Winter Movie Review: “North to Alaska”

This may be news to you but “winter” is a genre of film and I’ve made a good case to support this (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/your-guide-to-winter-movies/). Here’s a review of another favourite winter movie.

“North to Alaska” (1960) 

Starring John Wayne, Stewart Granger, Capucine, Ernie Kovacs, Fabian and Mickey Shaughnessey. Directed by Henry Hathaway. From 20th-Century Fox

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Alaska had recently become the 50th state and that figured prominently in the advertising.

In Nome at the turn of the last century, Sam McCord and George Pratt are partners who have just struck it rich. Now George can send for his beloved Jenny. George sends Sam to Seattle to get her and Sam finds her but she has forgotten about George and has married someone else. Before Sam heads back to Alaska to give George the bad news, he runs into “Angel”, a working girl at the Hen House. Angel is pretty and French – just like Jenny – so Sam decides to bring her back for George. However Cupid, as he often does, has other ideas. Throw in a scheming sharpie casino owner, some claim-jumping varmints and a few outrageous brawls and you’ve got an entertaining and colourful yarn.

Right off the top I have to admit that there is no snow to be seen in “North to Alaska” so it has become a winter movie somewhat by default – it takes place in Alaska. Like other winter movies that do feature snow, though, it’s the charm of the places these people spend their time that give it a winter feeling. The cabins and the shacks, the fires and just the comfortable places that people can make for themselves amongst the uncomfortable terrain. Scenic locations Point Mugu and Mammoth Mountain in California stand in for Alaska and make for some pretty scenery. The muddy main street of town adds a lot to the realism and the film in general has a great ‘look’.

“North to Alaska” is a comedy. I still think it’s a little hard to believe that Wayne did full-on comedies but he did and he did them well. The comedy in this film is quite broad; maybe too broad. This can mostly be seen in the brawls – they are outlandish, over-the-top and played for laughs. I call this the “”McLintock!” Factor”; that film of Wayne’s also features an elaborate fight. Thing is, “North to Alaska” came out 3 years before both “McLintock!” and “Donovan’s Reef”, films that both feature comedic fights. So, I guess it’s the “Alaska Factor”.

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Fabian, Wayne and Granger engage in the original “muddy brawl” while Capucine looks on. Wayne’s face here displays his natural charismatic personality.

There are some things that are charming about this broad comedy, though. The acting, for one. It is really quite good. I was particularly impressed with Capucine as Michelle/Angel. She had most of the heavy lifting where character evolution is concerned and she pulls it off nicely. As I’ve said, Wayne is very watchable in a comedic role – “Timberrr!!” – and Fabian may overact a bit but he is playing a wide-eyed 17-year-old. Stewart Granger has much charisma but his accent seems too refined for the role.

The other thing that stands out is the plot point of “Angel” being transformed from prostitute back to “Michelle”; she is a woman who wants to make herself a new life. Sam is taken with her immediately and he helps to legitimize Michelle. It is a really endearing part of this screenplay. You’ll notice when Sam takes Michelle to meet his Swedish friends, they are right away disgusted that Sam has brought a ‘hussy’ to their picnic. When he stands up to them and says he is leaving, they come around and welcome Michelle into the festivities. Sam vouches for her and they accept her. Only a few minutes after this, a boat captain remarks that Michelle has been a pleasure to have aboard as she is very “ladylike”. Michelle is legit now. This change is important to her and she wants to make it stick.

The movie is very charming and brimming with zest and character. It’s loads of fun and I can highly recommend it.

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Winter Movie Review: “Valley of the Dolls”

This may be news to you but “winter” is a genre of film and I’ve made a good case to support this (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/your-guide-to-winter-movies/). Here’s a review of another favourite winter movie.

“Valley of the Dolls” (1967)

Starring Patty Duke, Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate, Paul Burke, Susan Hayward, Tony Scotti and Martin Milner. Directed by Mark Robson. From 20th Century Fox.

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The film was marketed as salacious and sensational.

