Worldfest low-budget review: Santa Stole Our Dog (USA…where else?)

Note: our friends Chen Zhongshi and Li “Esther” Guang, producer and director of the Remi-prize-winning documentary Home of Mephibosheth, have asked Helen and me to stand in for them at the Worldfest International Film Festival here in Houston. Helen has suggested that I make notes on the movies I watch, for Zhongshi and Esther’s benefit; so here we go.

I suggested we go to this one as a family, giving it as my before-viewing opinion that either it was going to be well done, in which case it could be very cute and fun indeed, or else not, in which case it was likely to be very stupid. In the end only Kai and I went.

As for whether my prediction was accurate…let’s just say I tried several drafts of this review.

First Draft

No. Just…no. [end of entire post]

Second Draft

My parents always said, if you can’t say anything good about something, don’t say anything at all. So, um, the little girl was very cute. [end of entire post]

Third Draft

Hey, Mom, Pop…do you guys remember The Return of the Black Stallion? Well, Kai and I had a great father-son bonding experience today. I’ll tell you all about it in a private e-mail so as not to hurt anybody’s feelings. [end of entire post]

Fourth Draft, and we’ll just go with this one

Okay, I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings unnecessarily, and this movie was such a hot mess I don’t think any good would come out of my giving specific criticisms about all the many, many things that turned it into one of the great Unintentional Comedy experiences of my entire movie-going career; so let’s just say that it was so bad that Kai and I spent at least a half-hour on the way home laughing ourselves silly by reminding each other of one after another of the myriad ways in which it was awful. Seriously, Kai’s first two comments once we were out of the theater were:

“Yeah, that movie was so cringe.” (This apparently counts as English if one is fourteen years old in 2018.) He pauses, then adds, in the tone of someone desperately seeking the silver lining, “Well, at least now I know how not to make a movie.”

I really don’t want to forget all the side-splitting ways in which this movie was bad; so I will make a separate post listing all the things Kai and I laughed at on the way home. But I really don’t want to just blast away mercilessly at well-meaning people who have done me no harm; so I will keep that post private, as a pure journal entry for my future reference. I’ll give you just one delicious example, one of the many things that makes me suspect that not a single person even remotely connected with this movie has ever been more than fifty miles from Los Angeles.

At one point, the plot calls for the dad and kids to go see Grandma up in the Yukon Territory — this is, you must understand, during the last week of December. They are then going to borrow her car to drive to the North Pole. (This could have been made to work in a movie that knew the difference between “whimsical” and “stupid,” but this was not that movie.) As they walk out to the car to fire it up and head out, Grandma remembers that the driver’s-side back door window is missing, and that the hole is covered merely by having a piece of cloth duct-taped over it. She explains — unnecessarily — that it has been a long time since she drove it.

Well, this doesn’t stop Dad and Kids at all. They hop into this car — which, I repeat, in the Yukon Territory between Christmas Day and New Year’s, has a piece of cloth taped where the back window is supposed to be, and proceed to drive for hours through the night. Then the car breaks down. Dad gets out, fiddles under the hood, fixes the car in a couple of minutes, gets back in…and announces, “Man, it sure is cold out there.” The emphasis is mine; the scriptwriter, if he ever reads this, will no doubt be scratching his head and wondering why I saw fit to emphasize that bit.

But at least that broken window winds up playing a critical role in the plot, right? I mean, this ludicrous nonsense at least winds up serving some purpose, right? Um…no. Dad announces that his fix is only temporary and that they will have to find a mechanic at the next town. And then he says, “And while he’s at it, we might as well have him fix that window, too.” And that’s the last we hear of the missing window.

“So, wait” — I hear you cry — “what was the point of the missing window, again?” Um…beats the heck out of me. That’s the best I got for you.

