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A spy thriller without the thrills

The chances that World War II soldier Max Vatan (Brad Pitt: The Big Short) will survive his next mission are slim. He’ll be assassinating the German ambassador in Casablanca in a very public attack. Working with him is Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard: It’s Only the End of the World), a French resis­tance fighter.
    The heat, the adrenaline and their own attractiveness bring Max and Marianne together. After a steamy affair and a successful mission, Max proposes, bringing Marianne to England.
    By 1942, Max, Marianne and their small daughter seem to be living happily ever after in London, despite the German blitz. Until Marianne is flagged as a possible German spy.
    Now Max must prove her innocent — or execute her — all in 48 hours.
    Allied is a spy thriller without the thrills. The main problem is the relationship between Max and Marianne. How can two talented and attractive actors have so little chemistry? Their lack of sexual tension leaves you wondering why Max would marry Marianne, let alone risk treason to prove her innocence.
    Pitt’s bizarre acting has him looking stiff and uncomfortable. When he’s not speaking, he strikes a pose and holds it until it’s his turn to talk.
    Direction by legendary Robert Zemeckis (The Walk) guarantees that the film will look good. With lush costumes, sweeping camera work and expensive sets, he doesn’t disappoint. But by vacillating between dramatic scenes, harrowing action and broad comedy, he loses control of tone and tension. You watch not knowing if you’re supposed to laugh or be horrified.
    Beautiful, it is, but weak on story and acting.

Fair Spy Thriller • R • 124 mins.

Not all Christmas trees are equal

Not all evergreen trees are equally fire-resistant. The Douglas fir is the most fire-resistant tree, while the popular Fraser fir is the most combustible. Freshness has nothing to do with this comparison. Douglas fir is a low-resin tree, while Fraser fir is a high-resin tree. As the tree dries, the resin becomes highly combustible.
    Assuring that your Christmas tree is a fire-safe tree begins with selecting the right tree. The State of Maryland fire marshal has declared that the most fire-resistant species are Douglas fir, Colorado spruce and Scots pine. This conclusion is based on studies conducted in 1995 and 1996, using fresh-cut trees stored in water prior to igniting.
    Your next consideration after species should be freshness. The sooner after cutting you purchase that tree — if you care for it properly — the more fire-resistant it will be. For the freshest Christmas trees, buy locally from a Christmas tree grower’s lot. Or cut your own. Otherwise, you could be buying an imported tree cut in November or even late October.
    As soon as you purchase the tree, cut at least one inch from the base of the trunk and dunk the stem immediately into a pail of 100-degree water. Store the tree in a shaded area.
    When you bring the tree indoors, cut off another inch of from the base, and place the stem into a clean tree stand that will hold at least one gallon of water. Adding floral preservative to the water assures a longer shelf-life, which makes the tree more fire-resistant — providing you always maintain a constant water level.
    Avoid placing the tree near a heat register or radiator, and use only UL-approved lights in good condition. Never leave a lighted tree without supervision. Finally, don’t extend your holiday too long. If you wait for the tree to start dropping needles before removing it from your home, you’re housing a fire hazard.


Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Our best family night at the theater — ever

