Saturday, December 5, 2015

Scooby-Doo! 13 Spooky Tales: Holiday Chills and Thrills (2012)

This DVD compilation includes Christmas or winter themed episodes from across the dozen or so incarnations of Scooby Doo over the years. Unfortunately, the majority are less Christmas than winter, and we already reviewed one episode, A Scooby-Doo Christmas, a few years ago. We're going to review the other two Christmas centered episodes, Haunted Holidays and The Nutcracker Scoob, on their own. That leaves ten of dubious holiday connection.

We almost didn't write these up at all, but a few included some holiday allusions or references, plus the snowy visuals were certainly evocative of Christmas. Ultimately, we decided to cover them together, along with some discussion of how each ties to the holidays, if at all.

First, though, let's talk about this "13 Spooky Tales" line. They released several of these DVD sets with different themes about the same time, each collecting ostensibly similar episodes throughout the years. In this case, even the math to get to 13 episodes is dubious. In reality, there are 12, unless you count The Nutcracker Scoob, parts one and two as separate. Together, they're only a half-hour: it actually begs the question whether several of the 7-minute shorts should be counted as full episodes.

Of course, one of these was a full hour, so they partly make up for including the shorts. Incidentally, if that hour-long had been 15 minutes, I'd have been a whole lot happier.

The Scooby & Scrappy Doo Puppy Hour: Snow Job Too Small (1982)
This spin-off features Scooby, Scrappy, and Shaggy without the other three members of the squad. The trio appear to have their own detective agency, though the "case" they're working is more a chauffeur job: they're supposed to deliver a spoiled boy to a house through the snow. If he's not there by midnight, he loses his inheritance, which of course means a relative in an abominable snowman suit is trying to keep him away.

After a brief "boy who cried wolf" set-up, the episode devolves into the usual chase sequence, followed by a standard unveiling. The kid gets his money, despite the fact he seems to be a horrible person (not even the heroes like him).

Aside from the winter aesthetic, there's not much in the way of Christmas here: no mention of dates or presents or anything.

It's not at all funny or exciting, though I suppose the writers deserve some credit for letting a spoiled brat win. Life, after all, is not fair: if it were, we wouldn't have sat through this crap. To its credit, it was only seven minutes long.

The Richie Rich/Scooby-Doo Show: Tenderbigfoot (1981)
Why the hell is this even on here? Every other episode at least has some tenuous connection to Christmas, even if it's nothing more than there being snow present. This one is about Scooby, Scrappy, and Shaggy trying to earn camping merit patches and running into Bigfoot. No snow, no Santa, no decorations: nothing remotely Christmas to be found.

The short is only seven minutes long, not that the time flies by. This was clearly made in the era when the producers wanted to appeal to younger viewers who enjoyed laughing at the funny dogs, since everything else - including any hint of mystery - is out the window.

Early on, the trio get launched deep into the woods after their boat accidentally inflates, gets punctured on a rock, then carries them miles away. Scooby almost immediately runs into Bigfoot, though Scrappy doesn't believe him. Making matters no more entertaining, Scooby winds up covered in poison ivy. In an effort to cure him, Scrappy wraps his uncle in bandages then takes off with Shaggy for firewood or something. While waiting for them to return, Scooby sees Bigfoot enter their camp and eat all their food. The others return, and Shaggy accuses Scooby of eating the food and making up the story about Bigfoot, who promptly emerges, rendering all dramatic irony moot.

Queue chase sequence down a river, which finally dumps the main characters back at Camp Kickapoo. Yup. Comedy gold.

Bigfoot, meanwhile, wanders off. Presumably, it was actually the monster, not someone in a suit. Take that, skeptical rationale that defined the premise of earlier incarnations of the show.

Because I know you all care deeply, they failed to earn their camping patches but made up for that with a number of others.

The animation and writing were both weak: overall, this about as good an episode as it was relevant to the holidays.

Scooby-Doo: Where are You!: A Scary Night with a Snow Beast Fright
This episode is set entirely at the North Pole, which is also the extent of its holiday connection. The gang was sent for by a scientist who gets abducted by a gigantic white dinosaur before they arrive at the Eskimo village he was staying in.

My racism sense is tingling.

The portrayal of the Inuit tribe, while certainly not good, was actually slightly less offensive than I'd expected. At least the portrayal of the one member of the tribe who hadn't been run off was. He was a stereotype, but he wasn't used as comic relief, nor was he the villain. So... kudos for meeting the absolute minimum requirement for 1970's entertainment.

Of course, they still portrayed the Inuit as living in tiny igloos right at the North Pole. Oh, and the episode progressed from night to day in what seemed like a 12 hour period (a personal pet peeve of mine: the poles only experience one day a year).

To the show's credit, chase scenes with a full-sized dinosaur are more interesting than those with a human-sized antagonist, so this wasn't as boring as it could have been. When it wasn't devolving into zany shenanigans, some sequences were almost suspenseful.

The resolution, of course, was both obvious and idiotic. The scientist's assistant was the culprit, along with his partners at an oil company. They'd built the robot dinosaur to chase the tribe away and steal a pocket of oil under the ice.

I suppose the writers should also get some credit for making an oil company the bad guy. Over all, it was more fun than most of these, despite some missteps.

The New Scooby-Doo Movies: Scooby Doo Meets Laurel and Hardy/The Ghost of Bigfoot (1972)
This was a bizarre thing to stumble across without context. The New Scooby-Doo Movies was a series of hour-long episodes featuring a guest star each week. Crossover episodes with Batman and Robin, the Harlem Globetrotters, and the Three Stooges all exist.

Unfortunately, this vaguely Christmas episode featured Laurel and Hardy instead. Not the real Laurel and Hardy, mind you: these were the voice actors from the 1966 Laurel and Hardy animated series you've never heard of and/or don't remember.

The plot is essentially the same as the plot to almost every episode of Scooby-Doo: someone's pretending to be a ghost or monster to scare people away while he tries to steal something. In this case, there's a twist: instead of pretending to be a ghost or a monster, the villain is pretending to be the ghost of a monster.

The episode is set in and around a ski lodge, where Laurel and Hardy get work as bellhops. This doesn't really make sense, since the Mystery Inc. kids recognize them, implying they're also famous comedians. Whatever - it's not like anything else in this special made sense, either.

The villain is an old man who is both using a projector to create an illusory ghost of bigfoot AND dressing in a costume and running amok through the ski lodge. Also, he had an assistant who looked and sounded like the ghost of bigfoot, but that guy just kind of disappeared without being mentioned again. If you're wondering about motive, he was stealing cars then disguising them. So... at least he wasn't looking for buried treasure.

Laurel and Hardy were given a number of incredibly dull comedy sequences together, then split up to help the kids. None of it was fully developed, though the investigation was quite a bit more interesting than anything else.

If they'd dropped Laurel and Hardy and cut this down to the old thirty minutes, it would have been much more tolerable. As it was, it dragged throughout.

Once again, the episode was set in a wintry setting, providing at least a nominal holiday connection. There was also some discussion about Christmas, itself, early on, though Fred pointed out it wasn't time yet.

What's New, Scooby-Doo?: There's No Creature Like Snow Creature (2002)
Another episode, another winter-themed monster making trouble at a ski resort. Only this time, there's very little skiing: instead, there's a snowboarding competition going on. How positively x-treme.

This is actually the first episode of the 2002 series, What's New, Scooby-Doo? That's... supposed to be a declarative statement. I hate punctuation in show titles.

This incarnation of Scooby-Doo was clearly trying to modernize the concept (hence the snowboarding) while keeping the key voice actors and character traits. To its credit, it almost feels like a proto-Mystery Incorporated, the 2010 series that elevated the concept to truly impressive - and genuinely scary - levels.

This wasn't quite there yet, but it toyed with giving the "normal" characters flaws. Fred, in particular, comes off as reckless and short-sighted, traits that the later incarnation would explore. In this one, he breaks his leg halfway through the episode. Velma, despite wearing a comically over-sized coat, catches a cold, leaving the others to solve the mystery. In one of the better sequences, Daphne investigates on her own and is portrayed as component and capable, for a change.

