TV Review: DC Cupcakes: County Fair

The auction (Courtesy of TLC)

Article first published as TV Review: DC Cupcakes: County Fair on Blogcritics.

Critical ethics requires that I declare my bias before proceeding. I am a Washington native who has walked by the block-long lines at Georgetown Cupcakes and on more than one occasion directed would-be patrons to superior cupcake shops in walking distance (read: any other bakery in Georgetown).

Baked and Wired has been making pastries on Thomas Jefferson street since 2001. Their dense, generous cupcakes are my favorite in town, and if that much cakey goodness is too much for you, have a hand pie instead. Baked and Wired is just a five minute walk from the belles of the cupcake ball.

Sprinkles, which claims to have been the originator of the modern cupcake craze, opened their Georgetown store a stone’s throw from Baked and Wired a few years ago. They’re a solid second in the neighborhood cupcake wars. The most popular are my least favorite.

Which leaves us with Georgetown Cupcakes, who make tiny, cloying baubles whose popularity confounds me. I’ve always wondered what it is about their TLC reality show that draws so many people to their doors. I just watched DC Cupcakes for the first time, and I am still at a loss.

Sisters Sophie and Katherine quit high-paying jobs in finance and fashion to chase their dream of making cupcakes. It sounds like a good old fashioned American success story, but this is no rags-to-riches tale. TLC presents Georgetown Cupcakes as a small business done good, but forgive me if I’m not that compelled to follow entrepreneurs who can afford to rent space in Washington’s tony Georgetown district. This is not a classic American dream but the dream of Americans with the luxury to leave a cushy job to capitalize on a trend.

It would be one thing if the sisters were appealing, but as far as reality show likability factor is concerned, Sophie and Katherine, with a vapid factor off the charts, barely out perform Honey Boo Boo and family in personality.

Sure, conceptually it sounds like a no-brainer, in a good way. Imagine businesswoman sisters competing in a hay-bale throwing contest at a county fair. It could be the kind of fish out of water story that fuels a hundred sitcom episodes. But to paraphrase Sophie, “OMG!” it’s just painfully annoying.

This year DC Cupcakes have a special Valentine’s program on TLC: County Fair. There are two threads of Americana which lure in the sisters’ cupcake craft: the sisters are charged with creating a giant pig out of one thousand cupcakes for the Loudon County Fair; and with developing a historically inspired cupcake for an event in Colonial Williamsburg.

Spending an hour in either venue would make for a passable hour of fluffy semi-documentary television. Unfortunately, the presence of the sisters’ grating personality and questionable culinary design ideas (Daisy Duke jean shorts on a cupcake pig) ruins it. Their emphasis on fondant is a bad sign of a focus on looks over taste. Which is why theirs are the worst cupcake in Georgetown. Is the nation so starved for celebrity and sugar that they wait in Communist-length cupcake lines to pay homage to such scions of vanity? If only Werner Herzog would train his eye on Georgetown Cupcakes and frame the sisters’ fondant-frosted business as a losing battle against nature and true Americana.

Premieres Thursday, February 14 at 7 PM (ET/PT) on TLC

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DVD Review: Hanna-Barbera Christmas Classics Collection

A Christmas Story (1971)
A Christmas Story (1971)

Article first published as DVD Review: Hanna-Barbera Christmas Classics Collection on Blogcritics.

Christmas specials can be a cash cow for the television producer, the right ingredients having the potential to generate year after year of ad revenue with no need to generate new material. But the list of canonical holiday entertainment made for television is not deep: after  A Charlie Brown Christmas and the better Rankin Bass programs, and countless iterations of Dickens, what do you have left? Do you ever wonder what happened to the forgotten Christmas special of yesteryear? Warner Archive digs deep into studio coffers to unearth lesser-known gems, but in the case of the Hanna-Barbera Christmas Classics Collection , there may be good reason these have not become holiday perennials.

The set consists of three programs spanning from 1971 to 1993, each of them justifiably relegated to the dark shadows of Christmas past.  The 1971 A Christmas Story bears no relation to Bob Clark’s 1983 classic. It’s a not so amazing animal adventure where hound dog Goober (voiced by ventriloquist Paul Winchell) and mouse Gumdrop (Daws Butler) try to deliver a boy’s letter to Santa to the North Pole. Facing dreary weather conditions and feline adversity, the beastly task is left unfulfilled but somehow Christmas is saved, with no discernible message to the kids and a couple of forgettable original songs added to the soundtrack.

