A Bramble House Christmas (2017)

What is happening?! Why is water coming out of my eye? What is this weird feeling in my heart? Can it be…is it true? Do I like a Hallmark movie?! Curse you, shitty-movie gods, for making this sappy holiday story about a single mother and her son and a jerk of a guy who thinks she’s conned his late father into willing her a hundred grand. Off I go now to have Thanksgiving dinner with a silly grin on my face. I trust this won’t happen again.

On a network filled with movies about Christmas princes and princesses, about making eyes with the workplace Santa, and about getting stranded in a small town en route to an unfit fiancé (so many of those – ladies, stay home if you want to remain engaged after the holidays), A Bramble House Christmas stands out from the pack. Granted, our main character, Willa (Autumn Reeser), is a single mom struggling with bills and heading into the holiday season without a job. But she has also been working as a caregiver to one elderly Mr. Conrad, who dies and leaves her and her son $100,000 and a Christmas getaway to a B&B in Oregon.

His two estranged children, Finn and Molly, are not pleased; all they got was a card and some belated words of wisdom. They’re convinced that the young nurse exploited her relationship with dying dad and is now living it up on his account. When they find out she’s scored an all expenses paid vacation to Bramble House, Finn (David Haydn-Jones, or mini-John Heard) heads there to confront her and, if things go as planned, prevent her from collecting a dime.

But wait a motherloving minute because Willa is the best ever. There’s no way Finn can follow through once he meets her and sees that she’s open, honest, kind – everything he’s not – when he first storms into Bramble House all but ready to verbally assault her. He has a moment of confusion when she fumbles her way through the front desk to check him in and then cradles her son, Scout, when he comes plodding down the stairs. This can’t be the same person who willfully deceived Dad, can it?

I love Reeser’s portrayal here, maybe because she’s a good actress and maybe because 2017 is a flaming garbage heap and I just really need someone good and pure to fill the void. Willa is a fundamentally decent human, and Reeser gives her no airs. It’s been a rough few years for Willa, the reasons for which come out slowly. She tries to keep a sunny demeanor but nosy Finn is always there to intrude on her personal life. But bless this woman for trying to keep her shit together, and for the moments when she can’t. We’ve all been there and I for one have handled life with far less grace.

The story works its way towards an inevitable car crash. Finn fails on multiple occasions to tell Willa his true identity but then proceeds to earn her trust and affection and that of her son. Let’s establish that secrets and lies are never, ever a good idea. But I guess he thinks maybe he can pull it off because he’s the illustrator of Scout’s favorite book series and because he’s just a confident white dude. No matter though. Tis the season for redemption, and I want the couple to make up after they break up. Willa deserves to be happy. Plus, her little man totally wants to stay at Bramble House instead of going back to Minnesota, a plot point that draws in some supporting characters, like the control freak B&B owner and the town’s slim, youngish Santa. So there you have the people you need to make a satisfying diversion of a television Christmas movie.

Released: 2017
Dir: Steven R. Monroe
Writer: Jamie Pachino
Cast: Autumn Reeser, David Haydn-Jones, Liam Hughes, Teryl Rothery, Andrew Airlie, Bruce Dawson, Hilary Jardine, Julia Benson
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2017

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Dead Over Heels: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2017)

To be clear, I watched this movie twice – without managing to write a review because, you know, life – and I still had no idea what it was about. Google quickly reminded me it was the one where a dead body falls out of a plane, and right into Aurora’s front yard. The drama! I will say the campier these movies are, the more I tend to enjoy them, and on third viewing, I found some laughs that I hadn’t noticed before.

The body is that of Detective Burns, a stern guy with few social graces. Aurora (Candace Cameron Bure), librarian by day and Nancy Drew by, well, all the time, is totally nonplussed by his manner of death. I mean, this isn’t even the second corpse that’s appeared on her new property but the third, so this is old hat. Instead of going into shock, she goes straight into investigative mode.