Scooby and Shaggy, of course, are zany and ridiculous, which is really what's needed to stop the monster. Or, more accurately, the robot, which is being controlled remotely by one of the snowboarders trying to fix the competition by wounding his competitors.

The main Christmas element was the monster itself, essentially an animated snowman gone bad. Shaggy, at least, noticed the parallels and made several Frosty jokes during the episode.

It's certainly not great, but this one had decent production values, and a few of the gags worked. That said, the over-the-top snowboarder scenes dated it immediately.

Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo: Rocky Mountain Yiiiii! (1979)
Oh, good. More Scrappy.

This episode features the puppy at his prime. In case there was any doubt, this is a very bad thing. All of his catch phases are here, and the character is essentially the star.

The plot involves - stop me if you've heard this one - the Scooby Gang go to a ski lodge, only to discover it's almost empty, because a ghost is scaring the guests away. Their investigations lead to a series of absurd chase sequences, until they finally capture and unmask the "ghost", only to discover he's the descendant of the historical figure he's pretending to be and is searching for treasure his ancestor left behind.

There are a few things setting this apart, though. First, there's Scrappy, so every damn chase includes scenes where he tries to attack the ghost, only to pulled away by Scooby. Also, there is what I can only describe as the worst animation I have ever seen in a Scooby-Doo show. Some of the shots of faces look as though they were done by a four-year old.

I suppose the ghost's design is pretty decent, though it doesn't look all that distinct from numerous other monsters the gang's gone up against over the years.

All things considered, this was a pretty awful episode: easily the worst we sat through on this DVD set.

Scooby-Doo, Where are You?: That's Snow Ghost (1970)
Okay. I think we've finally reached the original ski lodge/monster ghost episode most of the others are duplicating. This was the last episode of the first season of the incarnation of Scooby, which is - by most metrics - better than anything that would appear for at least a couple decades. The show is still repetitive and cheesy, but the monsters are usually cool, there's at least an attempt to build a little suspense, and the animation is decent.

The plot and setting are essentially the same we've seen in several other episodes: there's a ski lodge with few visitors which is being terrorized by the ghost of a wintry monster. In this case, it's a yeti's ghost. The gang investigates and discovers a Tibetan temple where an old monk tells them the story of how he was once chased by a real yeti, which fell off a cliff and died. He thinks its spirit has returned to take vengeance.

In reality, the hoax is being done by the lodge owner and another Asian character, who's even more stereotyped than the monk, but the gang won't piece that together until tracking the ghost to a saw mill, where they discover white powder and a hollow log full of gems. Also, the ghost, leading a series of implausible chase sequences and murder attempts.

For all this episode's shortcomings, it was kind of nice seeing the villain actually attempt lethal force for a change: he tried sawing Velma in half and came close to killing Scooby and Shaggy with dynamite. That kind of commitment is common these days, but for most of the 70's and 80's, villains were content to rely on scares.

Once again, the Christmas elements were limited to the winter wonderland: no mention of the holiday or any tropes.

The Scooby-Doo/Dynomutt Hour: Whatta Shocking Ghost (1976)
This episode is set in an abandoned town centered around a ski lodge. The town's power is out due to the attacks of what appears to be a ghost made out of electricity, the "Ten-thousand Watt Ghost." which sort of looks like a Doctor Seuss character.

The plot, for once, is actually a bit complicated. The ghost is supposedly the spirit of an electrician, who disappeared during a blizzard. Since then, he's been scaring away townsfolk and sabotaging the power plant, allegedly to take vengeance on the plant owner and mayor, who sent him out on the assignment.

Naturally, this leads to Scooby, Shaggy, and Velma interrogating a parrot using flashlights, which reveals the mastermind is the mayor, who's attempting a freeway-related land con. Got that?

The sad part is, I'm really not skipping over all that much connective tissue. The gang finds sunflower seeds in the power plant, which brings them to the pet shop. Why, exactly, they're using the pet store as a front for a tunnel leading to the power plant is never explained. Presumably, one of the writers just wanted to work in that scene with the parrot.

At any rate, the parrot eventually gives them some information after a painfully idiotic interrogation. Specifically, he points them towards the closet, where they find a rubber suit and the tunnel. The next clue they get is a note pointing them towards an area of land. They pull a book on the subject from the town archive and play keep-away with the ghost.

Eventually, they trap him and short out his suit with a giant ball of snow. The supposedly dead electrician actually is the ghost: he was taking orders from the mayor, who was using the commotion to scare people out of town and buy their land cheap, all so he could sell it at a profit when a freeway came through.

A tad complicated, but I suppose this better than another lost treasure. The monster is the real disappointment this time around: the thing looks more silly than scary.

Still no Christmas in sight: just more snow.

What's New, Scooby-Doo? Toy Scary Boo (2003)
Even less Christmasy than most of the episodes in this set, this one isn't even set in winter. The only connection to the holidays is that it centers around toys, which is more inline with parodying the Toy Story movies than anything else.

That said, this was by far the best episode in this collection. It's clever, entertaining, and fun; plus the plot actually has a decent twist.

The premise is that the toys in a mall store are coming to life at night and wreaking havoc on the other stores. The gang volunteers to spend the night in the mall and get to the bottom of it. Besides them, there are four suspects: the toy store manager, a toy safety activist, the night watchman, and a nerdy toy collector/designer.

Like in "There's No Creature Like Snow Creature" above, this one elevated Daphne to the team's action hero when needed, balancing her obsession with fashion with competence. Nice touch. Velma remains the team's mastermind, while Fred's shift towards comic relief is clearly in motion. He's really only a hair's breath away from the character he became in Mystery Incorporated. Also like Mystery Incorporated, this show had a lot of fun playing with its tropes. When Fred announces early on, "I have a plan: let's split up and look for clues," it's clearly intended to come out sounding as idiotic and reckless as it should.

Even the zany chase sequences were fun this time. Structurally, they were similar to the ones Scooby-Doo has always had, but these were better handled. The pacing, animation, and writing pulled off the desired effect, and the result was solidly entertaining.

The mystery has quite a few elements, from the reveal that the toy collector is also an inventor with a van full of high tech gear, the gang stumbling across a giant drill in the basement, the discovery that the toy safety expert had broken into the toy store to steal their batteries, and the realization the mall was built on the location of an old art museum, which had closed after being robbed (with the paintings never recovered). Oh, and also the discovery - about halfway through - that the toys were being controlled remotely using a universal receiver versatile enough to operate any toy.

At the end of the episode, Velma assembled the suspects and revealed she'd put together a radio tracker that would lead them to the criminal. At the last minute, the toy collector admitted he'd been the one to invent the remotes, and that the whole thing had been done for publicity. It was a good thing he admitted, Velma explained, because the tracker was just a ruse.

It was only driving away that she realized his confession was false: he just wanted credit for the invention. They returned to the mall to unmask the real culprit, who was using the commotion to recover the artwork he'd stolen and hidden in the art museum.

It was obvious, of course, but I think this is the first time I've seen that kind of fake-out in any incarnation of Scooby-Doo. Of course, I've only seen a small fraction of what's out there.

This episode was refreshingly funny and enjoyable. By far the strongest on the DVD set, even if it didn't have anything to do with the holidays.

Holiday Home LED Touch Globe With Icon (Santa Claus)

He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
- A Visit from St.Nicholas, Clement Clarke Moore

Before you ask, the answer is yes - that is a plasma ball built into Santa's stomach. We found this in early November at Fred Meyer on sale for 50% of its suggested retail price. If I even have to explain why we bought it, you're reading the wrong blog.

The tag on this calls it an "LED Touch Globe With Icon". The "Icon" part is to keep things ambiguous, since they also had ones with a snowman motif. Between the two, I can't imagine anyone picking up the snowman.

Other than a tag connected to a "try me" button and a bagged set of warnings and instructions, there was no packaging. The tag was branded, "Holiday Home," which is about as generic as you can get. The back says it was distributed by "Inter-American Products," which sounds nothing like a soulless multi-national conglomerate run by a shadowy cabal of supervillains bent on world domination.

Before enjoying our purchase, we made sure to read the "IMPORTANT SAFE INSTRUCTIONS" sheet. I suggest you do the same before continuing.

