Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Country Store

Those of you living in larger cities or are too young may not remember the old country stores. The country store was a descendant of the general stores which could once be found across the United States. "General stores" got their name because they carried a little bit of everything. They not only carried groceries, but often other items such as dry goods, toys, and so on. Usually the stores were not very big, with as much merchandise crammed into as little space as possible.

The general store began its decline during World War I and into the Twenties. It is at this time that such grocery chains as Safeway arose, not to mention the various specialty stores and other chains. The general store took more blows with the rise of such discount houses as WalMart and K-Mart in the Sixties. By the mid-Twentieth century, most general stores only remained in rural areas. By the late Twentieth century, even these country stores became few and far between.

Because of this, my experience with country stores is somewhat limited. I remember as a young child, when the bridge on Highway C would flood (thus blocking easy access to Huntsville or Moberly), we would go to a country store. Sadly, I can't remember if the store was in Darksville, Thomas Hill, or College Mound, although I do remember it was north of our farm on Highway C. I do remember it was literally crowded with merchandise. Along its narrow aisles one could find everything from breakfast food to batteries.

As I got older I had the opportunity to experience more country stores. The one I frequented the most was Heuer's, which is on Old Highway 63 north of Harrisburg. In the Eighties, on our trips to Columbia, we would often stop at Heuer's to buy soda, get something to eat, and use the restroom. I do believe at that time it was still known as the Pinnacle Hill Store. At any rate, since it became Heuer's, the store has not changed terribly much. It still has its cafe where they serve sandwiches and coffee. It still carries a large array of goods. And there is still the Liar's Table (basically an old electric spool), so called because of the tall tales told there ("...the fish was this big..."). In the Liar's Table are carved the names of past patrons. At any rate, Heuer's as a wonderful atmosphere: simple, rural furnishings and simply crowded with goods.

Heuer's isn't the only country store remaining in Missouri. There is also Crane's Country Store in Mineola. I have never been to the store, but I have heard a lot about it. It was founded in 1898 along the Boone's Lick Trail. It is also one of the few stores that has remained in the same family for the entirety of its existence. Founded as the Harrison and Crane Store, it became B. R. Crane and Sons not long after and has remained with the Cranes ever since. Like Heuer's they serve food (they are well known for their $1.00 sandwiches). And like Heuer's they carry a wide variety of goods, everything from milk to boots.

Henson's General Store is another country store still operating in Missouri. Like Crane's, I have never been to Henson's, although I have heard a good deal abou tit. Founded in 1940, it is much younger than either Heuer's or Crane's. It is tucked away east of Ava in the township of Champion. And like all general stores, it sells a bit of everything.

Hard as it is to believe, not all the remaining country stores are in the country. Once a very small town, Little Elm, TX (where my brother lives) now has a population of 12,003. Despite this, most of the locals still do much of their shopping at the Lakeview. The Lakeview is primarily a grocery, although one can also buy gas and bait for fishing. I've been to the Lakeview many times and I must say that I have always enjoyed my trips there. It is much more pleasant than the big grocery store (whose name I can't recall) or even Dollar General.

As I said above, there are only a few country stores remaining throughout the United States. That having been said, I am not sure that the concept of the general store is entirely dead. The convenience store can be seen as a variation on the idea of the general store, although it seems to me that convenience stores carry much less in the way of goods. Similarly, such hypermarkets as the Wal-Mart Supercentres and SuperTargets can be seen as the general store taken to its logical extreme. Such hypermarkets carry both groceries and the variety of goods one expects from discount houses such as Wal-Mart and KMart. I must state, however, that I don't really consider the hypermarkets to be general stores any more than I do convenience stores. They lack the homey atmosphere and laid back feel of the old time country stores.

I seriously doubt that country stores will ever cover the United States as they once did. For better or worse, the chain stores, discount houses, and hypermarkets drove them out of business. I rather expect that they will keep them out of business. One can only hope that the few country stores remaining will continue to stay in business.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Well, it's one of those times when I have to eat my words. In my overview of this year's Academy Awards I commented that I could not see how Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit could be better than the other two animated films nominated for Best Animated Feature (The Corpse Bride and Howl's Moving Castle). I have to say that I was wrong. Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit is not only the best animated film of the year, but the funniest as well.

For those of you who don't know who Wallace and Gromit are, they are the lead characters in a series of clay animation film shorts (and as of last year a feature film) made in the United Kingdom. Wallace is a tinkerer and inventor, whose Rube Goldberg (or perhaps "Heath Robinson" would be the better term, since they are British) type devices never work as he wants them to. Gromit is Wallace's dog and the brains of the outfit. Although he never makes a sound, it is usually Gromit who must get them out of the trouble Wallace sometimes gets them into. The two made their debut in the animated short "A Grand Day Out" in 1989, which was nomimated for the Oscar for Best Short Film, Animated. They went onto star in two Oscar winning shorts, "The Wrong Trousers" and "A Close Shave." They also became a bit of a phenomenon in both Britain and abroad. In fact, they are credited with single handedly saving Wensleydale cheese (Wallace's favourite cheese in the world), which had been declining in sales until Wallace came along.

