Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Pre-cheese lament

I guess I just have to come to terms with the fact that my blog has been reduced to little more than a Christmas movie review site. I always swear I'm going to blog and get off Facebook, but the Big Blue Timesuck Monkey has attached itself pretty well to my back and my blog has suffered.

It's kind of sad to see how many old friends left off blogging years ago. A few actually shut down, but more of them just drifted away and met up on Facebook later. The big bloggers are still going, of course: the political pundits, the business bloggers, those sort. But the personal, one-writer blogs that let every Tom, Dick, and Joel sound his barbaric yawp are becoming a thing of the past. I wonder if the mid- to late 2000s will one day be regarded as the Golden Age of the Blog. Or will the Blogosphere just be a half-remembered interim step on the road to total social connectivity? Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot...

Either way, I'm not giving up completely, not as long as the TV gods keep sending us cheesy fodder for Christmas. I'm suffering through a stinkeroo now and hope to post it with a review in a day or two.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

75 years ago today, 156,000 men saved the world

I used to make a post like this every year. I wasn't sure I still could today.

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

We can never repay them: the few still living, the ones now passed, and the many who never returned and sanctified those beaches with their blood. Thank you, gentlemen. Just, thank you.

Monday, December 24, 2018

A Johnny Cash Christmas to remember

I really wanted to do more cheesy movies, but the Greatest Newspaper in the Northwest™ is in a transitional phase and my workload has been through the roof. So I’m going to wrap up the pre-holiday videos with one of the loveliest Christmas shows I’ve ever seen.

Growing up in the ’70s, I remember seeing these variety show specials pert’ near every night from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Every comedian or musician who was anybody had one. Some of them were pretty good (The Carpenters, for instance) and some of them, well, just didn’t age well. (I subjected my Lovely and Brilliant Wife to a Donny and Marie special, I forget which one, and came out unable to believe we’d ever enjoyed such dreck.) But this 1977 show from Johnny Cash is just jaw-dropping. Roy Clark, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Statler Brothers, they all joined Johnny and June just a few months after their recording buddy Elvis died. Besides the songs that made some of them famous and a few old Christmas standards, the stars all converge for high-energy renditions of the Gospel standards “This Train is Bound for Glory” and “Children Go Where I Send Thee, as well as an absolutely breathtaking performance of “Silent Night.” If you skipped the movies (and who could blame you), you still need to see this.

Merry Christmas to all!

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Cheese at Cartwright's

Okay, this one has cheese. Not in a limburger sort of way, more like a very mild Monterey jack. It would melt well over a nice spicy burrito but doesn’t carry a lot of flavor itself.

I hadn’t looked up the cast of “Christmas at Cartwright’s” before watching, so it was a bit of a jolt to see Wallace Shawn and Gabrielle Miller in roles completely opposite the ones I reviewed a couple of years ago. But they work well in their supporting roles, the one as an angel and the other as a, well, fill in the appropriate misogynistic term.

The film starts out with single mom Nicky (Alicia Witt, whom I recall playing a Hollywood minx on “The Sopranos”) who’s having trouble finding work. Even at Christmas, with every single retailer in the western world hiring temps. She’s dodging the landlady over late rent and her daughter apparently needs a reading tutor. Why Nicky can’t just help Becky herself since she has time on her hands is just one of the many things never addressed.

Finally her search brings her to Cartwright’s Department Store, where she (a) gets on the bad side of the HR person and (b) meets a store executive who happens to be single and handsome and have the right name for a husband. (It makes sense in the context.) As usual, he’s basically a cardboard cutout, filling in the Love Interest blank. She doesn’t get hired (obvs), but with the help of the store’s “Christmas Coordinator,” she manages to fake her way into being the store’s Santa Claus.

Here endeth any semblance of believability. There is no way in [eternal perdition] that her theatrically-lowered voice passes for male. And where is it written that a fake voice has to come with a fake indeterminate accent? This always happens when women try to pass themselves off vocally as men and vice versa, and nobody ever seems to notice or account for it.

The other issue in this one was that little Becky is clearly hungry for a new daddy, but her original daddy is never mentioned, not even alluded to. Unless this was a virgin birth (call the Vatican!), you’d think there would be at least some hint of his existence. Did he die? Did he run off with his secretary? Not a clue. As a father who’s been erased from a child’s life, this bothers me no little.

