Saturday, December 3, 2016

Supernatural: A Very Supernatural Christmas (2007)

It's always awkward to jump into the middle of a plot-heavy series for a holiday installment. Supernatural is a long-running genre show with a pretty passionate fan base. This is the first time we've seen an episode.

This one's from the third season, and it's packaged as a full special, despite really only being an episode. The producers arranged to start with the old CBS "A Special Presentation" title card as an homage to holiday fare from the 80's. And, naturally, they end with snow falling.

There are a few story lines playing out simultaneously. A monster-of-the-week mystery forms the backbone, while a series of flashbacks to a Christmas Eve when Sam learned the truth about their family's legacy provides some heart.

The episode opens with another flashback, this one just a year prior, showing a man being pulled up the chimney on Christmas Eve while his son watched. A year later, and the situation is repeated in another state, but this time monster-hunting brothers Dean and Sam are present to investigate.

Sam starts building theories, originally wondering if the killer isn't Krampus or some other "anti-Claus" monster. They try a local Christmas theme park and follow a rude Santa home, mistaking him for a monster. After bursting through the door of his trailer, the two brothers found him alone. They started singing carols to explain the intrusion, allowing the producers to slip in yet another staple of holiday classics.

After that fiasco, another murder occurs and sets them on the right path. They discover a pattern: a wreath made from a very rare plant is present in each victim's home. Sam realizes it's used in pagan sacrifices and ties it back to pre-Christian solstice festivals, suggesting the killer is a pagan deity. The brothers are able to track these back to the source: an old couple who are a tad too wholesome to be believed.

Sam and Dean come back at night and break in. In the basement, they find the remains of the sacrifices. But before they can act, the pagan gods capture them. The brothers are taken upstairs and tied up for the ceremony. They're tortured while the couple offers a little backstory: these two are gods who assimilated over the millennia. They still take their sacrifices, but not in anywhere near the volume they once did: now, it's just a handful every year.

Sam and Dean are about to be killed and eaten when the gods are interrupted by a knock on the door - it's a neighbor dropping off fruitcake. This gives the brothers a chance to escape. They make it to the Christmas tree, break off branches, and use these to kill the gods.

Overall, this was good holiday fare, despite being a tad over complicated and under-explained. We're really not given enough of the gods' relationship to Christmas or Santa. The Wikipedia page implies this went through quite a few drafts and that earlier versions were leaning towards just using Krampus as the villain - that probably would have been cleaner. I don't mind surprises, but this felt like more a mangled explanation than a plot twist.

It's evident the producers approached this with lofty ambitions. If there was any doubt, the executive producer gave an interview before it aired where he called it "the most violent Christmas special in the history of television". I think that's a generous appraisal, though some moments in the torture sequence were pretty grisly for network TV.

While I don't think this was quite a dark or quite as groundbreaking as the producers believed it to be (nor quite as well researched - the pagan connections felt slapdash), it was a very enjoyable episode. The show's strength clearly lies in its lead characters, who are refreshingly blue collar (which is in itself rare for this genre). The episode - and I suspect the series - works because of their relationship and dynamic.

And even if it falls a little short of its creators' goals, they poured a lot of effort into including classic holiday elements, and that work shows in the final product. It's not perfect, but it's funny, twisted, and sweet... and it's probably even better if you watch this in the context of the series.

Krampus Custom Action Figure

If you're reading Mainlining Christmas, you likely knew who Krampus was even before he played a major role in a pair of surprisingly great horror movies last year.

I'd love to see decent collectibles from one or both of those movies, but no one's stepped up to produce action figures to date. So I decided to try making my own.

This is a Funko Magic: The Gathering Ajani Goldmane action figure. I picked this up about a year ago when it was on clearance (I want to say I spent six or seven bucks on him, but I really don't remember). I loved the sculpt on the body, but I thought the head was awful. Still, I bought him on a whim, in the off chance I'd think of something to do with him. I'm glad I did - there aren't a lot of action figures out there with triple-jointed legs.

And this head belongs to a build-a-figure Absorbing Man from Hasbro's Marvel Legends line. It's actually one of two heads I have for this character - the other is the one I'd want to use if I ever finish collecting the pieces anyway.

The body required very little work to get it where I wanted it - I just popped off the lion-paws and sculpted on hooves. Other than that, the cape and head had to go, but the rest was fine as is.

Not surprisingly, the head took more work. I sculpted the horns over wire, so they'd hold their shape long enough to dry. Then, I extended the nose and ears and added hair, eyebrows, a goatee, and sideburns.

While I was at it, I sculpted a host of accessories, including switches, icicles, and detachable tongues (more on them in a moment). I also made a whip:

Then it was time to paint. Here's what it looked like when finished:

Those round clasps on his shoulders are buttons I picked up at Jo-Ann Fabrics, by the way. Eventually, I'm hoping to give him a fur cape as well. Other than that, I left the leathery armor as it was - I think it works fine for the character.

I made and sculpted four tongues, only one of which wound up working. But, honestly, that's one more than I really expected. Plus, it's the coolest of the bunch, so no complaints.

The tongue is held in place by a peg which rests on Krampus's chin. Gravity does the rest, and it stays on pretty well.

The whip works great, as do the icicles. I'm having some issues getting the switches to fit in his right hand - his grip is tight, and I'm hesitant to force it and risk damaging the paint.

I did pick up one other accessory. While I was buying those buttons, I came across a miniature lantern at Jo-Ann. I think it's intended for memory books or something, but it's scaled perfectly for six-inch action figures.

