Is there a better tour guide than the affable and erudite Rick Steves? I look forward to watching this PBS special every year, and I’m never disappointed with the vicarious tour of Christmas traditions across Europe. But you too can experience the history, music, and food of the season: there’s the Santa Lucia festival in Norway, traditional English carols sung in Bath Abbey, and in the French countryside, the Christmas Eve meal consists of foie gras, and waaaaait for it…filet of beef tenderloin in brioche with truffles. Need I say more? Check out Rick Steves’ European Christmas this holiday season!
Fjallbacka Murders is a Swedish mystery series based on the novels by Camilla Lackberg. The setting is a picturesque seaside village where Erica, a young mom and wife is drawn to her husband’s work as a police detective. Each episode centers on a current mystery in Fjallbacka that is connected to a mystery in the past. While the puzzles are satisfying, it’s the easy chemistry of this husband and wife team as they solve crimes while raising a family that’ll keep you watching.
If you’re a fan of the Poirot series starring David Suchet, you may enjoy Michael Gambon in Maigret, another PBS mystery show. I’m not familiar with the novels by Georges Simenon that the series is based on, but Gambon’s portrayal is very likeable—in his dealings with people he exhibits that same courtesy and warmth that Poirot does. It’s also fun to watch the Chief Inspector work with his team of police officers—portrayed by a strong British cast. A cast that, by the way, wholeheartedly refuses to drop their accents or in any way act French. An amusing quirk of the show! The series also benefits from the same high production value as Poirot, and its 1950s Paris setting shines.
Dennis Quaid portrays Jimmy Morris, The Rookie’s title character, who is a middle-aged high school coach, married with kids, and living in a small Texas town. His pro baseball aspirations have long been forgotten, and yet, he has this amazing pitch. Jimmy’s players take notice and challenge him to try out for the major leagues. Based on a true story, this is one of those movies that reminds us that strange and wonderful things happen in real life.
Inspired by the Sudanese civil war that began in the 1980s and the Lost Boys of Sudan, The Good Lie is a beautiful movie. The story begins in Africa, focusing on three noble children—the sons and daughter of the village chief. When Northern Sudanese soldiers kill most of the people in their village, only a small group of children survives. It is then up to their new chief, himself a child, to lead them hundreds of miles across Sub-Saharan Africa to the safety of a refugee camp in Kenya.
Thirteen years later, four young people from this group are happily sent to the U. S. as refugees. They soon discover though that this country is a totally alien place, with its strange customs and mystifying technology. The film then centers on their struggle to adjust, while still maintaining their sense of dignity and humor, their unity and faith. Reese Witherspoon is brilliant here as the put-upon job agency rep, who is assigned to find this odd and skill-less group gainful employment. A bittersweet treat.
Set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, this classic courtroom drama features a winning cast of small town characters. Jimmy Stewart plays Paul, the ex-District Attorney who would much rather be fishing or playing jazz piano than practicing law. He is perfectly content with getting by on the odd legal job, but his perpetually tipsy (yet surprisingly astute) sidekick, Parnell, has other ideas. At Parnell’s urging, Paul takes on a local murder case that brings them both out of their semi-retirement.
Other engaging characters abound, including a visiting judge, Paul’s secretary, and of course, the defendant and his wife. These characters along with a well-placed plot, the almost light-and-breezy tone—despite its dark subject matter—and the hip music of Duke Ellington make Anatomy of a Murder just plain fun.
Angels in the Outfield is a lighthearted baseball movie about Guffy, the belligerent coach of a losing team who “meets” an angel. The angel, who is by no means tender or sweet, challenges Guffy to shape up. With a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, the angel offers to help Guffy win some ball games if he can stop fighting and using foul language. Guffy, who is convinced of the angel’s existence and power, sets out be a better man—at first if only for the sake of winning more games.
Guffy is played by Paul Douglas, with great turns by: Janet Leigh, as the reporter obsessed with covering Guffy’s every move; Spring Byington, as the pragmatic nun—and baseball enthusiast—who runs the orphanage; and Donna Corcoran as the adorable orphan whose prayers for her losing team prompt a band of angels to come to the rescue.
For another look at this movie, check out Bill’s review.
Gregory Peck plays an Irish Monsignor, who, during WWII, rallies an unlikely group of people to shelter Allied soldiers and Jews in Nazi-occupied Rome. The events in The Scarlet and the Black are inspired by true events, and the character of Monsignor O’Flaherty, inspired by a real Vatican priest. Gregory Peck is brilliant here as the lively and cunning O’Flaherty who goes up against Coronel Herbert Kappler, the head of Nazi operatives in Rome. Kappler, in turn, is deftly played by Christopher Plummer. While cold and ambitious, the colonel is also a dedicated family man—certainly not a one-dimensional character.
Plummer and Peck don’t share too much time on-screen, but when they do it’s a delight. Shot on location in Rome, this beautiful film features great acting and a well-placed plot. A must-see in my book.
Although this isn’t a new album, it’s possible that many people haven’t heart of it. And since it’s one of my favorites, I felt an obligation to shine a light on it. Rare Bird Alert is a modern bluegrass album by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. What’s that you ask, “Steve Martin of SNL and Pink Panther fame?” Why yes. For fans of Martin, this is good news, since his comedic chops do shine through here, but true bluegrass enthusiasts shouldn’t overlook this album.
Rare Bird Alert includes purely instrumental songs like “The Great Remember,” soothing and meandering, and “Northern Island,” featuring banjo-picking at lightning speed. On some tracks Martin takes the lead on vocals, and on others the Rangers get the honor. Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks make guest appearances.
I love the range of this album, its humor, and the contrasts created. The hilarious break-up song “Jubilation Day” is lively, and although funny, is also a bona fide bluegrass song, a musical treat. Mellow songs like “More Bad Weather On the Way,” always makes me feel like I’m rowing along a river on a sunny day, and “Women Like To Slow Dance” is actually a fast-paced song fit for dancing a jig! While most of the songs are not comedy-album material, the nonsensical “King Tut” is the most likely to make you laugh out loud. “Born in Arizona, moved to Babylonia…”
Little Chihiro is moving to a new city with her parents. On the way the family takes a detour, and happens upon what appears to be a run-down, out-of-business amusement park. When they are lured further into the park by the smell of food, things soon take a creepy turn. Chihiro’s parents are put under a spell, and she must find a way to save them.
Central to the story is the mysterious bathhouse that Chihiro discovers. There captivatingly odd spirits abound, and the workings of the bathhouse enchant the viewer. The film is filled with suspense, and yet much levity is found in the business nature of the bathhouse, which is run by the autocratic Yubaba—who is equal parts evil sorceress and obliging hostess to her spirit-guests.
I first watched Spirited Away years ago when it won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Picture (the first anime film to do so). I remember being totally captivated by the visual artistry—both the fantastical elements and the more earthly landscapes. Ultimately, though, this ghostly adventure is a coming-of-age story, in which a little girl gains courage and the power to sacrifice for love.