line of Nightmare Before Christmas figures, and collectors still refer to it in reverent tones. Over several years, they produced almost every significant character imaginable from the film (with the notable exception of Santa Claus) in a six-inch scale with a wide range of articulation and generous accessories.

I think most of us expected NECA's line to be the undisputed, definitive word on the subject. But Diamond Select seems to think they can challenge that assumption. They've produced a wave of three figures from the movie: Jack, Sally, and Oogie Boogie. All are in a similar scale to the old NECA figures. Also like NECA's offering, they've gone to great lengths to add value to the toys by including some extras. While Jack doesn't come with any accessories, he does come with a huge display, as well as a more conventional stand.

Despite generally being happy with my NECA set, I ordered Jack, partly out of curiosity and partly to get the display. I figured I could drop that in with my existing collection whether or not I liked the new toy.

Let's start with the figure's appearance. Diamond clearly set out to beat NECA in terms of screen accuracy, which was no small goal. Remarkably, they seem to have succeeded. Jack's head sculpt is beautiful, as is the paint work. The left side of his mouth is a little off on mine, but I didn't even notice until I looked at the photo.

His body is almost identical to his appearance in the movie. His arms and legs are incredibly thin, and Diamond managed to get his proportions closer than NECA chose to.

Note that I said this was closer than NECA chose to make their figure. That's because NECA and Diamond approached this with slightly different philosophies: Diamond Select set out to make a collectible, while NECA made collectible toys. NECA sacrificed a bit of accuracy to engineer something sturdy. And - frankly - I wish Diamond Select had followed suit.

Diamond Select seems to have tried to deliver it all: in addition to looking great, they wanted this to have as much articulation as possible. And, to a degree, they succeeded here, as well. Using small hinge joints connected with pins, they provided a great range of posing options.

These small joints are located in Jack's elbows, knees, shoulders, and hips. In addition, his hands and feet are connected with pegs, allowing them to turn in place. Lastly, his head and torso contain ball joints (though the torso joint only offers a small amount of motion due to the sculpt).

The hinges are small and grey, which camouflages them nicely. At a few feet away, they're almost invisible. Also, Diamond Select wisely omitted any kind of thick end pieces to the pegs. This means they'll usually pop out instead of snapping.

You'll note I said "usually."

To the right, you'll see a close-up of Jack's right arm. I tried to be careful, but apparently it was stuck, and the peg snapped off. This was after only a few minutes of posing.

Honestly, I wasn't the least bit surprised. Pegs this small break all the time: I'd half expected Jack to fall apart when I took him out of his package.

When NECA produced this figure, they wisely found a compromise between screen accuracy and practicality. Diamond Select tried not to compromise, and - unfortunately - it doesn't seem to have worked out.

That said, I don't regret the purchase. The figure was really more of a add-on, anyway: I got this for the backdrop.

It's essentially a hill and gate from the movie. It's a massive piece, far heavier than the toy it's supposedly packaged with. The bent fences at the sides and arch on top are separate pieces you snap in (the arch has a tendency of falling out if you hold it wrong, but it's easy enough to get back in place.

There are a few areas where it could have been improved, but these are nitpicking. The gate is one piece, which means it can't swing open, and the entire thing is unpainted. But while a little weathering would have been a nice touch, there's enough sculpted detail to sell the effect. Overall, it's one of the best displays I've ever seen with a six inch figure.

In addition to this, you also get a smaller, more conventional round stand. Both work with a segmented arm piece that snaps into Jack's back.

Even better, the arm breaks down into three segments and four identical joints that can be reassembled in any combination. This opens up quite a few options for posing.

Incidentally, this piece also seems to be compatible with some SH Figuarts toys. Even if you're not planning on displaying Jack, it's a useful thing to have around.

Overall, this is a cool, albeit deeply flawed figure. If you love Nightmare Before Christmas and you're too new to collecting to remember the NECA line, this might be a good way to get a collectible connected to the holiday classic. Just be extremely careful working the joints: they're really not made well.

The good news is this won't set you back too much. These figures run about $25 each, which isn't a bad deal considering the size of the display piece.

Here's a comparison of the Diamond Select and NECA Jacks. The Diamond Select is a little taller and is standing to the right. The NECA figure, however, is the one with both arms attached:

Here are a few more pictures.

