Saturday, July 16, 2016

Ben 10: Merry Christmas (2006)

This is the first episode of Ben 10 Lindsay and I have seen, though I was mostly familiar with the premise going in. A kid has the power to transform into ten different aliens, so he uses his abilities to fight various threats.

I hadn't realized the series took place during a cross-country vacation in his grandfather's RV. I'm fairly certain that's intended as a nod to the 70's Shazam series. Ben Tennyson is more than a little reminiscent of Billy Batson, who could likewise call upon otherworldly powers and transform. This series is more or less an update.

This episode begins on a hot summer day while Ben, his grandfather, and his cousin, Gwen (also a series regular - apparently, she uses magic in some other episodes) are driving through Death Valley. After a failed attempt to improve the air conditioner, the RV breaks down. They find a strange door in the desert with cool wind blowing through the cracks. When they go through, they find a wintery town decorated for the holidays.

As the responsible adult, the grandfather assumes everything's okay and doesn't make the kids turn back. However, he's abducted by Christmas elves almost immediately and taken before Jingles, their master, who believes he's finally found Santa Claus.

Okay, I know that sounds stupid, but it's actually pretty awesome. It's clear from the start that there's something very wrong with Jingles, and not in a silly way. He's not evil - his intention was to create something beautiful - but the magic transformed the town almost like a virus. This is a nightmare recreation of Christmas town, complete with lethal toy soldiers and ice monsters summoned by magic hats in the dark of night.

The elves themselves are children, transformed by the same magic that sustains the town. Ben and Gwen begin to change, taking on an elfin appearance. The sequence was partly played for laughs, but there was also a subtle element of body horror layered in. Making matters worse, the one elf who was rebelling against Jingles and helping them believed it was still 1930, when he was abducted. I was genuinely impressed with the setting and tone: this wasn't afraid to play with some dark, fascinating material.

I was less interested in the fight sequences and resolution. While there were a few decent action scenes, they came off a bit by-the-numbers and uninspired, at least compared with everything else in the episode.

It all culminates with Ben destroying the machine, but the curse lasting until the gifts the elves made were delivered. My issues here were two-fold: first, breaking the magical machine at the heart of the town involved a tone-breaking sequence that seemed to be a Frogger joke. Maybe this is a running gag or something, but it felt like a let down.

More than that, the pacing of the ending was a bit rushed. As a result, they skipped over explaining things like the gifts needing to be delivered, the time dilating aspect of the magic, and more. We were able to piece all of this together from context, but it would have snapped together a lot cleaner if they'd been willing to trim out some of the fat. Did we really need Ben 10 transforming into a flying alien, so they could deliver the gifts? Why not just have Jingle's change of heart be the catalyst?

There was a very intriguing epilogue that at least hinted at what was going on. Once the gifts are delivered, the town is transformed. They discover a more conventional tourist spot and even run into the elf they met - now an old man returning to visit with his family (I guess the magical version of the town existed outside of time or something - again, I'd have liked a better explanation). As for Jingles, they find only a monument: he founded the town more than a hundred years earlier, and is presumably long gone.

Despite the episode's bumpy ending, I still enjoyed this quite a bit, both as a Christmas in July piece and just as a regular Christmas story. It was built on a mirror version of a magical Christmas town without feeling like cheap shock value or idiotic parody. It's rare that we get to see a disquieting and twisted look at Christmas magic that doesn't go overboard into the grotesque and campy: this, however, takes the idea of a dark workshop seriously.

The summer elements were likely present to justify the episode's production in the middle of a series set during those months. However, intentional or not, the seasonal contrast serves to magnify the sense that something wrong here, something's unnatural.

If, like us, you're a fan of weird SF and fantasy reinterpretations of the holidays, this is worth checking out. It's far from a perfect episode, but the premise is surprisingly well constructed.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Your Family or Mine: Christmas in July (2015)

This is the kind of show that reminds me why I have never wanted cable. We watch a lot of repellent things in the name of Christmas, but this was a special level of awful.

It’s a sitcom, distinguishable from other sitcoms only by its exceptionable levels of imbecility.

Kate and Oliver are married. Apparently the ‘humor’ of this show comes from them dealing in succession with one or the other of their families. Like every other ‘family’ sitcom.