Anight at the theater — or anywhere, for that matter — is always an adventure when you have children in tow. A few weeks ago, our family of four attended a musical production in Baltimore that left me wondering if I had made a big mistake thinking my sons would enjoy the theater.
    Dad slept through the whole thing, the younger said there was too much singing, and the elder commented all the way through, despite my insistent hushing.
    So when we were invited to see Twin Beach Players’ holiday production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever in North Beach, I was hesitant.
    Turns out I had no reason to worry. This was a performance crafted especially for the younger set.
    The boys began way more interested in the snack selection than the production to come. But once we were seated in our second row spots (they thought being so close to the stage was super-cool), their eyes were glued to the action.
    That revolves around a typical small-town Protestant church recreation of the nativity, complete with baby angels, shepherds in bathrobes and Mary and Joseph at the manger. This particular church, however, gets shaken to its core by the arrival of the Herdman children, a group of juvenile delinquents who terrorize and bully everyone they meet.
    The boys noted that it was “very meta. A Christmas play about a Christmas play.”
    They enjoyed watching the kid actors running around the stage during a faux fire in a type of Freleng Door Gag.
     “It was pretty nice,” says Jonah, the 12-year-old. “My favorite part was all the Herdmans — those are the naughty kids — discussing how they are going to change the church’s Christmas pageant. I can’t believe what they wanted the Wise Men to bring to the baby Jesus.”
    The entire cast did a delightful job bringing this hilarious story to life.
    I totally related to the stressed-out mom, Mrs. Bradley, played by Terri McKinstry, who is stretched thin trying to wrangle this production into something just short of organized chaos. Then I remembered … I was Mrs. Bradley! During my high school years, I portrayed this very woman in our own church performance of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. I wore my mom’s corduroy jumper in that role. McKinstry was much more believable in the role.
    Elle VanBuskirk, playing the lead role of Beth Bradley, was composed, engaging and quite professional. It wasn’t till the show was almost over (a speedy two hours with one intermission) that we realized that the remarkable actress portraying the manipulative and cunning Imogene Herdman was VanBuskirk’s sister Emma. These two actresses were standout performers; we expect to see them in lead roles in many future shows.
    Son Jordan, eight, had his own favorite. “The girl who plays Gladys (Melly Byram) stole the show,” he says.
    He gave the production a hearty thumbs-up, his favorite ranking system.
    “I give it 4.8 stars,” he said. “I think people of all ages should see it, but it was very funny and especially good for children. And they should call it Revenge at Bethlehem, like the Herdmans suggested.”
    Jordan was also happy that there was very little singing … until the end, when he glared at me as the cast sang Christmas carols. I had promised him it was not a musical.
    “I gave it 4.5 stars,” Jonah said. “It was a little slow in parts but it was pretty good overall. It made me feel like I should look at people a bit differently in the future. We shouldn’t judge kids who act bad or are messy.”
    Thanks, Twin Beach Players, for opening his eyes — and for showing me that there is plenty of room in the theater for kids.


Fri. Dec. 2 & Sat. Dec. 3 7pm; Sun. Dec. 4, 3pm, Boys and Girls Club, North Beach, $15 w/discounts, rsvp: ­www.twinbeachplayers.com.

Santa down the chimney, pests at the door

To give Santa a friendly welcome, have your chimney swept before he slides down on Christmas Eve.
    Other seasonal visitors to your home are likely to evoke less hospitable greetings. For as the chill comes on, creatures come in. Mice, for example. And the creatures that like to eat mice.
    There’s not much you can do to keep out a determined mouse. Mice can squeeze through the smallest of openings, gaps you never imagined and will likely never find. They’ll be happily active in the warmth of your home and will likely set up housekeeping before you notice them. Even if one doesn’t run over your foot, there will be signs: chewed linens in tightly packed drawers and, alas, tiny mouse turds.
    How to get rid of them?
    If your cats are anything like mine, don’t depend on them. After no luck with live traps, we’ve had to resort to spring traps. The Bay Gardener advises baiting the trap with sunflower seeds attached with a drop of glue from a glue gun.
    Winged invaders are trying to get in, too.
    Stinkbugs are much reduced by cold winters since the memorable invasion of 2011, when they came by the thousands. They derive their name from the foul odor they release when squeezed. Mostly harmless — though they do bite — they are a determined nuisance.
    Box elder bugs are also out and wanting in this time of year. With red bodies and black wings, they’re a prettier bug than the stink bug. They get their name from their favorite food, the juices of the female box elder tree, which may be covered with the bugs in early summer. Now, they want warmth. But if they come in, they’ll most likely have given up the ghost before Santa’s arrival.

Where will he be on Christmas Eve?

