A California Christmas

Brief synopsis: a charmer is tasked by his CEO mother with getting a stubborn farm family to sell their farmland so as their company can build a new warehouse. The task is made more difficult when he gets to the farm and is mistaken for a farmhand, a mistake he does not correct. He pretends to be the farmhand in the hope of getting closer to the stubborn daughter. 

Is it any good?: A California Christmas is better than expected. Truthfully, it is not much of a Christmas film. Christmas is more a deadline than a feature, with the story being set in the run-up to Christmas. With good performances from the majority of there cast and a story that, though predictable, is well told, A California Christmas is an enjoyable Christmas-esque romcom. 

Spoiler territory: charming playboy, Joseph Van Aston (Josh Swickard) leaves his latest conquest in the bed of one of his family’s hotels as he dashes to a board meeting being held by his mother, Amy (Julie Lancaster). 

He arrives late and the meeting is in full swing. As he enters the room, Amy says he will be the perfect person to close the deal on a farm they are trying to acquire. After the meeting, Amy tells her son that he has to close the deal to show her that he is more than just a playboy. If he does not, she will take away all of his privileges, including his driver and righthand man, Leo (Ali Afshar). 

There are two weeks until Christmas and Leo drives Joseph from the city to the farm. As they drive through the rural landscape, Leo tells Joseph that it is wine country and that eighty percent of the wines produced in the country is made in California. Joseph puts his headphones on. 

A bump in the road causes Joseph to spill coffee on himself. Luckily, because Leo has clothing in the car for a charity run he is doing, he can change. He puts on more casual attire and, leaving Leo behind, takes the short walk to the farmhouse. 

He arrives at the farmhouse to find a calf being born and him being enlisted to help youngster, Hannah (Natalie Mann) and her older sister and farm boss, Callie (Lauren Swickard). After helping the women birth the calf, Callie, mistakenly thinking Joseph is the new ranch hand, tells him that she has been expecting someone from the city. She is ready for him. She indicates a shotgun. 

Callie does not take to him. She thinks he believes working on a farm will be easy. She takes him to his accommodation. It is a rickety old, caravan. She thinks his name is Manny, her mother, Wendy (Amanda Detmer), having hired him. Joseph decides to go along with it. He contacts Leo and tells him the job is going to take longer than he thought. 

He needs Leo to find the real Manny and prevent him from turning up at the ranch. Leo, who is getting the car washed, is told to find a place to stay as well as finding the elusive Manny. As luck would have it, Manny (David Del Rio), is at the same carwash as Leo. One of the washers bellows his name, alerting Leo. Leo approaches Manny. 

Back in the farmhouse, the girls are with their mother having lunch. Callie remarks on how unlike a farmhand Joseph seems. Wendy is very poorly as she is dying from cancer and weakened by her chemotherapy treatments. Wendy goes to lie down after lunch. Leo makes arrangements with Manny, the two staying in a local farmhouse. Joseph goes looking for them. 

Wendy and Callie chat in the kitchen. She wants her daughter to relax a bit, let the new ranch hand do the work. Callie is not sure about him, she feels like something is not right. She asks what happened to Van Aston, who was expecting to visit. Wendy tells her that he emailed to reschedule. 

Conner (Gunnar Anderson), a family friend and sweet on Callie, comes to see them. He asks Callie out. She tells him she is not interested in anything romantic with him. Joseph finds the farmhouse that Leo and Manny are staying in. He tells Leo he plans to get Callie to trust him, as Manny, and get her to sell. He pays Manny to help him fake being a farmhand. 

Callie drives to the site of her father and fiancé’s death to place flowers. She is still wearing her engagement ring but takes it off and puts it in her pocket. The next morning, Joseph is up early for his chores. He has to call Manny to be told what the jobs are and how to do them. As Joseph gets to work, Leo and Manny get used to being roommates. 

Callie is on the phone dealing with creditors. The farm is under huge debts and they have received an eviction notice. Joseph calls Manny to ask how to milk a cow but is interrupted by Hannah. She tells him how to milk the cow. Callie comes into the barn moments after the conversation. 

Leo and Manny drink red wine. Manny surprises Leo with his natural ability to identify the elements that make up the wine. Joseph continues to work but later Callie finds that he has not left any feed out for the cows. She goes to get him, needing help to get the feed from a, particularly high spot. She finds the feed is out of date. 

