Saturday, December 17, 2016

A Fairly Odd Christmas (2012)

"A Fairly Odd Christmas" is the live-action made-for-TV sequel to the similarly live-action made-for-TV movie "A Fairly Odd Movie: Grow Up, Timmy Turner!" which is itself a sequel to the Nickelodeon series "The Fairly OddParents," which had a Christmas special of its own, though that featured an entirely different version of Santa Claus and therefore doesn't seem to be in continuity with this film.

I should probably add that I've never seen the first live action movie or any of the animated series other than the aforementioned Christmas special.

This apparently opens where the previous movie left off: the now grown-up Timmy, Tootie, and the CG fairy godparents are circling the world in a magic flying van granting wishes to anyone who's sad. They give one young girl a magic unicorn, another a monster truck, they turn a boy's small toy into a giant monster and set it loose on Tokyo, and they help a bunch of robbers empty out an electronics store.

This is all in the first few minutes, mind you. It was about here that I realized I was going to like this weird-ass movie.

Before I get to the actual plot, I should provide a few words about the tone. This is a live-action movie, but it's directed and acted as if it's a cartoon. Not a realistic cartoon, either: this is a spastic, farcical comedy. Think Speed Racer without the budget. I've seen a lot of things try to capture this tone and fail, and the primary reason is that most projects don't fully commit. Conversely, the reason this (mostly) succeeds is that it completely embraces the absurdity of its premise. The characters act like they're in a Nickelodeon cartoon, and the world follows the same rules.

Back to the plot. Timmy's wish-granting has an unintended side-effect. I mean, in addition to the destruction of Tokyo and the endangering of kids' lives (which is actually brought up but never resolved). Since their wishes are already being granted, thousands of names are dropping off Santa's list at the North Pole. Claus sends a pair of his elves to summon Timmy for a talk.

After Timmy tries to help, he inadvertently injures Santa, causing him to have a mental breakdown. According to "Da Rules," Timmy has to fill in, but there's a problem: his reckless antics have landed him on the naughty list this year. This causes a paradox: he's the only one permitted to serve as Santa, but he's forbidden. So, along with his friends, he sets out on a dangerous quest to consult with Elmer the Elder Elf, who alone can remove him from the naughty list.

Along the way, they run afoul of gingerbread men, zipline over a valley of razor-sharp candy-canes, and have to cross a river of molten eggnog. Again, the writers of this thing really know how to win me over.

Of course, Timmy gets his name removed from the naughty list and saves Christmas. They actually did a pretty good job with the scene with Elmer, too - I found the resolution surprisingly satisfying.

That's not to say this was a perfect movie. Plenty of jokes failed to deliver, and the CG OddParents were fairly obnoxious throughout. But overall, I liked this quite a bit. The comedy had an edge to it that most family-friendly fare shy away from.

I certainly wouldn't claim that this transcended its limitations as a TV movie, but it was bizarre, funny, and enjoyable. You could do a lot worse.

Podcast: Studio 360 on A Charlie Brown Christmas Soundtrack

I don’t have much time these days for Studio 360. A radio show from WNYC about art, creativity and culture, I have loved some episodes and been bored by others.

Even if I wanted to listen to it more often, it’s a weekly show that’s an hour long in full, and that’s a time commitment.

I do sometimes check out the podcast feed to see what’s been on recently. I have always loved the shows they’ve done about great American art and artists.

This year, the podcast replayed a fantastic interview from 2012 about the composition of the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Even a Grinch like me likes the music to A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Even if you’ve never been curious about the composition of “Christmas Time is Here” and “Linus and Lucy,” the piece is only 7 minutes, and it’s definitely worth your time.

Hear from Jean Schulz, Jerry Granelli (the drummer who played with Guaraldi), and Lee Mendelson, the producer who worked closely with Schulz on the Christmas special, on Studio 360.

The Great British Baking Show: MasterClass: Christmas (2016 PBS)

I have enjoyed what I’ve seen of The Great British Bake Off (aired as The Great British Baking Show in the U.S.). I love how friendly and good-hearted the competition is.

It’s an elimination-based baking competition that takes place over ten weeks. This is one of the spin-off specials that are formatted more like a cooking show. The two judges from the show, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, make recipes to inspire the viewer.

I’m not sure whether I was inspired to try any of these, but if nothing else, it was interesting to see some British holiday desserts. There’s no pudding here, but nearly all of the desserts involve fruit and custard and I think everything involves alcohol.

The six recipes outlined in this hour are a pavlova (meringue and custard); spiral buns containing dried and fresh fruit and jam; a fancy trifle, a turkey, ham, and leek pie; a ridiculously pretty thing made of sponge cake, pastry cream and candied orange slices; and a pandoro (Italian sweet bread/cake).

The food all looks pretty good, although many of the pieces are half-dessert, half centerpiece. The episode overall felt both long and short - each piece was short, but I sort of stopped being interested by the end.

Mary and Paul’s friendly banter is charming, although again it’s a bit much to fill an entire hour.

If you really love their dry British personalities, though, you might enjoy this longer taste.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The O.C.: The Chrismukk-huh (2006)

This is by the far the strangest of the Chrismukkah episodes. It starts out in a mundane enough fashion - Ryan is mourning his deceased ex-girlfriend and is having a crisis that his new relationship with Taylor is getting serious. The two of them have an argument on the roof, fall off, and wake up in an alternate universe where neither of them ever existed.

A few caveats to this. First, this isn't my interpretation: Taylor identifies it as such. Also, based on her knowledge of science-fiction, she decides they need to fix the problems of the characters in this bizzaro-verse before they can return home. Of course, everything's mixed up: Seth's parents are divorced, and his father's new wife is having an affair with Summer's fiance, who is played by a young but very recognizable Chris Pratt.

They manipulate and influence everyone with mixed results. In the episode's best scene, Seth demands Ryan tell him who he is and what's happening. Finally, Ryan just blurts out the truth as he understands it: that's he's from an alternate universe and can only return if he fixes the other characters' relationships. Seth, true to character, nods and says he always knew this would happen someday. After that, he's entirely on board.

They do help everyone in the alternate universe, but that's not actually the key to escape. Taylor needs to stand up to her mother, while Ryan needs to accept his ex is gone and let her go. Once they do that, they wake up in the hospital with only faint, lingering memories of their journey. In other words, the audience gets some verification it was all real, but they don't. They keep the growth but not the knowledge there's magic in the world.

Fine. Whatever.

Obviously, there's a lot of It's a Wonderful Life in this thing's DNA, but that's to be expected. There are also a handful of Oz references, and the alternate universe is of course reminiscent of Back to the Future Part 2 (which borrowed heavily from It's a Wonderful Life, so... I guess it's all connected).

