Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 12


Eight Crazy Nights (2002)

As someone partially raised in the Jewish faith, and considering the large number of Jewish people working in Hollywood, I've always found it odd that there are so few films about Jewish holidays. There are roughly ten thousand Christmas movies. But Hanukkah, the Jewish winter festival? As far as I can tell, there are exactly two movies explicitly about the celebration. Last year, I reviewed “The Hebrew Hammer,” an amusing parody though hardly the film I want representing the entire feast of lights. This year, I decided to cover the other fifty percent of Hanukkah movies. And it was a hard decision, as Adam Sandler's “Eight Crazy Nights” is widely regarded as a deeply terrible film. But, hey, my Jewish side wasn't going to let all eight nights go by covering just goyish movies.

The New Hampshire town of Dukesberry is celebrating the holiday season. Christmas is around the corner while the town's large Jewish population is beginning the eight night festival of Hanukkah. Everybody is celebrating except for Davey Stone. Davey is an asshole, committing crimes and ruining everyone's good time. His latest rampage gets him placed under the care of Whitey, the elderly and eccentric good samaritan around town. Whitey is the couch of the youth basketball team and encourages Davey to mentor a young boy. While Davey is resists these attempts at rehabilitation at first, he soon starts to come around.

Consider the career of Adam Sandler. Though a reliable box office star over the years, the amount of effort Sandler put into his features has decreased steeply with time. “Eight Crazy Nights” came out fifteen years ago and Sandler had already, for the most part, quit trying by then. The animated feature is overwhelmingly crass. The film opens with a long burping joke. There's a fart joke not long afterwards, along with jokes about other bodily functions and parts. An extended sequence is devoted to someone being frozen inside human feces. There are jokes at the expense of the Asian, the overweight, the neuro-divergent, amputees, transgender, virgins, the elderly, the tall and the short. Davey is unendingly obnoxious while Whitey has an incredibly obnoxious voice. More offensive than any of this is the clear loathing “Eight Crazy Nights” displays for the world. This is a hateful film, spewing bile and intolerance on nearly everyone.

The story is hostile and belligerent but “Eight Crazy Nights” is still a testament to Adam Sandler's ego. Davey begins the film as a detestable asshole, heaping spite on everyone in the town but also himself. Despite this, the character still gets a redemptive arc. As in “Big Daddy,” “Bedtime Stories,” and probably a few other films, Sandler's character bonds with a child. This eventually thaws his heart, leading him to a romance with a beautiful - and totally personality-free - woman. For extra mileage, Davey is also given an incredible talent, being naturally gifted as basketball. (Also making the movie similar to “Happy Gilmore,” “The Waterboy,” and “The Longest Yard.”) “Eight Crazy Nights” doesn't skimp on another Sandler trademark: Gratuitous product placement. Practically every business in the town mall is a real one and, at one point, the corporate logos come to life to give our asshole hero a pep talk.

As if building its story around a very annoying set of characters wasn't enough to put off viewers, “Eight Crazy Nights” is also a musical. Yes, not only does Adam Sandler inflict a high-pitch, brain-bleeding voice on us, he also sings. While Sandler's vocal talents are enough to sustain a jokey number like “The Hanukkah Song” – a third version of which plays over the end credits – but it's hardly enough for actual musical numbers. Probably the most ear-splitting number if “Technical Foul,” in which Sandler sings as both Davey and Whitey. The lyrics, for that song and every other, are naturally totally inane. There are references to shitting, farting, bald ladies, and hairy asses and that's just one song. Other numbers include a man in a dress, a phone sex line, and a burning trailer.

I will give “Eight Crazy Nights” this much. The animation is decent. Apparently, some of the same character designers from “The Iron Giant” and “Anastasia” worked on the film. You can't help but notice the similarities. I also remember laughing once, about a joke involving deer wearing wigs. Otherwise, the film is entirely foul, inside and out. It lacks in laughs and heart, being an entirely rotten experience. Then again, this is exactly the kind of bullshit we expect from Sandler. It's really a bummer that this is one of two films the proud Jewish people have to represent their eight-night celebration. [2/10]



Even Stevens: Heck of a Hanukkah

I watched a lot of the Disney Channel during my late adolescence and pre-teen years. I've already reviewed every episode of “So Weird,” one of the network's better and more obscure shows. Yet I also enjoyed their aggressively wacky, kid-targeting sitcoms. I can try and be snide and say I watched “Lizzie McGuire” and “Even Stevens” because I thought Hilary Duff and Christy Carlson Romano were cute. I mean, I did but I genuinely found these programs to be amusing as a youngster. I'm talking about “Even Stevens” on the first night of Hanukkah because, it turns out, the family at the show's center were of mixed faith. Jewish on the mother's side and Christian on the Dad's side. (Perhaps this was done because the show's stars, Shia LeBeouf and Romano, are themselves part Jewish.) The show even did a Hanukkah episode in its first season.

Anyway, “Heck of a Hanukkah” begins with Louis and Ren, the brother and sister that the show is about, arguing. The hyper Louis is trying to find where his parents hid their Hanukkah presents, while Ren is being her usual overachieving self. Louis finds the gifts and ends up accidentally tossing them out the window. He gets, understandably, grounded and wishes he was never born. At that point, the ghost of Louis' Jewish grandmother appears to him, showing him what his family's life would be like if he was never born.

“Even Stevens” was an aggressively wacky show. This is apparent from the opening credit sequence, depicting the battling siblings as stop-motion animated cartoons. So it's not surprising that “Heck of a Hanukkah” bends towards the broad and loud. Louis' antics are overly zany, as his search for his presents involve “Terminator”-style graphics, lots of fast-motion photography, and randomly destroying stuff all around him. The fantasy scenes reduce the already simplistic characters even more. In the alternate reality, Louis' jocky brother is now a simpleton obsessed with a winning a spelling bee. Louis has been replaced with a psychotic, perfectionist brother that eventually attempts to frame the boy for a crime. Louis, meanwhile, dances around with a chicken on his head. It's pretty dire stuff, aimed squarely at the kiddie crowd.

Disappointingly, “Heck of a Hanukkah” only directly addresses the characters' faith a few times. The siblings' mom relates the story of the Maccabees while frying latkes. The episode concludes with the clan lighting the menorah. And the ghostly grandmother has a Russian-Jewish accent. Otherwise, this easily could've been a Christmas episode, especially so considering the story is yet another riff on “It's a Wonderful Life.” And I'm honestly unsure if treating a non-W.A.S.P. background as an everyday, unremarkable thing is better than making a big deal about it. Anyway, that's another artifact from my childhood that absolutely does not hold up. [5/10]

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 11


White Reindeer (2013)

Common knowledge would have it that suicide rates go around the holidays. This is not true but the irony is still irresistible for some. That what is supposed to be the happiest time of the year makes some people miserable. This has led to an interesting genre of depressing Christmas media. There's sad holiday songs, downbeat December books, and, of course, miserablist Christmas movies. I feel this provides a much-needed course correction, counteracting the omni-present holiday cheer around the end of the year. Indie filmmakers have been happy to cater to this demand. I've covered a few of these anti-cheer flicks before and another title I've been hearing about a lot lately is “White Reindeer.” Onto the December watchlist it went.

