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!