Venus and Her Deadly Sisters

Let’s begin with a quiz. Name a movie you’ve seen – any movie – where long after the fact you wished you’d never watched it. Not because it was a bad movie or a boring movie; rather because it left you with brain-burned images you’ll carry to the grave. I’ll give you a “pause” so you can come up with a movie.

[pause]

My own regret-I-saw-them movies are the following three: Fiend Without a Face (from the wonderful television series “Creature Features”, when I was a young and impressionable teenager), Deliverance, and Saving Private Ryan. If you haven’t seen those films, read the web synopses to understand where I’m coming from. Trust me; it’s safer than watching.

Recently, I’ve decided to add a fourth movie to my list: 2005’s War of the Worlds. Why recently? Because my wife decided to go all green-thumb on me in the last couple of weeks. She went to Home Depot and Lowe’s and purchased several plants for our recently remodeled home. She even ordered a few growee’s on-line (didn’t know you could do that).  We have quite the conservatory now, from potted palms to fruit-bearing minis to fresh herbs. But the real reason for my fourth movie sits quietly on the kitchen window sill: three Venus Flytraps.

Venus Flytraps fall into the category of “carnivorous plants”; which, from an insect’s perspective, is entirely accurate.  The organic mechanism of the Venus – called a “snap trap”, is frighteningly sophisticated.  Pairs of hinged leaves lay open at the ends of delicate stalks, secreting a sweet smell to attract the bug.  Once said bug steps on said leaves, hair-triggers activate a rapid closure, forming a capsule.  The more the bug moves, the more the capsule hermetically seals, forming a “stomach” to allow digestion over the next one to two weeks.  The capture itself takes less than a second.  I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with our own Flytraps.  Venus #1 is still digesting the bug I placed on her leaves a week ago.

Besides the “snap”, carnivorous plants include four other delightful trapping mechanisms.  “Pitfall” traps, as in pitcher plants, collect prey in a rolled-leaf container complete with a deep pool of digestive enzymes.  “Flypaper” traps, as in sundews, utilize a glue-like substance all over their leaves to trap and starve their victims before digesting them.  “Bladder” traps, as in bladderworts, create a vacuum inside a cavity sealed by a hinged door (I did say sophisticated, didn’t I?)  Bladderwort victims trigger a surface hair and are literally sucked into the bladder, to be quickly digested.  Finally, “Lobster-pot” traps, as in corkscrew plants, remind me of the Eagles’ Hotel California: thanks to their inward-pointing bristles, “you can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave”.

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tropical pitcher

Like my regret-I-saw-them movies, research on carnivorous plants should’ve stopped with the trapping mechanisms.  Unfortunately, I kept reading and there’s more.  Creature Features take note – these little guys are evolving.  Pitcher plants used to get flooded by rain (compromising the digestion process), so they developed a flared leaflet to cover the opening.  Sundews developed tentacles, which along with the flypaper help to trap their victims.  Even more disturbing, larger sundews developed a symbiosis with a species of assassin bug.  The bug eats the trapped insects while the sundew subsists off the insect feces (team effort!)  Finally, some versions of monkey cups (which contain pitfall traps) consume small mammals and reptiles.  Would you like another pause to consider that last bit of carnivorous plant trivia?

cobra plant (pitfall trap)

Carnivores are defined by just two characteristics.  They must exhibit an ability to attract, capture, and digest their prey; and, they must be able to absorb nutrients from the dead prey and gain a fitness advantage from those nutrients.  Hello, War of the Worlds human-harvesting Tripods.  Hello, exotic-but-pernicious Flytraps.  Maybe I should consider moving to Antarctica?  It’s the only continent on the planet where carnivorous plants cannot sustain themselves.