Callie says she has to go to work. Joseph asks her if she ever sleeps or has fun. She shuts down the conversation. She leaves for work. Hannah looks up the real Manny online. At the bar, Callie meets up with another worker and friend, Liz (Katelyn Epperly), and tells her about her mother not going to her final chemotherapy session.

Joseph visits the bar to try and get to know Callie better. Leo comes into the bar, causing Joseph to panic, especially when Manny comes into the bar shortly afterwards. A drunken Conner greets Manny. He asks who Joseph is. Manny tells him he is another ‘Manny’. 

Conner goes and accosts Callie. Joseph intervenes and gets punched for his troubles as the two start to fight. Callie kicks them both out of the bar. Outside the bar, Conner sees Joseph and Leo chatting. The next day, as Joseph continues to work, Callie takes the day off and spends time with her family. 

Callie softens towards Joseph. She chats to him as he works and cleans one of the garages. She shows him a bike that her late father was working on. Joseph tells her that his father died when he was young. Joseph is invited to have dinner with the family. 

Joseph continues to work and eat with the family, getting closer to all of them. He helps to decorate the house as they get closer to Christmas. Callie, abrasive and single-minded normally, softens around him. Wendy thanks him for his impact on the family. 

Joseph goes to see Leo. Leo tells him that his mother wants to know what is going on, Joseph has been ignoring her calls. He tells him that he can see Joseph is in love. Manny tells Joseph that he has to tell her. Leo and Manny have bonded over his ability to identify the ingredients in wines. Conner spies Joseph with Leo and Manny. 

Joseph wrestles with telling Callie the truth. Callie takes Joseph to see a small patch of land where her father planted wine vines he brought from France some years before. He had wanted to turn the ranch into a vineyard. They share a bottle of wine produced from the vines and Callie tells him that the family is in heavy debt.

He asks her if she cannot sell up and buy another ranch. She tells him that all her memories are on that ranch. She also tells him about the crash that killed her father and fiancé. They kiss. Conner interrupts. He comes to see Callie and baits Joseph, saying how it is strange that there are two Mannys in one town. Callie gets him to leave. 

Joseph talks to Leo. He wants to tell Callie the truth but has not spoken to his mother. He goes to see Callie and they start kissing again, him forgetting why he is there. Hannah interrupts them, telling them that Wendy is not up yet. Callie goes to wake her mother up. She is very poorly and she ends up taking her to the hospital. 

As Callie takes her mother back home, she tries to persuade her to have the chemotherapy again. Wendy tells her that she would rather spend the time she has left with her family at home. Joseph agonises over what to do as he reminisces about his father. He shows Callie her father’s bike. He has restored it. He takes her to work. 

Joseph tears up the contract his mother wants Callie to sign. He ignores another call from his mother. She calls Leo and tells him that she is coming to the farm the next day. Leo and Manny go looking for Joseph but do not see him dancing in the bar with Callie and leave. 

A drunk Conner leaves just after them, unable to bear watching Callie with Joseph. He hears Leo and Manny talking about Joseph outside the bar and looks him up on the internet. Callie and Joseph go and look at the stars and make love. The next day, Callie receives a text from Conner.

He exposes Joseph. She calls Conner. Leo comes to get Joseph. His mother has arrived at the farmhouse. Joseph tries to tell his mother that she cannot buy the farmhouse. She tells him that he cannot stop her. Amy goes into the house with her lawyer. She tells Wendy that her medical bills are big. Wendy thinks her life insurance will pay them off. Amy tells her that her late husband took out a loan against the policy. They have no option; they have to sell

Callie kicks Joseph out. Joseph goes to meet up with Leo and Manny. He gives Leo the wine from Callie. Leo tastes it and thinks it is good. He lets Manny taste it. He agrees. It is a very good wine. They take the wine to a wine merchant (Aaron Royce Jones). He likes the wine. Callie looks over the old wine cellar and finds the vineyard sign. 

Joseph races back to tell Callie that he might have a solution. He goes and starts tidying the vineyard plot. Callie finds him on the land. He explains to her that the wine is good. They tidy the vineyard and put up the sign. The next day, the merchant visits. He is happy with what he sees and makes her an offer. The amount is enough to clear the debts and save their home. 

Joseph tells his mother what he did. She is proud of him. Christmas Day, the family, Wendy and Hannah, invite the town to their barn. Callie knows nothing about the party. Conner helped. Joseph is at the party. He makes peace with Callie. He wants to keep working with her and being with her. They get together. 