Now, I know what you’re thinking and – partly – you’re right. But let me explain. I have always said “I’m a fan. Not a critic”. Bruce Kirkland used to review movies for the Toronto Sun back in the day and he used to infuriate me. Because he was a movie critic. Critic. His job, by definition, was to analyze films and point out their strengths and weaknesses based on his experience and his abilities. But he still bugged me because he never said things like “this is a bad film. But I like it!” – which, of course, a movie reviewer would never say. Their job is to critique and not to gush.

MY job, however, is to gush. I think the main reason I enjoy movies is because of the escape they provide me and classic movies are all the better because, in addition, I enjoy them as a window on the past. I remember watching James Bond movies in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s and saying “why has he stopped off in the Bahamas? Why is he there? What actually is happening?!”. I didn’t care about the plots – I was drinking in the “Bond-ness”. Same with my Falcon movies of the 1940’s – not really following the plot but man, look at that apartment and look at what he’s wearing! I love movies (and music and books) for what I “get” from them. They give me things just by being – not by being good.

Which leads me to “guilty pleasures”. Things you know may be of poor quality but you love them. Beach Party movies, elevator music, the Montreal Canadiens – things you can’t defend. Perhaps the guiltiest of all guilty pleasures is “Valley of the Dolls” from 20th Century-Fox in 1967. This film has gained a reputation as one of the ‘worst’ films in history. It’s outlandish dialogue and acting and it’s over-the-top soap opera plot have garnered it many bad reviews, parodies, one bad ‘sequel’ and the disdain of the critics. As often happens, though, at the same time this movie has gained a faithful following of ardent fans who love it. Most of them say that it’s so bad, it’s wonderful and they love it although they know it’s ridiculous. I can see their point and I tend to agree but every time I watch this movie I come away saying that there is some real depth in the story it tells and it really packs a lot of entertainment value.

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The tragic Sharon Tate as the tragic Jennifer North, Canadian Barbara Parkins as Anne Welles and Patty Duke as wicked Neely O’Hara.

The story tracks the lives and careers of three women: Neely O’Hara (Duke), Anne Welles, (Canadian Parkins) and Jennifer North (Tate). Their lives are a series of ups and downs, successes and failures, men and ‘dolls’ – the prescription drugs that they all indulge in to varying degrees. Neely starts out as an ingenue in a Broadway musical. She has genuine talent – and that scares the show’s star, Helen Lawson (Hayward), who has Neely fired. Neely is consoled by her husband, Mel (Milner), who is beginning to think that a successful career means more to Neely than he does. Indeed, it does and Neely begins to alienate Mel by throwing herself into becoming a star while growing ever more dependent on barbiturates and the like. Anne is a quiet, small town New England beauty who wants to experience life on her own before settling down with her childhood sweetheart. It is a picturesque winter day when she boards the train for New York, saying farewell to her youth and pivoting toward adulthood and a secretarial job for a high-powered Broadway agent. Jennifer is an actress of astounding beauty and negligible acting abilities. While she is a down-to-earth girl, she realizes that her physical appearance is all she has to ensure her the work and the paychecks that will keep her – and her family back home – alive. Neely ends up a major star who becomes self-centered and obnoxious and she eventually has to enter a clinic to kick her drug addiction. Anne is discovered by a cosmetics mogul and becomes successful and wealthy as the model for his line. She becomes the “Gillian Girl”. She falls for Lyon Burke (Paul Burke), another agent in her office, who won’t marry her and eventually breaks her heart, driving her into drug-fueled depression. Jennifer catches the eye of singer Tony Polar (Scotti) and they marry. Tony is stricken with a terrible disease that incapacitates him both mentally and physically and lands him in an expensive clinic. To pay the bills, Jennifer makes the tough decision to denigrate herself by making “art” films in Paris. Her eventual demise is heartbreaking.

