Month: December 2015

Murder, She Baked: A Plum Pudding Mystery

murder she baked plum pudding mystery

Hannah Swensen (Alison Sweeney) is back for round two of To Catch a Murderer, Christmas at Lake Eden edition. Just as the holiday preparations are going into overdrive, the baker-cum-detective stumbles onto yet another dead body. Larry Jaeger, the owner of the local tree lot, is found shot in his office, and there is no shortage of suspects. Fingers quickly point to his fiancée, who got engaged a mere six weeks after settling her deceased husband’s estate. But Larry’s ex-wife, a radio DJ who goes by the moniker Dr. Love, also has reasons to see him dead. The news of his shady financial dealings only adds to the suspense.

Okay, it doesn’t actually. If the first two movies are anything to go by, the Murder, She Baked series will not have anyone on the edge of their seats, at least not for reasons of crime. The real mystery is in the romance, which is probably right in line with the filmmakers’ priorities. In A Chocolate Chip Cookie Mystery, Hannah was introduced to two potential suitors. Her mother, Delores (Barbara Niven earning her paycheck), is eager to match her older daughter with dentist Norman (Gabriel Hogan), who by Hannah’s own admission is incredibly kind and stable but also predictable. Mike (Cameron Mathison), an out-of-town detective brought in to solve the cookie case, offers a little more excitement but she also worries about the dangers of his job.

I don’t see why this would be a particular concern for her since she is always diving head first into murder investigations. A few dumb moves on her part leaves her vulnerable and in need of saving again, which Mike happily does. You have to admire him for swallowing his substantial ego this time. While he still asserts his authority when Hannah starts poking about, it’s more out of his concern for her safety than out of professional chauvinism. But Norman is no slouch, and finding a predictable man is not a bad thing when you’re in your mid-thirties. I should know. So what really needs to be solved here is whether audiences come down on the side of Team Mike or Team Norman.

As for the festive atmosphere – this is in Hallmark’s holiday line-up, there’s a lot of window dressing. (I realized today that Hallmark and Hallmark Movies and Mysteries are two different channels. Could’ve – did fool me.) Trees, lights, and helper elves are everywhere, but the movie doesn’t push too hard on celebrating the spirit. Even the plum pudding is relegated to a cameo. That’s fine since there are a hundred more TV shows and films that do just that. There are a few bubbly attempts at the feels in the closing scene, which proved just enough for me.

Released: 2015
Prod: Harvey Kahn
Dir: K.T. Donaldson
Writer: Nancey Silvers
Cast: Alison Sweeney, Cameron Mathison, Lisa Durupt, Barbara Niven, Gabriel Hogan, Juliana Wimbles, Johanna Newmarch, Ona Gauer, Kirby Morrow, Farah Fath, Toby Levins, Colleen Winton, Richard Keats, Kazumi Evans, Kyla Wise
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2015

The Pursuit of Happyness

the pursuit of happyness

Here is an American story, all the better because it is true. Not even Horatio Alger could have dreamed up something this good. It’s the early 1980s, and a young man has bet everything on portable bone scanners that he sells doctor-to-doctor. The endeavor doesn’t go as planned; his wife leaves him and their young son while he’s left with mounting debts. But a chance meeting leads to an internship at major stock brokerage firm with the possibility of a permanent job. Since the position is unpaid, however, he struggles to find enough money to cover rent and his son’s daycare.

It’s horrifying, and I don’t just mean the fate of Chris Gardner (Will Smith), the man whose autobiography is the basis for this film. Those who don’t have any close encounters with poverty or homelessness might be in for a shock. Getting a bed at a shelter, for example, isn’t about clearing a few hurdles but mile-high brick walls. In some cases, spaces are allocated on a day-by-day basis, which means people begin lining up in the morning for a place to sleep at night. It’s not a great system if you have to work or pick up children from school. And navigating San Francisco’s welfare services is just one of the difficulties Chris must overcome before he can reach the promised land of financial security. Along the way, he also gets his things stolen, has his car repossessed, faces rejection in multiple forms, and spends a night in jail, all while elbowing for a salaried job and caring for his kid (Jaden Smith). The only possible way things could get worse is if his son was diagnosed with some terminal disease.

