Monday, February 8, 2016

Fresh Off The Boat: "Year of the Rat"


Premiered February 2, 2016

Nancy: You guys have  your own New Year?
Louis:  Yeah,  we get together with family, have a big dinner,  there's decorations, dragon dances, fireworks ... I mean, you should see how crazy it gets in Chinatown,  if you can breathe properly the next day, you weren't there!

The Huang family is excited to be heading off to Washington, D.C. to see their family and celebrate Chinese New Year.   Unfortunately,  Louis (Randall Park) got the dates wrong on the plane tickets so the family stuck in Orlando and unable to make the trip to D.C.  


The Huangs search the phone book looking for other Chinese families in Orlando that they might be able to share the holiday with to no avail,  but Jessica (Constance Wu) discovers an organization called the Asian American Association Of Orlando or AAAOO that is having a Chinese New Year celebration.



This seems like good news, until the Huangs actually get to the AAAOO's celebration and find it to be disastrously unsuccessful.


There are no other Chinese people in attendance and precious few Asians at all.   The presumably well-intentioned white organizers have failed to do much research and the resulting celebration leave much to be desired.


The kids -  particularly Eddie (Hudson Yang) - are very concerned that they won't be getting traditional red envelopes full of  money and try to butter up their grandmother (Lucille Soong) in hopes that she will come through for them.  

Mountain Dew and Combos, Grandma?
They enlist youngest child Evan (Ian Chen) to try to do some stand-up comedy for her, on the grounds that he is small, funny & cute, like Grandma Huang's favorite character Garfield, but it does not go well.

Louis also tries to lighten the mood with jelly donuts in lieu of pork buns.
After several unsuccessful attempts to raise the family's spirits,  Louis makes one last ditch effort to save Chinese New Year for the family with help from the staff at his restaurant the Cattleman's Ranch!



Can Chinese New Year be saved?

RigbyMel says:

This is, I think, the first sitcom episode centered on Chinese New Year that I've ever seen.

The episode was humorous while managing to make some interesting points about cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation.    It's funny but also quite telling that everyone seems to think the holiday the Huangs want to go to Washington to celebrate is President's Day.

NOT an authentic Chinese New Year tradition!
The AAAOO folks are curious and want to have a Chinese New Year celebration, but their lack of research about what that would actually entail winds up being rather painfully embarrassing (for the Huangs, anyway).   The AAAOOers are rather unaware of the awkwardness of their party.


For instance we meet some dudebros sporting tattoos with Chinese characters.  They think their tats mean "understanding,"  when neither actually says that.   Grandma Huang attempts to school them (one is a tic-tac-toe board and one says "toaster"), but as they do not understand Chinese, they miss the point.

The whole family feels pretty let down about missing out on the holiday, and even more let down by the lack of attention paid to important details about what Chinese New Year entails -- adding to their sense of isolation.

The AAAOO people plan to do a Times Square style "rat drop" as part of their celebration.   (While 1996 was the Year of the Rat per the Chinese zodiac,  this is rather a misunderstanding of the custom.)
Jessica is very disappointed that "Nobody cares enough to get it right!"  but Louis points out that it's more a case of not knowing than not caring about the Chinese New Year traditions.

Lion dance at the Cattleman's Ranch!
Louis manages to make up for his major screw-up with the plane tickets by surprising his family with a much more authentic Lunar New Year celebration at the family restaurant he owns  (with a little help from his staff and a few family friends.)     The end of the episode comes off as rather sweet and also educational in a fun way.   It's also funny to see Jessica at first delighted by her friends' questions about the traditions of the holiday and then increasingly annoyed as she doesn't really get a break from said questions.


Something I found off-putting was a bit of product placement involving Panda Express in the dialogue -- I don't think it was necessary nor was it as funny as the writers seemed to think.


This is definitely a fun episode of the show that has fun with its "fish out of water" premise.  It also manages to be informative about Chinese New Year and about cultural appropriation without being overly preachy or political.    This may not be the best of the Huang family's adventures,  but it is certainly an interesting one.

RigbyMel's rating:







3 bundles of red firecrackers

J.A. Morris says:
I generally enjoy Fresh Off The Boat  and this is a solid episode.  I generally agree with RigbyMel's take on "Year Of The Rat."  It's nice to see Chinese New Year celebrated in a sitcom.  If you've never seen this series, "Year Of The Rat" is a good "starter" episode.

Evan's "stand-up comedy"  routines are a highlight of the episode.


This episode premiered last week and is currently available for streaming at abc.com.