Curse of the Were-Rabbit is Wallace and Gromit at their best. This time out they are operating a humane pest control business (Anti-Pest-O) which deals with pests (namely, vegetable devouring rabbits) by capturing and incarcerating them (as opposed to killing them). Unfortunately, it is not long before Tottington's vegetables are being ravaged en masse by a monster rabbit, and it is up to Wallace and Gromit to stop him.

Curse of the Were-Rabbit remains loyal to the animated shorts. It has the same off-kilter humour, complete with sight gags, word play, and so on. The movie even manages a few homages/parodies to classic horror films, including The Wolfman, King Kong, and Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (AKA Braindead). Much, perhaps most, of the humour will go above the heads of children, although there is still enough there to keep them entertained. Like Pixar's films, Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a film made for adults that children can enjoy.

The humour is greatly aided by vocal talents of the cast. After over ten years away from the character, the great Peter Sallis slides easily back into playing Wallace, endowing the absent minded inventor with the kind of empathy he had in the shorts. Helena Bonham Carter is also perfect as Lady Tottingham (Wallace's love interest!), while Ralph Fiennes does very well as the villainous hunter Victor Quartermaine (something tells me Nick Park has read his share of H. Rider Haggard in his lifetime...).

The animation is top notch. Indeed, with the budget of a feature film, Aardman Animations (the company behind Wallace and Gromit) were able to add a good deal more detail than one saw in the shorts. In fact, given that we are talking about stop motion animation here, many of the sequences will leave the viewer wondering "How did they do that?" The were-rabbit sequences are especially impressive. Curse of the Were-Rabbit is one of the most amazing achievements in clay animation ever put on film.

Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit is easily the best animated film of 2005. It is also the funniest movie of that year as well. I would recommend it to anyone who likes stop motion animation, comedies, or just plain good movies. It is simply marvelous.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Men and Musicals

I'm sure all of you are familiar with the stereotype. Heterosexual men simply do not like musicals. Indeed, the stereotype is so strong that there is practically an assumption in some quarters that if a man likes musicals, then he must be gay. As a very heterosexual male who happens like musicals (particularly the Hollywood musicals from the Golden Age of film), I happen to disagree with this whole idea.

As a child I was introduced to musicals early. Both of my parents enjoyed music and as a result they enjoyed musicals. Indeed, it was my father who introduced me to My Fair Lady (as a matter of fact, he pretty much forced me to watch it). Of course, as I got older I discovered the musicals from the Golden Age of Hollywood and the beautiful women who frequently starred in them. If I am a fan of musicals, much of that credit goes to Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller.

Regardless, I can't say I am an atypical, heterosexual male by any means. While I am not a huge sports fan, I do enjoy watching football games (I am a Rams fan, after all), hockey games (the Blues, of course), and soccer (that's what we Americans call, well, football...) sometimes. I enjoy camping, hunting, and fishing. Among my favourite genres of movies are action movies and Westerns. Indeed, Seven Samurai, The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch, and Fight Club all number among my favourite movies.

Indeed, as a pretty typical guy, I can see a number of reasons why the average heterosexual male should like musicals. The first is as I poined out above--in most Hollywood musicals there is at least one beautiful woman in the cast. And often these beautiful women are very skimpily clad. Just look at some of the costumes Cyd Charisse wore in Singin' in the Rain! I have always thought that if the average, red blooded, heterosexual man could see Cyd Charisse in many of her films, he would entirely forget about his dislike for musicals....

Second, a majority of the musicals from Holywood's Golden Age have a very strong sense of conflict. In many instances (perhaps most), the conflict is over a woman. In Cover Girl song and dance man Danny McGuire (the irrepressible Gene Kelly) finds he has a rival for the hand of Rusty (Rita Hayworth) in the form of big time, Broadway producer Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman). Other times the conflict may be something other than romantic in nature. In Singin' in the Rain the conflict is between movie star Donald Lockwood and his frequent co-star Lina (Jean Hagen). Essentially, Donald wants to save his own career, save Monumental Pictures, and help his lady love and Hollywood newcomer Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) in her career. This conflicts with Lina's goals, which are essentially to help herself and her own career, whether this is a detriment to everyone else or not. To a large degree, then, Hollywood musicals offer the same thrils that sporting events or action movies do--conflict and competition between one or more individuals.

Third, many of the lead characters in Hollywood musicals were average Joes. This is particuarly true of the great Gene Kelly. His characters are the sort one might encounter in the local bar or at a baseball game. Even Don Lockwood from Singin' in the Rain, although a big time movie star, comes off as just an average guy with the same concerns and interests as any other guy.

