Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Another Top 10 Christmas Specials Special

It's happened again: I've scrounged together enough Christmas specials for another year. Enjoy, and happy holidays!

Futurama, "The Futurama Holiday Spectacular"

Last year's list included the original Xmas episode of Futurama, plus an honorable mention for an episode where Bender tries to replace Santa as a good toy-delivering robot. That would seem the logical choice for this list, but this seemed to be a better choice. It was a late offering from the newly resurrected season on Comedy Central, which as a whole has been rather weaker than the golden years but still scores higher than the slump that The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park have all fallen into (one episode in particular, "The Late Philip J. Fry," is outstanding).

The main reason to include this one: as far as I know, it's the only Christmas special to incorporate Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa themes in one fell swoop. Granted, it's not the most warm and cuddly holiday special; the Planet Express crew dies in every segment, and humanity as a whole is obliterated in two. I'm definitely taking a corrupt Oscar judge stance, then, since "A Tale of Two Santas" is clearly funnier. Though "The Futurama Holiday Special" does have a few gems, namely the guard at the Norwegian seed vault and Kwanzaabot losing interest in his own holiday midway through the explanation of what it's about.

Hermes' Kwanzaa Party
Funny JokesIt's Always Sunny in PhiladelphiaUgly Americans

9. Family Guy, "A Very Special Family Guy Freakin' Christmas"

This episode aired back in the first run of Family Guy, when it was one of the more controversial shows on TV thanks to some risque jokes and baby Stewie's persistent desire to kill his mother. The show follows a somewhat traditional Christmas special model, as the family has to deal with a few challenges such as Peter accidentally giving away the family's gifts to charity. There's also a lengthy sequence where Lois takes out her rage on several beloved holiday classics, torching Frosty the Snowman with a makeshift flamethrower and shoving George Bailey off the bridge he's contemplating suicide on.

It's more than a bit of a subversion on holiday specials, of course, what with one of the big surprises in the end involving Stewie getting plutonium on Christmas Day. However, it still has Christmas message as the town tries to convince Lois that the Christmas spirit is a good thing. Even if it does so with Peter explaining that Christmas is a time when we sing carols to lure Zombie Jesus back to sleep. As was explained soon after, sometimes you've just got to have a sense of humor.

Oh, and there's also the special within the special about KISS saving Santa.

8. The X-Files, "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas"

Mulder wants to investigate a supposedly haunted house. Scully thinks there are better ways to spend Christmas Eve. And so we get a Christmas special as only The X-Files can deliver it.

The past X-Files Christmas episode was a two-parter about an orphaned child who turned out to be part Scully DNA and part alien. And though that was nicely acted by Gillian Anderson, this episode gives both actors a chance to shine (and includes Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin to boot). It's one of the few specials that's able to effectively combine something of a horror theme with Christmas, as the two agents try to avoid the clutches of a couple who died in a lover's pact several decades before. It's a little twisted, but the ending of the couple being happy to be together and Mulder and Scully exchanging gifts is pretty nice.

7. The Office, "Christmas Party"

Though I've been enjoying the recent episodes of the American version of The Office, most of the strongest emotional moments were from the first few seasons as it explored the romance between Jim and Pam: a direct take on the romantic tension between Tim and Dawn in the original British version, which chose to end their run with these two characters finally getting together. Jim and Pam have tapered off into the background, but at first their relationship was on par with the original show.

This episode does a good job of exploring all of the characters, while also rolling out a plot that almost feels like an O'Henry story. It involves a Secret Santa office party in which Jim, having picked Pam, gets her a sentimental gift nicely attuned to their friendship. Everything goes awry when the office manager, Michael, gets upset when he gets a handmade oven mitt after exceeding the spending limit by buying an iPod and turns the party into a Yankee Swap to try to get what he feels is a better present. It's funny and heartwarming to see Jim's efforts to get Pam's gift back into her hands, especially when it ends up with arch-nemesis Dwight and when Pam finally chooses to trade the iPod for Jim's gift.

6. The Angry Video Game Nerd and Nostalgia Critic Reviews (tie)

I don't get too many visitors in this corner of the Internet, but I thought it would be best to put these two on equal footing considering their rivalry led to a brutal no-holds beatdown and the destruction of Chicago at the hands of a mutant Donkey Kong-esque Jesus and a super mechanized Jesus. Their revulsion for one another is an act, of course, but there's no need to risk massive Christ devastation.

James Rolfe, aka The Angry Video Game Nerd, has been producing scathing attacks on sub-par video games from the 80s and 90s, while Doug Walker is the Nostalgia Critic, producing weekly reviews of crappy old movies and TV shows. Both are clever, hilarious, and great physical and vocal comedians. Rolfe updates more infrequently then Walker, who got a significant boost from the faux feud with Rolfe and makes a living managing several Internet series at Channel Awesome, but he faithfully puts out a Christmas review each year. The best one might be a take on A Christmas Carol, in which Rolfe tours incarnations of his present, past (home videos of Rolfe getting aggravated at Mario), and future (an elderly Rolfe bitching about a bad Wii game).

