Saturday, December 12, 2015

Winter on Watership Down, Parts 1 and 2 (2000)

We live in a strange world. It turns out there was a Watership Down animated series that ran for thirty-nine episodes between 1999 and 2001, including a two-part Christmas episode.

First, some background. The novel, Watership Down, is a seminal work of epic fantasy starring rabbits in the British countryside. If you're unfamiliar with the story, you may think the premise sounds humorous, but it's a tale of prophecy, war, death, and legend. The book functions as a meditation on mythology, exploring how the rabbits' society is built on the tales it tells. Without it, it's unlikely we ever would have gotten Redwall, Mouse Guard, or numerous other fantasy stories about animals at war.

Watership Down was adapted into an animated movie in 1978. This one goes on a list with Secret of NIMH and The Last Unicorn of animated features that traumatized kids in the 70's and 80's. The Watership Down movie didn't pull many punches: rabbits literally tore each other's throats open in that movie.

Based on a quick look at Wikipedia, it looks like the animated series was simultaneously a remake and an homage to the '78 movie. The designs, music, and approach were clearly based on the movie's, though the first season seems to have retold the same basic story, albeit without the same level of graphic violence.

"Winter on Watership Down," sometimes titled "Christmas on Watership Down," occurred halfway through the second season. It was a two-part episode centered around a holiday called the "Feast of Frith" which naturally occurred the same time as Christmas (naturally because, as the rabbits made clear, it also marked the winter solstice).

They've invited a large number of other herbivores into the warren to celebrate, but their food supplies are nowhere near sufficient. The main characters (the same basic group from the book) set out to look for more. But before they could find anything, they run into a fox, who chases them across a frozen river. They scare off the fox with the help of Kehaar, their gull friend, but not before Bigwig falls through the ice.

With the fox still on their tails, they make their way into a hedge maze, where they come across another warren. Despite being near humans, they enter, realizing Bigwig won't survive in the cold. Eventually, there is a brief fight, as the rabbits of Watership Down refuse to trust rabbits who'd accept food from humans. This transitions into another chase sequence when the fox catches up with them. They manage to scare it off again by leading it to a Christmas celebration in the center of the hedge maze, though - it turns out the fox is even more scared of humans than the rabbits are.

At the end, the main characters all learn a valuable lesson: that not all humans are bad and not all animals living beside them should be shunned.

I'm a little torn on this one. On one hand, the episode's tone was that of a tense survival thriller. It was suspenseful and dark, despite refusing to draw blood. In addition, the background music was beautifully composed and edited into the piece.

On the other, the ending felt childish, simplistic, and out of tone with the source material. Sure, mankind destroys their original warren, traps them for sport and food, and breeds predators that hunt the rabbits... but some people are nice and give them food. #NotAllHumans

I'm calling bullshit. While there's room for naturalism in the book, the worlds of humans and rabbits don't coexist in a meaningful way in the novel, nor are they supposed to. Our species are not characters present to interact with them: we're an alien life form more akin to a Lovecraftian horror than something they just need to understand. The resolution here felt like a cheat.

But, other than that, it wasn't bad. The style honored the source material, and the tone was refreshingly somber for an animated series. In addition, the holiday elements - both pertaining to the rabbit's mythology and the connection to the solar cycle - were well integrated and thought out.

If it weren't for that ending, I'd be recommending this. Even with it, it's pretty solid entertainment.

101 Dalmatians: The Series: “A Christmas Cruella” (1997)

Whoa. I have seen episodes of this show, but that was many many moons ago. So I was cringing a little and expecting this to be awful. Unexpectedly, it was fairly delightful.

Plot-wise, it’s a pretty standard Christmas Carol riff, but the writing and voice acting made it work really well.

After a brief intro with a cute joke about puppies being able to smell what presents are through the wrapping paper, we dive straight into Dickens, with Cruella (briefly in a fabulously ridiculous Christmas-tree dress) as Scrooge. She hits all the classic notes: why should people have the day off, cruelty to carolers, charity workers and the homeless, and she fires Anita. The show adds a few excellent nonstandard moments, however (for example she also exults in Christmas as a glorious celebration of capitalism, and she turns snowmen into snow devils by hitting them with her car).

Cadpig (one of the main puppies in the show) appears as the Ghost of Christmas Past and takes Cruella through several of her childhood Christmases. Turns out that all young Cruella wanted was a puppy, but not only didn't she get one, she was cared for by a succession of nannies reading notes from increasingly distant parents. The last note was addressed to “allowable tax exemption, Schedule C, line 4”. Sure, it was funny (really funny, as Cruella takes her somewhat-justified rage out on anyone foolish enough to cross her) but also kinda dark for a Saturday morning cartoon about goofy dogs.

Cruella still isn’t moved by anyone’s plight but her own, so Rolly (the fat puppy) comes in as the Ghost of Christmas Present. He brings Cruella to Anita and Roger’s place, where the running gag is that they got each other great gifts that they have to immediately return because she lost her job. Also, Lucky (the third puppy with a major role in the normal show) has a turn as Tiny Tim, as he has caught “piney-paw-itis” from a pine-needle in his paw.

At this point, Cruella calls bull on the whole enterprise:

Cruella: Oh, come ON.
Rolly (as Ghost): It’s Dickens.
Cruella: Dickens, my derriere...

She maintains that if Christmas is about love, it should be about people loving HER, so Rolly abandons her to the Ghost of Christmas Future. Future is played by the only main character not to have a role yet: a chicken named Spot. Spot brings Cruella to the auction of her belongings and reveals that she’s not only deceased, but buried in a pet cemetery. This ignominy is too much for even Ms. DeVil, and she awakens back in her office on Christmas morning.

She’s determined to make it up to people and give out gifts for Christmas. But it’s Christmas, so everything is closed except her office… so she gives out hilariously random office supplies.

Throughout the ending, the balance between sentiment and lunacy was well handled. The writing was clever and the production solid: this might be one of our favorite spins on A Christmas Carol.

I have no idea if the other episodes of this show were any good, but this one was a lot of fun.

101 Dalmatians (Animated - 1961; Live Action - 1996)

When you think of classic Christmas movies, Disney's animated 101 Dalmatians doesn't jump to mind, which is actually a little odd. Setting aside the first couple of scenes, the entire movie takes place immediately before Christmas, the majority of the film is about the titular dogs wading through a blizzard, and the finale occurs on Christmas day. Oh, and it's about getting a family back together.

It is, in fact, a Christmas movie through and through.

It just doesn't act or feel like one. Most of that discrepancy can be tied to fact the movie isn't interested in Christmas. Until that last sequence, the holiday is only name-checked once, and then in an ambiguous manner. Likewise, we don't see any decorations during the dogs' quest.

The 1996 live-action remake is a little more complicated. It's difficult to say for certain, but the timing of the movie seems to be slightly offset. The scene before the dogs are kidnapped has "The Christmas Song" in the background while the puppies are being given collars. It's not 100% explicit, but I'd interpret this as meaning the scene and abduction occur on Christmas Day.

The live-action movie has some additional holiday credentials, though. The movie is written by John Hughes, who basically treats it as another Home Alone sequel.

Let's set the holidays aside for a moment and talk about the movies. They're difficult to compare, due to the fact one is a work of stunning beauty, while the other is unworthy of being compared to anything passing through the rear ends of any of its stars.

I sincerely hope you don't need me to say which is which.

The original animated film is brilliantly understated, cleverly satirical, and above all else, charming. The movie's stars are the two dalmatian parents. They refer to humans as their pets, and are portrayed as more intelligent and perceptive. This is actually a subtle inversion of a formula Disney animation used, where a secondary animal-centered plot line would support its human characters. Here, the human characters are comic relief, while the animals take the starring adventure roles.

The live-action remake plays down the animal characters considerably. In their place, the focal point of the movie is... er... actually, I think they forgot to include one. This is a movie that doesn't really have an A-plot. For better or worse, the animals no longer speak. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Jeff Daniels, who is cast as the caring, British owner of one of the dogs.

The story of the animated version follows Pongo and Perdita, the two dalmatian parents, as they undergo a long, difficult journey to take back their children. The quest is portrayed as physically painful and exhausting: it takes a toll onthem, but their drive to reclaim their family is far stronger. They get help from numerous dogs and other animals on the way. The danger feels real. When the dogs confront the men who took their children, they're portrayed almost demonically. You almost feel for the criminals as the dogs tear into them.