The holiday elements were surprisingly tame in the mirror-verse: they were more pronounced during cuts back to the real-ish world, where other characters were having their party around the unconscious pair. But the whole "magic of the holidays" thing played pretty heavily into the premise and tone.

Overall, this was fine but not as fun to watch as the third episode (or really the second, for that matter). The points where characters acknowledged and confronted the SF elements were great, but most of the rest was kind of boring. I imagine it would be less so if you knew the characters better, but I lacked the context to really engage with the alt-Earth stuff. But it was kind of hilarious seeing young Star-Lord show up. Pratt's always fun.

Before I wrap up, I have a few things to say about the series, based on the four episodes I saw. I have to admit I completely misjudged this show from previews and commercials. I'd assumed it was shallow and bland, but - while I wouldn't describe what I watched as perfect television - it was intelligent and funny. Seth, in particular, is sort of a proto-Abed: a comical version of a nerd who's believable and interesting (take notes, Big Bang Theory - this is how it's done). This was clearly a series that took risks and was aware of its absurd aspects. In the episodes I watched, I saw quite a few points where obvious tropes were subverted.

It was, in short, much better than I'd anticipated.

Holiday Comic: Gwenpool Holiday Special: Merry Mix-up

Last year’s special was fun, so I was excited when I heard there would be a sequel.

I was more excited when I opened to the table of contents and saw a story by Ryan North called “I Saw Spidey Kissing Galactus, The Bringer of Gifts.” That gives you a little taste of what you’re in for.

The book opens with the beginning of Gwenpool’s story. (Gwenpool, in case you aren’t up on your Marvel trivia, is Gwen Poole, a comic fangirl from a “real” world who is stranded in the Marvel Universe. She is basically unbeatable because she understands the fictional nature of the world.)

Gwen is getting ready to celebrate Christmas with her teammates, but they seem to be preparing for a very different holiday. One where Galactus brings presents to good children and you express your caring for others by giving and wearing hot pants. She quickly determines that something is screwy and heads off to the North Pole to get to the bottom of it.

Then you’re treated to three short stories set in this alternate holiday world. The aforementioned Spiderman tale is by far the best and the most fun, but Punisher and Fing Fan Foom clashing over Pantsgiving is weirdly interesting, and the Red Skull rediscovers the meaning of Hydra.

Then it’s back to Gwenpool for the reveal and the resolution.

There is a Halloween-themed Deadpool story tacked on after this, but I found it annoying and wish I had skipped it. (It didn’t annoy me just because the art and writing on Squirrel Girl was wrong for the current, awesome, take on the character, but that was a big part of it.) The main story was pretty great, though.

Twinings Holiday Teas

With the cold weather comes an uptick in tea-drinking, at least for me. The third or fourth time I saw a display with these Twinings holiday varieties, I decided we should try them.

Christmas Tea

This is described as a spiced black tea. Unfortunately, it mostly just tastes of black tea, although it smells of cloves and cinnamon. It also seems to smell faintly of citrus, but that might just be a mental association with cloves.

It’s not bad for black tea with a slightly spicy aftertaste, but if I wanted something that mostly tasted of black tea I’d just buy black tea.

Winter Spice

I love herbal teas, and I love apple-flavored tea, so this should have been a slam dunk.

It smelled nicely of apples while it steeped, but once done, it only smelled faintly of apple and something floral. The taste is too mild for me, at least when steeped for only the recommended time.

I don’t mind chamomile, but the chamomile overwhelmed the apple and spice notes.

These are both okay teas, but they are not nearly as Christmassy as the packaging would have you believe.

(Incidentally, if you are in a mall with a Teavana, see whether the staff are handing out samples of their white chocolate peppermint tea. That stuff was insane. Too expensive to buy, but an awesome pick-me-up for a beleaguered shopper.)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The O.C.: The Chrismukkah Bar-Mitzvahkkah (2005)

You've got to admire the audacity of a show that's willing - eager, even - to undercut a dramatic moment where one character is trying to stop another from throwing their life away in a desperate robbery attempt by cutting to a bar-mitzvah-themed fundraiser where a couple of other characters lead the room in a chorus of Deck the Halls.

This is the third Chrismukkah episode of The O.C., and even more than the second, it's crystal clear the show's dropped the pretense that it's anything other a comedy. And, once again, we're better off for that.

The premise is built around a developing story-line. Some new character who lives to surf got hit by a car in an earlier episode (those "last time" openings really help here). If he ever wants to get better, he'll need an expensive surgery he can't afford. So his friends decide to put on a fundraiser/Chrismukkah Bar-Mitzvahkkah for the not-at-all-Jewish Ryan. This will also give Seth a chance to make for his own failed bar mitzvah, which none of his friends showed up for.

There's just one problem with the plan: the surfer is too proud to accept money from rich people. Instead, he wants to rob a convenience store to get the money. To be fair, it takes them most of the episode to piece together that's what he means when he says he'll take care of it himself. By the time Ryan figures it out, he's already bailed on his own Chrismukkah Bar-Mitzvahkkah to follow the surfer and stop him mere seconds before he's about to ruin his life.

This leaves the other characters having to kill time in the banquet hall decked out with giant menorahs and other Hanukkah decorations. The two Jewish characters try singing Hanukkah and telling the story of the holiday, but that fails miserably. Hence the rousing chorus of Christmas tunes, highlighting just how gloriously offensive the whole thing is.

There's really only one thing not to like in this, and that's the moralizing. This episode (and I strongly suspect the show) has a sort of modernized "white man's burden" theme to it. The heroes are almost entirely very rich philanthropists who throw fundraisers to help the less fortunate. While it may fit the situation, having one such "less fortunate" kid tell another to stop being stubborn and accept this assistance is a tad cringe-inducing. There are complex systems of inequality that allow the wealthy to live in luxury while suppressing others. A handful of lavish fundraisers doesn't make up for this disparity - if anything, it makes even their charity feel wasteful and superficial.

But, damn. It was funny. The writers knew how offensive the concept of a Chrismukkah Bar-Mitzvahkkah was and had a lot of fun with it - that fun was seriously addictive. In addition, that scene where Christmas invaded cultural space supposedly reserved for Hanukkah served as a great symbol for how hard it is to ward off the overwhelming force of Christmas. It really was a great moment in holiday television, and it's earning this episode the first "Highly Recommended" label I've slapped onto this series's specials.

Doc McStuffins: A Very McStuffins Christmas (2013)

If you don't have small children or regularly shop for toys, you may be unaware of this popular show. On a moral and personal level, I think it's awesome that this show is popular. It wears its feminism and positivity on its sleeve, which is great. It's kid-friendly to a fault, though, and the songs weren't very good.

The main character, “Doc,” is a little girl who has a knack for fixing broken toys. (She is following the example of her mom, who is a doctor.)

