Saturday, December 25, 2010

25 Days of Christmas Entertainment - Home Alone (#25)

"This is Christmas! The season of perpetual hope!"

- Kate McCallister

I thought it be fitting to have Home Alone as the last entry. If you grew up during the late 80's and into the 90's then you remember how big this film was to the pop culture landscape. Watching it again for the first time in a while, I'm awestrucked by many unnoticed things, such as the absolutely overboard use of the holiday colors in every scene and shot. Subtle, this film is not. However, I was more spellbound by some hidden themes and messages that I consciously considered as part of John Hughes and Chris Columbus' intentions.

The film's two plots, Kevin's household isolation and Mom's journey back to Chicago, can both be remodeled and made into theatrical plays. They both have socially interesting and fantastical story structures, have substantial art decoration with the gaudy Christmas decorum and have a limited number of sets. The two also focus heavily on the mental state and anguish of the two main characters. Though the film's slapstick physical humor is more well-known, the surreal memory and morality plays which the viewer gets to see is far more engaging.

The Kevin plot, which is the more important of the two, has a strange thought-provoking quality to it. Many will simple see it as a comedic kids' narrative but it really brings some adult and philosophical themes, at least in my opinion. In my recent viewing, I noticed the progression of the morality and sociability of Kevin and his outlook on the real world. When Kevin is left alone by his family, he is somehow trapped in his ten-year-old body, similar to The Tin Drum, but he mentally moves through the natural human instinct of life. He first overindulges in his normal child behavior with several spastic decisions, like viewing "big kids" movies and eating a monstrous ice-cream marshmallow sundae. The next day, he is showering and "shaving" before enacting his rebellious teen years when he inadvertently steals a toothbrush. Christmas Eve brings him to adulthood; He surveys coupons before shopping at the grocery store, flirting with the female cashier, doing his own laundry and making a proper dinner. His previous childhood fears, the basement and the scary furnace, are easily dismissed with a "shut up!", as his new fears turn to the ills of humanity. This hidden message reminds me a lot of the ending to the 1980's film The Night of the Comet, which also had its previous immature children and teenagers become "normal" adults and the new nuclear family.

What stops this progress from continuing to an destructive mental decline of Kevin's psyche is the church. Even when I was a kid, I always seemed to enjoy the church scene the best. Mainly, the reason seemed to be that it made me fall in love with "O Holy Night." Looking at it now makes the scene more powerful, as Kevin is one of the very scant people there. As can easily be seen in the film, the traditional values of Christmas no longer are tied to religious Christian views. Instead, many of the inhabitants learn them from a different kind of church, television. One of the few bystanders is Old Man Marley, Kevin's neighbor and a former-possible serial killer. By conversing with him, exchanging stories of their troubled lives with family, is Kevin able to reclaim his childhood again but enhanced for the better.

Kevin's mom Kate McCallister, played expertly by Catherine O'Hara, goes through her own mental journey though she doesn't fear losing her childhood. Instead, she dreads that her proper motherhood and total well-being is gone completely due to her child's absence. O'Hara plays the character as if she was a glass doll in a glass menagerie. She struggling to hold all her emotions within; She wants to present herself as a normal citizen, handling the problems she faces instead of a distressed loon. Columbus emphasizes this rational battle by placing Kate in alternating backgrounds that either engulfs her privately (the airplane, phone booth) or out in the open (the various airports). Many point to the Scranton scene as O'Hara's finest acting moment, which it is, when she finally loses it on a ticket agent. Sadly, the film quickly ends this story to give more weight to Kevin's battle with the Wet Bandits than explore any further of Kate's mission. She is simply given a comedic trip with John Candy and some polka players.

Home Alone is a movie that really was heartwarming to me as a child and now into adulthood. It is a very sentimental and surreal view of a child's Christmas spent alone. I really wanted to focus on the new meanings I saw in this film as an adult, even though they may seem odd. But I will leave you with a question: Where is all of the damage to the house and the tools Kevin used when the Wet Bandits invaded? The only thing to survive as evidence is a gold tooth. And how come the rest of the family didn't slip on the iced front stairs? Maybe it was all a Christmas nightmare for Kevin before family came to the rescue.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Friday, December 24, 2010

25 Days of Christmas Entertainment - Mickey's Christmas Carol (#24)

"You work all your life to get money... then people want you to give it away!"