I know what you’ve been thinking since the very first paragraph.  “Dave, the perfect regret-I-saw-it movie for you is Little Shop of Horrors.”  No thank you, good reader.  I’m familiar with the Shop plot, and Audrey the Venus Flytrap sounds like a full-sized combo-nightmare of everything I’ve described above.  On that note, uh, hang on.  I should check my kitchen window Flytraps.  I swear they look a little bigger than the last time I checked.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

All By Myself

I’ve always thought “Prime Minister” is an elegant name for a politician.  Prime suggests first-in-charge, while Prime Minister implies several others in the political hierarchy one or more levels down.  In the United Kingdom, Theresa May is the PM; the head of “Her Majesty’s Government”, with a cabinet of other Ministers at her disposal on par with Secretaries in the United States.  Minister of Agriculture, Minister of the Interior, Minister of the Defence (love the British spelling), and so on.  In all, Ms. May commands twenty-one unique ministers.  As of January, make that twenty-two.  Who’s the latest to join the tea party?  The Minister of Loneliness.

When I think “lonely”, a country of 60 million people doesn’t come to mind.  No country comes to mind.  Instead, I think about individuals in far-away, desolate places.  A scientist conducting an experiment near the Arctic Circle.  A criminal in solitary confinement in the bowels of an isolated prison.  Tom Hanks in “Castaway”.  So it’s no wonder the New York Times article about the newest U.K. minister, Tracey Crouch, caught my eye.  Even more eye-opening was to read about the loneliness “epidemic” responsible for her appointment.

Britain’s research indicates nine million or more of its citizens “often or always feel lonely”.  That’s 15% of their population.  I find it remarkable all those people would own up to feeling that way, but perhaps the survey was their opportunity to say, “please help”.  Consider this: 200,000 senior citizens in the U.K. hadn’t had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.  Makes me wonder if vocal cords stop working if they’re not used long enough.

Loneliness is not a trademark of the U.K. alone, of course.  It’s unavoidable in any country or culture.  “Lonely” brings to mind several songs over the past fifty years: Bobby Vinton’s Mr. Lonely (1962) to Adam Lambert’s Another Lonely Night (2015).  Elvis had a hit with Are You Lonesome Tonight?, as did Roy Orbison with Only The Lonely and Yes with Owner of a Lonely Heart.  Eric Carmen’s two biggest hits in the 1970’s were about loneliness: All By Myself and Never Gonna Fall In Love Again.  And if you want the best example of loneliness in music, look no further than Charles Ives’ short classical piece The Unanswered Question.  The haunting conversation between solo trumpet and woodwind quartet makes you realize even a brass instrument wishes it had a few friends.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists over 75 movies about loneliness.  A few familiar examples: Carrie, Silence of the Lambs, and Brokeback Mountain.  The History Channel hosted several years of a reality television series called “Alone”, which shared the daily struggles of individuals as they survived in the wilderness for as long as possible. The participants were isolated from each other and all other humans, and the one who remained the longest won a grand prize of $500,000.  This is entertainment?

I don’t want to be lonely just to be able to write a best-selling song or win a half-million dollars, but that doesn’t mean I mind being alone.  Lonely and alone are decidedly different creatures.  If one is lonely, the dictionary says he is “destitute of sympathetic or friendly companionship” (sounds miserable, doesn’t it?).  If one is alone, he is “separate, apart, or isolated from others”.  And that is not such a bad thing.  In fact, we introverts (persons concerned primarily with their own thoughts and feelings) handle “alone” much better than you extroverts (persons concerned primarily with the physical and social environment).  We introverts prefer our gatherings in smaller numbers.

I’ll never forget an encounter I had with a neighbor years ago, at Halloween.  As my kids knocked on her door for treats, I realized we’d lived right next door for several months but never formally introduced ourselves.  I apologized as I shook her hand, yet her response was, “oh no problem at all; that’s why we moved to this neighborhood.  People stay to themselves here.”

Is this the world we live in now, with electronics and social media and work-from-home promoting more alone time?  At least the Brits are acting, before too much “alone” becomes too much “lonely”.   They’ve started a Facebook group for those affected by loneliness.  They’ve set up a fund to study the detrimental effects.  And they’ve appointed a new minister to lead the way.

