Saturday, November 26, 2016

Masterpiece Mystery: Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1994)

I know I read the book this is based on, I have the review to prove it, but I have no memory of it. A quick read of my review tells me it’s a common Christmas mystery plot - family gathering, locked-room murder of the head of the family. See also: The Santa Klaus Murder, 8 Women...

The episode opens with some unnecessary backstory to establish the twist ahead of time and confirm that Simeon Lee is a murderer and a rake, so we won’t care when he gets murdered. Then it jumps ahead to Simeon as an crotchety old bastard bent on emotionally torturing his spineless kids over the holidays. Everything is very by the numbers and all of these characters are morons.

Simeon made his money in diamonds, and a lot of the red herrings in the plot follow some uncut gems he receives. It’s funny, because uncut diamonds don’t look like much, so it’s hard to remember why everyone’s so wound up over them.

Finally we bring in Poirot, who is invited along to the holiday party because Simeon claims he “fears for his life.” Poirot only agrees to go because the heat in his building is busted. (In the book, Poirot is called in after the murder occurs, which makes a bit more sense, as it was never clear to me what Simeon intended to accomplish by having Poirot around.)

There’s a lot of “humor” around Poirot and his continental fussiness. It might work better if you already have a background with the character, especially as portrayed by this actor, but it mostly fell flat for us. Also, Poirot’s mustache looks just slightly off center, and it distracted me through the whole thing.

After introducing all Simeon’s kids and extended relations and reaffirming how horrible he is, he’s finally killed. There’s various combinations of people, false trails, lots of clues so the viewers can feel smart, and Poirot solves the case. Hint: the killer is the jerk’s secret son by the lady he screwed over in the intro.

I guess it wasn’t bad, but neither was it compelling, surprising, or particularly well-produced. I found it too long and dull to recommend.

The Muppets: Single All the Way (2015)

You know how sometimes I use the existence of a Christmas episode to talk at length about the series it's part of? Yeah, this is definitely going to be one of those times.

For decades, The Muppets have been severely hampered by their own past. The 70's series remains one of the television's all-time greatest series, their first movie was brilliant and whimsical, and their early Christmas specials are legendary. But for several decades, the franchise has lived in those shadows. At best, new productions offered a faithful homage to past successes; at worst, they were cheap cash grabs. This is true even of the specials I've loved - basically, anything after Henson passed felt it was retreading old ground.

The 2011 movie deviated slightly by devoting some attention to considering the nature of the Muppets' relationship to their fictitious world, but by and large it was still more a tribute than a new chapter.

Last year's series, however, was fresh and modern. Sure, it would be easy to point at this incarnation of The Muppets and dismiss it as a rehash of The Office, but it's worth noting that the Office's premise almost certainly owes a debt to the Muppet Show, which was essentially a parody of reality television, despite the fact it was several decades early.

The new Muppets uses an updated framework of the original's premise, exploring its characters' lives now that they've matured and changed. It allows them to develop in more dimensions, treating them as complex, flawed individuals. They still have their quirks, but there's a touch of gravitas mixed into the hi-jinks. We still see bits of the show they produce, but this has clearly been pushed back to give the stories developing backstage more breathing room. In addition, the series is far more serialized than its predecessors: the central plot lines occur over the entire season.

The Christmas episode is no exception. The holidays are used as a catalyst for characters to confront their feelings and to move the story forward. At the start, Fozzie's girlfriend has just broken up with him, leaving him too depressed to perform in their upcoming Christmas episode. Kermit tries to console him, but Fozzie can't take his advice seriously: he needs someone who understands what it's like to be dumped, but Kermit was the one who ended his relationship with Miss Piggy.

This puts Piggy in the rare role of being more of an authority on emotion than her ex. Or at least she seems to be - she tries helping Fozzie using what helped her: material possessions. While he's not interested in stuff, she does cheer him up by pointing out the obvious fact he's been overlooking: he might be able to win his girlfriend back. He goes off and manages to do just that, but not before confronting Piggy with the question of why she didn't try harder to fight for Kermit.

