Triple Crown, Part Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Two

Thanks for returning, Dear Reader, after I spent all of the last post venting my spleen when I should have been reviewing the new, live-action Cinderella movie. So let’s get to that without delay.

My verdict: it’s quite good!

This adaptation takes the Disney animated version of the Cinderella story and plays it refreshingly straight. It doesn’t make the story darker or more adult. It doesn’t add any inventive twists that make us see it in a new light. It doesn’t try to make the characters “fresh” and “hip.” Instead, this film takes the story you already know and just does it well.

Except for the songs, everything from the classic animated film is there. Even Cinderella’s mouse companions are included, rendered not-too realistically in CGI. They don’t talk or wear clothes, but they appear just cartoony enough that when they listen to her and give her aid it doesn’t feel like something out of Willard.

The only real change is that we actually see our heroine in her pre-cinder days having an idyllic childhood with her parents before her mom dies and her dad remarries (and then dies). Yes, they give Cinderella an origin story. Perhaps it’s the influence of all the popular superhero stuff these days. I would say that this bit wasn’t needed except that, just like Peter Parker, she’s given words to live by that become the core of her character. Rather than “with great power comes great responsibility,” Cinderella’s mantra is “have courage and be kind.” It’s a small thing that has a big (though subtle) impact. On a number of levels, it might be hard for modern audiences to accept a heroine who is so subservient to her stepmother and takes the cruel barbs from her stepsisters without so much as a snarky comeback. But with the simple addition of this phrase — “have courage and be kind — we can now view Cinderella as a strong character who stays true to herself and doesn’t let her vicious antagonists tear her down. It is her courage and kindness in the face of a long, hopeless life of toil that is rewarded by her fairy godmother.

As a parent who keeps a close eye on the messages his kids are exposed to, I find Cinderella’s “have courage and be kind” refreshing and even laudable.

Director Kenneth Branagh’s experience with adapting Shakespeare to the big screen must have been a real boon when it came to maintaining the traditional story. I imagine that when most of your career is spent working on productions where you don’t allow yourself the leeway to even change a single line of dialogue you get pretty good at focusing on how to bring out the best of what’s already there. Branagh’s Shakespearean background also probably has something to do with the nuanced, multi-dimensional performances he coaxes from the actors.

Okay, not that it’s difficult to get fine acting from the likes of Cate Blanchett or Derek Jacobi. But remember how my biggest complaint about Maleficent was that no one besides the protagonist seemed to be a real, fleshed-out person who had reasons for doing whatever they did? Well, in Cinderella, everyone down to the lizard-turned-coachman feels fully-realized.

The king (played by Jacobi) doesn’t want his son to marry a peasant girl but comes off as a good, likable person even as he stands in our protagonists’ way. The king’s advisor is a schemer (and clearly is taking kickbacks to arrange a particular marriage with the prince) but his efforts to keep the prince from Cinderella are professional, not personal, since he’s acting on the king’s wishes. Cinderella’s father dotes on her and was deeply in love with her mother, but after years of being a widower is desperate to grab a little happiness for himself. Cinderella’s stepsisters are… well, they’re pretty shallow, but it’s not surprising considering who raised them (and you can tell that even their own mother doesn’t like them).

That brings us to the Stepmother. She’s a catty, jealous, mean-souled harpy who cares only about making a secure future for herself and her terrible daughters. Yet, despite the hints that she only married Cinderella’s father for his modest estate, Blanchett’s performance suggests that, like him, she still carries the wounds from losing her first spouse. There’s an interesting bit when Cinderella is having a heart-to-heart with her dad before he leaves on a trip and the Stepmother, spying on them for a moment, looks hurt. Now, it takes a very small, petty, self-centered person to be jealous of a father’s bond with his daughter… But, given that, why would she be hurt if she didn’t care on some level? We never really see why Cinderella’s father falls for this woman shrew but it’s possible that there really was some spark between them. At any rate, the film is full of little touches like that which, when added up, create an antagonist who is utterly despicable yet pitiably human. By the end of the movie, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Stepmother was, ultimately, someone who was not able to hold on to her courage or kindness and let life transform her into a grasping wad of insecurities who would take pleasure in trying to do the same to an innocent girl.