Rolfe stays in grouchy character reviewing Christmas-based games, while Walker gets extremely excited about the holiday in what seems to be only partially an act. His keystone is almost exactly what I'm doing, though he had the idea first and I'm just trying to beat him to the punch: reviewing 11 Christmas specials (he likes "to go one step beyond") and saying why he likes them. He did one in 2008, and another one in 2009 taking in the specials that were requested by fans. This year, he's scheduled to do another one mopping up even more specials that fell by the wayside. I put in a request for the "Refrigerator Day" episode of Dinosaurs, because the Polar Express movie, Doug? Seriously?

He's also done other specials, one of which introduced us to the glory that is Santa Christ:

5. Bad Santa

In one of those examples of people complaining about something before they actually saw it, this movie got a little bit of bad press before it was released because people thought it was going to be going out of its way to disparage the holiday as much as it could. If anything, it goes out of its way to inject a bit of a Christmas theme into the story and winds up targeting the culture of malls and consumerism rather than religion.

The plot involves Billy Bob Thornton as an alcoholic con man Willie who, along with a dwarf partner (Tony Cox), pulls off a heist each year by playing a mall Santa and elf in the leadup to Christmas and looting the safe and stores after hours on Christmas Eve. Things go awry when Willie gets mixed up with a lonely kid (Brett Kelly) and finds himself reluctantly being some semblance of a role model for him. Of course, a lot of humor comes from the fact that Willie is rude, lascivious, profane, and altogether unfit to work with children. The script is nicely done, though, focusing on some rather well-constructed jokes rather than cheap gags.

4. Lost, "The Constant"

It's a Christmas show...in February! What? OK, this isn't a Christmas special, per se. It just has a slight Christmas theme, and aired on February 28 of 2008. It's also considered to be one of the best episodes of Lost.

The show didn't exactly offer itself up for a Christmas special, and the fans would have rightfully cried bloody murder if there had been anything even approaching a happy break from the action in which the Others and the smoke monster and Oceanic Flight 815 survivors all got together to hang stockings in the Swan hatch. Still, until the fifth season stomped space and time in the face, the show followed a meticulous count of days from the plane crash in September of 2004 (on the same date as the show's premiere). That meant that by the time this early fourth season episode rolled around, it had reached Christmas Eve.

The story focuses on Desmond, always one of the stronger characters, as he finds his consciousness whipped about between the past and present day. It instills a real sense of danger, as a radio operator on board the freighter Desmond travels to suffers the same malady and it winds up killing him. The interaction between Desmond and the past self of an Oxford physics professor who is now on the island nicely adds to the layers of sci-fi, but the thing that brings this into Christmas territory is Desmond's desperate attempt to patch things up with Penny, the love of his life and ex-girlfriend at the time he keeps flashing back to. The fact that Penny is his "constant," a way of stopping his warps through time, makes her something much more as well: a way to save his life. All of this comes to a head as Desmond uses some hastily repaired and oh-so-briefly functioning communications equipment to call Penny on Christmas Eve, as he promised he would do eight years before.

Embedding is disabled, so enjoy the clip here.

3. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, "Mail Order Bride"

Once again, Aqua Teen Hunger Force proves that Christmas episodes don't have to be heartwarming but can just choose to be inappropriate and hilarious. So don't go and pick out this 11-minute episode to show to young children just because it's a cartoon, but if you want a non-traditional quick viewing option.

The basic plot has Master Shake and Carl sharing the cost to buy a Russian mail order bride as a Christmas gift to themselves. This split brings up obvious problems, and the woman immediately locks herself in Carl's house in terror after realizing she has been purchased by a slovenly pervert and a giant milkshake. We also get Meatwad's finicky wish list, his earnest efforts to make high-end gifts for Frylock out of sticks, and his mistaking some thumping on the roof for Santa getting an early start due to overpopulation.

2. Mystery Science Theater 3000, "Santa Claus"

One of only two Christmas specials done in the 10 years of MST3K, this one takes on a truly bizarre movie. It appears that Santa lives in a palatial ice castle in space, keeps a coterie of international children at his beck and call to help him (creepy...), flies about in mechanized reindeer, and does battle with Satan. Yes, Kris Kringle delivering gifts is something that the Lord of Darkness doesn't really like. It's a bounty that's almost more than the boys on the Satellite of Love could hope for.