Love that effect.

More pictures below, if you're interested!

The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About Christmas! (2012)

This is a special, double-length episode of a show I knew existed (as I often have a vague sense of programming affiliated with PBS) but had never seen. I had the impression it was educational. I’m not sure about that, but it is boring.

It starts off relatively inoffensive, if bland. Nick and Sally are two kids who are friends with the Cat in the Hat, and they arrive at his Christmas party and are promptly put to work as waiters while he sings about how awesome his party is. They think this is awesome. Kids at home: when doing favors for your “friend” is the super-fun part of your relationship, maybe rethink the friendship.

Anyway, all the guests are animals, and a bunch of them are introduced during the song and subsequent party games. These include an annoying young caribou/reindeer, a mouse, a crab, and a bunch of other animals in passing (I wasn’t paying close attention, it didn’t seem important). The guests leave, and the kids offer to help clean up, but the Cat sends them home because it’s Christmas Eve.

The Cat’s flying Thingamajigger drops off the kids, but while it’s stopped, the young reindeer (Ralph) jumps out as well, apparently mistaking a snowy suburban backyard for a frozen northern forest. He’s young and all, but this is when I started to think he might have some serious issues.

This happens ten minutes into an hour-long special, and is the first clue we had that there would actually be a plot.

Ralph has a few dull misadventures stumbling into Sally’s house, where Nick’s family is also visiting for the holiday. The grownups somehow miss the random wildlife, and the kids wonder how they’ll get him home.

The Cat shows up at this point to deliver presents, and offers to take Ralph. He invites the kids to come along, and they jump at it, promising Ralph to see him safely home. At this point both Erin and I sort of winced in confusion. The kids had just been singing two minutes ago how eager they were to be home for Christmas and how much they were worried about being late. The semi-responsible adult who was supposed to be responsible for getting the caribou home in the first place is there, the kids can safely and ethically walk away at this point.

But no, of course they all pile back in the Thingamajigger and sing some more. What follows is the bulk of the special: something goes wrong with the vehicle, they land, meet up with a local animal who attended the party earlier and their family and learn some random animal fact suitable for three-year-olds. The temporary problem is fixed and we rinse and repeat a few times with small variations.

Most of the problem solving is done by the kids (not that there’s much logic to it) and any tedious work is left to gibberish-speaking Thing 1 and Thing 2. Do they live in the trunk of the Thingamajigger? There is something unhealthy going on here.

The dubious educational value of this special is further undercut when Ralph finally gets home, only to be revealed to be a flying reindeer (of course). The kids then get home (apparently their parents aren't worried, even though they were told to be home by dinner and it’s almost time for bed) and there’s some more singing and a recap of the attempt at education.

I was a bit mollified to discover that despite airing on PBS, this is not a PBS production. I actually love good educational children’s programming, but this was just sad. From the title, I had been hoping for at least some kid friendly history of Christmas, or Christmas around the world. Instead I learned that elephants can smell water from “a long way away,” dolphins speak in whistles, and crabs...march to the beach for Christmas? That part didn’t make much sense.

Oh, and cats con other species into doing all the work. I guess that’s basically true.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Ronin (1998)

The number of action movies set at Christmas is staggering. You can add Ronin to the list, though this one is really only a technicality - the holiday elements are faint to the point of being nearly nonexistent. But, for whatever reason, it's established that it's set during Christmas, so we're reviewing it in the interest of being complete.

Ronin might be one of the 90's better action flicks, though that's really not saying much. It's a tense, realistic spy thriller that masquerades as a heist movie. We never get more than a first name for most of the movie's characters, nor do we really get a good sense of their motivations. It's a movie about secrets, so don't expect a great deal of emotional depth.

Set in France, it follows its lead, Sam, played by Robert De Niro. He's a former CIA agent hired by Irish terrorists to work with a group of mercenaries in order to steal a briefcase before it's sold on the black market to the Russian mafia. Despite asking numerous times, Sam's never told what's enclosed, nor are we.

He's joined by Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd, and Sean Bean - a pretty fantastic cast. Also, the movie contains one of cinema's most unexpected plot twists: Sean Bean's character lives.

Ronin includes numerous other twists, as well, but they're more conventional. The team's betrayed from the inside, allegiances are strained, characters are killed... you get the idea. Considered objectively, the plot is impressively complex. That said, the complexity is somewhat wasted given that we're not emotionally invested. I was definitely left with the feeling the plot was better than it had to be.

This only became an issue in the run time. The movie is more than two hours, which is a lot to hang on tone and action alone.

I had one other problem with the movie, though it's a minor one. While most of it maintains a realistic tone, it falters in one or two aspects, utilizing 90's action tropes. First, there's the issue of collateral damage in the form of civilians getting gunned down with little consequence. If that many people were killed in Paris right on Christmas, the city would have been in lock-down. Second, the movie's otherwise amazing car chases are marred by a staple of the decade: jumps. Every time a car crests a hill, it sails into the air to illustrate how fast it's going. This, of course, is done with ramps, not reality. At the time, it would have felt odd to omit the trope; now, it breaks the illusion.

All that said, the movie featured fantastic car chases, great acting, and wonderful atmosphere. It is, to the extent these things can be considered objectively, a very good film.

Let's talk Christmas. The holiday elements are extremely thin. In fact, cut out one line of dialogue and a short scene, and there'd be no reason to think this was set anywhere near Christmas. But a few moments make it abundantly clear this is actually a Christmas movie.

