Christmas Camp (2019)

Hallmark and its contributors have dreamt up some ludicrous ideas over the years, but Christmas Camp is really out here trying to win the prize for dumbest premise. As the uninspired title suggests, the story is about a “Christmas camp,” a weeklong retreat where campers try to regain their Christmas mojo, according to one character. That’s the general goal at least, but in fact, people attend for all sorts of reasons, most of which probably aren’t best solved by spending loads of money on a one-week vacation/workshop just before the holidays.

Haley (Lily Anne Harrison) is the type of camper who could care less about Christmas. She tends to celebrate with a Caribbean getaway and a nice salmon dinner. That’s exactly the attitude her boss doesn’t want her to have, especially if Haley is going to lead the advertising pitch for a major toy company and land a promotion. Her boss suggests, demands, a stint at Christmas camp. The purpose is to help Haley generate some ideas for the toy campaign, but it also might be a ploy to get her to help out with Christmas decorations next year. Nevertheless, she goes, determined to be in and out before week’s end. Christmas camp ain’t that type of place though, and workaholic Haley discovers that the only way to get through is to slow down. It’s a hard ask but one made easier by the presence of the owner’s cutie son, Jeff (Bobby Campo).

An architect and fellow Bostonian, Jeff is helping his dad, Ben (John James), for a week. He also wants to convince Ben to trade the family home and business for a condo in the city. Christmas camp was his mom’s dream, however, and his dad is determined to carry on for as long as he can, which isn’t much longer by the look of things. The camp is losing money, something that shouldn’t be a surprise because the whole enterprise is ridiculous.

The place caters to everyone thus no one. It’s not as if all the guests share Haley’s predicament and simply hope to rediscover their love for gift giving and snow angels. Nor is it a place where Christmas-holics can come together and try every craft on their Pinterest board. Instead, it’s a hodgepodge of people and purposes, a place for therapy or recovery or instruction depending. A newly married couple, for example, are spending their first holiday together and need some very practical advice on how they can bring their two families together and still honor different traditions. Another woman feels lonely while her son is stationed abroad and just wants to revisit the place where they used to spend the holidays. Yet another guest is a divorced father, hoping to make Christmas special for his two young children. Somehow, Christmas camp satisfies all these different needs with traditional activities you can do at home without paying a thousand dollars. Maybe I’m alone here, but I’m going to feel cheated if I spend money so that someone can drive me to a volunteer gig at the shelter or tell me to write my Christmas wish on a piece of red and green paper.

It’s hard for me to see how this movie could have succeeded. Even Bobby Campo, who I could always use more of, doesn’t help the situation. There’s not much for his character to do except flirt with Haley the entire time and ignore every other guest. Harrison keeps things perky, which is nice, but her charm isn’t so great as to overcome the film’s concept.

Alt Title: Christmas Bootcamp
Released: 2019
Dir: Jeff Fisher
Writer: Karen Schaler
Cast: Lily Anne Harrison, Bobby Campo, John James, Geraldine Leer, Shadner Ifrene, Milan Williams
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2019

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Poinsettias for Christmas (2018)

I learned some important things about poinsettia care from watching a Lifetime movie, and I think about it every damn time I see my precious plant. So I guess I can’t be too hard on Poinsettias for Christmas since it’s both educational and entertaining. It also stars Bethany Joy Lenz, who has a pretty good track record when it comes to holiday movies.

Lenz plays Ellie, an urban planner who returns home when she gets an urgent call from her father (John Schneider) about their poinsettia farm. After years in the business, there’s no problem he can’t handle, at least that’s what Ellie thinks until she discovers a greenhouse full of poinsettias that haven’t changed color. That’s not a big deal in my house because I quite like the look of green poinsettias, but this is the actual nightmare scenario of Ellie’s family. Not only do they supply local schools and businesses with the colorful plants, they also provide poinsettias for the town’s Christmas parade. Failure to fill this year’s orders will destroy their reputation and business, which has been decades in the making.

When you have thousands of plants, it’s more than a matter of googling “how to change the color of poinsettia leaves,” and Ellie needs a major fix. She digs in to her vast horticultural knowledge and seeks additional help from the farm’s botanist, Sean (Marcus Rosner). She gets some useful suggestions, but she also gets a fierce rival in the form of Patty (Lauren London), her former classmate and resident mean girl. Not only is Patty dating Sean, she also wants to expand her lifestyle blogger/influencer/guru profile by purchasing the poinsettia farm. It’s shaping up to be a miserable Christmas for Ellie’s whole family.