Santa Claus is amazing. As you’ll read in this week’s paper, he can wear many faces and be in many places, all at the same time. So you’ll have plenty of opportunity to meet with him from now to Christmas Eve. Then Santa gets down to business, and where he’ll be when is of intense interest to every girl and boy.
    It’s up to the North American Aerospace Defense Command to track his progress.
    The usual business of the North American Aerospace Defense Command is protecting the U.S. and Canada by detecting and warning of attacks from aircraft, missiles or space vehicles. On Christmas Eve, the Command also tracks Santa as he travels around the world in his sleigh.
    “Every year on December 24, 1,500 volunteers staff telephones and computers to answer calls and e-mails from children (and adults) from around the world,” www.norad.mil reports. “Live updates are provided through the NORAD Tracks Santa website (in seven languages), over telephone lines and by e-mail to keep curious children and their families informed about Santa’s whereabouts and if it’s time to get to bed.”
    Santa Tracker began accidentally in 1955, when a department store in Colorado posted NORAD’s phone number as its tracking hotline. On duty that night, Colonel Harry Shoup answered the numerous phone calls, with his team reporting Santa’s location to each one. The typo led to a tradition eagerly anticipated for over 60 years.
    The service has expanded greatly.
    “Each year, the NORAD Tracks Santa website receives nearly nine million unique visitors from more than 200 countries and territories around the world,” the Command reports. “Volunteers receive more than 140,000 calls to the NORAD Tracks Santa hotline from children around the globe.”
    Work begins in May to ensure that everything goes smoothly on the big day. On Christmas Eve, satellites, high-powered radar and jet fighters track Santa.
    Follow Santa by visiting the Santa Tracker website at www.noradsanta.org/ or get live updates through the Command’s Facebook, Twitter, You Tube or Google+ pages. There’s also a NORAD Santa Tracker app. A phone number will be listed as Santa’s big night approaches.

See this charming film about a girl who dares

Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho in her screen debut) was born to greatness. Beloved by all, she will be her people’s next chief. She returns their affection and promised to become an excellent leader.
    Still, she has a secret love: the ocean.
    More than anything, she wants to take a boat and explore the vast expanses of water that surround her island.
    But the ocean is forbidden. Not even fishermen are allowed beyond the protective coral reef that surrounds the island. Moana’s father dismisses wanderlust as the musings of a child.
    However Gramma Tala (Rachel House: Soul Mates) knows that Moana’s destiny lies in the sea. She tells Moana about the gods and the history of her people, who were great wayfinders, traveling across the ocean to discover new islands. Seeing the spirit of adventure reborn in her granddaughter, Gramma Tala believes her chosen by the water to restore the Heart of the Ocean, a sacred stone stolen by trickster demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson: Ballers).
    When the fish dry up and the island suffers, Moana sees it as a sign her Gramma was right. To return the sacred stone before her people die, she takes a small boat and her favorite pet chickento cross the reef in search of Maui and the true Heart of the Ocean.
    Spellbindingly beautiful and a lot of fun, Moana is the latest Disney princess movie to break the mold, offering little girls a get-it-done role model. Funny, smart and a hard worker, Moana is determined to save her people. You’ll find no love interest here; this film is all about a girl embracing her role as a leader.
    The film also features music from Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has a knack for clever lyrics and tailors each song to fit its singer. So you’ll be tapping your toes while watching this adventure.
    As Moana, Cravalho is a great discovery. She infuses the character with spunk, humor and kindness. The vocal star of the movie, however, is Johnson, who fills Maui with such charm and bombast that moviegoers in my screening cheered each time he arrived on screen. Johnson has long been able to command the screen, and this power transfers into animation. He is the closest Disney has come since Aladdin’s Genie to marry the public image of an actor with the character he voices.
    Gorgeous songs, great voice acting and a good story all contribute, but none so much as the film’s images. With beautifully rendered scenes on islands and the ocean, several animation styles and the reference point of Polynesian culture, the animators create a fascinating world.
    If you’ve got kids, Moana is probably on your calendar. But you don’t need kids to see this movie; it’s a fantastic step for Disney animation in both storytelling and visuals. Stay through the credits for a stinger hilarious to older viewers.

Great Animation • PG • 113 mins.

