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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 25, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


22 Strings, Sleeping Bag Coat, Christmas movies

There are lots of reasons to avoid Facebook -- the biggest one being that it sucks time out of your life.

Also, it makes some people obsessive about reporting their every moment, as if there were a vast audience watching to see what will happen next in their lives.

You know who they are -- they're the people who post that they're heading for the toilet or going out to run errands, as if to prepare their devoted followers for a lack of new posts in the minutes to come. Many bitter tears must be shed while they are gone.

I don't think I'm vain enough to go overboard like that ... but to prevent it, I have deliberately never learned to do anything with Facebook but go to my newsfeed and see what other people are posting.

Then I write snarky comments until some of them accuse me of being a troll and unfriend me.

Yeah, that's another reason not to be on Facebook -- you can lose real friends rather than just electronic ones.

But for someone like me, who mostly just responds to other people's posts, Facebook is not about my self-revelation. Other people go to a lot of trouble to show me things I would never otherwise have seen.

No, not videos of the horrible near-death experiences of strangers -- I get all of those I need from watching Tosh.0. And I'm regularly outsnarked by @midnight with Chris Hardwick, as cheery an ignorant anti-religious leftwing bigot as ever had his own internet clip show.

One of the things I like best about my Facebook time is when a friend posts a review of something wonderful that I would never have found on my own. For instance, Rick Anderson, a friend who moved away from Greensboro more than fifteen years ago and whom I would have lost touch with completely were it not for Facebook, posted a rave about the album 22 Strings, by Seckou Keita, about fifteen minutes after it was released on November 20th.

I had never heard of Seckou Keita, but apparently other people have -- 22 Strings has already been named one of the top ten albums of 2015 by Songlines magazine.

Of course, I've never heard of Songlines, either. But it's not like I pretend to stay current with any genre of music.

When I looked up Seckou Keita on his own website, I learned that he is a "griot" -- a storyteller in the West African tradition. The name "Keita" means that he is a descendant of Mandinka kings, but he followed his heart and learned to build and play the complex stringed instrument called kora.

Most koras have 21 strings, but the southern Senegalese version, as he says, can have up to 25 strings. His own kora has 22; hence the name of his album.

The account of his life and culture is fascinating, especially because he seems almost deliberately to avoid pinpointing which actual nation he is from, as if to say, What do I care about the lines the imperialists drew on maps?

But I only looked up this information when I had already bought his album (as an Amazon.com download) and listened to it five times. I'm not usually that obsessive about listening to an album before reviewing it -- but I wasn't listening in order to write a review. I was listening for the sheer pleasure of it.

I remember back when I was in college, my future brother-in-law and I stopped by a record shop in downtown Provo, Utah. An album was playing on the store stereo, a weird, haunting, slow-paced piano improvisation that almost took my breath away.

I rushed to the clerk and he was quick to show me the album that was playing: Keith Jarrett, The Koln Concert. No way could I afford to buy it; I bought it anyway, because I couldn't go another day without owning the album and listening to it all the way through.

I still listen to The Koln Concert straight through at least once a year -- and usually I listen to it five or six times in a row, because it creates a musical space which I am reluctant to leave.

You know where I'm going with this. I'm too old and jaded now to have the kind of enthusiasms I had when I was a callow youth, and yet I knew the moment I started listening to 22 Strings that this album would have much the same effect on me as The Koln Concert.

Classed as "world music," 22 Strings doesn't fit any category, just as The Koln Concert transcended Keith Jarrett's jazz roots. Yes, I'm sure the West African kola sound is authentically present, but what do I know of that? All that matters to me is the hypnotic variation-within-repetition that brings peace and beauty to me as I listen.

I have no idea if this album will appeal to any particular reader of this column. But I'm not the only one who loves it, and if you're willing to cross genre boundaries in search of beauty, maybe 22 Strings will matter to you.

Meanwhile, thanks, Rick Anderson, for bringing this music into my life, even from your perch in the faraway deserts of the American West. What an odd, circuitous route for West African music to follow in order to reach me in North Carolina.

*

Veronika Scott was fulfilling an assignment for a college class when she decided to create sleeping-bag coats for homeless people. During the day you wear it like a long puffy coat -- but at night, you let down the lower part of it, fasten parts together, and now you're in a sleeping bag that retains warmth.

Maybe the difference between life and death on the winter streets of Detroit.

Veronika Scott was demonstrating the coat to a homeless person when a woman charged out of a homeless shelter yelling at her that this was just a bandaid. "We don't need coats," the woman said. "We need jobs."