The episode partially resolves this by having Piggy and Kermit embrace as friends, but the realization that she let him go too easily that's planted in her mind here serves as a turning point for her character over the season-long arc.

Beyond this, there are several B-plots: Yolanda has replaced everyone's name in the Secret Santa pool with her own, Mindy Kaling refuses to acknowledge she's a horrible singer, and Sam tries using mistletoe to steal a kiss from Janice. All of these are fun and do a good job integrating holiday tropes in ways that resolve in satisfying and in most cases surprising ways. In addition, Echosmith performs at the end, though it feels like more of an afterthought (sorry - the band was fine, but Kaling's willingness to embrace a caricature of herself was much more memorable).

In addition to serving as a backdrop and catalyst, the holidays also permeate the tone, though they do so in a much more layered fashion than most Muppet Christmas fare. Because of the show's more mature premise, this embraces both the sweet aspects of Christmas and its more melancholy side.

On its own, this episode was fun and amusing, but ultimately it's a piece in a much larger story that may be the most ambitious project centering around these characters ever produced. It's a shame more people couldn't appreciate this show - it really was something exceptional, even by Muppet standards.

I have no reservations about slapping a "highly recommended" label on this review, but - like so many other great serialized shows we've looked at over the years - my suggestion is to start with the first episode and work your way through.

Toy Review: Hallmark Northpole Good Deed Sender

God, Hallmark is producing the hell out of this stuff.

I reviewed the Northpole Communicator last year. If you're too lazy to click on that link, it's a toy old-fashioned radio communicator that supposedly connects you to Santa's operation for a quick daily chat. The toy is kind of ridiculous, but in a good way: I thought they did a decent job with it.

The Good Deed Sender is a similar concept, only it's pared back to a handheld device. Also, I was much less impressed with the content of the messages.

Obviously, the selling point is the price. This is substantially cheaper than the larger, superior communicator. How much cheaper?

Honestly, I don't know. I can't even tell you what we paid for it, and I can promise you it was less than retail.

The instructions on the back are all this comes with - there's no "secret instructions" for parents this time. You just tear it off, pull out the plastic tab that limits its function to the generic sale pitch you get for the Try-Me feature, and you're ready to get started.

The design of this is pretty minimalist. Turn the blue knob to fire it up, and you'll hear the sound of static (same one that was in the communicator, if memory serves), followed by a quick greeting from Moxie, Trixie, or Jinxie the elf asking for your name and good deed. The light flashes green as they speak.

Needless to say, it doesn't make a damn bit of difference what you say. You can tell them your name is Satan and your good deed was biting the heads off Christmas elves, and they'll respond with the same gleeful encouragement.

There is one caveat. If you hit the reply button immediately after they've spoken, you'll get a reply saying they didn't catch what you said and asking you to repeat yourself. That's a decent enough touch, I suppose. If they'd put in a microphone that tests for noise, it would have been even better. But that's probably asking a lot.

The light's red during the reply phase, though of course it doesn't flash in response to you speaking (again, that would have required a mic and probably a higher MSRP). To be fair, both red and green lights are bright, and the sound is loud.

Once you wait a second and hit the reply button, you get a response from the elf. Sometimes they grab Santa and put him on the line to give you a few words of encouragement, too. There are a decent number of different lines - I think I counted ten or eleven, and that doesn't count different combinations (it seems as though Santa's bit can combine with different elves).

That's a nice touch, but it would be nicer if any of the content felt unique. Functionally, you're getting some variation of an elf saying, "Hi, who are you, what's up," followed by the same elf saying, "Cool, you rock," and/or calling in Santa to say the same. The variations are pretty minor and not all that interesting. It's a bit of a missed opportunity - they could have made the recording more interesting without complicating the device's design.

I appreciate the lights, and the content variation could be worse, but I'm certainly not all that impressed. I do like that they went with a retro-SF concept sort of reminiscent of the Jetsons - that was a decent touch.