I felt kind of sorry for A Christmas Story,  a veritable Charlie Brown Christmas tree of holiday specials, unloved and hidden in studio vaults for four decades, and old-fashioned product hopelessly out of touch with ceontemporary standards of good writing and strong production values. But no amount of tinsel and ornaments could gussy it up into a beloved story, and I felt no such sympathy for the remaining specials on the collection.

The Town Santa Forgot (1993), narrated by Dick Van Dyke, has a good message for the kids: don’t be greedy. But the unpleasant story it tells of a boy who writes Santa a wish list half a mile long is tedious and lacking in joy, its redemption completely unfelt.

Lastly, Casper’s First Christmas (1979) is an all-star endeavor, bringing together the ghost of a dead boy with a cast of Hanna Barbera’s marquee stars of the day: Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo, Quick-Draw McGraw, Snagglepuss, and other second tier characters. They share a musical number together. It’s not pretty.

‘Tis the season for giving. In the spirit of the true meaning of this holiday, please do not consider giving these to someone you love, and avoid the near occasion of the Hallmark Channel.

DVD Review: Classic Episodes of the Lawrence Welk Show: Vol. 1-4


I tried not to cannibalize the Lawrence Welk piece I wrote for The Man too much. In a slightly different form, this article was first published as DVD Review: Classic Episodes of the Lawrence Welk Show: Vol. 1-4 on Blogcritics.

The commercials for your typical Lawrence Welk program give the viewer a clear idea of the intended demographic. Anybody watching Film Chest’s four disc set Classic Episodes of the Lawrence Welk Show: Vol. 1-4 may or may not have the sudden urge to build up or renew their supply of Polident and Geritol. But does Welk have anything to offer today’s viewers?

The life of the bandleader-accordionist spanned nearly a century. Born in North Dakota in 1903, Welk’s early career was in 1920s radio. He was already a seasoned veteran when he landed his first television show in 1951. The Lawrence Welk Show ran until 1982 and featured Welk’s band along with featured singers like the Lennon Sisters and Guy and Raina; instrumentalists like accordionist Myron Floren; and featured dancers like Bobby Burgess.

These hour-long programs seem the antithesis of so much contemporary entertainment. But time can play funny tricks on cultural markers. YouTube is loaded with candy-colored clips of Lawrence Welk’s show, featuring dance and musical numbers that can be so square they’re surreal. The Welk image was used in Darren Hacker’s underground film “Velvet Welk”, which marries footage of the North Dakota native and his illustrious charges to the pulsating drive of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray.”

Welk’s music as well as his visual image is certainly a throwback to a time Before Irony. It’s easy for 21st Century consumers to approach Welk with a camp aesthetic but the musicianship and the spectacle can be appreciated without irony – JoAnn Castle’s ragtime piano walks the edge of cloying but can also verge on avant-garde as she fingers the keys ever more furiously. Lyrics to forgotten songs like “Frankfurter sandwiches” shock modern audiences who assume our parents and grandparents listened to such words in complete innocence.

FilmChest and Synergy have assembled 720 minutes of Welk episodes, transferred from kinescopes that were made before the era of videotape by filming off a broadcast monitor. It’s too bad some of the collected programs from the 1960s, well into the color television era, survive here only in black and white. But the crude shading that the kinescope process often leaves on dark portions of the screen give the monochrome image a familiar patina of age that doubles as a metaphor for shadow selves and mortality. The spell is somewhat broken by a persistent “SYNERGY” watermark on the screen, but unlike other releases from the Inception family of distributors, it took me a couple of episodes to even notice it here.

There are no DVD extras on this set, and the transfers will not have the clarity that consumers would expect from a major studio product. But the music and visuals of the champagne music man will send fans of all ages into a reverie of time travel from which they may not want to return.

how to stave off cabin fever and not become a cannibal

This post first appeared, in slightly different form, on blogcritics.org

From episodes of Gimmie a Break and Perfect Strangers, to the real-life tweeting of reporter Ann Curry, the dramedy of being trapped in an elevator is a staple of entertainment in this age of Otis. Striking the hearts of both the claustrophobic and the Luddite who should have just taken the stairs, these tales of strange bedfellows are especially chilling to those caught in the middle of the snowpocalypse that has left the Mid-Atlantic states without cupcakes for days on end. So what better way to battle cabin fever than with Hallmark Channel’s Valentine’s Day offering, Elevator Girl? Would you want to be trapped with these people? Come closer – let’s take a look.