Suzanne Barrington seemingly has an ideal life. She's a successful real estate agent and is married to Jeff, a popular local weatherman. The two love each other, frequently having enthusiastic sex. The couple plans on spending Christmas, just a few weeks away, in Hawaii. This all comes crashing down when Suzanne comes home to discover her husband, dead on their living room floor. He was murdered during a robbery. Soon afterwards, Suzanne learns her late husband had an affair with a stripper. The two strike up an odd friendship as Suzanne attempts to navigate her grief and survive the holiday season.

Going into “White Reindeer,” I was expecting some mumblecore cringe-comedy. Joe Swansberg's in it, after all. It becomes clear early on that director/writer/editor Zach Clark doesn't employ the partially improvised format, as his film is concisely written and edited. The editing is especially strong during a dance sequence. However, “White Reindeer” does go for cringes in an interesting way. Jeff and Suzanne is introduced having rowdy sex in their kitchen. She is frequently seen sitting on the toilet. She vomits and farts. Moreover, the character are often put in uncomfortable situations. Suzanne's nice neighbors are interrupted while setting up a sex swing. This proceeds a long sequence set at an orgy, which is more awkward than sexy. The editing, which frequently drops the viewer into these uneasy moments, emphasizes the feeling that the protagonist is no longer comfortable in her own skin.

More than anything else, “White Reindeer” is about the odd ways humans react to grief. The film acknowledges grief as something that isn't a clean process. Such as the scene where Suzanne discovers her husband's taste in pornography. This leads to Suzanne attempting to drown her sorrows in physical sensation. She drinks, does drugs, and parties with her new stripper friend. When that doesn't work, she attends her neighbor's sex party, finding this stimuli ultimately unsatisfying as well. She spends hundreds on Christmas decorations, turning her house into the holiest jolliest building on the block. She starts to live off candy canes and eggnog. She briefly becomes a vegetarian, haunted by images of her husband's blown open head. None of these actions provide solace. “White Reindeer” presents grieving as a long, difficult situation without easy answers or clean payoffs.

Centering the film is a phenomenal lead performance. Anna Margaret Hollyman, an actress with few other big credits to her name, plays Suzanne. Hollyman is astonishingly well controlled. She keeps most of Suzanne's storming emotions under the surface, at least until it inevitably bubbles over in the harshest ways. It's a difficult part, running through most every emotional extreme you can think of, but Hollyman does a fantastic job. She never hits a wrong note or overdoes it. The supporting cast is strong too, as Laura Lemar-Goldsborough also does well as Fantasia, the stripper. This is her only on-screen credit so far, sad to say.

“White Reindeer” will obviously not be for everyone. As a comedy, the film's jokes are few and far between. A sudden game of Rock Band or an awkward encounter in the strip club's dressing room are the only moments that really made me laugh. The story's visual symbolism, like Suzanne's reoccuring vision of a fashion model, don't really pay off. The conclusion is sudden and somewhat frustrating, intentionally leaving a few plot points unresolved. Despite these issues, I found “White Reindeer” a rewarding experience. And there's certainly few other films out there that grapple with the meaning of the holiday the way this one does. [7/10]



The Small One (1978)

When I did my Don Bluth retrospective a few years back, one thing became apparent. The animation director has made some awful movies but, when he was on his game, the results were frequently fantastic. Bluth's first directorial credit was on an animated short, “The Small One,” made by Disney in 1978. I've always been curious about the short and decided this December was the one I watched it. The plot, set in the Middle East many years ago, concerns a father and son. The boy is especially attached to an old donkey he calls Small One. The father informs the boy that it costs more to feed the donkey than they make from him, telling the boy to sell the animal at market. The last minute plot point that makes this a Christmas movie should be fairly easy to guess, given the setting and time period.

Even Bluth's worst movies – and he made some stinkers – were usually beautifully animated. It's hard to know how personally satisfied the director was with “The Small One,” as he left the studio not long after it came out. “The Small One” isn't up to the standards of Bluth's feature films but it still looks lovely. It's hard to undersell the beauty of painted backgrounds or the vividness of detailed character animation like this. The story is awfully cute. Considering it revolves around the relationship between a young boy and an adorable donkey, it would be hard for it not to be cute. The short's moral – that even the smallest of weakest of us can serve the greatest purpose – is nice, even if the context of these events are easy to guess

“The Small One” is effective at what it does, though I wish the music was a little better. The title song, and the songs the boy sings to his donkey, are nice enough. However, the songs the various bankers and vendors in the marketplace sing range from forgettable to annoying. The short isn't quite a half-hour long but, with those songs cut, could've easily run shorter. It's a fairly pleasant take on the beginnings of the Christmas story, though Bluth's later work would easily eclipse it. [7/10]


Monday, December 11, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 10


Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

2010 was, it seems, the year of European horror movies that put dark twists on characters more-or-less analogous to Santa Claus. The year brought us both Holland's “Saint” and Finland's “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.” Based on a series of popular internet shorts, about a company that captures and exports wild Santas in Finland, the film was the more critically admired of the two. Which was in contrast to the public perception. Seemed like a lot of fans felt this killer Santa Claus movie didn't deliver. Yet, ultimately, comparing the two films is as pointless as comparing the countries that birthed them. While “Saint” is a slasher flick, “Rare Exports” is a moodier exercise.

Far off in Lapland, a British team of excavator has uncovered something unusual deep within the ice. The team leader believes it to be the burial mound of Santa Claus. But this ancient Santa is not the giving, benevolent figure we know. This Santa is a giant, horned figure that devours children. Frozen in a block of ice but still alive, a group of elves – which also resemble the archetypal Claus – appear to free their master. They begin to kidnap children and radiators, melting the ice. A group of local reindeer farmer and butchers, along with their especially brave children, are tasked with preventing the dreaded Claus' return.

It's fair to call “Rare Exports” a slow burn. Despite the salacious premise, of a small Finnish village attacked by killer Santa Clauses, the film focuses more on atmosphere than exploitation. The first hour is about Pietari, the film's young protagonist, and his family noticing weird stuff is going on around them. We see far more evidence of the evil Clauses, like a field of dead reindeer or a body in a trap, before we actually see the sprites themselves. This leads to a sense of mounting dread, building up to the reveal of the elves and their evil master. To this, the film adds a very isolated, snowy, and extremely cold setting. Bright but detached, with a dusty wind frequently blowing in the background, Lapland becomes an ideal place to tell a story of chilly, Christmas fear.

So “Rare Exports” is not a horror movie packed full of shocks and scares. In fact, it often bends towards an odd sense of humor. The elves are nude in their natural states. This leads to bizarre images, like a herd of naked and bearded men trampling through the Finnish snow. Yet there's something ominous about the film turning a figure of holiday cheer into something more sinister. These elves are otherworldly, starring blankly with wide eyes. They have a naturally predatory attitude towards children, watching them with hungry expressions. There's little gore in the film but when the elves attack, they are swift, burying axes in scalps and throwing decapitated heads into the snow.