There are plenty of leads for her to pursue. First is the detective’s odd behavior the night before he became a lawn ornament. Burns gave cryptic warnings to Aurora about her boyfriend, ex-CIA operative Martin Bartell (Yannick Bisson), indicating that he might be hiding a dirty past. After Burns’s death, she visits his widow, Bess (Leah Cairns), and notes her unusually calm, even sunny demeanor. Bess’s decision to immediately sell her house also raises eyebrows. Most shocking though is an attack on Lillian (Ellie Harvie), Burns’s sister-in-law and Ro’s sour boss. I don’t advocate violence, but loopy Lillian, the result of getting knocked out, is the best thing to happen to this character.

Meanwhile, the police department tries to piece itself back together. Lynn (Miranda Frigon), Ro’s sometimes rival, is named the temporary head and immediately has to deal with a contentious new officer, Pete Lambert (Jim Thorburn). Pete is one mean looking dude, and if he’s not the killer in this movie, then he’s escaped from another Hallmark mystery where he most certainly is.

Ro gets a little more help in solving this case. Martin’s visiting friend, Tim (Jeremy Guilbaut), is also ex-intelligence, and he tries to play detective too. He’s also pretty cute and makes a perfect date for Ro’s friend, Sally (Lexa Doig). But three’s a crowd, and in fact, two might be pushing it as well. Ro suspects Martin is about to propose, and it’s not the best time. The guy is so overprotective – and for once I agree with Candace Cameron Bure! Lay off, mildly attractive law enforcement guys. This is like a Murder, She Baked redux wherein an independent but admittedly reckless woman solves all the crimes but constantly has a worried man trailing her just in case. How about this, Hallmark – don’t make your female leads so careless around a crime scene.

Anyway, this relationship gets resolved, obviously. We’re too invested in Martin/Detective Murdoch to swap him for another strapping white Canadian guy. The highlight though was the trial of another couple, Lynn and Arthur (Peter Benson), Ro’s ex and also a detective on the police force. We’re used to seeing Arthur being the passive one, whether in a relationship or a murder investigation. But the elevation of his wife leads to some surprising consequences that make me enjoy watching these two far more than our other romantic pair.

Released: 2017
Dir: Terry Ingram
Writer: Shelley Evans
Cast: Candace Cameron Bure,Yannick Bisson, Marilu Henner, Lexa Doig, Miranda Frigon, Bruce Dawson, Peter Benson, Scott Lyster, Ellie Harvie, Jeremy Guilbaut, Jim Thorburn, Leah Cairns
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

Joseph: King of Dreams (2000)

This small film will never be as popular as its cousins, Prince of Egypt and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which share the same animation studio and source material, respectively. But if we’re ranking Biblical entertainment, or things I can show my Catholic school students to kill time, then this would be one of my favorites. Short and sweet and with some great music to boot, even sans Whitney and Mariah, Joseph: King of Dreams does exactly what you want it to do.

It recounts the story of Joseph from the Book of Genesis, favored son of Jacob and his wife Rachel and, of course, king of dreams. His parents lavish attention and resources on him, much to the envy of Joseph’s many brothers. Instead of working in the fields or herding sheep all day as they do, he gets to laze about, and that’s when he’s not also getting the benefit of an education. In addition, Mom sews him a fab coat, which is just too much for his brothers. They chuck him into a well and then sell him off to slavery.

In Egypt, Joseph’s intelligence earns him a place in a captain’s household. While Potiphar admires his industrious servant, his wife has other designs on the young, mostly barechested lad, and her advances land him in prison. Word of Joseph’s gift for interpreting dreams reaches Pharaoh though, which is great because he’s been having some wild nightmares about crushed cows and zombie corn. Joseph prophesizes that famine is on its way, and he is elevated to one of the most powerful positions in the land in order to manage the coming crisis. When his long lost brothers come to Egypt looking for food, he has some revenge in mind.