Another major success for Cinderella is the chemistry between our heroine and her love interest. She has a chance encounter with Prince Charming — not realizing that he’s the King In Training — and the actors really sell the instant attraction. Lily James looks as though she’s just on the verge of leaning in and kissing the Prince throughout the whole conversation. In a later scene at the palace, Richard Madden’s expression shows us just how smitten Prince Charming is when he is able to drop the “have courage and be kind” line in conversation.

So, yes, it’s good, but how is it for the kids? Well, given that it adheres so closely to the source material, it’s just as appropriate for young audiences as the animated Cinderella. My girls paid attention but seemed a little bored at times. This may have been because it was during their sleepy time of day. As I recall, though, they weren’t exactly riveted by the original version, either (sorry, Walt).

By way of justifying my previous post, I will say that Cinderella is as well done as Maleficent was poorly done. It may not be a movie that we will feel the need to own or re-watch often but it’s absolutely one I will hold up as a model of how any future such live-action adaptations should be handled.

 

Triple Crown: A Review of Three Princess Movies

We recently saw the new Cinderella movie. This is the third of Disney’s live-action remakes of their classic animated features. The first being Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and the second being Maleficent. You can be forgiven for thinking that one of the two Snow White movies released back in 2012 was a Disney film. I had assumed that Mirror Mirror was, and it wasn’t until I double-checked things for this post that I found out any different. However, I did see it and I didn’t see Alice in Wonderland, so I’m gonna stick with my plan of reviewing it alongside the other two “princess” films.

Not that I have a whole lot to say about Mirror Mirror. I went in expecting it to be just okay, and it was a bit more enjoyable than that. Like, maybe a 6 out of 10 rather than the 5 I was anticipating. In particular, I couldn’t help enjoying the dwarfs* — their bickering group dynamic was as amusing as their teamwork in action was fun to watch. Otherwise, I don’t remember much. It wasn’t too dark. It felt like there was an actual relationship between Snow White and the Queen, at least as people who had to put up with one another prior to the start of the film. I can’t comment on how good it is for kids beyond pointing out it’s PG rating; RU would have been, maybe, 18 months old or so when we saw it.

I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise, especially when I have so much more damning to do. So let’s move on.

Disney’s live-action version of their Sleeping Beauty story is Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie in the title role as the villainous evil fairy from the animated film. In this movie, however, the focus is on Maleficent herself. We’re shown her backstory, her relationship with King Stephan (Sleeping Beauty’s father), and a new take on the Sleeping Beauty tale (which, here, is just one piece of a larger story).

Now, I don’t think I’ve seen Sleeping Beauty (the animated classic) since I was very young, and I may not have ever seen it more than once. I don’t remember most of the film at all but have a fairly vivid recollection of a few snippets — mostly from the end when Prince Phillip battles the evil Maleficent. At the time, I found it quite frightening. When she calls upon all the powers of Hell (and it really stuck out to me that she said “Hell” — have never forgotten that for some reason) and turns into that dragon I figured Prince Philip was up Crap Creek without a canoe. Or even a paddle. Those bits really stuck with me and, probably as a result, I’ve always found Maleficent to be the most powerfully evil and terrifying of all the Disney villains (even topping Chernobog — and congratulations if you can name the Disney film he’s in without looking it up).

When I saw the trailers for Maleficent, I thought it looked pretty good. Maybe it even had the potential to be very good. Angelina Jolie seems like she’d excel in the role, even getting her voice’s modulation just right. The idea of flipping the story around to focus more on the villain is interesting and has been done well in the past. The Wife and I were cautiously optimistic when we went to see it in the theater (without the kids, fortunately). So what did we think?

Maleficent sucks. Don’t let anyone you love waste 98 minutes of their life watching it when there might be some dental surgery they’ve been putting off that they could get around to instead. If there’s a bright center of the universe, this movie plays at the theater it’s farthest from. Seriously, I can’t malign this film enough.