Instead, what I found truly horrifying about this movie was the shameless peddling of the American Dream; this is American mythmaking at its most deceptive, held together by the strongest damn bootstraps ever. If this was just another inspiring film about one man’s triumph over the odds, that would be good and well. But, without condemning Gardner’s personal story, which is every bit as moving as the film takes pains to portray, The Pursuit of Happyness sets itself up for something more. The title alone wants to and does evoke American ideals and the philosophical foundations of the country. For all the turbulence Chris endures on his journey, there’s a cleanliness and precision in the way the movie fits itself within a national narrative, a regular rags-to-riches story wherein the hardworking, persistent hero is held up as the embodiment of the Dream.

You could call this the anti-Grapes of Wrath; the protagonist runs up against the system and wins, never mind that the system is rigged as hell. And here lies the trick. The movie works, insomuch as it does, because we see how screwed up things are – financial penalties weighted towards the lower class, inefficient and unreliable public transportation, unaffordable housing, lack of childcare – and navigating this system is the perfect hero. Chris makes one initial blunder, a bad investment that saddles him with hundreds of boxy bone scanners, but is all but blameless for the remainder of the film. He’s smart, personable, resourceful, ambitious, honest (generally), patient. And he’s a damn good father. It helps that he’s played by a wonderfully understated Smith, who by not drawing attention to himself manages to brighten Chris’s saintly glow.

Perfection, it turns out, is the minimum requirement for making it in America. Woe to those mere mortals who screw things up now and again and who aren’t so upstanding. Too bad for those talentless schmucks who can’t solve Rubik’s Cubes in under a minute or who just want a regular 9-to-5 job. Sorry to the folks who prefer labor protections to exploitative unpaid internships. Good luck, all, with your pursuit of happiness. It worked for Chris Gardner; I’m sure it will work for you.

Released: 2006
Prod: Will Smith, Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, James Lassiter, Steve Tisch
Dir: Gabriele Muccino
Writer: Steven Conrad
Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe, Dan Castellaneta, James Karen, Kurt Fuller, Takayo Fischer
Time: 117 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015

Murder, She Baked: A Chocolate Chip Cookie Mystery

murder she baked chocolate chip cookie mystery

Hallmark romance movies are something I watch so I can amuse my mom with light chatter; Hallmark murder mysteries are something I watch to recover, because while there is still love to be had, at the end of day, there’s also a whodunit to solve. Murder, She Baked looks to be a successful franchise for the network, which wants to expand into your kitchen. Based on a book in a series by Joanne Fluke, the first movie, A Chocolate Chip Cookie Mystery, sounds like a really good ploy to get viewers to cozy up with a fuzzy blanket and a cup of hot cocoa.

It introduces us to Hannah Swensen (Alison Sweeney), the owner of a popular bakery in tiny Lake Eden, Minnesota. Her sister, Andrea (Lisa Durupt), is a fashionable interior designer and her mother, Delores (Barbara Niven), is a meddler. While Andrea is unwittingly drawn into her sister’s crime solving adventures, Hannah is unwittingly drawn into her mother’s matchmaking schemes. Our heroine is more than content, however, to tromp around in her hiking boots and play mommy to her pet cat.

Several things converge when she gets set up with the hot dentist (Gabriel Hogan). Her childhood friend, Ron, is killed outside her shop and a hot homicide detective (Cameron Mathison) from the city comes to investigate. Upset over Ron’s senseless death, Hannah does what any good friend would do: she tries to solve the murder. She’s already something of an amateur sleuth, helping the local police crack a few petty crimes, and she uses her budding relationships with both dentist Norman and officer Mike to search for more clues.

It’s the usual suspects as far as murder mysteries go, which is good or bad depending on what you want from these things. Could Ron’s death have something to do with an illicit romance or some other shady behavior? What about the cantankerous owner of the local dairy for whom he worked? As Hannah gets closer to the killer, could her life be in danger too?