"Year Of The Rat" is worth seeking out.  I don't usually celebrate Chinese New Year, but this episode was actually an education for me and I can see myself re-watching it in future Februaries.

J.A. Morris' rating:







3 bundles of red firecrackers.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Remember The Night


Premiered January 19, 1940.

Shortly before Christmas, Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) shoplifts an expensive bracelet and is subsequently arrested.  When her defense lawyer Francis X. O'Leary (Willard Robertson) suggests Lee committed the crime under hypnosis, her trial is delayed until after Christmas.

John and O'Leary face off during in court.
Prosecuting attorney John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) takes pity on Lee and doesn't want her to spend Christmas in jail.  He pays a bail bondsman named Fat Mike (Tom Kennedy) to get her out of jail for the holidays.  Fat Mike, thinking John has romantic feelings towards Lee, drops her off at Sargent's apartment.

Fat Mike takes Lee to John Sargent's apartment.  John's butler Rufus (Fred Toones) answers the door.
John is not happy about this and asks her to leave, but Lee has nowhere to go.

This is problematic, since John is getting ready to drive 750 miles to visit his mother in Wabash, Indiana.  During their dinner conversation, John learns that Lee is also from Indiana, about 50 miles away from John's mother.  They bond a bit over this and John agrees to drop her off at her mother's house and pick her up when he returns to New York.  Lee is touched by this offer and accepts it.

There trip to Indiana does not go smoothly.  Highway repairs cause them to take an alternate route and John crashes his car into a farmer's cow pasture in Pennsylvania.


They're arrested and charged with trespassing and petty larceny (for milking the farmer's cow).   While standing trial, Lee causes a diversion and they flee the state, which makes them fugitives.

When they arrive at Lee's old home, her mother (Georgia Caine) is not happy to see her.  She confronts Lee for taking money from her and never paying her back years earlier.


She wants nothing to do with Lee and reduces her daughter to tears.  John decides that he can't leave Lee there and brings her to his family home instead.

When they arrive the home  of John's mother (Beulah Bondi), her reaction is the exact opposite to Lee's mother.   Mrs. Sargent is delighted to receive an unexpected Christmas guest.  She lives in the family home with her sister (and John's aunt) Emma (Elizabeth Patterson) and Willie (Sterling Holloway), who works for them as a field hand.  


Lee joins them in their holiday preparations, stringing popcorn for the Christmas tree.

John and Lee take turns playing piano, Willie sings along with Lee's playing.  It is a wonderful Christmas celebration, Lee has never experienced anything like this.


Mrs. Sargent believes that John and Lee are in love.  John fills his mother in on Lee's legal issues.   His mother is heartbroken when she hears about this, but feels sorry for Lee.

On Christmas morning, the Sargents exchange gifts and have presents for Lee.  She is treated like a member of the family.


Over the next several days, Lee grows closer to John.  They attend a barn dance on New Year's Eve and share a "Happy New Year" kiss at midnight.  John and Lee are falling for each other.


Later that night, Mrs. Sargent has a private conversation with Lee.  She tells of how poor they were when John was growing up.  He worked early in the morning and after school, paying for his education, working extremely hard to get where he is.  Mrs. Sargent likes Lee, but fears that John would destroy everything he worked for if he falls for Lee.


Will John and Lee find a happily ever after?  Or will Lee have to face the music in prison?

J.A. Morris says:

I've been a fan of the work of director/screenwriter Preston Sturges (who wrote the script for this film) and Barbara Stanwyck for a long time.  But I hadn't seen Remember The Night until recently, since it was "out of circulation" for decades.

It's a good Christmas movie with some great holiday scenes.  John's invitation to help Lee is a wonderful Christmas gift.  There have been several Christmases in my life where my family has invited friends to spend part of Christmas with us, if they had nowhere else to go.  John barely knows Lee, but realizes she'll spend Christmas on the streets and (eventually) welcomes her into his family home.


The two leads have an interesting discussion about morality and why Lee steals.  When asked if he steal a loaf of bread if he was couldn't afford one, he says yes.  Lee says she'd simply go to an expensive restaurant and claim she forgot to bring her purse.  Remember The Night deals with subject matter that's a bit heavier than the average old time Hollywood romantic drama.

Georgina Caine, in a cameo role as Lee's mother, is also good.  She's one of the cruelest people you'll ever see in a Christmas movie.  

If I have problems with this movie, it's that it requires some major suspensions of disbelief, even by the standards of 1940s Hollywood films.  John and Lee talk about how their relationship could jeopardize John's legal career.  But I'm pretty sure that bailing her out of jail, let alone driving Lee to Indiana would be enough to get John disbarred.  Tabloid newspapers were around in the New York at the time and would've pounced on such a scandal.  So the story is a bit hard to believe.