Notably absent: Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball.

I should also mention that this has a port for a 4.5 volt AC adapter if you have one lying around. I'm sort of tempted, though part of me suspects it would lead to a story the fire chief would be telling for decades to come.

In terms of appearance, this is essentially the unholy love child of a cheap plasma globe and an even cheaper holiday decoration. The base is coated in a layer of glitter, as are Santa's mustache, hat trim, and cuffs. Oh, and now my entire goddamn apartment.

Turned on, it functions the same as any other plasma ball. Left alone, a dozen or so electric tendrils shoot out randomly, but they converge if you touch the glass.

Mostly, I love the idea that someone, somewhere, decided this was something that needed to exist.

Like I said, we found this on an end cap at Fred Meyers. Retail price would have been twenty bucks, but we picked it up for half that. Ten dollars for a plasma globe - even a sub par one - seems like a decent enough deal. The cheesy Christmas elements really sold it, though. Hell, there's a part of me who wishes we'd dropped another ten and gotten the Snowman to go with it. Or, barring that, maybe two or three more Santas.

The New Scooby-Doo Mysteries: The Nutcracker Scoob (1984)

The Nutcracker Scoob is notable for being the final episode of The New Scooby-Doo Mysteries, which is primarily significant for being the last time the character of Scrappy-Doo was inflicted on audiences as a series regular.

As such, it was a tad anti-climatic. At the very least, they could have re-enacted the resolution of Old Yeller than turned on the laugh track. Now that would had gotten some ratings.

Instead, they told a relatively straight-forward Scooby-Doo tale centered around a Christmas pageant at a children's home. Of course, the place is in danger even before the faux ghost shows up: a cruel, oddly Victorian businessman named Winslow Nickelby is trying to force them to sell him the building on Christmas Eve. It would be easier to feel for the owners if there was some indication the home contained anything other than a theater.

Pretty soon, the monster of the week shows up. This one is called the "Ghost of Christmas Never," and she's cloaked in white with creepy eyes and a raspy voice. And... okay, the episode sucks, but I thought the ghost's design was a little creepy. At least she was when the show wasn't devolving into comic relief.

Cue a series of generic chase sequences, bizarre investigations, and dumb costumes. You know, the stuff that ties every incarnation of Scooby-Doo together. When the show's being done well, this stuff can come off as charming and funny. Otherwise, it comes off like this.

The actual culprit is Nickelby's French maid, who's trying to get the emerald for herself. Oh, yeah: there's a emerald. It's hidden somewhere in the theater, which is why the villain wants the place. In the end, the gang catches the maid and finds the gem. Then the bad guy's cat gets stuck on the ceiling, and the equally Dickensian "Tiny Tina" saves it. This, of course, melts Nickelby's heart, so he flips to good.

The whole thing is full of altered and original Christmas songs that tie with Tiny Tina for being the most annoying aspect of this episode. Yeah, I know - I'd have bet money Scrappy was going to walk away with the ribbon, too. But those songs are the stuff of sugarplum nightmares: they're awful.

We caught this on a DVD compilation called "Scooby-Doo! 13 Spooky Tales: Holiday Chills and Thrills." If you actually want to see this for yourself, go ahead and track it down.

Spoiler Alert: You do not want to see this for yourself.

Friday, December 4, 2015

A Very Murray Christmas (2015)

On the page for their new Christmas special, Netflix tags A Very Murray Christmas as "Witty, Quirky, Irreverent, Deadpan." This is probably as good a description as any I'm going to offer, but the internet isn't going to fill itself up with inane blather.

If I weren't copying off of Netflix's test answers, the other way I'd describe it would be a traditional Christmas special from a post-modern perspective. It's almost a deconstruction of the classic formula that doesn't actually want to give up that formula. Sound weird? It is.

I'm sorry. Not weird - quirky.

The quirky special opens with Bill Murray in his hotel room with Paul Shaffer, both playing themselves. After a quick blues tune, Amy Poehler and Julie White barge in, somewhat confusingly not playing themselves. They're producers, here to drag Bill downstairs to perform for a live TV special, despite the fact all their other guest stars canceled due to a storm. He's under contract, after all.

Murray pushes back, but they get him to the stage. He chokes in the opening minute, then finds and abducts Chris Rock over the commercial break, forcing him to appear on stage. At this point, it was beginning to settle into a groove: the plot was going to focus on them putting on this special despite the storm, with random celebrities popping in every few--

The power cuts out due to the storm, which nullifies the contract. Chris Rock takes off in the confusion, and the producers gleefully call the special off and leave, as well.

Okay. New plot.

Murray and Shaffer head down to the bar and begin establishing a new supporting cast. There's an engaged couple whose wedding was called off due to the storm, a group of cooks horrified by the idea their food's going to be ruined, a waitress trying to keep everyone's spirits up, and a handful of others. The couple takes on the biggest role - the stress is threatening to break them up for good, so Murray takes it on himself to get them back together. It takes three or four musical numbers, but eventually they seem alright. The clock strikes midnight, and everyone wishes each other a Merry Christmas. Drinks are passed around, and everyone is--

Bill Murray collapses on the floor, and the scene cuts away to him waking in a massive set, preparing for the musical extravaganza the storm had denied him. I honestly wasn't sure whether he'd died and gone to heaven or if this was supposed to be another dream sequence (it was the latter - having him die would have been gutsier, but I suppose you only get to pull that twist once per career).

Up pulls a sleigh carrying George Clooney and Miley Cyrus, who sing several songs with Murray. Very little happens, but Murray seems satisfied for the first time in the special. Eventually, he wakes up in his hotel room on Christmas day. There's one last short musical number, then Murray wishes a Merry Christmas to his friends and everyone else, looking out the window over the city of New York (conspicuously lacking the snow from the prior day's storm).

There's some good comedy and fun musical numbers, but those elements aren't exactly rare in this genre. What this thing has going for it is production value, mostly due to the direction of Sofia Coppola. I'm one of a very small number of people who found Lost in Translation overrated, but I certainly don't deny she's a good director. Every shot in this special is beautiful and visually fascinating, even when the story meanders.

The musical numbers are nothing special, aside from the song choices and star quality of the performers. Along with obvious classics (Let it Snow, Baby It's Cold Outside, etc.), there are some surprising additions, like A New York Fairy Tale and Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin' (Clooney's backup singing for that is pretty hilarious). These are a bit of a mixed blessing, though - at times, they almost seem more like viral videos than part of a whole.

The special is certainly worth seeing, though, thanks to Murray's presence and Coppola's direction. The writing is clever - witty, even - as the characters deadpan their way through this quirky and irreverent musical deconstruction. Just don't expect something revolutionary.

Game Review: Christmas Trivia Game

We picked up this card game on sale at a Go! Games and Toys in the mall after last Christmas.

It's as simple as can be: just a deck of cards and some very brief instructions. Each player selects one of four categories and another player reads the selected question off the top card. The first person to get two right in every category wins (you need to keep track on a piece of paper, not provided). It serves as many players as are willing to sit around the table with you.

Warning: the difficulty of the questions seems rather random. The cards are numbered subtly on the bottom and the group I played with had the impression that higher numbered cards were more difficult, but it’s hard to be sure. On each card the difficulty can vary wildly: A low-numbered card I just pulled up asks what year Silent Night was written (multiple choice), how tall a poinsettia can grow (multiple choice), asks you to know a specific line from the Visit from St. Nicholas poem, or asks what reindeer like most to eat in the wild (not multiple choice). A high-numbered card I pulled does have two very difficult questions, one mediocre one, and also asks what special gift was opened in The Nutcracker (they're looking for, "The Nutcracker"). It’s easy for the random fall of the difficulty to feel stacked against someone who keeps picking the category that happens to be the hard question on each successive card.

So this is more suited to casual trivia and chatter, not fierce competition. Sort of the way some groups play Trivial Pursuit without the board, just reading questions for the fun of it. We definitely enjoyed it, and even learned a little.

Book Review: A Child's Christmas in Wales

A Child's Christmas in Wales
Dylan Thomas, 1950-1955 (depending on how you count)

I have seen this book on lists of classic Christmas stories for years now, but it just kept falling to the bottom of the to-read list.

