Dec 312012
  December 31, 2012

Nothing brings the glow of good will, candy canes, and mistletoe to a geek’s heart more than the annual Christmas appearance of Doctor Who. Since his return in 2005, no holiday season has lacked a visit by the Time Lord: some dark, some light. I could explain who The Doctor is, the history of the show, etc. etc., but there is no point. If you can’t recite the history of the last Gallifreyan, go rent the regular season episodes. If you, like me, bleed geek, you already know anything I could say, so on to evaluation: A count down of the Christmas episodes. Most are excellent and all are at least worth the time to watch.

#9 The End of Time (2009)

The Doctor faces the end of time as The Master returns, unknowingly fulfilling the plans of a much greater power.

The End of Time is a vast epic that never fulfills its potential. At times it plods along, at others it leaps forward, always unevenly. Concepts that should have been the central element of their own episode (the duplicating of The Master) only divert from the main story and end up being irrelevant. Serious elements turn out to be silly. Jokes turn out to be silly. Special effects look silly. “Silly” is the word of the day.

Timothy Dalton was an inspired choice as the leader of the Time Lords, but he brings nothing to the table except his commanding voice as he chews the scenery like a first year theater major. The end, both of the story, and of Tennant, is satisfying, which makes this worthwhile, even if it is a slog to get through.


#8 The Snowmen (2012)

In 1892 London, Snow is taking on a life of its own, and threatening the existence of mankind. Strangely clever Clara seeks the help of a reluctant Doctor and his band of colorful colleagues.
The third Xmas outing for the eleventh Doctor is the most uneven. There is little story to speak of and what is there doesn’t deserve to be spoken of. Plot slips away as symbolic elements become nonsensically literal. Matt Smith fails to carry the emotional load he shouldn’t have been given. But while the most vital elements of storytelling collapse, lesser ones shine. The new companion, Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) is witty, complex, strong, and exactly what the show needed, taking away the sting of Amy’s departure. She comes wrapped in a puzzle that should keep Whovians arguing for months (till the next episode airs). The secondary characters include the sword wielding detective, and lizard, Vastra, and her assistant and wife Jenny, along with a worse-for-ware alien soldier/nurse who supplies the comedy. They outshine The Doctor every second they are on screen, and scream out for their own show, as well as making The Snowmen worth the time of Who fans, though not the general public.


#7 The Runaway Bride (2006)

The Doctor stumbles upon a bride and an ancient evil that plans to use her to return.

Donna Noble appears as the first companion-for-a-single-special, only to pop back a year later to become a full time companion. Her shtick was pretty much the same from show to show, but it’s new here. David Tennant and Catherine Tate are at their comical best with a constant stream of bickering, which is made even better by the killer, robot, Santa Clauses from The Christmas Invasion. It’s all good holiday fun, but also juvenile, harkening back to the 1960 children’s show origins of Doctor Who. Don’t use this one to prove that Doctor Who isn’t just for kids.

Compared to later specials, it has surprisingly weak cinematography but budget will show.


#6 The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe (2011)

The Doctor’s attempt to repay a debt goes wrong, and it is up to a recent widow to pass through a dimensional gateway to rescue her children and The Doctor from a forest of living Christmas trees and acid rain.

As the title suggests, there is a lot of C.S. Lewis to be found in this outing (WWII setting, children sent to the country to avoid the bombings, a gateway into a snowy world), but it is only window dressing. The actual story has nothing to do with Narnia, and very little to do with…story. This is the slightest of all the Christmas specials, with almost nothing happening, and no conflict. Outside of setting up the doorway, even the doctor barely acts. Call it a little story with a lot of emotion. But little stories can be enjoyable, and this one is.


#5 A Christmas Carol (2010)

On a distant world, The Doctor goes pseudo-Dickens in an attempt to persuade a curmudgeon to use his weather machine to save a plummeting space craft.

The eleventh Doctor’s first Christmas special is warm, emotional, funny, and a lot less Dickensian than the title would suggest. Why show someone the past, present, and future to change them, when you can instead go back in time and actually change him? The romance feels real and heartbreaking, the cinematography is first rate, and the music is beautiful.