Well, half of that statement was flat wrong. As long as there are homeless people sleeping on the streets -- often because they are unable or unwilling to live by the rules of the available shelters -- then their chance of survival would be greatly enhanced by a coat-sleeping-bag combination. So yeah, they needed coats.

But for those homeless people who can show up and work hard on a schedule -- basic skills for keeping a job -- then a job, so you can pay rent and sleep in your own apartment, is much to be preferred.

So Veronika Scott began to hire formerly homeless people to make the coats -- which can also be converted into a copious totebag when you don't want to wear it. Funded by donations, The Empowerment Plan gives both jobs and a warm night's sleep to homeless people.

Check it out at http://www.empowermentplan.org -- and give a thought to contributing to a doubly good cause. I'm willing to bet that as cold weather sets in, they'll put your donation to good use. (Donations are made using PayPal.)

Even if a donation doesn't fit in with your Thanksgiving or Christmas spending plan, it's worth watching Veronika's YouTube video, which you can access from the Empowerment Plan website.

*

I know, I already wrote about the genre of Hallmark Christmas movies a couple of weeks ago. But at that point I had watched only a few of them. Now, having watched more, I'm a connoisseur.

I already reviewed four of these films, and I'm assigning them stars (*), with *** being "quite good" and * being "adequate." Just remember that these are not like Michelin stars, and I'm not rating them against the great movies or even the great Christmas movies. I'm comparing Hallmark Christmas movies with each other, so that in case you're only going to record and watch one or two, you'll at least have some idea of how to invest your viewing time.

Of course, if you're wrapping Christmas presents and want something on in the background, treat the Hallmark Channel as the "Background Channel for Christmas." Turn it on and it will deliver.

The four I already reviewed, with appropriate stars, are: Trading Christmas **, Fir Crazy **, Call Me Mrs. Miracle *, Angel in the House *.

That's right. Not one of them gets three stars, because I've watched some better ones, and if a top rating is to mean anything, only a few movies should receive it.

In fact, as I prepared this list (with short reviews) I was astonished to realize that I've watched twenty-two Christmas movies in the past couple of weeks. But then, what better way to fill up the wee hours when my insomnia keeps me awake anyway? There are worse ways to pass the time.

However, don't expect any reviews of movies with royalty in them. I don't care about royal families. No, let me amend that: Romantic movies about commoners falling in love with royals bore me almost as much as movies about zombies or vampires. If you yearn for prince and/or princess movies, you have to find them on your own.

A couple of general trends I've noticed:

1. Ice skating. One of the romantic couple (or a charming child) knows how to skate, and the other one doesn't. Expect a pratfall ... and then success. Nothing as embarrassing as the obvious switch between the stars and the stand-ins in The Bishop's Wife. But don't expect any championship skating, either.

2. Single moms without any protective impulses. So often the "good guy" shows his goodness by being so attentive and friendly to the single mom's lonely, vulnerable child. I couldn't help but think -- as the single mom leaves this guy alone with the kid for hours at a time -- hasn't she ever heard of pedophilia? Naturally, this isn't Christmas SVU and so nothing bad ever happens in the movies, but come on. Shouldn't the moms at least show a moment of caution or suspicion? When a guy you just met offers to babysit, the answer is no, ladies. Really. Every time.

3. Writers have no idea how actual corporations work, or how far in advance of Christmas you have to do all your marketing. Hint: If it's already Thanksgiving, it's too late to come up with a campaign to clear out your inventory. All the retail outlets placed their Christmas orders months before, and during the Christmas rush they don't have time to receive more shipments and unload and shelve new stock. Whatever hasn't been ordered by the stores, chains, and websites by September ain't gonna be sold this Christmas.

4. The public proposal of marriage. The person doing the proposal is always the jerk fiancé that is going to lose the girl before the end of the movie. But how stupid is this guy? You never, never, never do a public marriage proposal unless you already absolutely know the answer. And, ridiculously, in almost every case the doubtful woman gets flustered and says yes, so that she has to break off the engagement before she can take part in any hanky, let alone panky, with the Good Guy.

5. And don't forget the absolute importance of the Beloved Dead. Most of the time, the scrooge character lost his or her love of Christmas because a beloved person died at Christmas either last year, or during their childhood.

