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