It doesn't have any kind of limits on use (assuming you're willing to swap out the batteries) the way the Communicator did. There's no internal calendar or countdown mechanic, and - with the exception of Santa saying "Merry Almost-Christmas" this could be used by brown-nosed brats showing initiative in May. I guess that's a good thing.

Still, it's far less fun than it's bigger cousin. I'm betting most kids would get sick of this pretty fast... as will their parents. Like I said, the volume on this is pretty loud.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Il Capital Umano (Human Capital) (2014)

A movie set (at least mostly) at Christmas, focused on a car crash, told multiple times from multiple perspectives. If you feel like you’ve heard this one before, you’re not alone.

Il Capital Umano, however, is a very different animal.

It’s about class struggles, love and the lack of it, and attitudes around the value of human life. I mostly dug it through the first sections; Erin liked it a bit less.

It’s a combination mystery and social commentary, so don’t keep reading if you don’t want to learn what happens.

It starts out in the aftermath of a fancy holiday party. The caterers are working late into the night to clean up. The camera follows one particular gentleman; we learn that he’s cynical, tired and happy to clock out as soon as he can.

He mounts a bike and heads home through the dark, snowy countryside.

He is struck by a car on a back road.

At this point the movie jumps back six months and introduces our first viewpoint character: Dino. Dino is bringing his daughter (Serena) to visit her rich boyfriend, despite her embarrassment. He loses no opportunity to attempt a bit of social climbing, and impresses the boyfriend’s father with his tennis skills.

Soon he’s convinced the man to cut him in on some sort of open-secret stock market deal, where high rollers are making big risks and big wins. Dino doesn’t really have the money to play, so he secretly mortgages his house (we learn that his daughter has some legal claim to it, but he lies about having her approval) and borrows a large amount of money for a “business loan.” We also learn that Dino is married (not Serena’s mother), and his wife is pregnant.

The film jumps forward to Christmas. Dino has let his real estate practice dwindle in favor of pursuing his new friends, but now the rich guy barely sees him. They meet again at the fancy party from the beginning, which is an event at the fancy prep school both kids attend. He tries again to ingratiate himself, and he needs to talk business soon, because his loan is due.

He goes to the rich household the next day, thinking they’re playing tennis again, only to find there is a big business meeting, the fund is not doing well, and if he pulls his money out now he’ll lose almost everything.

Another time jump back to summer, and we start following character two: Carla, the boyfriend’s mom.

She is clearly unhappy with her life and her husband, unsatisfied with the fancy trappings of the rich. She talks her husband into funding the revival of a downtown theater, and she leads meetings about this. (Well, she sort of tries. That scene was some biting commentary on both the ineffectiveness of rich people trying to be patrons of the arts and the ineffectiveness of artists.)

Time passes, and around Christmas, her husband tells her that money has gotten tight, and he’s going to sell the theater building for condos instead. She has a minor breakdown in the parking lot of the prep school event, then goes and gamely fakes her way through the beginning of what turns out to be an obnoxious awards dinner.

Her son does not win the big award, and her husband leaves early to fly on business. She goes home alone, invites over the professor she had wanted to run the theater, and has sex with him in a surreal attempt to feel like she’s leading a more fulfilling, more dramatic life than she is.

At this point her son returns home, incredibly drunk, and she demands to know how he got home from the afterparty. He says that Serena drove him, but his car is present, and no one else is there.

Character three is Serena herself, and here is where I started to lose interest with the movie. I was enjoying the interlocking way the scenes played out, and the minutia of these characters’ petty lives. Serena’s life, meanwhile, turns out to be more cliche. We learn that she isn’t actually dating the rich boy anymore, she’s just trying to be friends, although he wants more.

Conveniently, she meets a tortured artist. Luca is a poor kid in mandated therapy after being accused of dealing pot. They meet once, and then again in the winter. They start seeing a lot of each other. She almost ditches the awards event to spent more time with him, but ends up going. She goes back to hang out with him afterward. She gets a phone call late in the night that the rich kid is super drunk, can she come take him home?