A Chocolate Chip Cookie Mystery hardly has the gravity of the more highbrow stuff over at Masterpiece Mystery! You won’t ponder great moral questions like you might while watching Foyle’s War (my favorite show ever, by the way), but it does a fair job doing what it wants to do: bring out a sense of small town intrigue. Again, there are shows that do that better – Marple comes to mind – but none that impart kitchen-inspired life lessons. “Baking can be like art….or an adventure.” “The person doesn’t choose the cookie; the cookie chooses the person.”

Actually, I’m not sure what that’s about, but Sweeney delivers these nuggets of wisdom with confidence and calmness, and I’ve totally bought into her portrayal of Hannah. Unlike the devious, duplicitous Sami Brady, who she played for years on Days of Our Lives, Hannah has Minnesota nice all over. Sweeney makes her character easily identifiable; she’s warm, smart, independent, and she never runs out of cookies or cake. Hannah’s feisty exchanges with Mike also have some fire, but considering how grossly condescending he is to her when they first meet (“That’s why you’re a baker and I’m a homicide detective.”), I was hoping for a more forceful dressing down and some sustained tension. Instead, Mike begins to see the baker as a useful partner, and future installments promise more cooperation. I suppose it’s all for the better though; no one wants to see Hannah upbraided by a crime-fighting jerk.

Released: 2015
Prod: Harvey Kahn
Dir: Mark Jean
Writer: Donald Martin
Cast: Alison Sweeney, Cameron Mathison, Lisa Durupt, Barbara Niven, Gabriel Hogan, Susan Hogan, Linda Darlow, Meredith McGeachie, Douglas Chapman, Jason Cermak
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark
Reviewed: 2015

Annie (1982)

annie 1982

Until I got around to seeing Annie this weekend, I’d mostly associated the musical with Jay Z’s 1998 hit “Hard Knock Life,” which samples the famous showtune. It’s a blasphemous admission considering my vast library of cast albums, but I came of age right after the initial Annie fever waned and just before a small pop culture revival in the late 1990s. It’s not hard to warm to the pint-sized orphan though. Aileen Quinn, who takes on the title role, is relentlessly optimistic, almost bursting with joy. Except for a few scenes where Annie allows herself to see things the way they are instead of they way she imagines, Quinn grins like a kid who just loves being a kid.

That, of course, contrasts with the actual story about an orphan girl kept under the abusive care of one Miss Hannigan. A boozy Carol Burnett spits venom at her little charges, cutting them down at every chance she gets and ensuring they will never amount to anything better than her. She’s the tragic character of the piece, and though Burnett slinks through her scenes with cheeky abandon, she also makes Miss Hannigan one to be pitied as much as she is to be hated.

Annie gets a brief reprieve when she is whisked away to billionaire Oliver Warbucks’s (Albert Finney) mansion as a way of improving the latter’s public image. Finney barks through the first two acts until he finds his heart softening to the girl, though this change never really manifests onscreen. Warbucks’s secretary, Grace (Ann Reinking), however, offers a patient, nurturing presence to his gruff demeanor and immediately takes to Annie. Their relationship blossoms naturally, unlike Grace’s awkward romance with her employer. Like his character, Finney seems to be the odd one out, never quite figuring out who Warbucks is beyond a shouty middle-aged man.

Generally though, the film uses its cast’s talents well. Tim Curry and Bernadette Peters appear in brief but memorable roles as Hannigan’s scheming brother, Rooster, and his girlfriend, Lily. Quinn of course draws in the audience with her child’s cheerfulness and a slate of ready-made hits, but Reinking gets the biggest showcase. She radiates, demanding attention as she crisscrosses the screen in set numbers (“Let’s Go to the Movies” and “We Got Annie”) seemingly designed just for her. Casting decisions that don’t work so well 30 years later concern the characters of Punjab (Geoffrey Holder) and the Asp (Roger Minami), the mysterious butler and bodyguard imported to give the household some exotic flair. One of the orphans literally faints when she sees the darker skinned Punjab.

What does seem almost daring though is the striking harshness of the story. I can’t compare it to the stage show, which I haven’t seen, but a family film about Depression-era orphans would be far more sanitized today. The most recent remake starring Quvenzhané Wallis, for example, is almost cartoonish in its depiction of the Miss Hannigan character, bearing little of the regret that Burnett brings to her performance. A third act plot to involving Rooster and Lily also has a sinister undercurrent in this 1982 production, maybe thanks to Curry, rather than relying on the slapstick that characterizes the 2014 film. Granted, a movie that trumpets the hope of tomorrow will hardly be Dickensian in approach, but a darker edge, however slight, doesn’t dampen the mood.