It probably could have stayed there.

There's nothing wrong with it. It's a short story's worth of words poetically describing the activities and feelings of the holiday at a very particular place and time. It's pretty, especially the version I had with big color illustrations. But there's just not much to it other than nostalgia and pretty phrases. There are some very pretty phrases, admittedly.

There's food, and weather, and an amusing story about a fire scare fought with snowballs, and a brief interlude where young boys sing carols outside a creepy house. Whether the narrator is speaking to a general audience or one person was unclear; it seemed to shift without clear demarcation of any sort.

It comes from a piece originally written for radio, and I think it's probably better as spoken narration. It might go nicely over some loose animation as a short atmospheric piece.

It's neither as beautifully written or as personally specific as Capote's A Christmas Memory, but it has a certain charm all the same. It's fine for what it is, it's just a bit thin taken as a piece alone.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Angels Sing (2013)

I can't even remember for sure where we caught the trailer for this thing. It was some DVD or another. At any rate, we saw this starred Harry Connick, Jr., Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson, and were morbidly curious what that combination would yield in a low-budget family-friendly Christmas dramedy.

The plot centers around Connick's character, a middle-aged college professor with a vendetta against the holidays. Turns out, when he was a kid, his brother died after saving his life on a lake they were skating on with their new Christmas skates.

The flashback scene depicting this, incidentally, was hilarious.

At any rate, he's a father now, and his son, who's about the same age he was when he lost his brother, loves Christmas. He wants to spend the holiday with his grandparents, presumably because his grandfather used to hunt vampires with Blade, but his dad's too horrified with the whole thing.

Meanwhile, their family needs a new house. After narrowly missing a reindeer, he wrecks his bike and wanders in front of a mansion with a "For Sale" sign posted. He stops to ask the owner, played by Willie Nelson, how much the place costs.

Willie Nelson's character is named "Nick." Oh, and his coat has an image of Santa on it. Oh, and HE'S SANTA FUCKING CLAUS. Or he's a Christmas angel. Or, I don't know, he's high, so he sells Connick's character the mansion for what's described as half its value. Which, oddly enough, is implied to be even less than the four or five million dollars the place is obviously worth, since there's no way Connick's character could have swung that even with a 50% Black Friday discount.

Well, it turns out people travel all over the world to see this neighborhood's holiday light show, a fact Connick is less than thrilled about. The neighbors bring over boxes and boxes of lights, though - to the movie's credit - they're less dickish about the whole thing than most examples of this trope. Likewise, the movie sidesteps the cliche move of portraying the lead as a misanthrope and/or total asshole (looking at you, Kranks).

This will end the list of holiday tropes the filmmakers failed to include.

Because, while getting a ride home with his grandfather, Connick's son is in a car crash. The kid is fine, but Kristofferson's character bites it, just like he did in Blades 1 and 3. This robs us of the movie's most interesting actor and shifts the movie's tone to mope. The kid blames himself and Christmas, just like Connick did.

Willie Nelson makes a few more appearances further establishing him as supernatural, and helps Connick reach some sort of lame Christmas-decoration themed epiphany.

Angels Sing is one of those movies that would be better if it was worse. It plays like something that a Hallmark executive would pass on after decreeing it's too sappy and dull. It's nowhere near as stupid as 90% of the vaguely spiritual, life-affirming, quasi-Jesus infused holiday movies are, but after sitting through the endless barrage of empty sentimentality and trivial witticisms, you almost want some B-list comedian to run in and pretend to slip on some ice. I'd have taken irritation, disgust, anger: by the end I just wanted to feel something.

If you've noticed a pattern with Connick, Nelson, and Kristofferson, rest assured that pattern continues. This isn't quite a musical, but it skirts extremely close, featuring dozens of minor country musicians (a large number native to Austin) in minor roles and cameos. If you're from Austin and/or have some interest in the local music scene, there's a good chance this movie might be more interesting.

For the rest of us, it's more or less a waste of time.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Toy Review: North Pole Express Christmas Train Set

There are numerous holiday train sets on the market. This is one of the absolute cheapest, retailing for $65. If you can't find it on sale for half the retail price or less, don't waste your money.

I may have gotten a slightly better deal than that. Was in a Toys R Us last January buying some clearanced stuff, including a cheap Christmas game comically marked down to $0.03 in their system. When I got the front of the store, this train set was behind the register. Someone had returned it, and they'd yet to move it back to the floor. Since all their holiday stuff was marked way down, the associate ringing me up asked if I'd be curious what the train set was going for. Of course I was, so he scanned it: $0.03.

I love automated discount systems.

In case anyone's wondering, I'm fairly certain that the 99.95% discount I received (before tax) sets a record for the best deal I've gotten in more than a decade of toy collecting. Unless you count rebates, in which case I actually once got a deal slightly better than 100% off before tax. But that's another story.

The box this comes in is just shy of three feet long and almost two tall - you're not getting top-notch quality here, but you are getting a decent quantity of stuff. Here's a picture of the other side of the package.

There's a lot of marketing on here about all the different cars, operating headlight, power indicator (that's the headlight again), wireless remote, etc., etc. A lot of this is bull (the "auto-coupling" feature just means the pieces snap together, and even then not that well), but the animated cars are sort of neat.

You get six cars in total, counting the locomotive. Two are set up with elf toys that move when the train's in motion. This is just a matter of gears - only the locomotive takes batteries. One of these has an elf ice skating who spins when the car's moving.

The other has a pair of elves operating a hand car for some reason.

The ice skating one is more interesting. Also, the two elves on the hand car are giants compared to the ice skaters.

The other cars are pretty straightforward: some kind of covered cargo car, one for passengers, and one holding what looks to be coal. I guess there were a lot of bad kids this year.

The plastic both looks and feels light and cheap. That's to expected, though - this isn't a top of the line set by a long stretch.

The motorized locomotive feels sturdier, though using a sticker for Santa is a bit of a cheat. Still, you don't pick up a low-end toy train for its appearance: the value of something like this is a factor of its features.

To facilitate that, this comes with what the package assures me is more than twenty-five feet of track. I'll take their word for that - I barely had room to set this thing up, let alone measure it. And when I say "barely," I'm lying: I didn't have anywhere near enough space to set this up properly. Ideally, you want to lay the track in a figure eight, using the cross section.

Not going to happen in this apartment. I don't even have the space to complete a loop. But I was able to lay the track down in my hallway, which let me drive the train forward and back. Not exactly the most entertaining thing in the world, but more than enough to get a sense for how it drives.

I'll admit to being somewhat impressed. Contrary to some negative reviews on Amazon, I had no issues getting it to work as intended. The train generally stayed on its track, provided I was careful when starting it out, and the remote worked as advertised.

There are four buttons on the control: forward, backwards, stop, and sound. The sound is annoying and loud, but I suppose it's supposed to be. There's also a headlight that's shines while the train is turned on. But text is cheap - here's a video of the thing in action.

You also get fourteen plastic signs and some stickers that go on them. Nothing spectacular, but they're decent enough.

This isn't a great train set, but - like I keep saying - it's not priced like one. But this isn't a sixty-five dollar set, either. If you're looking to get your kid a train set for Christmas and can't afford a decent option, this is a decent consolation prize if you can find it for half price or less. Just be aware you'll be helping them set it up: getting the trains on the track is pretty easy for an adult, but I imagine lining the wheels up with the track would prove challenging for most kids, and it would derail more often than not (to be fair, derailing is probably the coolest thing this does).

Also, the tracks are pretty flimsy. One of mine was broken out of the box, and I'm seeing similar complaints on online reviews. This isn't a great deal on a good train: it's a cheap knock-off. If that makes it affordable, there's no issue. As long as you can get a good price, it's an acceptable alternative to someone looking to have a large toy train set who can't afford the two hundred bucks decent versions run. Just be aware what you're getting into, and don't even think about spending more than $35 on this, at the absolute maximum.

Here's a closer look at the train:

Christmas Card: Together for the Holidays

Don't you love the holidays? The way Christmas can bring us altogether? That's the thought that inspired this photo. Well, that and a piece of fruitcake that feels like it's gnawing its way through my rib cage, about to burst out with my intestines dangling off like... like...