Give a little, get a lot

The vegetable gardening season does not end with the first killing frost. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, sweet corn, snap beans and lettuce may have been killed by the first frost. But if you are an avid gardener, kale, collards, peas, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and Brussels sprouts should still be growing.
    If you planted Brussels sprouts in late July or early August, you should be cutting off the tops of the plants now to force the sprouts along the stems to increase in size. Cutting off the tops stops the plant from growing taller, thus forcing them to direct their energy into growing larger sprouts.
    Follow this practice and your plants will produce nice large sprouts from bottom to top. If the tops are not cut off, you will have small sprouts at the top of the stem and large sprouts at the bottom. Most varieties of Brussels sprouts will be ready to start harvesting just before Thanksgiving.
    Peas will continue producing flowers and pods until the plants are killed by temperatures below 28 degrees. Cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower will only exhibit minimum frost damage at those temperatures. Collards, kale and spinach can tolerate even colder temperatures.
    If you sowed carrots back in July, your harvest will be sweet and tasty. There is nothing like eating freshly harvested carrots during late fall and winter months. Parsnips sowed in the spring will not be ready to harvest until mid-winter, if the ground has not frozen, or early next spring, when they will be at their best. Steamed, stir-fried or ground and blended with egg and flour, there is nothing tastier than spring-dug parsnips.
    The asparagus ferns should by now have all turned brown and be ready to cut, chopped and added to the compost bin. However, avoid composting asparagus plants with red berries clinging to the stems. Those red berries contain seeds that will germinate and quickly become a weed when you spread the compost in your garden.
    If you have not already sowed a cover crop of winter rye where tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, lettuce, snap beans grew during the summer, do it now. Winter rye is the most effective plant to absorb available nutrients in the soil, stop the soil from eroding by wind or water, prevent winter weeds from growing and help in keeping your garden soil fertile. Not all of the nutrients you applied as fertilizer or compost have been utilized by the crop you just finished growing. A cover crop will absorb those nutrients, storing them in the roots and leaves.
    Next spring when you spade or rototill the rye under, the nutrients will be released back into the soil and used by next season’s crops. The incorporation of the cover crop back into the soil helps maintain the organic matter content of your garden soil. A good garden soil should have an excess of three percent organic matter.
    Never allow your soil to remain fallow. Soils that remain fallow contribute to water pollution problems.


Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Spoiler alert: Don’t let the kids read this

Santa Claus is coming to town. Love him or hate him, he’s a fact.
    You’ll see him everywhere in the weeks ahead. If you shop at Westfield Annapolis Mall, you’ve been seeing him since the day after Veteran’s Day. With this issue, we acknowledge his inevitability. And we take a closer look at the man behind the snowy white beard.
    Santa is a man of many faces, writer Diana Dinsick tells us in this week’s feature story. Over many centuries, he’s traveled great distances — a speedy form of transportation is always part of his legend — changing with each destination to resemble the hopes and dreams of the people he visited.
    Woven into each culture’s bigger legend are our many personal stories of Santa. In looking back, I think maybe our Santa stories stay with us forever.
    My son was Santa deprived. That may account for a lot. For one thing, his children, now 15 and 16, are still believers. At least not deniers.
    “Do the kids still expect Santa?” I asked him as I contemplated my Christmas preparations.
    “They haven’t told me otherwise,” he said. “Which is pretty clever on their parts.”
    Indeed, for Santa and company are very generous to them.
    As Santa was to me.
    I was the only child of a very poor little girl, an immigrant daughter who truly found the proverbial lump of coal in her stocking. She and my father — who shared Santa’s build and liked to give gifts — did so well with their restaurant that Mother was able to give me, as she said, “everything I never had.” So Santa climbed down the chimney of our house with a very big bag of gifts.
    Yet from the chronology of photos of Sandra on Santa’s lap, I can tell that I was suspicious of that old man from the beginning. I loved the excitement of visiting Santa Land with my grandmother in our favorite department store, Famous Barr. I put out cookies and milk for Santa on Christmas Eve. But I knew in my heart that my mother was behind all those gifts, and I must have wanted her to get the credit.
    I know what I was thinking when my son’s first Christmas came along. His father and I imagined ourselves conscientious new Catholics. We were so much smarter than our parents; certainly too smart to be tied to old traditions. So Santa Claus skipped our house (which didn’t have a chimney). Our son’s Christmas gifts were moderate, and all of them came from people who loved him.
    By the second child five years later, our house had a chimney and Santa Claus put us back on his route.    Many of our values had changed over those tumultuous years. But not all. I still wanted my children to connect the gifts they received to the labor and devotion of their parents. But I also wanted fun and fantasy, imagination and infinity of possibility in their lives.
    So we put out our shoes on St. Nicholas Day — or a few days later if I’d let December 6 get by me. We rushed to the tree on Christmas morning for a bigger load of presents from Santa Claus. If we could have claimed any Jewish traditions, we’d have celebrated Chanukah, too.
    As time goes by, I’ve even grown fond of pictures with Santa. I haven’t posed for any lately, but our dog Moe did. Both he and Santa were smiling.
    Once again, Santa Claus has come to town. Read his history, recounted by Diana Dinsick, to appreciate the generosity of his beginning, the scope of his influence and remember — if you can — how much he, and the reality of celestial flight by reindeer-drawn sled, once meant to you.