Outside of those things, it’s a fairly cute film, except for the ending scene at the department store which is just sick-making. I’ve seen proposals with less pomp and schmaltz.

Enjoy (or at least endure) “Christmas at Cartwright’s.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"The Christmas List": Okay cheese, bad geography

The first thing I noticed about “The Christmas List” was that the religious aspects of Christmas were unapologetically displayed, starting out with a Gospel choir singing actual carols over the opening credits. Between that and the utter cleanliness of it (no sex, not even cohabitation), I had to pause and look it up to make sure it wasn’t something from Mollywood. Nope, it was just ABC Family from 21 years ago. The times, they are a-changin’.

The story is a fairly simple one, yet I still kept getting a little lost on the details. Melody Parris (Mimi Rogers, whose name I would swear I recognized but can’t find anything I’ve seen her in), works the perfume counter at a department store in Seattle (about which more anon). Apparently she’s some sort of a super scent savant, able to identify any perfume put under her nose or name the perfect perfume for a given person based on a list of personality traits. Her life changes when she writes down all the things she’s missing in her life – a better job, a marriage (she’s been waiting for her boyfriend George to propose), money in the bank – and her friend steals it and sticks it in Santa’s mailbox. No sooner is her woeful missive deposited than she meets Danny (Bill Switzer, no apparent relation to Carl), who’s missing his dead mother at Christmas. (His performance at the perfume counter is a sniffle-fest.) One thing leads to another (which leads to Danny’s dad) and she finds herself getting all the things she asked for – sort of.

This never quite gets dark enough to be a a “monkey’s paw” (or should it be reindeer’s hoof?) but she does learn a few things, particularly what a colossal douchecanoe George is. (The least loathsome thing about him is that he calls Melody’s mom “Mother Natalie.” Gag me with a candy cane!) Danny’s father is a classic unmemorable Hallmark movie lead, whose girlfriend Faith (Marla Maples back when she was still Mrs. Trump) Danny really dislikes. We’re a little vague on why, as she never really works up to the Wicked Stepmother level, but apparently she lives far away and wants to send him to boarding school. We think.

We knew from the outset that a romance was in the offing, but it starts fast and has to be slowed down. I kind of liked the awkwardness of that; a lot less formulaic. Also, the way her career works out has flashes of the curtain scene in “Singin’ in the Rain.” If some of the plot points sew themselves up too neatly, well, what do you expect?

Now the rant: Faith wants to take Danny and his father (why can’t I remember the guy’s name?) to see her family at Christmas, in the far-off town of Bellevue, Washington, which apparently is so far back in the woods that Danny quips that he can start a tick collection. Say what?

Look, I know a lot of low-budget movies are set in Seattle because it’s so cheap to film in Vancouver, and the landscapes are similar. But seriously, ABC Family, would it kill you to look at a map? Bellevue is across a bridge from Seattle. It’s not woodsy. It’s not rural. It’s a sprawling mess of snooty malls and congested arterial roads leading to more snooty malls. It’s surrounded by Microsoft money. People, you're three hours away from the real Bellevue. Surely someone there could have noticed this.

Good lines to watch for:
“You make me do the strangest things.”
“Get out of my house or I will boil you in Christmas pudding and drive a holly stake through your heart!”
“Hasta la vista, Faithy!” (Yes, really.)

Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Preparing for cheese

I really, really don't want to think that the only time I'll ever post on my blog again is for Cheesy Christmas Movies™, but 'tis getting close to the season now whether I like it or not. So in case I have any readers left, does anyone have any suggestions for movies on YouTube or the Internet Archive or other sites I can embed from? The cheesier the better. Ready, go!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Snatching failure from the jaws of mediocrity

I was fortunate enough to go into “Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus” with low expectations, primarily because it starred Steve Guttenberg, whose best performance, for me, was in “The Boys from Brazil,” and then only because he was killed off early before he could make it stink. I held out some hope because of the delightful Crystal Bernard.  She doesn’t disappoint at all, and he actually came off surprisingly well, all things considered.