But that's okay, since we get such great acting from Barbara Stanwyck.  During so many scenes, Stanwyck is able to convey how happy Lee is to be with John's family through facial expressions alone.  After watching this film, I believe Stanwyck could have had a long career in silent movies.


Fred MacMurray gives does a nice job playing off Stanwyck.  The two of them appeared together in several movies, most notably the classic film noir Double Indemnity.  Their chemistry from that movie is also on display in Remember The Night.


The scene where the Sargents exchange Christmas gifts manages to be very touching and sentimental, without being at all maudlin or cloying.


It was also nice to see a New Year celebration.  There are tons of Christmas movies, but very few films or specials that celebrate the New Year.  The New Year's Eve barn dance makes Remember The Night feel even more festive.

The citizens of Wabash celebrate the New Year.
 Some notes about the supporting cast:

John's butler Rufus is played by character actor Fred Toones.  He's listed in the credits as"Snowflake," since African American actors were often forced to use degrading pseudonyms in old movies.


Rufus is an ugly stereotypical character, something that was very common in films of this era.  In Rufus' first scene, John calls him a "dumbbell" to his face.   There's a later scene where John says of Rufus, "He's not very bright, but he can cook."  I try not to judge pop culture of the past by standards of today, but John's treatment of Rufus seems cruel even for 1940.  It sort of took me out of the movie and made me like John a bit less.  The sad thing is that you can see that Toones had comedic talent, even in a thankless role like Rufus.

Toomes acted in over 200 films and TV shows between 1932 and 1951.  His credits include classics like I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, A Star Is Born and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

Mrs. Sargent is portrayed by Beulah Bondi.  She isn't familiar to younger viewers, but she was a prominent actress in the 1930s through the 1970s.


Bondi received two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress.  She later made several guest appearances on The Waltons TV series, which earned Bondi an Emmy Award at age 88.

Remember The Night marks a turning point in Sturges' career.  Mitchell Liesen, who directed the movie made edits to the script that Sturges didn't like.  After that, Sturges would direct all the films that he wrote.

This movie is available on DVD and also is also shown frequently on Turner Classic Movies.

While Remember The Night has a plot that is sometimes hard to swallow, it features some excellent acting by Barbara Stanwyck and some wonderful holiday sentiments.

J.A. Morris' rating:








3 candy canes.

A studio promotional photo for Remember The Night.

RigbyMel says:

Remember the Night was new to me in the past couple of years.   As J.A. Morris says above,  the acting is great, but the story has a tendency to strain credulity.    The judge in charge of Lee's trial actually sees her out at dinner with John and recognizes them both -- I think that alone would be cause for a mistrial at best and at worst could well see John disbarred.    (To say nothing of later events in the movie -- crossing state lines, going into Canada, etc.)

John and Lee share a kiss ... at Niagara Falls!
But I don't think the plot, such as it is,  is entirely the point with this movie -- it is more to do with the characters interacting and also with playing on the sense of nostalgia we tend to get around the holiday season.   This is evidenced by the goodness of the Sargent family -- they take an unknown woman and treat her like one of the family.


The barn dance is a deliberately archaic look back to a perceived "simpler time." The characters even joke about it: "This year we're having an old-fashioned barn dance like the hicks we're supposed to be."   At the same time, everybody gets gussied up in 19th century finery for the event.

Aunt Emma helps Lee squeeze into a corset!  To quote another movie,  "Hold on, and suck in!"
It's interesting to see Sterling Holloway -- best known to modern audiences as the original voice of Winnie the Pooh in various Disney shorts -- in a live action role.   (I don't know that I'd ever seen a live action film with him before.)   He sings a sentimental old parlor song,  "A Perfect Day" (first published in 1910),  in a rather sweet scene featuring the Sargent family gathered around the piano.  (Another nostalgic touch!)

Sterling Holloway and friend at Disneyland  some years after Remember the Night was filmed.
The warm, fuzzy nostalgia is contrasted with the quite literally dark  -- both in lighting and content --  scene where Lee's mother rejects her once again.   Late December is, of course, the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and perhaps the light of nostalgia at the holidays is helpful in getting through the darkness.

Singing at the piano
The actors and the nice Christmas and New Year's Eve touches make the thin plot of this movie watchable.  It's fun,  but not quite a classic.

RigbyMel's rating:








.5


2 and a half candy canes.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Teen Titans Go!: "Second Christmas"


Premiered December 4, 2013.