This episode follows them and their extras, I mean daughters, on a visit to Oliver’s parents. Oliver’s mom insists on getting the family together in the summer to take the annual Christmas card photo, because “people are fat in the winter.” There’s some clever comedy coming here, folks.

In the beginning of the episode (before I stopped thinking to prevent my neurons from shutting down in pain) I was confused. Is Kate not the mother of those two (seven-year-old-ish) girls? If she is, why does she seem flummoxed and confused by things that Oliver’s family does, when they’ve clearly been married for many years? Kate and Oliver’s plotline in the episode consists of them having side conversations about rekindling their sex life.

The other plots follow Oliver’s (dumb, hot) brother and Kate’s (dumb, hot) sister hooking up and then breaking up, and Oliver’s dad having to pass an insurance physical, except it turns out that almost every adult in the house had smoked weed in the last few days.

Ooh, transgressive! Only, this came out last year. Recreational marijuana has been legal in two states since 2012. You know what else came out last year? Sense8. You can’t get laughs with “shocking” jokes about weed and blowjobs and mild sexual roleplay when there is wildly original, inventive content elsewhere truly pushing boundaries.

It’s painful how unfunny it is. The dialogue is either obvious or inane. It’s as though the writers are trapped in the 90s.

Oliver has another brother who’s a jerk. This brother’s wife is constantly belittled by their mother, which wasn’t only unfunny, it was sad and horrid. None of the children have personalities or more than a couple lines.

The Christmas photo plot is extremely minor, unfortunately, and mostly involves the matriarch being cruel about the one woman’s clothing.

Someone had to greenlight this; someone had to write it and direct it. According to the Hollywood Reporter, TBS “quietly canceled” this show after the first ten-episode season.

At least someone was doing their job.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Red Green Show: Xmas in July (2001)

You’re not mistaken, we’ve already done the actual Christmas episodes of this show.

As I said then, The Red Green Show is a hybrid sketch comedy/sitcom/mockumentary/parody of both local access and home improvement shows. And probably a few other things besides.

The main Christmas elements of this episode were in the “plot” portions. Each episode has a “plot” that opens the show and resolves at the end, with additional short scenes interspersed between the other skits.

This episode’s plot concerned Harold’s ill-fated attempt to bring a Christmas in July celebration to the lodge as a tourist attraction. He is not exactly met with kindness and goodwill toward men. Harold tries again, mounting a parade, but he unwisely lets Red drive.

Eventually they give up on Christmas in July. We enjoyed that this showed some of the potential downsides of trying to force unseasonable holiday cheer: holiday costumes are too hot to wear, impatience and otherwise uncharitable behavior that wouldn’t fly in December.

The other winter element was a short where Red demonstrates how to drive in snow without snow tires. It involves tubes, danger, and duct tape, naturally.

This gave us some smiles and some solid laughs. It was enjoyable, which puts it miles ahead of most Christmas in July content we’ve found, and it was snarky, which is welcome any time of year.

Oh, FYI, the entire 300 episode run of The Red Green Show is up on YouTube legitimately, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Workaholics: The Strike (2011)

I believe this is the second episode of Workaholics I've ever seen, and - while I found aspects humorous - I don't see any reason I need to watch a third. To be fair, "The Strike" was part of the series's first season, so it's entirely possible it improves substantially over time. Feel free to chime in with a comment if that's the case.

The show revolves around three idiotic roommates - Blake, Adam, and Anders - who work together at a call center. Based on what I've seen, I'd describe it as having aggressively low production values. My sense is that this is intentional, that it's designed for the audience to laugh at the show as much as they're laughing with it. Imagine a version of Office Space without a POV character, lower everyone's IQ to Beavis and Butthead levels, and you'll have a good idea of what you're in for.

This episode opens in the middle of summer with the trio getting ready for "Half-Christmas," which is essentially a version of Christmas in July they think they invented. They ask their boss for the day off, and are flatly denied. Blake and Adam decide to strike, while Anders decides he'd rather not lose his job.

His boss treats this as if Blake and Adam quit and hires a pair of replacements Anders hates, mainly because they consistently mispronounce his name. He tries to get his friends to apologize and beg for their jobs back, but they refuse to budge.

Instead, Adam and Blake enlist most of the office by promising to fight for basically whatever they want. Despite his dislike for his new co-workers, Anders sticks by his decision, largely because he's being rewarded. His boss makes the mistake of trusting him with sensitive company information, and he discovers their call-center is using the National Do Not Call List as a calling list. Initially, he's willing to play along, but he switches sides when his boss mispronounces his name.