As someone fascinated with the mythological and anthropological origins of Santa Claus, “Rare Exports” scratches a few itches. To be totally technical, the film isn't about Santa Claus but Joulupukki. Though their modern iterations are basically identical, the Joulupukki is a far older character with pagan roots, possibly tracing back to Thor. The name literally translates to “Yule Goat,” which “Rare Exports” nods to by giving their frozen Santa giant horns. The character was, originally, said to punish children as often as he rewarded them. “Rare Exports” references this early on, showing a book devoted to pictures of Santa attacking children or boiling them in stews. To present an alternative origin story for the jovial gift-giving figure, one steeped in fear instead of glee, makes “Rare Exports” a film about how history is co-opted by consumerism. That the film literally ends with these Santas being shipped around the world as a product almost puts too fine a point upon it.

On a simpler level, “Rare Exports” is also about a boy's journey into adulthood. At the film's beginning, Pietari is a timid child. He still believes in Santa Claus. He closes his eyes when entering his father's workshop. He carries a stuffed toy with him everywhere, often talking to the plush animal. He is fearful of the sinister Santas at first, covering himself with home-made armor and leaving traps in the chimney. As the story progresses, Pietari becomes more bold. Eventually, the boy's quick thinking and bravery is what saves the day. That this turn happens when he discovers the truth about Santa Claus – around the same time he abandons his stuffed animal friend – connects this change with a loss of innocence. But it's not a bad thing, as he also earns his dad's respect. It's fairly simple writing but a solid execution of the character arc.

I can understand why those expecting a movie about a rampaging, evil Santa were disappointed in “Rare Exports.” It's going for something a little more pointed and a lot more subtle. If you're willing to play on the film's side, you're likely to find an interesting experience, with some intriguing ideas and an occasionally spooky moment. Finnish film scholars would probably find the movie an even deeper experience, as I suspect the script is also saying something about local traditions being adsorbed by corporate interest. If nothing else, it's one hell of an alternative Christmas movie. [7/10]




He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special (1985)

As a child of the nineties, the appeal of “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” is largely lost on me. I came along too late for the original iterations of these characters and later reboots didn't draw me in. I find the random blending of fantasy and science-fiction elements to be nonsensical. While I'm a fan of campy eighties bullshit, the general aesthetic of the show leans a little too hard on the pastel side of things for me. Even the name strikes me as dumb. Is it necessary to accentuate that Prince Adam's alter-ego is both a “He” and a “Man?”

So, no, I've never seen “He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special” before. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a single episode of either series before. Despite that, I decided to give this forty-four minute long holiday special a shot, primarily because its consider a seasonal camp classics by the reasonable folks at fine websites like Dinosaur Dracula and I-Mockery. Also, it's streaming free (and legally) on Youtube, so I really had no excuse.

As someone mostly unfamiliar with the lore of either series, I find the plot of this “Christmas Special” to be especially preposterous. Eternia, the sci-fi/fantasy world He-Man and his friends call home, is celebrating the birthday of the royal twins, the civilian identities of the titular heroes. Meanwhile, Prince Adam and Man-at-Arms are activating a rocket to spy on Skeletor, their arch-enemy. Magical sidekick Orko stowaways on the ship. He accidentally ends up on Earth and drags two human kids back to Eternia. The kids are getting ready to celebrate Christmas and bring the strange traditions to the alien world. This motivates the bad guys to muck up the incoming holiday celebration.

Like most every cartoon from the eighties, “He-Man” and “She-Ra” were designed to sell toys. To this goal, the Christmas special includes as many characters from both shows as possible. Some of these cast members strike me as especially absurd. She-Ra has a flying unicorn that talks with a surprisingly deep voice. There's a flamboyantly-voiced fairy that sprays rainbows, a random mermaid, a peacock feathered psychic, and some guy with an elephant head. Also included are a villainous henchmen with two bickering heads, cutesy robot friends, and a horde of evil transforming robots. Considering this special aired in 1985, one year after “Transformers” came to America, that last group of characters can't help but strike me as an especially calculated attempt to ride a rival property's popularity. The robots being evil, and easily defeated, might even be a petty jab at the other franchise.

While I'm generally a fan of stupid bullshit, “He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special” struck me mostly as incredibly annoying. The characters are blindingly colorful and most of them have obnoxious voices. Like Hordak, She-Ra's enemy and Skeletor's professional rival, who honks and slurps every few lines. Or Orko, who squeaks and rhymes, spending most of the special being captured by some bad guy. The characters without annoying voices, like He-Man and his sister, speak exclusively in banal catchphrases. The plot is both needlessly convoluted and ridiculously simple. It's a series of encounters between a bunch of inconsequential assholes, the heroes chasing plot devices or captured allies. What about those fucking kids? God, they're irritating. When they aren't whining, their spouting off exposition about Christmas for their new alien friends. They even have a song, a painfully saccharine musical number.

So what does “He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special” offer a Eternia skeptic like me? Skeletor being an endearing doofus, that's what. The show characterizes the villain as a bumbling employee, struggling against his own incompetence to please his finicky boss. The spirit of the holiday and the sickeningly sweet kid get to the skull-faced bad guy. He's inability to understand Christmas, and his dismay at being corrupted by the holly jolly festivities, are way funnier than probably was intended. Otherwise, I think I greatly prefer my “He-Man” to include Dolph Lundgren murdering people. Good luck with that one-hundredth attempt at a reboot, Mattel. [5/10]



Sunday, December 10, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 9


Holiday Affair (1949)

Robert Mitchum's greatest legacy as an actor is his villainous roles. Mitchum's name is synonymous with roles like Max Cady and Reverend Powell, psychopaths driven by deviant sexual desires to to prey on women and children. Of course, Mitchum played many heroic roles, in westerns, film noirs, and movies like “The Story of G.I. Joe.” Yet, even during the main years of his career, there's no Mitchum movie quite like “Holiday Affair,” a light-hearted romantic comedy set around Christmas. Rumor has it, Mitchum was given the role following his arrest for marijuana possession. Though a flop in 1949, Turner Classic Movies' seasonal airing of the film has granted it some more attention.

Connie Ennis is a single mom and a widower. She supports herself with a job as a comparison shopper, working for one store but buying items from another. It doesn't pay much but Connie and her son Timmy still have a degree of happiness. Connie also being courted by Carl, a successful professional man who wants to marry her. While buying an expensive toy train set, Connie catches the eye of Steve Mason, a clerk at a New York department store. Connie and Steve strike up a strange friendship, primarily because she blames herself for him getting fired. As Christmas approaches, the two men begin to compete for the woman's heart.