Like tinsel on a freshly decorated Christmas tree. God, I love this time of year.

This picture, like those Nerdtivities we did last year, hasn't been adjusted beyond a little cropping. All props were present, and a blacklight was used to create the effect.

Of course, I had to take about a hundred different versions to get the one I wanted. Which actually has a few advantages - here's a little bonus Google generated automatically.

"Look, Ma! I found an ornament!"

Happy holidays, from your friends at Mainlining Christmas.

The Hard Nut (1991)

Yup, this might be another year for versions of the Nutcracker. This one is now our favorite. If you’re going to watch a film of a ballet, skip this boring one, and this better, but still dull one and probably even this one in favor of The Hard Nut.

This production does suffer from the same problem that plagues almost all attempts to film a live performance: the person choosing the shot sometimes chooses the most boring part of the stage, or hides a transition that would actually be interesting to watch, or focuses on one character when something interesting is happening across the stage as a whole. This film version was produced for PBS in 1991, and the intro pieces with choreographer Mark Morris are clearly a bit dated.

That said, the design, story and energy of this version lifts it well above others we’ve seen.

The first act, especially, is glorious, in no small part due to the marvelous design. The style is based on the cartoonist Charles Burns; it uses strong black and white contrast, and flat, comic-like stylization in places. The whole story is transplanted to the 60’s/70’s, and I found the combination of classic Tchaikovsky with a blend of ballet, jazz and modern completely riveting.

The rats are actually scary, the ‘toy soldiers’ look a bit like GI Joes, and the gender bent/blind casting throughout adds further interest to the ensemble. The dancing is full of energy and even the minor characters have little storylines playing out, with plenty of humor. Act one closes with an exuberant, joyful Waltz of the Snowflakes, more breathtaking than any other I recall.

Then, The Hard Nut completely jettisons the boring traditional second act. In most Nutcracker versions, all the plot happens in act one, and act two is mostly just the Nutcracker Prince and Clara/Marie (Marie in this one) watching dances. Instead, this piece goes back to use more of the original E.T.A. Hoffman story. The second act shows Drosselmeyer telling the tale of how his nephew became a Nutcracker in the first place, and then gives space for romance, allowing Marie to grow up and giving the courtship a real presence.

I don’t think I’ve ever loved the Nutcracker pas de deux before the way I loved it here. It involves the whole cast, sweeping the young lovers together and apart, culminating in several incredible stage pictures showing their choice to come to each other. I actually would have been perfectly happy if the performance ended there, although the final numbers continue the story of their love. There is even quite a bit of kissing, until the show ends on an ambiguous note, and it’s not quite clear where Marie and the Prince are, only that they are together.

To sum up: we both loved this. Check it out sometime.

Bonus: NYTimes review of a 2010 production

Dear Santa (2011)

I am unprepared for this review. It's not easy for me to admit as a writer, but I'm just not ready for this: my language skills aren't up to the task. So I'm going to need you to give me a moment. I just have to duck out of this tab, go over to, and look up as many synonyms as I can find for the word "stupid."

Alright. I think we're ready to get started.

The opening credits are in a font that's supposed to mimic a child's handwriting, but the bright green color makes them nearly indistinguishable from comic sans. At this point, we thought we had a pretty good idea what kind of movie we were sitting down to watch, but we were wrong: this montage was, inexplicably, the most thoughtful section of the film. Everything that came after was significantly more idiotic.

We're introduced to the movie's star, played by Amy Acker making the most dunderheaded decision of her career. She's portraying Crystal, a vapid and naive daughter living off her even more moronic parents' wealth. In the middle of a shopping trip, a stray letter blows in front of her after a doltish mailman fails to successfully convey a bunch of envelopes from a mailbox to a satchel.

Crystal, of course, pockets the letter and goes on to spend more of her parent's money. Her parents are on a vacation, but her mother calls her a few times. Rather than using a phone, she video-conferences with Crystal over her laptop, allowing us to see where she's located.

It appears that she is calling from in front of a green screen.

At any rate, her dense parents aren't so dense that they're happy with Crystal maxing out their credit cards (though they don't seem to mind her living in their Manhattan apartment). She's given an ultimatum: get a job (or a man) by Christmas, or she loses her allowance.

Let's talk about that letter Crystal found. Just so we're clear, this letter is legally the property of the US Postal Service, and by opening it, Crystal is in fact committing a felony. This inane movie never once acknowledges that, by the way.

The content of the letter. I'm sorry: I just need another minute. The puerile letter is written by a young child whose mother died a while ago. Her father is oh, so lonely, and her one Christmas wish is....

Ugh. Yeah. We're doing Sleepless in Seattle. A low-rent Sleepless in Seattle, mind you: this half-baked piece of mindless crap isn't a tenth as good as Sleepless in Seattle. And Sleepless in Seattle is an overrated piece of callow trash.

So of course Crystal stalks the father from the letter. She goes to his house, which is located on the West Side and spies on him. And on his daughter. She follows them in her truck, as they drive down the road on the West Side. Her actions are so unethical, you could almost be distracted enough to not notice that they're driving around empty suburban streets containing large houses in what we're still supposed to believe is NEW YORK CITY.

I don't need to keep telling you the dumb plot of this ludicrous movie. I don't even need to tell you about the brainless dialogue. Because every simple, dull beat - every empty, hollow line - follows a formula so obvious, you can literally predict what's about to happen or be said before it occurs. And the only points where this imbecilic film deviates are those where it manages, against all odds, to fall short of your expectations, which start out extremely low but continue to fall further and further as the 90 minute runtime progresses.

This thing is so half-baked, it.... No, wait: I already used half-baked. What about dunderheaded? Nope - used it in the third paragraph.

Shit. The English language is insufficient for conveying just how monumentally stupid this movie is. Looks like I'm heading over to Google translate.

We haven't even talked about the other characters, yet. The love interest is, astonishingly, even more hloupý (Czech) than Crystal. Derek is a widower raising a daughter while running a snowplow company.

A snowplow company, I want to remind you, in New York City. He's incredibly busy, of course, because of all the snow that's around RIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS EVERY YEAR. We see this snow on the ground, by the way. I doubt that get this much snow in Alberta, in fact. Hey - don't they shoot a lot of these movies in Alberta?

But that's just his job. What really matters to him, other than his daughter, is the soup kitchen he owns.

I guess we should just roll with this.

The homeless, of course, are old and sad, but remarkably clean, nonthreatening, and polite. The cook is a flamboyantly gay man who is good enough to work in an upscale restaurant, but instead is in a soup kitchen for some reason that's never shared with us.

Presumably because he is gay, Crystal confides with him about the letter after she starts volunteering at the soup kitchen to get closer to the man she's stalking. He believes in fate, so he helps her instead of calling the police or warning Derek that an insane rich woman is stalking him.

There's also a minor Jewish character who pops up to offer advice to Crystal. The only person missing was a stereotypical, mystical black character. I half-expected them to introduce someone like that, but the movie managed to subvert this expectation in the only way possibly more offensive: they didn't give a non-white actor a speaking role in the entire film.

The last significant character is Jillian, the movie's antagonist. Jillian is a rival love interest for Derek. He doesn't actually love Jillian, but he is planning to propose to her, so that his daughter, who hates Jillian, can have a mother.

It's worth mentioning that Derek is astonishingly i trashë (Albanian), as he has no clue, whatsoever, what anyone is thinking or feeling. For example, when Jillian and Crystal get into a physical altercation and start flinging food at each other, he just kind of looks on, confused.

Whoever wrote this movie was mūṛha (Bengali). The characters are unlikable and their thought processes are completely incomprehensible. Moreover, we've seen these tropes so often, the final experience isn't even so bad it's good: it's just boring.

Do not, under any circumstances, watch this dwp (Welsh) movie.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Graphic Novel Review: Batman: Noel

For a dark avenger, there are a surprising number of famous Batman Christmas stories, including well regarded episodes from several animated series, a holiday movie, and even a video game. There have been quite a few Christmas comic issues, as well, over the years, but you wouldn't expect anything else from a character who's been around for seventy-five years with multiple titles a large portion of that time.