I will say that I am sure that the movie was better than it would have been had Kai and I written, directed, produced, acted in, and edited it. But if I don’t stop writing right now I’m going to giggle myself silly all over again. I applaud the willingness of everyone involved to take a shot at making their dreams come true, and they did better than I could have done. And I congratulate the young man who played the surly teenaged son (Chase Pollock, maybe?) for having won the festival’s award for Best Rising Young Male Star. (“Wait a minute” — I hear you cry — “what was there about his performance that would make the festival jury give him an award for his acting?” Um…beats the heck out of me. That’s the best I got for you.)

And with that, I’m just going to stop.

Earlier Worldfest 2018 posts:

I mislead some nice Chinese girls

Worldfest low-budget review: Blaze (USA)

Worldfest low-budget review: Nine to Nirvana (China, Best Foreign Film co-winner and I will tell you in advance that this means the jury and I are very far from being on the same page about what makes a movie good or bad)

Congratulations to 陈忠师 and 黎光…

General observation on the Chinese movies at Worldfest

Worldfest low-budget review: Ayla, the Daughter of War (Turkey, screened but not eligible for an award)

Again, congratulations to 陈忠师 and 黎光… Platinum Remi!

Worldfest low-budget review: Fiddlin’ (USA, Grand Remi winner I think)

Worldfest low-budget review: Hidden Summer (Houston/China, Silver Remi winner)

Worldfest low-budget review: Grass Ring (China, Gold Remi winner, featuring Ma Liang, winner of the festival’s Best Supporting Actor award)

Worldfest low-budget review: Teacher in the Deep Mountains (China, Platinum Remi winner I think)

Worldfest low-budget review: A Pretty Little Fishing Village (China, Gold Remi winner)

Later Worldfest 2018 posts:

Worldfest low-budget review: Home of Mephibosheth (China, Platinum Remi winner)


Adventures in Ordering Coffee

SCENE: A Houston Starbucks with not very good acoustics and a whole bunch of ambient noise.

STARBUCKS GUY: What can I get started for you?
ME: A venti whole-milk latte.
SG: A venti latte with no foam; got it.
ME: No, a venti latte with whole milk.
SG: Ah, sorry, a venti latte with cold milk.
ME (with relentlessly polite but extremely clear enunciation): No, a venti latte with [pause] whole [pause] milk.
SG: A venti whole-milk latte?
ME: Exactly.
SG: OK, can I get a name for that order?
ME: Kenny.
SG: OK, Danny, it’ll be right out.

The drink was the right drink once I got it, by the way.

Adventures in Self-Awareness

I want to emphasize something before I tell this next story — I change jokes all the time to make them funnier, but I NEVER change things that actually happened to me in order to sharpen the humor. I tell true stories as well as I can tell them but I keep them true, in all details, to the very best of my ability as far as my memory will serve me. The Starbucks barista yesterday who wrote down my name as “Danny” really did finish off her self-congratulatory rant about how she couldn’t stand people who weren’t careful to spell other people’s names right, by turning to me and asking, “Can I get you anything else, Danny?” If I were reading it on somebody else’s blog I would suspect them of adding the last sentence just to make the ending be perfect…but she really did add that all by herself. And I never “improve” true stories, because otherwise, when life DOES give you a perfect ending, nobody will believe it was really true.

I emphasize that because today I sat amongst a group of stereotypically obnoxious parents-of-child-athletes and not one, but TWO of the obnoxious gentlement provided me with perfect endings, in a single episode — and I don’t want people think I made it up.

Sally wanted to go see her eight-grader friends play volleyball at our local middle school this afternoon. I had to do some work on my laptop anyway and figured I could do that while sitting on the top row of gym bleachers as easily as I could do it at home; so I agreed to take her and her friends Colleen and Paderick (who, as you can tell from those names, are very proud of their Iranian heritage). I myself didn’t know any of the kids who were playing, nor any of their parents, and so I simply sat down at the first convenient empty spot and started to type.