The live-action, in contrast, is timid and childish. The journey is basically portrayed as a side note, and the fights are replaced with Home Alone-style antics. The showdown at the hall is dropped entirely: another dog rescues the puppies, and the only potentially brutal exchange is off camera.

The animated movie stood against cruelty to animals and the fur industry. I'm not really sure what the live-action was about, but maybe we can figure it out. The movie's villain was a successful, single career woman who was adamantly opposed to her female employee getting married and leaving the workforce. When her best employee got married, she became obsessed with killing her dogs and wearing them as a fur coat. The former employee's new husband designed video games and managed to create a hit by basing the villain on the aforementioned successful businesswoman.

So... I guess the remake was about ethics in video game journalism?

At any rate, the remake is awful. The movie has no driving plot or theme beyond literally demonizing its only remaining strong female character (since they cut Perdita's role to next-to-nothing). It threw out everything about the original beyond the superficial, then reformed that into an animal-heavy version of Home Alone.

More than that, it dishonors the memory of the original, which is a spectacular film that deserves to finally be recognized as the holiday classic it's secretly always been. With that in mind, I'm declaring the 1961 animated film highly recommended, and it's poorly conceived remake a crime against humanity.

For the love of Sirius, Lord of the Dog Star, don't get the two confused.

The Little Match Girl (2006)

This Disney short was originally supposed to be part of a 2006 version of Fantasia that Disney abandoned. This segment was produced anyway, and we saw it as part of the Disney Short Film Collection.

It's a surpisingly faithful adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's short story of the same name, even incorporating the original visions of the Match Girl as she freezes to death in the cold. Good times, all around.

The original story makes it clear that the events transpire on New Year's Eve, though the girl hallucinates a Christmas tree. This short seems to have shifted the story to Christmas itself, as evidenced by her watching a family climb into a sleigh with a handful of wrapped gifts.

The story is relatively bare bones: a poor girl fails to sell matches. Ignored by the world around her, she retreats into an alley, where she lights her matches and sees beautiful visions in the fire. The last light to go out is her own, when her grandmother's spirit whisks her away to Heaven, leaving her frozen corpse behind.

To their credit, Disney animated all of that, right down to her icy body slouched in the ice. The animation and music were beautiful. Other than the music, it's a silent short, which is quite effective.

The underlying story, of course, is more than a little cheesy, though Anderson's politics were in the right place. Disney's animators were able to justify the cheap sentimentality and moralizing, but they couldn't erase it. Even so, it's kind of awesome that Disney produced a short when a kid gets high off of fumes and dies in the cold.

It's about seven minutes long and worth seeing for the visuals alone. Then again, what Disney short isn't?

Friday, December 11, 2015

Toy Review: Northpole Magic Snowball

This is the Northpole Magic Snowball, produced by Hallmark and intended to tie to their TV movie of the same name. I think they missed an opportunity when they failed to market it as a Snow Tribble.

I picked this up at Wallgreens last year. I was actually more interested in getting something else from this line, but I had a coupon that would knock five bucks or so off the price if I spent above a certain amount on Northpole branded crap. If memory serves, this was going for $5, anyway, so it basically negated the price.

By the way, what's pictured above is all the packaging this came with. The tag insists it's for decorative use only, but there are no other warnings about throwing it at others. It does mention that nonreplaceable batteries are included.

That's right - you're not just getting a wad of white fluff: this has a feature. Throw it against a hard surface such as a wall, floor, or human face, and it starts blinking green and blue. Why green and blue instead of green and red? Who the hell cares?

So, it's nothing spectacular, but it functions as advertised and is relatively bright. On top of that, I've tossed it several times with some force, and it hasn't stopped working yet. So, it seems to be resilient, at least until those "nonreplaceable" batteries die.

Call Me Claus (2001)

Call Me Claus is a made-for-TV movie about an aging Santa Claus recruiting a home-shopping network executive to take his place. The concept, as these things go, could have been worse. The execution really couldn't have been.

The executive is played by Whoopie Goldberg, and Nigel Hawthorne plays the old Santa. This was Hawthorne's last role: he passed away a few weeks after this premiered. It's really hard not to make a joke right now.

The movie opens in 1965. A young girl asks a mall Santa to bring her father, who's serving in the military, home for Christmas. He waffles, but lets the kid try on his hat. The hat glows, but no one notices. When the girl returns home, a pair of army officers are waiting to give her mother some bad news. This entire sequence was shot with all the emotional resonance of an online tax tutorial. Maybe less, now that I think about it.

The story jumps ahead to the present day. Well, it jumps to 2001, which used to be the present day. The girl's grown up and works at the aforementioned home-shopping network. She clearly makes a decent salary, but still drives her father's old car out of sentiment. It should be noted that her one defining character trait is that she's not sentimental or emotional in the slightest.

She's producing a Christmas show on the network and needs to hire a decent Santa. For some reason, everyone who shows up to audition is comically inappropriate. Everyone, that is, except for the real Santa Claus, who's there trying to find her. Turns out, this is a Santa Clause-style deal, except that the mantle passes every two-hundred years. If a suitable replacement can't be found, then there will be no more Christmas. Also, the polar ice caps will melt, and everything on Earth will drown.

It should be noted that this has happened before. Noah's flood, we're told, was due to them being unable to locate a replacement Santa Claus. Also, the first Santa Claus was Saint Nicholas, the fourth century bishop.

Just so we're clear on the amount of thought that went into this.

Of course, he gets the part, then is promptly fired after going off-script. Then re-hired when they realize he sold a ton of holiday crap anyway. Then, because this thing wasn't nearly unpleasant enough yet, he corners Whoopie Goldberg's character in her house and tells her to close her eyes. She's frightened and says she has mace.

Yeah. That scene happened.

He teleports her to the North Pole, shows her around, and explains the situation. She either has to become Santa, or the world will be destroyed. Since there's still a half-hour to fill, she freaks out and says she wants to go home.

Santa returns her and convinces her it was all a dream. The rest of the movie is basically killing time until Goldberg's character decides she believes, puts on the magic hat, and suddenly turns into Santa. For the briefest of moments, we thought we were done.

Nope. There's an awkward "learning to be Santa" sequence, followed by her going to see her niece sing in a church. There's more than a little Jesus in this movie, which is weird, because the seasonal connection with the weather is pretty damn pagan.

There are two elements of this thing that are promising. Not good, mind you - just promising. The first is Hawthorne's Saint Nick. He plays the role fairly seriously and almost manages to sell it. If the writers and director had given him anything to work with - anything at all - I think he'd have nailed it. Unfortunately, this script was garbage, and the director didn't even do that justice.

The other intriguing facet was the head elf. The first few times he showed up, there was a vague horror-movie vibe to his magically-enhanced entrances. For the briefest of moments, the movie was almost interesting.

The bad, of course, was everything else. And I do mean everything. The tone was inconsistent, oscillating from bad dramedy to even worse slapstick. The digital effects were horrible, even for TV circa 2001. This was almost impossible to sit through, even for us.

If you're wondering whether the movie's message in some way helped redeem it, think again. A handful of baffling racist jokes undercut the theme. There was a random comment about Hindus that felt offensive, a strange joke about goblin ancestry that seemed to insult multiracial children, and a few other comments and side jokes that were questionable at best. The worst of these were only borderline offensive, but they were still bizarrely out of place here.

Obviously, there is no reason you should ever watch this movie.

Book Review: Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories

Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories
L. M. Montgomery, edited by Rea Wilmshurst
Collection 1995, Stories originally published 1899 - 1910

Premise: A collection of holiday tales by L. M. Montgomery.

They can't all be winners. This volume occupies a weird space between light holiday collection and academic archive only of interest to scholars. There isn’t any scholarly commentary, but I can't imagine anyone reading this entire book who isn't either writing this review or looking for common themes in pieces from the time period for a research project.

Because oh, are there common themes.

The strongest pieces in the collection are the two excerpts from the Anne books: a chapter from Anne of Green Gables and one from Anne of Windy Poplars. Both of these have charm, whimsy and warmth in equal portion.

The introduction explains that the other stories were among many written by Montgomery in these years for various magazines - mostly what we would now call work-for-hire, where an author is asked to write to a specific theme and deadline. Unfortunately, there's a reason most of these magazines had been lost to time.