So how does Robert Mitchum fare as a romantic lead? One of those reason Mitchum's villainous roles are so compelling is because he was an incredibly charismatic performer. This evident in “Holiday Affair.” Steve Mason is a somewhat charming guy. When chatting with a squirrel or gifting a tie to a homeless man, he seems like a nice enough fellow. He has Mitchum's other roles can't help but cast an ominous shadow over the film. When he's playing with Timmy, it's impossible not to think of “Night of the Hunger.” When he sneaks up behind Connie and kisses her forcibly, “Cape Fear” comes to mind. This is no fault of the filmmakers or Mitchum. The parallels are just unavoidable.

As a Janet Leigh vehicle, “Holiday Affair” is a little less unintentionally creepy. As a widow struggling to provide for her child, Leigh is likable. She's vulnerable but never lets her character seem too weak. That she's usually resisting the romantic advances of one man or another emphasizes that strength of sorts. It also helps a lot that Leigh has fine chemistry with her co-stars. Perhaps most important is her interaction with Gordon Gebert, who plays her son, Timmy. Gebert is a genuinely adorable kid. The way he sneaks peaks at the gifts his mother brings home seem authentic and cute. He's not just a cutesy kid, since he actually tries to help his mom and Mason out at one point, advancing the plot.

Honestly, the cast is probably what keeps “Holiday Affair” afloat. As a romantic film, it's got some problems. Connie is pulled between two guys and neither seem great for her. Carl is emotionally manipulative and not great with kids. Steve Mason is a lot nicer, looser, and funnier. But he also has boundary issues, continuing to pursue the girl even after she reveals she has a fiance. This peaks during a supremely awkward Christmas party with her parents, where he announces his feelings for the girl in front of everyone. Luckily, the comedy aspects work a little better. When Mason ends up in a court house, the judge's reaction to the absurd details of the case got a chuckle out of me. There's also a mildly funny scene involving an over-sized pair of pajamas.

“Holiday Affair” has been overlooked throughout the years and that's about right. I just finished the movie a half-hour ago and the details are already starting to drift from my mind. The central idea behind the film, of casting Robert Mitchum against type, ends up backfire, at least from a modern perspective. (Considering at least one poster made the movie look more like a anoir than anything else, maybe it's just not a modern problem.) However, the movie's cast is solid, there's one or two funny bits, and the kid is cute. And, hey, the Christmas atmosphere is strong too, which I also appreciate. The film is apparently well regarded enough to receive a television remake in 1996. Fluffy and forgettable, but totally serviceable on those terms, “Holiday Affair” is worth your time. [7/10]





Darkwing Duck: It's a Wonderful Leaf

“Darkwing Duck” – Disney's mash-up of “Ducktales” and “The Shadow” – is a fondly remembered bit of nineties nostaglia. This probably has more to do with its insanely catchy theme song and infectious catch phrase – “Let's get dangerous!” – more than anything else. The few times I've revisited the shot, I've found that it holds up better than expected. Despite being set in a world populated with humanoid ducks and mammals, Christmas is still celebrated in the city of St. Canard. “It's a Wonderful Leaf” concerns Bushroot, a supervillain that can control plant life. After a bad experience at a shopping mall, the bad guy begins a war against the holiday, using Christmas trees as his soldiers. Naturally, Darkwing Duck has to step in and save the day.

“Darkwing Duck” still works primarily because of its excellent voice cast. Jim Cummings' scratchy voice brings a nice manic energy to Darkwing and his civilian identity. His delivery of the hero's alliterative proclamations are especially amusing. The late great Christine Cavanaugh – who also voiced Chuckie Finster, Babe, Dexter, and Bunnie Rabbot – voices his mischievous daughter, Gosalyn, who mostly gets to react sarcastically to her dad's crimefighting antics. Naturally, she learns a lesson about charity before the episode is up. Dom DeLuise-soundalike Tino Insana plays Bushwick as a surprisingly sympathetic bad guy, who mostly begins his crime spree to being rejected by society.

It's a good thing that the voice cast is so strong because “It's a Wonderful Leaf” is not the show's most inspired half-hour. There's a few solid gags. Darkwing gets his beak stuck to a cold fire hydrant and, during a sleigh-assisted chase scene, has a gift box dropped on his head. Otherwise, the humor is not especially strong. The dialogue is full of puns, many of which are groaners. A bully character gets repeatedly dunked on, in a way that almost feels mean-spirited. A flying sled gag goes on for way too long. So this is obviously a program intended for young kids but it still made me laugh a few times, so I'll call it about even. [6/10]



Saturday, December 9, 2017

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Santa with Muscles (1996)


Once again, my “Why Do I Own This?” column forces me to consider the career of Terry “Hulk” Hogan. Not his career as the Man Who Took Down Gawker with a Racist Sex Tape. Nor his career as perhaps the most iconic pro-wrestler of all time. I'm talking about that brief period in time when Hulk Hogan was allowed to star in movies. Due to his all-American face antics inside the ring appealing primarily to kids, most of Hogan's movies aimed for the primary school crowd. After the doldrums of quasi-hits like “Suburban Commando” and “Mr. Nanny,” Hogan's acting career more-or-less bottomed out with “Santa with Muscles.” The yuletide kiddie comedy is widely considered one of the worst Christmas movies of all time. Even as a kid, when I could reasonably consider myself a fan of Hogan, I missed this movie existing. Despite all this, for some reason, “Santa with Muscles” resides in my DVD collection. Good God, why?

The Hulkster stars as Blake Thorn. A bodybuilding millionaire who has built his fortune on diet supplements and narcissism, he goes on a crazy motorcycle-and-paintball trip with his cronies. Their riotous adventures ends up attracting the police. Blake ducks out of the high speed pursuit and into a shopping mall. By the way, it's close to Christmas, though the snowless California December makes that hard to guess. Blake grabs a Santa Claus suit as a disguise. He then bumps his head and catches that type of amnesia that only exist in movies. Blake wakes up believing himself to be Santa Claus. He heroically foils a robbery before becoming the defender of an orphanage threatened by a mad scientist.

In many ways, “Santa with Muscles” is a typically dumb kids movie. The script is so loaded with cliches, that you wonder if the writers put any effort into it at all. The entire premise hinges around a bump on the head causing amnesia, the laziest kind of story set-up you can think of. A scrappy hero coming along to protect an orphanage from an evil land developer is another sappy, cliché story idea. Naturally, Hogan's Santa Claus landing in an orphanage allows him to have cutesy relationships with the little kids. Including an adorable, lisping little girl who likes to sing songs in the pews. Upon regaining his memory, Blake finds his cold heart has been entirely thawed by the ragamuffins. Many of the action scenes are goofy and comedic, functioning on the simplest form of slapstick. All of these are cliches of the highest order, coughed back up with minimal effort.

