Saturday, December 10, 2016

Santa Claws (2014)

While Santa Claws wasn't intended to be confused with the 1996 horror movie with the same name, it was almost certainly intended to be confused with the direct-to-DVD Santa Paws movies. This was produced by "The Asylum," the low-budget production company that produces cheap knock-offs of big-budget pictures and pushes them onto the market early and often. They're also responsible for the Sharknado franchise (which gets name-checked in Santa Claws).

This is a difficult movie to approach. While it was one of the most boring, pointless productions we've ever had the misfortune of sitting through, it did include a sequence where someone had to shove an EpiPen into Santa's chest to save him from a peanut allergy. While this scene wasn't good, it was certainly a unique moment in Christmas entertainment.

It wasn't entirely alone - the movie offered a couple more shots or jokes that implied a subversive streak in the producers. But saying these were few and far between is an understatement: I counted four, most of which were blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments (including one where we had to rewind the movie to verify that, yes, a present was incinerated by rockets).

But I'm getting ahead of myself - let's synopsize.

This opens on Christmas Eve with Santa dropping off a gift at the house of Julia, who owns two cats. Similar to the movies it's ripping off, these are talking animals, but don't expect the same production values. Keep in mind, the effects in The Search for Santa Paws were already of the bargain basement variety; this time, they're several steps below what you expect from Youtube videos. The mouths are horrifically malformed, to the point I can't tell if it's incompetence or some failed attempt at subversion. Either way, you're rarely subjected to it: more often than not, the camera focuses on something other than the speaking animal to save money.

At any rate, it turns out Santa is horribly allergic to cats, leading him to sneeze uncontrollably, fall over, and break Julia's present. In the process, he's seen by her and her next door neighbor, Marcus Bramble.

Jump ahead thirty years.

Presumably, the two cats we just met are long dead, and Julia's now a single mother raising her son, Tommy, in the house she grew up in. Marcus still lives next door, and he's obsessed with Christmas and Santa. Julia, however, refuses to let Tommy observe the holiday, and she insists Santa doesn't exist.

Oh, there are more cats: a mother and three kittens. After a tedious series of mishaps, Julia decrees that they can't afford to keep the kittens. Tommy, in an act of defiance, sneaks in a small Christmas tree in the hopes of sending the three kittens with Santa instead of offering them for adoption locally.

Normally, I'd say this makes more sense in the context of the movie, but not this time. This thing was rife with non sequiturs and random twists. Characters would vanish or appear for scenes without explanation, and no one's motivation made a damn bit of sense.

Anyway, Tommy leaves Santa a box of kittens and a note, which he takes up to the roof before realizing what's enclosed. When he does, he sneezes uncontrollably, falls off the roof, and is knocked unconscious. The reindeer explain to the kittens that they'll have to fill in, and they take off in the sleigh after an interactive tutorial which may or may not be a live feed to an elf at the North Poll (both interpretations are contradicted by the movie).

While they're delivering gifts all over the world (and escaping a psychotic child who wants to play dress-up with the kittens), Tommy rolls Santa inside and works on reviving him. Marcus, meanwhile, battles with the kittens' mother for some unexplained reason.

Once Santa's awake, Julia finds him and freaks out. He uses magic to prove he's the real Santa and psychoanalyzes her hatred of the holidays. Turns out, after she saw Santa as a child, no one would believe her. This led her to hate Christmas and deny the truth to her son. Marcus, however, endured the bullying, because he was stronger, so Julia resented him, as well.

Oh, good. For a moment I was worried we were going to get through this without any sexism.

Backstory explained, all her problems are solved. And Marcus, he puts on Santa's hat and realizes the true meaning of Christmas is saving the stupid kittens who are now running on a sheet that the filmmakers really want us to the believe is a snowbank.

Oh yeah - they crashed when they were almost through delivering the gifts.

Marcus manages to hack into Santa's sleigh and help the kittens activate the back-up rockets, which get them back. Everyone's reunited, and the remaining plot points are solved or forgotten.

It's difficult to convey how little effort was put into this, outside of the aforementioned handful of bizarre moments. The writing was astonishingly lazy, and the actors weren't trying, either. It was crappy film-making at its crappiest.

But occasionally - just for a moment - that "so bad it's good" magic tried to break through. I kept wanting them to bottle that sense of the bizarre and run with it, make that the tone of the movie. There were trace elements of B-horror weirdness interspersed here and there.

But they were never more than that. Whatever momentary flash of interest they'd inspired fizzled just as fast, and we were thrown back into an abyss of boring stupidity.

Music Review: Solitudes Christmas Albums

I got a full-time job as an editor this year, which means that I often want to listen to music without words. This has lead me to many soundtracks and atmospheric albums, and eventually to rediscovering Solitudes.

Solitudes are a lengthy series of albums that mostly combine new-age-ish instrumentals with recordings of wildlife and natural soundscapes. The series was created by Canadian Dan Gibson, who created new techniques and equipment to improve wildlife sound recording.

I had a compilation in the 90s (Favorite Selections), but I’d forgotten all about it until recently. I think they make great background music for office work, particularly if, like me, you’d rather be out in the woods than in a cubicle.

And there are Christmas albums! Here are three you can easily access on Amazon (or YouTube. Seriously, there are a ton of quality long instrumental tracks on YouTube).

Christmas Wonder (1996 CD)

Overall this is my favorite of these three. The songs often evoke a melancholy frost or, yes, a sense of wonder. Many of the songs are slow or a bit of minor counterpoint is added.

The first track (Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence) is particularly lovely. It starts slowly with wind, a few birds, some chimes, then a single flute. Some synth supports it eventually, I don’t mind synth, and it closes with an ominous church bell.

Later in the album, a striking version of In the Bleak Midwinter is appropriately accented with wind and crows. I Wonder as I Wander over the sound of waves is another particularly nice track.

Some tracks are a bit more up-tempo (Joy to the World trips along with a driving beat and sprightly sleigh bells, much like the track on Christmas in the Country below) and many feature a flute or trumpet on the melody line.

Other highlights: If you listen to the album straight through, you’ll notice two short tracks. Patapan is teased twice before it’s played in full. I also really like the small touch of adding some minor chords that gives a bit more color and mystery to Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

Christmas in the Country (1994 CD)

This album is on-average more straightforward - carols plus nature sounds. It’s pleasant, but not quite as inventive as Christmas Wonder. One exception is Good King Wenceslas, which is a bouncy version that sounds like a sleigh ride (kids voices and horse hooves come and go, and a some rather loud jingle bells play throughout). This isn’t as good for background music, but it’s a fun spin.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is a nice version with some new age counterpoint added. There’s actually a vocal line (just singing La la da) on Away in a Manager, which is unusual for this album. Upon a Midnight Clear makes good use of some calling nightbird - possibly a loon?

A Celtic Christmas Story (1998 CD)

This album is a bit odd for me. I own and listen to so much Celtic Christmas music already that this just sort of blends in, except sometimes there are birds. I have actually looked up while listening to this album, assuming that the birds were real, because they seem less connected to the music than on other albums.

Don’t misunderstand me, these are fine Celtic-instrumental versions of Christmas carols, although several of them seem to repeat verses without much variation in the music, which can get tedious.
The last part of Ding Dong Merrily on High is fairly fun, but the song is too long. I do quite like the version of What Child Is This: the melody rides a distant flute while strings and percussion play counterpoint.

ThinkGeek Build On Brick Holiday Wreath

Ah, the magic of Cyber Monday. I've been wanting to get my hands on one of these for a year now, but the $20 price tag was more than I wanted to pay for something I knew almost nothing about. But then Cyber Monday rolled around, and ThinkGeek marked it down to $5, with free shipping to boot. That price point was more palatable, so I placed an order and waited for it to arrive. And now that it's here, I'm really, really happy I didn't pay $20 for it.