Calling All Cookie Bakers

    Bay Weekly’s Cookie Exchange is set for December 15. Now’s the time to send us your holiday cookie recipes and stories: editor@bayweekly.com.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com
Plus a life in stories: www.sandraolivettimartin.com

What do these aliens want from us?

One day, they arrive. Twelve giant pods hover over major countries throughout the world. No one knows where they came from. No one saw them coming. No one knows what they want.
    Every few hours, a door opens, allowing humans to enter the spaceships. Then what? The humans are stumped on how to communicate. Figuring it out falls to Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), a trusted linguist who has helped the military translate enemy radio chatter. Her mission: learn the aliens’ language — and develop a system of communication, ASAP.
    Banks has a deadline: China and Russia promise military action if the aliens don’t state their purpose or move on. Intergalactic war will end diplomacy.
    Complicated and painstakingly filmed, Arrival continues the sci-fi tradition of examining the foibles of human nature in a broader context. These aliens are a fully developed metaphor for humanity’s fears of the unknown and how fear shapes geo­politics. If that sounds a little too heavy for a movie featuring creatures that look like a blend of squids and spiders, I promise that director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) rewards you for expending brainpower at the cinema.
    Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma) create an enthralling film. From the shape of the ships to the vast and isolating Montana backdrop, every shot is beautifully composed and styled. This world feels both familiar yet just alien enough to be unsettling. Expansive open areas contrast with cramped claustrophobic shots to ramp up tension.
    The script by Eric Heisserer (Lights Out), based on a story by Ted Chiang, picks at the ideas of destiny, time, communication and our drive to create connections. Lots of deep concepts are suggested. Still, the two-hour running time constrains their development, and Heisserer must rely on contrivance to wrap up the story. Like the classic Twilight Zone episodes written by Ray Bradbury, Arrival is both liberated and constrained by its medium.
    At the emotional core, Amy Adams is masterful. Her Louise is frightened but determined to make a connection. As she learns the alien language, she becomes more forceful. Banks discovers herself as she understands the aliens.
    An emotionally provocative sci-fi film that stimulates and rewards, Arrival is worth the price you’ll pay to see it on the big screen, where Young’s cinematography will have the most impact.

Great Sci-Fi • PG-13 • 116 mins.

Coyotes yes, bears no

The region is home to many types of animals, but not many large predators. Historically, bobcats, cougars, bears and wolves lived in Chesapeake Country.
    Coyotes are newcomers. The western species wasn’t seen in Maryland until 1972. Since then, they’ve expanded their territory to all Maryland counties. They’ve thrived in part because they don’t face much competition from other predators as we have no more of similar size.
    “The density of coyotes in Anne Arundel County is low to moderate compared to elsewhere in the state. Our highest densities are in the western counties, lowest are on the Eastern Shore,” said Peter Jayne of Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ game management program.
    Coyotes, he noted, can be mistaken for a German shepherd-type dog.
    “Except they tend to appear slenderer than most dogs. They also have a bushier tail, white outlining the mouth and a longer snout,” Jayne said.
    Bears have been increasing in Maryland over the last few decades. Mostly, they stay in Western Maryland; the closest county with full-time bear residents is Frederick County — and maybe Montgomery County.
    “We don’t get reports of bears in Anne Arundel County except on very rare occasions, maybe one every four to five years,” Jayne said. “It’s generally a young bear that wanders through and then leaves to find a more bear-friendly area. In the near term, it is unlikely a bear will stay. However, over the long term it is possible.”
    If you see either a coyote or a bear, it’s best to quietly back away and observe from a safe place. Also, once you’ve seen one, try to ensure that they are not visiting you as a food source. Secure your trash, don’t feed pets outside and temporarily stop feeding outdoor birds.