At the same time, “Santa with Muscles” is also a really weird and, occasionally, interestingly stupid movie. Ed Begley Jr.'s bad guy is introduced ordering his henchman to torture another man. The aforementioned henchmen each have an odd gimmick. One guy is a doctor that knows kung-fu, another wears a beekeeper outfit and sprays methane gas. The sole female has electric superpowers. The quartet drive around in an ice cream truck, for unexplained reasons. It almost seems like “Santa with Muscles” was trying to be a superhero movie of sorts, as one of the orphans designs Blake a costume and a utility belt. (She's inspired by her favorite comic book hero, named Mega Man presumably because the screenwriters were unfamiliar with Capcom.) Things get even weirder when one orphan mentions magical fairies living in the church. This precedes the heroes discovering a secret cavern located under the building... A cave full of a rare type of hugely valuable crystals... Crystals that explode when struck or stepped on. I really didn't see that insanity coming.

In “Santa with Muscles,” Hulk Hogan essentially has to play two separate characters. This stretches Hogan's limited acting abilities far past their breaking point. In his early scenes, as the narcissistic millionaire, Hogan acts broadly. He coughs up list of asshole life rules, like a less murderous/more tanned version of Patrick Bateman. After receiving his bump on the head, Hogan begins playing Blake as a slightly clueless defender of the innocent. The highlights of Hogan's acting include a stilted television interview, which is less amusing and more genuinely awkward, and a singing scene. Yes, the Hulkster sings an insipid pop song with the little girl called “Angel Baby.” Hogan's singing abilities do not inspire much awe.

As in “Suburban Commando,” “Santa with Muscles” packs its supporting cast full of talented performers, in order to make up for Hogan's limited star power. Ed Begley Jr.'s performance as the bad guy, a germaphobe who eventually walks around in a space suit, is manic and goofy. He certainly acts circles around Hogan. Steve Valentine happily hams it up as Doctor Blight, the kung-fu kicking doctor who swings his stethoscope like a nun-chuck. Character actor Don Stark appears as Lenny, the mall elf who becomes Blake's unwitting sidekick. Though initially hoping to simply steal Blake's millions, Stark's Lenny always comes around to the ways of love and charity. Clint Howard gets the film's sole intentionally funny line, as a beat cop incensed by Blake's “Santa fraud.” Lastly, future star and sex symbol Mila Kunis appears as the snarkiest of the orphans. It's clear to see Kunis' talent, even when cracking lame jokes about comic books. She has a likable energy and clearly loves performing, even at this age.

Why Do I Own This?: I own “Santa with Muscles” mostly because I enjoy having a movie called “Santa with Muscles” on my DVD rack. Is it a terrible, incredibly stupid movie? Absolutely. Yet, as obviously bad as the film is, there's something weirdly endearing about how dumb it is. There's a lot of weirdness in this dumb-ass kid's movie, which contrasts in an interesting way with its sappy elements. Calling it one of the worst Christmas movies of all time is understandable but not entirely fair. There's probably holiday stuff out there equally dumb but lacking this film's half-witted moments of oddball inspiration. [5/10]

Friday, December 8, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 7


All is Bright (2013)

I can't recall how “All is Bright” got onto my holiday watchlist. It's the third film from director Phil Morrison, whose “Junebug” was critically praised when it came out. I, however, have never seen that movie. I vaguely remember seeing it on store shelves. I guess the thought of a slightly downbeat Christmas-themed comedy, starring Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd, was enough to appeal to me? Whatever the reason, I decided to give it a watch this December. While the film's reviews were mixed, I actually had a good time with it.

It's December and Dennis, a Canadian thief, has recently been released from a four year stint in prison. He attempts to patch up his relationship with Therese, his ex-wife. Instead, he discover that Therese has told their daughter, Michi, that he's dead. Moreover, she's also begun a relationship with Rene, Dennis' former partner in crime. Though deeply hurt, Dennis is committed to going straight. He teams up with Rene, who has gotten a gig selling Christmas trees in New York City. Business is slow and the men have to grapple with their personal and professional failures.

“All is Bright” has a fairly melancholic tone. The world keeps presenting Dennis with challenges, seemingly trying to force him back to a life of crime. The two have trouble selling trees at first, largely thanks to a flashier tree business across the street. While using a bathroom at a near-by dinner, the vulgar owner kicks him out. Rene is more upbeat but eventually cracks under pressure. Despite this, the movie frequently has laughs. Rene's ringtone, a chirping pop tune, becomes funnier and more incongruous every time we hear it. A stand-out scene has Dennis confronting Rene over Therese. At the same time, a pair of fratboy bros are attempting to buy a tree. It's not long before the dudes start commenting on the situation. Eventually, Dennis takes his rage out on an inflatable elf instead. These are not exactly gut-busting moments but I found them pretty funny.

One of the greatest pleasures of the film are its performance. Dennis is an almost prototypical Paul Giamatti performance. He's grouchy and slightly off-putting. Yet he's trying to do better, which is represented by the character struggling to quit smoking. Ultimately, it's apparent that Dennis' prickly exterior has a lot to do with bitterness and disappointment. Paul Rudd's Rene is an ideal contrast. He's sunny and upbeat. Rudd manages to make that old comedy chestnut of a goofy Canadian accent amusing again. Sally Hawkin appears as the foul-mouthed Russian maid that Giamatti befriends. Their scenes together are delightful. Hawkin makes the character's brutal honesty, like when she tells Dennis to take a sweater because he stinks, endearing instead of annoying.

“All is Bright” has a few flaws. Not too much happens, story-wise. This is a film primarily devoted to two guys standing around, arguing with each other. The script is also fairly predictable. When the guys' Christmas tree business finally turns around, and they make all the money they need, it's easy to guess that something will happen to the cash. (Though that doesn't make the inevitable loss any less felt.) It's not difficult to imagine Dennis' criminal relapse either. However, I found the movie's themes of forgiveness – self-forgiveness, especially – touching. Mistakes are made but they are also moved past, allowing everyone to grow closer together.

That theme is also befitting the Christmas setting. Despite the story not really concerning the holiday that much, “All is Bright” piles on the December atmosphere. The soundtrack is filled with jazzy and low-key renditions of classic Christmas songs. An especially inspired inclusion is Tracey Thorn's “Joy,” a powerful and lovely song about the unifying power of the holiday, which factors into separate scenes. “All is Bright” is probably too prickly, perhaps by design, to become a holiday classic. However, I found myself enjoying, mainly for the strong performances and the more emotional. [7/10]



Space Ghost: Coast to Coast: Girl Hair

During last year's review of “A Space Ghost: Coast to Coast Christmas,” I referenced the series' other Christmas episode, promising to review it the next year. And, thus, the time has come. “Girl Hair” is an especially nonsensical episode of the always absurd series. The special guest is Hanson, back when they were the prettiest of the pretty boy bands that were popular in the late nineties. The guys' long, girlish hair inspires Space Ghost to go on a quest to find a comb for them. Really dumb and goofy shenanigans ensue.

Most of “Girl Hair's” humor arises from Space Ghost acting extremely strange. Hanson, to their benefit, are willing to play along. They ask to be blast with his power bands and seem to enjoy it. Afterwards, Space Ghost takes them camping and regales them with a ghost story about a mad combing. They then visit his apartment, travel through space, sing nonsense songs, and become accessories to holiday-related manslaughter. Zorak, meanwhile, spends most of the episode trying to get new teeth so women will like him. I have no doubt that some will find this insultingly stupid but it greatly tickles my funny bone.