-- Angels Sing *** -- Harry Connick, Jr., stars in the best of the movies in Hallmark's Christmas Countdown so far. Michael Walker (Connick) is a wonderful father to son David (Chandler Canterbury), and a good husband to wife Susan (Connie Britton). They have to find a new house right away, and when Michael crashes his bike, he walks it home past an absolutely perfect house that is obviously out of their price range.

The house's owner is Nick (Willie Nelson) -- and you have to figure that any character named Nick in a Christmas movie is probably going to be Santa Claus in disguise. Nick takes a liking to Michael ... and sells him the house on the spot for a price that Michael can afford, which is half the house's real value.

The only restriction is that Michael has to promise to keep the house up to the standards of the neighborhood. It's only after they move in that he realizes that the house is located on a neighborhood that decorates for Christmas so obsessively that it makes the national news every year, and tourists flock to see the decorated houses.

The problem is that Michael got scrooged by a tragedy thirty years before and he does not decorate for Christmas, though as a child it was one of his favorite things to do. So his house -- formerly the most Christmasy in the neighborhood -- is bare until his family and the neighbors find a way to rekindle his love of Christmas.

The plot is threadbare, but the writing is excellent and the cast -- wow. With Lyle Lovett as the neighbor across the street and Kris Kristofferson as Michael's aged father, you can bet there's a lot of first-rate gravel-voiced Christmas singing.

But the real reason this movie earns three stars is that the writers (novelist Turk Pipkin, screenwriter Lou Berney) know how to make us love a family. The dialogue is clever and the relationships feel real. All the actors are excellent and even though the movie follows its predictable course faithfully, every scene is a pleasure. If you're only going to watch one Hallmark Channel Christmas movie, this is the one I'd pick.

Then again, I love country music. If you hate it, maybe you should move down the list.

-- A Very Merry Mix-up *** -- Alice Chapman (Alicia Witt) is still running her late father's antique shop, even though her wheeler-dealer boyfriend Will (Scott Gibson) teases her about how it makes no money and she can't stand to part with her most valuable merchandise. Will proposes to her just before they are scheduled to leave to spend Christmas with his family. But a last-minute negotiation keeps Will in the big city while Alice flies on ahead to meet his family without him.

When Alice's flight lands, her luggage isn't there, and a guy in the same situation spills coffee on her. Her phone, soaked, dies on the spot. The phone had Will's family's address in it, and now she can't even call him to get the information (he's not picking up, even when she uses someone else's phone). Matt Mitchum (Mark Wiebe), the guy who spilled the coffee on her, learns that Will's last name is Mitchum, and he leaps to the conclusion that her fiancé must be his brother Billy.

Yeah, it's implausible, but the writers and the actors sell it. Alice goes home with Matt and absolutely falls in love with his family ... until Billy comes home and she realizes he is not her fiancé. When she gets to the other Mitchum house -- the huge mansion she should have expected -- the family is about as loveless as you can get. Instead of caricature, however, they are made dysfunctional (and funny) in a very careful, plausible way.

Unbelievable as the premise is, the families are believable, and so are Alice, Matt, and Will. Naturally, Will is completely insensitive to everything Alice loves in her life -- but Gibson plays him so earnestly that you almost pity him for his assumption that of course big amounts of money will win her over in the end.

Like Angels Sing, A Very Merry Mix-up nails happy family life, which is very hard to do (see Tolstoy's complaint about happy families). This one really is full of the spirit of Christmas ... and a true understanding of what love is and is not.

-- The Nine Lives of Christmas *** -- I'm allergic to cats, so I shun them. But I like them a lot, and before I developed my allergy they were my pet of choice. (Not dogs -- because no huge cat ever knocked me down while trying to hump me, when I was a six-year-old walking home from school.) But my allergy to movies with dogs or cats in them stems from the fact that most such movies absolutely depend on the viewers already loving animals -- and animal lovers.

Great romantic movies with pets in them are rare (at the moment, I can think only of The Truth about Cats and Dogs). So my expectations were low when I started to watch Nine Lives of Christmas. Brandon Routh (it was not his fault that Superman Returns was a bad movie) plays Zachary Stone, a fireman who also buys and renovates old houses, flipping them for a profit. It's a lonely life, but he doesn't want a family. He's content with dating local rich girls and models for a few months at a time.

When he saves a cat named Ambrose from a dog, he learns that Ambrose's owner has died and so he "temporarily" takes in the cat. This brings him to a pet supply store, where he runs into veterinary student Marilee White (Kimberly Sustad), who also has a cat. Her cat gets her evicted from her no-pets apartment, and so Zachary invites her to live in the in-law apartment in the house he's renovating.