Perhaps the U.S. should appoint a Secretary of Loneliness too, ministering to those who can’t seem to find companionship among 323 million others.  The Surgeon General claims loneliness can be associated with “greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression and anxiety”.  On that note, what first appeared to be an LOL headline is no laughing matter at all.  Get out there and mingle.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Land of Flying Cars

My wife and I live in a rural area of Colorado known as the Black Forest.  The high density of Ponderosa Pines in our small geography gives us our name.  Remarkably, there’s only one other notable place on the planet named “Black Forest”: the region near Bavaria in southwest Germany.  As it turns out, I have personal ties to both places, though I’ve never been to the south of Germany.  Follow along as I connect the Forests.

Fill in the blank, “Best Childhood Movie: ________”.  Most of you would respond with an offering from Disney.  Including “Snow White…”, “Mary Poppins”, and “The Little Mermaid”, you’ve already covered sixty years of film-making, with countless other Disney classics in between.  I don’t think I missed a single Disney growing up in the sixties and seventies, yet – go figure – my favorite childhood movie doesn’t come from the Mouse.  It doesn’t even come from my home country.  My childhood choice?  The UK’s “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, based on the 1964 novel by Ian Fleming.

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” – the captivating musical about the inventor and his kids who lived in a windmill cottage; about those wonderful-though-not-always-perfect inventions (my favorite: the eggs-toast-sausage breakfast machine); about the candy-maker and the toy-maker and the captivating castle world of Vulgaria; and most importantly about the magical flying motorcar itself – created figments of my imagination like no other movie.  The lyrics to the title song (“…Bang Bang Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, our fine four-fendered friend…”) were burned into my brain.  Someday I vowed to visit the lands of Caractacus Potts and Baron Bomburst.

     

As it turns out, the Potts’ windmill cottage really does exist (and not on a movie set) – as the “Cobstone Windmill” in Buckinghamshire, England. The mansion where “Truly Scrumptious” lived is in the same area of the country.  And the Scrumptious Sweets Company was a working factory in Middlesex (today a steam-engine museum).  But it was the castle and village in Vulgaria I really wanted to see.  Not long after seeing the movie of course, I learned “Vulgaria” was a fictitious country.  Baron Bomburst didn’t actually lord over the land, nor did he ever keep all those children as slaves beneath his castle. But the castle and the village are based on actual places.  The village is Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria.  The castle is Castle Neuschwanstein, also in Bavaria.  And how ironic; both locations were inspirations for Disney as well: Rothenburg for the village in “Pinocchio”, and Neuschwanstein for the Cinderella castles in the theme parks.

To bring my journey full-circle, Rothenburg, Castle Neuschwanstein, and Bavaria sit in southwest Germany, adjacent to… the Black Forest.  Germany’s version of the Forest is a mountainous land of picturesque villages, castles, vineyards and spas.  This is the region that brought the world Black Forest Ham and “truly scrumptious” Black Forest Cake.  This is the land of glass-making and cuckoo clocks.  From the photos above, it looks every bit as charming as “Vulgaria”.

  

Colorado’s Black Forest barely amounts to a dot on Google Maps.  Within our pines, the “town” is a hodge-podge of nondescript businesses clustered around a couple of traffic signals, with nothing more alluring than a Subway, a post office, and a couple of coffee shops.  The terrain is fairly flat, with no windmill cottages or mountaintop castles or cuckoo clocks.  But it’s a great place to live, with its own unique charm.  And every now and then, when I’m deep in the pines, I’ll start humming that forever-familiar Chitty-Chitty tune, as I gaze up to the skies in search of a flying motorcar.