It’s a lot of story to tell, but there’s a lot of momentum and power in this compact plot. It packs a great emotional punch, much more so than Prince of Egypt or Technicolor Dreamcoat. I credit the music and its St. Louis Jesuits vibe. I doubt that’s what writer John Bucchino had in mind, but it will appeal to those who like 1970s-90s Catholic mass songs – and yes, I appreciate that is not everyone.

The movie opens with an exuberant number, “Miracle Child.” Joseph and his parents bang on about how he’s the best thing ever, making it easy to see why his brothers kind of hate him. But blame doesn’t settle easily on any one person. There is a lot of tenderness, mercy, and wonder too, and the song “Better Than I” demonstrates this beautifully. Joseph’s at his lowest point, figuratively and literally, and can do nothing but will his life to God. It’s a moving contrast from what he sings when he first arrives in Egypt. In “Whatever Road’s at Your Feet,” he also tries to make the best out of a bad situation, which – let’s be honest here – is slavery. The buoyant lyrics and melody speak to his self-reliance though and much less to a higher power.

There are only a few things that diminish this production. One is the unfortunate casting of Ben Affleck as Joseph. I can’t tell if the he’s congested or bored or if mopey is just an acting choice. I also didn’t care for the cheap and hasty hit job on Pharaoh’s dream sequence. There was an earlier Van Gogh-inspired one that pointed to the potential of the animation, which is still strong overall. These are minor grumbles though in a movie I’ve rewatched many times, and not even as a time filler for religion class. It’s moving, rewarding storytelling and one rich in love and forgiveness.

“Miracle Child”:

“Bloom”:

“Marketplace”:

“Whatever Road’s at Your Feet”:

“You Know Better Than I”:

“More Than You Take”:

Released: 2000
Prod: Ken Tsumura, Jeffrey Katzenberg
Dir: Rob LaDuca, Robert C. Ramirez
Writer: Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, Raymond Singer, Joe Stillman, Marshall Goldberg
Cast: Ben Affleck, David Campbell, Mark Hamill, Richard Herd, Maureen McGovern, Jodi Benson, Judith Light, James Eckhouse, Richard McGonagle
Time: 75 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

A Christmas Prince (2017)

Let me first get it out there and say that I predict star Ben Lamb, the Christmas prince, will go the way of Sam Heughan and net a career changing role, or at least I hope he does. Heughan, the faux prince in another vaunted television production, A Princess for Christmas, went on to become Jamie Fraser, prince of men, in the cult series Outlander. So let’s make this a productive pastime wherein I get to watch handsome white British dudes slumming it in bad American television before hitting it big.

I guess we will have to wait on the young Lamb though. In the meantime, how about this movie, right?! Thus kicks off my annual holiday brain-melt-a-thon in which I try to down as many soppy TV movies as my little head will allow. And I couldn’t have picked a better one to start the season. Actually I’m sure I could have, but this is what popped up on Netflix, and I didn’t feel like Mindhunter right before going to bed.

A Christmas Prince proves that a movie with a generic title and a predictable plot can still come out on top if you have the right actors and shooting location, and if your audience is within arms reach of a large bottle of vodka. Besides Lamb, who doesn’t exactly get to show off his acting skills but does get to show off his good looking skills, veteran Alice Krige tops the bill as mother to the prince. There is a royal predicament paralyzing the kingdom of Aldovia, which is apparently somewhere close to Romania. Nearly a year after the king’s death, the throne remains empty because the playboy prince, Richard (Lamb), refuses to assume his hereditary duty. The stern, grieving queen wishes her son would just get on with it, and not just for the family’s sake but to stunt the advance of her greedy nephew, who is also in the line of succession.

Yes, every family has a rat. Smarmy Simon, the Lord Duxbury (Theo Devaney), is truly a piece of work. Devaney handles it like a pro, giving his character a fantastic Roger Rees vibe (RIP, Sheriff of Rottingham/Lord John Marbury). He can’t see that everyone hates him. Or maybe he can and just doesn’t give AF because he’s determined to snatch that crown one way or another. There’s not much he can do though. He could scheme with Lady Sophia (Emma Louise Saunders), an equally insufferable aristocrat and former lover to the prince. Or he could exploit the new peasant in the palace.