- Scrooge McDuck

I come from A Christmas Carol family. Since I was a child and becoming more and more vicious as I got older, my family loves to eat, sleep, and breathe anything related or modeled after the Charles Dickens classic. I'm just waiting for the eventual moment in time where one of my family members would suddenly stop their life entirely in order to watch every single film and television adaptation ever made. That's how insane it is. Whether it has Cicely Tyson as Scrooge or has Behind the Music as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, we have seen it all.

Naturally, all of this massive exposure to Scrooge's cold night of reflection has led to all of us picking sides on what our favorites are. My parents, who have been willing to sit through an adaptation with Tori Spelling, tend to enjoy the older and classic versions, most notably the George C. Scott film. My siblings like the musical Muppets film the most. When I spread outward and ask my friends, the majority picked Scrooged as their favorite. For myself, I was spoiled in my earlier years with a television adaptation that still makes me sneer at any new Carol film. It also is the absolute best version of the story out of all the other versions in its same field of filmmaking. I'm talking about the animated short film from 1983, Mickey's Christmas Carol.

I have already said that Disney is very adapt in making magical Christmas animation, with this being their finest hour, or half-hour to be more precise. In my opinion, this adaptation truly brings the heart and soul of Charles Dickens' story. It's creative in its liberties of the material and the popular revisions and doesn't retain the boring stiffness and preachiness in the live-action works. The short may be too overall comedic for some but I feel that's what makes it more devastating and depressing during its somber scenes.

I often felt that comedic actors are better equipped in handling the Scrooge character in adaptations of the story. The majority of the actors playing Scrooge tend to bring the ultra-serious approach to the character, making them very bitter and cold. However, their performances are way too sedate and ruin the joy of seeing the transformation of Scrooge's morals and attitude. They only seem to show some acting range when the big important story moments happen, such as the arrival of Tiny Tim and the Christmas Yet To Come, to tap into easy exploitative showboating before the inevitable finale. That why I prefer the performances of Bill Murray in Scrooged and Scrooge McDuck in Mickey's Christmas Carol. By showing some three-dimensional behavior and bringing a "guilty pleasure" tone, they can capture the attention of the viewer and cause them to cheer for their Scrooges to live a better life.

I have to commend Alan Young and the animators of Scrooge McDuck for bringing exuberance and originality. This was Alan Young's first performance as the popular Scrooge McDuck and lead to a very successful partnership with Disney. He really punctuates the character's intelligence and his lust of being a very greedy miser. Young does a great job in a scene where Scrooge persuades two charity collectors, and the audience as well, from collecting money since it will cause them to lose their jobs. The animation of the character is expertly done with many fantastic little moments. I always enjoyed his insistence on constantly hitting his shop's sign to keep his name on display. Other great hidden sights include his close inspection on the books despite wearing glasses and the shaking of a piggy bank that is attached to Jacob Marley's chains. The animators of Scrooge do their best in a scene where he brushes off his former love while counting his money. After a violent door slam causes the money to fall, they gave Scrooge a minor shrug, as if he's happy to re-count and not moved by someone else's feelings. It's that extra depth in cruel black humor that makes the short entertaining to behold.

Another one of my favorite parts of Mickey's Christmas Carol is the decision to cut out many story elements and dialogue. The short only has a running time of 24 minutes, so of course some parts of the original story and the popular revisions to it had to be discarded. Except for the lack of story surrounding Fred, who is played by Donald Duck and his original voice actor Clarence Nash, I really like this truncated version of the story. It removes the fat and avoids the over melodramatic lines and nature many like to include. This is best shown when the story focuses on the Cratchit family. Their Christmas Eve dinner and home environment is very quiet and grim. Cratchit, played by Mickey Mouse and the debuting Wayne Allwine, doesn't have an argument with his wife about Scrooge. He says absolute nothing, knowing well of the cruelty of his boss and his inability to do anything. When Tiny Tim brings up that Scrooge should be given thanks for their "feast", everyone is silent. In a great cutaway shot, Mrs. Cratchit, played by Minnie Mouse, just looks downward and becomes more depressed.

And then, there is Tiny Tim. Maybe it is because Tim is simply a smaller Mickey Mouse but I am always touched by this version of the character and truly heartbroken when he dies. Tiny Tim is and acts like a kid in this short. He doesn't over express his emotions or becomes a sickeningly grotesque holy child that many like to implement. He is a weak but happy kid who loves his family and is willing to give his food to his father. These small and often silent scenes with him makes his death that more tragic. It affected me as a child and it still does from time to time. The sheer lack of any words coming from Mickey's teared up face says it all.