She objects, but they’ve already tried his mom and… she relents, and she and Luca go to the party. She fetches the kid, and gets him into her car. Luca offers to drive the kid’s SUV, and speeds off too fast, and…

A new section starts and everything moves forward. Serena gamely lies to the cops about who was driving the rich kid’s SUV. The next day, the cyclist dies in the hospital. Luca is terrified that with a juvenile record, he’ll be in terrible trouble if anyone finds out what happened. The rich kid is freaking out, not because he thinks he hit the guy, although his memory of the night is vague, but because he saw his mom with a guy not his dad. Carla is freaking out because the cops are convinced her son hit the cyclist.

Big old plot hole next: Serena conveniently not only sends incriminating information in an email, she leaves it up on her computer where her dad can see it.

Dino sees a way out of his financial dilemma and sells the information to Carla. Luca is convicted, but Serena promises to wait for him.

The rich family’s insurance settles up with the cyclist’s family. The entire film is leading to this - the idea of judging the worth of a human life in monetary terms. Dino would risk anything for money and status. Carla has money, but no happiness. Luca is at the mercy of the system in a way that Carla’s son isn’t. The cyclist’s family gets a paycheck, but loses their dad.

Cheerful little holiday movie, no?

Marvel Super Hero Adventures: Frost Fight! (2015)

I haven't seen enough recent animated programming from Marvel to know whether or not this 73 minute special is in continuity with Avengers Assembled and the like, but I have seen enough to know I don't care. The last generation of Marvel cartoons - Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, Spectacular Spider-man, and the short-lived Wolverine and the X-Men - was fantastic, but it all got cancelled when Disney took over. While Mickey has been a great overlord for Marvel's comics, movies, and live-action productions, their animated series have been far less impressive.

This bizarre holiday special does not reverse that trend. To be fair, it has an intriguing premise - Santa Claus, re-imagined as a half-elf/half-ice giant who delivers gifts to all the nine realms, is being hunted by Loki, who's trying to steal his powers. In the right hands, this could have been a fun, zany adventure.

But these are not the right hands. It's pretty clear the people making this wanted to produce a holiday special in the vein of He-Man/She-Ra and Inspector Gadget: in short, something so bad it's good. This follows an 80's Christmas special template to a ridiculous degree, and there was clearly some thought poured into getting the mix right.

And, sure. If this had been made in 1987, the sheer absurdity of its existence would make it fantastic. But in 2015, it comes off as a cheap fabrication. You can't force "so bad it's good" - you need to fall into it. You need to set out to make something ambitious and fail your way to a classic. If you try to fake it, as this does, you wind up with something stupid to the core. And no number of gingerbread zombies or B-plots involving Mrs. Claus, Rocket, and Groot flying around space can fix it.

Actually, that was really the C-plot. The B plot focused on Hulk and Thor, inexplicably left behind when Iron Man, Reptil, and Captains America and Marvel went to the land of the "Light Elves" and wandered around candy cane forests. That's right, they dealt with crap in Thor's backyard while he stayed behind to come up with a way to deliver Christmas gifts if the others failed to find Santa.

If you glanced through those character names and wondered "who the hell is Reptil," you likely had something in common with any kid unlucky enough to stumble across this. Reptil is a fairly new, fairly obscure Marvel character who has dinosaur powers. Here, he basically fills in a Spider-Man capacity (i.e.: the young recruit with more heart than good sense) and also adds a smidge of token diversity to the cast (he's Hispanic). I've read a few comics with Reptil, and I recall him being far, FAR more interesting than this.

Same goes for the rest. Captain Marvel's just sort of used for muscle, Iron Man is stuck up, Hulk is infantile, Thor's obtuse, and Captain America just sort of orders everyone around. There's no nuance or depth here whatsoever.

The best characters, by far, were Santa and Mrs. Claus. Santa comes off as a nice mix of Norse influence and the modern incarnation, while his wife is kind of an adventurer. I could have done without the cheesy re-enacting of the asteroid field from Empire Strikes Back (seriously - they aped just about every shot), but - if they were going to do it, I'm glad she was piloting the ship.