First, there's a brief "What do you want for Christmas" joke, along with a throwaway line about how the characters can't believe they're "working" on this day. All of this is right before they attack the convoy holding the case, an act that results in quite a few deaths (including several bystanders caught in the crossfire). That night, we see Sam navigate his way through a crowd of carolers, including a man dressed as Santa, while emergency vehicles go by in the background.

Obviously, this is juxtaposition (the director more or less says as much in the commentary). No surprise here: that's probably the most common reason for setting these at Christmas.

It's actually a bit unclear whether this sequence takes place on December 25th or a bit before. The line about it being inappropriate that they're working suggests it's Christmas Day, but not necessarily. Likewise, the celebration could have been on Christmas, on Christmas Eve, or a week before. It could even have displayed a Saint Nicholas Day celebration - it's never stated.

Regardless, this occurs around the middle of the movie, and the rest plays out a few days before and after (since so much of the plot revolves around the immediacy of organizations trying to buy and/or steal the case as quickly as possible). Given our stated stance that anything set at the holidays is a holiday movie, Ronin passes on a technicality. Albeit a flimsy one.

Comic Review: NorthStars Volume 1: Welcome to Snowville

NorthStars Volume 1: Welcome to Snowville
Jim Shelley, Haigen Shelley, Anna Liisa Jones, 2016

Premise: Santa’s daughter and the princess of the yetis go on an afternoon adventure to save Christmas.

This sweet comic book from Action Lab Comics is a digital-first release this year, planned to be a gift-ready hardcover next year.

The story isn’t anything more than it appears to be, but it’s a cute, well-done tale. The art is clean and bright and the writing is clever. Some of the little details and tweaks on holiday lore were things I’d never seen before and quite liked.

Holly Claus meets Frostina under parental pressure, but they hit it off immediately. During a quick tour of Santa’s workshop, they run into a goblin who reports (in crayon-drawing speech bubbles representing a language barrier) that Krampus is interfering with the goblins who prepare the Christmas coal.

The girls travel under Snowville to investigate, facing harvest-themed straw men and a snow dragon on the way. The adventure never feels particularly dangerous, but that fits the story and the writing is charming and funny.

Good triumphs, of course, and the girls return to the workshop for a snack. I recommend this little holiday tale for fans of quality all ages media (while not quite as subversive as Action Lab’s most well-known title, Princeless, this is in a similar adventure/humor vein) and kids who like fantasy humor.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Forever Fun: Misfit Christmas and Santa's Christmas Figurine Playsets

One of Christmas's most hallowed traditions is the post-holiday culling of the clearance aisle, when countless toys' and decorations' prices are slashed to absurdly low levels, and bottom-feeders like us swoop in to gather samples of the year's yuletide nature.

This is certainly not the first time Rudolph figures from Forever Fun have wound up on our list. Way back in 2011, I reviewed their massive display, Santa's Musical Sleigh. And, prior to the creation of Mainlining Christmas, I picked up and reviewed Reindeer Games Rudolph (which is probably the best Rudolph action figure I've come across) at The Clearance Bin.

I'm still a little unclear what "Forever Fun" is. They have very little online presence - it looks like they're a subsidiary of something called "Round 2 LLC," but I'm not seeing a lot of info about them, either. I guess they're a model kit company in Indiana which tosses out Christmas toys every December.

I found a couple figurine sets marked way down last year and picked them up. If I'm remembering right, these started out pretty close in price, despite the size difference. I wish I'd kept better notes - I want to say they were between $16 and $20 originally, though I could be off in either direction.

I paid a couple bucks for the small one and maybe four or five for the large (again, apologies for not keeping better notes).

The larger pack, titled "Misfit Christmas," comes with Santa in his throne, Rudolph, the doll, an airplane, a Christmas tree, and a pair of toy gifts with removable lids. In addition, the package advertises a "bonus backdrop" in the form of a fold-out cardboard diorama. It's nothing special, but I will admit the backdrop is better than I'd expected. I'll admit I like the effect created by the fold-out windows. That said, they missed an opportunity to print these two-sided. Why not make this reversible and show the outside?

The smaller pack is called "Santa's Christmas," and it's mostly reuse. The tree and doll make a comeback, and Santa appears to be the same sculpt, only without his chair. The one new addition is the spotted elephant.

It's actually fairly impressive that they got a pose for Santa that works this well on or off of his throne. Keep in mind, the seated Santa isn't removable - he's fixed in place. I guess I can't fault them for the cost-saving measure. It doesn't really impact either's value - it's not like you'd want to display them together, anyway, so it makes no difference they're striking the same pose.

And, just in case there was any confusion, all these poses are permanent. These are figurines, not action figures: there's zero articulation here.

The Christmas trees might be the most interesting (and versatile) parts of the set. The sculpts are identical, though the one in the Misfit Christmas set (that'd be the one on the right in the picture above) has brighter, more detailed paint ops.

The misfit toys come out pretty well, too. They're simple designs and look more like accessories than figurines, but they all stand upright, even the plane.

The sculpt and paint work on Rudolph are decent, if unremarkable. It's a fine figure for a low-rent display.

Lastly, the gifts are fun and have quite a lot of potential use for toy collectors.

The main thing that confuses me about sets like this is who they're made for. These are fairly low-end, as far as figurine sets go. They're a fun addition to a collection, but they're nothing a collector would get excited over. To be fair, that's how they're priced, though I'd hesitate to spend anything more than 25% of suggested retail on them.

Likewise, these really aren't optimized for kids. The boxes specify they're fine for ages 6 and up, but that's already pushing the upper edge of interest in this cartoon (at least for a while). More than that, the lack of articulation makes them less than ideal playthings.