With that premise, of course there's a Christmas episode. As someone who spent a lot of time and love fixing toys as a kid, I found this show somewhat charming, despite the simplistic writing. Erin felt less charitable toward it than I did.

The main premise of the episode is that an elf named Tobias dropped a toy he was supposed to deliver for Doc’s little brother, breaking it. He's distraught about the implications for his career, (seriously, he won’t shut up about it) and Doc and her cadre of stuffed animal friends agree to help him.

She can't fix the action figure without a specific part, so Tobias whisks them all to the North Pole to find one. After some false starts, they find the piece and fix the toy just before Santa discovers them. He admires Doc’s work, says he’s happy to have someone looking after toys after they’re given, and offers her a job if she ever wants it. She declines for now, but she gets a special elf hat for Christmas.

That’s the short version. Really though, this episode raised more questions than answers.

Some are straight-forward plot issues. Why can’t Tobias fix the toy himself, or just go back to the workshop and get another if travel is so easy? Why is a toy from Santa so crappily constructed that dropping it, while it’s in the package, will snap a crucial gear?

More are the kind of existential stuff that even Toy Story barely touched on. There’s a squeaky fish who is part of the group. In the workshop, it sees an entire room full of squeaky fish. This never comes up again - it’s just a creepy shot, like a character looking into a room full of inactive clones.

Oh, I didn’t mention the fact that Doc can talk to her toys because she has a special stethoscope. It seems to bring them to life. I don’t know if this was explained in an earlier episode, but they don’t move or speak on screen until she does her thing, so it certainly seems like she is imbuing non-living material with sentience. For fun.

AND there’s a bin full of unattached doll legs wearing ballet slippers. It’s just...unnerving.

Can the toys feel pain? Commander Crush seems kind of pained when he gear is busted. This whole thing isn’t completely thought through.

If you don’t mind this sort of confusion and have a child to entertain, Doc McStuffins is on Hulu.

Podcast: The Allusionist: Winterval

I love podcasts, and one that I quite often find charming is The Allusionist, a series about language, etymology, verbiage, puns, and other wordy pursuits.

The most recent episode is a bit of a holiday special.

It’s all about Winterval, a portmanteau invented in 1997 in the British city of Birmingham to market all of their winter and winter-holiday events together in a grand festival. Of course, someone took it the wrong way, someone was quoted out of context, and a poisonous myth was born about “political correctness gone mad.”

This is an interesting entry in the history of Christmas, culture, and a timely example of how repeating a story doesn’t make it true, but it can make people believe it.

All that in 15 minutes. Check it out at:

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The O.C.: The Chrismukkah That Almost Wasn't (2004)

I know, I know. We usually collect things like this into one big post and do them all together. But even with The O.C. being quite a bit better than I'd expected, it still takes some effort to make it through a series this far outside of our wheelhouse (I mean, seriously - this show doesn't have one single superhero). Plus, this is an hour long; not a measly thirty-minute sitcom. And, to top it all off, we're still unpacking from our move and need to stretch this stuff out.

At any rate, the second installment of The O.C.'s annual Chrismukkah specials is at once better and worse than their first. Or maybe it's better because it's worse. It feels like the writers have realized and embraced the fact the show's dramatics are hilarious, because it feels like they've stopped trying to hide it. This episode features some ridiculously melodramatic concepts, but I never had the sense anyone was pretending otherwise. It helped that several minor characters involved in the prior year's shenanigans were back and seemed to have a sense of humor about it.

The driving conflict for this episode centered around Lindsay, a character who wasn't in the first season but seems to play a pivotal role in this one. She's Ryan's new girlfriend. Also, this episode reveals that she's the illegitimate lovechild of Caleb, the grandfather of the family Ryan's living with.

This little revelation gets dropped on everyone at the start of the Chrismukkah party. Lindsay, who'd gone her whole life thinking her father was gone for good, is understandably angry, as is Seth's mom, who never knew she had a sister. That said... I kind of felt like they were a little too upset. The writers snowballed the reveal into a "we'll need to cancel Chrismukkah" moment. But getting there meant having these two characters entirely miss the upside until another character pointed it out to them. I get their mutual anger at Caleb, but not their indifference toward each other. That was poor plotting.

At any rate, they let one of the teenage girls from the prior year step in to save Chrismukkah. Her plan was to put out a bunch of decorations for Lindsay, which seems like an idiotically simple gesture, but the run-time was running out, so it works perfectly. Chrismukkah is saved, and the family is bigger and better than ever. Or something.

Oh, also Caleb's new wife is having an affair, but that's mostly played for laughs. Maybe it's a big deal in a later episode, but it mostly felt tacked on here.

Despite the awkwardness around the story, the jokes - of which there were many - were generally funny. As was the drama, but - again - I'm pretty sure that had to be intentional. All in all, it was a well executed if silly exercise in using traditional holiday tropes as a catalyst for an ongoing story line. Sure, a better seasonal plot arc might have been preferable, but what the hell do I care? I'm just here for the Christmas.

Well, technically the Chrismukkah.

2016 Holiday Ads

I do like a well-done television spot; it’s like a tiny short film trying to get you to like a brand. I appreciate that Britain and other parts of the world really get into impressive Christmas ads, rather than wasting their money and effort on ads for some sporting event.

I’ve seen a lot of Christmas ads making the rounds this year; here are the ones I’ve liked the most so far. And if you haven’t seen these yet, you’re welcome.

Christmas with love from Mrs Claus

This is from Marks and Spencer, a British retailer which sells clothing, home goods and some food items. It’s pretty great, giving Mrs. Claus a Christmas wish to grant and a whole set of shiny secret toys of her own. The story of the family she visits isn’t surprising, but I thought the acting sold it. Also, I laughed out loud at the title of the book she’s pretending to read at the end.

Czego szukasz w Święta? | English for beginners

This one is from Polish online auction website Allegro. You will see the emotional punch coming a mile away, and I predict you won’t care because you’ll be too busy smiling and sniffling. It’s awfully sweet.

This is part of a series, their overall ad campaign “Czego szukasz” translates to “What are you looking for?” (Czego szukasz w Święta? is what are you looking for at Christmas.) Last year, the answer was “Nicholas.”

Frankie’s Holiday

A rare quality ad from an American company, this Apple ad takes a little while to get going, but it’s pretty cute once it does. Nice message.

The Greatest Gift

Sainsbury’s (a British grocery store) has gone all out with this stop-motion musical spot. The moral is a bit obvious, but I liked both the moment I suddenly thought it was about to go dark-sci-fi, and also what it did instead. Pleasant and hummable.

Party of Five: S'Wunnerful Life (1997)

Seinfeld famously referred to itself as the show about nothing, a somewhat self-deprecating title meant to imply an absence of premise, plot, and purpose. But I've seen almost every episode of Seinfeld, and I don't ever recall seeing an episode where nothing significant happened. Actually, I'm having a hard time thinking of a single episode of any show deserving of that distinction.