One of the more iconic Batman holiday stories in his original medium is Batman: Noel, a graphic novel from 2011 that attempts to adapt A Christmas Carol using the Dark Knight as a stand-in for Scrooge and supporting characters in other roles.

This was written and illustrated by Lee Bermejo, who's best known as an artist. After reading Noel, I'm a little torn on whether I think he should have stuck with that. On one hand, there are some great ideas in this story and some clever twists. But there are also a huge number of missed opportunities, poor choices, and a general lack of subtlety. I think he had a good starting point here, but that maybe he should have been paired with a more experienced co-writer. This was a solid book as is, but with a little doctoring, I think it could have been a classic.

The story centers around both Batman and a henchman working for the Joker. The goon took the job because he needed the cash for his son. After Batman prevents him from delivering some of the Joker's money, he plans to use the criminal - and his son - as bait to catch his nemesis. This is tied to Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim.

Right off the bat, this is a regressive take on the Caped Crusader. Morally, this feels like an obvious throwback to the excessively dark Batman of the 90's. A lot of the comic's defenders point out this was likely intentional, that the story is meant as a critique of that take on the character and medium. I agree that was likely the author's intent, but... that story already exists. It's been done and re-done and re-re-done more times than I can count. Batman starts losing his sense of self and his moral compass to an unrelenting obsession with justice at all costs, and he needs to reconnect with his friends and/or bat-family or discover the goodness in the people of Gotham or something.

The version of Batman who is morally vapid, who lacks the level of reflection to realize that poverty forces good people into bad situations - that every criminal isn't beyond redemption - is a caricature. Denny O'Neil was writing Batman stories in the 1970's about class and poverty: reducing Bruce to someone blind to these issues now is baffling. And, while I can respect taking Batman into morally grey areas, having him downright blasé about a child potentially being killed by the Joker is a betrayal of the character.

Fortunately, the story moves into more interesting territory as it ties in more elements of A Christmas Carol. The role of Marley is implied by Jason Todd, whose memory haunts Batman. Wisely, this scene is more symbolic than literal - the impression is that Bruce, suffering from exhaustion and sickness, briefly hallucinates his deceased sidekick.

Likewise, the Ghost of Christmas Past is more conceptual than literal, with Selena Kyle showing up as Catwoman and reminding Bruce of their past together. This worked well, as did using Superman as the Ghost of Christmas Present. His powers and personality mirror the ghost's from the original story, and Bermejo does a magnificent job following the narrative without it feeling contrived.

Using the Joker as the Ghost of Christmas Future worked well enough, though it was a fairly obvious choice. Still, I like how he integrated the grave scene here - sticking Batman in a coffin and burying him alive is absolutely in character for the Clown Prince of Crime.

The resolution is almost annoyingly straightforward, with Batman doing exactly what you'd expect. I will note that having Bruce Wayne help out Bob through his company runs a little too closely to a similar - though far more nuanced - moral conundrum in Old Wounds, a fantastic episode of Batman: the Animated Series.

There's another element of the writing I haven't addressed, and that's the narration. The story is told alongside a distilled retelling of A Christmas Carol, the lettering on which is reminiscent of the Joker's dialogue in the classic graphic novel, Arkham Asylum (the use of Batman's supporting cast as stand-ins for archetypes was also borrowed from that work). Through most of the story, I'd been assuming the narrator was the Joker, essentially making the same connections between Scrooge and Batman that the reader was seeing. At the end, however, it was revealed to be Bob telling the story to his son, which makes decidedly less sense given the way certain elements were twisted to fit closer to the Batman story. I'm really not sure what Bermejo was going for here, but it didn't work.

The art, however, is gorgeous - the wintery cityscapes and holiday decorations provide both a juxtaposition and a sense of isolation as needed. In addition, the original designs for the Batsuit and Batmobile are great.

Ultimately, this winds up feeling like a mediocre story that could have been amazing with a little more work. There are some really interesting ideas here, but they're undermined by an underdeveloped narration and an over-the-top characterization of the lead.

Given how strong the art and concept were, this really could have been something special. Maybe it'll be adapted into an animated DVD some day and there'll be a chance to tighten the bolts and fix the issues. It worked for Under the Red Hood, after all.

Dear Santa (1998)

That, that was a thing that we sat through. Erin swears that he doesn’t remember why it was on our Netflix DVD queue. After watching it, we agreed that evidence suggests it was on some ‘worst holiday movies’ list.

I thought it wasn’t going to be much from the opening credits, frankly, but the acting in this movie ended up being truly remarkable. The acting, the writing, the special effects and the production values: all of these were at a level that is hard to describe. I’ll try, though.

Picture a bunch of fifth graders who have been brought up in a room with no contact with the outside world. They only learned about how people behave from two sources: only the most cliche and flat television from the 40’s and 50’s, and from one adult who has kind of a sadistic vibe. These kids write, direct, design and act in a holiday play. This is that play.

The acting isn’t just wooden, it takes wooden to a whole new level of flat and unbelievable. It’s actually almost enough to believe it’s bad on purpose, but I just don’t have that much faith. The shots aren’t framed for maximum impact, but possibly to reduce money spent on film. I mean, there is literally at least one scene where two characters are both in shot, talking to each other in a turned half-to-each-other-half-to-the-camera pose that a lot of theater directors avoid because it looks too ‘stagey’. I’ve seen better special effects in high school projects which were being made at the SAME TIME as this movie.

More than once, two characters went into a room just to say some sentences that meant nothing and then agree to go somewhere else. It was baffling how unmotivated most of the lines and actions were by any sort of logic or even internal character emotion or desire.

All the costumes are the most obvious choices. There is a wife and mother who starts the movie dressed like a Stepford robot with pearls and frilly apron, the ‘bad thugs’ have the sleeves ripped off their shirts, and there are ‘elves’ who mostly look like they were dressed at a Party City.

But what, you ask, is the subject matter of this pile of cliches?

Used car salesman Gordon has promised to take his wife and son [somewhere? out of state?] for a white Christmas. His sleazy boss reveals that if he stays and really works to sell a ton of cars by Christmas, he could end up head of the multi-lot operation. He agrees to do it, which makes his kid cry and his wife angry. Like… spousal abuse angry. She grabs his tie and half forces him to the ground. It’s weird how it comes out of nowhere.

Kid, incidentally is WAY too old to believe in Santa, but does anyway, because…? (Even Erin agreed this kid was too old for Santa.) ‘Teddy’ writes a letter asking Santa to help his dad find the Christmas spirit, and Santa obliges, so an elf starts haunting Gordon, telling him he’s now a “Secret Santa” and he has to act the part. Side note: one of a very small number of special effects: the elf can (mildly?) electrocute people. Yes, she looks like a low-rent Palpatine when this happens.

Gordon keeps compromising his morals in pursuit of the job, even as he starts a Tim-Allen-esque Santransformation. Wife, Carol, threatens to leave him. Teddy tries to get them back together, with help from his friend Margo, here playing a junior version of the ‘wise black character’ stereotype. Elf-lady shows up in a dream as a drill sergeant and smacks Gordon until he gets his ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’ right.

Gordon uses the Santa look to play into his schemes to sell cars, and it comes down to the wire. Gordon accuses his boss of selling stolen cars. Said boss knocks Gordon over the head and sticks him in a trunk.

This would have been a neat, dark place to end. Instead, the movie keeps going.

Instead, Gordon somehow ends up at the North Pole, as helpfully explained by the most hideous “owl” “puppet” I’ve ever seen. Seriously, this thing was sad. The head rotates a little, that’s it.

Then there’s a lot of walking around sets that they don’t own (it was filmed at a Santa’s Village in California) and a lot of explaining Santa business. It boils down to lots of unpaid elf labor, a bunch of kidnapped guys like Gordon and some fancy tech. This is a racket. Actually, someone should write the version of this where Gordon uses his salesmanship to take over and reform the operation.

All the elves are women. Most are young, all of them are conventionally attractive. Most are wearing leggings or tights and very short tunics. This movie was REALLY WEIRD for a family comedy, is what I’m saying here.

