Showing posts from December 10, 2017

Elf: The Broadway Musical

There are only a handful of movies and specials that we've watched over the years that Erin and I have felt strongly enough about to review separately. Elf is one of those films. I don't like it much; Erin does.

Now I can embrace my dislike of the movie more than I allowed myself to in that article because I have seen what the story can be instead.

It turns out, I like Elf a lot once you remove Will Ferrell, the more juvenile/gross humor, and the poor musical choices.

You know the story more or less, right? Human raised by elves goes to meet his father in New York, misunderstandings ensue, everyone learns the importance of family, love, and to be open to magic and wonder.

In the touring production I saw this year at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, Buddy was played as sheltered but enthusiastic. He wasn't dumb; he wasn't the butt of every joke; he just didn't understand a lot about human society. And he was so dang genuine and kind that he won over everyone aroun…

Music Review: Care Bears Christmas Eve (CD 2006)

I knew this was going to be bad from the first track, but I didn't realize how bad. The music is generic overproduced "kid-friendly" stuff. It reminded me of the old commercials for Kidz Bop.

(Side note: I can't find the CD case right now, but all the cover art I see online says "instrumental" on it. It isn't instrumental music.)

There seem to be at least three singers: a male generic pop voice, a female generic pop voice, and a female voice doing a somewhat androgynous/generic "kids show" sound. The music production is terrible: the balance is off, the vocals sound overly digitally tweaked, yet still have prominent hissing "s" sounds.

The album includes a few generic versions of traditional carols. These are mostly notable because one is set so low in the male singer's range that his voice disappears under the artificial, 80s-keyboard-demo-grade percussion. It's also strange that all three are explicitly religious choices: …

Malcolm in the Middle: Christmas (2001), Christmas Trees (2003), Hal's Christmas Gift (2004)

Malcolm in the Middle probably owes its existence to The Simpsons. While the characters and premise aren't the same, there's a notable similarity in the show's energy, humor, and tone. The characters on Malcolm in the Middle feel animated, in a similar way. That's not to say they're shallow - I don't think that's the case for either series - merely that their emotions are exaggerated to the same degree.

This isn't the first live-action show I've seen try and capture this kind of tone. The recipe for success seems to be pretty straightforward - good writing and a commitment to the premise. Shows that try to wink at the audience while building a surreal world usually come off hokey; ones that explore their world and characters honestly have a chance to create something great.

Malcolm in the Middle revolves around a family of four (eventually five) sons, their irresponsible father, and their very angry mother. The series started airing in 2000, when I…

Teen Titans Go!: Second Christmas (2013) and The True Meaning of Christmas (2015)

In case you're not a cartoon aficionado, Teen Titans Go! is a wacky comedy starring highly stylized versions of the characters from the original Teen Titans show. It's much, much sillier, and has no or next-to-no continuity.

It is not connected to the previous shows Young Justice (a serious action show about young superheroes) or Batman: The Brave and the Bold (a mix between wacky tropes and serious superhero action), or the current show Justice League Action (mostly comedic superhero action).

Erin covered some of the mixed feelings we, and many fans, have about this show. I'll only add that I am personally inclined to give this a good deal of leeway. I loved the original Teen Titans, but I also like having the option of complete zaniness. Anything that punctures the self-important grimdark that has recently been a big part of DC comics is a good thing.

Okay, on to the episodes!

Second Christmas (2013)

The Titans are celebrating Christmas with enthusiasm: food, decorations, …

Book Review: The Silence of the Elves

The Silence of the Elves
Meg Muldoon, 2016

Premise: Holly's been demoted right out of the North Pole through no fault of her own, but she'll need more than hope to get her life back on track.

You may recall that I kind of liked another one of Meg Muldoon's holiday-themed cozy mysteries, so when I saw she had a new series that was explicitly about Christmas elves, I had to try it.

Unfortunately, I feel that this book was the author attempting to move outside her personal formula and failing. It's a bit like a palette swap. Nothing about the Christmas-elf premise felt committed to or explored fully, just pasted on.

There's a thin veneer of elf-ness: Holly mentions her elf instincts to be cheerful, kind, and festive, but we never really see this play out to a greater extent than it would with a naturally cheerful person. The elves are basically indistinguishable from humans, and while Santa, Mrs. Claus, and some extended relations are characters, they are indistinguis…

Bad Santa 2 (2016)

If either Bad Santa or its sequel were 1% lower on Rotten Tomatoes, their sum total would be exactly 100%. It's a shame this isn't the case, as there'd be a certain poetry to having this occupy the space its predecessor does not; a symbolic representation of how it is the empty husk of what it tries to copy.