While it excels in its animation of comedy and drama, Mickey's Christmas Carol brings many other fun and interesting animated directions in its framing of the story. The short is filled with many cameos and appearances of characters from Disney films and shorts. It is a fun little guessing game for viewers to figure out the origins of those that fill in the background. There is also some great experiments with the cinematography; One of the most jolting moments is when a long shot of Scrooge's bedroom turns out to be the POV shot of the Ghost of Christmas Past. The short also takes some creative risks, such as having Goofy playing Jacob Marley. Even with the abundance of comedy given to the character, it's still very shocking to see the lovable dog become a doomed soul from Hell. However, this decision does work to a degree thanks to the performance of Hal Smith. The dark and frightening imagery during the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come section also needs to be commended, especially bringing a further toxic and despairing tone to it by having the eerie fog being created by immense cigar smoke.

I simply love Mickey's Christmas Carol with all my heart. It is one of favorite Christmas films and it is my favorite A Christmas Carol adaptation ever. Several times, this short has been my feature presentation on the night of Christmas Eve and it always touch me more than anything else. It makes happy for the next day to come, to celebrate Christmas with people I love.

TOMORROW'S ENTRY: The final day of Christmas entertainment.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tron: Legacy - Review

Like many videogame nerds, I had a VHS copy of TRON when I was a kid. It was a classic case of style over substance, hence why I tended to avoid watching it again and again. The art direction and special effects were groundbreaking at the time and so cool to behold but the story was a confusing bag of garbage. I do enjoy it a little more now even though the problems still reside within it. If only a sequel can do better justice.

Sadly, TRON: LEGACY is exactly like the original. Still great to look at but nothing in the plot. It is drowning with many talking scenes about creationism and genetic perfection instead of more light cycles and disc battles, which many older fans and new audiences want. The dialogue is clouded with exposition thuds and faux-deep lines that are simply stolen from other 1980's films such as WARGAMES. However, it does have entertaining thrills thanks to its cast, action sequences, and the musical score.

Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) still has a chip on his shoulder thanks to the sudden disappearance of his father Kevin (a returning Jeff Bridges) when he was a child. After a clue to his father's were-abouts from the now older Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), Sam heads to the now desolated Flynn's Arcade. Instead of playing some Pac-Man and rocking out to Journey, he discovers a secret entrance to a lab with the patented digitizing laser. A couple key strokes later, Sam is in the world of "The Grid" and is caught up in a war against the newly turned evil emperor Clu (also played by Jeff Bridges with a digital makeover).

Now, making analogies and allusions to Nazism and having several debates about god and his/her creations can be very interesting for a film. However, TRON: LEGACY shoves this hard and down through your eyes and ears for far too long. The two hour plus running time is a slug with a lot of discussions between characters. The film teases you at the beginning with a corporation heist and gladiatorial video games before presenting their philosophical thesis. To make matters worst, the new look of "The Grid" consists of deep dark blacks and fluorescent blues. Nothing says the next big sci-fi franchise than depressing landscapes and numerous talks about existentialism. The rest of the script is disjointed thanks to plot holes and a lot of pointless backstories and sidestories about program purges and profits over product advancement.

The cast at least give the best they got from the crummy material. Hedlund plays Sam as a intelligent and brave hero; Instead of the characterization of being whiny and constantly in pain due to daddy issues that the script seems to give him, he makes the character charming and fearless. Jeff Bridges does well in his two roles by being half-serious, half-loony for both: Kevin Flynn retains his 80's lingo and phrases when he isn't being a battered Jesus-type character; Clu is either a smiling scumbag or an overblown Patton parody. The real spotlight, and the only things that actually bring some lightness to the dread, resides on Olivia Wilde and Michael Sheen. Wilde, who usually brings total boredom in her television work, is truly great as a spunky special computer program who turns into a total badass when the chips are down. She is fantastic with her facial reactions and does well in the martial-arts fights. Unfortunately, Joseph Kosinski's direction and the story often has her on the sidelines waiting for the boring talks to end. Kosinski doesn't however give restrictions to Michael Sheen, who just camps the hell of his glorified cameo as an eccentric club owner.

The special effects are very well done, especially since they are the main showcase of the film. The redesigned vehicles are made more to be seen as operable and sleek than the original blocky creations. The new costumes do away with the goofy but popular "outlet" design for fashionable tight jump suits and carefully placed neon outlines. The best design has to go to Clu's great emperor trenchcoat while his sucking-up adviser brings the worst with a very stupid hat-visor. The excellent score by Daft Punk punctuates the film with eerie techno beats and a true arcade video game vibe. Speaking of videogames, the great action sequences pay tribute to classic generic game pieces and implements, such as speed racing arrows and the flip-flopping planes of gravity.