1. Moral Orel, "Honor"

About half of Moral Orel was a ripping take on holier-than-thou religious types, with episodes typically revolving around the title character's naivete as he misinterpreted lessons from the Bible or other advice and generally wreaked havoc without trying. However, there were a few pretty dark themes underlying the show, namely Orel's closeted, alcoholic father. The ending of the first season (a Christmas episode that, oddly enough, was aired as a sneak peek for the rest of the season) had a rather depressing ending, but it was nothing compared to the third season. Having seen what a horrible person his father really is during a hunting trip, Orel's whole world is turned upside down and the carefree plots of the show were gone, replaced by episodes exploring the repressed nature of Moralton's residents and the slow disintegration of Orel's family.

Naturally, with all of this coming to an end in the series finale, it didn't seem like things were going to end too happily. It was painful to the audience, because Orel's earnest and friendly attitude made him one of the few genuinely likable characters. There's still a heart-wrenching scene in which Orel's father confronts Coach Stopframe in anger over how he has become a role model to his son in a matter of days and, in front of his wife, admits that he loves Stopframe...who rejects him. But a final shot shows Orel regaining what he lost when he realized his father's true nature: a happy family life, as a well-adjusted adult married to his childhood sweetheart with a couple of kids to boot.

Part of the reason for this being a personal favorite is just the way I saw it. The episode aired a week before Christmas in 2008, and I was visiting my parents on my Christmas vacation. Seeing it end on a high note, spending a happy week off with my family, was just a huge boost to my mood.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Double Feature Review: Fast Food Nation and Joyeux Noel

Fast Food Nation

Synopsis: A critique of the fast food industry presented through the loosely interconnected stories of a marketing executive, a teenage counter girl, and a group of undocumented workers in a meatpacking plant.

The bad news first:
The movie is based on the book of the same name by Eric Schlosser, an investigative journalist who wrote a very well-received account of the cost you actually pay for getting a burger and fries in under five minutes. By transferring it to the screen as a fictional story, however, the whole premise is kind of cheapened. A few of the actors are rather well-known, and Burger King and McDonald's are clearly mentioned while the story focuses on a third, fictional major burger chain (a lame knockoff of McDonald's called Mickey's); it creates more than a bit of a disconnect, which serves to blunt the message of the film.

As a whole, the movie is really only able to focus on a few issues: the exploitation of illegal immigrants in dangerous working conditions, the problems of ensuring the quality of beef, and the challenges facing working youth. Other issues related to the industry, such as environmental effects in South America, are never brought up. The focus on the meatpacking plant workers works pretty well, but it suffers from the same problem as the other storylines: the fact that none of these issues can really be blamed on fast food. Aren't there a lot of industries that exploit undocumented workers? Is getting a steak at a nice restaurant any better or worse than getting a burger that was also churned out of a slaughterhouse? Don't all teens hate their jobs?

Promising hints show up here and there, including a few kitchen workers contemplating whether they'll be the latest in a recent series of holdups and determining that maybe they should rob the restaurant. That would have been a great story to follow...and it never materializes. Several other meandering stories or premises also fall apart before reaching a satisfying conclusion.

Finally, it can be a little wordy (or didactic, as the New York Times nicely puts it). The problem here is that there are plenty of instances when you're well aware of how long people are blathering on about some hot-topic issue. It's well-written and realistic enough, but there are times when it starts to grate. Especially in the bullshit sessions of a college common room, whose scenes are made doubly annoying because some casting director thought Avril Lavigne could act.

The good stuff:
As has been mentioned, the story featuring the illegal Mexican immigrants and their experience in the meatpacking industry is the strongest of the bunch. I'm sure I could go onto a message board right now and find someone screaming right-winger about how illegal immigrants don't deserve sympathy, and some left-winger screaming right back at him, but the movie itself never gets tangled up in the numerous issues surrounding this topic. It just shows what can happen behind closed doors.

For the most part, the actors do a good job. Some scenes are also quite enjoyable to watch, such as the discussions between the girl and her mother and especially the later conversations between the girl and her uncle. And the last scene showing real footage of cows being killed and butchered, though again having the effect of making you question eating meat rather than eating fast food, is about as visceral and effective as it can be.

Here's an idea for when you adapt a book by an investigative journalist: make it a friggin' documentary instead of a fictional movie that tries to be one. It's a little tougher to find an audience, but if you do a good enough job they will come. Consider Super Size Me, an excellent documentary that lambasted fast food in general and McDonald's in particular for contributing to American obesity. It made $30 million. Fast Food Nation made one-fifteenth of that.

Joyeux Noel

Synopsis: Scottish, French, and German soldiers hold an impromptu truce on Christmas Day in 1914.