That feeling is the true magic of Cyber Monday.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The concept behind this is pretty fun: it's a building-block wreath intended to be used with other building blocks (i.e.: LEGO's). You can snap the wreath together, make LEGO decorations, and create your own masterpiece.

I really had no idea what to expect from this in terms of size or complexity. The box measures about six inches squared, but the wreath comes disassembled. Once it's complete, it has a diameter of about eleven inches (thirteen if you measure to the bottom of the bow). The box didn't contain instructions, but it was easy enough to figure out - there were only fourteen pieces total.

Visually, I like the design. In particular, the bow looks really good. The whole thing has a nice 8-bit vibe that's certainly fun.

But while it looks good, this is, of course, a LEGO knock-off. For those of you who don't have a lot of experience with Kre-O, Mega Bloks, and the dreaded Best-Lock, that means you're not getting the same quality you'd expect with the originator of the modern building block.

And, in this case, it means you're getting something that isn't remotely structurally sound. Remember when I said there were fourteen pieces? That means there's really nothing locking the whole thing together, other than four bricks that go on the back.

If you want this to hold at all, you're going to need bracing pieces in the front. Even then, it's going to be extremely flimsy: put too much pressure on the front and the whole thing will fall apart.

That's not the end of the world. With a little patience, you can get this to work. And at $5, it's not a bad deal. But I'd feel kind of foolish if I'd paid full retail for something this shoddy.

Here's a look at the wreath decked out with a handful of LEGO's and Kre-O (don't judge me - they were cheap) I tossed on. It's worth noting that you'll want to get creative with minifigures: they'll stay on well enough, but you may need to put in some effort to find a way to make them make sense, given the fact the wreath isn't oriented correctly for them.

It's a fun product, but I'd recommend holding out for another sale, assuming ThinkGeek bothers restocking them.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Night Before (2015)

For those of you trying to place this, it's the mid-budget, raunchy, R-rated Christmas comedy you skipped last year. Most years offer at least one such movie, and they have a tendency to blend together.

This stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, and Anthony Mackie as Ethan, Isaac, and Chris, three friends who have been spending Christmas Eve together for years, ever since Ethan's parents were killed right before the holidays. Now that they're older, Isaac and Chris feel like they've gotten too old for the traditional pub crawl. Before the movie opens, they've already made it clear that this is going to be the last year, though the other two doubt Ethan, who's accomplished very little in his life, is comfortable with this.

To the movie's credit, Ethan is a little more complex than that. While he's not entirely prepared to move on with his life, he's not oblivious to where the others are coming from. Besides, they've got problems of their own: Isaac is terrified by the impending birth of his first child, and Chris is a famous football player whose career is dependent on steroid use.

Making matters more complex is "The Nutcracker Ball," a legendary annual party they've spent years searching for but never located... until this year, when Ethan stole three tickets while working as a coat check (an action which - and this is to the movie's credit, mind you - has no consequences).

If this premise sounds complex, keep in mind we haven't touched on Isaac being given a box of drugs by his wife, Ethan's recent break-up, and a host of other details sprinkled in. When the movie gets going, it juggles all of this nicely, but it does make the first thirty minutes of setup somewhat trying.

I'm going to gloss over most of that to cut to the movie's best two characters. Rebecca, played by Ilana Glazer, shows up claiming to be a fan of Chris's. She seduces him and steals $100 worth of marijuana. Soon after, we discover she views herself as something of a Christmas villain, inspired by everything from the Grinch to the Wet Bandits and - most reverently - Hans Gruber. It's difficult to convey how bizarre and fascinating this character felt. When she successfully outruns Chris, you don't even doubt it. He's just a professional athlete; she's superhuman.

We never get that verified, incidentally. She delivers some needed words of wisdom to Chris and disappears from the plot. The movie's less cagey about its other mystic, Mr. Green, played by Michael Shannon. He's a drug dealer the three protagonists knew since high school. They call on his services to get weed for the party (one of Chris's teammates, also going, asks him to bring some). It's fairly obvious from the get-go that there's more going on with him than meets the eye. His marijuana comes in three strains: present, future, and past, and the latter two have the expected result. He's also the one running The Nutcracker Ball, a fact pretty clearly broadcast to the audience early on (though the characters miss it).

Towards the end of the movie, after the main characters take off in his car, he tells the audience he finally feels like he deserves his wings, which unfold from his back as he flies into the sky. Then, he makes another appearance in a somewhat random epilogue in Santa's workshop where it's revealed he's Santa's son. These two moments really don't fit together - I'd have preferred if Rebecca had gotten one of these scenes (either, to be honest). I loved both characters, but it felt like he was slightly overused, while she was dropped a bit too soon. Making her the daughter of Santa would have helped (plus, it would have given us a great explanation for her irritation with the holidays).

There was a lot more to this movie - I liked that the three characters were each given one (and only one) interaction with Mr. Green, where they each confronted the element that was haunting them: Chris needed to come to terms with his present, Isaac with his fear of the future, and Ethan had to move beyond his past. It was a clever spin on A Christmas Carol, albeit one that could have benefited from more depth.

The characters were funny, but none of them were believable. Isaac's issues were magnified to the point of absurdity, while Chris's celebrity status and steroid use were forced and underwritten. Ethan came closest to feeling like a rounded character, but his issues never came off as especially complicated. His biggest mistake was losing his girlfriend because he refused to meet her parents. By the end of the movie, he'd grown enough to meet them and therefore win her back. Drama, this is not.

But, in fairness, this isn't supposed to be a drama: it's a comedy. And, it's fairly good at that - the jokes are generally funny, the leads do good work, and it offers quite a few twists. Plus, you get the requisite rapid-fire of cameos and bit parts from famous comedians, actors, and more, including a pretty fantastic sequence where Miley Cyrus plays an exaggerated version of herself.

In some sub-genres, that would be enough. The thing is, there are a lot of Christmas comedies out there. And while this easily lands in the seventy-fifth percentile (hell, it might be in the ninetieth), that's not really sufficient. It's missing a core point, a justification for existing. It could be a meaningful theme, relatable characters, or a fulfilling allegory - anything you could point to and plausibly claim it does better than what's already out there.

But as good as Mr. Green and Rebecca are, they don't make the movie resonate. There's a lot going on in this thing, and there were plenty of cool ideas. I wish they'd spent a little more time developing one or two of them into something that packed some sort of emotional punch. Make a short list of the great Christmas comedies, and you'll find they pull that off. This might be as funny as Bad Santa (well, it's at least in the same league), but it's nowhere near as adept at storytelling.

All that said, if you're a fan of comedy, this is great for a laugh. Just don't expect it to become one of your favorites.

Available on Amazon.

Book Review: A Big Sky Christmas

A Big Sky Christmas
William W. Johnstone* and J.A. Johnstone, 2013

(Note: Many of the Christmas books I am reading this year have one notable thing in common -- they were all cheap or free on Kindle some time in the last few years. No other qualifications.)

*As I discovered at the end of the book, this was one of many books written from notes/unfinished manuscripts by another after this author’s death.

Premise: Famous frontiersman Jamie McCallister hadn’t intended to get involved, but someone had to get the pilgrims to Montana by Christmas.

I told Erin I read a Western. I said it was boring. He said, “Yup, then it’s a Western.”

This book wasn’t terribly written, I guess, but I found it quite dull. All the characters are either good or evil. All the evil characters end up dead, mostly after surprisingly short, not-very-tense action scenes. All the obvious plot hooks are followed up with almost no surprises.