I wouldn't say I was disappointed since I didn't have any high expectations for this film nor immense nostalgia for the original. It does work in some parts and can be a fun little diversion though the wannabe deep thinking sections are a total drag. Disney made a serious misjudgment by trying to appease the intellectual crowd instead of having more video game action and fan service. Most videogames today have far and away explored more interesting themes and user-program interactions than this 3-D film.


25 Days of Christmas Entertainment - Mystery Science Theater 3000 : "Santa Claus" (#23)

"Now this is good old fashioned nightmare fuel."

- Crow

The above quote can sum up Mystery Science Theater 3000 in a nut shell. Most of the selected films displayed on the show are achingly dull, truly awful movies that will shock or scare you with their ineptitude. But there are a few that are absolutely insane.

Enter Rene Cardona's 1959 Mexican film Santa Claus. The basic plot has Santa Claus getting ready for Christmas. Before he leaves, Santa checks up on several Mexican children. The first one comes from a rich family but has been neglected by his parents. The second one, a girl named Lupita, comes from a poor family and wishes to have a new doll. The last to be looked at are a group of brothers who have been bad and wish to capture Santa. As he delivers presents around the world, he checks up on these children while contending with many problems.

It may seem simple but this Santa story gets far more stranger in the hands and mind of Cardona. Santa Claus doesn't live at the North Pole. He instead lives in a castle flying in space over the North Pole. He has stereotypical children from all around the world do his toymaking instead of elves. His monitoring of Earth children is even more creepy and surreal, as Santa has machines with mouths, a telescope eye, a dream-entering machine, and a listening device that is simply a fan with an ear attached. But it gets even more strange when Santa's archenemy isn't revealed to be Jack Frost but is actually the real Devil himself, Lucifer. That's right, Santa vs. Satan. Satan sends his overacting and hammy demon Pitch to ruin Santa's plans. Of course, Santa has proper back-up since he is best friends with Merlin (!). Oh, and his reindeers are toys and can laugh (!!).

Overall, the film can be enjoyable even though it has a lot of problems. Other than the sheer surreal nature and the re-writes of Santa's myths, the script is filled with many plot holes, such as how Lupita's father searches for jobs during the Christmas night. There's also the very weird shoe-horned mentions of Santa Claus respecting Jesus Christ. The english dub done by K. Gordon Murrary brings another set of problems, such as the awful songs sung by Santa and the children. The limited number of voice actors creates more fears for children as the voice of Santa and Satan are one and the same.

This time, Mike Nelson takes over as host and brings his witty and cynical humor with him. I feel that Mike's manner of comedy works for this film over Joel's. He underscores the bizarre, letting it exist to shock the viewer instead of putting the attention on himself. The crew brings up the usual series of pop-culture nods and names (the Menendez Brothers, Monty Python) while also being as dark as possible ("Santa's laughter mocks the poor."). Their best comedy comes at the beginning, when they heavily mock Santa's way-too-interested reaction to the musical display of his child workers ("Santa's doing the Forbidden Dance!").

As for the skits, they are mixed bag. The opening gag and a visit to the Nelson residence are short in appeal and very forgettable. I do enjoy the two song segments, "Warrior of Christmas" and "Merry Christmas...If That's Okay". In the first song, Mike and the bots are Santa Klaws, a pop-rock Christian band who sing lame Christmas puns and nonsensical lyrics. "Merry Christmas", on the other hand, is a holiday song with political correctness bursting from the seams. The ending skit is also entertaining, where the Satellite of Love crew experience snowfall in space while Dr. Forrester watches Pitch and Santa fight it out.

I don't enjoy this as highly as "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" but "Santa Claus" is still a classic from the show. It was one of the best episodes from the stellar fifth season of the show. Whether you like one or the other, I feel that these two episodes are probably the best gateway entries for many non-fans and new admirers. So, with two days and two entries left, I hope you're getting ready to have the Swayziest Christmas of them all.

TOMORROW'S ENTRY: What better way to celebrate Christmas Eve than by going over my favorite adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

25 Days of Christmas Entertainment - Mystery Science Theater 3000 : "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" (#22)

"What is a Christmas?"

- Voldar

"It's a Christian holiday ruined by commercialism?"