There’s Something About Mary

Mary Tyler Moore passed away over a week ago and I’ve been thinking about her ever since.  Countless actresses come and go, but then you have those who make indelible impressions with one or two jaw-dropping performances.  Audrey Hepburn, Julie Andrews and Maureen O’Hara, just to name a few.  Meryl Streep.  And Mary Tyler Moore.

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There’s something about Mary. I read her filmography from start to finish – a span of sixty years of television and movies – and came up with two roles of any significance to me: Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), and Beth in the film Ordinary People (1980).  But I think most people would agree – those performances alone land Mary Tyler Moore in an acting class by herself.

Moore first became a familiar name as Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960’s, but that was a little before my time.  On the other hand, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a weekend staple in my house.  At an age when my father still controlled the TV remote (er, TV channel – no remotes back then), my brothers and I were treated to CBS’s Saturday night “killer lineup”, which included The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show.

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The Mary Tyler Moore Show included memorable opening credits, if only because the theme song was so infectious (“…you’re gonna make it after all…”), as was the final scene where Mary spins and smiles and throws her hat into the air at a busy Minneapolis intersection.  That throw – and Mary Tyler Moore herself – is immortalized in a bronze sculpture you can find at that very same intersection today.

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In 1980, just as I was heading off to college, Robert Redford directed the Best Picture winner Ordinary People, one of the most gut-wrenching, powerful, “real-life” dramas I have ever seen.  Timothy Hutton burst onto the Hollywood scene with an Oscar-winning performance as Conrad, the younger of two sons in a tormented Chicago family.  Judd Hirsch was also nominated for an Oscar (losing to Hutton) for his portrayal of the determined therapist who counseled Conrad back to stability.  But it was Mary Tyler Moore’s turn as the heartless and unforgiving mother Beth that stole the show.  Her performance was so counter to the sunny demeanor of Mary Richards, I wondered if she was tapping the energy of some real-life bout of depression.  That was the breadth of Mary Tyler Moore’s acting talents.  I’ve only seen Ordinary People a couple of times but the scene where Donald Sutherland tells Beth he no longer loves her still haunts me.  Moore’s silent, crestfallen reaction to that statement could’ve coined the phrase “verbal slap in the face”.

I am even more taken by Mary Tyler Moore when I read some of the details of her life.  Clearly, she tried to embody the positive demeanor and “independent woman” of Mary Richards, but she did so in the face of significant personal tragedy.  She dealt with alcoholism and smoking addiction, drug overdose (her sister), suicide (her son), and years of diabetes.   She took up the baton to promote diabetes awareness and animal rights.  Moore was even tougher and more outspoken than her little/big screen roles would suggest.

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The theme song of The Mary Tyler Moore show begins with “Who can turn the world on with her smile?” Scroll back up to that first photo.  Talk about ear-to-ear!  And I can’t help but smile back, even as we now say goodbye to Mary.

Some content sourced from IMDb.com.

Sundance Man

Two weeks ago we had a little excitement on the west side of town.  A street and two houses were borrowed for a Netflix production called Our Souls At Night.  For ten days cast and crew were hard at work while a few locals kept watch from lawn chairs across the street.  Maybe I too would have grabbed a lawn chair if I’d known the film’s stars were Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.

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I claim to be a Jane Fonda fan but really only for a handful of films; all between 1979 and 1981.  In those years you had The China Syndrome, The Electric Horseman, On Golden Pond, and 9 to 5.  On the other hand Robert Redford won me over for virtually every film he has acted in, produced, or directed.  I would be hard-pressed to come up with a Redford movie I didn’t care for (and he’s made well over a hundred of them).

Robert Redford has worked with many of Hollywood’s greats.  He made several films with Paul Newman for instance, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the earliest of Redford’s performances I can remember.  When I consider how many Redford movies I’ve seen since his turn as the Sundance Kid, it’s remarkable I somehow missed The Sting – also with Newman and considered one of Redford’s best.  Perhaps The Sting should be my “homework” for writing this blog.