If it weren’t for the premise and the pacing, this might have been an okay film. Not good, but okay. The premise is laughable: Santa Claus is about to retire and his son (named Nick, because of course) can’t take over without a Mrs. Claus.  (Pause while we ponder the ridiculousness of a wife being necessary to fill the shoes of a third-century Christian bishop.) Nick is sent to California with a list of prospects, but soon encounters the young widow Beth as she’s trying to shoot a Christmas commercial featuring Santa. Nick, of course, knows how Santa should be played and is soon hired as an actor.

Herein lies the biggest problem with Junior Claus. Nick instantly wins the confidence of every child he encounters, including the little actress in the commercial and Beth’s son Jake. That works for an old fat man in a red suit. For a single guy in his 40s with no known history, not so much. Now, if it were my kids, that would set off a jingle bell of alarm loud enough to wake the dead. Yet nobody, child or adult, seems to pick up on the obvious Stranger Danger vibe this guy gives off. To make things worse, he also seems to have (though it’s not explicitly stated) some psychic ability to make people feel good about him and trust him. Sort of like magical roofies.

To his credit, he doesn’t seem to have used that on Beth to win her affections. (Or did he? The more I think about it...) What he does do is teach Jake to play basketball, show up at her work with flowers, and try to get her to believe in Christmas (specifically, Santa) before he has to take up the reindeer reins on Christmas Eve. The upshot of this is that the romance doesn’t get a chance to develop; it just sort of jumps from turning point to turning point. One minute Beth is thoroughly charmed, the next she’s uncertain, and all of a sudden, she believes. There’s a particularly poignant scene at the beginning where Beth as a young girl (played by what appears to be Crystal Bernard’s daughter) loses her faith in Santa because he didn’t make her daddy come home.

Apparently there’s a sequel. I don’t know yet if I can work up the courage to watch it. We’ll see.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

I’m not sniffling, you’re sniffling!

With Cheesy Christmas Movies, I have a tendency to play “Name that Derivation.” because they are derivative; nobody expects originality. “Journey Back to Christmas” isn’t an exception to that. Where it is exceptional is that it takes tropes from “Forever Young,” “Remember the Night” (a tragically underappreciated film) and “It’s a Wonderful Life” without being obvious about it.

Hanna (Candace Cameron Bure), a nurse in a small-town hospital at the end of World War II, takes shelter from a snowstorm in a shed and emerges to find herself in the same town, 71 years later. Not unnaturally, she’s terrified and confused. Concerned passersby summon the police in the handsome-aw-shucks person of Officer Jake (Oliver Hudson). Faced with the prospect of having her forcibly committed, Jake instead convinces his superiors to let him take Hanna to the family farm until she can get her bearings. There she tries to make sense of a world in which iPads and eBay have replaced caroling and lights on the town gazebo. Her house is a health food store and the hospital where she worked is a library. From there, I expected the usual two-dimensional romance plot to play out between her and the inexplicably single Jake, and I expected wrong. Because even that many years later, Nurse Hanna is not completely forgotten.

I have to say here that I love, love, love a good time-travel or alternate history story, on the page or screen.  The other side of that coin is that every little anachronism or historical howler gets under my skin like an allergy test. I wanted, for example, to enjoy “Outlander,” but the appalling lack of understanding of 18th-century Scottish history outweighed the excellent costuming, magnificent visuals and better-than-average plotting and acting. I endured the first season and figured I’d done my duty.

There were a couple of such nits to pick in “Journey Back to Christmas,” but not as many as there would be if the film were more self-conscious about accuracy, oddly enough. The only one that bothered me at all was that both the doctor and the police chief Hanna encounters in 2016 were black. That would have been extraordinary if not impossible in 1945, yet she never even blinks. (I also thought “Central Falls” was a hokey, unrealistic town name, until I looked it up. My apologies to any Central Fallsians who happen on this blog.)

Bure gives an adorable if slightly over-perky performance here, coming across genuinely kind and generous. Hudson is competent as the sort of lovable but slightly clueless semi-beefcake that acts as woman-bait in so many innocent romance stories. But the real show-stealer is Tom Skerritt as the mysterious Tobias Cook. By the time he’s revealed, we’ve long ago figured him out, yet he still packs a punch when it’s confirmed. I actually did choke up at the final George Bailey moment.

Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Jumping the cheese gun

Thanksgiving isn’t a very cinegenic (is that a word?) sort of a holiday. Let’s face it, Christmas is loaded with both religious and secular imagery. It’s about love, magic, hope and salvation. Thanksgiving, by contrast, is about stuffing your face with calories and collapsing in front of a football game. That’s it.  How many major Thanksgiving movies can you name off the top of your head? “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” obviously. The criminally underrated “Dutch?” Surely. Any others? Me either. Thanksgiving isn’t romantic. It wouldn’t even be a big deal if it weren’t a month before Christmas. It’s a second-string, no-frills event. The Chicago of holidays, if you will.

But I felt like getting an early start in my (only somewhat forced) holiday cheer, and you can always count on Hallmark to dish up some schmaltz for any occasion. Sure enough, what I found is about food.

“Pumpkin Pie Wars” starts with a feud between two middle-aged BFFs who were going to start a bakery together unit one of them went into business with her father instead. For the next ten years, the women, both of whom now own bakeries, vent their grudge through an annual pumpkin pie bake-off. (Who even knew that was a thing?) One has a son, the other a daughter. We see where this is going, of course. It's Romeo and Juliet, but with less stabbing and more diabetes.

Sam Montag... er... Harper (Eric Aragon) went to a fancy chef school in London and dreams of opening a restaurant beyond his mom's humble bakery. Casey McArthy (yes, spelled like that and played by Julie Gonzalo) has a business degree from Wharton but her cooking skills would embarrass a grade-schooler. (Several fire department references make that obvious.) Nevertheless, when her mother hurts her foot and can't compete in the bake-off, Casey elbows her aside to take her place. Sam, meanwhile, makes a deal with his mother to look into the restaurant if he wins the bake-off for her.

There really should have been more lead-up to the romance. No sooner do the two agree to work together (not much of a spoiler; the movie does everything to telegraph it but run a banner across the screen) than she's falling off a ladder into his arms, he's showing her around the kitchen at noticeably close range and they're both looking longingly at each other and somehow imagining they're being discreet. By the first kiss (at the usual two-thirds mark) we've already started picking out china patterns for them.

The acting is typical Hallmark fare: a little wooden at the outset but softening up as characters begin to form. Sam's mother (played by the amazingly-named Jennifer-Juniper Angeli) is well done; Casey's (Michele Scarabelli) is such a nasty harridan I kept wanting to disembowel her with a spatula. Besides, the actress keeps forgetting to use her crutches and just sort of walks around with them stuck in her armpits. A little direction would go a long way.

I will say the resolution surprised me pleasantly. I won't give it away, but I was all geared up for an artificially tense bake-off climax when the plot turned a right-angle on me. And the recipes the characters used! Pumpkin cheesecake pie with a caramel pecan topping lined up against pumpkin silk chiffon pie with bourbon whipped cream and a ginger snap streusel crust made my pancreas hurt just thinking about it.

All in all, not great, but not bad. Satisfying in its mundaneness. Sort of like Thanksgiving.

Leave your opinion in the comments and let the holidays commence!

Monday, October 09, 2017

In defense of Columbus

So apparently today is either Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples Day, depending on whether you’re a dastardly white supremacist or a woke, morally superior progressive.

It’s trendy these days to vilify Christopher Columbus, and by extension, all European-descended people in the Americas, for the genocide inflicted upon the Native Americans. It’s especially popular among people whose entire knowledge of history comes from bumper stickers and kiddie lit. We are expected (nay, commanded) to believe that Columbus was a cruel, racist slave-trading monster who befouled America with his presence for the sole purpose of eradicating the innocent, peace-loving natives.

I usually try to avoid profanity, but sometimes bullshit has to be called bullshit, and this is one of those times. Here’s the deal:

1. Columbus was no saint, but he was no monster either. He was fairly typical for a man of his time and place, and maybe a little more courageous and devout than most. Europe’s trade routes overland to Asia had been choked off and its economy was suffering badly. At the time, there was no way at all to gauge longitude and even latitude was iffy, and the 3,000 miles that he thought it was to the Indies was longer than it was possible to provision ships for. But Columbus had faith, a desire not to be poor and an enormous set of cojones, and those things paid off.