South Park: Black Friday, A Song of Ass and Fire, and Titties and Dragons (2013)

South Park has always been hit or miss for me, though I've never been sure whether it's the show's quality that's uneven or my tolerance for its twisted subject matter. At any rate, they've produced episodes that rank among the funniest works of animation I've ever seen and others that I would rather have a dentist appointment than re-watch.

This three parter from 2013, fortunately, falls closer to the former. It's a mash-up of Black Friday, Game of Thrones, and the console wars that fits together seamlessly into a hilarious - albeit warped - holiday tale. In addition, its focus on Black Friday is a welcome deviation from the norm: I find it odd more shows haven't played with the day.

The premise is a bit convoluted, but the three episodes give them time to develop it. In order to maximize interest in Black Friday, the mall is planning to offer a massive discount to only the first thirty customers. This discount can be applied to anything in the mall, including electronics.

The principal story line, of course, follows the series' main characters, who spend the entirety of the episodes dressed in their fantasy garb. Inspired by Game of Thrones, they plan to work together with the other kids of South Park to get access to one of the next generation consoles about to hit the market. Their alliance falls apart when they split into two factions: one wanting the PS4 and the other wanting the X-Box One.

The X-Box faction is led by Cartman, while Stan starts out leading the Playstation team. Eventually, he's joined by Kenny, who defects after Cartman refuses to allow him to call himself "Princess Kenny."

Meanwhile, Stan's father takes a part-time job as security in the mall under the pretense of wanting to earn extra money Christmas. Of course, his actual plan is to simply use his position to gain access to the sale and buy a big-screen TV. He has a change of heart, however, when he befriends the head security guard only to see him murdered by a shopper waiting in line.

As Stan's father takes charge of the guard, the intrigue around the boy's plans thickens. The rival factions of kids in South Park gain attention, first from Sony, who offers a better bundle on their system. Soon after, Bill Gates retakes control of Microsoft, killing the current CEO and offering the children weapons. Finally, Sony presents Kenny with an amulet nearly identical to the one from Sailor Moon. While it's unclear whether that gives Kenny any actual powers, he becomes a powerful figurehead.

While this has been going on, Cartman has sent Butters to find George R. R. Martin in order to learn how Game of Thrones ends, reasoning that knowledge will give him the edge he needs to outmaneuver his enemies. However, Martin's interest in Game of Thrones appears to be limited to male genitalia, limiting his usefulness. However, he does use his influence to delay Black Friday by a week, buying more time but also increasing fervor.

With the number of shoppers outside the mall increasing, the kids have no chance of fighting their way in. Instead, an uneasy alliance is formed. Cartman, feigning surrender, suggests renting out the Red Robin adjacent to the mall, which will allow them unobstructed access. They do this under the guise of a fictional wedding, further tying it to the show. Of course, Cartman's real plan is to imprison the PS4 side in the restaurant while his side buys X-Boxes.

The resolution has a few more betrayals involved. Kyle, misinterpreting Stan's father's position as an unfair advantage, helps Cartman get him grounded to prevent him from interfering in Cartman's plan. When he realizes that he went too far, Kyle betrays Cartman. But before they can turn the tables, Stan shows up with Bill Gates and the president of Sony, who fight to the death with Gates as the victor.

By this time, the doors of the mall have been opened, leading to a bloodbath. The show displays absurd depictions of cartoon violence, intercut with live-action footage from stores opening on Black Friday. The two blend together surprisingly well: while the message isn't subtle, it is effective.

With Gate victorious and the mall patrons dead, the kids stroll through the devastation, wading through blood to joylessly buy X-Boxes while "Christmas is Here" plays in the background.

The epilogue has Cartman and the others, traumatized by what they've seen, putting down their controllers and going outside to play, a message intentionally undercut by a tongue-in-cheek ad for the show's own upcoming video game.

I've never seen a single episode of Game of Thrones or touched a Playstation 4 or X-Box One controller, but I still found the jokes accessible. It's difficult to convey how good of a job this did tying together its elements - the episodes were funny, interesting, and at times somewhat genuine. The characters - even Cartman - had defined arcs and were given room to develop. Their reaction to the violence around them was almost touching, and the show's use of music borrowed from the Charlie Brown special was inspired.

There were certainly jokes in this that felt juvenile or dumb. I could have done with a few less penis jokes at George R. R. Martin's expense, and the lampooning done to crowds of Black Friday shoppers probably went a little farther than it should have. But, as a whole, I found this incredibly enjoyable to watch. More than that, the writing was intelligent.