“Tomorrow” by Aileen Quinn and the Orphans:

“It’s a Hard Knock Life” by Aileen Quinn and the Orphans:

“I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” by Aileen Quinn and Ann Reinking:

“Let’s Go to the Movies” by Ann Reinking and Aileen Quinn:

“We Got Annie” by Ann Reinking:

Released: 1982
Prod: Ray Stark
Dir: John Huston
Writer: Carol Sobieski
Cast: Aileen Quinn, Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Ann Reinking, Tim Curry, Bernadette Peters, Geoffrey Holder, Edward Hermann, Lois de Banzie
Time: 128 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015

Fred Claus

fred claus

It’s not as bad as I thought, is probably not the best way to recommend a movie, but I was genuinely surprised by Vince Vaughn and Fred Claus. Expecting a crude, Christmasy take on Old School or Wedding Crashers, I instead found myself enjoying a deceptively sweet story about brotherly love and the spirit of Christmas. The movie is cutting at times but never offensive or cynical. Even if it doesn’t always get its balance right, its warm and generous undercurrent comes through.

Vaughn turns out to be the real revelation. He maintains his trademark fast-talking, wisecracking persona, but as the estranged elder brother of Santa Claus, he also conveys sensitivity and hurt. Outshone by do-gooder Nick from a young age, Fred strikes out on his own, working as a repossessor in Chicago. When he finds himself in jail and in need of $50,000, Nick (Paul Giamatti) offers to lend the money, in exchange for Fred’s help at the North Pole. It’s Christmastime after all, but it’s also time for a surprise inspection by efficiency expert Clyde (Kevin Spacey). He thinks the elves cannot keep pace with the increasing number of toys being requested each year and threatens to shutter the whole operation and outsource to (gasp!) the South Pole.

This puts Nick and his wife (Miranda Richardson) on edge, and it doesn’t help when Fred disrupts the normal running of things with factory-wide dance parties and a disregard for proper paperwork. Their mother (Kathy Bates), with whom Fred has never been on good terms, blames her oldest son. There’s potential for a stronger family dynamic here. The Clauses have plenty of issues to work out, prompting Fred to attend a very funny Siblings Anonymous meeting. His broken relationship with his mother and a fraught one with his sister-in-law deserve more attention, especially with Bates and Richardson in those roles. Poor Trevor Peacock, who plays the father, doesn’t even get a speaking part.

Vaughn gets a strong foil in Giamatti, however. As a wronged brother with a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder, Fred sounds like the central figure of a cloying feel-good film. And while he does carry most of the weight, the two end up sharing the load like the good brothers they are. Nick is more than a fading mascot with back problems and a cookie habit; he must also sort out a small existential crisis when he realizes a flaw in his naughty or nice system.

Some of the film’s more touching moments come from outside the Claus family circle. Fred befriends the head elf Willie (a charming John Michael Higgins), who has his eyes an inexplicably human-sized elf (Elizabeth Banks). When Fred teaches his new friend to dance in order to win her over, you can’t help but to laugh and cheer and be a little heart-broken. It’s a similar feeling when Slam (Bobb’e J. Thompson), an orphaned kid from upstairs, sneaks into Fred’s apartment for some emotional guidance and security. For once, we have a Vince Vaughn character trying to act like a responsible adult. He does suffer some in the romance department, however, and his relationship with his meter maid girlfriend (Rachel Weisz) is an erratic plot point. But the movie puts enough love into the holiday itself to sustain this not-so-bad film.

Released: 2007
Prod: Joel Silver, David Dobkin, Paul Hitchcock, Jessie Nelson
Dir: David Dobkin
Writer: David Fogelman, Jessie Nelson
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Miranda Richardson, Kathy Bates, Rachel Weisz, John Michael Higgins, Kevin Spacey, Elizabeth Banks, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Ludacris
Time: 115 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015