Save, perhaps, this one. We just finished watching this episode from the fourth season of Party of Five, an hour-long drama from the 90's, and I'm already finding it difficult to retain shards of story in my memory. It's not that nothing happened - characters did and said stuff - but none of it felt at all meaningful or important. I can attempt to tell you some of what happened, but I can't tell you what it was about. Honestly, it didn't seem to be about anything.

There were a bunch of characters living their lives, and they experienced different events around the holidays. I want to say there were three plot-lines, but it's surprisingly difficult to focus on any of them. None really seemed to intertwine or influence each other: they just sort of happened in a vacuum. Characters had conversations, delivered speeches, and argued, usually looking almost as bored as we felt watching them. Anytime anything emotionally loaded came up, the dialogue transformed into a string of cliches about life and hardship.

The plot that came closest to being interesting revolved around a character played by Matthew Fox. I neither remember nor care what his name was, so I'm just going to refer to him as "Racer X." At any rate, Racer X has cancer, but he doesn't want to take it easy, like his doctor says. Instead, he convinces a friend to take him on a day trip to pick up some furniture. Then he hides her keys, so they have to stay at a conveniently empty bed and breakfast run by Professor Whitman from Community. He makes them a nice dinner then is surprised when they explain they need separate rooms. The next day, they pick up the furniture and go home.

Racer X feels much better about things after this. Also, they played a game at one point where they pointed out Christmas decorations.

Plot line #2 involves a nineteen-year-old dating a twenty-six-year-old mother who's going through difficult times. The teenager's friend acts like a dick at a Christmas party (also, before and after the party). But the mature nineteen year-old is helpful. Perhaps his relationship will work out after all.

The third plot line focuses on a girl meeting up with an old friend who's back from Yale for the holidays. They both lie to each other about their lives, pretending things are much better than they really are. The truth comes out, and they take some solace in each other's suffering.

I've tried to synopsize these events in as dry and straightforward a manner as possible in an attempt to recreate the flavor of the show, but I doubt I succeeded. This is akin to watching a couple people you don't know talk about watching paint dry. Besides pretending that Matthew Fox's character really was Racer X, the only points I found at all interesting were the dramatic monologues, which were occasionally trite enough to be hilarious. I laughed out loud at several of the episode's most emotional moments.

The holiday elements were mainly just present, without purpose or effect. Just like everything else.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The O.C.: The Best Chrismukkah Ever (2003)

Until watching this, my impression of The O.C. was that it was some sort of 90210 rip-off. Actually, having never seen an episode of Beverly Hills 90210, that may still hold true. There's got to be a holiday episode of that show....

Sorry. Getting off track.

The point is, my impression of The O.C., a show I knew only through hazy memories of promo spots from the early 00's, was not a positive one. I'd have associated the series with soap opera melodrama. And that was certainly present in this, but there was also a large volume of comedy mixed in: much more than I'd have expected.

In short, it's more a dramedy than a soap opera. And I was pleasantly surprised by how funny the comedic bits were. Granted, they were nowhere near as funny as most of the dramatic bits, but that would have been a high bar to clear.

Apparently, one of the things this show's known for is popularizing the term "Chrismukkah" through a series of annual specials. In case it's not obvious from the term, Chrismukkah is a fusion of Hanukkah and Christmas.

In the show, it's the favorite time of the year for Seth, one of the series's main characters. Playing up the fusion of two great things theme, he has a pair of girls competing for his affections. He ignores the advice of his foster brother, Ryan, and tries to juggle the burgeoning relationships.

All of this is pretty awkward for most of the episode. The girls behave in a fairly cliche manner, trying to one-up and undermine each other, until the end, when they present Seth with their gifts. When they each see what the other did, they're simultaneously impressed with their rivals' initiative and embarrassed by their own behavior. A friendship is either saved or started, and - even before things officially dissolve with the self-obsessed Seth - it's clear he doesn't deserve either. An episode that started rank with misogynistic undertones delivers a fairly feminist resolution.

Of course, this leaves Seth alone. But that's okay - he can spend time with his family, who had their own B and C plots going on. Ryan's relationship troubles concerned a girlfriend with a drinking problem. This story line felt quite a bit more formulaic, not to mention judgmental. They did experience a Chrismukkah miracle late in the episode when a cop who'd pulled them over was called away seconds before he'd have discovered an open bottle of vodka.

Meanwhile, the parents had some sort of side adventure involving the mother's greedy father, who was engaged in an underhanded business deal with her husband. This ended happily enough when she stumbled across proof her father was illegally withholding information. There's a lot more here, but - honestly - I don't care enough to try and explain it.

The show had enough entertaining ideas and interesting characters to make it interesting, despite being focused on a group of people it's difficult to sympathize with, due to the fact they're pretty much all whiny rich people.

I don't think this qualifies as "must see," but it was okay to watch, despite being cringe-inducing at times. The resolution to the double-date scenario absolves this of a lot of sins, though.

Sofia the First: Winter’s Gift (2014)

Sweet, another fantasy holiday revisited! The first holiday episode strained our tolerance, but this one was actually adorable.

Sofia is excited that it’s Wassailia once more, and she’s made a special gift for Cedric, the court magician. It’s a wand case she made by hand. When she and her rabbit Clover approach his study to deliver the gift, however, she overhears him ranting to himself about the useless trinkets people burden him with every Wassailia. Sofia decides that her gift isn’t special enough and she’ll need to find something better.

A chance comment tips her off to a magical flower - an Ice Lily - that sounds like a great gift, so she and Clover head out. Clover calls on a friend who knows the forest, a fox named Whiskers. (I don’t know why the fox and the rabbit are friends either, but you forget about that because the fox is busy being super sassy about the rabbit’s cushy life in the castle.)

On the way to find the Ice Lilies, they hear some beautiful music and stop to investigate. They meet a young faun crying alone in the forest. The faun’s name is Winter, and she’s upset because she’s under a spell that causes anything she touches to turn to ice.

Winter asked for the spell as a favor from the Ice Witch last Wassailia, because she wanted to be special. After she froze her pets and realized she couldn’t hug her family, she tried to get the spell removed, but the witch only grants wishes on Wassailia, and only if you bring her a special gift.

So Winter is also on the search for Ice Lilies, and they all head off together. They finally find the Lilies (Winter’s power comes in handy on the way) but they’re up in the trees. Clover and Whiskers go after them, but after getting some, Clover falls. Winter catches him without thinking and he’s immediately trapped in magical ice.

They all rush to the Ice Witch now, but she decrees that she has plenty of Ice Lilies and their gift is not special enough. Winter runs off, distraught, and Sofia doesn’t know how to help her. At this point, Sofia’s special princess power activates. As you may recall from the other holiday episode, Sofia is sometimes visited by the grown Disney princesses with advice.

