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.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Could Jackson have trumped the War Between the States?

Okay, first off, from what Trump said it’s obvious that he was aware that Andrew Jackson was dead before the Civil War. (Which really wasn’t a civil war, but that’s a whole nother discussion.)  And while I don’t know that Trump was talking specifically about the nullification crisis, state-federal issues were very much a problem during Jackson’s tenure.

Second, slavery was the issue that pushed the states into war, but it was simply the most volatile aspect of a widening rift between north and south over diverging economies and cultures. The two were going to continue butting heads and it’s possible they might have split anyway, but absent slavery it probably wouldn’t have turned into a bloodbath.

Third, he’s dead wrong that a strong leader could have prevented the war. In fact, it was the election of a strong leader that touched off the war. Previous presidents had been compromising nebbishes and that was why the uneasy peace continued. Maybe if they’d managed to keep dithering until industrialization made slavery unprofitable, it could have died a peaceful death. Maybe. But no, Jackson neither could nor would have prevented war.

Trump’s right about the way Jackson’s wife was treated in the press, though. They literally hounded her to her grave. I notice that part of the interview hasn’t been reported much in the press, probably because they’re so gleeful about savaging Melania. Hard to blame Trump for identifying with that one.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

For your St. Patrick’s Day viewing pleasure

There are certain movies that I just have to dig out in March when my non-existent Irish heritage needs a little boost. There’s “The Quiet Man,” of course. That’s a perennial. There’s “The Secret of Roan Inish,” which is mostly for children but I still find it charming. (And for the life of me I can’t seem to find out what became of Jeni Courtney after she grew up. Jeni, if you ever google yourself and see this, please leave a comment.) I tried to like “The Luck of the Irish,” I truly did, but the acting was so wooden not even the irrepressible Cecil Kellaway could save it. There’s the Neil Jordan/Liam Neeson biopic “Michael Collins.” And then there’s “I See a Dark Stranger,” far and away my favorite.

The clip I uploaded so many years ago here is gone, but sure, isn’t the whole darn film on YouTube now, and therefore also at On The Other Foot?

“I See a Dark Stranger” (inexplicably released in the U.S. as "The Adventuress") would be just another British post-war relic were it not for Deborah Kerr as Bridie Quilty. If all you remember her from is “The King and I” or “An Affair to Remember,” hold on to your hat. As I blogged when she died almost ten years ago,

Deborah played a "little slip of a girleen" from the west of Ireland who tries to join the IRA, finds she's about twenty years out of date, and instead winds up spying for the Germans. The film was okay in and of itself, but it would have been just another late-night British relic except for her. She took a rather generic role and made the young lady into the sort of beautiful, innocently sexy, and self-contradictory creature that so many girls that age really are. When she turned up her nose at Trevor Howard, you could see her looking at him out the corner of her eye. When she declaimed her principles (mostly an inchoate hatred of Cromwell), she sounded just like a thousand other young women who throw themselves so passionately into their causes, never dreaming that they're not alone in them. She wasn't a part in a script, she was a real girl, and the kind that makes you tear your hair out and champ at the bit by turns. She might as well have been sitting next to me, rather than on screen, she was so thoroughly real. I was smitten with her by the third scene.

Speaking of Trevor Howard, he's excellent here too, at his understated best. William O’Gorman is fun as Bridie’s inebriated little father with tall tales of heroism. I do have to close my ears when a crowd of British extras shows up pretending to be American, but that’s a picky. And the dialogue has some lovely dry wit:

Bridie : I'm 21; I'm me own mistress.
Old woman (under her breath): That's an occupation that could change hands overnight.

Watch now and fall in love with Deborah Kerr all over again.