The whole thing is like bad Angelina Jolie fan fiction. The title character manages to be both the hero and the villain. And I don’t mean that she’s some complicated anti-hero. No, she’s the goodliest good guy and the baddest bad guy in the story, it just depends which scene you’re currently watching. When she shows up at Aurora’s christening to lay her curse on an innocent baby, she’s as wicked as it gets**. Her antagonist — who is primarily King Stephan — is just malignant and vain, and can’t match the depths of Maleficent’s darkness. In fact, in the entire world presented by the movie, no one is as interesting or dynamic as Maleficent. To put it another way, the film is full of bland, one-dimensional characters, except for one great big Mary Sue.

The biggest failure of Maleficent is that no one is given any real motives for anything they do, other than Maleficent herself. The filmmakers clearly wanted to make this apparently evil character more sympathetic and complex by showing, through her history, that she has reasons for what she does. But they forgot to do that with all the other characters.

Shall we consider King Stephan? He meets Maleficent when they are both children and he’s wandered into the fairy (faery?) realm from the adjacent human kingdom. He’s in trouble because he’s been caught attempting to steal a gem that was just lying around on the ground. It’s forbidden to remove anything from the fairy land — it belongs to them — even though fantastic jewels are just left to litter the ground like burger wrappers behind the McDonald’s. I think this incident was supposed to establish that the orphaned, rag-wearing, filthy Stephan is greedy. At no point does the film attempt to show his side of things or give him a justification. He doesn’t say, “Well no one seems to actually own this and if I take it back where I’m from and sell it, I won’t have to eat cold garbage and sleep in the sewage ditch anymore. I don’t suppose you could give me a hot meal and a warm blanket?” Nope, he has no motivations, just character flaws.

I was prepared to go on about the movie’s malfeasance in grinding detail. About how the good fairies who raise Aurora (the sleeping beauty herself) and are charged with her safety are portrayed as quarreling idiots who ignore a crying baby. Or how Prince Phillip is treated as merely a pretty boy toy whose kiss [SPOILER ALERT] can’t awaken Aurora because only Maleficent’s maternal love can be powerful enough for that (which makes it kind of creepy, or at least shallow, that Phillip and Aurora are still paired up at the end). I was going to lay out all the unexplainable idiocy that drives the story whenever Stephan shows up, warping the plot like a black hole bends light. (If he’s so concerned about Aurora’s well-being that he puts her in a fairy-run witness protection program why doesn’t he give a crap about her when she comes back to him on the day the curse is supposed to trigger? Oh, right, because Maleficent has also shown up and she’s so much more interesting.) However, if I were to delve into that level of detail about all the ways Maleficent sucks, I’d pretty much be writing about that full-time and would have to change the name of this blog to www.maleficentsucks.com. (Which, it turns out, hasn’t been registered yet, so I’ll leave that on the table for one of you to pick up and run with.) Instead, let me just discuss one more malfunction that I found especially irritating.

King Stephan is just the premiere example of what all the other people in the human kingdom (which is probably named something like Surly or Crapland) are like. Everyone is a festering boil of pettiness and vice wearing drab earth-tones. Stephan’s soldiers are cowards and/or mindless thugs. The sons of the previous king were drooling over which one of them would inherit the crown upon his death. At one point the kingdom goes to war with the fairies next door. Why? We’re never told, but we’re left to assume it is either due to an irrational hatred of the magical creatures or a lust for the resources their land has an overabundance of. I like to imagine it’s because the fairy creatures have been nipping over the border to steal human children but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a deleted scene where the king finds out his polling numbers are low and decides a war is the best way get the public’s support again. The only positive example of a human being (besides Prince Phillip, who I think was from some other country, so he doesn’t count) is Aurora, who is both pretty and nice — though that’s probably just because she was practically raised by Maleficent.

What chaps my hide so much, though, is how this combines with the opening narration of the film. We’re told at the very beginning that this story takes place in a human kingdom inhabited by “people just like you”. That’s right, you can relate to these despicable, small-minded people because they’re just like you. You big jerk.

Okay, enough of that. I’m sure none of you wanted to spend so long reading about how passionately I regret wasting two hours of childcare on Maleficent. I sat down to write this because I wanted to talk about Cinderella.

But it’s real late now, so stay tuned and I’ll post about that next time.