In this case her adviser is Tiana. I can’t even mind that she’s in her fluffy princess dress that she wore in the movie just long enough for there to be a ballgown for the doll, because she’s kind and smart and wearing a practical fur coat over the ballgown. Tiana sings to Sofia about special gifts being given from the heart, and Sofia knows how to help Winter.

She convinces Winter to play her music for the Ice Witch, and the witch is so touched by this gift that she removes the spell and rescues Clover. Winter celebrates by hugging everyone, then runs home to hug her family.

Sofia returns home as well and gives Cedric the present she’d originally planned. He’s touched by her thoughtfulness and care, of course.

This was a really sweet episode. The humor, drama, and earnest goodwill just carried me along. Erin even admitted to liking it. I don’t know whether the plots and writing overall improved in this second season or if this one was an outlier, but it’s a warm-hearted holiday confection.

Ambient Mixer Christmas Sounds

When I’m bored of instrumentals, sometimes listening to “noise” helps me concentrate. has tools for building your own atmospheric mixes, and while I haven’t gotten into building my own, sometimes I like to see what other people have come up with. Of course I noticed that there was a section of holiday ambiances.

Here are the three most popular of the featured mixes:

Christmas Time

Well… this is unique. The most popular comment reads: “You've successfully combined Christmas and Halloween,” and I think that person is on to something.

There’s a creepy music box on the verge of running down, very loud footsteps and door sound periodically, and an oddly ominous Santa voice every so often.

This has many more views than anything else on the Christmas page, but I wouldn’t listen to it for long. I guess you could turn off the Santa phrase and use it for the background of a Christmas horror story.

Cosy Evening in the Winter Cottage

This is okay, I guess. The cat is a little too present for me, it sort of overwhelms the other elements.

Home for the Holidays

This is more what I expect from this site, and judging by the votes, I’m not the only one who likes this. This has a nice balance of fire crackles and other soft noises -- a clock, a page turn, a cat purring. There’s a music track underlaid very faintly, just enough to stay interesting without keeping your attention on the fact that you’re hearing the same music loop over and over.

One of the nice things about this website is the individual sliders. If you want more music and less page turn, you can adjust the volume of each independently.

Of course, the reason I even know about this site is that it’s been adopted by fans, although there are more Potterheads than there are followers of any property I’m personally a big fan of.

This means that there are two Hogwarts Christmas ambiances, and they are both nice, if unexceptional, blends of wind, clocks, faint music, and castle-ish noises. You can check them both out along with others in the featured Christmas section at the ambient mixer site.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Mainlining Christmas 2016 Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

It's time for the annual Mainlining Christmas Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide! Okay, so technically we've never actually written one of these before, but tossing the term "annual" onto the front just gives it some much needed gravitas. Besides, if ever there was a year the public needed some help finding that perfect gift, this is it.

I mean, what do you get the person who already has everything in their fallout shelter? It's a tough nut to crack, but we've been wracking our brains to come up with the best holiday solutions.

The Fondoodler

Ever want to write with melted cheese using what amounts to a caulk gun? If so, the Fondoodler is what you've been waiting for. The Fondoodler can turn almost any cheese into whiz. Perfect for the foodie on your list!

A Digital Subscription to the New York Times, Washington Post, etc.
Now that we're on the precipice of living in a nation where the free press is threatened at every turn, the news media needs money and support. A digital subscription accomplishes this while simultaneously proving something valuable to the recipient... all without producing paper waste.

Poop Freeze

This budget-conscious option is a perfect stocking-stuffer for the comic-book or science fiction fan on your holiday shopping list: it's essentially a working freeze ray, albeit one calibrated for the specific task of pet waste disposal.

Donations to Charities
Cards on the table - in years past, these may have amounted to little more than a way to avoid having to think of a real present to get someone. But now that everything we know and love is threatened, supporting the organizations trying to save the world is a bit more tangible of an act.

The best part is, thanks to President-Elect Meisterburger's wide range of targets, there are plenty of worthy groups in need of support. So many, in fact, you should have no trouble finding the perfect fit for even the hardest person to shop for on your list.

We recommend using Jezebel's list as a starting point. Happy shopping!

Book Review: Silent Night (A Raine Stockton Dog Mystery)

Silent Night (A Raine Stockton Dog Mystery)
Donna Ball, 2011

Christmas crossposting!

(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: Raine Stockton runs an obedience school, or she would if the contractors would finish upgrading her facility. She trains dogs, keeps dogs, and sometimes that means she follows their noses right into trouble.

This is another cozy mystery that’s more what I would call romantic slice-of-life with a pinch of mystery. Raine’s friends, job, and trouble with men are, if not interchangeable with others I’ve read, certainly of a type.

The mystery isn’t much of the story - someone is stealing nativity Jesuses and some puppies are abandoned. Also a teenager’s abusive father turns up mysteriously dead, but Raine and company only briefly feel like they are in any danger, and she only gets involved because her trained search dog is helpful for the small-town police.

A lot more of the book concerns Raine and her well-off boyfriend moving to the next level, including Raine befriending his daughter (after several false starts).

Most of the Christmas connections here concern giving presents, and a real baby abandoned in a nativity scene. It was a fine popcorn read, but I’m not going to be hunting down more by this author in a hurry.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

The Last Man on Earth: Secret Santa and Silent Night (2015)

Well. That was weird.

I've seen ads for this show before, but I never actually watched an episode. Now that I have, I'm still a little unsure what to think of it.

The Last Man on Earth is a series about a small group of survivors living in the empty, desolate remains of a planet where disease has killed off the human race. Also, it's a farcical comedy.

I actually like that premise quite a bit. Protagonists in post-apocalyptic stories tend to be abnormally capable; the best of humanity. Conceptually, there's value in subverting this assumption. But maybe they pushed things a little too far with Will Forte's Tandy, who I found entirely unlikable. To be fair, I think that was the intention, but still, it might have been a bridge too far.

These two episodes were part of a much longer plot arc. The first, Secret Santa, centered on the group celebrating Christmas together with a Secret Santa gift exchange. This made for some entertaining interactions due to different characters' interpretations and levels of engagement. Some got each other major pieces of pop-cultural paraphernalia, while one basically did nothing.

The real focus, however, was on the relationship between Erica and Phil. The pair broke up prior to the episode, despite the fact Erica is pregnant. Tandy, seeking Phil's gratitude, trades Secret Santa names with him, giving Phil an opportunity to win Erica back. Tandy tries to give him "the perfect gift," as well: the Hope Diamond, but Phil instead brings Erica ultrasound equipment so she can see her child. This wins her forgiveness, though Tandy goes on thinking his idea was better. Before the episode ends, Phil doubles over in pain, seriously ill.