- Joel

Every year, I like to devote a special time around the Christmas holiday to a man and his puppets. They have always brought great joy to me, my family, and several friends. Sadly, it is not Jim Henson and the Muppets, a franchise that let me down when I was growing up. It might have been the death of Jim, the constant misdirection of his son, or the mediocre television shows and films. Watching The Muppet Christmas Carol doesn't bring me holiday cheer but immense depression.

However, as I was growing up, a new set of puppets took over for the Muppets and became my new source of entertainment. These puppets were very smart, pop-culture savvy, and had cynical voices. They were the robotic sons and daughters or the best friends of two humans named Joel and Mike respectively. As a group of friends or family, they were the test subjects of many horrendous films by a mad scientist and his assistant. The television show was called Mystery Science Theater 3000, and it was glorious.

The season three episode, "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians", is a holiday favorite of mine and also very important to my opinion of the show. Before watching this later on a DVD, I had often dismissed Joel as the host because of his "lame" droll humor and mannerisms. Once I viewed this episode, I changed my stance and embraced both Joel and his style and direction of the show. The episode also made me enjoy the host segments and skits more, something which I skipped often during the Mike era.

As stated, Joel and his robot pals were forced to view the Christmas anti-classic Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. This film is a real treat for camp and cult fans; The King of Mars, not-cleverly named Kimar, and a group of minions head to Earth to capture Santa Claus. They want him to bring joy and cheer to their distracted children, who have been watching the "Earth programs" too much. They kidnap him and two annoying little children ("What's Vietnam?") before being able to face off against Earth's army forces and their plethora of stock footage ("And now, for your enjoyment, some suggestive scenes of jets refueling"). Despite their stance to rule him with a iron fist, the Martians embrace the whimsy nature of Santa. However, a proud Martian warrior named Voldar wants the old ways of Martian life to return and is willing to kill Santa.

The film is really really bad yet great fun to watch with or without Joel and the Bots. Except for an annoying Martian named Dropo, everyone takes the material very serious ("Don't EVER step on my lines!"). Of course, the goofy costuming and the really obvious sound stage backgrounds takes all seriousness out back and shoots it. The plot is nonsensical; Santa never conquers the Martians unless you count it as psychological warfare. The story is riddled with dumb action scenes, such as when a man obviously in a polar bear suit ("It's Santa Bear!") terrorizes the two kids before a giant badly made robot can destroy them ("You were adopted"). And then, there is the finale fight ("Not since the orgy scene in Calig...ula?!") that is truly a mess of editing and direction. Still, the anti-television propaganda is a bit interesting given the time of the film and the title and ending song is a vicious earworm with lyrical errors ("You spell it S-A-N-T-A C-L-A-U-S, Hooray for Santy Claus!").

As evident in my inclusion of quotes, Joel and the Bots, who are seen sitting in shadowed theater seats, tear the film apart with many jokes and observations. They seem especially happy to rip on one of the child actors who would become infamous later on, Pia Zadora ("Will you buy me a Golden Globe?"). If you don't know who Zadora is, then you get to experience one of the best parts of MST3K. Each episode is riddled with many quips that aim high over the heads of many viewers and it can cause you to be interested in solving these jokes. Other than Zadora, you receive mentions of BF Skinner, Alive, Truman Capote, the Tardis, Ice Station Zebra, Coco the Clown, and the news stories that surrounded the original Battlestar Galactica. Not every joke has to be intellectually driven, as there are some great moments where the film speaks for itself. My favorite is the awkward introduction of Santa to the Martian children, as they very slowly start to laugh ("Dad!.....DAD!!!").

Other than the film ribbing, the viewer can also enjoy the skits that break up the episode. The introduction of the episode has Joel asking the robots what they want for Christmas, with Crow saying one of the show's most famous lines ("I want to decide who lives and who dies!"). Then there's the patented Invention Exchange, where Joel and his boss Dr. Forrester, well, exchange new inventions. Forrester has created the Wish Squisher, where cool gifts are turned into crap such as a raisin collection or a gift certificate to a stationary store. I always liked this invention idea, though the skit's direction and cinematography ruin it by easily showing them flip the boxes to bad gifts. Joel and the Bots, the misfits that they are, create the new and proper residents of the Island of the Misfit Toys, such as an Easy-Bake Foundry or Patrick Swayze's Roadhouse board game. The later gift, and several jokes during the film, leads to one of the most famous songs of the show, "Let's Have A Patrick Swayze Christmas", which is both funny while retaining some great sentimentality. The next segment has Joel handing out some popular and not-so-popular Christmas specials like A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Christmas That Really Kicked Ass. After a somewhat forgettable skit with Christmas essays, the episode ends with everyone on the show opening their stockings and exchanging presents.