I also appreciated that Santa's elves were basically of the Tolkien/D&D variety, and that Santa's powers were actually quite formidable. Oh, and that there were Lovecraftean horrors used by Santa's helpers as guardians - that was cool. But any goodwill they'd otherwise have earned was squandered in dull fight sequences, awful jokes (yes, I know the writers wrote the jokes to be stupid, but this is one case where succeeding does not help you), one-dimensional characters, and cheesy cliches.

This was idiotic and pointless. Worse yet, it's a waste of more than an hour of your time. Skip it, and watch something that was actually made in the 80's. Hell, even the animation will be better.

Misadventures with Bargain Light-Up Miniature Buildings

Today, I'm looking at a pair of bargain light-up miniature buildings I found in drug stores last year. The larger is actually lights up AND plays music, while the smaller, cheaper one just lights up.

Let's start with the large, red thing labeled "Holiday Town." This was a fairly good looking piece (the snow, characters, building, and assorted decorations were all fused together), though it was quite a bit more pricey than the other. If memory serves, I found this at a Bartel, where it had at one point been $20. I'm sure I paid no more than $5 (probably less). Also, if memory serves, this had a fairly interesting light/music set-up.

Note how everything in the last paragraph is written in the past tense.

Every year, I buy crap like this and tell myself I'll take it right home, unbox it, and get my pictures. And every year I wind up shoving it into a box. Hell, I'm not 100% sure I picked this up last February and not the year before.

Did I mention this came with batteries?

Yeah. You know where this is going. When I finally unboxed this and flipped it over, I could see the corrosive damage even before I popped open the case. When what to my wondering eyes should appear...

Yes, those are Lusty brand batteries. And, yes, one of them exploded. Let's move on, because the jokes would just be too easy.

I pulled the batteries, but the connectors looked too badly damaged to salvage. I could have cleaned it and kept the piece as a display without the electronics, but it just didn't seem worth the effort. So I tossed it.

Let's move on tp the "Victoria Falls 5 Piece LED Lighted Porcelain House Set".

I have no doubt that this one would have fared no better had there been batteries inside. Fortunately, the company left those out and used a separate watch battery on a connected wire to power the "Try Me" feature. I'm sure they just did that to save some money, but it's actually a better policy for this kind of seasonal stuff.

The watch battery had long since died, so I popped in the AAA's and fired it up. It's not much to look at - just three small lights on an ugly wire - but it worked. In addition, this set came with four small miniatures: two wire trees, a malformed person, and a bird feeder.

Oh, and these were glued down to the styrofoam insert:

Not a little glue, either - these were cemented in place. Was I supposed to leave them there and display it that way? It took some effort and made a mess, but I did manage to scrape enough of the packaging off to get them to stand, albeit in a wobbly manner:

This started out at three bucks or two-for-five, though I found it at a buck fifty at a Walgreens. It's pretty crappy, but it's hard to quibble at that price. Hell, you can find trees like those going for about that much at craft stores. So... I guess it's a deal. Sure, it's garbage, but it's a good price for garbage.

Still, I feel like it's missing something.

There. Now it feels like Christmas.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Samantha: An American Girl Holiday (2004)

After much whining, I had an American Girl doll as a kid. I did not have Samantha. I had Kirsten, because yes, I read a lot of Little House on the Prairie, and my second choice would have been Molly, because I thought Samantha looked stuck-up.

I believe young me’s choice is somewhat justified by this stultifying mess of a “film.”

Apparently, long after my Kirsten had started collecting dust on my childhood bedroom bookshelves, the company decided to introduce companion dolls for some of their classic dolls, and what better way to sell new toys than with a made-for-TV movie?

The best thing I can say about this is that some of the costuming and sets are decent. Not really Samantha’s, though; those dresses look silly on an actual girl. On to the story.

Samantha is an orphan who lives with her rich grandmother in upstate New York in 1904. She’s feuding with the boy next door and eagerly awaiting the return of her rich uncle who dotes on her when a family joins the next-door household: a father and three young girls. Samantha is excited, even when she finds out that they’re poor and going to be servants. She and the oldest daughter, Nellie, soon become friends and Samantha teaches Nellie to read and write.