One of the film’s surprises, besides learning plant care, was Rosner’s role as the good guy. He’s played the asshole boyfriend for so long that my brain can’t catch up with what I’m seeing. I know he’s supposed to be a legitimate love interest, but I keep waiting for him to pull a signature jerk move, like taking credit for something Ellie did or prioritizing his needs over hers. Lenz, on the other hand, is exactly what you’d expect for her character. She shifts effortlessly between a fancy city gal and a dirt-under-the-fingers country girl. She brings a certain humility to this role that I find appealing as well. Her performance lends more dimension to the usual “save the farm” plot and is a reason why this movie falls in the better half of the genre.

Released: 2018
Dir: Christie Will Wolf
Writer: Barbara Kymlicka
Cast: Bethany Joy Lenz, Marcus Rosner, Sharon Lawrence, Lauren London, John Schneider, Rhonda Dent
Time: 86 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Lifetime
Reviewed: 2019

Finding Christmas (2013)

Before there was AirBnB, there were internet home shares, and before there was Finding Christmas, there was The Holiday. While I’d opt for a questionable AirBnB over sketchier home share, I can’t see a reason to watch Finding Christmas when The Holiday (and emotional Jude Law) exists. This 2013 Hallmark movie borrows heavily from the 2006 feature film and sees two people swapping homes during the holidays, but in this story, it’s the guys who are escaping their messy love lives.

Sean (Mark Lutz) and Owen (J.T. Hodges) are both coming out of long term relationships. Sean, a busy Manhattan ad man, is about to propose to his girlfriend when she surprises him with news of her own, that she’s dumping him because he spends more time on his business’s future than on their present. Meanwhile, over in North Carolina, repairman Owen finds out that his ex-girlfriend of seven years has gotten engaged to a man she’s only dated for a few months. The two men do what any reasonable guy who’s had his heart broken just before the holidays would do, and they go online looking for someone with whom they can trade places. Sean and Owen have just what the other is looking for, and in no time at all, city mouse and country mouse are off to explore new environs.

Owen has no difficulty adjusting to life in Sean’s posh downtown loft, especially with Sean’s assistant, Mia (Cristina Rosato), making sure he’s well cared for. His biggest problem is getting his smexy neighbor, Halo (Jessica Phillips), to acknowledge him in the elevator. Sean, however, finds that country life is not quite what he expected. Rather than relaxing in a cozy retreat, he’s freezing his ass off in Owen’s unheated cabin and is mocked for his effete breakfast preferences. He’s ready to bail when Owen’s sister, Ryan (Tricia Helfer), steps in. She softens the blows, fixing the broken heater and showing him the finer points of country living.

This movie could be enjoyable if you’re not always comparing it to The Holiday. That movie has its own problems, but it also has Kate Winslet and Rufus Sewell in addition to Jude “Hot Dumbledore/Hot Pope” Law and an oddly charming Jack Black, not to mention a cute Surrey cottage. This one’s got Owen’s open mike rendition of “Joy to the World” and…a hay ride.

It’s not a fair comparison, but then again, if you’re going to rip off a popular Christmas movie, you have to make it special. Both Sean and Owen turn out to be rather boneheaded, and neither get much deeper than two dudes who just want a change of pace. Their prospective partners, on the other hand, show off a lot more personality with their limited time. Helfer’s performance as a veterinarian and single mother is the emotional core of the movie. Rosato, meanwhile, shores up the New York end of the story, and Mia’s relationship with her absent boyfriend probably deserves more attention than Owen’s misguided attempt to woo Halo.

Released: 2013
Dir: Harvey Crossland
Writer: Lee Ventura
Cast: Tricia Helfer, J.T. Hodges, Mark Lutz, Cristina Rosato, Christian Distefano, Brittany Gray, Jessica Phillips
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2019

Christmas on Honeysuckle Lane (2018)

Christmas on Honeysuckle Lane comes dripping with syrup, which is great if you like your Christmas movies sweet and gooey. Set in the handsome Silas W. Robbins House in Wethersfield, Connecticut, the story is about a woman who spends one final Christmas with her siblings at their family home before selling it. Emma (Alicia Witt) gets some holiday surprises though when she discovers a cache of her mother’s love letters and has to make a decision about her own relationship.

The letters come as a shock not because they tumble out of a hidden desk compartment but because Emma realizes they are not from her father. Instead, the correspondence is between her mother and a mysterious RJ. The revelation causes Emma to consider her parents’ marriage from a new perspective, and she wonders if it was as enduring as everyone thought it to be. As she tries to uncover the truth, she keeps the news from her younger brother, Daniel (Jordan Dean), who idolized their parents.