Thirteen of the fourteen stories can be described with only three plots:
People (usually well-off) learn the joy of the season by sharing what they have with others (Seven stories)
Poor people act kindly toward others and luck into gifts/wealth/good fortune for the holiday (Two)
Estranged family members (in one case, friends) make up, due to some kind of misunderstanding (Four)

The final one is about members of a family missing a relative who died in the year prior to Christmas.

Each story independently is decent enough, but all in a row they become a bit tedious in their interminable goodness and kindness. However, reading it has reminded me to go back and catch up on more of the Anne books, so while I can't recommend the volume for most readers, it wasn't a waste of time.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H.: It's a Wonderful Smash (2014)

Remember a few years ago, when Marvel animation was at its peak? In a relatively short period of time, we got Spectacular Spider-Man, Wolverine and the X-Men, and Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, all great shows.

Then something went wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong. Overall, the Disney acquisition of Marvel was a plus. It gave them more money to produce movies and live-action TV series, and the comics actually seem to have benefited. But the quality of their animated programs plummeted. Guess that's the price we have to pay.

This, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Avengers Assemble all appear to be in continuity with each other. And, from what I've seen so far, all of these shows suck.

To be fair, I've only seen two episodes of Agents of S.M.A.S.H., and one was the pilot. But the premise was misguided to begin with, and nothing I've seen suggests they're able to salvage the show.

This episode is, of course, the Christmas one. It opens on Christmas Eve, when the Hulks fight Blastaar and a bunch of monsters kind of resembling the things from Tremors 2. They save the day but get blamed for the damage caused by the battle. On their way home, Rick wishes things were better. Out of the window, there's a light in the distance that looks like a shooting star but is revealed to be an alien space ship.

Cut to a Hulk Christmas special in which everyone seems to have everything they want. Red Hulk is president, She Hulk is a successful actress, A-Bomb is dating Eliza Dushku... you get the idea. Their Christmas special is interrupted, however, when Rocket Raccoon comes down the chimney and starts shooting up the room in an attempt to find the device mentally constructing this illusionary reality.

By now, you're probably thinking this sounds pretty cool and wondering why I'm complaining. To be fair, as zany ideas go, this one was pretty well conceived. But the execution just fails miserably. Between the bad animation, the poor designs, uninspired voice casting, and the lack of tone or commitment to the premise, the whole thing devolves into a mess of safe-for-kids jokes. It's trying so hard to be campy fun, it just comes off as idiotic.

There are a handful of jokes in this thing that save it from being unwatchable, but overall it just doesn't work. It felt like the creative talent had the right idea but lacked the ability to actually make it work.

I did like the Christmas special within a constructed reality gimmick, but like everything else in this episode, it never achieved its potential.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Holiday Comics: Gwenpool Special #1, My Little Pony Holiday Special 2015

Have you visited your friendly local comic shop this week? You might want to make the trip, some super-fun holiday specials just came out!

Kate's annoyed face is my favorite
Gwenpool Special #1
Writers: Charles Soule, Margaret Stohl, Gerry Dugan, Christopher Hastings
Art: Langdon Foss, Juan Gedeon, Danilo S. Beyruth, Gurihiru

I know, I know, Gwenpool? Just go with it and trust me on this one. This hefty issue tells four interlocking stories featuring some of the recent stars of the Marvel U.

The overarching tale follows She-Hulk, as she throws the biggest party of the year to defeat some evil magic. Meanwhile, Ms. Marvel takes out her frustrations with the ubiquity of Christmas on an evil Santa. Hawkeye and Hawkeye team up with Deadpool to catch a holiday pickpocket as a favor to one of Clint’s friends. Gwenpool goes up against a giant sword-snake-thing and enjoys her visit to the main Marvel Universe.

Drunk monkeys! YouTube sword tutorials! Holiday gifts! It’s repeatedly hilarious and occasionally sweet. You may have to be at least passingly familiar with the characters to really love it, but I tore through this with a big grin on my face, and strongly recommend it.

My Little Pony Holiday Special 2015
Written by Katie Cook
Art by Katie Cook, Brenda Hickey, Agnes Garbowska and Andy Price

I haven’t read much of the recent MLP comics, but I found it a bit jarring at first and then enjoyable that this has a slightly different tone than the animated series. It’s a bit more slapstick and zany and a smidge more subversive occasionally as well.

This issue features Twilight and Spike trapped by the weather in a train station. They read a few ‘traditional holiday filly tales,’ which each star other main characters. Rainbow Dash is a rather unconventional flying reindeer and Applejack and her family feature in ‘Twas the Night of Hearth’s Warming Eve,’ although I think Rarity’s spin on the Nutcracker was my favorite. I was a bit disappointed that the rhyming and meter in the poem one wasn’t regular, but I’m particular about such things.

Overall, a fun little issue.

I know, Twilight. I know.

Sabrina, the Teenage Witch Christmas Episodes (the rest of them)

Okay, we already watched the Christmas episode in season three. Here's the rest of them. 

A Girl and Her Cat (1996)
First we have to backtrack to episodes in seasons one and two.

In this episode Salem throws a hissy fit (pun intended), stays out to make the family worried, and ends up catnapped by a little boy who wants a pet. There's a painfully obnoxious montage in this one as well, as Sabrina and her aunts (Hilda and Zelda) search for Salem. The highlights are references to Salem's backstory (he was originally human, but turned into a cat for trying to take over the world), and a scene where Sabrina steals Salem back by dressing as Santa and teleporting into the kid's closet, knowing no one will believe him. Also, Coolio has a cameo as a poster brought briefly to life.

Oh, if you've never seen this show, you might not know that Salem is played at times by a truly ugly puppet cat and at times by a real cat. It's very strange.

Sabrina Claus (1997)

I think weird cameos must be a thing on this show that I didn't notice in 1997 because this episode featured both John Ratzenberger and Johnny Mathis. Ratzenberger plays Santa, which also caused us to realize fully that there is basically no continuity in this show.

The 'rules' about what they can use magic for are inconsistent. Whether they can let humans see them do magic is inconsistent. What their magical relatives are like? Inconsistent. The most annoying might be that how much the characters live like humans vs. completely misunderstand human society is completely inconsistent.

Plus a different guy played Santa in the season three episode.

Ratzenberger makes a fine Santa at first. He shows up to help Sabrina find the meaning of Christmas, as she's struck with a magical malady that feeds on selfishness and messes up her spells. He gets more and more obnoxious as time goes on, and the terrible laugh track on this show was already making me twitch. Of course Sabrina ends up finding her generosity by having to fill in for Santa Claus. And she uses her magic to give her friends ridiculous Christmas presents, one of which may involve mind control or personality manipulation. It's terrible how little thought went into this thing.

Sabrina, Nipping at Your Nose (1999)

We jump past season three to land in season four, and another terrible episode. In this one, Sabrina tries to change the weather so she can fly to Jamaica for Christmas, but meddling with the weather apparently turns you into a snowman and earns you an audience with Mother Nature. I did like Mother Nature as an executive in a power suit. That was okay.

Sabrina is tasked by Nature with bringing holiday cheer to her aunt's boyfriend, and meanwhile her aunts hire some out-of-work kleptomaniac elves for holiday help. It all goes about the way you think, and then they're snowed in anyway and throw a Jamaican-themed holiday bash over the credits. Random cameo of the episode: Danny Bonaduce, as a 'Partridge in a pear tree.'

Sabrina's Perfect Christmas (2000)

So, I guess the show actually moved forward in time, because it looks like Sabrina lives in an apartment and is going to college. In this episode, she decides to skip out on a family party to join a 'perfect Christmas' with her (roommate? flatmate?) Morgan. Morgan's family starts Stepford-perfect but quickly devolves into passive-aggressive and then into agressive-agressive. Sabrina's efforts to 'fix' the situation are rather painful, and Morgan's brother's obsession with Salem isn't funny, it's super-creepy. Meanwhile, Hilda finds her other flatmate Roxy stayed in their place alone over Christmas to avoid her family, and she calls off the family party to throw Roxy a 'normal' Christmas. This led to another example of Erin tearing his hair out because in every Christmas episode up to this point Hilda and Zelda have served eggnog, and then in this one they don't understand the appeal of this mortal drink. Sigh.