Still, they're fun display pieces, and I can always use a few more options for my nerdtivities and the like. I'm glad I grabbed them, though I'm even gladder I didn't pay more than a fraction of their starting price.


Thursday, December 1, 2016

Meet John Doe (1941)

Even going by our standards, Meet John Doe qualifies as a Christmas movie on something of a technicality. Only the last few minutes actually occur around the holidays, and even then they're almost incidental. However, the movie goes out of its way to tie the season into its premise in order to build something of a heavy-handed metaphor.

I'll cut to the chase: Meet John Doe is a Christmas movie because "John Doe" is Jesus.

Well, sort of. It's slightly more complicated than that, but not as much as I'd have liked. The movie has a relatively strong opening, centering on Barbara Stanwyck's character, Ann. She plays a newspaper columnist who's just been laid off. As her final act, she writes a fake editorial letter written by an average Joe, who's fed up with the way "the little guy" is treated in society. The letter concludes with "Joe" vowing to jump off of City Hall on Christmas Eve.

The letter gets a huge amount of publicity. It also creates some problems for the newspaper, which is suddenly put in the position of having a lot of attention directed towards a fictitious celebrity. Rather than face the consequences of admitting they ran a fake letter, Ann convinces the paper to hire her back to keep up the facade. Realizing they'll need a face to accompany the words, they find an average man to pose for pictures and take credit. That's where Gary Cooper's John Willoughby comes in.

Initially, he's happy to have a little money, but as his popularity increases, he starts getting scared. Meanwhile, Ann's having issues of her own expanding a single angry letter into a fully-developed character. Taking inspiration from her father's diary, she shifts the message to one of hope and community, essentially a spin on "Love thy neighbor."

This exceedingly simplistic message takes off, leading to a nationwide movement of John Doe clubs, a concept encouraged by the shadowy media mogul who owns the paper. Eventually, he makes his move, commanding Ann to write a speech for John to be delivered at a national convention, in which he forms a third political party.

John hears about the plot and tries to fight back, only to be publicly disgraced by the media. He goes into hiding until Christmas Eve, when he appears on top of the City Hall building Ann's letter originally said he'd leap off of in protest. Ann shows up as well, along with a random assortment of other characters. They talk him down, pointing out he doesn't need to die for the John Does of the world, because someone already did that.

Jesus. They mean Jesus. Because it wasn't enough to imply a Christ metaphor the whole movie: they had to come out and say it. So everything's okay for some reason, and he leaves, presumably to marry Ann, build a coalition of John Does, and - I don't know - stage some kind of bloody revolution in which millions die needlessly.

I'm speculating about some of that - it's not entirely clear that he's going to marry Ann, though it is strongly implied.

If the synopsis felt bizarrely convoluted and directionless, then I've done at least a halfway decent job. The one-word description for this was "disappointing." There were several promising starts throughout the film that invariably just fell apart. The first was the most egregious: the opening implies the movie belongs to Ann, not John. She's a far more interesting character, and - for a few minutes, at least - is set up as a brilliant writer whose abilities might exceed her judgment.

But the story pivots to John far too quickly, and she's relegated to being a side character. Before long, she's reduced to the same mess of emotions and desires movies of this era regularly reduce women to. I'd hoped they'd do better with her, but no such luck.

There were quite a few other interesting plot threads that were cut before their time. Briefly, they toyed with the notion John was getting lost in his character, but this didn't really go anywhere. There was even a brief moment of magical realism in the form of a dream/vision, but... it kind of devolved into a monologue about spanking a grown woman.

Don't ask.

The script felt like it was reworked a few too many times, which apparently is precisely what happened. The final result was one that started to ask some interesting questions, only to abandon them for cheap sentimentality and conventional romance. The decision to tack on a happy ending is a great example. I understand it from a business point of view, but it undermines what little premise the movie maintains.

All that said, there was some good character work by the leads and supporting cast, and quite a few jokes worked. Likewise, it was well made from a technical standpoint, but what else would you expect from Frank Capra?

The holiday elements were an unusual mix: they were ostensibly central to the movie's core, yet they were ultimately insignificant. Granted, John Doe represented a modern day Jesus, but - like so much of the movie - this never really paid off. Symbolically, Easter would have been a more appropriate choice.

I suppose it would be possible to argue that this was, on one level, about the birth of John Doe, in that he was more an idea than a man. And, lacking evidence to the contrary, you could even assume Ann's a virgin, tightening the connections more. But there's little reason to think the writers thought this through that far, and if they did the movie's resolution becomes a tad incestuous.

The brief resolution at Christmas Eve did a decent job playing up the alienation of the holidays, but obviously we've seen this done much, much better. Hell, Capra himself would return to the image of a suicidal man threatening to jump to his death on Christmas Eve a few years later in the far superior It's a Wonderful Life.

But It's a Wonderful Life featured a likable, interesting main character, along with a worthwhile story hook. Meet John Doe, while decent enough, really doesn't offer much substance.

My Little Pony Friendship is Magic: A Hearth’s Warming Eve Tail (2016)

 A new season of Friendship is Magic brings a third Christmas Hearth’s Warming episode! I can finally take back some of my criticism of the first one: there is tons of music in this, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable. I demand more pony holiday music!

In this season (season six), much of the plot is about the newest member of the main cast: Starlight Glimmer. As this show has proved several times, there’s plenty of drama in a former villain trying to turn over a new leaf.