Redford acted with Barbara Streisand in The Way We Were, with Dustin Hoffman in All The President’s Men, with Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, and with Brad Pitt in Spy Game.  His leading ladies included Glenn Close in The Natural, Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal, Kristin Scott Thomas in The Horse Whisperer, Debra Winger in Legal Eagles, and Fonda in several other movies (including Barefoot in the Park, one of Redford’s first films).

Remarkably, three of my favorite Redford films are ones where he’s behind the camera instead of in front of it.  in 1980 Redford directed Ordinary People, which won him the Oscar for Best Director (as well as Best Picture).  In 1992 Redford directed A River Runs Through It and also narrated a good portion of the film.  And in 2000 Redford produced The Legend of Bagger Vance, which proves that golf occasionally does make for good entertainment.

Redford is described as an “intelligent, reliable, sometimes sardonic good guy”.  Nice to know he can laugh at himself.  I also find it interesting he grew up in Van Nuys, CA (15 miles from my childhood home) and attended the University of Colorado (90 miles from my current home).  Redford now lives near Park City, Utah, on several hundred acres he calls Sundance Ranch (home of the film festival by the same name).  Redford once said, “I often feel I’ll just opt out of this rat race and buy another hunk of Utah”.  I can relate to that.

Last week Robert Redford was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.  When asked to describe his body of work Redford said, “storytellers broaden our minds: engage, provoke, inspire, and ultimately, connect us.”  Redford will soon be done with acting, but thankfully he will continue to direct.  With that in mind I eagerly anticipate Our Souls At Night, and any other stories the man has yet to tell.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia” and IMDb.com

 

 

Hooked on Classics

If I am to believe certain lists, there are over forty different genres of music in the world today. The more common ones come to mind quickly: “Rock”, “Pop”, “Hip-Hop”. But now we have “Industrial” and “Tex-Mex” as well.  Indeed, definitions of music are becoming as diverse as the cultures from which they took flight.

Among music genres – the list of which inflates to hundreds if you include sub-categories – “Classical” looks a little lost. Classical music’s definition is broad and complicated, but most of us would acknowledge its “golden age” as the time frame between the lives of Bach and Beethoven (effectively, the 18th century). The volume of symphonies and concertos and sonatas created in that period is so vast, even those with no interest cannot deny a familiarity with the genre’s most famous compositions.

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The absence of orchestras (or music programs altogether) in today’s schools and universities is a tragedy.  Attendance at classical music concerts is down.  Even classical radio stations lack the advertising revenue to survive, depending instead on the generosity of their donors.  But here’s the good news: the genre still finds its outlets.

Consider the movies.  Year after year Hollywood produces fairly forgettable films, yet certain scenes are worth the watch if only to hear the accompanying classical music.  Some examples:

1) Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Danny Ocean’s gang of thieves finally completes the heist at the Bellagio Hotel, and gathers outside at the fountains for a moment of reflection.  The enchantment of that scene is as much about the fountains as it is in the soaring strings of Claude Debussy’s mesmerizing “Clair De Lune”.  Watch and listen here.

2) If I Stay (2014). Chloe Moretz’s character Mia performs “The Swan” (from Camille Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals”) on solo cello at a community concert, and the music continues through several more scenes.  “The Swan” is elegant and lullaby-soft.  Listen here (performance by Yo-Yo Ma).

3) Somewhere in Time (1980).  Christopher Reeves’ character’s obsession with the lovely Jane Seymour leads to a desperate time-travel effort to find her in her youth.  When the couple is finally reunited (in his dreams, of course),  we are treated to Sergei Rachmaninov’s powerful “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”.  This scene would be nothing without Rachmaninov.  Listen here.

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Hollywood once created an entire movie about classical music.  The Competition (1980) – an early film in the careers of Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving – explored the rigors of the real-life Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.  Watch the movie and you’ll hear excerpts of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 and Sergey Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3.  Listen to the glorious Prokfiev piece from start to furious finish and you’ll wonder how anyone can play the piano with that kind of speed and dexterity.