#4 The Christmas Invasion (2005)

Rose returns to Earth with a comatose Doctor, not yet recovered from his regeneration into Doctor Ten. Unfortunately, malevolent aliens can feel his energy, and choose this as the perfect time to attack Earth.

I’ve a full review of this one, but in short it has Rose, Harriet Jones, killer Santas, weaponized Christmas Trees, and one of the best regeneration recoveries in Doctor Who’s 50 year history. Its flaw: Too little Doctor. Tennant’s Doctor is nearly perfect; too bad he sleeps for half the running time.


#3 Voyage of the Damned (2007)

The Doctor joins the party on a space-faring luxury liner (named Titanic, and yes, The Doctor notices that) headed to primitive (2007) Earth. Purposely dropped shields and a trio of flaming space rocks spell disaster for the ship. Now if The Doctor and waitress Astrid Perth can just stop the Earth from blowing up when the vessel crashes.

Ah, what might have been. Kylie Minogue’s Astrid would have made an excellent full season companion, but as we only got her for this episode, its nice to know we can go back and watch it over and over.

The story is pure Poseidon Adventure, with the requisite heartrending deaths and uplifting survivals. It is surprising how much I felt each one. The concept is so-so, but the execution elevates it. And you have to love The Host. The universe needs more homicidal angels.


#2 The Next Doctor (2008)

The Doctor returns to the late 1800s for another Christmas, and is surprised to find a Time Lord named The Doctor already there. This Doctor has no memory of his past, so Doctor number ten decides to help with a mystery involving murders, missing children, and cybermen.

Two Doctors for the price of one, and both funny and able to twist your heart. Good story, tension and humor, geektastic moments (images of the entire line of Doctors are projected on a wall), a first rate villain in Miss Hartigan, and a steampunk giant, The Next Doctor has it all. It is also the most cinematic of all the specials (and of all the episodes), with some beautiful shots (Hartigan’s red dress seen through falling snow in a black and white world). This is the best of the specials, and would be the best Doctor Who Christmas except…


#1 The Unquiet Dead (2005)

The Doctor miscalculates, taking new companion Rose to Cardiff for Christmas where a depressed Charles Dickens is performing a public reading. When an animated corpse disrupts the event, The Doctor teams up with Dickens to get to the heart of a real ghost story.

Not a special, but the 3rd regular episode of the “new” Doctor. Everything was fresh. Christopher Eccleston was mysterious and dangerous. Billie Piper was charming and sexy. They are tossed into a world that is frightening and exhilarating. Every character has a moment to shine, a moment to learn, and several moments to fail. The Unquiet Dead is not only the best Christmas episode, but the best of the “…..meets a historical figure” episodes, and one of the top episodes period. Merry Christmas.

Dec 252012
  December 25, 2012

Friends can be replaced and your family doesn’t really like you all that much, but movies always have meaning. Remember this Christmas to spend time with a few Christmas movie classics.

Dec 172012
two reels

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an assassin. The mob controls time travel in 2074 and sends their victims back in time to 2044 where Joe and his colleagues shoot them and dispose of the bodies. The final job of each “looper” is to kill his own future self. When Joe comes gun-to-face with himself (Bruce Willis), he hesitates and his future self gets away. On the run from the current mob, Joe must kill his target and clean up the mess, if that’s possible. Future Joe has his own plan: kill the cruel future leader now, when he is only a child.

Looper has been held up as this year’s smart science fiction film. I so wish that were true. As an avid science fiction fan, I’d love to see “smart,” but it isn’t to be found in Looper. And unlike the promise of the trailer, action is in short supply too. Looper is a competently acted and shot drama that is in no hurry to get anywhere. It isn’t a bad film, nor is it a good one. It is a really dumb one.

The time travel concept behind the film is hard to accept, but I am willing to just give the filmmakers the general idea. So, the mob sends people back in time to be killed to avoid their time’s “body tagging” expertise. OK. There’s lots they could do with that. It must be an interesting world in 2074. A lot they could show us.  Except they don’t. Well, the mob doesn’t kill the victims before sending them back in time, or send them millions of years in the past. There must be a good reason.  But they never tell us. At least they have to do something with the idea that loopers have to kill themselves instead of a different looper doing it, because that would be a pretty silly way to set things up. But they don’t do anything with that.  hmmmmm. How about the future leader who can only be stopped by people in the past, sending the only people he fears (the loopers) back in time.  There must be one hell of a reason for that.  Too bad they don’t tell us.