It's a Hot, Hot, Hot, Hot Christmas (2002)

Last season, last Christmas episode. Sabrina, Morgan and Roxy are still the main characters, plus Salem the ugly puppet cat is still around. A smarmy coworker invites the girls to a timeshare in Miami for the holiday. Morgan turned from kind of silly in the previous season to being unreasonable dumb and ditzy. Roxy runs into her mom, who apparently recently got out of prison. Sabrina moves obnoxious mountains trying to get Roxy and her mom to reconcile, only to doubt her judgement after the condo is robbed. Sabrina uses magic to determine the real thief (only AFTER making a huge scene accusing Roxy's mom... WTF?!) and eventually exposes him. And all was right with the world, because I got to turn this show off.

This was a pretty painful experience overall. The super-fake laugh track was grating every second, and even within each episode what they could and couldn't solve with magic was completely inconsistent. Every bit of decent writing or emotion was immediately undercut by nonsensical plot twists or overacting. I think we can safely mark this one Not Recommended.

Sabrina the Teenage Witch: Christmas Amnesia (1998)

I watched this show back when it aired, and I remember enjoying it. So, it's true, you can never go home again.

This incredibly long-feeling half hour had a unnecessarily complicated plot. I'm going to sum up.

  1. Sabrina, being a teenager, isn't feeling the whole happy-family Christmas vibe
  2. Her aunts decide to double down on cheesy Christmas activities
    1. Cue montage that starts funny and goes on too long
  3. Sabrina is invited to a Christmas Eve party in the magical realm
  4. She goes, only to find out that it's an anti-Christmas party about mocking the holiday (The fact that she doesn't seem to know anyone there doesn't make much sense either.)
  5. She stops them from spying on and mocking people celebrating on Earth and storms out
  6. Only to discover that she has inadvertently deleted the holiday entirely
  7. She tries to convince people to remember Christmas
    1. Cue montage that doesn't start funny, only goes on too long
  8. She finally visits Santa/Father Christmas, only to discover that he's having a nice vacation and tells her that enjoying time with family is important. 
  9. Sabrina and her aunts end up snowed in and enjoy each other's company
    1. Cue montage that starts funny and goes on too long
  10. Sabrina says something about love of family being the most important thing anyway
  11. Christmas reappears! (Even though Sabrina 'learned' this lesson halfway through the episode when she stormed out of the party. There is really no reason for any of this plot.)
  12. Erin and I cry because we discover there are five other Christmas episodes in this series, but I missed them initially because this is the only one with Christmas in the title.

I guess we'll be back later.

Pinocchio's Christmas (1980)

Lindsay unearthed three Rankin/Bass stop-motion Christmas specials we'd never reviewed (or heard of, for that matter), all of which were available on a single DVD. Naturally, we ordered the damn thing.

Not surprisingly, there's a reason we've never heard of it.

Pinocchio's Christmas is a bizarrely warped mashup of several early scenes from the Adventures of Pinocchio and the usual Rankin/Bass Christmas tropes.

The story starts out with Pinocchio learning about Christmas from Geppetto, who sells his boots to buy his son a math book. Pinocchio promptly sells the math book, planning to use the money partly on himself and partly to buy his dad a Christmas present. But first he comes across the Fox and the Cat, who convince him the coins will grow into a tree of gold if he buries them. Naturally, he falls for this, and they steal the money.

With the exception of the Christmas elements, this section is actually pretty accurate to the original, at least according to Wikipedia's description of the book. Same goes for Pinocchio's origin: he was a magical piece of talking wood before Geppetto carved him into a marionette.

At any rate, Pinocchio still wants some cash, so he takes a job performing in a puppet show, where he falls in love with another marionette. He steals her, gets chased out of town by the police, and winds up with Lady Azora, which is what we're calling the Blue Fairy this time. After going through the requisite "lying" sequence, he's re-introduced to Doctor Cricket, whose first name is expressly not provided for fear of rousing Disney's legal department.

The Fox and Cat, meanwhile, make arrangements to sell Pinocchio to a rich Duke who wants a unique Christmas present for his kids. They fast talk him onto a sleigh, claiming it will bring him to the North Pole, only for him to be taken to the Duke's mansion, where he's stuffed in a box. A few minutes later, he's unwrapped, and has thawed the Duke's cold heart with a crappy song he learned from Azora.

Pinocchio's no longer imprisoned, but he's still a long way from home on Christmas Eve with no way to get back in time. Unless....

Oh, for Christ's sake. Yeah, Santa shows up in a sleigh pulled by reindeer and flies him home to Geppetto. Kringle takes off, only for Azora to pull up in a sleigh drawn by mice. Oh, and that marionette Pinocchio liked has been brought to life, too. Why not?

There's some brief moralizing, followed by a montage of sequences from later in the story. And then, finally, the hour-long special draws to a merciful close.

Like a lot of the later Rankin/Bass, there are good and bad elements. The animation is absolutely beautiful, with the exception of the always unadvised cartoon snow over stop-motion effect. This ends our discussion of what this special did well.

The story is utter crap. There's a reason Disney trimmed a lot of the Fox and Cat stuff from their version - it's tedious and dull. Meanwhile, the Santa cameo is wedged in where it doesn't belong. 

At a conceptual level, Pinocchio is a horrible character to work with outside of his redemption story. He's not really likable until he learns his lesson, and he can't reach that point this early. As a result, he's not remotely sympathetic. Why the hell should I care what happens to him?

The plentiful original songs don't do this any favors, either. None are much good, and they do little more than pad the run-time. If they'd done this in thirty minutes, it might have been watchable, but an hour of this crap is downright painful.

If you're a huge fan of stop-motion and Rankin/Bass, this might be worth sitting through to see how far their technique had developed. But everyone else should skip this - it's just not worth the effort.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Librarians and Santa's Midnight Run (2014)

As a rule of thumb, when there's an episode we're recommending that's embedded in the middle of a series, we advise watching it in context to get the needed background. This is different. We watched the first three episodes of The Librarians, and we think you're better off skipping to the Christmas episode.

It's not that the earlier episodes were bad; it's more that they are generic as hell. They feel like an uninspired fusion of Doctor Who, Leverage, Warehouse 13, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the X-Files... hell, basically every genre show of the past two decades shoved into a blender. The result comes off as mediocre in every possible way.

Then along comes the Christmas episode, guest starring Bruce Campbell as Santa Claus, and the quality spikes.

Story-wise, it's pretty generic Christmas fantasy stuff. The episode opens with Santa abducted by the Serpent Brotherhood (I promise, you're better off not having seen their first episode), a secret society planning on killing Santa and harvesting the magical energy he's collected. The Librarians are called in to rescue the immortal legend, which they manage fairly easily.

They go on the run, aided by Santa's magic and their connections. Santa, having spent the previous year collecting the world's goodwill, needs to return that magic to humanity, but he's been drugged. As a result, he starts slipping into older incarnations. I could have done with a few more of these, honestly, but the show gets bonus points for including Odin (I'll even overlook the absurd claim that Odin was the first Santa Claus - there was no single origin). There's a side story when the team's thief is lent Santa's magic hat, only to be possessed by Christmas cheer.

The bad guys, having stolen Santa's sleigh, catch up to the Librarians in Alaska, leading to yet another magical battle. Fortunately, the competency of the villains in this series is somewhere between Gargamel and Doctor Claw, so the heroes manage to out-think them without too much effort. The episode ends with a novel twist on Santa's trip around the world, which gets handed off to the Librarians' guardian/leader, played by Rebecca Romijn.

The episode's strength comes from its sense of humor, pacing, and use of myth. A lot of the heavily lifting is done by Bruce Campbell, who plays his quirky take on Santa Claus with the right mix of levity and heart. There's really no one better at pulling gravitas out of camp, and he does so masterfully here. The role was essentially a mix of pagan solstice god, magical spirit, and jolly Ghost of Christmas Present - an odd conflation of archetypes that worked well here (again, thanks largely to Campbell).

Rebecca Romijn also gets a chance to shine as the requisite holiday cynic who has to save Christmas. Romijn, of course, is best known for playing Mystique in the X-Men movies. She's a great actress who felt underutilized in the first three episodes, so it's nice to see her given something to do.