A year later, Wendy has died and Joseph and Callie are still together. The vineyard is flourishing. The end. 

Final thoughts: A California Christmas is an enjoyable, festive rom-com. Written by Lauren Swickard, who also plays Callie and has a production credit, and directed by Shaun Paul Piccinino, the film zips through its one hundred and six-minute runtime. 

The story is quite predictable and is passably festive but due to the strong performances and gentle humour, it works despite these shortcomings. The central pairing of the married Lauren and Josh Swickard works really well and her doe-eyed love for him comes across as truthful probably because it is.

The bromance between Afshar’s Leo and Del Rio’s Manny is delightful, with Del Rio sparkling as the rough-around-the-edges but blessed with a talent for discerning wines, Manny. The film tugs on the heartstrings with an ill parent in Detmer’s Wendy and Swickard’s Callie determined to save the family home and the memories of her father and fiancé. 

The scenery is lovely, with the rural landscape providing a perfect backdrop for the romance, even if it is not particularly Christmassy. Swickard has fashioned a nice rom-com that is worth a watch in the festive break.

I’m A Writer

It is getting to a point where my plan, frighteningly, is actually beginning to work. There is still some way to go and I have not quite gotten to the point of no return – I know myself, like exercise or a diet, there is always a chance it could abruptly…pause – but I am committed to the path, at least for now.
What are the path and plan, you say? Like any good plan, it is simple, if not easy. The plan was to write a blog every other day. As I have two blogs – this one and makeqfit.wordpress.com, about fitness of body and mind (also working on self-promotion!) – this quickly became a blog a day, one for here one day, the next day, for there. The reasoning behind my blog a day philosophy was to get into a routine of writing regularly. Though ultimately I want to write fiction – scripts, books – waiting for the ‘moment’ or muse to hit me was only resulting in many a stalled project.
That is not to say I have not completed anything, more that my creative output, writing wise at least, had been sporadic. As I have said before, the best writers write and write regularly. Also, there is the old adage, ‘practice makes perfect’. As with any artistic pursuit, perfection is a fluid concept. The very least you can hope to achieve, with regular practice, is high competency.
So I am writing. Regularly. Still not writing any scripted stuff or pushing forward with the long-stalled book, but definitely writing consistently. The point that I am wanting to get to, obviously, is working on creative projects consistently. That is the goal.
The wheels are beginning to turn slowly. The ideas are popping, percolating, scenes are forming in my head, dialogue is being spoken by new characters. The next step is to start writing again. Not just blogging. Blogging is easy; comfortable. Yes, it still needs to be coherent and – hopefully – well thought out, but it is still relatively painless when compared to a script, short story or book.
Truth is, writing a script or book is not hard. Writing a good script or book is hard, knowing whether it is good or not is even harder. Scripts especially can be hard because there is so much to compare to and inadvertently plagiarise. Yes, there are millions of books and the material in those can be easily copied, but it is not the same as television or film.
The major difference between books and visual media is that, in these modern times, you can produce a book yourself. You cannot do a massive poster campaign on the tube or place television ads, but you have as much scope as anybody else to promote through social media and word of mouth if your writing is good. With film and television not only is it nigh on impossible to create content with the same level of quality that you enjoy in cinema or even network television, there is no way to really broadcast it.
Even if you did raise a few hundred thousand pounds and made a feature film, the cost of promoting it would make it impossible to recoup the cost. The pragmatist in me says I should focus on the book, but the ego, the heart, wants to write scripts. What to do, what to do.
I prefer scriptwriting because I like dialogue and it is quite comfortable for me to write. That is not to say it is easy for me to write a story, but the dialogue I’m good with. Of course, this is only my opinion. The great and the good of the film and television industry, the movers and shakers, those whose opinions truly matter when it comes to a would-be writer being the next big thing, or even an adequate thing, have no idea who I am.
So the plan is to keep writing. Then to start sending the work out and to keep writing and sending more work out. Then to write some more and send some more. Make another short film. Keep writing, keep sending. Make another film. Edit. Keep writing. Above all else, whether my work is picked up or not, even if the powers that be tell me to stop sending them stuff, I’ll keep writing, because, however belatedly, I realise I’m a writer.

There’s Always Music

  It is not my place to say what a person, or people, should or should not like. There are those crazy people, in my opinion, who shun chocolate. I remember knowing a young woman, who, like myself, was of Caribbean descent, who did not like chicken. She was not even vegetarian! She just did not eat chicken. I am pretty sure she is the only non-vegetarian, black person I ever met who did not eat chicken. It was just odd. Not so much that she became ostracised. After all, people are peculiar. They have quirks and as long as they harm no other, good luck to them.