Unbeknownst to me, I had chosen to sit in the de facto visitors’ section. And the parents who were travelling with today’s visiting team (which out of pity shall remain nameless on this blog), were, shall we say, enthusiastically verbal. Mostly they were yelling encouragement to their daughters, which is an activity I wholeheartedly support. One gentleman in particular, though, had a lot to say about the officiating, even though if memory serves I thought, every single time, that the linesmen had gotten the calls right. As he is going to be a recurring character, let’s give him a name — say, “Ralph the Mouth.”

Unfortunately their daughters were not very good at volleyball and were behind 7-0 before getting their first chance to serve, and let’s just say they never seriously threatened to extend the set to three games. The first game came and went quickly, and while the visitors made a little better showing in the second game, still it was 16-9 before long. I wasn’t exactly engaged in the game but I did feel kind of sorry for the team in blue, and when they would get one of their rare good plays I went ahead and cheered for them, secure in the knowledge that I would not offend Sally since she was being very careful to stay at the other end of the gymn lest anyone thing she had come to the game with her dad.

And then we got the first and only real volleyball play of the day (it was eighth grade, after all) — one of the Fort Settlement players, late in a particularly long point, foresaw that one of the visitors was going to try a quick tip over the net, leaped in front of her, timed her leap just right, and actually got a perfect block. This drew an appreciative roar from the admiring throngs on the home end of the bleacher…but then the head linesman disqualified the point on some technicality or other from the rulebook.

Now I know very little about volleyball and certainly know nothing about the rules for eighth-grade girls. But there’s something I’ve seen often enough to recognize it — it’s when a coach who knows the rules very well, sees a referee invoke a rule wrongly, and he tries to remind the official of what the rule is, but the official (this is particularly common in middle-school athletics) doesn’t know what the rule is and is too stubborn to admit it, and the coach just can’t believe that it’s not a mere misunderstanding that can surely be straightened out if he can just explain it clearly enough…ai-ya, you feel sorry for the guy, but you just want to say, “Dude, if they were really good at this, don’t you think they’d be officiating at some higher level, like, you know, high school junior varsity?”

In this case, the Fort Settlement coach spent at least five full minutes trying to enlighten the head linesman, going so far as to pantomime himself from one side of the court to the other in personal demonstrations of how the position rules are altered in the case of certain sequences of passing…I had no idea what he was talking about since I couldn’t hear him and know practically nothing about the rules, but I was kind of amused by his naivete as regards human nature. He was so obviously not going to accomplish anything, bless his heart. But the Parents Of Visitors around me were in a bad mood already (which I could understand, as seeing your kids get their butts kicked tends to do that), and they were definitely Not Amused. They began yelling at the coach to shut up and sit down. Ralph the Mouth in particular — you know, the gentleman who had been the most vocal critic of the officials up to that point — was particularly incensed by the delay and particularly non-decibel-challenged in his advice. The gentleman just to my left, whom I’ll call Buster, chose to wax philosophic: “What’s the big deal? It’s just one point, in one set, and you’re ahead anyway. Just let it go, for God’s sake! Let it go! It’s just ONE POINT!”

And it was about that time, to my immense (but carefully private) amusement that Ralph the Mouth hollered, setting a record for volume in the process, “Come on, Coach, shut up and sit down and stop setting such a bad example for the kids!!”

I stopped trying to think about Black-Scholes derivatives and turned my full attention to relishing the situation. The merest glance at Ralph the Mouth was sufficient to assure myself that irony was the furthest thing from his mind. I was curious to see whether he could top himself — and a moment later he suddenly pointed at a tie-bedecked gentleman at the other end of the gym and asked his wife, “Hey, isn’t that their principal?” Not waiting for a response, he answered his own question: “I think it is. Why doesn’t he stop that idiot? Can’t he see his coach is an embarassment to their school? He should go make his coach sit down. In fact I think I’ll go talk to him.”