What does this film do?

Surprisingly little. It starts with a time travel thesis, and the repercussions, the emotional toll of that,  and then it drops it entirely. We even get Bruce Willis’s Joe stating how he doesn’t want to talk about any of that time travel shit…basically because the writer/director had no idea how any of it worked or what any of it meant. Instead we have a plot point about telekinesis. No explanation of why that mutation has popped up, because we spend little time with that too. We do spend a lot of time with young Joe hiding out, waiting, on a farm.

I sound a bit harsh. Don’t think Looper doesn’t have its moments: Some engaging moments, some emotional moments.  When it does get around to action, it is done well. It is pretty nonsensical, unless I missed the part where it is explained that future Joe has become the world’s greatest ninja, but I’ll take nonsense in exchange for excitement. But there isn’t much excitement.

And that lack is the real problem. When a film is dumb, it needs to give us something else: suspense, fear, lust, thrills. Maybe a musical number. Star Wars is not high on the brain meter, but it makes up for that with light saber duels and soaring spaceships and an even more soaring score. Looper, which is much lower on the mental level, gives us a lot of sitting around and dramatic pauses. It is supposed to be presenting deep character development and relationships, but we’re not given enough on anyone to get emotionally involved in their lives.

The best criticism of Looper doesn’t come from me, but my wife, Eugie (a Nebula award winning SF writer, so far more knowledgeable about intelligent literary science fiction than I). As a farm house scene dragged on, she blurted out, “Just get on with it!”


Dec 152012
  December 15, 2012

It is time for sitting around the TV with family and hot chocolate, and lots of booze, and watching Christmas movies. There are so many, good or otherwise, that everyone knows about. You’ve probably seen A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and a few versions of A Christmas Carol. So, here are a few suggestions for more unusual Christmas film viewing.

The Hog Father: On the night before Hogswatch (a Holiday very much like our Christmas), the Hogfather has vanished, so Death puts on the red suit and a fake beard and tries to play the part while his granddaughter attempts to save the season…and the world. A delightful version of Terry Pratchett’s novel. This is perfect for those with a slight “Addams Family” outlook on life.

Fitzwilly: A team of servants rob from the rich to keep their broke (and unaware) mistress living the high life. When a new secretary is brought in from outside their criminal fold at Christmastime, the jig might be up, but romance is also an option. An old fashioned romantic comedy that should not be obscure, but is since it has never been released on DVD. If you’re lucky you can catch it on TCM. Dick Van Dyke is at his best as the suave butler and Barbara Feldon gets one of her few good roles.

Bell Book and Candle: A witch decides she wants a publishing executive who happens to be engaged to an old enemy, so enchants him at Christmastime. A fun romance with a great cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon, Nicky Holroyd, Ernie Kovacs, Elsa Lanchester. The gender sensibilities are a little old fashioned, but Novak is breathtaking as a powerful “modern” witch and Lemmon is hysterical as a less powerful warlock.

Trancers: A policeman from the future must travel back in time stop a plague of zombies. OK, this might not be a classic, but it is loads of fun. Watching Tim Thomerson’s cop, Jack Deth, fight a zombie Santa while a young Helen Hunt in an elf costume looks on makes this something you can’t miss. Besides, you need one horror movie at Christmastime.

We’re No Angels: (And I’m not talking about that 80s De Niro film of the same name) Three escapees from Devil’s Island find their way into a small shop. Their plan is murder and robbery, but somehow they end up bringing needed Christmas cheer for a troubled family. Why isn’t this one of those Christmas flicks everyone watches every year? It a joy from start to finish. Humphrey Bogart plays the lead villain in a rare comedic role and it is directed by Michael Curtiz, my favorite director who also helmed White Christmas.

That should get you going. What’s your favorite unusual Christmas films?