Though they have plenty of Christmas just with the featured film, the episode features an unique view on the holiday season. One minute, they might mock (praise?) the different celebrations of Christmas by celebrating the Patrick Swayze version. The next, they enjoy a special family gathering where a Christmas display in revealed in the unlikest of places. The show also has some nice little holiday touches, such as Tom Servo's snowglobe head. Overall, "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" is a favorite of mine and one of the few shows that can bring true cyncism and love of the holiday.

TOMORROW'S ENTRY: We head back to the Satellite of Love with another film, this one taking a strange and surreal turn.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

25 Days of Christmas Entertainment - Jiminy Cricket's Christmas and A Walt Disney Christmas (#21)

"From all of us to all of you..."

- Jiminy Cricket

I have always loved the Disney clam shells for their VHS tapes. Sure, they took up a lot of room in video cabinets but they were very durable. The clam shells also took great care when it came to the cover artwork, except for the later re-releases that used more kid-friendly and more boring photoshop touch-ups. Of course, that criticism could have came from the infamous Little Mermaid cover. Anyway, the majority of the clam shells I had were the films, with only a couple being compilations. Two of them were special around the holidays, as they were packaged with many segments and shorts that centered around Christmas. These two video releases, which I thoroughly enjoyed as a kid, were Jiminy Cricket's Christmas and A Walt Disney Christmas.

First, I'll talk about the one that hasn't survive too well, the 1986 video release Jiminy Cricket's Christmas. This is one of the strangest and confusing hatchet-jobs of a compilation. It is enjoyable but the glaring cuts and dubbing mixed with the odd segment choices create a giant piece of confusion. The video is structured in ten segments, with all of them being introduced by Jiminy Cricket. However, though I can't find any information, I do believe the Jiminy Cricket intros, along with some of the selections, were taken from a Christmas episode of one of Walt Disney's old shows. The animation is limited and repeated, there's the presence of Tinkerbell, and the quality is very rough. More importantly, Jiminy himself alternates between two voice actors, with the old footage possibly being Cliff Edwards and Eddie Carroll doing the new dub.

Now, the selection of clips is badly edited. The video starts with 80's video quality shots of a Christmas tree and a fireplace before a song by Jiminy Cricket. Then there's another 80's esque music video with a song called "Christmas Morning", where a Mickey Mouse mascot and kids look at a toy store. The rest of the clips are taken from the Disney vaults, with the majority of them sadly being from Disney films. I say sadly because except for "The Nutcracker Suite" from Fantasia, the rest are songs from other films (Pinocchio, Cinderella, etc.) that have nothing to do with Christmas or even the winter season. These songs are included and shown by Jiminy as part of a plotline involving "Christmas cards", which apparently the Disney characters sent to him. The quality of these clips aren't very good at all.

As for the other inclusions, there are three Disney shorts that are edited except for one special short that was proclaimed never to be released to video. The first one is "Toy Tinkers", a 1949 short where Donald fights with Chip and Dale in his house with his presents and toys. Why Donald has toys when there is no company expected isn't explained but the short is just too darn funny to let that suspend you. The next is "The Art of Skiing", one of Goofy's classic training shorts that very unfortunately had its opening cut out. The final and special short is "Mickey's Good Deed", a very ancient 1932 release with Mickey and Pluto in black and white. It is a very odd treasure, where the two are starving on the streets on Christmas. Then, in a very confusing series of events, Mickey sells Pluto to a rich man's spoiled kid in order to give presents to a starving and broke family that they randomly eavesdropped on. Through deus ex machina, the two are later reunited to eat a turkey dinner though if I was Pluto I would be very pissed at Mickey. The video ends with Jiminy singing "When You Wish Upon a Star", which I'll admit does work as a good Christmas song.