In this particular episode, Twilight and friends are excited for Hearth’s Warming Eve, but Starlight is more blase, complaining about… well, not the “commercialism,” but yeah, the commercialism. She says that the holiday is just for presents and candy, and the legend of the founding of Equestria (detailed in the first holiday episode) is just a story for kids.

Determined to share her holiday cheer, Twilight offers to read her “favorite Hearth’s Warming story.” Of course, it’s a pony-fied Christmas Carol. And it’s a ton of fun.

In the story sequence, (also known as Twilight’s imagination) Starlight stands in for “Snowfall Frost,” a cold-hearted practical unicorn who becomes so annoyed with Hearth’s Warming Eve celebrations that she decides to cast a spell to end the holiday. (Which is a little extreme, don’t you think?)

Of course she’s visited by spirits. Applejack appears as the spirit of the past, introducing a sequence in which young Snowfall learns to disdain frivolity in the interest of getting ahead. Her song about the seeds of the present sown in the past is sad and sweet.

Pinkie Pie plays the boisterous spirit of the present, and Rainbow Dash appears as a Cratchit analogue, albeit with friends, not a family or kids. Snowfall begins to doubt her previous position when she sees ponies sharing love and friendship.

But of course we have one more spirit, and there’s only one character who will do. Luna plays the properly scary third spirit, pronouncing a future full of sorrow, strife, and a frozen wasteland. Because as we know from the aforementioned founding of Equestria story, the love of Hearth’s Warming Eve literally keeps freaking magic ice monsters from taking over the world.

Naturally Snowfall panics, but she is able to prevent her spell from completing, and joins the others for a party. Back in Ponyville, Starlight also decides to join in the festivities.

Erin brought up a good point: one way to interpret this episode is that you should pressure your friends to celebrate your holiday, and that’s not really an okay moral. I am of the opinion that Starlight was more shy and self-conscious about her perception that the holiday was for little kids than she was openly opposed to celebrating, and Twilight doesn’t in the end pressure her to come to the party, just ensures that she knows she’s welcome. I can see reading it the other way though.

(A side note: there is one other Christmas reference in this season, as the episode “The Gift of the Maud Pie” takes some plot inspiration from “The Gift of the Magi,” as the title implies. The episode is not in any other way holiday-related.)

Toy Review: Batman Automobilia No. 78: Batman: Arkham Origins Video Game

This is the second die-cast vehicle I've looked at for Mainlining Christmas, the first being the Batman: Noel Batmobile. These are part of an impressively large line of monthly Batman vehicles from Eaglemoss Collectibles. The line represents stories from all forms of media: comics, the campy 1966 series, various animated incarnations of Batman, and (obviously) video games.

While Batman might not be the first character you think of when you hear Christmas music, he's had his share of holiday misadventures, including the 2013 video game, Batman: Arkham Origins. I was a big fan of the game, so I was excited when Eaglemoss produced a toy version of the Batwing.

Let's start with the magazine. In lieu of actual packaging, each of these comes with a magazine. Actually, I'm a little unclear whether the vehicle or the magazine is technically the accessory, but I doubt anyone shells out $20 for the ten page pamphlet.

As always, this include fold-out schematics and some background info on the game and vehicle. I actually have a bone to pick with the company this time around - I couldn't find a single reference to Christmas in the entire magazine, despite it being a major component of the game.

But who cares? The magazine isn't why I bought this.

Eaglemoss did a good job recreating the look of the vehicle, though I don't think they did as good a job as on some of the others.

A lot of that isn't their fault: the design of this Batwing really isn't as inspired as some of the more famous versions (I far prefer the one from the '89 Burton movie, as well as every version used in the Animated Series and its spin-offs). This isn't bad, but the game designers were clearly trying for something more realistic looking. While I can understand the impulse, I'm not sure that's the best starting point for a high-speed jet the main character regularly zip-lines up to as it swerves between high-rise buildings in a major metropolitan area.

As is usually the case, it looks better from some vantage points than others. Actually, the game chose a really bad perspective for most of its shots, making the plane appear lopsided. The toy provides us with a better idea of what they were going for.

There's also an issue of perceived value. Due to the size and shape, it winds up feeling quite a bit less substantial than the Batmobiles, despite occupying more space. The Noel vehicle, in particular, looks a lot more like something I'd feel comfortable paying $20 for than the plane. Here's a side-by-side comparison:

While the dimensions aren't dramatically different, you can see that the car has more heft - it's a larger piece. It also has more components, providing a more textured appearance. To be fair, Eaglemoss didn't have a lot of options here. I'm sure there were limits on shipping size, which already required a bigger case, due to the wingspan.

This  is as good a picture I could pull off of the holographic backing, which I'm pretty sure was lifted directly from the game. It works quite well on the shelf, despite some issues with the waterline. It's probably not obvious if you haven't played the game, but the lights are mainly due to the holidays. There bottom of the stand also alludes to the season: you can seen broken ice on the water surface. Once again, I think this was pulled from the game. While I like the backdrop, I wish they'd either pulled a higher-resolution image for the water or redone it. Something's off in the rendering, almost like it's a digital map of the ocean's floor or something.

I like this, but I do feel like it's one of the weaker entries in the line. The display case and backdrop help justify the price, but when I compare it to similar-sized Batwings from Hotwheels costing less than half as much (above), I can't help but question if it's worth it.

If only they'd talked about Christmas in the magazine, I could recommend it more wholeheartedly. C'est la vie.