It must be odd, to write a Western today. If someone’s just writing a straight Western, I wonder how many are caught in the weird space like this one -- the language and philosophy has to be somewhat dated or you’ll never make it through a plot with a bunch of characters going out to “settle” land where people live. But it can’t be too dated - you need a female character with spark (but she’s still a good girl, just an adventure-seeker) and some supporting characters who are Native American and Jewish, so that the white male main characters can prove how open-minded they are.

As I said, all the characters who are straight-up villains turn up one after another to be killed by the unstoppable skills of the main character. None of these characters seem to have any motive other than “be a one-note villain.” All the characters who are more just nasty (bigoted, sexist) end up dead as well, but by other hands. Technically we don’t know whether all the Native people who end up dead after fighting with the characters were villains, because unlike the white villains, they didn’t get any point-of-view passages.

I started reading faster and faster in the middle, as I realized that I didn’t really care whether any of the characters lived or died, or got where they were going. I did make it to the end, though, so I can report that the wagon train is saved from a fire by a Christmas Eve snowstorm. Also, earlier there’s a bit where a Jewish rabbi and a Cheyenne medicine man understand each other sort of because religion is magic.

Again, it’s not bad on a technical writing level, but it was really, REALLY not for me.

1 Star - Didn’t Like It.

The Holiday (2006)

The Holiday tells the heart-wrenching story of unrequited love, specifically that between the producers of this movie and the film, Love Actually. You see, the people who made The Holiday watched Love Actually, loving its success from afar for three long years. But The Holiday's producers were American, largely based in California, a world apart from the English production they so desired.

The Holiday is an allegory for this passionate love, told with two crossing stories centered on women who trade homes - one in Los Angeles and the other in the English countryside.

"Why only two?" you might ask. After all, Love Actually juggled nine tales of romance. Presumably the people behind The Holiday partially understood their limitations and decided to aim for something more manageable. Unfortunately, two-ninths still proved an overly-ambitious goal. The worst sections of Love Actually still manage to deliver escapist romance that's orders of magnitude better than what The Holiday offers.

But they tried so hard.

The movie opens with a reflection on the vastness of love, just like Love Actually. EXACTLY like Love Actually, one might say - I really can't overstate just how reminiscent the prologue was. But the character delivering the speech, Iris (played by Kate Winslet), is in shambles. The man she loves, a smarmy, manipulative jerk, is getting ready to marry someone else.

After a light and silly flirtation with suicide, she discovers she's received a message from LA: Amanda (Cameron Diaz), who produces movie trailers and just broke up with her cheating boyfriend, found Iris's house listed on a house exchange, and the two agree to swap for the Christmas holiday.

Iris books a flight for the next day, because apparently it's very easy to get cheap, last minute airfare right before Christmas. She's ecstatic to discover that she's staying in a massive mansion in downtown LA.

Amanda's less enthused, but her outlook improves after sleeping with Iris's brother, played by Jude Law.

Iris meets a couple of men who change her life: Arthur, an elderly Hollywood writer who she befriends, and Miles, a composer played by Jack Black. While the 90-year-old Arthur might have made for a more interesting love story, they went with Black.

Both stories include the standard twists and turns, including Iris's ex flying to LA to try and rekindle their relationship despite his engagement, and the revelation that Jude Law has kids and is a nurturing, caring, single father. But, of course, love conquers all. Except really crappy writing and directing: love actually loses that battle.

If there's a tragedy here, it's that the actors were really, really good, almost without exception. You'll note I said "almost." That's due to Cameron Diaz, who treats her role like comic relief, despite the fact that's not remotely the movie's tone. Even Jack Black shows restraint in this.

To be fair, she had the least to work with. Her character's central trait is that she hasn't cried since high school. She's incapable of crying, until Jude Law teaches her to be human (at which point she starts crying, renounces her programming, and finally decides not to kill Sarah Connor).

Kate Winslet did better work, but her character arc was only slightly better written. In her case, she tells off the guy she'd been pining for, who bizarrely sits still listening to a minute-long monologue about how he's a horrible person. She's right, of course, but it's utterly unbelievable he'd just sit around with a semi-interested yet unengaged expression without attempting to defend himself. Oh, then she runs off to help the old screenwriter be honored.

There are countless problems with this film I'm glossing over. The first half is astonishingly boring, the characters are under-developed, and the jokes are rarely funny. But I want to take a moment and highlight something that really jumps out at me about this: its depiction of women. The only female characters given more than a minute or two of screen time are the two leads, one of whom is pathetic, while the other is a soulless machine sent from the future. They're neither likable nor interesting people. While it's true their exes are portrayed as worse, the other men in the movie all come off as absurdly perfect. We're left with the impression that men - at least some of them - are rational, loving, and complex, while women are just crazy. For something written and directed by a woman, the movie feels oddly misogynistic.

That's a common issue with romcoms, of course (at least the bad ones). But it's especially blatant in The Holiday, due to the three lead men (I'm counting the 90 year-old writer) being ridiculously wonderful. I sincerely doubt Nancy Meyers is actually a self-loathing misogynist, but the movie winds up feeling that way as a side-effect of profoundly lazy writing.

To be fair, The Holiday gets a little better in the second half, when the love stories pick up. But overall it's an extremely unpleasant movie to watch. Over the past few years, a lot of people have taken up the pastime of whining about Love Actually's shortcomings. I think sitting through this knock-off should be a prerequisite for complaining about how Love Actually is overrated.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

I'm counting this as a Christmas movie, even though it means watering down the litmus test we've used in the past. The lead-up to Christmas itself only requires a third of the movie's 90 minute run-time, while New Years Eve falls at the halfway mark. Still, Christmas decorations are present until the end, so I'm giving it a pass.

I should probably mention I've only seen the first Jaws and this one. In theory, that should mean I'm missing two movies from the story, but Wikipedia assures me the third installment was excised from continuity.

The Revenge opens with a holiday celebration in Amity, where the original was set. At some point, Martin Brody, the protagonist of the original Jaws movie, died of a heart attack (i.e.: wasn't interested in making another of these damn movies). His wife and older son, Ellen and Michael, take over as the leads, while his younger son, Sean, is killed off in the first few minutes.

There are two culprits resonsible: the first is a gigantic great white shark seeking revenge against Martin's family, presumably because of the sharks he killed. It has an accomplice when it goes after Sean, though: Christmas. Specifically, a bunch of people in Amity are singing carols that drown out his cries for help after the shark bites off his arm. Undisturbed, the shark is able to jump up and finish the job.

Ellen, horrified at what's happened, flies to the Bahamas to spend the holidays with her surviving son, Michael, who works as a marine biologist with his friend, Jake. He's got a wife and young daughter, and they live on the beach. Ellen, having a strong suspicion that a shark is hunting her family, begs Michael to quit his job and stay away from the water. She's likewise horrified whenever her granddaughter wants to go swimming or ride on a boat.

Everyone thinks she's going crazy, including herself. She manages to find some peace of mind when she becomes involved romantically with Hoagie, a disreputable pilot played by Michael Caine.

Her son is soon spooked when the shark shows up in the Bahamas and tries to eat him. It's the same one who killed his brother, though he refuses to believe it. He keeps it a secret from his mother, not wanting to worry her, and tries studying it with Jake. Eventually, there's an underwater chase sequence through a sunken boat where he narrowly avoids it.

Angry that Michael got away, it goes after the youngest member of the Brody clan, attacking an inflatable banana boat she's riding with friends. She survives, but an adult present gets eaten.

Realizing she was right all along about the magical shark, Ellen steals her son's boat and goes to confront the creature. Her plan is somewhat unclear: she brings no weapons, and when it finds her, she just kind of stands still, giving it an opportunity to jump up and eat her. Maybe she's thinking that would break the curse or something?

Just before it can grab her off the boat, Hoagie swoops down with Michael and Jake. They manage to scare the shark and land. Then the shark comes back and sinks the plane. They make it to the boat, where they MacGyver up something to mess with the shark. Only to use it, they need to get the shark to swallow it, which results in Jake getting chewed up and dragged into the water.