Jiminy may have been a mixed bag of gifts but A Walt Disney Christmas is a true joy to re-watch again. This 1982 video release consists nothing but six shorts, though it too could have been better structured in the matching iconography and humor the shorts use. The video starts with "Once Upon a Wintertime". This short actually started off in a Disney film, 1948's Melody Time, before being released separately. "Once" has no dialogue except for the title song by singer Frances Langford, relying strictly on the fluidity of its animation. A somewhat remake of the silent film Way Down East, it follows a human and a rabbit couple as they skate around a frozen lake before having a lover's quarrel. Danger arrives as the women are trapped on broken ice and headed for a waterfall. The short has a nice romantic charm to it and has great animation. The next two are the most controversial inclusions, due to dated racist jokes involving black-face and The Jazz Singer. "Santa's Workshop" pretty much lives up to its title, as it consists of silly toy-making jokes and Santa getting prepared for his trip. The constantly-laughing and very creepy Santa heads into the world, passing by an even creepier Georges Melies-style moon. This leads into "The Night Before Christmas", where Santa stops at a house to hand out presents and waste time by playing with the delivered toys. The two can be enjoyable though the racist throwaway jokes are very distracting.

The last three involve the iconic Disney characters. The simply titled "On Ice" has Mickey and the gang playing on ice. This short was obviously the template for "Once Upon a Wintertime", as the same jokes and action scenes take place. Mickey tries to teach Minnie to skate while Goofy tries to fish with a slab of tobacco and a giant club. Donald ribs on Pluto before somehow getting stuck to a kite and screams for help before heading over a waterfall. A dated short but it has good comedic timing and some great animated moments. Next up is "Donald's Snow Fight", my favorite of the shorts. Yet again, Donald is being a jerk by destroying his nephews' snowman. After a funny gag with a snowman made over a giant rock, Donald declares revenge by using his giant snow battleship to destroy their snow fort. The short is just great with many fantastic jokes and humorous lines ("That's unconstitutional!"). The finale is "Pluto's Christmas Tree", which is very much like "Toy Tinkers" except Pluto takes over for Donald. Pluto wants to get Chip and Dale out of the Christmas tree while Mickey plays the blindman to all of their proceedings. I have always enjoyed this short a lot due to the inside shots of Chip and Dale in the Christmas tree. The backgrounds are beautiful with their hazy and sentimental colors of the ornaments and the branches.

These two videos are still entertaining to behold. Except for a later VHS re-release, the two were not brought to DVD. All of the shorts, however, are scattered around on various holiday-themed DVD releases and in several Walt Disney Treasures. I definitely recommend these, as Disney knew how to make magical Christmas animation.

TOMORROW'S ENTRY: A man and his puppets save Christmas from various evil beings. One which is human and another is only a film.

Monday, December 20, 2010

25 Days of Christmas Entertainment - 52 : "Week Thirty-Three" (#20)

"Another Batarang...How...nice..."

- Batwoman

I knew this entry was going to be the hardest to do. Do an entry with superheroes? Sure, that's feasible. However, it had to be something in a television show or film since those are easy gateways for people. By picking a superhero comic book as an option of discussion, I'm taking a very big risk for readers by giving them an excessive baggage of canon, back stories, and characterization. But I chose this specific comic book because its one of my favorites and one of best to present a showcase of Christmas and the other holidays in the world of super-men and women.

After a very complicated crossover event called Infinite Crisis, DC Comics chose to present their readers an unique but still complicated story decision that impacted all of the books. The event ended with the Trinity - Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman - taking some volunteer and mandatory time off for one whole year in time. All of the on-going stories would jump forward under the label One Year Later. A separate comic book called 52 would tell what happened to the world with the absence of the three popular heroes. As evident by its name, the story would be told by each week of the year and the book's issues would be released to the public as well in real time. However, instead of focusing on popular heroes, 52 's team of four writers looked at C-list heroes and several new characters. They created a truly fantastic book filled with great suspension and drama, redeeming many superheroes and creating a new future for DC Comics. "Week Thirty-Three" was a brief calm before the major storms to follow, celebrating the major holidays of December and multiculturalism while ridiculing stock and trade Christmas plotlines and showing the depressing aspects of the most wonderful time of the year.

I'll break down each story to make it easier to read and explain. The issue starts on December 23, where a drunk Ralph Dibny is walking through a section of a museum dedicated to his superhero years. The former Elongated Man lost his loving wife horribly in a previous event and is on a mystical and spiritual mission to bring her back. Already, this issue starts off with the darker aspects of the holiday season, as Dibny is clearly in need of help both for his reminiscing of his late "real friend" Barry Allen and stealing a loaded gun from the museum's storage. The fact that he is still not over Barry's death is very distressing, as is his own self-esteem problems with his superhero days ("This would be a wing, not a closet.").