I'll close out with one more comparison shot, this one comparing the Batwing to a pair of aquatic vehicles from what I consider the gold-standard of Batmobiles in this size, the Corgi vehicles from about ten years ago. Again, these would have run you $8 to $12 bucks or so at the time.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Christmas in Connecticut (1992)

Arnold Schwarzenegger has starred in dozens of movies, he's been the governor of California, and he is one of the most iconic actors who has ever lived. But, in his entire career, he's only directed one movie: the 1992 made-for-TV remake of Christmas in Connecticut. And how is this film? Well, it feels like it's a made-for-TV movie directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The story was updated to make Elizabeth a TV cook instead of a writer, and the titular Christmas in Connecticut a live televised event orchestrated by her manager. The other lead, played by Kris Kristofferson, is Jefferson, a Colorado Forrest Ranger whose log cabin burned down while he was rescuing a kid lost in a blizzard.

For reasons that are never adequately explained, the manager - who's standing in as Elizabeth's nonexistent husband - invites Jefferson to come early, so they can get to know him prior to the special. This is particularly confusing, as the manager's primary motivation is to cajole Elizabeth into sleeping with him.

It's much, much creepier than it sounds. For one, he's significantly older than she is, and his attempts to pressure her into bed are horrifically forceful. It comes across as if he's trying to manipulate her into a position where he can assault her. And, in case there was any doubt, these scenes are played for laughs.

None of this make sense, of course. Jefferson is there for the money - the network's promised him twenty-five thousand dollars if he'll do the special, so there's no logical reason to lie to him about the fact Elizabeth's TV persona is fictitious. Likewise, they "cast" non-actors for most of her family members in order to create more zany shenanigans. If the results had been funny, I'd be more willing to suspend my disbelief.

The only scene that had any laughs was the culmination of this madness, when Elizabeth decides to come clean on the air. It was still painful to watch, but they took everything just far enough to have a few jokes land.

Overall, it's an awful movie. Despite having worked with genius directors, it's clear Schwarzenegger has no idea what he's doing. There's no connective tissue or arc - it's basically a series of disjointed sequences that ends when the viewer's hour and a half sentence has been served. The characters' motivations are loosely concocted, and very little is believable. The movie works in homages to the original, of course, but these are pale imitations.

This a bizarre production whose very existence is hard to fathom. Why did Schwarzenegger think he could pull this off? Why was it produced in the first place? I didn't love the original Christmas in Connecticut, but it was a decent film. If they couldn't do it justice, they shouldn't have wasted everyone's time.

My Little Pony Friendship is Magic: Hearthbreakers (2015)

Whoo! Another holiday episode! (The first one was Hearth’s Warming Eve.) This is one of the first times (if not the first) we’ve seen a repeat of an ‘analogue’ holiday. Lots of shows set on Earth have a Christmas episode every year, but fantasy shows that make up their own stand-in holidays tend to just have one-off episodes.

It also deals with an issue that is completely appropriate for a kid’s show, but I don’t see all that often. It’s about how different families celebrate the same holiday. Not how some families celebrate holiday A and some celebrate holiday B - that’s all over children’s television. Rather this episode explores how even when we celebrate the “same thing,” our traditions can be completely different.

Applejack and her family (Granny Smith, Big Macintosh, and Apple Bloom) have been invited to spend Hearth’s Warming Eve with Pinkie Pie and her family. Pinkie is sure it’s a match made in heaven, the Apples are excited and looking forward to the holiday, and everything is great… until they get there.

Even if you haven’t seen much MLP:FIM, you might know that Pinkie Pie is the zany, party-loving, occasionally-fourth-wall-breaking character. If you haven’t seen a few specific episodes, though, you might NOT know that she grew up on a rock farm, and her family is a bit eccentric, even by Ponyville standards. Her parents are basically Amish, and the whole clan is obsessed with rocks.

I love that we get another episode with Pinkie’s awesome sister Maud (she’s home from her doctorate program in rock science for the holiday), along with the first real appearance of her other sisters Marble and Limestone, and their parents Cloudy Quartz and Igneous Rock.

The problems start with the clash of traditions right away. The Apple family holiday sounds a lot like an old-fashioned Christmas, but for the Pie family, the ‘special Hearth’s Warming Eve dinner’ is stone soup. The dolls they set by the fire, rather than the heirloom plush the Apple family uses, are chipped out of stone. They do a scavenger hunt for the gift exchange, and don’t use any of the decorations that the Apples are used to.

Applejack, upset that everything is uncomfortable for her and her family, tries to give the Pies a “traditional” Hearth’s Warming Eve. But she damages a piece of their farm that looked pointless, but was actually a big part of their history, and generally makes the Pie family as uncomfortable as the Apples had been.

The Apple clan leaves under a cloud, but Applejack realizes how she’d missed what was interesting and important about the Pie family traditions because she'd been so hung up on the Apple traditions being ‘better’. She brings them all back to the Pie farm to help clean up and for another chance for both families to learn about each other on a more even footing.

It was a fun episode, and really heartwarming, as well as Hearth’s Warming.

The Andy Griffith Show: The Christmas Story (1960)

Assuming Wikipedia isn't lying to me, this is the only Christmas episode of The Andy Griffith Show, a 1960's sitcom about a sheriff in a small American town.

I honestly don't know whether this is the first time I've seen an episode of this show - I can't recall ever having watched it, but it feels oddly familiar. That could easily be due to decades of parody and homage, however.

This one starts with Andy and his deputy, Barney (Don Knotts), opening Christmas cards and getting ready for Andy's aunt's Christmas party. Barney points out he won't be able to attend, since one of them will need to stay behind and watch the prisoners. Andy, however, reasons the sheriff's station is really like a school, so the prisoners should get out for Christmas. He sets them free, and they run off.