   Having said that, I do remember hearing of one of the more disconcerting dislikes I have ever known a person to have. It was many moons ago, I was working in a large department store and got talking with one of my colleagues. She was married and I think we had maybe seen her husband once or twice. We were all in our twenties and, to us boys, a married woman half the age of our mothers was intriguing. So we asked her about her hubby; when they met, what does he do? What’s he into? What music does he like? I cannot remember the answer to most of the questions. What I do remember is her saying he didn’t like music. He doesn’t like music? Nope. He doesn’t like music? No. No kind of music? None.

    To put it into perspective, his dislike of music had no impact on my life whatsoever, this is a conversation that happened over twenty years ago and though I cannot remember her name, my former colleague, I remember that. That he did not like music. It was just so unheard of, the dislike of music.

    Obviously for the deaf and aurally challenged the absence of sound is a normality. But to be able to hear and not like any type of music is, without meaning to be judgemental but doing so all the same, weird.

   With the advent of the moving image over a century ago and the initial inability to tell a story with spoken words, music was an integral part of storytelling. Even with the introduction of talking pictures, the music remained. Music is emotive, it tells us where the story is going even when we have missed some of the words. Such is its power and omnipresence in film, leaving it out can be as powerful as choosing the right type. Remember the opening scene in The Spy Who Loved Me and Bond escaping his pursuers whilst skiing through the mountains and the music cutting as he went off the slope? Epic.

   Every film fan can think of music that is synonymous with a favourite film. The Darth Vader march, The Dambusters, The Godfather, the Superman theme, the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and so many more.

   I remember buying the soundtrack album to Coppola’s the Cotton Club after watching it twice in the same week. I was similarly blown away by the soundtrack of the Bruce Dern starrer, Nebraska. Would Guardians Of The Galaxy have been the same film without its epic soundtrack? Not at all.

   Music evokes memories. A song can take you right back to a specific moment, a particular mood, a smile, an encounter, a wonderful evening or a summer. Melody has its own story. So I ask you, as a relatively normal and open minded individual, what kind of person doesn’t like music?

The Default Face

In the film 2009 The Invention Of Lying, Ricky Gervais puts forward a world, a society, where everybody tells the truth. In essence, everyone you encounter is exactly as they seem. Warts and all.
Obviously this notion would be an impossibility in modern society. We generally go through life as a daily lie. Not harmful, deceitful lies. Just the sort of halve truths that allow people to coexist.
You know the sort of thing; morning, how you doing? Oh, I’m fine thanks, you? I’m good, thank you. A perfectly pleasant exchange. Just how we like it. Nobody really wants to hear an uncomfortable truth; morning, how you doing? I’m shit. I hate this job, my underwear is too tight and physical violence against my fellow commuters is illegal, how you doing? If you anticipated, or even had the slightest inkling, that this would be the response you received after your polite enquiry, you would stop at ‘morning’.
We all operate, necessarily, behind mask. The way one is with one’s friends is not generally the way one is with work colleagues. Even amongst friends, even those you consider close, do not see reality. We project the happy. The confident and in control you. Yeah, you got bills and the odd irritation at work, but it’s alright. You handle it.
Maybe, just maybe, you are happy and/or content. Somebody has to be. Even as you travel on the crowded tube or bus, observing the sullen faces, glued to phone screens or Kindle screens or just staring into space, do you see a sea of chirpy, excited people, eager to get to work?
In fact, when you do see someone smiling on the tube, does it not look odd? We mostly try to affect a neutral visage; the default face.
It can be mildly sullen, non plussed, disdainful, curious, menacing, tired; so many options, only one is your default. It tells the world what sort of person you are.
Are you serious? Approachable? Fearful? Fearsome? All these are things that a person, encountering you for the first time, will subconsciously contemplate, anticipating certain expectations from the meeting.
So how do you get your default face? It is a combination of your upbringing, thinking and character. We are shaped by our experiences, these create our outlook on life; decide our approach.
It is within our control to project the image, the face, we want the world to see. This is something we do everyday, mixing in society. Our default face, the face we show when relaxed, in that mild trance that takes you to work, that takes a deeper, holistic embrace of life. For the default face you want, that relaxed, Dai Lama-esque, air of serenity, you need to appreciate and accept the life you have, that way you may find contentment.