If you can take a bit of the show's twisted nature, these three episodes are absolutely worth watching.

Doctor Who: The Unquiet Dead (2005)

Unless I'm forgetting something, this is the only episode of the revamped Doctor Who series set at Christmas that wasn't produced as a "Christmas special." It's only the third Christopher Eccleston episode, and marks the first time him and Rose went into the past.

The past they wind up in is 1869. It's Christmas Eve and - despite trying for Naples - the TARDIS takes them to Cardiff. As is always the case, there's more going on than a celebration. An undertaker in the city can't seem to keep the dead to stay still: they've picked up a habit of rising up and making trouble. One, an old woman, kills a grieving family member, climbs out of her coffin, and proceeds with her plans for the evening: catching a live reading of A Christmas Carol performed by the author, who is quickly pulled into the story.

Also of note is the undertaker's psychic assistant, a woman about Rose's age who's developed a connection with the beings responsible. The zombies are actually being possessed by disembodied gaseous aliens, who require new hosts to survive. The Doctor takes pity on them and convinces the psychic to help them make the journey, a decision that nearly destroys the world. Despite assurances to the contrary, there are billions of the "spirits", and they're intent on making the Earth theirs alone. They want as many dead bodies as they can get their hands on, and there's no easier source than living ones.

Overall, it's a good, albeit flawed, episode. They give Dickens an interesting arc reminiscent of Scrooge's, though it's more a journey from cynicism to wonder than bad to good. Meanwhile, the psychic girl's tragic story is fairly poignant, even if her fate comes off a bit redundant - a female character sacrificed her life for the Doctor in the prior episode. This became an unfortunate pattern throughout the series: after a while, it stops feeling tragic and starts to get annoying.

Speaking of annoying patterns, the series often dangled a diplomatic solution, only to yank it away in a last-minute twist. The Doctor offers the aliens a peaceful alternative, but they never seem interested. I understand that conflict can make for good TV, but this already felt repetitive after the same thing happened in the first episode. The Doctor has the ability and will to help the "monsters" meet their goals with no loss of life, but they never seem interested in hearing him out. If a few had actually considered the option, it might have created a little tension throughout the series. As it is, it's hard not to roll your eyes and wonder why the Doctor's even bothering.

There are also a few moments where the writing gets sloppy and the story starts unraveling. For instance, it doesn't really make sense that the zombie at the beginning went to see Dickens, since the alien, not her, was ostensibly in control.

These issues aside, the episode offers a great mix of humor, adventure, and light horror. The psychic's reaction to Rose's modern attitude is well considered and believable, and the use of Charles Dickens as a protagonist works well. Likewise, the visual effects were extremely well executed.

The Christmas elements are primarily built around Charles Dickens. Needless to say, they're thematically linked to A Christmas Carol, a fact Dickens himself seems to appreciate. And while the depth of his skepticism isn't entirely believable, his use of reason makes for a satisfying finale.

This works as a fun, creepy Christmas ghost story with science fiction elements... even if those elements are a bit of a stretch. It's definitely worth your time.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Food: Cracker Jack Holiday Sugar Cookie Popcorn

I saw this in Walgreen's and had to have it. I love the concept; it's such a ridiculous thing to make 'holiday'.

The hilarity starts on the back of the package. It mentions "The snack brand America celebrates holidays with for over 120 years." Which a) is not a sentence, and b) I guess they mean Frito-Lay? Because Cracker Jack is not a holiday tradition. If it were they wouldn't be resorting to weird seasonal flavors!

The popcorn inside doesn't look like much. Part of the appeal of traditional Cracker Jack is that caramel color, and this is just white and sort of melted-looking. The red and green nonpareils are there to make sure you know it's Christmas.

The taste is pretty good, though! The candy-like coating tastes of sugar and butter, meaning it does actually taste as though someone liquified some frosted supermarket cookies like the ones in the picture and poured it over popcorn. Not high-class fare, but tasty enough.

But wait, there's more! Cracker Jack prizes have been getting sadder and sadder over time. I think they are only still there because of tradition. If you haven't had Cracker Jack in years, you may not know that all the prizes are paper now, because I guess they got sick of kids choking on plastic.

So in this package, there's a holiday prize, and it is....

This crappy Santa sticker. He doesn't even look jolly, just sort of unnerved.

Well, the popcorn is still tasty.