Of course this means Nellie gets into trouble a lot because she’s supposed to be working as a maid, not playing around with the neighbors. Blah, blah, we learn to our surprise that poor people are nice! Seriously, the writing in this is painfully on-the-nose. It might be riveting for the six-to-eight set...maybe.

Samantha’s uncle comes home with a new fiancee, and Samantha is jealous in a fairly creepy way. She and the new aunt eventually become friends, and they invite her to come live with them in New York City, but she’s afraid that they don’t really want her around.

Around this time is when there start to be some Sapphic undertones to Samantha and Nellie’s friendship. You don’t have to read it that way, but…

Samantha goes off, and she writes to Nellie a lot. Nellie writes back at first, but then the letters stop in December. Samantha’s uncle finds out that Nellie’s father died and the girls were sent to an orphanage in the city. Check off Christmas trope: filthy Dickensian orphans and corrupt child welfare system.

The aunt is a suffragette and a charity worker, and helps Samantha get into contact with Nellie by throwing money and influence at the problem. Samantha is horrified by the conditions and helps the girls escape from the orphanage. She hides them at her uncle’s house, in an attic where apparently no one goes for weeks at a time. Nellie’s determined to make a life for her sisters, so she goes out looking for work.

Meanwhile, Samantha is given a speaking slot at the Christmas pageant at her rich-kids school for a speech about progressive factories. You know where this is going. When one of the young girls falls ill, Samantha goes to get Nellie at work and witnesses the abusive and dangerous conditions in the factory.

The girls’ hiding place is revealed and the aunt and uncle get medical help for the sister. Samantha changes her Christmas speech at the last minute to be about reforming the factories and protecting the people that work there, and her activist aunt is very proud.

For Christmas, Samantha’s aunt and uncle give her some orphans. (They adopt Nellie and her sisters.) Throwing money at the problem wins again!

This was extremely boring, but only somewhat offensive. It’s a weird artifact, caught between shilling its product and an halfway-genuine attempt at a ham-fisted moral. Incidentally, Nellie is the doll released to coincide with the movie, of course, and at a quick glance, at least some of the other “companion” dolls also taught their friends important social lessons.

If you specifically want a holiday movie where you can spot dresses from the American Girl dress-like-my-doll catalog, I think this is your only choice. If you specifically want a holiday movie about suffragettes and the problem of child labor, I actually have another recommendation for you.

Millions (2004)

What the hell is wrong with America? Annually, we watch movies like National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation or A Christmas Story again and again, as if our sheer, culturally mandated refusal to admit they're crap will somehow elevate them to the status of genuine classic.

Meanwhile, England's been cranking out genuine holiday brilliance at a breakneck pace, and no one here notices. Arthur Christmas, Get Santa, and The Snowman are almost entirely unknown in the US, and they're all incredible. Add Danny Boyle's 2004 surrealist comedy, Millions, to that list - this thing is amazing.

The movie's main character is an eight-year-old who's just lost his mother. His name is Damian, and he's obsessed with Catholic saints. Also, he sees them. Arguably, he merely hallucinates meeting and interacting with them, but I'm not buying that. They seem to have knowledge he lacks, and they're capable of affecting the world in at least minor ways.

He's just moved to a new home with his father and older brother, who's as obsessed with economics as Damian is with saints. It's also worth noting the story unfolds during the lead-up to England changing from the pound to euro; money which isn't converted will soon be worthless.

Since we've already established Americans are idiots, it's worth noting none of this happened. The United Kingdom has not adopted the euro, has no plans to do so, and the majority of the country is against the idea.

In the interest of full disclosure, we first watched this movie before Brexit happened, and I had to check Wikipedia to verify all that. Like I said - we're idiots.

Moving on, Damian is sitting in a cardboard fort talking with a saint when a train rolls by. Suddenly, a gym bag full of money smashes into the fort, partially demolishing it.