Armed with damning information about the company, Adam is able to get a day off for Half-Christmas, along with a few other minor concessions. He abandons the rest of his co-workers' demands as the party begins.

There's quite a bit of Christmas in this thing, but it's all decorative. From a plot standpoint, any made-up holiday would work (or any other catalyst for the strike, for that matter). The point of "Half-Christmas" is the point of almost everything in this episode: it's dumb.

That's not to say it isn't funny. This kind of shock-value absurd antics might not be high comedy, but - in the hands of good comedians - it can elicit some laughs. And the stars know their stuff. Not everything that happens here is hilarious, but enough jokes hit to keep it from getting bogged down. I didn't love this, but I certainly didn't hate it, either. And in the scheme of things, that's not bad for a sitcom.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Garfield and Friends: Sludge Monster/Fortune Kooky/Heatwave Holiday (1989)

Raise your hand if you liked Garfield as a kid. It’s okay, don’t feel too bad, we’re right there with you. I used to watch this show, but Erin remembered this exact episode, in that spooky way where every line comes into your brain right before it’s spoken.

If you missed this series, it’s made up of super-short bits that are more-or-less animated versions of actual Garfield strips and short cartoons with slim plots. Some of the pieces are Garfield, and the others are “U.S. Acres,” a property which, until this moment, I assumed only existed on this show. No, apparently this was a second comic strip by Jim Davis, and it was limping to the end of its not-critically-acclaimed run around this time.

Of the three six-minute shorts that make up this episode, the last one was the best. Briefly, the first one is about Garfield and Odie being scared of a monster story, and the second is a U.S. Acres bit about playing pranks to make unlikely predictions come true. Both of these stories are barely funny.

Happily, the last short was the holiday-themed piece, and it was by far the best. It’s the height of July, and Garfield is trying various tactics to stay cool in the heat. He creates a snowscape in the backyard through misuse of an ice-maker, and gets out the Christmas decorations. John approves of the idea of beating the heat by “thinking cold” and the decorate the house as if it were December.

Up to this point it’s cute, but nothing special. Then the neighbors see the decorated house, and they assume that John just wants to be the first one to have the decorations up. So the holiday spreads as more and more people either become worried that they’re missing out, or begin to think that it must actually be Christmas if everyone else thinks it is. On a certain level, it’s a cute commentary on the fact that holidays only exist because we all agree that they do.

Eventually the situation is defused by a news broadcast, but in the meantime, amusing fun is had by all. Not bad for six minutes.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Christmas vs. Fourth of July (Book, 1908)

I wish I were about to tell you about an obscure mystic war between the forces of winter and summer, but instead this is a little message book about injured children and giving to the poor.

The intended message from author Asenath Carver Coolidge seems to be that both holidays should be less about buying things, but that the Fourth of July especially shouldn’t be about buying fireworks.

This book appears to be a Christmas tie-in for the author’s pet issue: preventing injuries from fireworks and firearms. She wrote multiple books on the subject.

While the Fourth of July is still a common time for injuries today, regulation has brought the numbers down from the time that Coolidge was writing. Time Magazine reports that at the height, according to the book Fireworks, Picnics, and Flags: The Story of the Fourth of July Symbols, “Over the course of five consecutive Fourths, from 1903 to 1907, 1,153 people were killed and 21,520 more were injured.”

But let’s run through the book.

We open on siblings Jerry and Debby discussing the merits of Christmas presents. Debby declares that she’s old enough to care more about giving than getting, but Jerry will have none of that. In fact, Jerry’s more than a bit of a brat, not even sorry that his misuse of firecrackers caused a woman to fall off a horse and break her arm on the Fourth of July a few years earlier.

The perspective shifts to their eavesdropping Uncle Nathan, who reflects on Jerry’s unrepentance and gives internal voice to (Coolidge’s) belief that encouraging children to have explosives or guns to “celebrate” Independence Day is not only destructive, but un-Christian.

Then the plot meanders on, and we find out that Nathan had courted the injured woman’s daughter during her recovery, but he had driven her off with fine gifts. (She was Quaker and it’s implied she found extravagant gifts insulting.)