Under the opening credits we are introduced with keen efficiency to a typical morning for each of our predestined characters: Liberty (Lacey Chalbert, the one on Party of Five who looked like Jennifer Love-Hewitt but wasn’t; this is to her great credit, as the career track of her former co-star has led to one of the most misguided and disturbing examples of celebrity too-much-informationitis: Love-Hewitt’s public announcement that she had a bejewelled vajayjay ) hits the snooze button and pulls the sheets back over her head, stumbles into a kitchen past a refrigerator encrusted with post-it notes and brews herself a pot of Mr. Coffee. Jonathan (Ryan Merriman, Final Destination 3) – and note that this is by contrast, walks into an immaculate kitchen with granite counters and chrome fittings to make a perfect single-serve espresso.

Jonathan was just made partner at a prestigious law firm, and is on the way to a dinner thrown in his honor. She’s on the way to cater said dinner, and runs to catch the fated elevator. I’ve seen a lot of forced dialogue in rom-coms in my time and I know we’ll never see the verbal or charismatic ilk of Bringing up Baby again, but while their banter was not especially interesting (contrary to Libby’s small-talk remarks to Jonathan how “interesting” that is), they have a kind of awkward chemistry that was surprisingly believable. It is certainly more believable than the chemistry that’s supposed to make us coo at such Hollywood rom-coms as PS I Love You and Crazy Heart. Trapped for just a few minutes, Jonathan and Libby share a little bit of their lives and go their own ways … to meet again?

“Maybe you were put on that elevator with that guy on that night to learn a little something about yourself.” That’s Tessa, Liberty’s stock funny-looking friend, and alas it is around here that the rom-com formula starts to go bad – not as bad as a box of brownie mix that expired in 2005, but no chocolate chip cookies made from scratch, either.

Still, there are slight charms and textures to come. Patty McCormack’s long career began with The Bad Seed, and television credentials that go back to Route 66 with stops at Fantasy Island and The Sopranos. Here she plays the small but crucial role of Rosemary, Jonathan’s secretary. Rosemary plays matchmaker and hires Libby to cook for a dinner at Jonathan’s decadent condo.This leads us to the first of a recurring variation on get-downism, but instead of the magical ethnic character teaching the stuffy Protestant to get down, Libby teaches Jonathan how to cook hummus. Earthy! The kitchen plays a role in a subsequent scene of get-downism, punctiuated by a funk soundtrack that asks us to “swing it on down and shake it up sister.” Is there a clause in the contract for Hallmark Channel scripts that requires this scene? It reminds me very much of a scene in Ladies of the house, previously reviewed in this space. Hmm. Elevator Girl may be formulaic rom-com with standard-issue notions of dropping the soul-sucking nine-to-five job to answer your artistic calling, but the principals do their best to make this a pleasant diversion, and it is a good message for the kids. This Hallmark Channel Original Movie premieres Saturday, February 13th (9p.m. ET/PT, 8C).

TV Review: The Jazz Baroness

first published on blogcritics.org

If I told you I’d just seen a documentary made by the descendant of a beautiful English heiress, you might wonder if it was some kind of vanity project about fine china and silverware and the upper clahsses. The Jazz Baroness indeed depicts sundry accoutrements of the landed gentry, but it is more than that: it tells the story of an unlikely friendship between the titular baronesss and one of the great figures in jazz music, Thelonious Monk.

Hannah Rotshchild produced, wrote and directed The Jazz Baroness, which premieres on HBO on November 25th. Like the Jackie Paris documentary I reviewed earlier this year, the picture is framed as a quest, but in this case it is not the quest of a record collector; Rothschild is the great-niece of Pannonica de Koenigswarter (nee Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild), which makes hers no less than a quest for family and identity. She follows the breadcrumbs left behind by her aunt, who she met for the first time only a few years before few times before the Baroness’s death in 1988. These breadcrumbs happen to lead her to Thelonious Monk, who met the Baroness in 1954.

Their backgrounds could not have been more different: he grew up in rural North Carolina, she was raised on banquets hosting the great leaders of Europe. But from their first meeting grew an intimate friendship that lasted till Monk’s death 28 years later (Monk penned one of his most lovely ballads, “Pannonica,” for her). The documentary is very much about class and race; and, although it may be a cliche, about how music can profoundly bridge the gap between the differences that society builds between people – differences which in the end are arbitrary. Rothschild (whose words are read by Hellen Mirren) left behind a life of English manorial comfort in order to live a life among the be-bop elite in New York City. If the director’send result of the director’s quest for identity is only hinted at, it is clear that her great-aunt, though very far from home, found herself indeed.