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Dec 142012

Daimajin four reels
Return of Daimajin two reels
Daimajin Strikes Again two reels

Daimajin: Lord Hanabasa assures his two children that recent earthquakes are not to be feared as their good god will protect them. The common villagers have a different view, gathering to perform a ceremony to keep an evil spirit locked away in a giant statue. Samanosuke, the traitorous Chamberlain, takes advantage of the confusion to murder the lord and seize control, but fails to kill Hanabasa’s children.  Protected by a swordsman and a priestess for ten years, they come of age hiding on their god’s mountain. The rightful heir sets his mind on freeing his people from Samantha’s cruel rule, while that evil man decides to crush the villagers’ spirit by destroying the giant idol, both actions potentially causing the massive “Majin” to awaken.

Return of Daimajin: The ruler of Mikoshiba sets his sights on the neighboring lands of Nagoshi and Chigusa, that sit on either side of a lake that contains the god’s island. Both are crushed, but the young lord of Chigusa and the daughter of the Lord of Nagoshi escape to the island. When the invaders decide to destroy the statue of the god, they earn the wrath of Majin.

Daimajin Strikes Again: A wounded woodsman returns to his village, explaining that a warlord had captured the missing men and forced them into hard labor building a fort. Only he had escaped by crossing the god’s mountain. With the coming snow, the local lord cannot send troops. Someone must travel to the compound, over the forbidden mountain, and tell the men the only route to escape. When no one takes on the quest, four children sneak out to rescue their fathers and brothers. It is only a matter of time before all this trapsing on sacred ground wakes the Majin.

Discovering the Daimajin movies twenty-five years after their release was a delightful surprise. Good daikaiju is rarer then a funny Ben Stiller movie (percentage-wise) and a period one with samurai…  Well, to the best of my knowledge, these are it. All three were made in 1966, and released a year apart. The studio had hit pay dirt with Gammera, the gigantic turtle, and were looking for another giant monster franchise; something different. They found it.

At first I was loathe to categorize Daimajin as daikaiju. It feels like a straight samurai adventure, with a bit of Hong Kong fantasy mixed in toward the end. But city stomping is an automatic entry pass into the daikaiju club, and Majin gets in some good stomping, even if the buildings are a bit more primitive than normal.

Perhaps it is just that I am so used to the human story being unimportant filler between monster misdeeds (see about 20 of the Godzilla pictures). Here the story, not the smashing, is the point, not that the smashing isn’t worth the price of admission on its own. The story is a simple heroes tale, like 90% of Japanese sword epics, with that simplicity strengthening the drama. The characters are well defined, and pure, good or evil as the case may be.

There is on exception: The god. He’s a world of contradictions. It is not clear if Majin is “the god”  but no one else shows up to lay claim to the title. If he is the good god that is mentioned, he’s not all that sympathetic to his people’s pain, as only a personal insult and a woman’s tears gets him moving, and collateral damage doesn’t phase him. If he is the demon the villagers feared, he’s amazingly just (Old Testament just) and a better neighbor than many of the humans. It leads to a fascinating world.

The Return of Daimajin is a rehash sequel: same plot, though with less buildup, same beautiful cinematography, though not quite as  attractive, same monster attack and rescue, though not as exciting. The characters are similar, some lines repeat, and the entire structure of the film matches its predecessor. That doesn’t make it bad, just unnecessary. If Daimajin didn’t exist (or you are unable to find it), I would rate this one reel higher.

Daimajin Strikes Again manages to be avoid the rehash label, but it is still the weakest of the three. OK, it doesn’t avoid it by that much. There is once again an evil warlord who forces peasants into grueling labor and tortures them and the Majin waits for act three to show the level of his displeasure. What’s different is the lack of samurai action. The protagonists are children and in place of sword play we get a boy scout adventure through the wilderness. While it is reasonably presented, it isn’t very interesting. I give Strikes Again points for treating kids with respect, without silly jokes or sanitizing the danger, but respect is insufficient. It starts well, and ends better, but you might drift off in the middle.

While you don’t need to go running off to see all three, the original Daimajin is a must see.


Dec 122012
  December 12, 2012

The local Movie Studio Grill had a $1 Girls Night Out screening of Love Actually tonight, and I defied gender rolls and went (with my wife Eugie). It is a strange movie in that I liked it quite a bit when I first saw it, but I like it more and more each time I see it. It just doesn’t get old: eight or nine intertwined tales of love at Christmastime, some gleeful, some tragic, all funny. If you need a newish Christmas film tradition, Love Actually is the film. An excellent way to celebrate.

And the foods not bad.