As a B-plot, Tandy's brother, Mike, spends the episode (and presumably the preceding years) orbiting the planet in a space station, where his only companions are a bunch of worms he's been studying. When the last of these worms dies, he puts on a spacesuit and prepares to jettison himself into space. While he's waiting for the doors to open, he looks through and discovers there's actually another worm left alive. He tries to the override the airlock, but isn't fast enough.

Silent Night picks up where Secret Santa left off. Mike catches himself on a tether and manages to drag himself back to the station. He names the worm "Phil" and begins debating whether they should risk trying to descend to Earth.

Meanwhile, the group determines that the other Phil (actually, one of the other Phils - "Tandy" is Forte's character's middle name) has appendicitis. None of them are doctors, though Gail has a bit of first aid training. Against her judgment, they pressure her into agreeing to perform the surgery. Most of the episode is devoted to her preparation. There are a few revelations along the way, as well as some complications due to a love triangle around another character.

The episode ends with Gail attempting the surgery while Mike and his pet worm climb into an pod and attempt reentry. Both go poorly and imply failure, though Wikipedia informs me Mike made it to Earth (though his long-term prognosis sounds less promising). Apparently, that was it for Phil, though.

While Secret Santa was holiday-themed through and through, Silent Night offered only lingering Christmas elements. I suspect the title was in part a fake out, implying some sort of Christmas miracle that never materializes. Ultimately, Gail was right when she insisted she wasn't qualified to perform an operation: the others were simply living a fantasy.

As a series, I find this conceptually fascinating, but I have no real desire to see more. In other words, I respect what they're doing, but I didn't really like it.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Roseanne Christmas Episodes (1991 - 1996)

Roseanne's one of those shows I watched sporadically growing up. I remember finding it funny and knowing intellectually it was supposed to be significant for some reason, but I didn't fully appreciate it back when it was airing (hey, I was only a teenager).

Looking back, it's incredibly impressive. Casting a pair of leads more closely resembling the average American than Hollywood stars was courageous. Also, ingenious: they clearly got their pick of undervalued comedians, since they wound up with two of the best.

The episodes are formulaic, but not in a bad way. There's an impressive balance here between slapstick comedy and serialized storytelling. Even jumping from year-to-year, I found myself getting caught up in the character and plot developments.

Santa Claus (1991)

This episode from season four seems to kick off the annual Christmas episodes, assuming there aren't earlier holiday installments hiding under unassuming titles. The cold opening establishes that the holidays are coming and Darlene has a new friend. Dan and Roseanne are excited their reclusive daughter has someone to talk to, even while they imagine "Carol" as an anti-social rebel.

The next day, Roseanne takes a part-time job playing Santa at the department store she works at. This transitions to a sequence of her in costume interacting with kids. It's a hilarious scene thanks to strong writing and Roseanne committing to the situation.

While there, she meets Carol, who's she's shocked to discover is a grown woman who owns an independent bookstore. After her shift, Roseanne visits her store to learn more about this "new friend." She finds she likes Carol quite a bit, but that there's a whole aspect to her daughter she doesn't know (and that it's an aspect she'd prefer to the version she does).

Darlene shows up and is mortified her mother is snooping on her. They have a fight, and Roseanne takes off. At the end of the episode, Darlene returns home and makes a silent but meaningful gesture, leaving a science fiction story she'd written on the refrigerator. In the context of the episode, it's a sweet moment that avoids being over sentimental.

This was a fantastic episode overall. I could have watched easily watched another thirty minutes of Roseanne interacting with kids as Santa Claus: she was funny and surprisingly good at the role-within-a-role. The more dramatic bits were well executed and always blended in comedic elements, so even if you didn't care about the characters, you'd still be entertained.

This was a very good example of how the sitcom format can be used effectively to deliver laughs without sacrificing story.

No Place Like Home for the Holidays (1992)

This ironically titled episode references the premise: the characters are trapped in various locations by a snow storm on Christmas Eve. Roseanne and Jackie are trapped in their restaurant along with their mother and grandmother, Darlene is stuck at her boyfriend David's house while they're having a fight, while Dan and DJ are home, along with Nancy and her girlfriend, a situation that makes the mildly homophobic Dan uncomfortable.

Despite it getting the least screen time, the section with Darlene and David was the most significant. While there, she sees his mother abuse him. She consoles him after that in a touching moment. At the very end of the episode, she comes home and kisses Roseanne, which of course leaves her mother shocked and confused.

It's a solid episode with a decent number of laughs. But the scene where David's mother yells and slaps him feels contrived. Her actions lack believable emotion, undercuts the impact. My guess is the direction was the result of some sort of negotiation where they had to tone back the intensity to get permission to use the plot point. Whatever the reason, it leaves the result feeling timid rather than sad or scary. Fortunately, Darlene and David's reactions are much more believable, so they mostly salvage it.

It's a fine episode, but it's nowhere near as funny or touching as the series' best.

White Trash Christmas (1993)

There are three plot lines in this episode, each of which is mostly separate. The title references the fallout from a notice from the home owners association posted on the Conners' door. In response to the family's tacky holiday decorations from previous years, the neighborhood has adopted a "simple white lights only" policy. Dan and Roseanne take this as a challenge, and decide to create the most gaudy, horrific display imaginable under these rules.

Meanwhile, they give their oldest daughter, Becky, a check for Christmas - enough money to pay for a semester at community college. But instead of enrolling herself, she uses the money to pay for her husband's tuition to trade school, leading to an argument with her parents. Tensions get worse when she takes a job at "Bunz," a Hooters analog. Dan and Roseanne are never happy with her choices, but ultimately they realize the decisions are hers to make.

Finally, DJ's grandmother brings him with her to Chicago to see a performance of The Nutcracker. While there, they drop in on Darlene to surprise her, and in the process DJ discovers (and at least for the duration of this episode sits on the secret) that her boyfriend is living with her.

If you'd listed these out as elements of a sitcom storyline, I'd have been horrified at the prospect of sitting through it. But the episode itself was hilarious. Roseanne and Goodman were absolutely terrific, selling every joke and building empathy, even when they were clearly acting irrationally or being cruel. The rest of the cast did great work, too, and the punchlines delivered the sort of laughs most sitcoms only try for.

The plot was mostly just a slice of much longer story lines, something our approach doesn't really give its full due, but it's impossible not to appreciate the structure - this is comedy (and great comedy) built as if it were a soap opera. And even without being deeply invested in these characters, it works really well.

The Parenting Trap (1994)

This is a Christmas episode in that it's set just before Christmas, and the holidays permeate the background. but the plot's got nothing to do with the holidays.

Instead, it mainly focuses on trouble DJ's having in school. When Dan investigates, he discovers the issue is due to DJ having trouble controlling his erections. Rather than risk embarrassment, he's pretending he doesn't know anything, so he won't be called to write answers on the board.