Tales of the production and legacy of this film are legion. I will only skim the surface here and suggest you read up on it yourself. I can also highly recommend the novel this film is based on by Jacqueline Susann but keep in mind that drastic changes were made to the story resulting in Susann’s ire. Judy Garland was originally cast as Helen Lawson – an inspired choice – but Garland was in such rough shape at the time – herself a victim of ‘dolls’ – that she was fired soon after production began. There are reports, however, that the director of the film, Canadian Mark Robson (“Peyton Place”), was particularly hard on Garland. The soundtrack for this film is an absolute gem. I do admit, though, that sometimes I love a movie’s soundtrack because the songs bring to mind the scenes of the film that I remember fondly and sometimes I’m blind – or “deaf” – to the songs’ lack of quality. The songs that are performed in this film were written by the great Andre Previn and his wife, Dory. The title track is excellent. It is performed in the film by Dionne Warwick. Dory’s lyric asks a series of questions and reveals a sense of loss and confusion. They speak of living a roller coaster existence and a desire to “get off of this merry-go-round”. As the film progresses, the lyrics are deftly changed to reflect Anne’s story arc. When things start to get heavy for her, the lyrics change to: “When will I learn? Where will I find what is real?”. And when she hits rock bottom: “Have to get off from this ride, need to get hold of my pride…how was I lost in this game? How will I think of my name? When did I stop feeling sure, feeling safe…?”. It’s an excellent technique; like a Greek chorus. Singer Tony Scotti – the only performer in the film not dubbed – performs “Come Live With Me”. It is a stunning song that has a haunting, dramatic quality that had me searching for a copy for years. The song is used to reflect the action at different key points in Jennifer’s story arc. The score itself was done by John Williams. Yes, that John Williams. The composer of the themes for the “Star Wars” films, the “Indiana Jones” films, “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” has been nominated for 50 Academy Awards (second-best to Walt Disney). His score for “Valley of the Dolls” gave him his first Oscar nom. Check for a hidden lounge music gem on the soundtrack called “Chance Meeting”. It’s delightful.

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The historic Samuel Jarvis House in Redding, Connecticut stood in for Anne’s family home in the fictional town of Lawrenceville.

Here’s the thing that “grounds” this film, the thing that draws me to it every January. The aspect of winter comes in to play in a very significant way in this story. I don’t know if the writers intended it this way but this is what I get from it. As I’ve said, Anne Welles comes from a rural New England town, a town that has known many crippling winters. Her life before she heads for the city is briefly shown to be one of family and home. We see her at home in the winter with her mother and her aunt. The very day she gets on the train to leave town it is snowing. From her window, she looks out upon the Norman Rockwell landscape that has made up the total of her safe childhood and teenage years. Her dreams lead her to New York City and from there she ends up in sunny California. It seems to me that this is the basis of every success story you’ve ever heard; no matter where someone has come from, the goal, the peak, the end of the rainbow is somewhere warm. With sunshine, beaches, ocean. And here in the Golden State is where Anne becomes successful and wealthy, yes. But here is where she also loses her way, becomes unhappy and addicted to ‘dolls’. Lyon has broken her heart, her friends have betrayed and abandoned her, and she is spiraling out of control. During a scene she has alone in her beach house, she finally throws the pill bottle away and runs to the ocean. It’s a scene that may not be acted the best and is ridiculed a lot but it is also a scene that shows her hitting rock bottom and desiring to be cleansed in the waters of the Pacific. But that is not enough for her. She needs to reset, to get her bearings again. She needs healing. This, for her, can only be found in one place. To really make things right, she goes home. Home where it’s full-on winter. Winter. A time when we are forced to turn inward. A time of the mind and soul as opposed to the hedonistic pleasures of the flesh to be found in the sun and sand. A time when there are fewer distractions, less to do and when there is more time to be spent looking at ourselves, and reevaluating the way we live. To me, that speaks to the idea that winter can represent comfort and home, memories of childhood, of family and a wholesome, safe lifestyle. To me, it’s an intriguing and sensitive theme to show up in a film like this. During Anne’s redemption, a time when she is battered and bruised but still willing and able to take another crack at life, the title track is sung once more. This time the lyrics speak of a dawning realization. An epiphany inextricably tied to the restorative powers of the winter:

“Got to be here, have to be where I belong…came to know where I went wrong. It was all here, why was I blind to it then? This is my world…this is where I’ll start again.” (italics mine)

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Anne – looking terribly glamorous for a hick town – survives life and hits the reset button.

As a side note, I researched the filming locations for this film and found that Anne’s house in “Lawrenceville” is actually the Samuel Jarvis house in the picturesque and historic town of Redding, Connecticut. The house dates from the 1790’s. I got some help on this from the fine folks at the Redding Historical Society.

Bottom line is the film is tons of fun. I suggest you check it out.