The resolution touched lightly on the "true meaning of Christmas" trope we see so often in these things. It's notable that - unlike almost everything else I've seen so far on this series - they managed to handle this with a bit of subtlety. There's just a hint of the solstice, a twist on the Santa myth, and a bit of old fashioned holiday schmaltz to their answer, and it works surprising well. If I'm being completely honest, I'd have preferred more solstice and less sentimentality, but that's just me.

All told, this was a very good episode. Perhaps it's the turning point on what becomes a great series - I've only seen this far to date. If you have an hour to kill, I recommend giving this one a shot. Just don't bother watching the first three episodes: those weren't nearly as good.

The Borders of Christmastown: Some Thoughts on what are and are not Christmas Movies

There are plenty of lists out there trying to pick the best and worst Christmas movies of all time (most of those lists are full of crap, but that's not relevant). Lindsay and I spend a lot of time going through those lists looking for anything we've missed, and this often leads to an existential quandary.

What the hell is a Christmas movie?

Sometimes, it's easy. Elf, for example, is a movie set at, about, and concerned with the holidays. I've never heard anyone claim otherwise. Pull out the holiday elements, and you're literally left with nothing.

At least, all of that's true under my definition of Christmas. If you're preoccupied with the idea that Jesus is the reason for the Black Friday rush, then you likely have very different thoughts on whether Elf has anything at all to do with Christmas. Also, you need a goddamn history lesson.

But for the rest of the world, it's a Christmas movie. Almost as much so as Miracle on 34th Street, which is arguably one of the two archetypal holiday films.

Funny thing about Miracle on 34th Street, though: it was released in the summer, and the premise was obfuscated in ads to conceal its holiday elements. All of this was for financial reasons: the studio believed they'd make more if it came out in summer, but that June audiences would avoid something set at Christmas.

From a business perspective, Miracle on 34th Street wasn't released as a Christmas movie: it was, in fact, a summer movie. I'm not suggesting this is a remotely meaningful metric, but it's worth reflecting on how many movies are associated with the holiday due to a December release date. Consider Children of Men: it's often cited as a Christmas film, though its connections are somewhat dubious. There are certainly parallels with the nativity, but the movie seems to be set in November, not December. But because it was released in the US in December and those parallels were played up in its advertising, it's holiday cred became stronger.

What about that other quintessential holiday classic, It's a Wonderful Life? Only a portion of the film is actually set at Christmas Eve: the rest is told over the course of the main character's life. How much of a movie needs to be set at Christmas for it to qualify?

It's a profoundly difficult question to answer. Only a small portion of Holiday Inn actually takes place around the holidays. The movie is set over the course of a year, devoting a song to each of several holidays. But it's the origin of the song White Christmas, and it starts and wraps up on December 25th. Surely it qualifies on a technicality, if nothing else.

But what about Sleepless in Seattle? Only the opening of that movie falls on Christmas, and the rest spirals towards Valentine's Day. Coincidentally, it provides a very similar timeline as American Psycho (though Bale can't possibly compete with the cold-blooded sociopath portrayed by Meg Ryan). Both movies spend a comparable amount of time on the holidays before moving on; one we wrote up for the blog, while the other we didn't.

Here's the difference: Christmas plays a clear role in Sleepless in Seattle, but not in American Psycho. The Christmas Eve sequence is a key element in the overall plot of Sleepless, but you could easily shift the time line in American Psycho and end up with an almost identical script.

But this is a case study, not a hard rule. There are plenty of Christmas movies which barely acknowledge the holiday, or where the setting could be shifted with only minor consequences. Iron Man 3 is an obvious example: the holiday setting was almost completely superfluous. So why is it up on the blog?

One rule we've adopted is that any movie where the majority of the story plays out over the holidays is fair game, even if it doesn't impact the story, tone, or theme. I believe that, provided the timing is well established and present, it qualifies.

But that brings us to an even harder question: which holidays?

Of course, Christmas qualifies as Christmas, and I can't imagine anyone objects to the depiction of Black Friday as an extension of the same holiday. But what about Hanukkah? Unlike most celebrations this time of year, Hanukkah does not seem to be related to Christmas, at least in origin. Christmas, as I've said many times before, is really an extension of  Roman solstice celebrations, which are in turn borrowed from other cultures. But Hanukkah is connected to something else entirely.

It's worth noting that, while Hanukkah isn't related to Christmas in its origins, its status in American Jewish culture is absolutely a response to Christmas. From a religious point of view, it's not at all an important holiday: it's simply been elevated culturally so Jewish kids don't feel like they're getting ripped off every December. Likewise, the specials and movies centered around it are clearly attempting to duplicate those for Christmas. While it's inaccurate to say that Hanukkah originated from the same sources as Christmas, it is effectively offered as an alternative to Christmas. As such, we consider those specials - and the accompanying holiday music - part of the Christmas tradition (to the chagrin of the Jewish side of my family, I'm sure).

Speaking of alternate Christmases: we still haven't gotten around to reviewing a Kwanzaa special, but we'll find one eventually. It was quite literally created to offer another option, free from the cultural, historical, and racial background of Christmas.

The same goes for winter solstice festivals and whatever Roman holidays you want to dredge up. As far as I'm concerned, any Greco-Roman winter holiday on or near December 25 is synonymous with Christmas, and any other winter solstice celebration is still close enough to apply.

This actually extends to fictitious holidays created as Christmas stand-ins, as well. If something's set in a fantasy world and clearly intended as a mirror for Christmas, we'll cover it in a heartbeat.

In addition, it almost seems like a waste of time to explain why I believe Saint Nicholas Day counts. If it weren't for the fusion of that saint and Odin, Christmas wouldn't be the same: I've always considered it an extension, though it rarely comes up in movies or specials.

Now for the two hard ones: Thanksgiving and New Years. We're actually still undecided on these. As a rule of thumb, we've been avoiding movies fixated on them specifically. This is easier for Thanksgiving, which hasn't produced much in the way of specials or films. New Years is quite a bit harder: there are quite a few movies that end on New Years Eve and tie into the symbolism of the changing year. Many of these, such as Ghostbusters II, are also partly set over Christmas. We've been playing these by ear so far, but don't be surprised if we eventually widen the scope to include Thanksgiving and New Years: after all, those are fundamentally the start and end of the holiday season.

But not everything is about dates. We've looked at Rudoph's Shiny New Year, Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July, and Grinch sequels set at Halloween and Mother's Day. None of these are, strictly speaking, Christmas, but we've included them as honorary holiday fare, on the basis of their characters' Christmas connections.

But we do look for more than a trivial connection. The Wizard of Oz, for example, is often associated with Christmas due to being broadcast in December for decades, but that's not enough for us (even with the additional connections between L. Frank Baum and the Santa Claus mythology).

Ultimately, I'd say that to be a Christmas movie, a film needs to meet at least one of the following criteria:

1. The majority of its run time is set on or leading up to Christmas - Examples: Iron Man 3, Ghostbusters II, Happy Christmas

2. Christmas plays a pivotal role in the movie - Examples: While You Were Sleeping, Sleepless in Seattle, It's a Wonderful Life

3. It features characters or tropes closely associated with the holiday - Examples: Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July, Father Christmas, The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat

4. It is about Christmas or a Christmas alternative - Examples: Prometheus, Children of Men

5. It is the origin of a longstanding Christmas song or tradition - Examples: Holiday Inn, Meet Me in St. Louis

I'd argue more or less everything we've reviewed on the blog meets one or more of these criteria, though there are a couple things that might push the boundaries. For example, Frozen includes several elements that are ambiguously Christmas. I'd argue that the snowmen brought to life and reindeer (complete with jingle bell AND flight gags) are sufficient, but it's admittedly a close call for a movie about an ice witch set in summer. And speaking of ice witches - The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is also a close call, despite a brief appearance by Santa. We don't generally consider a cameo sufficient to meet rule #3, but in this case there's a strong argument the movie fulfills #4, as well.

A Princess for Christmas (2011)

Watching movies for Mainlining Christmas is an enlightening process. We have become professionals. We are resistant to all but the worst writing, acting, directing and design. Today, I’m pleased to share some of our tips for keeping your mental health while watching holiday dreck. The defense mechanisms we’ll be practicing in this session are “Plausible Alternate Plot”, “Identifying Fakeconomics” and “Advanced Foreshaming”.

A Princess for Christmas is a Hallmark Original movie that never believes in subtlety when you could be describing your emotions out loud, and is a great training ground for all of these techniques.