Beast Boy: Don't mind us, we'll just be waiting another 364 days till next Christmas.
Cyborg: 364.  Doesn't seem so long!   I can't do it, man! I just can't do it!  It's too many days!!
Beast Boy: It's not fair!  Why does Starfire get a second Christmas? 
Starfire:  Are my ears hearing correctly?  There is a second Christmas coming? 
Narrator:  And with that one question out of Starfire's mouth,  the magic of Second Christmas was born ... 


The Teen Titans wake up on Christmas morning, excited about celebrating a day of presents and ugly sweaters.

"So ugly!"  "Yet still festive!"
Their seasonal joy increases exponentially when they learn it’s snowing outside!  After playing in the snow, it's time for a bountiful Christmas feast.


The next morning, they wake up … realizing that there are 364 days until Christmas comes again.


Starfire (Hayden Walch) is off to her home planet Tamaran to celebrate the Great Kergoff.    When Starfire compares Kergoff to Christmas, some of her teammates are jealous and say Starfire is lucky she gets to celebrate a second Christmas.  When she hears this phrase, she asks if there is such a thing as "second Christmas."
SECOND CHRISTMAS!
Cyborg (Khary Payton), Raven (Tara Strong) and Beast Boy (Greg Cipes) decide to trick Starfire into believing there's a second Christmas that's celebrated on December 26.  It even features a "second Santa" who is skinny, wears a green track suit and flies around with a jet pack.  

Second Santa will deliver a miracle of ... someting.  
When Starfire says she wants to see Second Santa, her teammates tell her she needs to buy them gifts, decorate Titans Tower with more lights, cook a Second Christmas dinner and fly the Second Christmas kite.  After that, Second Santa will deliver the Second Christmas miracle.  Robin (Scott Menville) tries to intervene and tells Starfire the others are just trying to get more presents.


Will Cyborg, Raven and Beast Boy come clean and tell Starfire there's no such thing as Second Christmas?   How will Starfire react when she learns she missed the Great Kergoff for nothing?

J.A. Morris says:

"Second Christmas" is a great holiday episode of a generally great series.  It made me think of how I often felt when I was a little kid on December 26 (or some years, the afternoon of Christmas Day).  Sure, my family always made sure I got good presents, but I felt a bit sad that Christmas was over and there would be no more holiday specials or songs and the anticipation of Christmas presents was gone.


The Teen Titans have that feeling here and do something about it.  Of course they go about it wrong, lying to Starfire, and just like in real life, little lies lead to more lies and get you in trouble.


I also appreciated Starfire's comments about her home planet's greatest holiday, the Great Kergoff happening right after Christmas.  It's a reminder to us Earthlings that many holidays and celebrations other than Christmas occur at the same time of year.

On Starfire's home planet, children get presents from Gilnark, The Terrible instead of Santa!
There are even some "Easter eggs" in the background, such as the ornaments on the Titans' Christmas tree.


"Second Christmas" can be streamed on Amazon and iTunes.  It's also available on Teen Titans Go!:The Complete First Season blu ray.  This series also airs all the time on Cartoon Network, so check their listings.


I have a feeling that I'll be watching this on December 26 for years to come.  "Second Christmas" is very funny and highly recommended for superhero fans and people (like me!) who have trouble adjusting to life when Christmas is over.

J.A. Morris' rating:







4 candy canes!

RigbyMel says:

I learned the term "anticlimax" on the day after Christmas when I was around 8 or 9, so I understand the Titans' sense of letdown.    Their solution is certainly creative,  even if the lack of honesty seems beneath them.     Then again,  they are teenagers and haven't settled into mature superhero-dom.

Starfire is starry-eyed about Second Christmas.
Starfire's enthusiasm for the hastily made up "Second Christmas" is actually kind of sweet.
Moreover, Beast Boy as a cat is adorable.

Look at him ... adorable!!! 
Even goth-chick Raven is not above getting excited about a "Pretty Pretty Pegasus" doll.  (Collector's edition!)


It's also amusing that Robin, the "Second Christmas grouch," is gung-ho about getting back to the team's regularly scheduled training while the others want to extend the holiday festivities.    I am sure we've all known (or been) on both sides of that equation.

 
The denouement of this episode deserves to remain unspoiled, but is also ... creative, and pretty wickedly funny.


Teen Titans is a super fun show in general and the post holiday mayhem of "Second Christmas" is great for helping to get over the post-holiday blues.   Highly recommended.

RigbyMel's rating:






4 candy canes!