Which is, frankly, an awfully contrived premise in the first place. Only that's not really what the episode's about. It's more concerned with Dan and Roseanne arguing over how to address the problem.

The entire thing feels like a convoluted attempt to build drama and comedy, and neither really pulls it off. The episode has some funny moments, but it's pretty clear the series isn't at its zenith this season. The B-plot centers around David, Darlene's ex-boyfriend who's now living with the Conners for the usual sitcom reason (i.e.: a very special episode about child abuse earlier in the season). Darlene finds out he has a crush on her married sister or something - I'm assuming this is more interesting in the context of the larger story arc.

The episode wasn't bad, but the jokes felt much more forced than before. Like I said at the start, there are gifts, decorations, and holiday outfits establishing the setting as being in December, but it barely comes up. Still, Christmas is Christmas, so here we are.

December Bride (1995)

Here's a famous one. According to Wikipedia, December Bride marks the first time on TV a recurring character is married to someone of the same sex. At the time, it was extremely controversial - the network shifted it to a later time slot for the week - but in hindsight, it's hard to see what the fuss was about. Hell, they didn't even let the couple kiss on-screen, making for an unfortunately regressive close to the wedding (I'm going to go out on a limb and assume this was the network's call).

In terms of its Christmas credentials, this is really just nominally holiday-related. It's set right before Christmas, as is evident from the liberal use of decorations in both Roseanne's restaurant and the Conner household. But while these form a backdrop, the season goes almost entirely unmentioned. By my count, the word "Christmas" was spoken once, and even that was a throw-away joke. I'll get to some theories on why this was set during December in a moment.

The episode opens by introducing Roseanne and the audience to Scott, a wily man who immediately gets along with the star. After a few misdirects, we discover he's going to marry Leon, who'd been keeping his marriage a secret in an effort to keep Roseanne from finding out about it. The wedding's been a long time in the making: the couple was supposed to get married years earlier, but Leon got cold feet at the last minute.

They're busy, so Scott convinces Leon to let Roseanne plan the wedding. This quickly spirals into an awkward sequence where she arranges for a ceremony that includes male strippers and drag queens, which the antithesis of what the conservative Leon wants.

He panics when he sees the decorations and threatens to call off the wedding once more. While the rest of the Conners deal with the guests, Roseanne locks Leon in a bathroom to keep him from leaving. Finally, she tones down the ceremony, only to find that wasn't really the issue - he's just scared again. She talks him down, and the wedding goes on.

I have a few guesses for why this was presented as a holiday special. The simplest and least interesting is that it may have been coincidental. In other words, it's possible the Christmas tropes were added to coincide with the fact the episode would be released right before Christmas. Likewise, it may just have been an attempt to capitalize on the "December Bride" pun in the title (i.e., an older bride, since Leon was getting up in years).

The more interesting interpretation is that it may have been an attempt to increase the episode's exposure. By presenting the wedding in the guise of a Christmas episode, they may have been able to signal that it was an important one to watch.

As I said, any progressive aspects are undercut by its refusal to even show the men kissing. Instead, the camera pans to Roseanne and Dan talking about the kiss in a scene that culminates with a cameo from the woman who kissed Roseanne a few seasons earlier. Still, it was an honest attempt and an important step in television's slow trek towards representation.

While the over-the-top antics could have been trimmed back, there's still quite a few laughs in this one. The story is also pretty good and sweeter than the synopsis probably makes it sound. All in all, not one of the best, but still an enjoyable episode.

Home for the Holidays (1996)

This is the final Christmas episode from the bizarre final season of Roseanne. I haven't seen much of this season - just this one, I believe - but my understanding is that the series should have ended a year earlier. That's generally the case with sitcoms.

The last season, according to Wikipedia, centered around some major plot twists. The biggest is that the Conners won the lottery, which upended the status quo but also kind of undermined the premise of the series. On top of that, Dan was gone for most of the season. You can thank the Dude for that - John Goodman was busy playing Walter while the Conners were dealing with their new lives. If all that's not enough, the last episode apparently revealed the rest of the season was a fictitious version of events created by Roseanne to cope with the death of her husband. Also, a bunch of details from the entire series were fake.

Actually... I kind of want to see that finale.

At any rate, let's dive into this installment without worrying too much about what level of a story-within-a-story-within-a-TV-show we're at.

This is the episode where Dan makes a reappearance after spending most of the season caring for his mother. Now he's home for Christmas, and everything's... kind of off. They go through various holiday traditions, now up-scaled due to their newfound fortune, and Dan tries to act like everything's okay, but it's clear something isn't right.

By the time they've exchanged presents, things are almost back to normal. Everyone seems happy, and the the writers imply the only problem is that Dan's a bit shocked by their new standard of living. Then at the very end Jackie overhears him on the phone. She assumes he's chatting with his mother at first, but it quickly becomes obvious he's speaking with a woman taking care of his mother. Likewise, it's pretty obvious he's having an affair.

The reveal was well done, though it wasn't exactly surprising. The episode as a whole suffered from the same issues most sitcoms have in the later parts of their run: jokes get stale, primary character traits get modified to the point of absurdity, and everyone gets just a little less intelligent as the writers try to keep things funny. These aren't new flaws to this season - we could feel the show slipping since The Parenting Trap - but it was pretty clear this was the season it crossed the point of no return.

Still, even with these problems Roseanne remained funnier than most sitcoms of its day.

Black Nativity (2013 Film)

First, I would like to state for the record that about fifteen minutes into this musical movie, I started thinking that it wasn’t that it wasn’t awful, but there was a disconnect between the style of the music and the style of filmmaking that made it unconvincing and boring. But if either the music/singing were more grounded or the acting/set/cinematography more surreal, it might work. And then later in the film I was proven right when it suddenly got good.

The movie follows a young man named Langston (after the poet), when his mother sends him to her estranged parents’ home for Christmas. He’s never met his grandparents, but his mother’s jobs aren’t bringing in enough to make rent, so she ships him from Baltimore to New York.

And up to this point it’s just slow and schmaltzy, and it has that music problem I alluded to at the start. The music is full of autotune and style that doesn’t match the very realistic filming of characters walking and riding buses. The result is thereby deflated of all actual pathos, and then the plot gets stupid.

Langston, a teenager who grew up in Baltimore, gets robbed after being in Times Square for five minutes. That makes literally no sense. Then he tries to go into a hotel to use a phone, and tries to return a wallet to a guy who left it on a counter, and he gets picked up by the cops. He didn’t actually take anything, and even if the hotel thought he was trying to, they’d hopefully just run him out, not spend the time and hassle and bad PR to have him arrested.

But, whatever. Langston has to have a scene in a holding cell so he can meet an older man who teases him about being a kid, and more or less tries to scare him straight. He’ll come up later. He gets picked up by his grandfather and brought to their super-expensive looking Harlem townhouse.