Early on, the movie is full of easy targets for Identifying Fakeconomics. Main character Jules works in a small antique store in Buffalo, New York. She is the primary caretaker of her deceased sister’s two kids, Milo and Maddie. Even with survivor’s benefits of some type, there is no way she could maintain that large, well-appointed house and a full-time nanny on one person’s retail salary, even high-end retail. Especially considering that the owner of the store fires her because he can’t afford to pay her, she probably wasn’t making that much to start with.

Identifying Fakeconomics is all about keeping emotional distance from the story by noticing when ‘movie logic’ tries to make you believe that something is reasonable when it really isn’t. Your next opportunity to practice comes right away, when a British butler shows up at their door to offer Jules $12K and a trip to visit the kids’ estranged grandfather, who is a duke. She refuses at first, but despite her anger at the guy who cut off contact with her sister and brother-in-law, she doesn’t even consider it? Really? That seems unlikely.

This moment is also a good time to practice some easy Foreshaming. Repeat out loud: “But of course they’re going to go anyway.” Give yourself a bonus point if you can snap your fingers just before the jump cut to them being in England happens.

Foreshaming is about identifying plot ‘twists’ ahead of time so that you can critique them before they happen, defusing their power to hurt you. The first few are easy, but there are some tricky ones later in the film.

After a bunch of ridiculous exposition, how many instances of Fakeconomics (and its cousin: Fake-culture) and opportunities for Foreshaming did you spot? Here’s a partial checklist:
  • Old-Fashioned British Manor House
  • Complete with staff of full time cooks, maids, butlers.
  • No apparent means of financial support (most still-existing manor houses double as museums/event locations/film sets…)
  • Cute little local town has a huge Christmas tree lot, still full of trees, within days of Christmas
  • Cute little town has an Orphanage run by nuns
  • American kids must have gotten out of school for winter break no later than Dec 18 for this timeline to work. (Buffalo schools, like most American schools that I know of, get out Dec 24.)
  • Crotchety Housekeeper will come to love the clumsy Americans
  • Ashton (brother to kids’ deceased dad) will fall for Jules, whether or not that makes any sense
At this point, we can also bring in a more advanced technique: Plausible Alternate Plot. A Plausible Alternate Plot is when you can come up with an alternate explanation for the idiotic things happening on the screen. This is an important survival skill if you have the Hallmark Channel in December.

In this movie, when the kids finally meet their ducal grandfather, he seems annoyed to see them and overall cranky about Christmas. There is literally no reason provided for why he invited them for the holidays, but there’s no indication that anyone else did it behind his back. I filled this plot hole with a bit of optimism: maybe there was a secret reason! Milo, as Charles’ son, might stand to inherit all this stuff, right? I mean, all the other elements of the plot are playing by old-fashioned rules. So the Duke invites over the kids from his son’s unapproved marriage to either take them and bring them up ‘right’ or trick them into abandoning any inheritance.

Unfortunately, none of that was in the plot. Not even a little bit. But, the exercise of thinking about it gave me a second wind to continue watching.

Another fun PAPlot here centers on the Duke’s clothing. Played by Roger Moore, he dresses like Dracula. White shirt, black jacket, red cravat or tie in almost every scene. Ashton (the duke’s son, remember) has too-perfect facial features. If you watched this movie with the sound off you could make a real case that it was about a poor American family being tricked into moving into a vampire lair.

I have to warn you to proceed with caution if you’re still watching. No amount of Advanced Foreshaming can help you now, as in quick succession several plot elements, including the grandfather’s objection to Christmas, are resolved unbelievably quickly, completely and foolishly, to the point that even we could not expect it.

Console yourself by calling the exact moment Ashton’s fiance will walk in on Ashton and Jules dancing and having fun together. It’s an easy one.

The rest of the film runs on rails, although there is a bit more bullshit to be called. Note the fact that the Duke (and Ashton to a lesser degree) treats Jules and the kids as if they are just a speshul sparkly exception to the ‘poor, un-titled people are lesser’ narrative he was rocking early on, and Jules seems not to notice how incredibly screwed up that is.

Ashton and Jules get together, the snotty people are offended, everyone dances in pretty dresses. You called all this, because you’re getting good at Foreshaming.

I’ll leave you with one more Plausible Alternate Plot, this one utilizing the technique of pulling in other work done by the same actors. After the movie, Jules does fulfill her promise to not become the idle rich, but to keep working. Unfortunately, as we all saw this summer, that ends badly for her. Having the insufferable and inconsistent character from this film be the one eaten by a mososaurus makes both movies a little better.

And don’t worry about Ashton. I hear he’s sleeping with a hot time-traveller now.

The Swan Princess Christmas (2012)

The Swan Princess Christmas is the third of four direct-to-video sequels to The Swan Princess, a movie which failed to make ten million dollars during its entire theatrical run and has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 44%. This is the first and only installment of the franchise I've ever seen, so I can't attest whether the abysmal writing, direction, and animation were par for the course, or if this fails to live up to the series's pitiful legacy. Assuming Wikipedia is right, this was the first in the series to be computer animated.

For the majority of this movie's run time, the plot is essentially incomprehensible. The two leads, Derek and Odette, are getting ready to spend their first Christmas together. They have three talking animal sidekicks who almost never interact with them: a puffin, a turtle, and frog trying to get women to kiss him. And there's a cat who's working with the ghost of the villain from the first movie.

To get a Christmas tree, Derek goes snowboarding in the woods and kills a saber-toothed snow leopard. This didn't have much bearing on the plot, but it took up a decent amount of time, and was certainly one of the movie's two most "memorable" sequences. The other involved a troop of acrobatic orphans singing an auto-tuned version of "Christmas is the Reason".

The ghost stuff is closest this movie gets to coherent, so let's start there. The ghost is trying to come back to life, though it turns out this requires a few steps. First, he needs the guy who killed him (Derek) to open a chest containing a portal to... er... I'm guessing Hell. Until then, all he can do is communicate verbally with the cat and occasionally scare a few people.

Once he accomplishes this, he's able to appear as a ghost. He's got the usual ghost powers: becoming incorporeal, invisible, and floating, on top of some weakened magical abilities.

At this point, he immediately starts trying to destroy Christmas. It's not entirely clear whether this is a prerequisite for coming back to life, or if he just hates Christmas for some unstated reason. Probably both. Regardless, Christmas music is his kryptonite: it weakens his magic and makes him visible, which winds up exposing him to Derek almost immediately.

There's a bunch of subplots involving minor characters that aren't worth discussing before the main plot, which is also not worth discussing, kicks into gear. But what the Hell: the villain destroys the kingdom's Christmas tree, and the resulting sadness reincarnates him. He kidnaps Odette, transports her back to Swan Lake, and turns her into a swan. Derek shows up, so he turns himself into Man-Bat and there's a fight.

The villain wins, wounding Derek. Odette's a swan trapped under some thorns. Man-Bat swoops towards her love to finish him off.

So she sings a Christmas song, which kills Man-Bat, only to discover Derek's already dead. She seems awfully upset, so she sings another song, which resurrects the ornaments from the destroyed Christmas tree, which in turn resurrect Derek

Or... I don't know. Something like that. It is really, really hard to determine what's supposed to be happening in this movie.

I think we've established that the plot and characters are horrible in this thing. But how about the animation? EVEN WORSE. This isn't quite the worst looking animated Christmas movie we've seen, but unless you've been playing the Mainlining Christmas home game, there's a very good chance it's worse than any CG Christmas movie you've ever seen. The characters are wooden and simplistic, and they never interact right with either their environments or each other. I understand why movies made in the early 00's occasionally got away looking this bad, but this was made in 2012 - there's really no excuse.

The majority of the music in this is badly auto-tuned, which along with everything else in the movie, is anachronistic and annoying.

The sequence with the jumping orphans singing about Jesus is firmly planted in the "so bad it's good" camp, and the snowboarding scene comes close. But other than those, the movie's tedious and obnoxious elements are too boring to laugh at.

With just one review on Rotten Tomatoes, this doesn't even have a score, meaning you don't have to take the advice of mainstream critics: just follow their lead and watch something else. This one was awful.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Jingle All the Way 2 (2014)

When I heard there was a sequel to Jingle All the Way starring Larry the Cable Guy, I kind of hoped it would be a literal sequel, with him taking over Schwarzenegger's part. No such luck: the movie's sort of a spiritual sequel, borrowing elements from the premise and using them to tell a new crappy story.