Ultimately, the one positive thing I can say about this pointless exercise is that it serves to emphasize how surprising it remains that the original was any different.

The plot of Bad Santa 2 follows a fairly routine heist formula. The same could almost be said about part one, except there the heist mainly served as a backdrop for a story of a nearly irredeemable man discovering the importance of a found family. Here, the focus is inverted - there's some lip service paid to the same theme, but the movie's attention is planted firmly on the crime. When the movie does drift off-topic, it's to exploit moments of depravity and gross-out jokes in an attempt to…

Presenting the Mainlining Christmas Podcast

For the better part of a decade, we've been sifting our way through an endless ocean of yuletide specials and sharing the experience with those of you willing to follow along. Over the years, something odd happened: we started to learn something.

This was unintentional, I assure you.

We started noticing patterns and trends, and we began piecing together theories about the holidays' odd relationship with pop culture, genre, and literature. I'm not sure it's fair to call us "experts," but we certainly developed a rather unique perspective.

But while the blog has been a good forum for reviews and the occasional think piece, it's a poor environment for more in-depth discussion. We wanted to try something new.

And that brings us to The Mainlining Christmas Podcast.

We're working on pushing this out to various podcast outlets, but for now you can listen at Soundcloud. We've got plans for several more episodes, assuming there's interest, though we&#…

Will and Grace Holiday Episodes (Part 2: 2003-5)

Fanilow (2003)

The season six Christmas episode begins at Grace's company holiday party. (Since it's just her and Karen, does it really count as a company party?) Will doesn't show, claiming some sort of charitable appointment, but really he's in line for tickets for a special Barry Manilow Christmas concert.

Grace discovers him there and holds his spot while he goes to use a restroom. Then she spots her mother having dinner with Jack, after telling Grace she wasn't coming into town for their Hanukkah dinner. Grace deals...poorly with this, first making a scene about how she's glad her mother isn't taking up her time, and then breaking down over missing their traditions.

Meanwhile, Will is in line at Subway to use the restroom and a man flirts with him awkwardly. Will brushes him off, only to discover later that he's Manilow's road manager. He tries to strike the flirtation back up, and the guy basically blackmails him into a date.

This episode occa…

Will and Grace Holiday Episodes (Part 1: 2001, 2002)

Sometimes the best way to start a review is with words of wisdom from my Mainlining Christmas partner. Erin’s take: “These are all good comic actors wasting their time. These scripts really wish the show was Seinfeld.”

Will and Grace was notable at the time as one of many forces that helped some people understand that gay people are just like everyone else. Now anyone can be featured in mediocre, dated sitcoms, but it was (sadly) a big deal then.

Jingle Balls (2001)

The first Christmas episode is in season four. Grace has found out that Will is dating a mysterious man named Robert, but he refuses to arrange for them to meet, claiming that it’s too early in the relationship.

Sometime later, when Will picks up Robert for lunch, he finds out that Grace has invited him for dinner. He’s concerned, but decides it’s no big deal. When Robert comes, though, Will is incredibly self-conscious. Robert is a dancer, and he's demonstrative, flashy, and sensitive/artsy as can be.

Robert and Grace …

WordGirl: Oh, Holiday Cheese (2009)

WordGirl is my go-to example when I want to argue good superhero stories can be told at any level of maturity. The series is unequivocally targeted at young kids - it's edutaiment, through and through, complete with vocabulary lessons repeated multiple times to the viewer. It's the kind of show you'd expect to be tedious and pedantic. Instead, it's ridiculous fun.

The reason WordGirl works is it understands its genres. The writers clearly understand the conventions of both kids television and superheroes, and they're eager to play with both. They're willing to mock PBS conventions in a good-natured way, and they're more than happy to embrace comic book tropes. The result is a series that plays like a pureed homage to Sesame Street, Powerpuff Girls, and Superman.
The holiday episode is a fine example. After the narrator introduces the episode's special words (curmudgeon and festivity, in case you were interested), the episode shifts to a brief battle be…

DC Holiday Special 2017

I picked up DC Comics' Holiday Special this year, but it's kind of a rip-off. Unlike the pleasant surprise of last year, most of the tales in this one feel cramped and one-note.

The 90ish-page special opens and closes with a frame story of Clark Kent and Constantine in a bar, arguing with "Bibbo" Bibbowski over whether Superman (or anyone) is really making a difference in the world. Bibbo's an optimist and reassures Clark with a bunch of stories. Not that the stories which follow make any sense in that context.