And to my delight, he actually rose to his feet, made his way to the base of the bleachers, strode purposefully to the far end of the gym, and with a certain abruptness addressed himself to the gentleman with the tie, over whom he towered by at least six inches. I am no lip-reader, but I presume that he asked, “Are you the principal?” and I definitely saw the principal nod his head and saw his mouth form the words, “Yes, I am.” And sure enough, Ralph the Mouth proceeded, with much gesturing and emphasis, to demand that the principal go intervene in the (still-ongoing) debate between the coach and the head linesman. I could see the expression on the principal’s face getting more and more incredulous, though still carefully polite, and I could see expression on Ralph the Mouth’s face getting more and more frustrated as the principal dealt with him in pretty much exactly the way the head linesman was dealing with the coach. It was like a ballet with dueling, but synchronized, pas de deux on two separate ends of the stage.

Eventually the coach gave up and went back to his seat, and Ralph the Mouth gave up and came back to his, with dissatisfaction on all sides except mine — this was turning out to be much more interesting than your average everyday eighth-grade volleyball game.  Play picked up again, with the score now 16-10. Fort Settlement made it 17-10, and then they served out of bounds to give the visitors a freebie, but then the visitors lost the next point…and about that time Ralph the Mouth realized that the scoreboard now read 18-10 rather than 18-11. Being Ralph the Mouth, he immediately let the world know about it, and the rest of the Parents Of Visitors quickly joined in.

Now I didn’t object to this at all because they were quite right; the scoreboard operator had clearly forgotten to change the score after the Fort Settlement service error. But the people down on the court had all obviously tuned out the Parents Of Visitors long before this point, and the scoreboard didn’t change.

And who was the person who was most miffed by this? Not, as you might have guessed, Ralph the Mouth — no, it was Buster. You remember, Buster the philosopher, who had encouraged the coach to get a sense of perspective and stop obsessing over what was after all “just a single point, in a single set”? The next four or five minutes, I kid you not, went about like this…


[Ten or fifteen seconds go bad without the scoreboard’s changing.]


[Nothing happens.]


[The vistors score, and the scoreboard changes to show 18-11.]


[Nothing happens.]


[The home team scores. The scoreboard now reads 19-11.]


[Point to the visitors. 19-12.]


[Nothing happens.]


[Nothing happens.]


[Another point for the visitors. 19-13.]


[Nothing happens]

BUSTER [deciding to introduce some variety in his speechmaking, and waving his iPhone about madly]: I HAVE IT ON VIDEO RIGHT HERE!! I’LL PROVE IT!! YOU FORGOT A POINT!!

[Another point for the visitors. 19-14.]

BUSTER [returns to his rhetorical comfort zone]: THAT SHOULD BE FIFTEEN!! FIFTEEN!! WHERE’S OUR FIFTEENTH POINT?

At this point, you have no idea how hard I was having to resist the urge to turn to Buster and say, “What’s the big deal? It’s just one point, in one set. Let it go!!” Or, rather, how hard I would have been having to resist the urge if he hadn’t been so much bigger than I was.

But alas, all good things must come to an end. Fort Settlement called a timeout; and during the timeout the scoreboard was updated to read 19-15, thereby placating Buster; and when the teams returned from the timeout competitive normalcy seemed to be restored; and shortly therafter Fort Settlement made it to 25 and the teams lined up and shook hands and everybody, including myself, began to gather belongings and make for the exits. I hibernated the laptop, put it in its bag, zipped up the zippers, caught Sally’s attention and beckoned her over to me, established that we were all ready to go, and grasped the handle of my laptop bag. And then I happened to look back one last time to the far end of the gym.

And there I saw Ralph the Mouth, having cornered the principal once again in order to renew his philippic in re the coach’s intolerable behavior in talking too long to the head linesman, once again wearing an expression of outrage, gesticulating and grimacing and pointing at the court and then at the benches and then back at the court and then at the principal himself for good measure, setting his Good Example For The Children to the bitter end.