The bad news first:
There's...really not a whole lot. The Christmas Day truces actually happened, with varying degrees of intensity in the fraternization between soldiers. One negative review I came across whined that the movie should have made it clearer that this happened all alone the Western Front, not just in this one unit; another more positive one said it would seem hokey if it weren't for the fact that it actually happened. If those are the only complaints you can come up with, I'd say you just watched a pretty good movie.

The good stuff:
This is one of the more inspiring stories from World War I, and the movie does it justice. The scene in which the opposing soldiers slowly but surely make friendly gestures across no man's land and finally walk out among the debris and bodies to have a few moments of peace is especially heartwarming. It's equally as painful to watch as they slowly restart the conflict, despite the obvious comradery they form in the short time they spend together.

World War I was one of the most pointless fights in history, if not the most pointless one given the much more malignant bloodshed that followed in Europe 21 years after the armistice. The movie drops a few anvils in pointing out this fact, including an opening showing schoolchildren from the three countries reciting hateful speeches against their enemies and a priest reluctantly giving a sermon about how it's God's will that the Scots soldiers kill the Germans. Even if it's heavy-handed at times, it's a point well worth making. There are also some more subtle moments, such as a German soldier saying he enjoyed the brief peace even though he doesn't celebrate Christmas since he's Jewish. We know that even if he survives the fight to return to Germany, it will only be a matter of years before he's persecuted as an enemy of the state.

You should definitely see it. It even works as a non-traditional sort of Christmas movie.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Greatest Thing of Anything: Planet Earth (the series, though the planet's pretty cool too)

If I lie on the ground, I probably take up about six square feet of space. The planet, meanwhile, takes up some 5.5 quadrillion square feet by the measurement I found. So I'm taking up maybe one 1.1 quadrillionth of the planet's surface area when I sunbathe, and a lot less when I'm on my feet. And this figure seems to be based more on the square footage if Earth were smooth and flat like a globe, not pitted with mountains and hills and caves and crevasses like it actually is. In short, Earth is friggin' big.

And there are four planets much bigger than Earth. The Universe is frickin' HUGE

In terms of globetrotting, I'm sure I haven't whittled down that percentage too much in the places I've been. I've got a few tracks over the United States and Europe, but that's only two continents of six and it excludes the North Pole as well (to the extent that the North Pole continues to exist). Even the most avid travelers have probably only seen a fraction of the planet. Though in some areas, I'm sure you can go to one place and be satisfied that you don't need to visit all that other square footage you can see.


I'd certainly like to travel more. I did a semester abroad in England, and before I went my aunt gave me a couple of guidebooks for London and Great Britain (England, Wales, and Scotland) as a whole. Most places in the British Isles sound pretty amazing, but even zeroing in on this little slice of the planet and experiencing all it has to offer would seem to take a minimum of a full lifetime and a massive amount of cash. And then there are all those rainforests, caves, mountains, seas...what is one to do?

Why, get Planet Earth, of course.

Planet Earth is a 2006 BBC documentary, apparently the first documentary filmed in high definition and the most expensive one ever filmed. It's made up of 11 50-minute episodes, each focusing on a specific environment. Deep oceans, shallow seas, mountains, caves...it's really quite amazing the range they decided to take their cameramen. Each episode typically features numerous locations which each common theme, with a focus on both the amazing landscapes and the incredible animals who make them their home. So yes, it's not a full representation of the planet, but I think we can do without a swooping aerial shots of the Los Angeles freeways. There are plenty of criminals and TV helicopters that give us ample opportunity to see them anyway.

Ahhhhh...the wonders of Earth

The footage is so seamless and well-done that you rarely stop to think how they got these majestic shots. The DVD takes care of that by appending every episode with a mini documentary within the documentary, showing just what devotion the teams had. Quite often it seems like they're staking out areas for weeks to get what in the end amounts to only minutes of footage. This includes a guy stalking a bird-of-paradise locale, a team racing to get terrifyingly beautiful shots of leaping sharks, a scuba diver quietly picking up footage of a piranha meal, and an amusing account of a pair of cameramen and their hot-air balloon's attraction for trees.

You've also got the classy, precise narration of David Attenborough. At the time the documentary came out, he'd been working for the BBC for 56 years. His work there has included quite a range of nature documentaries, so Planet Earth is right up his alley. His devotion to the world is apparent, though ironically he's been criticized by some environmentalists for focusing on the idyllic parts of the planet without giving any time to pollution and other problems (for the record, the DVD includes an extra disc of interviews devoted to this subject). As if that weren't enough, the same year the series came out a poll named him Britain's most trusted celebrity. For some reason, the Discovery Channel likes to switch narrators when things come across the pond and had Sigourney Weaver do the narration. I have nothing but respect for Sigourney Weaver, but I thought her expertise was more in the flora and fauna of other worlds.

And finally, footage from the series goes really well with MGMT.