Eventually, Ellen manages to ram the shark, an act which has a very different effect depending on which version you're watching. In the one I saw, the shark was impaled and sunk. In some versions, it literally explodes, the boat sinks, then they find Jake wounded but miraculously alive in the water.

Either way, Ellen goes home afterward, and it all gets wrapped up as a happy ending.

So. What the hell was that?

First of all, I don't entirely hate the premise of this movie. Essentially, it's trying to take Jaws back to its roots and tell a vaguely supernatural revenge story in the vein of Moby Dick. That's kind of interesting, and with the right production values, it might have worked.

But the effects in this were just abysmal. The shark looks like it's made out of rubber, and the scenes where it attacks are hilarious. The direction also felt off. It was clearly trying to duplicate moments from the original but without Spielberg's flair. Same goes for the writing: they were clearly trying to build interesting, bizarre characters, but they lacked the skill to pull it off. As a result, the dialogue was just odd most of the time.

Several actors fared a bit better. Caine was, well, Caine - when has he ever not been fun? Lorraine Gary did good work, too, as did Lance Guest. The two of them managed to sell the sense of obsession at the core of the piece better than should have been possible: to the limited extent the movie works, it's thanks to the cast.

But it's just too warped to work. The tone doesn't support the surrealist premise, and the unbelievable character interactions get tiring after a while.

Let's talk Christmas. As I said, holiday decorations and celebrations are present throughout most of the movie. As far as I can tell, these were mainly included for that one scene at the start. It's clearly going for contrast: the joyous singing juxtaposed against Sean's screams. This is symbolism 101: they even have a buoy mirror the shape of a Christmas tree in the background.

I'm not sure if it was supposed to go any deeper than that, if they thought the holidays added some sort of magical, otherworldly quality or something. That kind of junk is pretty common. Maybe they were trying to play with the idea that the shark was some kind of indifferent god.

In the end, I'm almost of two minds about this. On one hand, it's every bit the mangled, badly constructed failure it's supposed to be. But on the other, the concept is just too quirky and ambitious to hate, especially with Michael Caine hanging around. It's a bad movie, no question, and I wouldn't recommend it to the casual movie viewer, but it's certainly a unique experience.

Available on Amazon.

Strawberry Shortcake's Berry Bitty Adventures: Happy First Frost (2010)

This is only a Christmas episode if you squint, but we think it counts. The characters specifically say that it’s the shortest day of the year, that everyone has different traditions to celebrate, and theirs involves gift-giving. One or two of those wouldn’t do it, but all three and we’ll give it a pass. This is despite the fact that the animation company didn’t bother to give any of the backgrounds or characters any sort of winter look.

The plot mostly follows the aforementioned gift-giving. Strawberry Shortcake and her candy-colored friends have a Secret-Santa-like tradition where they pick names out of a hat and give secret presents. They are preparing for this when a caterpillar (named, I kid you not, “Mr. Longface”) visits, and they invite him to join in.

Strawberry picks his name and sets out to find the perfect gift. Blueberry has Lemon’s name, and decides to give her a huge book about organizing books. Unfortunately, this is a terrible gift for Lemon, who owns only two other books, and she decides to make the best of it by rewrapping it for her giftee - Plum. Plum, a dancer, doesn’t need or want a book about books, so it’s rewrapped again and passed to Orange.

At this point we decided it was definitely a Christmas episode, because the book was like the old fruitcake joke. Also I looked up the cast on my phone to confirm that I was right, Plum’s voice actress is indeed Ashleigh Ball, aka Rainbow Dash. A few of the other voice actresses are in My Little Pony as well, but she’s the easiest to hear.

Anyway, Orange passes the book (secretly) to Raspberry, who gives it (secretly) back to Blueberry. Blueberry’s initially excited - what a great gift! - then she realized it’s her gift come around, and goes off to retrace what happened.

Once she pieces together the truth, she visits Strawberry and admits her confusion and sadness that no one wanted the gift she gave. Strawberry, kindly, doesn’t call her an idiot, but just suggests that she actually think about what the person receiving the gift would want. Blueberry seizes on this, and she quickly prompts a new round of less-secret, more-inspired gift giving among the friends where everyone gets something they like.

Strawberry and Mr. Longface give each other thoughtful gifts as well, and everyone learned a lesson. Or something. It’s not very much plot for a half-hour episode.

This wasn’t awful, but it had ugly CG and was fairly bland. It gets a resounding “Meh” from me.

Toy Review: NECA Home Alone 25th Anniversary Kevin McCallister

I picked up the Harry Lime figure from this line last February on clearance, assuming I'd find Kevin cheep if I waited long enough. So I waited. And waited. And waited, as the figures began disappearing from store shelves.

Then I cracked.

I don't like Home Alone, but I feel like there's something seriously wrong with the world if Mainlining Christmas lacks a review of this action figure. Plus, I figure I'll be using it in Nerdtivities and the like for decades to come. So... investment?

Just to recap, this is a NECA action figure in the style of the old 70's Mego line.

Kevin stands about five and a half inches tall, which looks about right beside an eight inch adult. I'm glad they got the scale right, though it does make me question whether he's objectively worth the $30 I paid. It doesn't help that the sculpt and paint - while definitely good - are below the level of quality on Harry.

Here's Kevin standing beside an eight-inch "Weird" Al figure, also from NECA. I should probably mention the guitar didn't come with either of them.

The clothing here is well tailored, though it doesn't sit quite as naturally as the outfits on some of the larger figures. Incidentally, there's no additional layer beneath the sweater, presumably because that would get too bulky.

In order to try and make the price point easier to swallow, NECA did include a decent number of accessories of varying quality. Here's everything collected together:

Let's see - there's an alternate head, a pair of extra hands, a gun, a rope and hook, bicycle handlebars, and a pizza box. Where to begin?

The pizza box is made of card stock and printed to match the one in the movie. It will open if you remove a strip of tape holding it shut. It's cool, but it's hard to get too excited about a paper accessory.

Other than the extra head, the gun is without a doubt the best accessory Kevin comes with. It's nicely sculpted and painted, and it works well with the included "trigger-finger" hand. His last hand is somewhat more relaxed, but not quite open-palmed. Actually, one of the notable omissions is a pair of open hands for the "scream" gag. It's odd they left these out, since they did give us the head.

Neither head sculpt is perfect, but both are recognizable and fun. I'd describe Kevin's default face as a sadistic expression. I mean, look at it.

His other expression is either a terrified scream or... well...

When they strapped Harry into the chair and asked him if he had any last words, he looked up at the warden and replied, "It was worth it."

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Run All Night (2015)

Run All Night is an action/drama vehicle for Liam Neeson. The fact that it came out last year and you haven't heard of it provides a far better overview than I could ever hope to achieve. But, in the interest of pumping the internet full of content to drive it towards self-awareness, let's have a go at this.

The movie is set in New York a little before Christmas. The majority of the story, as the title implies, plays out over a single night - probably not Christmas Eve, but who knows? This movie was vague as hell.

The main character is Jimmy, a burnt out mob enforcer played by Liam Neeson. He's a drunk, tormented by memories of the people he's killed and the mistakes he's made. His best friend is Shawn, a mob boss trying to go legitimate. Both men have a son: Jimmy's son, Michael, hates him and wants nothing to do with his father, who was absent most of his life, anyway. Shawn's wants to be successful, like his father, and gets involved with drug dealers.

Michael drives a limo for a living, and in a shockingly contrived turn of events, his clients are killed by Shawn's son, who tries to kill him to keep him quiet. Just before he can pull the trigger, Jimmy shows up and shoots Shawn's kid.