Most of the stories are just too short to have any impact. I was thinking that I would have rather they had cut one or two and let the others be longer. However, it's not actually that they're all short on space; some of them just aren't paced well for the space they have.

Worst of the bunch: 

There's a weird, surreal, fatalistic Swamp Thing piece that doesn't end with much. Something called Atomic Knights wasn't so terrible in itse…

Fuller House: Nutcrackers (2016)

It took eight years for civilization to kill off the original Full House, but some monsters just won't stay dead. In a twisted perversion of nostalgia, the concept and characters were resurrected, along with the stale jokes. If you're looking to place blame (and you really should be), Netflix is responsible for this abomination.

The series seems to center around DJ Tanner, her sister Stephanie, and their friend, Kimmy, from the original show. Joining them are a pack of kids, love interests, and pet animals you won't care about. Supposedly, the three leads from the original (Joey, Jesse, and Danny) show up from time to time, but all were mercifully missing from the holiday installment.

By my count, there were three main stories going on. First, DJ's middle child finds love on a play date with the daughter of one of DJ's ex-boyfriends from when she was young. The kids are around six or seven - I think this was supposed to be cute, judging by the canned cooing sounds…

The Mensch on a Bench Hanukkah Activity Kit

In addition to the crappy doll I've already reviewed, The Mensch on a Bench brand has expanded to infect numerous products. I've seen ads for toy animals, and more dolls. And, of course, the activity kit I'm looking at today.

Do I even need to specify I found this on clearance? I got it at Michael's for 70% off the original price, which was still $2.99 I'm never going to see again.

Among the lies I found on the packaging were that there were eight Hanukkah card inside - mine only included SEVEN. Also, this claims the book includes "10 Fun Activities," when none of the activities were fun.

Setting that aside for a moment, let's look at what's included. There are the aforementioned eight (seven) identical Hanukkah cards and envelopes, six crayons, four markers, two sticker sheets, and the activity book. The cards are ugly, the crayons and markers are cheap, and the stickers are... well, they're stickers - not much to say there. Almost everythin…

A Very Pentatonix Christmas (2017)

Now, I like vocal music, and I like a cappella music. But when it comes to Christmas, I am over Pentatonix. They're good at what they do, but I think much of their stuff blurs together, and it's incredibly overplayed.

Like most variety-show style holiday specials, this was mostly boring.

The opening wasn't terrible. For once, Jay Leno was actually amusing as he stubbornly refused to recognize the singers as anyone famous. The rest of the show alternated between songs on stage in front of an appropriately adoring crowd, songs on stage with guest singers, and short "comedic" bits filmed separately.

The Pentatonix crew seem nice enough, but they are singers, not actors, and they felt stilted and awkward whenever they had to deliver a transition. I was most amused by the fifth guy. One of the members of the group dropped out earlier this year, and apparently, the new guy hasn't been accepted/made official yet. They introduced him separately, and he quietly disap…

Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)

Despite having been the right age, I grew up disliking Pee-wee's Playhouse. I found the characters and sets off-putting as a kid, and I wasn't old enough to appreciate that was part of the point. The 1988 Christmas Special seemed like a good chance to revisit the show and give it another chance.

Ultimately, I was left torn on this one. I have far more respect for the manic, surreal premise, and Paul Reuben's portrayal is certainly impressively bizarre. However, I couldn't shake the feeling that there was something missing tonally. I wanted to be pulled into that odd, unsettling world, but I could never shake the sense I was watching people and puppets act weird on TV.

The plot of this special is... well... it doesn't really have much of one. This is basically an hour of Pee-wee interacting with a long line of guest stars and cast members before the holiday. The closest it comes to a story is a bit about Pee-wee's Christmas list being so long, Santa would need …

The Mensch on a Bench

While I haven't actually gotten my hands on an Elf on the Shelf yet, I've heard a great deal about it. And from that, I suspect The Mensch on a Bench may be just as good an idea as the Elf.

If you think that's a compliment, you probably don't know much about Elf on a Shelf.

The "Mensch on a Bench" was introduced to the world on Shark Tank. Sadly, they gave it an influx of cash and some publicity instead of letting it die there.

Like the product this is clearly ripping off, The Mensch on a Bench includes a book and stuffed doll. Also, it sits in your house, sleepless and ever watchful, judging your children.