The next story is probably my favorite of the issue, as it is a great little moment of human compassion and comedy of errors. After beating a villain off-panel, the newly christened Batwoman enjoys her Christmas Eve by watching a children choir conducted by Alfred. Dick Grayson, former Robin and then-current Nightwing, drops in and gives her a Christmas gift. Batwoman first dismisses the gift, a batarang, before Dick showboats its unique functionality. There is a lot of humor coming from these three pages. Dick is clearly hitting on her by giving a Christmas gift and displaying his mental knowledge while seemingly flexing in subtle ways. Readers already or would learn later that the inside joke is that Batwoman, real name Kathy Kane, is Jewish and is a lesbian. This joke also makes it to the cover, where Batwoman has a "what-the-hell?" face while Nightwing does a suicide jump with a smug expression. Dick's humorous generalization aside, I enjoy that this moment is DC Comics' hidden display of acceptance of Kathy Kane to the Bat family. I also like that the singing is used as background sound effects, making this segment very film-like and more three-dimensional.

Next, we have pure grade black comedy. Main villain Lex Luthor is flamboyantly dismayed by his life. His Everyman science project, which grants any citizen with superpowers, is working and successful but has some subjects dying from the DNA manipulation. His superhero team filled with annoying young adults are spoiled by his presents and leave him with nothing in return. He also learns that his genetic makeup can't accept the process. "I want some glimmer of Christmas cheer" he beckons to his assistant before good news does come in. This story is all done with goofy body mannerisms and hammy dialogue. Of course, it is for a specific reason. These elements are contrasting against the normal nature of Luthor, a ruthless man with a iron grip and tongue. He doesn't bat an eyelash when one subject of the Everyman process, Luis Dominero, turns into a "genetic fluke" and is about to die. Luthor only sees it as a dream assignment for the publicity department. And when Luis pulls through by adapting the process through an unknown factor, Luthor sees the Christmas miracle as his own Christmas present. While enjoying some champagne, he has Luis killed for an autopsy and examination of the factor.

Former police detective Renee Montoya starts the next plot looking at Kathy Kane's menorah and the outside snow storm. Her wish for a holiday miracle is interrupted by Vic Sage, her dear friend and known superhero The Question. His slow agony from lung cancer has currently robbed him of his senses as he sees Renee as several of his old loved ones and keeps pushing her away. After finally putting him back in bed, Kathy arrives to consult Renee. This is certainly the most depressing part of the issue, as it shows the often real pain many people experience when losing a loved one close to the holidays. There are some good things in return; the plot brings a respectable tone to religion and holiday tolerance and homosexuality. Kathy and Renee represent the future, both for superheroes and for social morals.

The only diversion from the five plots of the issue is a double-page montage spread. It features quick looks at other celebrations featuring superheroes with different tones. Some are joyful, such as Superman getting frisky, a party for Commissioner Gordon, and the family get-togethers of the Jordans and Green Arrow's. Others are sad, such as the darkened homes of Batman and Steel and Red Tornado's missing head left in a garbage head. These are bordered with two panels focusing on Animal Man and his family. Buddy Blake's wife blows a kiss into the air while Buddy himself realizes he's getting closer to Earth after a long journey in space. What connects the two is the star Alpha Lyrae (Vega), modelled to be the Star of Bethlehem.

The final story has the anti-hero Black Adam returning to America on Christmas Day. He brings along his new family: his wife Isis, his brother-in-law Osiris and comical sidekick Sobek. Willing to clean up his former public image, Black Adam is over-joyed with his family to give the world a Christmas present. They present their alter-egos live in person to show that, "We are as human as the rest of you." However, despite their nice intentions, the story cuts to the powerful Amanda Waller, who still sees them only by their previous actions and possibly their skin. The issue ends with an introduction to her new version of the black ops group Suicide Squad.

Even though there is a minor need for knowledge of the previous issues, "Week Thirty-Three" is a great stand-alone issue to read for those further seeking the superhero side of Christmas and the other holidays. In a kinda weird alternate reading, one of the first things that comes up when I re-read this often is a Broadway song. Odd but interestingly, this issue is very similar in its content and tonal shifts with the song "Christmas Bells" from the musical Rent. A Latino woman's strained relationship with a dying man. A brief focus on holiday celebration with two gay individuals. A dealer who has many people demanding for his product. A police force waiting patiently to crack down on someone's celebration. These two works of art are seemingly parallel to each other. Both also end their different plot sections with repeated lines. While Rent has "And it's beginning to snow", 52 has "Merry Christmas" or a variation of it.

TOMORROW'S ENTRY: Two VHS tapes of holiday compilations that I watched each year as a kid.