Meditations triggered by “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

A conversation with an old friend from Kiev, a casual comment from a new friend in Singapore, a classic country song…

I have a friend in Singapore who most definitely grew up a city girl, with no experience of the isolated, winding, usually-dirt roads that I grew up walking down and, later, driving on in Oklahoma’s Kiamichi Mountains, and that John Denver sings about in my parents’ beloved adopted home of West Virginia. So I was touched to see her posting on Facebook of her surprise at having been moved almost to tears when listening to “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” And it got me to thinking about those old country roads that I used to be able to drive almost blindfolded, and how for years those roads meant home…but how now, they mostly remind me that I no longer have a place that is home.

Yesterday Helen and I had a long conversation with Sophia Williams (whose book you must buy if you haven’t already as it’s one of the most engrossing autobiographies I’ve ever read). She is ninety now, I think, and she has friends who recently offered to take her back to visit her childhood home of Kiev. “But I don’t want to go back anymore,” she told us emphatically over tea. “It is empty for me. There is nobody there now from my family. To go back, just reminds me that they aren’t there anymore.”

I knew, of course, that her father and mother and stepmother were dead – she is, after all, ninety years old. But what about the rest of the family? “Has everyone else moved away now?” I asked. “Did you all move to America?”

“I have a niece in San Francisco, and one in Boston,” she answered, “and two more…” I don’t remember where the other two lived, but they are no longer in Ukraine. “And all the rest…I outlived.”

So Sophia will never go back to Kiev, now, because she would not be going home. She would be going to a city that has become a mere graveyard, going back only to say hello to ghosts.

And I think I know how she feels, for I find myself every year less eager to pass back through the Kiamichi Mountains I loved as a child. Everyone in my family has died or moved away from Hartshorne and Haileyville, where Pierces and Wilders lived throughout the first eight decades of Oklahoma statehood; the house I grew up in (which was already old when I was young) is still there but no Pierce has lived in it for twenty years now and I doubt anybody still calls it the Pierce house, or has any but the vaguest memories of that house with my family in it. The last time I passed through (having gone hundreds of miles out of my way to do so) I drove through the alley back behind our old garden lot and two-storey garage, to discover that the massive and apparently ageless oak tree that had shaded the entire back yard throughout living memory, had been cut down. And Melissa’s post about that beloved old John Denver song brought home to me something I hadn’t realized before…as I’ m driving down those old country roads, I still feel at home on them; they haven’t changed at all, even for me, because they still are what they always were – roads, journey-spaces, things I passed down, often with company but equally often alone, on my way to some destination. But when I get to the end of them, there’s no home left, because the people are gone. For me, Hartshorne and Haileyville are ghost towns.

And now I have no home, not really. I love West Virginia, but it’s my parents’ home, not mine. I have been all over the world in the years since I left Oklahoma, and I have seen many places I liked and even lived in a couple of them; but I hated New Jersey during my four years at Princeton, and the next two decades were spent in a miserable marriage that left every place I lived, however pleasant in itself, hopelessly entrapped in a locus of mixed pain and poignancy in recollection, where even the memories I love of seeing my children grow up with happiness in early childhood are overshadowed by the ever-lurking knowledge of the scars they carry from the black years, when the misery at the core of my marriage could no longer be hidden from them and their world disintegrated around them.

The last three years, of course, have been in many ways as though the old heaven and the old earth had passed away and as if all creation had been made new as Helen entered my life. Home is now Helen, and wherever she is, I can’t wait to get back to. And yet…yet that’s not the same thing as having a “place I belong,” some spot on the globe that holds my heart. I’ve had Helen to come home to for three years and where she is, is peace; but the place doesn’t matter – if Helen goes back to Dà​fēng this summer to visit her family, and I join her a few weeks later, when I step off the train at Dà​fēng and see her waiting there I’ll feel just as strongly that I’ve just arrived home as I do right now walking through the door of our rented Sugar Land house – even though I’ve never been to Dà​fēng in my life.

I’ve had three happy years in which I could easily have put down roots and memories and bonded with the first place Helen and I have been happy together…but unfortunately I have lived those three years in Houston, a town I cordially detest, a city I moved to only out of economic necessity and where I remain only due to legal constraints upon my custody of my children. Marriage to Helen has been better in three years than marriage to Dessie was bad for seventeen, but still the only reason I am in Houston is that I have five more years of having to deal with the fallout from that catastrophically bad first decision made so many years ago. Houston? Home? I can see China someday being home, but never Houston.