I'm actually skipping over a great deal of noise regarding Shawn not wanting to get back in drugs, a failed attempt by Jimmy to get Michael to agree to keep quiet, a local youth nicknamed "Legs" who Michael coaches in boxing videotaping the shooting, and some other complications that basically serve no purpose to the core story.

Oh! I almost forgot that, prior to getting killed, Shawn's son hires Jimmy to play Santa at a Christmas party, which falls apart, because Jimmy was drunk.

Shawn wants revenge, despite the fact he knew his kid was an ass and the psycho really got himself killed. But for some reason, he decides Jimmy has to pay. And the only way he can pay is for Michael to die before dawn.


Oh, also Michael has a family, who he sends off to safety without him, because... because...

Wait. Why the hell doesn't he go with them? I think the movie fed us a line about not running away or something, but that makes absolutely no sense in the context of what's happening. Actually, that could be said about most of the scenes and character decisions in this movie.

I guess Michael stuck with his father (who he hates) so they could have a series of misadventures where Jimmy saves Michael from mobsters, corrupt cops, cops who probably aren't corrupt, and a sociopathic professional assassin. They take a few side treks, first to Leg's low-income housing unit, then to Jimmy's father's house, where Michael learns Jimmy killed his own cousin years before.

Now that Michael learns his father is a horrible person, a fact the movie spent the first hour repeatedly telling us he already knew, he takes off to join his family in his father's old cabin, which there is absolutely, positively no way anyone, not even a sociopathic professional assassin, could find.

Meanwhile, Jimmy calls Shawn to give him one last chance to drop his vendetta against Michael, but Shawn laughs this off. What's Jimmy going to do? Go action hero, burst in, and gun down like twelve people in an extended fight sequence? Ridiculous! This just isn't that kind of a movie - they spent an hour and a half building a far too realistic tone to have a single, wounded, hungover man past his prime go Rambo and take on the mob!

So. Yeah. They Seagaled it. Jimmy goes on a rampage and systematically takes out all of Shawn's men before they have a completely original and not all boring fight in a rail yard. Yup. Never seen THAT before.

With all that taken care of, Michael is finally safe. Jimmy goes to the cabin to tell him, and they reunite. Jimmy even meets his granddaughters and Michael's wife.


The sociopathic professional assassin from earlier has tracked them down, leading to a final shoot-out where Jimmy - mortally wounded - has to find the strength to overcome a metric ton of melodrama and shoot the aforementioned assassin just in the nick of time. He dies having achieved redemption through his son, and the movie ends after a brief epilogue where Michael's getting ready for the funeral.

The fight scenes are pretty rote if you've seen many action flicks from the 70's, 80's, and 90's - there's really not much original here. Ed Harris, who plays Shawn, manages to squeeze out a few good moments in spite of the dialogue he's reciting, and Neeson's schtick is solid, as always. But there's really very little here of substance. Aside from a few moments where Harris pulls off a miracle, the emotion feels 100% fake, and the story is a twisted jumble of threads trying to disguise the fact the core concept isn't remotely sufficient to base a 2-hour movie on.

Let's talk Christmas. Like I said before, this is set around the holidays. There are Christmas decorations tossed onto most of the sets, though there's never quite as many as should probably be present. In addition, the movie makes use of CG-assisted establishing shots, as well as pans of the skyline... and all of these are notably lacking in holiday cheer.

I spent seven Christmases in New York City, and let me tell you something - when it gets to be Christmas, you damn well know it. The sky bleeds red and green in December.

The larger question, as always, is why bother? Why set the movie at Christmas in the first place?

Whenever something fixates on Christmas and occurs over the course of a single night, my instincts hone in on the Solstice: a long night punctuated with the sun's symbolic rebirth. That certainly fits this - the movie's resolution occurs in the morning, with Jimmy dying in the light. He outlasted the darkness and finally found his family again.

You know, same as parts one and two of Die Hard and Home Alone.

If you're skeptical they thought the symbolism through that far, I suppose they could have been going for the old staple of juxtaposition. Or, hell, maybe they just really wanted to play The Pogues's Fairytale of New York during the scene where Jimmy goes Super Saiyan and takes out a dozen armed men.

This isn't the worst action movie out there. Rotten Tomatoes has this around 60%, which only feels a little generous. It's occasionally tedious and somewhat pretentious, but it's watchable. I guess there's worse things that can be said for Christmas movies.

Still, there's no reason for you to watch this when In Bruges exists. That movie delivers far better drama and action than Run All Night and even finds time to deliver brilliant comedy.

Very British Problems at Christmas (2015)

Very British Problems is a show based on a book based on a Twitter account, but don’t write it off because of that. It stars an array of comedians and celebrities, mostly British with a few from elsewhere who frequently work or live in Britain. These folks give short accounts to the camera of their experiences of the unwritten social rules of British society. A narrator provides context and ties the different interviews together under various broad subjects.

If you’ve seen the first season, there isn’t much in this Christmas special that isn’t addressed elsewhere, but if you haven’t, it’s probably a fine sample of the series.

The accounts of ridiculous social awkwardness around gift exchange or hosting a party are amusing because all the speakers have a sense of humor about it. It can also be heartening to those that have been there. I’ve read accounts of folks who have social anxiety finding this show reassuring -- hearing that other people (most of a country) feel the same way about, say, how to leave a boring party.

There were a few points of specifically Christmas interest for us, including descriptions of British Christmas traditions and philosophies about travelling at Christmas.

While I find this show more “amusing to have on” than “worth seeking out,” it’s entertaining enough, much like a fine-but-not-great holiday get together.

Shimmer Noel Decorative Filler

If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that Michaels sells some weird shit.

Seriously. I love the store (I even worked there once, long ago), but they sell things that simply defy explanation. This is a good example of that phenomenon.

We found these sold with other seasonal decorations. This is a pack of round, furry balls - nine for $12.99, if you pay full price.

If there's a second thing I've leaned over the years, it's that you should never pay full price for seasonal merchandise at Michaels.

We got these at 70% off in some sort of post-black-cyber-buy-our-crap-Friday-doorbuster-sale. I'm not entirely clear on why there was a sale going on, but it brought the price below $4 for the set, which is something like $0.43 per unit.

But none of that's important, because there's a far, far, FAR more immediate question elicited by these: WHY?

Actually, "Why?" is itself merely a starting point. Why were these designed? Why were they made? Why were they marketed as holiday-themed? WHY, FOR THE LOVE OF THE MYRIAD GODS BORN ON DECEMBER 25, DID WE BUY THEM?

I can't answer any of those questions, save the last. And that, I think, has already been answered by the above photographs. Because, whatever these were intended to be is irrelevant. Any geek worth their dilithium knows in their heart what these are.

These are tribbles.

I don't understand why there are unofficial tribbles being sold as decorative holiday accents, or why they're as cheap as they are, but I guess we shouldn't look a gift tribble in the... do tribbles even have mouths, or do they just somehow absorb their food through their fur?

Yet another question I can't answer.

Whatever the truth, these both look and feel like tribbles (i.e., they're stuffed under the fuzz). They're smaller than they should be (these have about a two-and-a-half-inch diameter), but they're instantly recognizable.

So if you're in the market for discount tribbles (and, really, who isn't?) now would be a good time to swing by your local Michaels and see if they have any in stock.

Live long and Christmas.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Murder, She Wrote: The Christmas Secret (1992)

The secret of the title is half obvious and half boring. Just putting that up front.

Murder, She Wrote can sometimes be charming, and sometimes it can just be tedious. This is one of the latter. Angela Lansbury does her best to maintain unflappable enthusiasm and charm, but the story is downright dull.

We open in that deceptively peaceful Maine town, Cabot Cove, which is welcoming Charlie, a young veteran who is engaged to Beth, the daughter of a prominent family. Charlie is thrilled to be so embraced by the community, as he and his sister grew up in foster care. He has something important to tell Beth, and gives her a key to his hotel room so they can meet up later. Except they don’t.