*Dwarves or dwarfs? I know that contrary to what years of reading Tolkien and playing Dungeons and Dragons has taught me about spelling, in the Disney version the plural of “dwarf” is “dwarfs.” Mirror Mirror is clearly a take not on the original Snow White fairy tale itself but on the version of it we all know from the 1937 animated feature, so I will continue to use “dwarfs” for it. Even though it should be “dwarves.”

**This is the best scene of the film, which isn’t surprising since it’s the only one that is actually from Sleeping Beauty and it’s played pretty close to the original. As you might guess, Jolie provides an excellent performance here, oozing sinister power while delighting in her own maliciousness. Even the backstory you’ve suffered through to get to this point finally works as context to add another layer to the scene. It’s a shame the rest of the movie isn’t as good, and it is not worth watching just for this one bit.

Behaviorus Interruptus

RU was like a stuck record yesterday. A record with the needle continuously skipping back to the same whining, unhappy lyric until you forget that the rest of the album is actually pretty good, one of your favorites even, because you can’t get to those other songs. You just hear the same phrase cried out over and over and over. (And why do you have vinyl, anyway, in a house with three young children? They’ll just tear those fragile discs up. Are you crazy?)

The rule is that the girls need to have a rest time, typically right after lunch. They don’t have to sleep (though that’s always the hope), but they do have to rest quietly in bed. Well, RU didn’t want to rest.  She kept getting up out of bed — every 7.5 minutes — thus restarting the 20 minute rest time count down.  She began rest time au natural but halfway through the ordeal she had put on a twirly dress from the clean laundry. By the end, she was back as nature intended.  Grandma and Grandpa stopped by during rest time and even their allure was not enough to equal 20 minutes of quiet, laying down.  After much redirection and reminding she finally laid down and ended up falling asleep anyway. She was, after all, tired. (You can tell when she is because she will say, “I’m not tired!”)

RU woke up just before dinner, still feeling cranky. Whether her nap was too little, too late or too much, it left her all too easily upset. Grandma and Grandpa had gone home and so she began to cry and whine that she wanted them to stay. We’d just discovered that MeToo must have ransacked both her and RU’s boxes of jelly beans, spilling what hadn’t been eaten, so when RU saw us throwing the empty boxes away, she switched gears to grieving about that. When presented with dinner (the Wife’s attempt to make homemade ramen noodle soup, which was terrific), she flopped around, repeating that she did not want it.

Sing along, everyone:

This is the tantrum that has no end
Yes it goes on and on my friends
This kid started crying not knowing how or why
And she’ll continue tantruming forever just because
This is the tantrum that has no end…

When RU gets like this, it’s clear that she’s mostly just stuck in a bad mood. The problem isn’t really that the grandparents have left or the jelly beans are gone or whatever is for dinner; they just provide something for her unhappiness to crystallize around. However, she manifests this moodiness by repeating the same plaintive cry over and over and over.

“I want Grandma and Grandpa to stay!”

“Honey, they’re already gone.”

“I want Grandma and Grandpa to stay!”

“They are back at their house, sweetheart.”

“I want Grandma and Grandpa to staaaay!”

We try to be thoughtful, empathetic parents who remember that our kids are human beings (and, on the whole, good ones). But in this state, RU will drone incessantly, often demanding something that simply can’t happen. She can’t be reached by appeals to either reason or emotion and her endless repetition grinds away at one’s sympathy until there’s none left.

“I want my jelly beans!”

“They got spilled. We had to throw them away.”

“I want my jelly beans!”

“There aren’t anymore. I’m sorry.”

“I want my jelly beans!”

“RU? RU, can you hear me?”

“Yes.”

“Can we eat the jelly beans if they’re gone?”

“No.”

“Are you really just upset that they had to be thrown away?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s okay. I was unhappy about that, too. But can you say that instead of just saying you want your jelly beans? It’s fine if you feel sad but going on and on about wanting jelly beans isn’t helping.”

“I want my jelly beans!”

Once all your patience has been eroded by this, RU is no longer your lovely child but a constant, noncompliant annoyance. This is when you’re tempted to resort to threatening her with consequences. Or to try shocking her out of her well-worn groove by responding emotionally.

