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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Christmas 2018: December 12th

Christmas on Mars (2008)

Around 2006, I went through a brief fascination with the Flaming Lips. This was during the band's closest flirtation with the mainstream, so lots of fans came aboard around this time, I imagine. I still think “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” and “At War with the Mystics” are pretty good albums. Anyway, since 2002, lead singer Wayne Coyne had been hyping up a movie the band was making. “Christmas on Mars” would combine the band's trademark trippy style with the science fiction and Christmas movie genres. By the time “Christmas on Mars” saw a home video release in 2009, my Flaming Lips fandom had cooled considerably. I still haven't caught up with the albums they've put out since then. I watched the film out of curiously, was thoroughly baffled by it, and haven't thought about it much since then. However, I always like to inject some premium weirdness into my holiday season, so it looks I'll be giving this one another chance.

The film concerns mankind's first attempt to colonize Mars. Though it's never directly stated, the implication seems to be that the survival of the species is dependent on the colony's success. Sadly, most of the astronauts aboard the red planet are suffering from a bad case of space madness. Their technology is also failing them, endangering everyone's lives. Since its December, Major Syrtis hopes to perk spirits up by throwing a Christmas pageant. His plan is jeopardized when the astronaut playing Santa Claus commits suicide by throwing himself onto the frozen Martian surface. That's when a strange alien being lands outside the station. Quickly accepted by the men, Syrtis casts the Martian as his new Santa.

If “Christmas on Mars” isn't the weirdest Christmas movie ever made, well, it's definitely a prime candidate. Though the holiday is pivotal to the story, scenes like a Santa suit being cut off a frozen corpse aren't likely to fill you with Christmas cheer. Though primarily shot in black and white, the movie does have moments of searing color. These scenes, involving some sort of control panel being lifted out of organic matter, are also accompanied by loud noises. Though the plot involves humans meeting an alien, nobody seems to think the Martian's presence is an unusual or notable event. The alien man – played by Coyne – never speaks but does casually perform miracles around the ship. The dialogue is consistently vulgar, there's a lot of unexplained sexual imagery, and most of the characters act stoned out of their heads or high as fuck. Manic or meandering, those are “Christmas on Mars'” two tones.

For a long time, I've read about trippy, drugged-out movies rock stars almost made. Like the proposed film that inspired Neil Young's “After the Gold Rush” or Bowie's briefly considered plans to turn “Diamond Dogs” into a film. “Christmas on Mars” is a close approximation to what I imagined those films to be. In that it's aggressively weird and pretentious. The film's pacing is ponderous and slow, long scenes devoted to people wandering around the Mars colony. Those aspersions towards high art are apparent in its black-and-white photography and self-indulgent dialogue. Characters have monologues about moths, the nature of existence, the purpose of humanity. There's also a preoccupation with conception and rebirth imagery. The woman's pod looks like a vagina and a womb. Visions of people with labias for head reoccur, as do bloody newborn babies. Clearly, the Lips were hoping to Blow Your Mind and Freak You Out with this stuff. (Fetus imagery seems to be a reoccurring thing for the band.)

Yet “Christmas on Mars” does occasionally grasp some of the heady themes it's after. The film does successfully capture a sense of spacey isolation, mostly thanks to a nifty set design and effectively droning score. (I guess it's no surprise that a movie made by musicians would have pretty good music.) Though the acting is overall amateurish, there are a few moments of intentional comedy. Such as the foul-mouthed captain, whose opinion on faulty machinery drastically changes once he learns its American made. The ending, where a vaguely explained self-sacrifice leads to people singing Christmas carols under snow, is actually sort of oddly beautiful. That and the proceeding moment where Syrtis attempts to explain Christmas to the Martian are the times when the film comes closest to its goal: A super weird acid trip movie that's also very sincere about what Christmas means.

The band does not show much aptitude for acting, which may be why the small roles from Fred Armisen and Adam Goldberg – professional actors – are among the film's better moments. I haven't seen the “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” stage musical, so can't say if this is better or worst. Either way, it seems the Flaming Lips should probably stick to making music and putting on killer live shows. “Christmas on Mars” is occasionally more interesting than its self-indulgent whole suggests though. It didn't become the new cult classic Coyne was clearly hoping for, as even fans of the band don't seem to talk about it much. But if you're on the look-out for super-weird holiday entertainment, this will probably be of interest to you. [6/10]

The Librarians: And Santa's Midnight Ride

“The Librarians” was a fun show. There wasn't any reason to expect a spin-off of a trilogy of ten year old TV movies – basically a series of silly “Indiana Jones” rip-offs –  to be any good. Especially not when Dean Devlin had a hand in creating it. The show was campier and cheesier than most cable genre television, especially in the effects department. Yet its lovable cast, lighthearted tone, and focus on creating decent stand-alone episodes over season long arcs made it a consistently entertaining watch. It felt like a throwback to an earlier era of sci-fi/fantasy TV in the best way. My fandom of the series was really confirmed with the fourth episode of the first season, in which Bruce Campbell played Santa Claus.

For those unfamiliar with the show, “The Librarians” follows a group of extraordinary characters recruited by the Library – a self-aware pocket dimension destined to contain magical artifacts – to protect and gather other items of great power. In the first season, they fought the Serpent Brotherhood, a rival secret organization with more nefarious goals. In “Santa's Midnight Ride,” the Brotherhood drugs Santa Claus. See, in this universe, Santa is an embodiment of all the good will that exists in the world. On Christmas Eve, he distributes that hope across the world, preventing certain disaster within the next year. With Santa drugged, and separated from the magic hat that links him with his powers, the Librarians have to get St. Nick as close to the North Pole as possible before midnight strikes on the 24th.

As I said above, the cast was a big reason why “The Librarians” was so charming. Lindy Booth's perpetually adorable Cassandra was always my favorite. This episode sees her getting really into the Christmas spirit. John Kim's Ezekiel, usually a smart-ass master thief, ends up wearing Santa's hat. This causes him to be overwhelmed by the spirit of giving and charity, which Ezekiel comically attempts to rebel against. John Larroquette's Jenkins doesn't get much screen time in this episode but was a consistently amusing presence on the show. Christina Kane's Jacob Stone, a cowboy type that's actually a genius, and Rebecca Romijin's Baird provide the stable rock for this story.

Romijin is, especially, the perfect straight man to Campbell's Santa. The usually snarky Bruce puts on an utterly sincere sheen here. In the opening scene, he manages to talk down an attempted robber with just his words. Campbell has Santa talking in the third person, a cute touch. The episode also has Santa phasing through different historical incarnations. So he randomly turns into the more mischievous Giving Nick and a boozed up and violent Odin. Naturally, Campbell has a ball in these scenes. If that's not enough cult cred for you, the episode also includes Matt Frewer hamming it up as bad guy DuLaque and Jim Jeffries as a regular Santa that speaks exclusively in Cockney rhyming slang.

What ultimately makes “Santa's Midnight Ride” more than just a goofy hour of holiday fun is its surprisingly poignant last act. For convoluted reasons, Baird has to take Santa's place during the midnight ritual. Through her eyes, we see the spirit of hope being spread through various hopeless situations: a paramedic with a flatlining patient in an ambulance, an alcoholic attempting to go sober, someone who has just lost a loved one, protesters being shot at in a foreign country, both a woman considering suicide and the cop talking her off the ledge. It's surprisingly potent stuff and ends this Christmas episode on an unexpectedly meaningful note. [7/10]

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