What does any of this have to do with Christmas? Santa Claus appears in an especially disturbing digression near the episode's end. On his way back to the studio, after driving Hanson around, Space Ghost runs over what he thinks is the Tooth Fairy. Back home, he's met by old St. Nick... Who praises Space Ghost for killing the Tooth Fairy. Because he wants to steal chidlren's teeth, to make bizarre and disturbing toys. Santa is then revealed to be Bizarro Santa, a grotesque and throbbing monster version of everyone's favorite holiday icon. The episode then goes completely nuts. When this show first aired, it was one of the weirdest things I had ever seen on television.

“Girl Hair' is not a five-star Space Ghost experience. However, that incredibly weird ending earns it some major points. And, yes, I realize this is really stretching the definition of Christmas-related media. But this is my blog and we play by my rules. That's the way Space Ghost would want it. [7/10]


Thursday, December 7, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 6


Better Watch Out (2016)

The advent of digital streaming has been a huge benefit to the independent horror movie. The ease of digital releases, combined with the eternal popularity of the horror genre, has made it easier than ever for smaller films to sneak onto the market. Naturally, the Christmas themed horror picture – an even rarer beast – has benefited from this as well. Surprisingly, there have been three new holiday horror releases this year. I've already talked about “Lake Alice.” There was also an Elf on the Shelf inspired horror movie, which seems inevitable. In there somewhere was “Better Watch Out.” Going into the movie, I knew nothing about it, other than it was a December-set horror film and had gotten decent reviews. This lack of knowledge actually helped me out. “Better Watch Out” is one of those films improved by knowing little about it.

Twelve-year-old Luke has a crush on his babysitter, seventeen-year-old Ashley. Ashley is leaving town for college soon. Knowing this, Luke hopes to make a move on the girl. His parents go off to a Christmas party of some sort, leaving the boy alone with the object of his desires. However, what both hoped to be a normal night soon takes a strange turn. The house receives threatening phone calls. A pizza order nobody called for shows up. A prowler is seen outside the house. Soon, a brick is thrown through a window and a threatening man with a guy lurks through the building. Ashley and Luke work together to survive but soon discover that things are not as they appear.

“Better Watch Out” begins, appearing to be one type of horror movie. The home invasion horror flick was briefly popular at the end of the last decade, with “Them,” “The Strangers,” and the remake of “Funny Games” all coming out close to each other. At first, “Better Watch Out” appears to be an especially colorful and light-hearted example of this subgenre. The first forty minutes is devoted to Luke and Ashley hiding inside their own home. There's solid suspense, as the two hide behind a closed door or inside a closest as the attacker wanders into the room. The film even induces some squirms, such as when Ashley tumbles from an attic entrance with spiders crawling across her face. The faint glow of the Christmas light, and the reflection off the snow outside, lends a slightly different feeling to these moments. The interaction between Ashley and Luke, often veering between hysterics and catty dialogue, mixes in some humor.

It's well done but turns out to be an elaborate misdirect for where “Better Watch Out” is actually going. In fact, if you're interested in “Better Watch Out” and haven't heard much about it, I suggest skipping the rest of this review. About midway through, Ashley discovers the home invasion was invented by Luke. In a turn recalling Mendel W. Johnson's “Let's Go Play at the Adams',” the babysitter is bound and her ward is revealed as a psychopath. In addition to perhaps saying some things about male entitlement, “Better Watch Out” becomes an effective battle of wills. Luke plays twisted games while Ashley tries to outsmart him. There's also a slight slasher element, as boy exterminates witnesses and romantic rivals. One death scene involves probably the most morbid homage to “Home Alone” you'll ever see. Another plays out to “Carol of the Bells,” a Christmas carol I've always thought sounded a little spooky.

Buoying the film is a strong pair of central performances. Olivia DeJonge – who is carving out a decent career as a scare queen with this film, “The Visit,” and “Scare Campaign” – plays Ashley. (Interestingly, DeJonge's “Visit” co-star, Ed Oxenbould, appears as Luke's smart-ass friend.) She strikes a really nice balance between a likable girlishness and a stronger sense of self-preservation. Once the twist come, it becomes especially easy to root for her. Levi Miller plays Luke and is similarly good at playing the twist. He's convincing as both a precocious pre-teen as well as a conniving psychopath. The two play off of each other so well. And an element that reminded me of old eighties horror movies, the only well-known actors appear in bit parts. Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen play Luke's unaware parents.

“Better Watch Out” was originally named “Safe Neighborhood.” Which is a fairly non-descriptive title but does point out that the film's Christmas elements are relatively minor. There's some snow, some decorations, and some festive songs but you could remove the holiday stuff and the plot would be entirely unchanged. Despite that, I really liked “Better Watch Out.” The script is really clever, catching the audience off-guard in a way that's rare for the horror genre. I don't know if it will become a new holiday horror classic but I really had a good time with it. Check it out if you can! [8/10]



Olaf's Frozen Adventure (2017)

At the end of November, Pixar released their latest masterpiece. “Coco” is a visually beautiful and incredibly powerful story, about how we remember loved ones, the value of family and art. It's also a movie explicitly concerned with the autumn festivals, taking place on the Day of the Dead. Despite this, and seemingly because they were worried that a film with only Latino characters wouldn't be popular, Disney stuck “Olaf's Frozen Adventure” in front of the movie. That's despite the “short,” obviously meant to be a television special, running for over twenty minutes. The short has been very poorly received and Disney has already promised to remove it from the remainder of “Coco's” theatrical release. But it's Christmas related, so I decided to review it here.

I'm reasonably fond of “Frozen” and even I find Olaf the happy snowman a little grating. Building an entire short around him was, perhaps, a miscalculation. This “Frozen Adventure” concerns Olaf going around Arendelle, collecting holiday traditions, because Elsa and Anna have forgotten their own. Conceptually, that would've let the filmmakers explore different winter festivities. And it sorta' does that. We see a Jewish family spin a dreidel. Another family celebrate St. Lucia's Day. But the short mostly focuses on less specific traditions. Such as decorating a tree, eating fruitcake, or knitting Christmas sweaters. This leads to many scenes of Olaf reacting to various new characters, in various loud ways. “Olaf's Frozen Adventure” leans on the frantic and shout-y way too much.

Though hey were widely praised, I honestly thought the songs was one of the weakest parts of “Frozen.” Disney couldn't even get the original film's song writer's back for this short. And that really shows. The songs in “Olaf's Frozen Adventure” are instantly forgettable. And the film is mostly songs. The main song, “Ring in the Season,” is reprised three whole times. The lyrics are repetitive and overly literal. Even the singers don't seem that invested. Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell clearly phone it in.