I am, incorrigibly and forever, a country boy. If ever again in this life I find a home to which I can be led, that home will be at the end of a country road. Until then, “Take Me Home, Country Road” will be a song for other people, who enjoy a particular kind of belongingness that is no longer mine to share, and the memory of which is, for me, bittersweet.

Requiem for a Cafe / Grocery Store

It’s a sad day in Austin. Sasha Lifschitz closes down Sasha’s Market today, which for years was THE place in Austin to eat and buy groceries if you were Russian or a Russophile. As a mark of mourning, and a remembrance of good times back when I lived in Austin and could be a regular patron, I’m posting the following anecdote:

SCENE: My friend Bryan and I, many years back, are sitting in Sasha’s Russian Market in Houston (the original one), having lunch. The waiter comes around with a bottle of vodka and a question:

WAITER: Would you gentlemen like some vodka?

ME: Sounds good, how much?

WAITER: Oh, we can’t sell it, because we don’t have a liquor license. But you’re welcome to have some as our guests.

We happily accept, but then something occurs to Bryan, who calls the waiter back to point out a slight discrepancy with the whole Russian restaurant theme:

BRYAN: Hey, wait a minute – this is French vodka. Why are you guys serving French vodka?

WAITER [looking at Bryan with a look that clearly says, “Ah, not very bright, are we?”]: Because that’s what was in the refrigerator.

До свидания, Sasha’s, vade in pace.

Taken in the Spirit in Which It Was Meant

In my last post, I mentioned that, as a result of my having written a polite thank-you letter to the staff of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, I wound up having a conversation with three young ladies (MaLou, Soleil and Nancy) who serve as greeters for the Melt Cafe there at the hotel, where the breakfast buffet is served each morning. And the three of them were very much disposed to like me as a result of that letter, and very interested in my family.

(chuckling) Now you know perfectly well without my saying so that these three young ladies are all very attractive, because otherwise a hotel like the Mandarin Oriental wouldn’t have chosen them to make the hotel’s first impression on guests who are walking up to the cafe. But I am very happily in love with my own wife, and I have daughters who are at least as old as are MaLou and Soleil and Nancy, and to be blunt about it I wouldn’t want to go back to being twenty-three my own self. I’m very happy to be in the generation I’m in and quite content to stay there. So I was briefly amused when one gentleman who was leaving looked slightly askance at me as I stood surrounded by three pretty young ladies all very intent on my conversation, to the point that they clearly had to force themselves to remember that it was their job to stop talking to me long enough to say a polite good-bye to him. But then the four of us went back to talking about my kids — because, just before that gentleman had passed by on his way out of the cafe, one of the three had asked how many children I had, and I had answered, “Nine,” and obviously they wanted details, details, because that’s a LOT of kids.

So I explained that my youngest was nine, and my oldest was twenty-five, and that I have one granddaughter and two more on the way. But they still could hardly believe that one man would have nine children. So I explained further that four of the children were my biological children from my first marriage, and one was my stepson from my second marriage, and that the other four were adopted from Kazakhstan.

“You adopted four children?” asked MaLou in disbelief.

“Yes, four of them,” I answered — “I like children, and I particularly like all nine of my kids.”

“You adopted four children,” MaLou said again, half to herself. And then Nancy piped up, “Why, you can adopt us!”

“Oh, yes, that’s a great idea,” the other two joined in, “you can adopt all three of us!”

And I thought, “Well, too bad that envious gentleman couldn’t hear that because I’m sure that would make him feel better…”

And there you have it: Helen has no reason to feel threatened or jealous. Anya and Kinya and Kasia and Merry and Sally, on the other hand…

UPDATE: If you are either Nancy, or Soleil, or MaLou, and you found your way here, you can let Nick and Keren know they get some props here.