In this particular case, there were complicating factors that added extra pressure.

“RU, you need to eat your dinner. You have soccer practice tonight and your body will feel bad if you don’t have food.”

“I don’t want this.”

“You haven’t even tried it. It’s really good!”

“But I don’t want to eat it. Can’t I just go put my soccer clothes on?”

“No. Whether we’re eating or not, you have to stay at the table while we’re having dinner. And if you aren’t going to eat, I don’t think you can go to soccer practice.”

Our policy has been that if RU doesn’t go to practice, she can’t go to that week’s game. We missed the first three or so practices while traveling already.

On the other hand, RU’s made a commitment to her team. It’s important that she honors that and supports her teammates. Therefore, we change the terms: she will go to soccer practice. If she hasn’t eaten, she will sit out and watch her team practice. She will then go to the game this weekend, but only to cheer them on.

For my part, it was particularly frustrating at this point to think that RU would probably feel better (and therefore behave better) if she just ate. And the food was delicious! She just needed to try one single bite and all the problems would solve themselves. (At least she was saying she didn’t want her dinner instead of doing that thing where she says, “I don’t like this” without having even tried it.)

The time frame where we could get ready and make it to practice on time came and went. I wanted to give her as much time as possible to make the right choice and eat, but was getting antsy thinking about how late we would be after spending 10 minutes or so getting ready and into the van and then 20-25 minutes driving to the soccer field. RU, in turn, was getting upset about not being able to have dessert.

Then, the Wife has an idea. “You know what? Let’s do this: RU, you’re going to soccer practice.  You’ve made a commitment.  When we get back home tonight, you will have to sit back down at the table and eat your dinner.”

Sometimes, as she pointed out, you just have to interrupt the behavior chain.

It worked. RU was eager to get dressed and go. She was happily compliant when the Wife dropped her and I off at the soccer field. We got there halfway through and although she didn’t always hustle and tended to zone out, that’s normal for her. After practice, she and I had a good time kicking the ball around for a little while.

Once we got back home, it was back to the table for her to eat dinner. RU started to balk and fuss again. Inwardly groaning, I began to wrangle MeToo upstairs to get ready for bed. This was going to be a long evening, it seemed.

Then, RU must have actually tried a bite of the cold ramen soup because from the table I hear:

“Wow, mom, this is real good! You always make the best food. Thank you!”

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m a COOK”*

So, the Dad asked me to guest post.  I’m The Wife.  Move along if you aren’t interested in a spring time dinner recipe/menu.

Oh.  You are still here.  Okay.  Well, this happened because I cooked and the Dad thought it was tasty and therefore blog worthy.  Unfortunately, the invite didn’t happen until *after* the meal so there aren’t any “in process” photos.

Menu

Barbecue chicken

Barbecue potatoes

Roasted broccoli

Corn bread

Directions

CHICKEN

BRINE: In a microwave safe bowl add 4c water, 1/4c salt, 1/3c sugar, 1tsp maple extract, 2 tsp cinnamon, 1 tablespoon paprika.  Microwave 30 seconds until salt and sugar dissolve.  Pour over chicken breasts and water until the chicken is covered (I think I had 4 pounds or so but if you have less chicken it won’t matter).  Let chicken sit at least 15 minutes but the longer the better.  Mine sat about an hour.  Much more time than that requires refrigeration.

Once brined grill your chicken until cooked through and the recommended temperature.  Ours went on my charcoal grill and was fantastic.  I coated them with either Stubbs Sweet Heat or some homemade BBQ sauce that happened to be in a Stubbs Bar-B-Q Sauce bottle.

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POTATOES

8X8 pan sprayed with canola spray.  Oven at 475 convection roast.  4 medium potatoes partially baked in the microwave because they were stored in the fridge during our recent travels.  Slice the first potato.  Heavily salt the slices.  On top of the salted potato slices place a few slices of cheddar cheese and some clumps of a half brick of cream cheese.  Slice the second and third potatoes on top.  Salt heavily.  Place the remainder of the cream cheese and a few more slices of cheese.  Slice the remaining potato on top and salt it.  Put 2 tablespoons of chopped frozen onion into the pan of potatoes.  Place 3 slices of uncooked bacon over the top of the potatoes.  Place into oven.  When you can smell the bacon cooking pull the potatoes out.  Use a pair of utility shears to cut the bacon into pieces.  Be careful as it will be really hot.  Stir the bacon into the potatoes.  Some of the potatoes may have begun to roast/carmelize.  This is good!  Stir those into the bottom and try to expose new potato flesh for browning.  Place back into oven for another 20 minutes or so.  Repeat the browning and stirring  20 minute cycle until the potatoes are roasted and the rest of dinner is prepared.