Surprisingly, the episode is not about the consequences of releasing all the prisoners.

Before Andy and Barney can go, Ben Weaver (who I gather is a recurring character) comes in dragging Sam, who he accuses of brewing moonshine. Because Ben owns the department store, he wants Sam locked up as a warning to others who might try and make their own alcohol instead of purchasing it from him. Andy pushes back, but Ben threatens to make trouble with the state.

Rather than keep Sam away from his family on Christmas, Andy arrests Sam's family on a charge of abetting the crime. Andy then deputizes his own family to excuse their presence in the station.

The real plot line, surprisingly, follows Ben. At first, he's angry that the sheriff's essentially throwing a Christmas party for Sam, but as soon as he sees the food and hears them sing, he starts committing minor crimes. Each time, he almost gets arrested, but is saved when Andy's girlfriend pleads his case. Eventually, Andy realizes that Ben wants to be arrested, so he can join in the party. On their way to the jail, Ben picks up presents from his store, which he distributes under the pretense he grabbed them by mistake.

Over the course of the party, Ben drinks the moonshine and falls asleep happy in his cell. Since there's no more evidence, Andy sends Sam and his family home.

The story line, thin as it is, is of course a pretty straight-forward Scrooge motif, albeit one that transitions in the course of just a few seconds. As such, the episode hinges on Ben pivoting from a hateful curmudgeon to a sad, pitiful old man, and the actor actually pulls off the feat. Likewise, the rest of the cast come off as good-natured and bumbling, and the editing - aided by some good music choices - sells the concept. There's really no substance here, but it makes up for it in charm. I didn't find this especially funny, but I still found it enjoyable to sit through: that's better than I'd have expected from this era of television.

I probably shouldn't be so surprised - The Andy Griffith Show is well regarded. All that said, child actor playing Opie would grow up to direct the abysmal live-action Grinch. Granted, we're talking about Academy Award winner Ron Howard, but I really think The Grinch was bad enough to have overshadowed the rest of his career.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Animaniacs: The Christmas Tree (1998)

"The Christmas Tree" opened the third-to-last episode of the series. They tacked on the holiday opening, featuring snow over the credits, too, before starting the story. It doesn't run the full thirty minutes, but it takes up about 2/3rds of the half hour slot.

The other shorts included a Katie KaBoom bit about her negotiating the rules for going to the prom and a Deadline short built around Chicken Boo. The Deadline bit was fun, if a bit repetitive, but I've never really been a fan of the Katie KaBoom shorts. But neither of these are Christmas themed, so I've got nothing more to say about them.

Back to "The Christmas Tree." The story opens in a snowy forest with a giant pine tree being cut down by lumberjacks. There's a touch of toonish absurdity to the whole thing, but there's also a bit of sincerity in the holiday music and the expressions on the lumberjacks' faces. They hop in their truck and drive off, heading for New York, where...

...Actually, let's pause a minute. Animaniacs has done some great holiday bits over the years, but I'm pretty sure this is my favorite, barring the musical parodies. Unlike the musical parodies, this really makes use of some clever plot twists, so if you like the Animaniacs but have never seen this one before, maybe it's a good time to apply the breaks. Go find it streaming somewhere, watch, and come back. Or, you know, ignore this warning and get spoiled. Your call.

After a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sight gag where the Statue of Liberty is shown with a Santa-make-over, the tree goes up in  Rockefeller Center  Rocky Fellow Center (yeah, I didn't think that one was funny, either).

The decorations go up, carolers start singing, and the news covers the annual lighting ceremony.

Just about the time we were trying to figure out where this was going, the camera zoomed in on the tree to review a window. Inside, still in bed, is the protagonist of this particular story: Slappy Squirrel.

Slappy, if you need a refresher, is the bitter, elderly Hollywood cartoon star who's through taking anyone's crap. She's one of the show's more consistently funny characters.

Having slept through her tree being cut down and relocated, Slappy is initially woken by her alarm clock. It's snack time, and she wants to grab a handful of the nuts she hid for the winter.

She actually doesn't realize she's not in her forest yet. Instead, she wanders out in a stupor and causes a great deal of property damage Also, she gives the animators a chance to sneak some suggestive visuals past the censors (see the picture on the right - I'm sure the posing was accidental).

When she gets back her nephew, Skippy, wakes up complaining that he can't get any sleep due to the noise and light. Slappy declares a one-squirrel war on Christmas in New York, still without realizing she's in New York.

The city fights back, first with animal control, then with something far more sinister: lawyers. Eventually, Slappy learns what's happened and comes up with a solution: they return her tree to the forest, and everyone can be happy. When the CEO at Rocky Fellow Center refuses, she airlifts his house into the middle of Times Square to teach him better.

He surrenders, and she makes a deal so her tree gets returned, but the Center gets a replacement: the WB water tower. The episode closes with the Warners poking their heads out to complain about the noise and lights.

It's hard to say for certain, but I'm pretty sure this is my favorite Slappy the Squirrel bit. I also love the twist - they left her off the opening title card and skipped her theme song, so you don't know she's starring until she shows up a few minutes in. The jokes, both visual and script-based, are hilarious throughout. Meanwhile, the holiday elements permeate the setting and music and contrast well with Slappy's unapologetically violent nature.

I hope you took my advice and tracked this down before (or even instead of) reading this review. If you didn't, there are still enough great moments to justify watching it, even knowing where it's going.