Even a child’s story can be uplifted by classical music.  In the stage production of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” Schroeder plays Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on his toy piano while Lucy accompanies him in song.  The lyrics are creative and work surprisingly well for a sonata created over 200 years ago.  Watch and listen here.

This post would not be complete without a begrudging nod to the album “Hooked on Classics”, created and performed in the 1980’s by Louis Clark and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  “Hooked” is a mash-up of familiar classical pieces, attached to an annoyingly robotic drum track.  It’s a ten-minute audio nightmare for anyone who truly respects the genre.  Remarkably, the title track made it to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1982 (alongside Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”).  If you must listen, go here.

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My campaign for the survival of classical music stems from years of childhood piano lessons, including a teacher who demanded strict adherence to the genre.  Thus I didn’t practice “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “Frere Jacques”, but rather Bach’s “Solfeggietto”, Beethoven’s “Ecossaises”, and Albert Ellmenreich’s “The Spinning Song”.

Listen carefully the next time you’re at the movies.  Lend an ear to the classical strains of an orchestra or philharmonic.  Flip the radio dial to something instrumental every now and then.  Classical music lives, and still deserves a prominent place among the music genres.

Some Kind of Wonderful

I was skimming the headlines yesterday when I noticed Anne Hathaway paying tribute to director Garry Marshall for her acting breakthrough in The Princess Diaries movies. Then I realized the tribute was because Marshall had died recently, at 81 from pneumonia. Something about Marshall resonated with me but I couldn’t put my finger on it (okay, I may have watched the Diary movies with my daughter). When I checked his credits it made more sense. I’ve been drawn to Marshall’s work longer than I ever realized.  This guy was prolific.

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In the 1980’s, a burst of coming-of-age films hit the big screen.  Today they’d still be considered cult-classics. I was particularly drawn to Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Pretty In Pink (1986), and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). The characters were about my age and dealing with the kind of teenage angst I could really relate to. As it turns out, John Hughes wrote every single one of these movies.  He also wrote one of my all-time favorites (still to this day): Some Kind of Wonderful (1987). If you’re a guy and you’ve seen the movie perhaps you made the same connection.  Like Eric Stoltz’s character I was madly in love with Lea Thompson, until I realized I was really in love with Mary Stuart Masterson.

In my obsession with John Hughes (and director Howard Deutch), apparently I overlooked Garry Marshall.  Marshall entered my life early with The Lucy Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Odd Couple in the mid-’70’s.  My brothers and I watched what my dad wanted to watch in those days, so Marshall gets the credit for some fond father-son memories side-by-side on the family room couch.

By the early ’80’s Marshall had moved on to Mork & Mindy, Laverne & Shirley, and Happy Days.  I’m sure I didn’t miss many episodes (and I can still hum the theme songs).  Along with The Brady Bunch those were my go-to shows.  Bit of trivia: Garry Marshall directed his sister Penny Marshall to fame in Laverne & Shirley.

Marshall solidified his influence on my life when he directed Pretty Woman in 1990.  I was so taken by the movie in fact, that I mimicked a few scenes for my wife’s birthday a few years later.  I woke her up with a handful of hundred-dollar bills, told her to go out and buy a nice dress for dinner; then showed up later in a limousine, standing through the sunroof in a tux with a bouquet of flowers.  It was fun to play the part, but alas I am no Richard Gere.

Trivia again: Garry Marshall played a small role as a tour guide in Pretty Woman.

My wife and I took a chance on the movie Mother’s Day this past May – a light comedy with Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis (and Pretty Woman star Julia Roberts).  Was it a great movie?  No.  But as it turns out it was the last film directed by Garry Marshall.  That little fact gave the movie more substance.  With Mother’s Day, Marshall managed to give me more than fifty years of television and movie memories.

Rest in peace Garry.  Thanks for so many kinds of wonderful.