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ROASTED BROCCOLI

Spray pan with canola spray.  Spread frozen broccoli in a layer.  Put in oven about 40 minutes to  cook at 475 convection roast.

It looks like a map... to deliciousness!
It looks like a map… to deliciousness!

CORN BREAD

Put 2 tablespoons of butter into the bottom of a pyrex dish.  Place into oven at 475 convection roast.  1 box jiffy corn bread mix, 3 eggs, 1 can of corn.  Stir together and let sit until butter is browned.  Take pyrex out of the oven and swirl the butter around.  Spray pan with additional canola to prevent sticking.  Pour batter into pan.  Reduce oven to 375.  After 15 minutes take cornbread out and stir the middle to incorporate.  Put back in the oven for an additional 5-10 minutes.  With middle still not set, stir the entire pan of cornbread, including the golden brown sides and bottom to incorporate the uncooked batter.  Serve with a spoon.

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Have you ever noticed that the foods that are hyped as summer staples require a lot of time (and heat!) to prepare?  Grilled meats and oven baked sides are delicious.  But who wants to do that in August?  Not me.  No thanks.  So our spring menus feature summer favorites like barbecue (I have a lovely weber charcoal grill.) and roasted veggies.  It is still cool enough that running the oven doesn’t make the kitchen unbearable and we are all eager to be outside a few more minutes in the evening as the coals deliver up their tasty char.

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*That’s what the barbecue sauce bottle says.

Lockhart BBQ Trail

While on the subject of BBQ, I do need to go into a bit more detail on Lockhart, TX, which is worth a pilgrimage if your family is up for spending all day on an extended lunch. This lovely little town is the heart of Texas BBQ. Now, Texas BBQ means beef brisket. I am from Tennessee, where pork is primary; to me, “barbecue” means “pulled pork,” often eaten sandwiched between the halves of a hamburger bun. But if I’m going to eat brisket, the best in Texas — and, therefore, the best in the universe — is a good substitute.

Lockhart has four BBQ places. That’s right, just four. You get quality over quantity here. The set up for two of them is that there’s a BBQ-smithing facility where you order your meat, a bit like going to the butcher. You don’t order a “BBQ plate” or a “BBQ sandwich,” you just tell them how many pounds of what type of animal. Adjacent to that — in a totally separate part of the building — is something like a little market where you order your sides and drinks, if any. At one establishment, it seemed to me that the place probably began as an actual market that added some smokers in the back and then things took off. The other place that uses this method more resembles a temple of the ancient world dedicated to offering up devoutly prepared animal sacrifices to the god Baarb’khoo. The market portion that serves anything other than smoked meats, while well-stocked with a variety of goods, was probably a concession to consumer demand — but they don’t carry any sauce because their brisket doesn’t need it, so don’t ask for any.

Although the other two BBQ spots in Lockhart more closely resemble regular restaurants, the method described above begins to make more sense when you realize (as we finally did) that the meal is meant to be eaten picnic-style. Why else would they ask you if you want bread or crackers? Why else would a hunk of cheese be one of the first sides offered? Sure, they have tables for you to sit down and eat, but you’ll carry your food over to them wrapped up or in to-go containers. And when you get there, you’ll discover them to be either folding tables or outright picnic tables, even at places that have been in business since the thirties.

We managed to hit three out of the four by splitting about a quarter pound of brisket and a side between all of us, then moving on to the next place, and so on. Actually, while we started that small, we added  more sides and more varieties of meat until by the third stop, we just sat down and had dinner.

I’m pretty hungry now after having written all this. I think I’ll see what’s survived in our fridge while we were away…