Fourth, most of the Hollywood musicals were also comedies. Indeed, I would say that not only is Singin' in the Rain one of the greatest musicals of all time, but also one of the greatest comedies of all time. It has some of the best lines and some of the best schticks to be found in any film. Quite simply, it is absolutely hilarious. Even if someone can't appreciate the music or the dancing, he or she can always find a lot to laugh about in that film. And this holds true for many of the musicals from Hollywood's Golden Age.

Fifth, I guess it is fairly obvious that an important component of any musical is, well, music. The Hollywood musicals were often scored by some of the greatest composers of all time. An American in Paris featured the music of the Gershwin brothers. The music for Holiday Inn was written by Irving Berlin. The movie Kiss Me Kate was based on the Broadway musical of the same name created by Cole Porter. If a man has a love for the songs of the great songwriters of the 20th century, then it seems to me he should be able to appreciate the musicals of Hollywood's Golden Age.

Quite frankly, then, it seems to me that there is quite a bit with regards to musicals that the average heterosexual male can appreciate. Indeed, I have always been puzzled as to where the stereotype that heterosexual men don't like musicals came from. Many of the musicals of Hollywood's Golden Age did enormously well at the box office, and no one can tell me that those audiences were composed entirely of women and gay men. Indeed, my father and many other men of his generation had a genuine love for musicals. And my father was undeniably straight.

At any rate, I suppose it should be pointed out that stereotypes should not be confused with the truth. Not all Irishmen drink. Not all Italians are mobsters. And not all staright men hate musicals. For that matter, not all gay men love musicals. Out of the gay friends I have, not a one of them likes musicals. All of the men I know who love musicals are straight! Regardless, this is one stereotype I would like to see put to rest once and for all.

Sunday, April 9, 2006

This Whole Katie Couric Thing

By now I am sure everyone has heard the news. After fifteen years Katie Couric is leaving Today for CBS where she will become the first woman to anchor a weekday, evening network newscast on her own. As the co-host of Today, Meredith Vieira of The View will replace Couric.

As might be expected, Couric's move is receiving mixed responses. An Associated Press/TV Guide showed that 49 percent of people would prefer to see Couric in the morning, with only 28 percent preferring her in the evening. This could be a bad sign for CBS, if not for the fact that about half of the people responding to the poll said that they would be willing to give Couric a chance as an evening anchor. Of course, there are many doubters when it comes to Couric anchoring The CBS Evening News. As host of Today she was required to do everything from interview heads of state to dressing up as SpongeBob Squarepants. As a result there are those who think that Couric lacks the seriousness to be an evening anchor.

Personally, I have no real objection to Couric taking over The CBS Evening News. It must be pointed out that two alumni from Today have made the move to evenings in the past. Tom Brokaw was the host of Today years before he anchored the evening newscast at NBC. Barbara Walters was also a co-anchor on ABC's World News Tonight for a brief time. If they made the move to evenings, I can see no reason why Couric can't either. Granted, she has dressed up as SpongeBob Squarepants (it was Halloween, for gods' sakes...), but it seems to me that she can be serious when she wants to be, as when interviewing presidents or political candidates. Indeed, while Today has its share of frivolous moments, it is ultimately a news programme. While there are others I would rather see take over CBS's evening newscasts, I have no real objections to Couric.

It is a bit more difficult to gauge the public's reaction to Meredith Vieira taking over Couric's position at Today (a position for which she beat out Today news reader Ann Curry and Today Weekend anchor Campbell Brown). As far as I know none of the big polling places have asked people what they think of Vieira as Couric's replacement, but the impression I have gotten from a smattering of blogs and various polls conducted on websites is that it is not a popular idea. On most blogs I have read there is a marked preference for either Ann Curry or Campbell Brown as co-host of Today. In nearly every poll I have seen on the web, Vieira ranks a distant third to Curry and Brown.

As for me, I agree with most of the blogs I've read and polls I've seen. Quite frankly, I just cannot take Meredith Vieira seriously as a journalist. Okay, I know she spent over ten years at CBS News. She was even a correspondent for Sixty Minutes and sometimes anchored their morning newscast. Once she moved to ABC, she was the chief correspondent for Turning Point. Since then, however, she has been one of the hosts of The View, host of the syndicated version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and even emceed the Miss America pageant. To me Meredith Vieira taking over Couric's position would be something akin to Regis Philbin taking over from Matt Lauer. She may have been a serious journalist at one time--now she is simply a talk show host in my mind. I must admit that I prefer either Ann Curry or Campbell Brown over Meredith Vieira, as I can both take them seriously as journalists. And Campbell Brown has the additional advantage of being utterly adorable (okay, one doesn't need to be adorable to be a TV journalist--gods know, neither Barbara Walters nor Dan Rather could be called "adorable"--but I must admit that "adorableness" makes me more likely to tune in...).

Anyhow, I suppose we can only wait and see how all of this turns out. Will the public accept Katie Couric as a nighttime news anchor? Will the public accept Meredith Vieira as the co-host of Today? Right now I don't think anyone can truly say for sure how things will go. One thing I can say, it will be an interesting year for network television newscasts.