You also get a removable cardboard bench, because "mensch" doesn't rhyme with "shelf." The doll is fine, if unremarkable. I doubt he'd stay on his bench without being tethered to it, though.

The story of the Mensch on a Bench is essentially the story of Hanukkah with all the interesting war stuff excised. Instead, Moshe the Men…

Book Review: Holidays on Ice

Holidays on Ice
David Sedaris, 2008

I haven't been subjected to this unpleasant an attempt at "humor" in some time.

I thought I knew what I was getting into with this, and I expected it to be mixed. Erin spoke in the past about how much he disliked most of the Sedaris segments on This American Life.

The first story is the most famous: the author's lightly fictionalized account of working in Macy's Santaland. It's not bad, I guess. Aspects of it are amusing. However, I have a certain personal affection for the hardworking Macy's elves, the flagship store itself, and the young aspiring theater folk of New York, so I found the author's "ironic" cynicism unamusing and tedious.

The narrators in the four stories that follow are universally unlikable. Even though the point is often for the reader to therefore feel superior to the humorless adult who misses the point of a children's play or the murderous, racist grandmother, that doesn't act…

Tree Man (2016)

Tree Man is a documentary about one of the merchants who travel into New York City every year to run a Christmas tree stand. The movie is difficult to review because it's more an exploration of character and place than a story. It would work well as a companion piece to I am Santa Claus or Becoming Santa - this aims to do for tree salesmen what that did for Santas.

To its credit, it mostly succeeds. The central character, Francois, is intriguing, as is the expanded cast of seasonal help and rival sellers. There's a seemingly endless line of loyal customers ready to tell the camera why they keep returning to buy from Francois - he's energetic, enthusiastic, and friendly in public. In private, the movie gives a glimpse of the toll this lifestyle's taking. He's been at this for years, which means he's missed those holidays with his family.

A large portion of the movie focuses on New York itself, and it does a better job than most films in capturing some of the co…

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Three Days of the Condor is one of those movies most of us have heard of but never seen, despite movie critics and historians swearing it's extremely important. The premise of Captain America: The Winter Soldier was largely drawn from this: it's a tense espionage tale about a CIA agent trying to stay alive when he uncovers a conspiracy within the Agency itself.

Robert Redford plays the lead, Joseph Turner, who's responsible for reading and analyzing books. He's smart, but no spy or assassin. Max von Sydow, on the other hand, is a cold-blooded killer working for parties unknown. While Turner's out picking up lunch, Sydow shows up with a group of mercenaries and kills off the rest of the branch. Turner returns to find he's the only survivor. He pulls a handgun out of the receptionist's desk and runs.

He calls into the head office, but the agent sent to bring him in tries to kill him. Turner then abducts a woman off the street at gunpoint, ties her up, and fo…

The Christmas Dragon (2014)

If you've been reading this site for any length of time, you probably know that interesting Christmas genre mashups are highly sought after around here. Christmas horror is so common as to be unsurprising now, but Christmas science fiction is rare. Christmas crossed with epic fantasy is extremely rare.

It turns out there are some reasons for that.

We start our tale on Christmas. Or Christmas Eve. Or something. Ayden receives a kite in a dirty sock, and her parents tell her to thank Father Christmas. Cut to Ayden flying the kite outside on a sunny, warm day. It's unclear how much time as passed.

Some villains in black - backed up by a bunch of mooks decked out in cheap gear and swords that your average ren faire attendee wouldn't be caught dead with - accost Ayden's parents for some tax money. (Spoiler: the idea that there is a king or other person in charge of this place is never mentioned again.) Her dad accuses them of skimming off the top, and a fight ensues. The v…

Holiday Tic Tacs

This year I spotted two types of Holiday Tic Tacs: Candy Cane and Merry Elf Mix. The box designs are kind of cute.

The Candy Cane Tic Tacs each have a little candy cane printed on them, which is an extra nice touch.

They taste... minty. What else do you want? I'm not sure I think they're candy cane specifically, they're closer to peppermint Altoid with a smidge more sugar.

The Merry Elf Mix is more interesting. It's advertising the flavors as green apple, white lime (whatever that is), and cranberry.

I don't often like apple flavoring, but I think this is pretty decent. It's a paler color than it looks in the picture, and it's a decent balance of tart and sweet for me.

The lime is even better. It's got enough citrus for the flavor to be clear, but sweetness as well. (It might even be better than orange, Tic Tac fans.)

I'm not sure cranberry is a great choice for a mint flavor, although it is nicely seasonal. However, I don't know that I would t…