Sooner or later, contact was going to occur. If it hadn't been an Italian representing Spain, it would have been the Portuguese or the English. Or, equally likely, the Ottoman Turks, who were expanding prodigiously. And who traded slaves and forced religious conversions with even more gusto than Christians did.

Yes, Columbus took slaves, and yes, he treated them abominably. Yes, we enlightened 21st-century people recognize this as a horrible thing. But in his day, it was normal. Christian Europeans were prohibited from taking Christians as slaves, but Muslims had been trading in European slaves for centuries, and Europeans owned Muslims and pagans from the Middle East and Africa already. Slavery was a fact of life and had been for millennia. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that any nation abolished it. It strikes me as unjust to hold a man accountable to a moral standard that wouldn’t exist until hundreds of years after he was dead.

2. It wasn’t a genocide. Really, there’s no reasonable way it could be considered one. Webster defines genocide as “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.” The misfortune brought upon the Natives by the white population was great but it was not deliberate, it was not systematic and the group in question wasn’t destroyed.

For the rest of this screed, I’m going to stick with the English colonies in North America, just because (a) those are the only ones I have any stake in and (b) as far as I know those are the only hotbeds of Columbus-hate. I’m not downplaying or justifying the atrocities committed against Natives by white settlers. The only reason I’m not enumerating them is simply that we all know about them. They were horrifying and worthy of condemnation. They also aren’t the entire story.

What usually gets called a genocide was in fact a mass migration accompanied by wars of conquest, such as have happened frequently over human history. Post-medieval England was poor, disease-ridden, crowded and politically volatile. The rest of Europe was no better off. Meanwhile, over the ocean there was a huge mass of land – nobody knew how huge – that wasn’t being used for anything.

“But it already belonged to the Natives!” Yes, it did, insofar as they had any concept of land ownership. But very few of them were farmers, and to European eyes untilled land is wasted. Hunting-gathering is a nomadic lifestyle that requires a large area to support a small population.

So, Mr./Ms./Xs. Progressive-American, if you were in their shoes, would you have stayed in a country where you had no prospect of ever bettering your condition and where the government might at any time turn on you, or would you try to stake out some off that wide-open land for yourself, by force if necessary? Of course you would, and trample anyone who slowed you down. Hunger and hopelessness will outweigh moral smuggery every time.

As for wars, those happen any time you have two groups of people who desperately need the same resources.  Do you seriously doubt, that if the positions had been reversed, Native Americans would not have attempted to conquer Europe? They weren’t intrinsically more virtuous than whites, merely outnumbered and outgunned.

And, crucially, less immune to disease. Europeans had been in contact with Asia and Africa, albeit on a limited basis, for centuries and had built up some immunity in the process. They also kept domesticated animals on a much larger scale. Native Americans had never been beyond their continent, obviously, but because they had no wheeled vehicles or horses, most of them never interacted with anyone but a few neighboring tribes. The overwhelming majority of Native deaths came from germs over which the Europeans had no control whatsoever.

3. The Natives were not pacifistic victims.  As Jim Goad wrote a few Thanksgivings ago (go ahead, read the whole thing):
We fought them from 1540 to 1890. That’s 350 years! They eventually lost, but nobody has proved to be as worthy an adversary as the Indians. We fought them a hundred times longer than we fought the Nazis. When we portray the Indians as an innocent tribe of peaceful hippies who were duped with “guns, germs, and steel,” as Jared Diamond would say, we make them look bad. They were warriors.
If I were a Native, I’d curse Columbus and spit at the mention of his name. I grew up next to a reservation in the ‘70s and I can tell you no ethnic group in America has gotten a dirtier end of the stick. I don’t blame them in the least for resenting whites and the man who started them coming here. Fair is fair.

But I’m not. I’m the descendant of generation after generation of Europeans, mostly English, who seized the chance to get out of the hellhole that was 16th- and 17th-century Britain. My people have flourished in the New World, and I’ll be durned if I’ll lament that fact. I celebrate Columbus, not because he was a swell guy, but because I benefitted from him. Others may do as they think best.