So is there anything I liked about “Olaf's Frozen Adventure?” During one of the songs, there's a pretty neat sequence done as if it's a Christmas sweater. There's one or two decent bits of physical comedy, during the scene where Olaf causes a sled to crash into a gorge. Otherwise, “Olaf's Frozen Adventure” feels tortorously long at only twenty-one minutes, a sappy and largely unnecessary extension of an already popular brand. Luckily, “Coco” comes immediately afterwards to wash that bad taste out of your mouth. [5/10]


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 5


The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

I guess it's just not Christmas without Jimmy Stewart. Over the iconic star's illustrious career, he managed to appear in three Christmas classics. “It's a Wonderful Life” is the big one, of course. I covered “Bell, Book and Candle” last year, which is a charming film though barely related to Christmas. Which brings me to “The Shop Around the Corner.” Though not as widely recognized as “It's a Wonderful Life,” it's nearly as beloved. It's been ranked by some among the best movies ever made. Despite this reputation, I've never seen it before. Looks like December is the right time of year to catch up with this one.

Set in Budapest, for reasons that don't affect the plot or characters in any real way, the film concerns the staff at Matuschek and Company, a small store specializing in leather goods. Alfred Kralik is the most successful salesman at the store, despite his cranky attitude. Klara Novak is a young woman that comes into the shop one day, looking for work. She's quickly hired. Klara and Alfred don't get along, his perfectionism bugging the nervous girl and vice-versa. Meanwhile, both of them have begun a relationship with a pen pal. The man Klara writes to is sensitive and intellectual. The woman Alfred communicates with is sweet and endearing. Neither are aware that the letter writers they're falling in love with are each other. As the Christmas season approaches, both begin to suspect the truth.

If “The Shop Around the Corner” didn't invent the romantic-comedy troupe of two people starting out disliking each other, and ending up loving each other, it certainly helped popularize it. Unlike most examples of this story type, there's few clues that the two characters like each other at all. In fact, Alfred and Klara's relationship is straight-up antagonistic at first. He nearly pushed her out of the store upon meeting. While hanging out around the stock room, he needlessly attacks her. This isn't the kind of cute sexual tension you usually see. Instead, Klara is an anxious girl and Alfred treats her like an asshole for no reason. This makes the eventual revelation that they've been writing to each other hard to read. Kind of difficult to root for these two to get together when they've been awful to each other for the whole movie. At least it builds to some cute scenes. Such as when Alfred tries to convince Klara to buy her suitor something else for Christmas. Or the final scene, when Klara discovers the truth.

To call “The Shop Around the Corner” a comedy is overstating it a bit. There's few yuks to be found here. Instead, the film is more concerned with capturing a slice-of-life feeling. We see the everyday struggles of the employees. Many of them have few funds, this job being their only source of in-come. One of the workers has a new baby while Klara was recently let go from her other job, needing the money badly. This leads to an underwhelming subplot, about the shop owner believing his wife is having an affair and nearly killing himself over it. (Which isn't, you know, hilarious.) However, it pays off on a touching conclusion. On Christmas day, the employees are allowed to go home early... Except for an employee who is new in the country and has no family near-by. That's when the shop owner invites him to his dinner instead. It's mildly touching.

“The Shop Around the Corner” probably works best as a vehicle for its stars. As Alfred, Jimmy Stewart has an interesting character arc. Beginning as a total grouch, we slowly see him soften. We eventually understand that his grumpiness arises out of how much he cares for his co-workers. Stewart is, naturally, highly charming and shows a quiet humor in the later scenes. As Klara, Margaret Sullivan projects a vulnerable humanity. This is most apparent in the scenes when her constitution shakes up a bit, by the various traumatic events around her. Ultimately, the two play off each other really well, even if their relationship seems a little too nasty as first.

I didn't like “The Shop Around the Corner” as much as its reputation as a classic implies. However, I will say this much: The film certainly makes the most of its Christmas-y atmosphere. There's some really nice snow and tree action in the last half. More of the film revolves around December traditions than I expected. As it is, the film mostly survives on the charms of its lead and a few touching moments. Otherwise, the script seems a bit uncertain about its goals. Then again, this is a classic and I'm just some random rube on the internet, so what do I know? [6/10]




A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All (2008)

Boy, things sure have changed since 2008. Back then, I was a regular watcher of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” Especially the latter, which had Colbert's amazingly charming screen presence and coated the awful news in a more appealing layer of absurdity. Now, Jon Stewart is gone from “The Daily Show” and I rarely bother with it. Colbert is hosting “The Late Show.” The country, meanwhile, has entered a new age of crypto-fascist Trumpian dumbness. Nearly a decade later, the satirical absurdity of Stephen Colbert, the character, is essentially indistinguishable from Fox News reality. But never mind that. In 2008, Colbert and Comedy Central put together a Christmas special. I haven't seen it in a few years and decided to re-watch it, wondering how the times have changed my perception of the show.

“A Colbert Christmas” is a parody of a genre of television that didn't even exist a decade ago. The special is an absurdist homage to the old-timey holiday special, the kind that Bing Crosby and Bob Hope rolled out annually for years and years. It's about Stephen Colbert: The Character, played by Stephen Colbert: The Real Person, being trapped in his winter cottage by a bear. There, he's met by festive visitors, who greet him with songs and jokes. The special is committed with this ridiculously artificial aesthetic. There's a number of dicey green screen effects. The plot is a loose excuse to string together a series of set pieces. The camera pans through the clearly fake cabin set. Colbert throws chestnuts at his fireplace, composed of a televised yule log. Each guests is greeted with Colbert explain who they are and applause. Colbert speaks directly to the audience throughout and it concludes with him receiving the DVD of the special you're watching.

It's an amusingly spot-on riff on a bygone type of entertainment. Honestly, the special's commitment to copying the look and feel of old Christmas specials is probably a determent to its enjoyability. It's likely a lot of the people who watched this in 2008 missed the joke. Luckily, Colbert throws other general bits of goofiness. Such as the reoccurring threat of a bear outside his cottage, building off a running gag from “The Colbert Report.” The special itself has a running gag about Colbert finding himself under the mistletoe with his various guests. These two gags meet at the end, when Colbert and the bear find themselves smooching under the mistletoe. There's frequent cuts to Elvis Costello at the studio, wearing ridiculous costumes and commenting on the appearances of goats. The jokes come consistently enough to entertain even if you have zero familiarity with vintage Christmas specials.

Just as with those old Bing specials, the script essentially functions as a linking device between musical numbers. In this regard, “A Colbert Christmas” is somewhat uneven. The songs are generally amusing. The opening number, in which Colbert hopes to coin a new Christmas standard and reap the residuals, got a laugh. A song where Jon Stewart attempts to interest Colbert in Hannukah is probably the comical highlight of the hour. John Legend's “Nutmeg,” a double entendre about everyone's favorite eggnog topping, is performed perfectly straight-faced. Some of the other songs receive fewer laughs. Willy Nelson's appearance, a marijuana influenced take on “The Little Drummer Boy,” is pretty but essentially a one joke bit stretched out too long. Feist's song, which mixes “Angels We Have Heard on High” with a call center, is similarly melodic if underdone. Toby Keith's country number, a satirical riff on the so-called War on Christmas, is pretty good but hampered by Keith's clear discomfort being on-screen.