Emma also has to do some soul searching regarding her own relationship. The boyfriend (John Palladino) she recently broke up with, and whom her family loves, shows up to the family’s holiday celebration with certain intentions. Meanwhile, Morgan (Colin Ferguson), an antiques dealer and guy who doesn’t like the town’s signature blue wreaths, grows closer to Emma while he appraises her family’s heirlooms.

Maybe it’s the nineteenth century home that makes this movie seem a touch somber and overly serious because there’s not a lot of room in this script for Christmas joy and levity. Andie (Laura Leighton), the oldest sister, also is also troubled by her relationship with her daughter, Rumi (Ariane Rinehart), who wants to change her college major and has apparently discussed her decision with everyone except her mother. The home on Honeysuckle Lane is just the kind of place where you’d expect to find family secrets and intergenerational discord.

Witt, however, really sets the tone. She’s managed pensive and playful in the past but opts for more of the former in this part. For Emma, the sacredness of her parents’ marriage, their house, and her Christmas memories is a lot, and Witt treats it all with great solemnity. She wastes no opportunity to twist her mouth and scrunch her brow in hurt and confusion. Rather than looking like a serious adult though, she comes across a bit lost and dippy. Some might also think of it as tortured overacting, which it is, but the whole movie is a lesson in sappy melodrama, and the ending is fitting for a company that specializes in nostalgia and keepsakes.

Released: 2018
Dir: Maggie Greenwald
Writer: Caitlin D. Fryers
Cast: Alicia Witt, Colin Ferguson, Laura Leighton, Jill Larson, Mary Beth McDonough, Ariane Rinehart, Jordan Dean, Jose Ramon Rosario, John Palladino
Time: 100 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2019

The Sweeter Side of Life (2013)

The Sweeter Side of Life is an unexpected treat from Hallmark, which in recent years has fine tuned its trademark look and tone. I call it matte perfection, where everything is just so and no one element calls too much attention to itself. The characters, the story, the set all blend into one beige blob with occasional flecks of pastel to give proceedings additional life and color. It’s a kind of blandness that comes from not taking any risks, and Hallmark is great at safe and predictable. So I was a little surprised by this movie, which leans more towards a big screen comedy than say The Sweetest Heart, as lifeless a romance as any. While it won’t go on anyone’s top ten list, it’s fun and funny and moves to a different rhythm.

Love figures into the story, but it’s not the main focus. Instead, Desiree’s (Kathryn Morris) journey from socialite to local star baker is at the center. It starts though with her husband Wade’s (Stephen Hogan) affair with his acupuncturist, which leads to a divorce which leads to her being shut out from everything that matters to her. Suddenly she’s locked out of her New York penthouse, stripped of her designer wardrobe, and shunned by her shallow friends. She has no choice but to haul herself across the river back home to New Jersey.

Her father, Paddy (James Best), is more than happy to welcome her, not least because he could use an extra hand at his bakery. Desiree reluctantly puts on her old apron, wallowing in self-pity all the while because her life of gym classes and brunching has been reduced to fending off gossipy old ladies and delivering baguettes in an ancient Mini. Nevertheless, it motivates her to get back at Wade and reclaim the life she should be leading, that is until her new “paddycake” dessert starts to take off.

Anyway, who needs unfaithful friends and lovers when you have a ride or die bakery gang? The people cheering on Desiree turn out to be a lively bunch, a group full of personality and the ones who really make this film stand out. Morris has a riotous time launching into some of her character’s tantrums while still allowing Desiree to be likable in her lack of self-awareness. The supporting cast and characters, however, are just as memorable with my favorites being Eddie (Steve Varnom) and Calvin (Jerome Holder). Eddie is Desiree’s gregarious childhood friend and lawyer. I don’t know that I would trust him with any legal matters, but he manages to get things done and, more importantly, he won’t abandon the girl he kissed in the grade school boy’s bathroom. Calvin, the delivery boy with the pink scooter, I like for an entirely different reason, and that is Holder. The young actor bursts with charisma, and I can’t turn away when he’s flashing that megawatt smile. I found him just as appealing in Dough, which is also about a bakery, and I can’t wait to see him in more rolls roles.

That leaves Benny (Alastair Mackenzie), the romantic interest I almost forgot about. That’s not because he’s unexciting – quite the opposite, he’s a lovable Scottish Bill Pullman – but this romance is almost secondary. Desiree doesn’t need a new partner to affirm anything about her new life. She’s responsible for much of her own happiness. Benny just makes things that much better, which is maybe how things should be.

Released: 2013
Dir: Michael Damian
Writer: Janeen Damian, Michael Damian
Cast: Kathryn Morris, James Best, Alastair Mackenzie, Steve Varnom, Sam Douglas, Stephen Hogan, Christine Oram, Jerome Holder
Time: 81 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2019