A Christmas Horror Story (2015)

A Christmas Horror Story's title might undersell the content: this is at least four distinct stories, not one, each with a different tone. The stories are told in tandem, cutting back and forth over the film's hour and forty minute run time. All occur simultaneously on Christmas Eve. They're technically connected, but not significantly. Some of the characters know each other or have some background tying them to another story, but none of what happens to them in their own tales is impacted by what's going on elsewhere.

Despite being distributed direct to video on demand, this anthology was impressively well shot, written, directed, and acted. It balances the horror and comedy well, juggling between a genuinely unsettling horror/fantasy, a creature feature, a ghost story, and a campy horror tale. None of these - not even the camp - fall into the pitfalls that usually trip up this genre. The movie never forgets it's horror first, and it has no interest in settling for "so bad it's good."

Equally impressive, all four segments provide satisfying finales, at least one of which was genuinely surprising. It's all too common for horror to wrap up with a needlessly ambiguous resolution, and that didn't happen here. Not every joke in this movie hit its mark, but the structural writing was really topnotch.

If that's enough for you - if this is a genre that interests you - then you might consider stopping the review here. This is absolutely worth your time, and at least one of the segments would lose at least a little of its punch if you know the premise going in. So, if you're in the market for a good horror movie built around the holidays, stop reading and track this down.

For the rest of you, the spoiler-free section is coming to an end.

I'll start with the best known of the movie's installments. While preparing for his Christmas Eve run, Santa discovers his supposedly immortal elves are infected with a terminal disease. Worse still, the dead rise up as zombies. Armed with his bishop's staff, Nicholas fights back.

Needless to say, this is the campy segment. The zombie-elves are reminiscent of the deadites from the Evil Dead movies.

I appreciate that they merged Santa Claus's Norse and Catholic roots. This version of Saint Nick is part Bishop of Myra and part Odin: it's refreshing to see these elements combined on film.

This culminates in what's likely the movie's primary claim to fame: a fight scene between Santa Claus and the one responsible for all of this, Krampus. Without giving too much away, I'll add that I really like how that battle ends.

The second story line follows a family who incurs the wrath of Krampus. The demon follows them into the snowy woods, then hunts them as they try to take shelter in a church. The last survivor uncovers a secret behind the demon's appearance and uses it to take her revenge.

Like most creature features, this isn't really interested in building up sympathy for its victims. There's a bit of camp throughout, though the makeup on Krampus is stunning.

Next up is the story of three high school students filming a movie about a murder that occurred in their school the year before. They discover connections to the building's past, when it was used by a nunnery. This was an eerily claustrophobic ghost story, aided by some incredibly creepy nativity statues.

But the scariest of the segments is the last. A couple take their son to look for a Christmas tree and trespass on private property. While there, they lose track of this son for a brief period of time, and something isn't right when they find him. As this progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer that they never took their son out of the woods. And by this time, the changeling has grown accustomed to its new life.

There's an argument to be made that this one and the ghost story might have benefited from being told start-to-finish, as opposed to being broken up. Interrupting these with sequences of zombie elves being decapitated did hinder their ability to maintain tone. On the other hand, cutting away from the changeling piece might keep it from getting too intense for newer horror viewers. The last few minutes aren't all that scary, but there's a section in the middle that's deeply disturbing.

In addition to these four stories, there's a little connective tissue, courtesy of a radio show host played by William Shatner. I wouldn't go so far as to call him a narrator - he's partly included as comic relief and partly to offer a bit of context for one of the stories.

All in all, this is a really good collection of holiday horror stories, all of which provide a satisfying experience without relying on obvious holiday gimmicks. Sure, there are zombie elves, but that story has more going on in it than just that. The Christmas tropes are there to serve the genre, not the other way around.

I got this through Netflix, but I'm seriously tempted to order a DVD for my collection: I can easily see wanting to watch this again in future years when the cheer gets unbearable. If you like horror, this one's highly recommended.

Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol (2010)

Easily my favorite of the Doctor Who Christmas specials, this episode from 2010 kicks off the second season with Matt Smith, the eleventh Doctor. This starts in the future on a distant world that's essentially a steampunk version of Victorian London. Only in space with flying sharks. Oh, and of course it's Christmas. Well, more accurately it's the winter solstice, but the opening monologue states the obvious: they're the same thing, anyway.

One of the things that makes this work as well as it does is that it really doesn't give you time to stop and question its logic. That's probably a good thing, because the premise is more than a little haphazard.