Luckily, any bumps in the road are forgiven by the end. All the performers come together for a rendition of Costello's “What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?,” which was always a stealth Christmas song. The special pauses for a moment of sincerity at the end, where Colbert and Costello sing a number about the power of secular holiday traditions, beyond the people and cultures they're connected with. That one is a regular presence on my December playlist. Weirdly, Comedy Central hasn't made a habit of airing “A Colbert Christmas” annually. I don't know why as, aside from a joke about the Jonas Brothers, it's aged pretty well. The politics in this country might have gotten even more grotesque but tomfoolery of this degree is as evergreen as Christmas trees. [8/10]


Christmas 2017: December 4


Mystery Science Theater 3000: Santa Claus

My love of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” weirdly, has not come up too often on this blog. I guess I figure it goes without saying. I love old genre movies, low budget filmmaking, robots and puppets. “MST3k” is exactly in my wheelhouse and always has been. When it comes to MST3k holiday episodes, the go-to answer is usually “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” from season three. However, I reviewed that film in its raw, unriffed form back in December of 2015. Not wanting to repeat myself, I instead opted for the other Christmas-themed MST episodes. That would be “Santa Claus,” from season five, after Mike became the human host.

Unlike “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” which was home-brewed American weirdness, “Santa Claus” is imported holiday hokum. The film was originally made in Mexico, for Mexican audiences. So its take on the Santa mythos is culturally specific. This St. Nick lives on the moon, instead of the North Pole. His reindeer are robotic automatons. A wizard, named Merlin in the English dub, helps him build his toys, not elves. Reflecting Mexico's nature as a deeply Catholic country, the film's plot sees Santa Claus fighting a devil sent to Earth to corrupt innocent children. (This is in addition to several religious mentions sprinkled throughout the film.) The English dub, via the power of re-editing and overzealous narration, manages to make a weird Mexican kid's movie even weirder.

Taken on its own, “Santa Claus” is actually the perfect kind of film for “Mystery Science Theater.” It is, by no traditional metric, a good film. The special effects are cheesy, unconvincing, and frequently unnerving. The story is nonsensical. Many of the film's choices are bizarre and unintentionally hilarious. Such as an overly verbose narrator and an ineffective villain. There's lots of long dialogue-free segments, allowing plenty of room for riffing. And yet “Santa Claus” is a film I'd almost be willing to watch without Mike and the Bots. The film's sets and props are bizarre. The disembodied body parts and robotic reindeer are honestly creepy. This combines with the movie's sometimes harsh tone – a devil tempting kids to commit murder, a world where the poor considering theft to survive – to a create a likably weird kid's movie. It's also all on accident too, as nobody involved in “Santa Claus” knew they were making something weird or creepy. That homemade quality adds a lo-fi charm to a film with an excruciatingly slow pace and terrible acting.

As an episode of MST3k, “Santa Claus” is of high quality as well. The riffing is frequent and often hilarious. Notable jokes include Mike and the Bots interpreting Santa's odd looks as he plays music for a gang of singing children. The bots often improvise their own lyrics for the musical numbers too. The gang's reaction to the film's villains – who they characterize as flamboyant, put-upon by his own incompetence, or overly sadistic – are one of the episode's best gags. The way they draw attention to Lupita's often awful situation, contrasting with the film's cheery tone,  is one of the writers' more insightful jokes. One of the best running jokes in the film is how the hosts respond to the film's chatty narrator.

While rarely the high-light of any episode, the host segments for “Santa Claus” are pretty amusing too. Two of the segments feature music. The first involves Mike and the Bots forming a prog rock group named Santa Klaws, which perform a whisper-y, synth-filled Christmas ballad of their own. Later, the gang joins together to sing a non-denominational Christmas carol called “Merry Christmas... If That's Okay.” That jokes leans on good ol' fashion absurdity more than its War on Christmas premise suggests. There's some other good jokes here too, like the Bots attempting to contact Mike's family for the holidays but instead talking to some other Nelson family. (Who are unmoved by the sight of two robots on a space station talking to them.) The episode concludes with a funny gag of snow falling on the Satellite of Love.

This episode remains a fan favorite among MSTies. It has been highly rated among several polls, deciding the show's best episodes. The characters of Santa Claus and Pitch the Devil would appear in a few other host segments. RiffTrax, Michael J. Nelson's eventual successor to his version of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” has also covered the film several times. It all combines to make an ideal bit of oddball holiday cheer. The film itself is entertainingly weird on its own. The MST3k gang, meanwhile, provide jokes and wisecracks of a highly amusing nature. I highly recommend it! [7/10]




Justice League: Comfort and Joy

Despite my general love for “Batman: The Animated Series,” I have very little exposure to “Justice League,” its eventual spin-off. I have heard that the show's sole Christmas episode, “Comfort and Joy,” is well regarded. It's also fairly isolated, being the sole stand-alone episode in a season composed of two-parters, so it sounded like I could drop right in on this one. The episode concerns the League going their separate ways for the holidays. Superman visits his parents in Kansas and brings along Martian Manhunter, who has no familiarity with Earthly holiday customs. The Flash performs his yearly tradition of grabbing the season's hottest toy for an orphanage in Central City. Along the way, he encounters erudite villain Ultra-Humanite. Lastly, Green Lantern and Hawk Woman vacation on a wintry planet and, at her suggestion, end up in a bar brawl somewhere else.

“Comfort and Joy” resonated with me because of how it shows the different ways people celebrate the holidays. Clark Kent returns home, spending the day with holidays. The Flash focuses on charity, giving to the needy. This spirit of giving ends up infecting the Ultra-Humanite. While destroying a modern art museum, which he sees as an affront to classical aesthetics, the Flash talks Humanite into helping him give a gift to the kids. (Though he reprograms the toy – a rapping, farting robot duck – to play the Nutcracker Suite instead.) This subplot comes full-circle at the end, when Flash presents the villain with an aluminum Christmas tree in his prison cell. This ends up reminding the bad guy of his own childhood.

Some people don't celebrate at all. Hawk Woman, another alien, commemorates Christmas by picking fights in alien bars. This, however, ends up bringing her and Green Lantern – apparently they have romantic feelings for each other – closer. And that's what it's really all about, isn't it? While bunking with the Kents, Martian Manhunter gets familiar with Christmas traditions. Like gift-giving, caroling, or leaving cookies out for Santa. In the end, the alien finds himself touched by giving kindness and receiving kindness in turn. (There's also plenty of cute gags here, like the Kents wrapping Superman's gifts in lead foil, so he can't peek with his x-ray vision.)

“Comfort and Joy” is pretty low on typical superheroic action. The episode begins with the League saving an alien world from colliding with another planet. There's a brief bit of Flash's superspeed, while trading blows with the Ultra-Humanite in the museum. Most of the action coems from Green Lantern and Hawk Woman's barroom brawl. Otherwise, this is an episode focused on characters. And that's why it works. It ends up being a surprisingly touching half-hour. [8/10]