As of posting, Animaniacs is streaming on Netflix.

Shirobako: The Little Key Frames Girl, Exodus Christmas! (2015)

I love running across unexpected Christmas!

Shirobako is a series following a group of young women who are trying to start careers in the anime industry. The main character is Miyamori Aoi, who works as a production assistant at Musashino Animation.

The series has a slow start and a huge cast of characters, but I like how well it portrays the tension between wanting to work in an artistic field and the reality of trying to make that happen. It’s also really fun to see how many people it takes to make an anime series.

“The Little Key Frames Girl” is the eleventh episode of the series.

Over the first twelve episodes, the company Aoi works for produces an anime called Exodus, and at this point she’s in charge of making sure the final episode is completed on time. She needs animators to work on the most difficult key frames for the final climax, but everyone she calls is busy, and she’s running out of contacts.

She starts walking through the city, and I suddenly realized that it was Christmas. Decorations in the streets and windows, snow in the air. Aoi realizes it as well, and indulges in a humorous daydream sequence in which she tries to give away key frame assignments while barefoot in the snow, a la The Little Match Girl.

The fantasy continues to her peering into the windows of big important animation studios, seeing famous anime characters (pixelated against copyright claims, even though it’s an anime about anime) cheerfully completing animation.

The next episode, “Exodus Christmas!” continues the Christmas season and the rush to finish the final episode.

Aoi finds out that their senior animator, who’d been relegated to working on children’s projects, may be able to do the difficult sequence. The entire team pulls together to finish the episode just in time for air.

Something I really loved about this was the way Christmas was present in the background, but only mentioned vaguely by the characters. That’s partially because they are in Japan, and Christmas isn’t so all-encompassing there. But it is also partially because when you work in the entertainment industry, the work comes first to a ridiculous degree. Believe me.

I thought the episode did a good job of portraying both the challenges of that mindset (people sleeping in the office and running themselves ragged) and the triumph when you succeed in creating something that you’re truly proud of.

Their final episode delivered, the crew at Musashino break for the holidays, and the next episode picks up in the new year.

As of posting, Shirobako is available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Toy Review: Schleich Peanuts: A Charlie Brown Christmas

Schleich is probably best known as the main company that makes Smurf figurines, but they've also got a handful of other licenses, including Peanuts. I'm extremely torn on what to think of the company: on one hand, they produce high quality figures, but their prices feel somewhat extravagant in today's market.

This is as good an example as any. This set of three figures (or two figures and a doghouse accessory, depending on how you want to look at it) started out at $20. Given that these are about two inches tall, $6.50+ feels a little excessive for a figure that small. Hell, I picked up similar toys in minimalist packaging a few years ago for just $3 each. Of course, those weren't made by Schleich.

The main thing you're paying for here is the brand name and quality it implies. And, for what it's worth, these are pretty high-quality figures. The packaging assures us they're appropriate for kids over 3, which implies a level of faith in their construction.

That said, anyone who's every seen a Schleich figure that's been played with for any amount of time knows these can pick up battle scars (as can all toys, really). They're sturdy, but they're not indestructible, which makes me question the wisdom of buying them in the first place. There are, after all, much cheaper options for Peanuts toys, if you're not too concerned with their ability to withstand kids.

But don't these look better? Well, yes and no: from one angle, they're superior to most of Schleich's competition. But not exceptionally so. Here's a picture of a Snoopy produced as a movie tie-in, alongside the one from this set:

The one on the left (i.e.: the one not wearing a hat) is the cheaper movie one, and his far larger dog house is holding up the one from this set. The Schleich figure is definitely nicer (not to mention sturdier), but the cheaper one came with the massive house, Woodstock in a nest, and a bowl full of bones for something like $6... less than a third what this set ran.

And there's more. Flip the Schleich figures over, and you're treated to raised text providing details on the figures and their origins. I'm a strong believer this stuff needs to be better hidden than this.

We're not done yet, either: let's talk scale and design. Individually, these look fine (from the front, at least), but they're not remotely in scale with each other. Specifically, Snoopy is about 30% larger than he should be, relative to Charlie Brown. The doghouse is arguably about right compared to Chuck - it changes size (and color) in the special, but at least one image matches up pretty close.

Likewise, the figures aren't quite screen accurate in their depictions. To be fair, I'm about to nitpick, but I feel like the price point and style justify that.

The outfit on Charlie Brown is correct, or at least close enough to make me happy. The tree he's holding has an error, though. Specifically, the ornament shouldn't be present. Again, I realize this is pretty insignificant, but it bothers me. In the special, Charlie Brown had already set down the Christmas tree when he placed the ornament on it, at which point it drooped over, causing him to lose hope. Showing him clutching the tree with the ornament messes up this fairly iconic moment. Again, it's minor, but it feels like the kind of thing that should be exact.

Snoopy's hat is a bit weird, too. I don't believe he ever wore it in the special, though I've seen it on art connected to it. Sure, there's an argument that art is what these toys are trying to recreate, but if so they should have had the tree separate and corrected the decorations on Snoopy's house - at the end, it contained far more lights and ornaments, due to his contest victory.

And again, there's that scale thing. He's way too big.

These are minor issues that don't impact the value of the individual figures, only the set as a whole. But given the price point on this, shouldn't we expect them to get these details right?

Of course, I didn't pay the full $20 - I waited until these were clearanced for $7 and picked one up. At at little more than $2 each, I can stomach the imperfections. But maybe if they'd done a better job, this wouldn't have lingered in the clearance rack so long.