Most of the rest of the (very short) book follows Nathan helping Debby to pick out Christmas gifts for others: first the poor children in the city, then a collection of ill and dying people in a tenement known to Debby’s teacher. This group includes another Fourth of July victim - a little boy disfigured and blinded by a toy pistol.

Debby’s mountain of purchases arouses her brother’s jealousy, but his parents punish him for his uncaring remarks. Uncle Nathan writes to a surgeon acquaintance who in due course agrees to help the blinded boy. The narrative does some moralizing through Nathan about society’s contradictory messages of love and warfare.

Nathan then discovers that the young Quaker woman he had loved is in the tenement with some sort of nervous condition. He pays money and effort to keep the building quiet for her recovery, and the two are reconciled.

They have a discussion that I found hard to follow about pacifism, war, money, capitalism, and other things, and that’s the end.

It’s not badly written, if overwrought in description and overblown in feeling. There are even bits that are clever or amusing. Overall, though, it’s just a historical footnote, only interesting for it’s connection to the movement toward more peaceful Independence Day celebrations.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Hallmark 2016 Keepsake Ornaments

We like to pretend what we do here at Mainlining Christmas matters, that we're creating something that will last. But deep down, we know better. In the distant, post-apocalyptic Christmases of the future, the cockroaches hyper-evolved by radiation from World Wars 7 through 14 won't be reading this blog. They will, however, decorate the festive spinal columns using Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments.

Because - and this part's important - these things will be around for-freaking-ever.

No one knows why exactly. Perhaps their CEO made a blood pact with a fiend of hell. Or maybe it's branding - whatever the reason, Hallmark ornaments are here to stay.

And this weekend, they unveiled another year's additions to the collection. That's right, you slackers at K-Mart who wait until September to kick off the holiday shopping season, Hallmark understands the true meaning of Christmas in July.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking these aren't worth it. You're thinking they're not worth the price. And that's where you're wrong - because these are worth every penny of the three dollars you should be paying to get these used at antique shops, 10 to 15 years from now (assuming Trump doesn't win the presidency and kick off the aforementioned end of days).

In theory, you can also go buy new ornaments now. In practice, this will cost you a ton of cash for something only modestly better than the ones they put out 10 to 15 years ago, which you can get dirt cheap used if you shop around.

Alternatively, you can buy knock-offs. The Disney Store will have fairly comparable options that will run you about half as much, assuming you go when they're on sale. You'll be able to find even cheaper pop-culture ornaments at drug stores in the fall. They're definitely not as good, but the nice ones are decent enough for what they're charging.

All that said, Hallmark has been the gold standard for pop-culture ornaments, and this year's no different. Here are a few of the ones we're hoping to find for next-to-nothing at a consignment shop sometime in 2025, along with a few that just seemed... memorable.

Nice effect with the decal on the Electric Mayhem Bus. There's a button here, but batteries hadn't been added yet.

You know, you can get a Hotwheels version of this for $4.50 at Fred Meyer. Just saying.

A 1:1 scale Tinkerbell replica that I suspect Disney regrets approving.

Dr. Finklestein - again, no batteries.

Okay, I kind of want that Alien Queen and Grimlock. Not enough to drop this kind of cash, but this is about as tempted as I get.

This one actually had batteries. It's both musical and motorized. Also, because Winnie the Pooh isn't as popular as he should be, I'm pretty much guaranteed to eventually find this for $5 or less. Do you have any idea how many Winnie the Pooh Hallmark ornaments from the 90's and 00's I've picked up over the past few years?

Me either. I lost count after a dozen or so.

Or you could buy a box of crayons and hang them on your tree. You'll save $15, plus you'll have a fully functional box of crayons after Christmas.

Cynical doesn't mean soulless. That shit is adorable.

This is designed to cover a bulb on your tree. I wish it had a demo - I'd love to see what it looks like lit up.

This pair's a tad generic. I guess they've done so many Star Trek/Wars ornaments they're starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel. Still, pretty cool.

Okay, I'll admit that's pretty damn classy.

That's a little less classy. But, hey, if you love the cheesy rock song it's alluding to, it's not too shabby.

That's just a taste of what's in store - there are dozens more just waiting for you at your local Hallmark  museum  store. If that isn't a reason to swing by, I guess nothing is. Literally: this is, without a doubt, the high point in Hallmark's year, the moment the chain exists for. There is no other reason you should ever be going into one of their stores outside of this moment.

You're welcome, Hallmark. You're welcome.