This might be a good time to mention that this is a really fantastic cast. Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, Jennifer Hudson, even the guy who played Ben Ulrich in the new Daredevil is here. They all are acting and singing their hearts out, trying hard to salvage this really thin, poorly written material. It’s a shame.

Anywho, Langston learns some things about African-American pride and he tries to sell his grandfather’s most prized possession to help his mom and he angsts in a dream sequence about a young couple who lives on the street and how no one cares about the people on the fringes.

And then we actually get to the Black Nativity portion of the film. Black Nativity is a performance piece, written by Langston Hughes, that retells the nativity story with an entirely black cast. Our young Langston’s grandfather is a reverend who hosts a performance at his church, and Langston is forced to attend.

While he’s there, he falls asleep… and suddenly you have a few minutes to glimpse what an awesome experience this film could have been if they’d jettisoned the entire frame story. For fifteen minutes or so the film is kind of amazing. It’s a surreal dream sequence that plays out the nativity story, starring the young homeless couple from earlier, with Langston as observer. It uses a mix of traditional music and modern styles, a mix of vaguely period and modern costumes and theatrical urban set pieces. It culminates in a vibrant crowd dance number presided over by an angel in an awesome silver costume.

And then unfortunately we have to return to the real world and wrap up the story. Langston skips out of church when he wakes up to meet with the guy from the cell. Of course, this guy is actually Langston’s unknown father, Tyson, and Tyson apologizes for leaving him and his mother and finally talks the teen into returning to his grandparents. As they arrive, Langston’s mom Naima shows up, and there’s a reunion. The threesome troop inside the church to confront the older generation. It turns out that when Naima got pregnant as a young woman, the Reverend was so embarrassed that he offered Tyson money to skip out, which he took, because he ran with a bad crowd. Naima found out, and hadn’t spoken to her parents since. Tyson’s cleaned up his act, the grandparents are sorry, and everyone decides to forgive each other because Christmas.

And, good news! Naima and Langston can stay with their rich family for as long as they like, so all the plot is now magically resolved. Ugh. Seriously, Naima had one character trait for most of the movie: she would do anything for her son. And you expect me to believe that she wouldn’t have swallowed her pride sometime before they were evicted? It’s an extremely unsatisfying ending, not least because we never find out anything more about the fate of the homeless pregnant couple. They don’t have rich parents, so I guess they’ll die in a ditch.

Yay, Jesus? It was so frustrating to see good actors waste their time on this, and so frustrating to realize that a film of an actual performance of Black Nativity would probably be awesome. But we didn’t get that. We got this instead.

Available on Amazon.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)

I think this movie was recommended on some list of little-known Christmas films, even though Christmas doesn’t fully show up until after the halfway point.

We open on a tour bus traveling down Fifth Avenue, with an announcer pointing out the houses of New York’s wealthiest families. A man in a shabby outfit with a dog and a cane is walking down the street. Once the bus passes, he sneaks through a loose board into a backyard and down through a manhole, coming up (somehow) inside the boarded-up mansion.

It turns out this is Aloysius McKeever, a homeless man with high class taste. He lives in this house secretly while the owner, real estate and business mogul Michael O’Connor, is in Virginia for the winter.

Meanwhile, the last tenant is being thrown out of a building scheduled to be torn down for one of O’Connor’s projects. This is Jim Bullock, a young unemployed veteran with nowhere to go. McKeever runs across him in the park and takes him back to his secret mansion. Jim thinks McKeever is a friend of O’Connor, and doesn’t fully trust him, until Trudy shows up and McKeever comes clean.

Trudy is actually O’Connor’s daughter. She’s 18, and she’s run off from finishing school because she hates it. She stops at “home” to get some things, and McKeever and Jim mistake her for another trespasser. Once she figures out what’s going on, she decides to hide her identity and play on the men’s sympathies. This was a very funny scene, as she’s very smart and knows exactly what she’s doing.

Soon she’s living “secretly” in the house as well, and she gets a job in a local music store. She and Jim run into a couple of Jim’s army buddies and their families, and they also can’t find anywhere to live. The house gains a few more boarders.

Jim and his friends get an idea for an enterprise, inspired by something McKeever says. They want to raise money from themselves and a bunch of other GIs, buy an old army camp outside the city from the government, and turn it into quality inexpensive housing.

They don’t know that O’Connor wants the same property for a shipping terminal.

O’Connor shows up in town searching for his daughter, and things take a weird turn for a bit. When Trudy meets up with him, she tells him everything, and Erin and I couldn’t figure out why. Then we realized that it’s only half the story of Jim and Trudy. It’s also both a bit of a Scrooge story and it also plays on older Christmas traditions where the poor or the young would be temporarily lifted to a position of (mock) power.

Trudy convinces her father to masquerade as a bum, and she gets him a place in the house. As the newcomer, he’s given a lot of the grunt work by McKeever: cleaning, hauling, etc. Every time O'Connor almost loses his cool, Trudy talks him down, insisting that he always got his way before. She wants her father to meet Jim, but she also wants Jim to continue to court her without knowing she has money.

Some of the humor is a bit awkward, or goes on the type of tangent you wouldn’t see in a modern movie, but it’s a fun journey to go on.

Eventually Trudy enlists her mother’s help keeping her father in line. Her parents divorced some years back, but it turns out that her father’s obsession with business was what drove them apart. Now that they’re both pretending to be poor, as they were when they first met, and they’re cooking and cleaning together, they begin to fall back in love.

The whole group of new friends celebrate Christmas in the big house together, and it’s clear that they have all become close, except maybe for O’Connor. He’s trying to get Jim to abandon Trudy by offering him a job in another country through a proxy.

The women make it very clear that they will not stand for chicanery of that sort, or any kind of dealing that puts profit above people. McKeever also speaks eloquently about the importance of friends. O’Connor finally has a change of heart and bends over backward to fix everything for Trudy without giving more of the ruse away than necessary. It isn’t quite a full “Mankind will be my business” turnaround, but at least he learned that it’s better to have friends and do good things for good people.

Jim and his friends get their project, Jim and Trudy are engaged, O’Connor and his former wife remarry, and McKeever walks off into the sunset, happy to have friends, still unaware of their real identities.

We enjoyed how this didn’t play into a lot of the obvious drama beats that a similar story would wallow in today. For example, we never see Trudy tell Jim the truth! There’s no scene where he rejects her for having money, or where she uses that to get anything. They’ll have to come clean eventually, but it’s not part of the story. The older romance between Michael and Mary O’Connor was nuanced and very welcome as well.

I don’t know that I’d say this is great cinema, but it’s charming, funny, and sweet. Apparently it was unavailable for many years, but we got the DVD through Netflix.