Gordon delivers some percentage of that year’s gifts, which is stupidly easy, then takes his kid for a ride (after his wife has said she’s leaving him. Can you say parental kidnapping?) and uses his elf backup to make a citizen’s arrest of his boss and the goons. At this point I was just saying “What? What?!” over and over.

On Christmas morning, Gordon speeds to his wife’s sister’s house to stop wife and son from leaving town, and bizarre reconciliations happen. I need to mention the cop, though. Gordon is followed by a police car with lights and sirens on. I assumed that he had been speeding, but it isn’t clear. The cop could have been there to arrest Gordon for being part of the stolen-car ring. But the cop doesn’t say why he’s there, and the wife’s sister makes him back off during reconciliation, then invites him in for coffee. And you hear him say, as he walks out of shot, regarding why he’s there, “I don't know, I was just bored. It was a slow morning, plus it's a great way to meet chicks.”

And those two characters walk out of this movie and into quite another genre.

Which makes perfect sense, actually. You see, despite the fact that almost none of the actors in this are credited with anything else on IMDB before or since, the director has had a long career, under multiple names. A career making shlock. First sci-fi and horror, and then a long prolific career making soft-core films, mostly with the word ‘bikini’ in the title.

He has also continued to make a small scattering of family Christmas films.

Toy Review: Northpole Treeluminator

The Treeluminator is part of Hallmark's Northpole line, which ties into a made-for-TV movie they released last year, which we need to track down at some point. The movie looks awful, but - so far - I'm actually kind of liking most of the merchandise.

This is a neat, albeit simple, concept. Essentially, the Treeluminator is a wireless on/off switch toggled by a battery-operated detonator. When you press down on the plunger, the red box plays one of five short sound effects, the three LED lights on top flash, then whatever's plugged in on the other end - presumably Christmas lights - activates. Press the plunger again to turn off the power.

Here's what it looks like in action:

While it's intended as entertainment for kids who will likely be all too eager to press it over and over again, it actually strikes me as potentially handy. Like most people, we've been managing Christmas lights by plugging and unplugging them as needed. While that certainly doesn't qualify as a hardship, it's easy to fall into habits where you forget to turn them on more than a handful of times over the season. Having a cartoonish Christmas detonator sitting on the living room coffee table makes it a little harder to forget.

The plastic plunger feels on the chintzy side, but the lights and sounds are relatively high quality (I expect they'll be annoying as hell by Christmas, but that's all part of the charm). The design falls somewhere on the border between cheap and whimsical - I kind of like the 1930's candy cane aesthetic, but my guess is others will disagree. There's one other feature: a turn dial that will ostensibly count down to Christmas. It doesn't seem to affect which of the sound files gets played, but it does make a satisfying clicking noise when you turn it.

I have a few complaints and concerns about this, the first being that it doesn't have a switch allowing you to deactivate the sound and light features and just use it as a cheesy wireless control. The second is a feature that's potentially a mixed blessing: a 50 foot range. That's great for most purposes, but it makes me wonder what Christmas will be like if someone else in our apartment building buys one as well.

Setting those issues aside, it's a potentially useful holiday tool. Like I said, plugging in the Christmas lights isn't exactly hard work, but I won't miss crawling under the tree to get at the extension cord. There are, of course, less childish versions of this technology out there, though the price points seem relatively similar - this was retailing for $25 last year, and - based on a few minutes on Amazon - similar plugs seem to be in the $20 range (and that's without the whimsy).

Also, like everything Christmas, the Treeluminator price fell substantially in January. We picked it up at a Hallmark store at 75% off for around $6.50.

You can also get additional plugs, in case you want to string lights all over your house and turn them on with a single push. I'm kind of regretting not picking a few of those up when I got this: they were marked down, as well. I'm sure I'll get another chance, though.

Here are a few more of the sounds, in case you're interested:

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Lilo and Stitch: The Series: Topper (2003)

Oh, right. That era when Disney tried capitalizing on every movie they'd ever made by producing an endless sea of direct-to-video sequels and spin-off TV series: I remember that.

The original Lilo and Stitch movie is pretty great, though it's always seemed derivative of The Iron Giant to me. Not this episode though: it feels derivative of Dora the Explorer.

The premise of the series, according to the internet, seems to involve Lilo and Stitch trying to locate a bunch of experiments, like Stitch. Apparently, this was connected to the direct-to-video sequel no one saw. I guess that sort of fits what I just watched. Sort of.

The episode opens with Lilo explaining Christmas to Stitch. The results are less humorous than depressing. Also, it seems like like Jumba and Pleakley are living with them, for some reason. Also relevant is Gantu, who has an experiment pellet wrapped as a gift. Again, I'm not entirely clear on why he did this. Fortunately, I don't care in the least.

While visiting the mall, Stitch sees the pellet getting wrapped at the wrapping booth. However, the box containing the experiment is mixed with the others, causing him to collect presents from all over the island in an attempt to get it back. There's a brief and uninspired Grinch homage, followed by an even briefer misunderstanding when Lilo and Jumba capture Stitch. Before they can even bother with dramatic tension or emotional distress, they plug him into a mind-reading machine and realize he's not actually trying to steal the gifts for himself.

Then Jumba shows up, steals all the gifts, and takes them to the mall. After a brief and boring tussle, they work out their differences, and wind up activating the experiment, which - conveniently - is a glowing, star-shaped genetic hybrid that fits on a Christmas tree. This also conveniently resolves Pleakley's plot: he wanted to dress up like a tree.

The episode masquerades as something edgy and subversive, but it comes off as dull and repetitive. Lilo is clearly voiced by a young child, something we've seen work in certain contexts. But not here: in this show, it just makes her dialogue stilted and forced, making it all the more difficult to pay attention.

It also doesn't help that the show is animated using very static backgrounds and relatively little action. Clearly, whoever they put in charge of this did not understand what made the movie work.

The show seemed aimed at very young children. Lilo's descriptions of life on Earth to Stitch almost seem educational, except that the writers are attempting to slip in jokes connected to her skewed perspective on the world. None of these really hit their mark, though, largely because the show seems terrified of actually going in a dark direction.

It's all unfortunate: the premise of a show following Lilo and Stitch's ongoing adventures seems like it could have worked, but the execution fell extremely flat. Visually, it looks like they were trying to invoke the look of the movie: it would have been far better if they'd gone after its energy or spirit.

This really isn't worth your time. Skip it.

Scooby Doo: Haunted Holidays (2012)

For better and for worse, I found a DVD at the library called Scooby-Doo: 13 Spooky Tales - Holiday Chills and Thrills. It’s interesting, at least, containing a mix of ‘winter’ episodes and actual Christmas content from several of the various Scooby-Doo series. (For example, it included this one.)

Haunted Holidays is a special that was produced direct-to-DVD for this compilation, and I rather liked it. Or at least it wasn't awful.

The premise is more than a bit sketchy: Fred, Daphne and Velma are helping with a Christmas parade for a big toy store, for some reason, when it’s attacked by a crazed evil snowman. The thing has freezing breath and shapeshifting; it’s actually almost scary when it turns into a snow-spider-beast or a snow-alien-mouth-tentacle-thing.


Despite Shaggy and Scooby’s reluctance, as usual the gang tries to get to the bottom of the mystery, which involves a supposed ‘curse of the sinister snowman’ placed on the toy store by the guy who owned the old-fashioned house across the street. He was angry because the toy store had a giant Christmas glockenspiel built into it. Dude, I feel your pain, but the solution is noise pollution ordinances, not evil snowmen.

Of course, the culprit is neither the old man who ‘disappeared’ or the cranky older guy who owns the toy store. It’s the other character you’re introduced to in the first minute of the special, the one who helpfully explained the curse. Duh.

What lifts this above mediocre isn’t the writing, but the animation and the score. The animation is slick and creative, using the classic designs but with modern pacing and movement, not aping the original 70’s movement the way some Scooby-doo incarnations have. The score does a nice job integrating Christmas music into spooky moments, and the balance between action and humor is mostly good, although a little too slapsticky for my personal taste. There is a pretty funny sequence early on featuring an actor fed up with playing Santa. This features the same core cast as Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated, and while it’s not as smart or funny as that show (seriously, check that one out) it’s a fine piece of holiday animation.

With one problem.