Instead he finds a tape with a blackmail message on it, and he has dinner with Beth but doesn’t talk to her about anything important. We know that the son of Beth’s father’s business partner resents Charlie’s presence in town, but he’s a red herring.

There’s also another sketchy young man (Floyd) who runs the hardware store, a young woman who’s obsessed with him (Amy), and a young woman (Wanda) who actively seduces young men and gets despised for it by just about everybody but the sainted Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury, in case you’ve never heard of the show). None of the young actors have enough screen presence to star in a Lifetime TV movie.

In any case, Beth sees Charlie meeting up with yet another mysterious woman and is heartbroken. Wanda is shot with Charlie’s gun by someone in a Santa outfit at the town Christmas party, and it’s her voice on the tape in Charlie’s car. He’s arrested.

Meantime, there’s another tedious subplot about childhood disappointment at Christmas, which seems a bit out of place from older doctor Seth. Seth manages to save Wanda’s life, and between that and receiving a very predictable present (the toy he didn’t get as a kid, naturally) regains his Christmas spirit. Not that we care.

The important part is that Beth comes to Jessica for a sympathetic ear. Jessica decides to get involved, and in 5 minutes she meets the mysterious woman (Charlie’s sister, of course), learns his secret (child from a deceased fiancĂ©), deduces the whole rest of the mess from all the conversations she’s had up until this point, and lures the real killer and the person Wanda was trying to actually blackmail into a sting, where they are arrested.

Simple as that. Really, I don’t know why the cops bother trying to solve crimes in this town. Beth and Charlie are reunified and Beth and her family adore his little girl. Then there’s fake snow and poorly staged carol singing.

There’s no reason to track this down - there are so many better Christmas mysteries out there.

Jake and the Neverland Pirates: It’s a Winter Never Land/Hook on Ice, F-F-Frozen Never Land, Captain Scrooge (2011-2014)

As an aficionado of both Disney and children’s television in general, I have to believe that there is something of quality in the Disney Junior lineup.

But this made us want to scurry back to the complex plots and emotions of Sofia the First.

It has some of the repetition and talk-to-the-camera of Blue’s Clues, without any of the charm. In between, it’s a series of thin premises and slapstick scenarios that aren’t in the least interesting or funny.

It’s also, of course, a crime against a treasure of art and literature, although I’ve seen Disney’s Captain Hook in enough contexts that I can divorce it somewhat from Peter Pan in my brain. Even if he seems to have a little safety knob on his hook in this.

The show stars three kids and a parrot who live on “Pirate Island” and go on simplistic adventures in Never Land. (Yes, it’s “Neverland” in Peter and Wendy, but the show’s title card clearly reads “Never Land.”)

The kids are “pirates” where pirate has been redefined to mean believing in sharing and friendship, I guess. Disney’s Captain Hook, Smee, and a couple of new pirates are also on hand, always trying to steal their stuff. But not murder them. Because this show doesn’t even do justice to the Disney version of Peter Pan.

“It’s a Winter Never Land/Hook on Ice” (2011)

This episode from the first season is split into two 12-minute pieces which still go on too long. In the first, it’s “Winter Treasure Day” on Pirate Island, and someone has been by in the night to drop off a decorated tree and presents. Of course it was… Peter Pan? Sure, whatever.

Disney’s Hook and company steal the presents from the kids to have their own Winter Treasure Day celebration. The kids chase the pirates across a snow-covered Never Land.

I should talk about the doubloons thing. Every time the group “solves a pirate problem” (i.e., overcomes any obstacle, no matter how simple or trivial) the kid gets gold doubloons that appear out of nowhere. At the end of the episode, the kids ask you to count with them, and all the coins go into your “team treasure chest.” But they don’t ask the child viewer to suggest solutions or anything through most of the episode. It’s as though the writers are stuck between two different types of show.

Anyway, once the kid pirates catch up with the adult pirates, they decide NOT to take their stuff back, but to wish them a Happy Winter Treasure Day and use pixie dust to go home. The adult crew have remorse for ruining the kids’ holiday and convince Disney's Hook to return all the stuff. And everyone has a party.

In the second half, the adult crew con the kids into sharing the gifts received in the first half (ice skates, sled, snowboard) to help find a special “Never Land Snow Day Treasure.” In this show, Never Land seems to be a very boring video game world where money comes out of thin air and treasures spawn for certain timed events.

In the end, after the kids save Disney’s Captain Hook over and over, he agrees reluctantly to share the treasure. Then his half melts because he doesn’t put it in a cooler.

“F-F-Frozen Never Land” (2013)

This is just a half-episode, and it’s not very holiday-themed, but it’s snow-themed and aired in December, so we watched it. A penguin friend helped the kids get some fire rubies to help their sick parrot. That’s all I have to say about it.

“Captain Scrooge” (2014)

Okay, it seems that the show may have gotten a little better as it went. This season three episode features a better opening sequence, better animation, and better music, and it scrapped the formulaic nature of the others. No more stupid doubloons to count!

This is not a winter episode, but it aired in December and the Christmas Carol connection makes this a Christmas episode. One of the kids has a treasure he wants to keep all to himself, so Jake tells the story of Captain Scrooge to teach us all to share. Again. Seriously, I think sharing was the moral of every one of these episodes.

In the story sequence, Disney’s Hook stands in for Scrooge as a mean captain who won’t share his treasure or let his crew go to “The Great Pirate Feast.” Captain Scrooge is visited first by his mother, who is not a ghost, but who apparently has the power to summon a ghost to teach her son to be polite. Only one ghost serves all three purposes, but the secondary pirates do get a trio of pleasant little ditties about the meaning of past, present, and future.

Captain Scrooge has always been a selfish jerk, but apparently he decides that he doesn’t like that it drives his crew away, so he brings them to the feast after all and even makes up with a lady pirate he knew as a child. Back on Never Land, the kid pirate decides to share his treasure, because that’s the true pirate way or something.

This last episode had a few redeeming qualities, but overall I'm sorry for you if your kid’s crummy taste subjects you to this one.

Toy Review: NECA Home Alone 25th Anniversary Harry Lime

This is from a wave of three figures released by NECA last year in recognition of Home Alone's 25th anniversary. I came across this on clearance in February and picked him up. I'm not a big fan of the film it's based on, but I figured I could always use a generic thief. Besides, I was curious about the style.

This is a little larger than most action figures produced these days. Or rather it would be if Joe Pesci wasn't a little shorter than most actors. The scale is designed for an average character to ring in at around eight inches, but Harry measures in at 6.5 - more or less the same as most 6-inch action figures these days.

Here's a comparison shot with a few other NECA figures. The Weird Al is in the same style and comes in at 8-inches, while the fully sculpted Terminator is about 6.5:

The 8-inch figure with a cloth outfit is something of an homage to Mego, one of the most influential action figure companies in the history of the industry. A lot of toy collectors a bit older than me are still obsessed with that scale and style.

But I missed them by a few years. Still, I appreciate the nod to history.

That said, I'm more appreciative that they weren't beholden to it. NECA borrowed the concept from Mego but seriously updated the sculpting and tailoring. The head is fantastic at this price point (even before mark-down), and the costume looks good.

As you can see, they got a little clever. The character's stockier than the toy's body, but the layers of clothing make up the difference. The use of a sculpted neck and upper chest helps, as well.

It should be noted that the figure's articulation is limited by the outfit, however. It's not a huge deal, but it is a minor issue.

To their credit, NECA included a handful of extras. Along with Harry, you get an alternate head showing him scorched and covered in feathers, a crowbar, a sack, and a... um... kaleidoscope, I guess.