 

Your Guide to Winter Movies

I find that my viewing and listening habits are quite often tied to the calendar. I gravitate to certain movies and types of music depending on what time of year it is. For instance, springtime always makes me want to listen to oldies or Huey Lewis and the News. In the summer, I want to watch Beach Party movies. It comes down to wanting what I’m watching, listening to or reading to compliment the time of year. I find I simply get more ‘out of’ jazz in the fall, for example. I don’t always like to lock myself down to this sort of thing (it’s November. You must watch James Bond movies!) but then again I can’t deny that I do enjoy certain things more at certain times.

Every winter time, there are many things I find I turn to for entertainment. A lot of these things come from personal experience and history. Western movies, for example, are not specifically tied to the winter but for me they are. During the winter of 2003-4, I came down with double environmental pneumonia and spent a lot of time in bed. So, I watched movies and, not wanting to get up and change the movie for a long time, I chose one of the longest movies I owned at the time, “The Alamo”. Ever since then, I feel like watching westerns in the winter. I’ve also found that there are a handful of movies I love that happen to take place in the winter. I really enjoy watching these in January and February and here’s the main reason why. When my family and I are ‘suffering’ through a cold, snowy winter, I feel the need to watch other people struggling, too. I like to see how other people cope. It makes me feel like I’m not alone. Watching certain movies shows me you can still have fun in the winter, get in adventures, dress sharp and not only survive your environment but master it, as well. In addition, most ‘winter movies’ just don’t go down the same in the dead of summer. Sometimes it seems flat out wrong. There are also a handful of movies I enjoy during winter because they depict characters who escape inclement weather and head to sunny climes. These are a bit of a cheat, though, as the bulk of the movie generally takes place in the sun but it’s still enjoyable to see people do what you’d like to do – jump in the car and escape to the sunny south. So, January and February become a cozy, hide-in-the-basement season, watching hockey and winter movies. What follows is basically a guide to some of the best movies to enjoy during the first two frigid months of the year. I’ve sort of ranked them in terms of their ‘essential winter viewing’ status.

“THE PINK PANTHER” (1964) The glory of this film perhaps has become skewed over the years due to the sequels and their depiction of the forever bumbling French Detective Jacques Clouseau. Throughout the ’70’s, Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers made these films in a forever broadening slapstick style, with the outrageously inept Clouseau being continually surprise-attacked by his sidekick, Kato. But the original film was quite different. The first installment was actually planned as the first of a series of films featuring the adventures of Sir Charles Litton, the famous cat burglar, portrayed by David Niven. The unbilled star of this film, though, is Cortina d’Ampezzo, a tiny ski town in the Italian Alps. Most of the movie takes place here and the scenery is gorgeous. Instead of slapstick, this first installment of the series is a straight-up cocktail movie. Apres ski, as they say. Great shots of the mountains and skiing, dreamy scenes by the fire with Henry Mancini’s gorgeous soundtrack playing, and great looking men and women in sweaters. I always say when I watch this movie: “If it has to be winter, why can’t it be Cortina?”

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“VALLEY OF THE DOLLS” (1967) Perhaps the guiltiest of all guilty pleasures, this film has gained a reputation as one of the ‘worst’ films in history. It’s outlandish dialogue and over the top soap opera plot have garnered it many bad reviews, parodies, one bad ‘sequel’ and the disdain of the critics. As often happens, though, at the same time this movie has gained a faithful following of ardent fans who love it. Most of them say that it’s so bad it’s wonderful and they love it although they know it’s ridiculous. I can see their point and I tend to agree but every time I watch this movie I come away saying that there is some real depth in the story it tells and it really packs a lot of entertainment value. Quickly, the story tracks the lives and careers of three women. Their ups and downs, successes and failures, their men and their ‘dolls’ – the prescription drugs that they all indulge in to varying degrees. The winter aspect comes in to play in a very significant way. One of the girls, Anne Welles, is depicted as coming from a rural New England home, a home that has known many crippling winters. Her dreams lead her to New York City and from there she ends up in sunny California, successful, wealthy but unhappy and addicted to ‘dolls’. Here’s the thing: to ‘cleanse’ herself and reset her life, she goes home. Home where it’s full-on winter and to me that speaks to the idea that winter can represent comfort and home, childhood, family and a wholesome, safe lifestyle. To me, it’s an intriguing and sensitive theme to show up in a film like this. As a side note, I researched the filming locations for this film and found that Anne’s house in “Lawrenceville” is actually the Samuel Jarvis house in the pictuesque historic town of Redding, Connecticut. The house dates from the 1790’s. I got some help on this from the fine folks at the Redding Historical Society.