For example, Amy and Rory are honeymooning on a space cruiser that's about to crash into the planet of street urchins and fish-clouds, and the Doctor is unable to save them with the TARDIS. It's not remotely clear why this is beyond his capabilities (I think there might have been some BS tech-babble explanation, but it went by so fast I missed it).

Normally, this is the kind of oversight that pisses me off, especially in the Moffat years, but here the writing is absurdly transparent. The reason he can't magic them to safety using the TARDIS is because Moffat wants to set up A Christmas Carol; they practically break the fourth wall informing the audience. When the Doctor pieces together that what he's seeing calls for a re-imagining of the holiday classic - a realization he comes to on screen, being familiar with the story - he's giddy with excitement.

Structurally, the backstory - why Amy and Rory are on the cruiser, why it's going to crash (though not so quickly that there's no time for an episode), why the planet's atmosphere is controlled by a machine in the hands of one man (with far less security than his situation probably warrants) - all of that is presented at a lightning fast pace, and by the time the Doctor's eyes light up, we don't just know where this is going: we're completely with him.

Actually, we only think we know where this is going. Because this provides a far more interesting spin on the classic than I'd expected. Dozens of shows have gone the route of having characters use special powers or effects to feign ghosts and recreate the story: this goes in a wildly different direction.

The Doctor doesn't lie to the episode's Scrooge stand-in (named Kazran Sardick, played by Michael Gambon). Instead, he tells him exactly what he's going to do: to make him a better man. He starts by playing some old recovered video of Kazran's youth. Initially, it seems like he's trying to elicit old memories by showing him who he was, but the truth becomes apparent when he scoffs and throws the Doctor out... only to see him appear a moment later in the recordings.

This begins a fascinating sequence of events as the Doctor travels through time, visiting Kazran every year on Christmas Eve. Also along for the ride is a woman pulled out of suspended animation who's simultaneously something of a love interest and a Christmas angel.

Of course, anytime there's an angelic woman in a Doctor Who Christmas special it means she's not long for the world. This one has a literal countdown: once it hits zero, her time will be up. Again - there's really no use questioning the logic: it's just part of the premise, and it works well enough narratively.

This dark turn puts Kazran's life back on track towards being a ruthless tyrant, which opens the door for a brief Ghost of Christmas Present sequence with holograms, followed by the real emotional gut punch of the special: the Ghost of Christmas Future segment, where Kazran taunts the Doctor to go ahead and show him the future, thinking it won't change a thing.

In my opinion, the Doctor's method of accomplishing this, however, ranks among the best plot twists Moffat has ever written.

Unfortunately, the episode tacks on one more unnecessary twist in the last act, effectively rendering that segment moot. Instead, there's an overly sentimental solution that detracts - just a bit - from the overall punch of the episode.

Not enough to change my endorsement, however. The use of time travel here, while reminiscent of that in the original story, is innovative and thought-provoking, the dialogue is hilarious, the acting is fantastic, and the production values are extremely high.

As far as science-fiction Christmas stories go, this ranks among the best ever filmed. If you're a fan of the series, I recommend giving this one a chance. Hell, if you've never an episode of Doctor Who before, this might be one of the better places to start, since it's produced more as a standalone tale than a chapter in a story.

Year Six and All’s Well

It’s that time once more.

I can’t believe this will be the sixth year we’ve held our Christmas here online with all of you. (Please don’t send up six geese a-laying, there’s a no pets clause in our lease.)

We hope you’re looking forward to this as much as we are. We’ve been collecting more music, more movies, specials and episodes, and more randomly holiday-branded baubles and doodads to share with you.

As a refresher for any newcomers, here is our pledge to you:

  • Between now and Christmas, this blog will update at least three times every day (approximately every eight hours).
  • Erin and I will listen only to Christmas music whenever we are in control of our aural environments
  • We promise to watch at least one Christmas-themed special, episode or movie every day
  • As time allows we will experience other holiday activities, such as decorations or events, and report back

In past years, we have also reported the slow and steady fracturing that our psyches take under the onslaught of yuletide. This year, we’ll have to see what happens, because we’ve been building up a resistance for the worst the holiday can throw at us.

So I feel ready. I feel pumped. Sure, give me Hallmark movies. Throw terrible animation my way. Endless renditions of Jingle Bells. This month, I will cry glitter and bleed peppermint and it will only make me stronger.

Welcome to the the most wonderful time of the year.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

All Aboard

The sixth year of Mainlining Christmas is just hours away. Make sure you have your tickets ready.