Reasoning the money fell out of the sky, Damian shows his brother and starts trying to think of ways to give it to the poor. Meanwhile, his brother tries to think of ways to improve his life. To be fair, many of Damian's solutions backfire. With the help of Saint Nicholas, he anonymously gifts a wad of cash to a household of Mormon missionaries, but they wind up spending it greedily. When he tries dropping a thousand pounds in a donation bin to help build wells in impoverished areas in Africa, he attracts unwanted attention from the school.

But the real unwanted attention comes when a thief who stole the money comes looking for it. He realizes Damian has it almost immediately and breaks into their house looking for it. He doesn't find it, though his actions result in Damian's father discovering the cash. The father enlists the boys and his new girlfriend to help him exchange the money the next day.

The thief doesn't give up, either. When he tries to get the money, he winds up running into the police. Meanwhile, Damian runs off and burns the money. As he does this, he's visited by his mother's spirit.

The synopsis really doesn't do justice to the film, though. Visually, this borrows from things like Fight Club, warping perspective and reality in front of the viewer. It's stunningly shot and directed, and there's a subtle believability to the kids' reactions and emotions. They leverage the death of their mother to evoke guilt in adults, even as they are trying to work through their feelings: this is a nuanced piece.

I do think the ending gets a little bogged down trying to do too much at once. It works to resolve the main character's arc, offer a solid conclusion for the other characters, and also make statements about morality and politics. None of this is bad, but it gets a little overblown in the closing minutes. Still, I'll forgive it for the visuals alone.

The holiday elements take a religious form here. The sun and moon transform into the Star of Bethlehem, and - like many other elements - we're never really told if it's only in Damian's head. There's just enough to establish not everything he sees is a dream, but it's also clear not everything can be real. In addition to Saint Nicholas, we also get to see Joseph offer Damian his thoughts on a Nativity play. There's a biting humor to all of this that's hard to oversell.

In general, I prefer non-Christian elements when it comes to fantasy, but this handles religious aspects so deftly, it pulls itself onto my short list for best Christmas fantasies, Jesus and all.

This was an absolute pleasure to watch. If you're looking for something that skews a little closer to magical realism, this is the holiday movie to track down. It's a Christmas movie - ostensibly a family one - that's closer to Charlie Kaufman than the drivel that's normally associated with the holidays.

Available on

Christmas is CANCELLED

So. Everything is awful.

President Elect Meisterburger has pledged to orchestrate a complete and total shutdown of elves entering the country, and the Winter Warlock is heading up his transition team. Once again, Kris Kringle is public enemy number one.

This is as dark as it gets. As cold and bleak and empty. This is the point in the special some kid's supposed to shed a tear and say Christmas is going to be cancelled.

But that's backwards. Christmas isn't supposed to be bright and sunny - it never was. Christmas thrives in this shit. It was born here, in the darkest season, when it seems like the light's gone for good. For millennia, humans have celebrated in order to spite the darkness. We've come together to drive the cold winter away or, barring that, to get drunk on eggnog and exchange sweaters.

And nothing's going to change that. If President Meisterburger starts a war that leaves the planet a radioactive wasteland, we'll crawl out of our sewer sanctuaries, decorate the ruins of our cities, and make something nice for our mutated neighbors. Hell, Weird Al already has us covered with a jingle - that's how prepared we are.

Whatever the world wants to throw at Christmas, we'll take it, string lights on it, and sell it to desperate last-minute shoppers. And maybe at the end of this, we'll all feel a little better. Or maybe we'll just get to feel crappy together - either is in keeping with holiday tradition.

Hell, maybe if we're really lucky, three ghosts will show President Meisterburger the error of his ways. Assuming he doesn't just sue them.

No matter what, we'll be here, hanging our stockings over the secret entrance to the underground bunker we're installing to hide the elves from President Meisterburger's deportation force. Welcome back to year seven of Mainlining Christmas. No stop-motion despot's going to stop us from enjoying the holidays.

Huh. I never noticed before: he has really tiny hands.