Hannah Rotshchild admits at the start that she did not enter this project a jazz expert; and at the end, she admits she still isn’t. But the sensitive use of the music, and respect for the musicians she speaks with (Sonny Rollins, Curtis Fuller, and Quincy Jones among them) belies her modesty. Her film is no replacement for Charlotte Zwerin’s documentary Straight, no Chaser, but it is a fine companion piece.

I was in a Starbucks recently and heard Monk’s solo version of “Ruby, My Dear,” one of the great jazz ballads. That I was not surprised to hear it in a Starbucks says something about how far jazz music has come, since it’s perception as a forbidding art music to what someone searching for a venti soy caramelmachiatto might consider merely pleasant background music. But if some pilgrim on their caffeinated quest might pause long enough to listen, and find something in the music that resonates with them; then it would seem that THeolnious Monk hasn’t lost his touch with the gentry. Sweet.

sheena take a bow

I’ve been weeding. I’ll weed maybe a handful of books or CDs at a time, and with as much clutter as I’ve accumulated over the years that barely makes a dent. Because, despite what it says under my blog header, I hoard. Not on the Collyer level but I missed that by a matter of degrees, and I was perhaps only saved from that fate by a major termite infestation that required sorting out and throwing out 40 years of basement clutter.

Still, I buy books I never read and CDs and lps I never listen to and movies I never watch. I end up buying duplicates. With no discernible organizational system, I’m not surprised to find two copies of a book I’ve never read. What surprised me was the CDs. Despite having at least 80% of my thousands of CDs in alphabetical and categorical order, I still found five inadvertent duplicates – which doesn’t count remasters of CDs I found filed right next to their original, arguably inferior but perhaps more valuable for sentimental reasons iteration. (n.b., If anyone reading this would like a sealed copy of the compilation CD, “Brazil Samba Jazz Vol II,” with the Tamba Trio’s terrific version of “Se voce se pensa,” let me know.)

I hoard to fill the void, and I found absolute proof of that last weekend when I discovered, in the back of my closet, a bunch of empty boxes of various sizes, shoe boxes and shipping boxes that I thought I might need some day. Some of them must have been in my closet for more than a decade, and had accumulated several inches of dust. I took those metaphors to the recycling bin right away and I can walk in my closet now.

I’ve been weeding regularly, and I’ve made progress, and discoveries.

As I weed I come across things I forgot I had. One is a VHS tape of Sheena Easton’s Act One special, one of dozens of tapes I scrounged from a video store’s $2 closing sale several years ago. The program was originally broadcast on NBC in 1983 and captures a moment in the Scottish singer’s career between the girl-next-MOR success of “Morning Train” and the tarted up persona of “Strut” and “Sugar Walls” (number 2 on the PMRC’s “Filthy 15,” right behind her collaborator Prince Rogers Nelson’s “Darling Nikki.”)

Act One is a strange piece of celebrity self-consciousness, with Easton trying on a variety of 80’s fashions and identities only to fail to hide behind any of them. Maybe it’s all that 80’s make up, a Bonny lass hidden under a very pretty cakeface. She is not one of those performers who disappears behind her roles. Rather, Act One reveals that for Ms. Easton, as for many of us, as many disguises we try to hide behind, who we are will unmistakably shine through the cake.

Speaking of clutter, I happen to have a copy of Chambers’s Scots Dictionary at my desk. Did you know that gardy-moggans are what they call long sleeves?

The first number “A song for you” serves as an overture of the major themes we will be exploring in the next hour; most strikingly, that of a Whitmanesque multiplicity and a personality in fragments (or shallmillens, as her people call them). Easton comes into focus from a black silhouette of her head against a stark white backdrop (apt echoes of Bergman’s Persona). A soft-focus head shot dissolves into Ms. Easton leaning against some kind of prop box, mirrored on the other side of the box by her animus, or anima, or some androgynous harlequin mixture of both. Not that I’m suggesting anything.

As the overture comes to a close, the camera closes in on Ms. Easton pouting for the camera and attempting to look soulful and amorous underneath the volumes of 80’s makeup; then she breaks out of character and asks somebody in the booth “is tha’ akae?” Looking for approval. Over the studio intercom an unseen techinician tells her there was a glitch and they’ll have to make some adjustments before they can continue with the production.