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“BEAUTIFUL GIRLS” (1996) A rural “Swingers”, this movie, of all the movies I’ve loved in my life, is the only movie I’ve ever watched for the first time, then rewound and watched again. The late Ted Demme (nephew of director Jonathan Demme who directed “The Silence of the Lambs”) directed this story of a group of friends navigating the pitfalls of adulthood in small town Minnesota in February. As I said in my opening, here’s a great example of a depiction of characters coping well with winter weather. Some of the boys run a landscaping business so falling snowflakes means going to work with the plows. They hang out indoors – even engage in some video game hockey a la “Swingers” – and bundle up and spend some guy time in an ice fishing hut.  A great wintertime location shoot combines with a great cast here. Matt Dillon, Timothy Hutton, Lauren Holly, Rosie O’Donnell, Mira Sorvino, Natalie Portman, Michael Rapaport, Uma Thurman, Sam Robards and David Arquette. Great movie. Funny.

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“GRUMPY OLD MEN” (1993)  A delightful comedy for the whole family. Pretty much. Aimed at the senior citizen set, this film stars legendary film actors Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, Buck Henry and Ossie Davis as senior citizens coping with getting older and being alone in the fictional town of Wabasha, Minnesota. This film is wonderful on so many levels not the least of which is the delightful Jack Lemmon wearing nice thick sweaters and relaxing in his ice fishing shack. A great story with charming characters and another depiction of people living happily in the snow during the winter. And not only are they surviving the winter but they are enjoying it. There’s just something comforting about watching people put on a toque and mitts and shoveling out their vehicles. And this is another film on this list that makes ice fishing look awfully nice.

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“NOBODY’S FOOL” (1994)  The legendary Paul Newman garnered yet another Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Sully, a “spry ne’er-do-well” living in snowy North Bath, New York. This is a film of the highest quality with a good cast including Melanie Griffith and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Also stars Jessica Tandy who passed away before this film was released and also an uncredited Bruce Willis. This was at the time in his career when Bruce was reinventing the ‘cameo’ and working without a credit was something he did a couple of times at this junction. He was not involved in the promotion for this film due to his action star status. It’s R rated, this film, and I must admit that winter does not play a major role here but again it’s cold and snowy and that makes for good watching when it’s 40 below.

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“DEATH HUNT” (1981) A renowned film that most guys of a certain generation have seen and have fond memories of. Charles Bronson heads up a great cast and portrays Albert Johnson – “The Mad Trapper” – a real-life Canadian fugitive who was hunted by the Canadian Mounties in the early 1930’s. Filmed partly in Alberta, this film – like “Nobody’s Fool” – is of the highest quality. The film, also, is a great depiction of life in the ‘Yukon’: the dogsleds, the mountains, the cabins, the barren wastelands. Also starring Lee Marvin, Carl Weathers, Angie Dickinson and Andrew Stevens.

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“THIN ICE” (1937)/”HIT THE ICE” (1943)/”LOST IN ALASKA” (1952) Here’s a great classic movie triple feature, perfect for snowy afternoons. “Thin Ice” is a charming film starring Olympic skater, Sonja Henie and handsome Tyrone Power. Lili is a skating instructor in the Alps and starts hitting the slopes with Prince Rudolph who is traveling incognito! “Hit the Ice” is a vehicle for the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. In this film, the boys get mixed up with some bank robbers and flee to a lovely mountain resort. Costello saves the day by becoming a human snowball! And then Abbott and Costello are back and they are “Lost in Alaska”. In this episode, they team up with a gold prospector to help him get his girl back. All the family friendly laughs center around the frozen north: igloos, polar bears, avalanches, the works