Before I go on, I want to state that I found the experience of watching this extremely unpleasant. That being said, I'm forced to concede that this was actually a better movie than the original. Granted, that is an incredibly low bar to clear, but I was somewhat still surprised.

Not pleasantly surprised though: I dislike Larry the Cable Guy's shtick and was rooting against this movie. I'd have rather a scenario where I could simply say it was an abysmal pile of idiotic crap, as opposed to a nuanced pile of mediocre crap. But we can't get everything we want for Christmas.

Larry the Cable Guy plays a divorced father named, "Larry". I'm just going to assume there's a rider in his contract stipulating that all his live-action characters are named "Larry". At any rate, Larry is a deadbeat loser, though he has a fairly good relationship with his daughter, Noel.

And suddenly, "Larry" doesn't seem like all that dumb of a name anymore.

Only he feels like that relationship is being threatened by Noel's new step-father, Victor, who is of course comically rich. This makes much more sense than the revelation that Victor feels equally threatened by his new step-daughter's relationship with Larry, who lives in a trailer.

For fifteen minutes or so, Larry attempts to compete with Victor in a series of painfully excessive gags designed to deliver cheap physical comedy routines. Larry is electrocuted wiring his own Christmas lights, winds up flocked at a Christmas tree lot, and is doused with water attempting to bring a truckload of snow down from the mountains: high comedy, this is not.

Obviously, if this is truly a "Jingle All the Way" installment, there's something missing, and that comes when Larry gets a hold of his daughter's letter to Santa. He misreads it as saying that she wants a talking stuffed bear, which is that year's top toy.

Victor learns about his goal by sending his head of security to spy on Larry, and tasks the security expert to secretly collect every one of the bears in town, guaranteeing that he'll be the one to fulfill the girl's Christmas wish. This leads to another series of moronic sequences and mishaps no one should ever have to sit through. Needless to say, Larry fails to acquire the bear through normal means.

To the movie's credit, they actually covered their bases well. The most obvious objections you're thinking of - Ebay and trying the next town over - were addressed in the movie. Maybe not sufficiently, but they at least acknowledged the possibilities.

There's a lot this movie does wrong, but I feel obligated to admit what it does right. Bucking tradition, this doesn't ultimately make Victor into a 2-dimensional villain. He goes overboard in his attempt to one-up Larry, but he's never portrayed as an unfit or uncaring father. On the contrary, the movie goes out of its way to establish that he loves Noel and wants to give her a great Christmas. Likewise, there was a fairly well thought out third act twist when the rest of the town discovered Victor had bought up the town's entire supply of the year's most coveted gift.

The resolution was sappy, of course. Also, it involved a sequence where Larry and Victor have a heart-to-heart in which both of them made a point of telling the other that they'd never taken a hand-out in their life, just in case you were confused as to which half of the political spectrum Larry the Cable Guy's movies are being marketed towards.

Despite being a bad movie, it's somewhat impressive how much thought went into the script, at least compared with other holiday movies out there. They didn't succeed in making a good movie, but I had the distinct impression they actually tried. That counts for something, right?

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero: Cobra Claws are Coming to Town (1985)

I'm going to have a hard time synopsizing this one.

Alright, this thing opens right before Christmas when three of the G.I. Joes and a pet parrot singing Jingle Bells (this is a plot point) are driving a bunch of donated presents back to their base to give them to kids. When suddenly... they're attacked! A single Cobra plane starts shooting at them, forcing them to pull over and take cover. While they're stopped, a Cobra agent sneaks behind their vehicle and unloads a bag of fake gifts.

The plane takes off, and the G.I. Joes just kind of shrug and decide it's probably not worth worrying about. They return to base and unload the gifts, including those Cobra snuck in. That includes a Trojan rocking horse, because... of course it does.

The Joes sit down for dinner, and we learn that one of them is sad, because his parents always made such a huge deal about Christmas they never got around to decorating the tree or buying him gifts.

Let's just move on.

The Trojan rocking horse (and yes, it is referred to that way) and the other fake gifts open, revealing miniature Cobra troops, vehicles, and robots. So... it's Christmas, and there are a bunch of toy-sized Cobra planes. Real subtle, guys.

The small Cobra agents manage to deactivate the Joes' defense grid, which lets another nearby Cobra agent use a ray and revert them back to full size. There's an idiotic fight scene where two groups of soldiers are standing less than 10 feet from each other and shooting, but no one gets shot. Eventually, Cobra uses knock-out gas to gain the upper hand.

With the Joes captured, they reveal their incredibly stupid plan, which is to steal the G.I. Joes' vehicles and attack a nearby city. Cobra Commander chains up the Joes in a freezer and taunts them by leaving the keys to their handcuffs in the room. Fortunately, Shipwreck is able to free himself by humping a side of beef.

No. Really. They even played it up with a joke about him and the side of beef having "a meaningful relationship" first. This happened.

They get out and confront Destro, who's been working on the shrinking/enlarging ray. There's another fight, where Destro tries to shrink all of the Joes but only winds up hitting the parrot. After failing to shoot Destro, they just jump him and take his ray gun, which was slightly damaged but still seems to work. They flip the switch and turn the parrot back to normal size, though he stays behind, since he's dizzy. As soon as the Joes leave, he starts growing to monstrous size.

The Joes take Cobra's vehicles and go after them. There's another idiotic fight which ends with Shipwreck's bird showing up and saving a few Joes who are in danger. Of course, he sings Jingle Bells again. And that G.I. Joe who was depressed about Christmas? He randomly feels better. No explanation beyond, "It's Christmas!" is given.

So. That's what happened.

It was AWESOME. I mean, sure, it was stupid. But it was hilariously, ridiculously, awesomely stupid. The animation was crap, obviously, but this thing had Cobra Commander standing in front of banner reading "Merry Christmas." It had a giant parrot snatch Duke from the air. And, most importantly, it had one of the G.I. Joes humping a side of beef.

I ask you: isn't that what Christmas is all about?

Craft Kit: Creatology Christmas Color and Bake

Here's a not-so-secret fact about me: I'm a sucker for cheap craft kits. We picked up these kits at Michael's, and I think they were even a bit cheaper than the $1.00 each they're marked at.

Each kit comes with a metal suncatcher frame and four tubes of tiny plastic crystals. The directions are on the back of the cardboard piece.

It didn't take long to fill the candy cane, but the snowflake took more time because of all the little fiddly bits.

It was slightly annoying because I got most of the way through the snowflake when I realized that one of the little arms didn't sit flat, and I was worried about plastic oozing out under the edge when it baked. So I gently bent that arm a tiny bit, but then had to start over. 

I only used less than half the provided crystals. It's very difficult to tell, especially with the small sections, how much is enough, vs. too much. The instructions only say to 'Pile in the center and level at metal edges'. Of course, with a bunch of irregular bits of colored plastic, what is level? And what does that mean for such narrow sections? 

Unfortunately, as you may be able to see, my bits of plastic did not flow all the way to the edges in every section. 

 They still look okay in the light, though:

It's not bad for maybe 15 minutes fiddling and 25 minutes baking; I'd say I got at least two dollars of fun out of these.

Pippi Longstocking: Pippi’s Christmas (1998)

I love Pippi Longstocking, although my love has not led me to actually read the source material or seek out other media about the character. My love is mostly confined to the 1988 movie being a major part of my childhood. If my childhood had instead contained the 1998 animated series, I might not have the same affection for the character.

Not that this was actively bad. It was just boring, and these days boring is the death knell for Christmas media for us.

The opening credits, despite being a bit too long, led us to hope for some sort of adventure or excitement. No dice. The entire plot was about two thieves (recurring characters) trying to steal money so they can have food and a place to stay on Christmas. They have no money, and they try various schemes, first to try to make enough to get dinner and go to a hotel, and later they just try to get arrested so they’ll have someplace warm to sleep.

They get caught, or almost get caught, Pippi makes an odd excuse for them, all characters separate, and then we repeat this cycle several times. And I couldn’t tell if she was making excuses because she likes them and didn’t want to see them go back to jail, or because she was planning the ending from the start, or because she genuinely believed that “No one could do something rotten on Christmas!”

At the end, she invites the two back to her place to have Christmas dinner and stay over, even giving them each a gold coin as a gift.