Scooby and Shaggy defeat the villain by accident in a very silly way, but they are aided by Santa. Not the actor from earlier, the apparently magic Santa. And the gang didn’t rush off to unmask him and find out who he really is!

I don’t know about you, but I smell a sequel.

Family Ties: A Christmas Story (1982), A Keaton Christmas Carol (1983), and Miracle in Columbus (1987)

In 1985, I was six years old, Family Ties was my favorite show on television, mostly because of Michael J. Fox's Alex Keaton. Re-watching a few episodes three decades later, I can't really tell why I liked the show all that much, though Fox's deliveries seem to be the highlight.

The show's premise revolved around a couple of liberal ex-hippies raising kids who were more in tune with 80's materialism and conservative politics. As a meditation on the power of the instinct to rebel, even when that means rebelling against the very concept of rebellion, I'd expect them to have enough material to fill two or three hours. The fact this show lasted seven seasons (including the three holiday episodes below) plus a made-for-TV movie doesn't bode well for its watchability.

A Christmas Story (1982): This episode starts on Christmas Eve while the Keatons are getting ready to drive to a ski lodge for the holiday. A blizzard forces them to change those plans, and they wind up sitting in their living room while the parents tell stories about the days each of their kids were born.

This is done via three flashbacks: the first takes place during the parent's time in the Peace Corps during a drought, the second in a hospital where the doctor had been old friends with the father, and third on the day Nixon won re-election. None of these were particularly entertaining, though the last came closest.

While none of the flashbacks occurred around the holidays, they were clearly drawing parallels between the birth of the family's kids and that of Jesus. I'm not entirely sure what they were trying to say with that allusion, but that's certainly what they were trying to imply. Also, there was a minor miracle when Alex was born in the form of a rain storm.

The frame story was even cheesier than you'd expect, complete with a forced narrative arc where the family comes together. Of course, it's more fun to watch them bicker, which we do get a little of early on.

All in all, pretty mediocre sitcom fare. There wasn't much I'd call offensive (though it was bizarre they couldn't be bothered to write a single black actor into the scene supposedly taking place in Africa), but it wasn't at all touching and only occasionally humorous.

A Keaton Christmas Carol (1983): Conceptually, this one had a much more interesting premise, retelling A Christmas Carol with Fox's Alex P. Keaton filling in for Scrooge. There were some impressive decisions, particularly around the "Christmas Future" segment, which portrayed the family living as Dickensian urchins in what must have been the early 2000's. It also offered a sort of preview for Fox's role as his older self in Back to the Future Part 2.

All that said, this just wasn't funny. It was an interesting idea, but the vast majority of the jokes fell flat. In addition, the cheap 80's effects look cheesy and uninspired.

I appreciated what they tried to do, but I'd have appreciated it a lot more if they hadn't failed.

Miracle in Columbus (1987): The series's last Christmas episode was four seasons later, and it almost feels like a different series. They've added a few new characters, including a new, younger sibling and had the others grow up a bit.

This episode feels a lot more polished, which has pluses and minuses. The good news is that the jokes are a little better. There are still plenty of bad ones, but there's a handful that are worth a chuckle. The bad news is that everything about this, from the characters' hair to the stories, character interactions, and personalities, felt fake. That's not to say that the series was believable before, but this is a whole other level of artificiality.

The story focuses on Alex taking a job as a mall Santa. For reasons that are never explained, his sisters work as his elves. He meets a kid who just wants her father home for Christmas. Oh, and the reason he can't make it is he has to work as a salesman in Fargo; he's not dead, in prison, terminally ill, serving in the military, or anything. He's just at work.

This depresses Alex, who apparently can't imagine a worse fate on Christmas. Fortunately, Santa Claus shows up and gives him a pep talk in the mall locker room. Saint Nick's identity is verified much faster than you'd probably expect, and - despite some initial skepticism - Alex doesn't find this interaction altogether surprising.

He invites the kid and her mom to his family's house for Christmas, and they accept. Then the girl's father shows up: turns out Santa went to Fargo, bought all of whatever nonspecific item he was selling, and asked him to deliver a gift to Alex.

In case this is somehow subtle, everyone then sees Santa through the window. Again, their level of surprise is on par with what you'd expect if a deer was walking through their front lawn.

This show feels a lot like the 1980's congealed into a gelatinous form. These episodes were sappy and sentimental, while lacking any real tension. There were a handful of decent jokes, even in the first two, but nothing that made watching them worthwhile.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Food: Christmas Spice Tea

We picked up this special tea blend at 'An Afternoon to Remember', a cute tea shop in Bothell, WA. It smells just like Christmas.

It's a loose tea, so you need an infuser of some kind. The mix smells amazing even before you steep it, it's full of spices.

When you make the tea, it smells, as I said, like Christmas. You can tease out apple, vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves. It tastes lovely as well, of tea and spice and just enough of a hint of fruit.

Happily, although this is a local shop, the magic of the internet means that you can buy your own amazing Christmas tea. Enjoy!

Book review: Silent Nights

Silent Nights
Edited by Martin Edwards, ebook release 2015

New Release! I received an electronic copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: Another collection of Christmas Mystery stories, this one from the British Library Crime Classics series. Fifteen tales of murder and thievery at the holidays.

I know, you'd think I would be sick of short mysteries after last year's lengthy read of the Big Book of Christmas Mysteries. However, in this book I discovered a well-balanced selection that was enjoyable overall . I think I may be giving extra credit for being of a manageable length, though.

Here's what you'll find, with stories that I've read previously noted:

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle (repeat) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
A classic, I would never fault anyone for adding this to a Christmas compilation. It remains charming on whatever number re-read this is.

Parlour Tricks by Ralph Plummer
A cute, simple story of a man amusing a group of guests at a Christmas party that is revealed to be something else at the end. Nothing too special, but not bad.

A Happy Solution by Raymund Allen
A story of a young fiancee accused of theft by prospective in-laws, this had enjoyable prose, though the solution of the mystery was somewhat uninteresting to me.

The Flying Stars (repeat) by G.K. Chesterton
I didn't re-read this one this year. I remember it being enjoyable, but overshadowed by better stories last year.

Stuffing by Edgar Wallace
Cute enough story of connected coincidences, although there's enough repeated plot elements from The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle for me to raise an eyebrow and wonder why this story was included.

The Unknown Murderer by H.C. Bailey
An eerie, well-plotted murder tale involving dark motivations which features a medical doctor detective who ends up solving the case in a rather final manner. I quite enjoyed this one; the winter season just added to the creepy factor.

The Absconding Treasurer by J. Jefferson Farjeon
A sum of money is stolen from a club, but is the treasurer guilty? This story of murder and misdirection follows a solid investigation.

The Necklace of Pearls by Dorothy Sayers
I've had this one recommended a few times, and it's a cute little tale of how a clever thief tries to use the trappings and activities of the holidays.

The Case Is Altered by Margery Allingham
A fine little tangled skein of stolen papers and blackmail at a country house, if a bit muddled at times.

Waxworks (repeat)
Cambric Tea (repeat)
The Chinese Apple (repeat)
All three of these tales were in the collection I read last year. They are each atmospheric and uncanny and I liked both Cambric Tea and The Chinese Apple much more on a re-read than I did last year.

A Problem in White by Nicholas Blake
I liked the way this story built from a set of strangers sitting in a railway compartment to eventually giving each character a name and personality and a place in a tragic murder tied to a train robbery. The mystery is well built, but this is the only story in which the resolution is not actually part of the story, but rather the reader is encouraged to figure out what happened and then check the answer in the back of the book.

The Name on the Window by Edmund Crispin
A locked-room mystery solved at a remove. Not bad.

Beef for Christmas by Leo Bruce
This one I really enjoyed, enough that I might seek out more stories about this character. It's a detective and a narrator pairing, but the narrator is a bit of a pretentious sort, while the detective (Sergeant Beef) is a low-class man who is constantly underestimated. He reminds me delightfully of Columbo. This story concerns a man who claims that someone in his family is threatening him because he's spending their potential inheritance in a profligate manner. The entire story was fun to read and the solution clever.

I quite enjoyed reading through this collection, even though I didn't love every story in it. It's a nice variation of styles and stories.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book