“NORTH TO ALASKA” (1960)/”THE FAR COUNTRY” (1954) Here’s a couple of great films from mid-century that have similar Technicolor looks to them. Both take place in the Yukon. “North to Alaska”, really, doesn’t have a lot of snow on display despite some scenes shot in the Yukon. The plot does deal with some gold mining and life in general at the top of the globe. The film itself is excellent. John Wayne stars and is surrounded by a fine cast featuring Stewart Granger, Capucine, Ernie Kovacs and Fabian. “The Far Country” also stars a Hollywood legend, James Stewart. Shot partially in Alberta, it is another great story of the gold rush. Stewart drives a herd of cattle up to Dawson and ends up in the gold business. Although he tries hard not to, he gets in deep trying to purge a town of corruption and lawlessness. Some great scenery, some romantic entanglements and another quality film.

“SKI PARTY” (1965)/”WINTER A-GO-GO” (1965) Here’s two for fans of the wonderfully corny beach party movies. In these two, the gang leaves the beaches of Malibu for the snowy mountain slopes. “Ski Party” features the gang from the actual beach party movies from American International Studios. Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman star as guys who go undercover in an effort to figure out the opposite sex, represented here by Deborah Walley and Yvonne Craig. All this lunacy takes place on the slopes of gorgeous Sun Valley, Idaho. Great scenery – indoors and outdoors – some actual comedy, mostly supplied by Aron Kincaid, and a couple great songs. James Brown and His Famous Flames make an appearance in what I’m sure are the whitest surroundings they ever performed in. You should watch just to see the Godfather of Soul’s legs move. “Winter a-Go-Go” is just as dumb and just as delightful. It stars James Stacy and William Wellman, Jr. as two good looking young guys who inherit a ski lodge in Heavenly Valley (actually Lake Tahoe and El Dorado National Forest in eastern California) and stock it with a bunch of hotties. Some good skiing sequences and lots of great sweaters. Musical acts include the Nooney Rickett Four (love that name). And keep an eye out for Paul Gleason among the extras. He’s young here but you’ll recognize him from his role as the mean teacher Mr. Vernon in “The Breakfast Club”and Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson in “Die Hard”. Cute film that actually ends with a wedding; rare for one of these teenybopper movies.

“GIRL HAPPY” (1965)/”WHERE THE BOYS ARE” (1960) We wrap up the list with a couple of cheaters. These two films actually represent an entirely different sub-genre that require their own post: the ‘escape movie’. By that I don’t mean prison escape, like “Shawshank” or “Escape from Alcatraz” but films that portray characters escaping the winter and inclement weather. These movies are great to watch late in February when winter is nearing it’s end and you’re ready to leave the snow behind and pivot towards the spring. Here’s two pleasant and simple escape movies. “Girl Happy” is one of the better Elvis Presley movies, one of three he made with his favourite co-star Shelley Fabares. This is the only King Movie in which you see snow (in fact, there’s only four or five of Elvis’ movies that show inclement weather at all). Elvis plays Rusty Wells and he and his buds (including Gary Crosby, Bing’s son) leave snowy Chicago and head to Fort Lauderdale to keep an eye on Shelley, a gangster’s daughter. Some great scenes here in whatever is passing for Fort Lauderdale and – like most of Presley’s films – this is an easy-going, fun watch. Ditto “Where the Boys Are”. There’s a little more meat to this plot as a group of kids head to Fort Lauderdale and learn hard lessons about sex – consensual and not so much – and making the move to adulthood. This film begins with our pretty female co-eds Dolores Hart, Paula Prentiss, Yvette Mimieux and Connie Stevens struggling to get to class in a blizzard. They all agree to take Connie’s car and escape for Easter Break in Florida. While there, they run into an amorous trio of guys played engagingly by George Hamilton, Jim Hutton and Frank Gorshin. Unlike “Girl Happy”, here we see some great locations in actual Fort Lauderdale including the famous Elbo Room, a bar that still exists. There’s something really delightful in watching people do what you’d sometimes like to do; go from battling the wind and snow of a fierce winter and get in your car and drive south. “Where the Boys Are” provides that and also throws in a lovely, coming-of-age story.

Like Bing Crosby said: “looks like a cold, cold winter”. So, head to the basement and light up a nice, smelly candle and escape with one of these cozy, fireside treats.