They hit it off, and not just because of the cats. Unlike Zachary's current girlfriend, whose rich friends look down on him for being a fireman and builder, Marilee rolls up her sleeves and helps with the house renovation -- especially after she gets fired from her pet store job. Of course their cats become best friends and they fall in love.

The book this film is based on is told from the viewpoint of Ambrose the Cat -- but the filmmakers did not try to make the cats in the movie anything more than cats. They matter to the plot, but they don't control things. Instead, we find these characters endearing, and more than any other romantic Christmas movie in this list, it is completely believable that they would fall in love, despite the fact that neither of them is looking for a romance at this stage of their lives.

You don't have to love cats to like this well-written, well-acted movie.

-- I'm Not Ready for Christmas ** -- Alicia Witt stars as Holly Nolan, a high-powered advertising exec who lies to everybody about everything. Most of the lies are quite pointless, and what really hurts her nine-year-old niece Anna (Mia Bagley) is that Holly can't keep promises (which is not the same thing as lying).

So Anna makes a wish to a corner Santa Claus (Dan Lauria, the dad on Wonder Years) that her aunt will stop lying -- and the wish comes true. Unlike the Jim Carrey farce Liar, Liar, in which he tries so desperately for laughs that nothing is funny, Alicia Witt brings off the blurting of awkward truths very well.

I wish she had been better during the lying phase, however. For some reason, most actors who are playing habitual and successful liars feel the need to show us that they're lying, in ways that would be painfully obvious to the people they're lying to. Since actors are already pretending to be someone they're not, why not play a successful liar by making their lies absolutely believable, without even the tiniest hint that they're making stuff up?

The script will show us soon enough that they were lying, so why not make them very good liars, so that we believe that lying worked for them till now?

But since everybody plays liars badly, I can hardly blame Alicia Witt, and once she's in truthful mode, she makes her character believable as she comes to embrace truth-telling. With George Stults (7th Heaven) playing her love interest, Drew Vincent, very handsomely, we do want everything to work out well.

Guess what? It does.

-- Let It Snow ** -- Candace Cameron Bure (Full House) plays Stephanie, whose father (Alan Thicke) owns the resort chain that has just bought a lodge in the mountains of Maine. He sends her there to make plans for how to dismantle the existing lodge and replace it with a singles-oriented resort that takes full advantage of all the local recreational opportunities.

What Stephanie discovers, however, is that this lodge is not only family-owned, but it is also completely family-centered. People come back year after year, and the lodge is fully booked from Thanksgiving to Christmas. The family only sold it because the father is getting too old to run it, and the son, Brady (Jesse Hutch), refuses to take it over, because his father has long resisted any of his plans to upgrade it.

Needless to say, Stephanie and Brady fall in love with each other as Stephanie also falls in love with the lodge, the people who come there, and Christmas itself. But will her father understand that his normal clientele -- people with lots of money and no kids -- is all wrong for this place, and it should be preserved and expanded according to Brady's plans?

This film could be so sappy that we'd bleed peppermint while watching it, but instead the writers and the actors play the over-the-top Christmas traditions, not for laughs, but so naturally that we buy the whole story. Gabrielle Rose, playing Brady's mother, steals the movie.

-- Charming Christmas ** -- So far, at least, nobody is credited with writing Charming Christmas, at least as far as the Internet Movie Database is concerned. But this surprisingly good Christmas movie is based on a book by Carly Alexander: The Secret Life of Mrs. Claus. (It seems that most of the best Hallmark Christmas movies are based on books. I approve of this.)

Meredith (Julie Benz; 49 episodes of Dexter and Darla on Buffy and Angel) is the sole heiress of the family-owned Rossman's Department Store, and the corporate guy who is about to buy the store in order to develop it as a national chain is obviously smitten with her. However, they still have to get through the Christmas season, and Meredith is roped into playing Mrs. Claus in the Santa's Village department, where she comes to know some of the longtime store employees.

Naturally, she becomes intrigued with the enigmatic young man, Nick Smith (David Sutcliffe), who plays Santa in the store. He helps her come to understand the needs of her employees -- and to care about the very annoying young son of a single mom who works there. I'm frustrated that IMDb's listing is incomplete -- I can't find the name of the actor who plays the boy, yet he may be the best child actor I've ever seen in a role so very young.

But the kid doesn't steal the movie, because Sutcliffe is such a powerful presence in the film. Yes, he's the quintessential magic Santa figure -- but he makes the character charming and real, and we fall in love with him, whether Meredith does or not. Well worth watching. In fact, I might put a third star on this one after all.