There just wasn’t much to this episode: the plot, the characters, the humor were all quite thin.

Although a large part of my trouble with it, I think, in the end was the voice acting. Pippi was just so one-note. And the voice actress is one I recognize: she’s been Muffy Crosswire (rich, spoiled little girl) on the PBS series Arthur since 1996. I just couldn’t hear her as a different character.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Seinfeld Christmas Episodes: 1991-1997

It's hard to overstate how big Seinfeld was in the 90's. It was the top sitcom for four years and the top TV show for two. The subject matter was surprisingly adult for its time slot, and among geeks, it offered a rare opportunity to see our interests cross over with mainstream entertainment.

While Jerry himself was Jewish, the series had several Christmas episodes, often exploring the holiday without even a hint of sentimentality or nostalgia. That alone makes these stand out from the norm.

I felt like the show held up well on a new viewing. While the jokes of course weren't as fresh as when I first heard them, most of them remain funny. The exceptions were Jerry's monologues, which came off more dated. But those weren't more than a few minutes of any episode, anyway.

If you're too young to have seen these, it might be worth checking out a few episodes. I didn't feel like any of the Christmas episodes were required holiday viewing (though a case could definitely be made for The Strike), but they're all good palate cleansers for the usual sappy Yuletide fare.

The Red Dot (1991)

This episode revolves around an early Christmas present George buys Elaine as a thank you for getting him a job at her office. Only, in order to save money, he picks out a clearanced cashmere sweater containing a red dot. George then has a brief affair with the office cleaning lady, which leads him to lose the job.

Jerry has a plot line, as well, though it's more tagged on: he accidentally allows Elaine's boyfriend, a recovering alcoholic who already dislikes him, to take a cup containing vodka at an office Christmas party. This doesn't have much bearing on the plot, but it leads to an amusing finale when the three friends are hiding under a desk while he drags a Christmas tree through the office in a drunken rage.

I liked this one quite a bit. The jokes held up well, and the writers found a good middle ground where they managed to build outlandish, potentially embarrassing situations without making the experience unpleasant to watch.

The holiday elements were well integrated, but subtle enough to not annoy viewers feeling over-saturated by the season (I've been told some people have that problem this time of year).

The Pick (1992)

While George is pining over his recent break-up with Susan, Jerry is starting a promising relationship with a model, who's coincidentally in an ad campaign for a Calvin Klein fragrance stolen from an idea Kramer had the previous year, the second side-plot he's involved in after taking a photo for Elaine's Christmas Card without making sure her blouse was buttoned up all the way.

The episode's Christmas elements are relatively sparse. Outside of Elaine's story, where the holidays are a plot point, there's nothing but set dressing to place the episode. However, they do make a point of including decorations in the diner and in the therapist's office.

The Pick is pretty good. The story lines are nicely woven together, and the pacing builds to satisfying conclusions. As usual, the characters' lives are a little worse at the end than the beginning, but they've made some peace with the situation. Not a lot, but some.

The Race (1994)

This one features the series's most blatant homage to Superman: Jerry is ecstatic that he's dating a woman named "Lois," finally allowing him to utter Superman quotes in everyday conversation. Only it turns out she works for someone he beat in a race in high school, due to inadvertently cheating. By threatening to fire Lois, her boss forces Jerry to race him, only to have history repeat.

These days, superhero homages are commonplace, but this felt pretty unique in the 90's. For one thing, they utilized some obscure references. For example, Jerry's contest with Lois's boss was highly reminiscent of Lex Luthor's first appearance, right down to his hair. There were plenty of obvious one-liners you'd get from watching the Donner movie, but it was the obscure stuff that made it genuinely nerdy.

Of course, none of that really had anything to do with Christmas. Fortunately, most of the B plots were more timely. Kramer, in particular, spent the episode working as a department store Santa until Elaine's boyfriend converted him to communism: if that doesn't say "Christmas," I don't know what does.

Except when it intersected the other two stories, both Elaine and George's plots were less interesting. The writing around Elaine's communist boyfriend was a little obnoxious: I realize this is comedy, but that's not what communists are like. Meanwhile, George's story line, where he pretended to be communist to meet women only to be sent to Cuba for work, felt a bit too random.

But the relationship with Lois and the race rank among my favorite moments from Seinfeld. I like this one quite a bit, despite its flaws.

The Gum (1995)

This one revolves around Kramer helping to reopen an old movie theater with the help of Lloyd Braun, one of Elaine's ex-boyfriends who had a mental breakdown. As usual, things spiral out of control, largely due to Kramer's attempts to make Braun comfortable. The title refers to a brand of imported gum Lloyd shares and falsely believes Jerry likes. It's more of a side plot to George appearing mentally unstable as a series of misfortunes occur, mostly due to his own inability to let things go.

It took a while for this episode to pick to up momentum, but by the end I was laughing. George's predicament got progressively worse as the episode went on, and it turns out that makes for great comedy.

The Christmas elements in this one were mostly limited to background decorations and the occasional reference: they could have told the same story any time of the year without any major alterations.

The Andrea Doria (1996)

Like The Gum, the holiday elements here were light, at best. There were enough background decorations to establish the setting, but it never really came up or influenced the plot. That said, I think I enjoyed this more than any of the others. The jokes landed often, and I found the episode hilarious.

The title refers to George's story, which follows his attempts to move into a better apartment in his building. He's been promised an open unit, but it's pulled away at the last minute and given to an elderly man who survived the sinking of the Andrea Doria, a cruise ship which sank in the 1950's. Towards the end of the episode, he challenges the man by going in front of the board with his own life story, consisting of events which have occurred over the course of the series. It's almost impossible not to laugh as they're moved to tears.

As good as that was, I actually think I liked Elaine's story more. After her blind date has to cancel due to being stabbed by an ex, she wants to find out what makes him so interesting. When they finally do go out together, she watches another ex-girlfriend of his throw hot coffee on him. She does some research, discovers he's bad at breaking up, and decides to call it off. When he insults her by suggesting she has a big head, she initially laughs it off, only to watch it roll into a sort of curse.

By the end of the episode, she brutally assaults him, and he winds up snatching George's apartment from under his nose.

Throughout all of this, Jerry forms an alliance with Newman in the hopes he'll be transferred to Hawaii, and Kramer's cough causes him to devolve into a dog. It's... funnier than I probably made it sound.

The Strike (1997)

The Strike is from the series's last season, and it's by far the most remembered of the show's Christmas episodes. The name references Kramer's story in the episode: after being on strike from H&H Bagels for more than a decade, the union makes a deal, sending him back to work. Almost immediately, he goes back on strike, because he can't get Festivus off.

And that, of course, is why this one is remembered. We learn George's family celebrates the holiday of Festivus instead of Christmas. George, of course, hates the holiday, and for good reason: his father takes it extremely seriously. George spends the episode planning to skip the celebration, but when he's caught giving out fake donation cards in lieu of gifts at the office, the only excuse he can think of is that his religious heritage left him in fear of persecution. To prove it, he's forced to take his boss to his family's house to prove the holiday is real.

Meanwhile, Jerry has a new girlfriend, the Two-Face (and, to the show's credit, they name-check the Batman villain: this series was always good to us geeks). She's given the moniker due to the fact she looks gorgeous or ugly, depending on the light.

Elaine's plot line centers around a fake number she'd been giving out to men she had no intention of ever speaking to again. After she inadvertently gives someone a customer loyalty card she's almost finished, she tries to track him down, only to attract the attention of a pair of creepy men who work at the business her fake number leads to.

A series of coincidences bring everyone to the Festivus dinner, which is even more uncomfortable and humiliating than George expected.

While I like this one well enough, I don't think it deserves the status it's often awarded. It's certainly funny, but the premise is a little too extreme to work, an issue I recall having with a lot of the last season. One of the things Seinfeld did exceedingly well in its prime was convince the viewer to suspend their disbelief for some pretty outrageous scenarios, but they bit off more than they could chew this time.

Likewise, this one felt a touch mean-spirited, particularly towards the female characters. The Two-Face premise felt cruel, and the sequence at the end where Elaine was seated between two large men she was scared of was incredibly uncomfortable.

Still, the Festivus elements were great, and they certainly left a mark on popular culture. If you've never seen this before, it's probably worth tracking down for that fact alone.