Ms. Easton then wanders through NBC back-stages killing time when she happens upon The Tonight Show set. A tarp is draped over the guest chairs but Johnny Carson’s desk is open. Sheena takes Carson’s chair and sets up the framing device for the rest of Act One, where she imagines herself a talk-show host. She interviews herself, surveying her career from the relatively subtle makeup of “Morning train” to today (then, 1983), never imagining the makeup she has in store. She also invites guest stars, including Al Jarreau and, naturally, Kenny Rogers, who joins her in a duet of “We’ve got tonight” in which you are forced to imagine that Ms. Easton would romp (rommie, v. to rumble, to beat. to stir violently) in the hay with that grey-haired beast simply because he’s there.

It’s when Ms. Easton takes her seat at Johnny Carson’s chair that Act One begins to remind one of Werner Herzong’s Grizzly Man. The documentary shows copious footage of the video Timothy Treadwell made in the wilderness as he tried to live with bears, but despite the magnificent natural backdrops and the danger we knew was coming, his tone struck me as that of a child putting on a private show in their bedroom. Ms. Easton put on that show for us in what indeed was only the first act of her career. It’s a keeper.

That’s No Ladies of the House, That’s My Wife!

The Hallmark Channel takes pride in providing “quality family programming,” a welcome antidote to the age of irony. But if you scratch the belly of their latest feel-good movie, you’ll find a barely disguised contempt for the very audience they want to reach.

Ladies of the House is an ensemble piece of no small complexity. In a cinematic tradition that reaches from Stagecoach to The Jane Austen Book Club, characters from diverse backgrounds – in this case, from middle to upper class – come together to meet a common goal, and learn something about themselves in the process. The ladies, Rose (Florence Henderson), Elizabeth (Donna Mills), and Birdie (Pam Grier), are led house-ward by their pastor, who calls a meeting of his best donors and asks them to give not their money but their time – and their hearts. Their charge: to fix up a run-down house to raise funds for the church’s day care center.

Florence Henderson has long been an icon of family entertainment, but her activities outside the Bunch have frequently revealed a sensuous side. Who can forget the sultry chanteuse-in-black whose “That Old Black Magic” brought sexy back to The Paul Lynde Halloween Special? What Brady Bunch-admiring pre-teen did not blush when she took off her blouse for Robert Reed in a very very special episode of The Love Boat? Now in her golden years, Henderson still keeps a touch of vixen underneath layers of pancake makeup, and lets it shine straight through her characterization of Rose. She takes a line like “I think an older body is more interesting than a younger one” and embraces not only the words but herself, literally, caressing her torso as she coos, perhaps at the memory of a very special cruise. Rose’s marriage to Frank (Lance Henriksen) is the most nurturing of the ladies of the house, and the best relationship for a Baskin Robbins product placement — which makes their ultimate fate that much more bittersweet.

Pam Grier has come a long way since Coffy and Jackie Brown, and her Birdie fully laments the salad days – “I used to have tone and muscle!” As the movie opens, she celebrates the retirement of her husband Stan (Richard Roundtree). He worked long and hard towards days which he thought he’d be spending with his wife, but now that he’s retired he finds Birdie thoroughly absorbed in a new project. Birdie also happens to be a textbook example of what I call “get-downism”, as she not only teaches her white sisters to get down with the rap “buy it fix it sell it!” but goes so far as to coax out of a boom box the rousing sheet-rock-laying groove “Get on down.”

With Elizabeth, Donna Mills plays to her prime time strength: the spoiled rich girl. But this time she’s got a heart of gold. Her wealthy husband Richard (Gordon Thomson) gives her everything but love and respect. Elizabeth has the farthest to go to find herself, and designer dresses soon give way to flannel shirts and jeans – she even trims down her manicure! Alone among the ladies’ husbands, Richard does not encourage or support Elizabeth’s efforts. In fact he treats her like an idiot who doesn’t know a hammer from a handsaw.

Therein lies the problem with the film. Richard’s estimation of his wife is exactly the filmmakers’s estimation of the Ladies — they’re not called Women, they’re called Ladies. As the women struggle with their assignment, we’re treated to scenes of infantilized women who can barely take care of themselves. Sure they learn and grow into their roles and find a kindly Latino hardware store salesman who treats them with respect, unlike the burly white permit office clerk who laughs them off when they ask for help. But when it comes time for the final exam, Birdie enlists the help of a strong (but soft-spoken) African-American to softly browbeat the burly permit clerk into scheduling the inspection. Sisters doing it for themselves? Not if the filmmakers can help it. Ladies of the Housepromises empowerment, but if the inner strength of the lead actresses finally evokes great pride in their accomplishment, it’s no thanks to the script. See the Hallmark Channel Original Movie Ladies of the House, premiering Saturday, October 18 (9/8c).