Okay. Cards on the table here. Harry having a kaleidoscope is familiar, but I can't recall what the deal was, and the internet isn't helping much. I'm sure it was relevant in some crucial scene I don't remember.

The crowbar is by far the most useful extra - my guess it's the one most people will display him with. The second head is cool, but not actually all that useful to me. Maybe some fans will want their burglars wounded, but I think the figure works better with the normal head, in part because the outfit really doesn't match due to the lack of feathers.

Still, the sculpt and paint work is at least as impressive as the default head, maybe more so.

I have mixed feelings about the sack. It looks more like a dice bag than an accessory, which is an issue. On the other hand, I appreciate the utility of having an accessory that can store the character's other accessories. I wish they'd invested in a slightly better looking string, but I can't complain too much - I wasn't expecting it, at all, so finding it in the box was sort of like coming across an unexpected present under the tree. Even if it's a pair of socks, it's a pair of socks you weren't counting on.

If I'd picked this up at full price, it would have run me about $30. I got him at FYE last February for $7.36, including tax. Like I said, this isn't exactly a property I feel deeply passionate about, though I am crossing my fingers that I find a Kevin on sale before they disappear completely. These are well made collectibles that are - for better or worse - extremely iconic representatives of the holidays.

I actually think $30 is a fair price, given the quality. Seven and change is a downright steal (insert joke about turning on the faucets).

Because I really couldn't stop myself, here are a few more pictures of Harry, just to prove his Christmas could have been worse:

Monday, December 5, 2016

Yes, Virginia, Die Hard is a Christmas Movie

Last year, Public Policy Polling asked 1,267 Americans a series of idiotic questions about the holidays. Among them was whether or not Die Hard qualifies as a Christmas movie. Much to our nation's shame, the vast majority claimed it wasn't.

This is hardly the first time I've seen Die Hard's holiday credentials called into question. It's a pervasive idea that seems to show up at least a few times every year. Most of the time, the argument boils down to an arbitrary distinction between a Christmas movie and a movie that's incidentally set at Christmas, which is a can of worms that shouldn't be opened lightly. I mean, there's actually no reason It's A Wonderful Life has to be set at Christmas.

Hell, if you move it to the states and change their names to the ghosts of Thanksgiving Past, Present, and Future, you can swap out the season of A Christmas Carol without impacting the plot or moral, if that's how low a bar you want to set.

But I'm actually less interested in ripping apart the logic behind this misnomer: I'd rather break down why Die Hard is quintessentially a Christmas story.

In fact, it's a variation on the oldest Christmas story.

Strip the plot down, and you've got a story about a man trying to survive the night and reunite with his wife. And, in case you forgot, Christmas Eve is no ordinary night: it's one of the year's longest.

That's... actually almost certainly why Die Hard is set at Christmas. Also, it's why CHRISTMAS is set at Christmas. We come together when the world is at its darkest to bring back the light. Or, you know, take out a bunch of European criminals. It's all one and the same.

To put this simply, Die Hard is a Christmas movie, because it's a Solstice movie. Unlike, say, First Blood, whose holidays connections reference Christian doctrine.

But that's a topic for another day.

Book Review: Murder in Christmas River

Murder in Christmas River
Meg Muldoon, 2012

(Note: Many of the Christmas books I am reading this year have one notable thing in common -- they were all cheap or free on Kindle some time in the last few years. No other qualifications.)

Premise: Cinnamon Peters is determined to win this year’s gingerbread house competition. It’s good press for her pie shop, and showing up her rival is just icing on the proverbial cake. But when one of the judges turns up dead behind her shop and an old flame cruises back into town, she’ll have more than a contest to worry about.

This is one of those cozy mysteries that’s closer to the romance end of the spectrum, but I think it works.

Cinnamon is a likable protagonist: emotional without being too sappy, short-tempered at times, snarky but overall kind. Other characters include her friend Kara, her grandfather she’s looking after, her rival in the competition, her new/old crush, her jerk ex-husband, and other townsfolk. They are each interesting without being too unbelievable.

Is this great literature? Of course not, but it has what I’m generally looking for in a cozy mystery: a goodhearted but realistic protagonist who stands up for herself and others, a mystery which is solved by the end in a satisfying manner, a cute setting, and a happy ending.

As I said above, this one is heavier on the romance and the interpersonal relationships and lighter on the mystery. I did really like Cinnamon’s relationship with the ultimate villain; she was able to see the other person’s position and sympathize in a way that humanized the whole story.

The very end is heavier on the sappiness, but it wasn’t too bad.

It’s harmless fluff, but enjoyable enough that if I see more of this author’s work on sale, I’ll probably pick some up. It’s a perfect commuting read, or a comforting brain break from holiday stress.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Also, this author is supposedly coming out with an even more explicitly Christmas cozy mystery soon, so I’ll definitely be on the lookout for that.

The Dead (1987)

The Dead is an adaptation of a James Joyce story about an Epiphany party, which I suppose we're now annexing as part of Christmas (to be fair, January 6 would have been considered the conclusion of Christmastime when the movie was set, a fact outright stated in the film).

This is John Huston's last film before his death, and it seems to be widely beloved with a 92% Freshness rating and several honors. While this isn't unfair - the movie is well constructed and acted - it's definitely not for everyone.

For example, it definitely wasn't for me or Lindsay: we found it boring as hell.

The plot is essentially contained in the last five minutes of an hour and twenty minute long film. Until then, the entire thing takes place at a party being thrown by three women I'm assuming are sort of standing in for the three wise men. If you want to know whether this is a heartfelt ode to Irish culture or some sort of ironic mockery of tradition, you'll have to go find a Joyce scholar - I don't care enough to look it up.

People at the party eat, drink, sing, and bicker. Someone shows up drunk and makes an ass of himself and embarrasses his mother, who's something of an ass, herself. This manages to capture the essence of being at a rather boring party that goes on longer than you want it to. To Huston's credit, this seems to be exactly what he was going for: thematically, it plays into the resolution.

The last couple of minutes center around a husband and wife after they leave the party. Someone at the party sang the wife a song which impacts her deeply. Her husband questions her and discovers she'd been in love with someone before him, and that he'd died at seventeen after enduring the cold while sick to see her. The song was one he used to sing to her, and it's brought back old memories.

Nothing really happens, but the husband reflects on the weight of this, how he's never felt deeply enough about anyone to have done anything like that, how memories of the dead linger, and some stuff about it snowing in Ireland.

Did I mention that by this time I really stopped caring?

I'm assuming I'd have felt more charitable if I'd been familiar with the story. The monologues at the end are beautiful, and I'm assuming they were lifted more or less verbatim from the text. But, frankly, I didn't find it interesting to watch. This is almost certainly better suited to film students and English majors: I wouldn't recommend it to anyone else.

The holiday elements were fairly heavy, though somewhat obfuscated. The party occurs on the Feast of the Epiphany, which was likely chosen as a symbol of conclusion. I also doubt it was a coincidence that the feast celebrating three wise men was hosted by three women, but - as I said before - I'm just guessing as to the meaning. It's worth noting that the script did make sure to draw attention to the date and the holiday's meaning.

Overall, you can consider this one of those movies I respected more than I liked.

Available on Amazon.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a Japanese/British film about a POW camp during World War II directed by the controversial Japanese film maker Nagisa Oshima. I have a few complaints, but overall it's a well-made, engrossing movie exploring some fairly large questions about culture and human nature.

The movie centers around four characters: two prisoners and two jailers. The titular Mr. Lawrence is the sole English character who speaks both languages, and he has a fairly good grasp of Japanese culture. Also held prisoner is a South African soldier, Jack Celliers, notably played by David Bowie, who the camp commandant, Captain Yonoi, becomes obsessed with. Also key is Sergeant Hara, a man who oscillates between cruelty and compassion.