-- Ice Sculpture Christmas ** -- Callie Shaw (Rachel Boston) is a highly trained cook who accepts a position as a dishwasher at the resort restaurant where her father has long been a handyman and majordomo, only because it means she will have a chance to work with, and learn from, world-class Chef Gloria (Brenda Strong).

Weirdly, it appears that one of the duties of top chefs is to be brilliant at ice sculpture, and Chef Gloria is used to winning the annual ice-sculpture contest. David Manning (David Alpay), the well-meaning son of the resort's owner, enters Callie's name in the contest, not realizing that this seriously damages her relationship with the chef and everyone else in the kitchen.

To make it up to her, David becomes Callie's assistant in the ice sculpting, and we get several lessons in the techniques of ice sculpture. I found these scenes fascinating; others who watched it with me wished they could have skipped through them faster. Much of the enjoyment of this movie seems to depend on just how much you like learning about ice sculpture -- because the plot absolutely depends on our understanding key elements of the art.

And if you've been watching Gordon Ramsay, you'll recognize that Chef Gloria runs a tight kitchen with high standards. So all in all, I have to say that the writers have done their research, and the filmmakers took great care to make everything about the cooking and the sculpture seem authentic.

Fortunately, the actors do a very nice job of making the characters and relationships work as well, so that I regard this as one of the pleasantest Christmas movies so far this season. The only reason it doesn't have a third star is that the ice sculpture scenes go on too long for some viewers.

-- A Boyfriend for Christmas ** -- With the most unpromising title of any Christmas movie ever, I only watched this movie because it starred Kelli Williams, who was so wonderful on The Practice. I made the right choice.

The movie begins with the main characters as children. Holly Grant is a middle-schooler whose friends all have boyfriends. Holly steps in to help a younger girl work up the courage to talk to Santa Claus, played delightfully by Charles Durning. Then Holly confides in Santa her wish for true love, not just a boyfriend. Santa gives her a snowglobe with an inscription that seems to promise true love -- sometime in the next twenty years.

Then we come to the present day, in which Holly is now an advocate for children trying to return to their mom's custody in time for Christmas. The lawyer who has been representing them pro bono, Ryan Hughes (Patrick Muldoon, fails to show up in time to get the case decided before the judge's deadline of noon, so the kids won't be with mom for Christmas.

Ryan had a good reason for being late, and he works hard to make up for it. But as far as Holly knows, he's a selfish jerk from a big law firm who blows off his pro bono cases because they don't matter. Ryan is in a Christmas tree lot when he overhears Holly on the phone leaving him a message telling him just what she thinks of him; so he conceals his identity as he meets her and gets to know her.

He's a good guy; she's a terrific person, too; but in the meanwhile she's being pursued by a rich dude (Bruce Thomas) who seems to have the inside track. We, the audience, have no idea why -- one frequent flaw of these movies is that the present boyfriend is usually such a loser that we don't understand why the heroine ever got involved with him. But can we doubt that she'll end up with heart and hand in the right place?

Let's just say that reaching the inevitable happy outcome is a lot of fun. And ... come on, Charles Durning as Santa.

-- Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus * -- If you've been wondering what ever happened to Steve Guttenberg (the Police Academy movies, Short Circuit, 3 Men and a Baby), eleven years ago he appeared in this Hallmark movie, playing Nick, Santa's son and heir, who is desperate to find a Mrs. Claus before he takes over for Dad right after Christmas.

There are moments in this movie that are as appallingly bad as you would assume, but Guttenberg and the other actors gamely proceed as if they had a script. And you know what? The movie ends up being charming and entertaining to the end.

However, this movie more than any other on the list is one where everything Nick does in relation to single mom Beth (Crystal Bernard) and her young son looks like exactly what a pedophile would do to gain access to the boy -- and the mom is completely oblivious. This becomes both funnier and weirder than the movie itself.

But hey, this movie takes on the task of convincing a sane woman that the guy who keeps hanging around is actually Santa Claus's son and if she takes off with him, they get to live with the elves at the North Pole. And it does a pretty good job of almost making it believable.

Come on, it's a Christmas fantasy and you have to set your skepticism aside for a couple of hours. When you get your skepticism back, it will be stronger than ever, so this is a good thing.

This column is now as long as it needs to be -- so I'll review the remaining nine movies another day. There are still some gems to come, but I hope this was a fair start on planning your Christmas-movie viewing.


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