The movie's plot is somewhat murky, as the events are intricately linked to the complex motives of its characters. I'm not going to try to offer a complete synopsis - I don't think it would begin to make sense - but I'll focus instead on an overview of the characters and themes.

Both Yonoi and Hara are obsessed with one of the prisoners: Yonoi with Celliers and Hara with Lawrence, though the nature of that obsession is very different. Hara seems driven to come to some sort of understanding with Lawrence, the only prisoner he deems capable of understanding him or the Japanese. He wants to understand the English, as well - he spends a lot of time trying to reconcile Lawrence's merits with various elements he associates with cowardice.

Yonoi's interest in Celliers is even more complex, and I'm not certain how much I actually gleaned. The simplest explanation would be to describe it as repressed sexual desire, which is certainly implied. But it seemed to be more intricate than that: Yonoi's obsession bordered on a spiritual fixation - he seemed to legitimately question Celliers' humanity at times, thinking he was some sort of demon. The two characters also shared a deep sense of guilt over others being punished, and they may have both seen the other as a force meant to punish them. Yonoi seemed to want to die at Celliers' hand - or at the very least to confront him in combat - and Celliers seemed to take great delight in denying this to him.

The movie's title and holiday connections come most of the way through, when Celliers and Lawrence are imprisoned and sentenced to death on Christmas Eve. Presumably, almost the entire movie must take place during the lead-up to the holidays, though the amount of time passing isn't entirely clear. It's during their incarceration that Celliers provides details of his backstory - his guilt stems from failing to protect his younger brother when they were schoolboys. There's a fairly jarring flashback accompanying this revelation, made especially confusing by some awkward decisions around casting a child actor to portray Bowie at 12 but only using a single actor to play his brother in multiple time periods. This may have been symbolic for Celliers remembering his brother at a single point in time, but it just came off as muddled.

The two men are finally collected and taken before a drunken Hara, who informs them they are being cleared of charges. He insists he is Father Christmas and wishes Lawrence Merry Christmas before releasing them back into the general prison population.

Celliers doesn't last much longer - he's eventually beaten, buried up to his neck in sand, and left to die (an end which mirrors the humiliation his younger brother endured, when he was lowered into a pit by a crowd of children).

The movie then jumps ahead four years, past the end of the war. Lawrence, now free, visits Hara, who's now a prisoner of the Allied forces. Hara is set to be executed the next day, and Lawrence has come to pay his respects. Lawrence hates that Hara is going to die, but he has no power to stop it. Hara is actually far more at peace with his fate. They have a philosophical discussion about how both Celliers and Hara are going to be killed by men too certain of themselves. The movie closes on Hara laughing and repeating his holiday greeting.

I found it a strange yet fascinating movie featuring complex character and difficult questions. Lindsay found the pacing a bit tedious, but I found it engrossing throughout. My largest complaint is with that flashback, which felt both out of place and confusing.

The holiday elements were fairly light - it wasn't so much about Christmas as it was about human nature, though it's not too much of a stretch to think Lawrence's indictment of men believing in their own righteousness may be applied universally to religion and culture. Still, this is less a Christmas movie than a movie with "Christmas" in its title.

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Carol (2015)

Erin decided we should watch this based purely on the Santa hat in the trailer. And sure enough, it fits our rubric for a Christmas movie.

Carol is a romance that takes place at Christmas, and over 50% of the movie’s run-time takes place directly before or after the holiday.

It stars Cate Blanchett as Carol and Rooney Mara as Terese. After a chance meeting in a department store (Carol is shopping, Terese is a clerk) the two become inseparable, causing strife with Terese’s lukewarm fiance and risking Carol’s custody arrangement with her ex-husband. They eventually travel cross-country together in an attempt to run from their troubles for a while.

The movie is adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, which she published under a pseudonym in 1952, when material about gay characters was often subject to obscenity laws. The plot elements are inspired by the real experiences of Highsmith and friends of hers, struggling with their sexuality in a culture that was entirely against them.

Let’s talk a bit more about Christmas. The movie is steeped in old-fashioned color palettes, which works out to extreme amounts of red and green.

Carol’s color is red. Bright, sensual, holiday red, but she’s not the only source of the color. Red clothing, red nails, red lipstick, red stripes on Terese’ hat, red chairs, red Santa hats combined with green light, Terese’s green sweater, green walls in Terese’s apartment, green upholstery, green olives in the drinks, green Christmas trees, gray-green automobile… When Carol tries to act against her desires late in the movie, her color palette shifts to black and white. The cinematography is not subtle - characters are often framed or boxed away from others.

Other holiday elements: preparing for Christmas takes up quite a bit of the characters’ time, and who Carol’s daughter will spend the holiday with is a contentious issue. Both Carol and Terese first prove their understanding and affection for each other with well-chosen gifts, before any confessional words are spoken.

It’s a well-made film with exceptional performances, but it’s kind of slow, so your enjoyment may vary. For example, I liked the way emotional connection and obsession were conveyed in long glances, careful lighting, and beautiful cinematography, but Erin found it a little dull. Even I wouldn’t run out and watch it again, but I’m happy to have seen it.

Celebrate It Merry Minis: Mini Garden Sets

Are mini gardens really popular enough to justify the mass production of these holiday-themed decorations? The presence of these in the Michaels's clearance section last year suggests the answer is no.

But they're weird. And fascinating. And useful to toy collectors. And, most importantly, Christmas.

So I picked them up. This is two sets, incidentally: I stacked one on top of the other in the above photograph. The backs contain detailed information about the product, the company that produces it, and other items they make.


Aside from one having "5 pc" stamped on the top sticker and the UPC, there's no difference in the label - not even a unique name for the different sets.

The first set contains six items: Santa, a snowman, a cabin, a table, and two stools. I like the pieces well enough, though the collection seems somewhat arbitrary. Why are we getting chairs and a table with figures who can't sit in them? If the set's meant to represent the outside of a house, why include furniture intended for the interior?

Likewise, it's worth noting the house doesn't remotely scale to anything else. It feels like a jumble of parts more than a unified display. Not that I have an issue with that - I just wanted the pieces, anyway.

Santa and the snowman are nice, though the furniture is the most impressive part of this. These look extremely realistic and detailed.

The house is pretty cool, too, though I wish they'd skipped the glitter. The fake snow is coated in the stuff, which means I am, too. Glitter is never worth it.

The other set contains a pair of Christmas gnomes, a fairy, a door, and a welcome sign. Between the two sets, this is the one I really wanted, on account of the gnomes. Nothing against a miniature Santa, but... come on. GNOMES. DRESSED LIKE CHRISTMAS ELVES.

The one leaning on the candy cane is my favorite. I love the concept here.

The fairy is held back by an even more egregious use of glitter than the house. Her wings are practically coated in the stuff.

The door is nice, though it's worth noting it's one-sided. Flip it over, and you're staring at a slate. Same goes for the house from the other set, actually.

These are ceramic, in case that's not clear in the pictures. All are painted well, given the scale. The figures are about 2.5 to 3 inches tall (the seated fairy's a little shorter, and the pointed hat of the gnome with the candy cane is about 3.25). The house comes in at about 4.5 inches tall.

These are relatively versatile, as long as you're careful not to break them or scrape off the paint. The gnomes scale well with most action figures (depending on just how tall you want them to seem). Beside 6 or 7 inch figures, they're about the size you'd expect a garden gnome to be.

The table, chairs, and even door could serve as tongue-in-cheek additions to gaming miniatures, if you're so inclined.

As far as low-end miniatures go, these are pretty decent. They started out $25 each. If memory serves, I picked them up at 70% off, which is still a little more than I'd have ideally wanted to pay. Still, they're a fun addition to the Christmas vault, and I expect I'll get some use out of them over the years.