Amber (Rose McIver, Keri Russell’s little sister in another life) is just your average New York girl caught up in something too big for her to handle. A reporter at some glossy rag that doesn’t respect her writing ability, she is sent off to Aldovia to cover the succession crisis. Don’t ask why a minor, parochial American magazine would invest that kind of money; we just need this plot to work. She’s not happy about leaving her widowed father alone on Christmas, but eh, he’s a jolly owner of a popular diner and she needs to chase her dreams.

When she arrives, however, there’s nothing to report because homeboy ain’t home. The reporters scatter – except for Amber, who’s not going back without some dirt, dammit. She sneaks into the palace and is mistaken for the new royal tutor, and because there’s no such thing as security in Aldovia, she assumes the role of Martha, math genius from Minnesota, and no one is the wiser. Her charge is Princess Emily (Honor Kneafsey), a sheltered girl with spina bifida who easily overcomes her dislike for the interloper when she sees that Amber treats her just like any other kid.

That is the overriding lesson in these prince/princess Christmas movies. Royals are just like us! We’re all plebs. Because as Amber finds out, Prince Richard Bevan Charlton isn’t a globetrotting playboy but just another guy who likes to chill in his dad’s hunting cabin and sunbathe on the beach. He especially dislikes public intrusion into his private life, and that’s what is holding him back from the throne. To which I say, wait ‘til he finds out who the nice tutor chick really is.

Obviously, the romance takes a turn for the worse before it ends up with a handsome prince proposing in the snow. (That is not a spoiler. If you didn’t see that coming, you are not allowed to watch these movies.) It’s sweet. McIver is cute; her character has a habit of destroying valuable works of art and she wears Converse to the first Christmas party of the season. She does, perhaps, need a refresher on journalism ethics, pronto. Lamb is also gentle and princely. The two have good chemistry. There’s horse riding and a wolf. Really, what more do you want? Go get your holidays started.

Released: 2017
Dir: Alex Zamm
Writer: Karen Schaler
Cast: Rose McIver, Ben Lamb, Alice Krige, Honor Kneafsey, Theo Devaney, Emma Louise Saunders, Tom Knight
Time: 82 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999)

When I was a kid, if your Catholic school music teacher wanted to show a Biblical themed musical, chances are you were watching Jesus Christ, Superstar. As a result, kids like me – or maybe just me – spent their childhood confused as hell about hippie Judas. There’s a wider selection these days, but Andrew Lloyd Webber is still a mainstay, and you can now opt for a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat instead.

The musical, about Joseph of the Book of Genesis, his jealous brothers, and path to forgiveness, was always family friendly. Filled with songs that borrow from an array of musical styles from country hoedown to calypso, the numbers are jaunty and even a little silly. This direct-to-video film from 1999 makes the most of that and turns Weber’s hit into a wacky aural and visual feast.

The movie is framed around a primary school production of the musical. Students are shepherded into the auditorium by their dour teachers, including Alex Jennings and Ian McNeice, who soon spring into action as the singing, dancing characters in the story. They play the major roles while the kids occasionally run amok and snake their way into the scenes.

Maria Friedman stars as the Narrator, a spunky guide who invites us into the story of Joseph and ushers us through his journey from favored son of Jacob (Richard Attenborough) with a gift for interpreting dreams to Egyptian slave cum savior. Taking on the title character is Donny Osmond, revisiting the role he brought to life in earlier stage versions. Osmond, the syrupy voiced teen pop idol turned syrupy voiced fantasy for middle aged mothers, is a fitting choice that bridges all demographics. He retains his puppy dog’s earnestness, which proves useful when you want to gain sympathy because your brothers have sold you into slavery. His show-stopping ballad, “Close Every Door,” which Joseph sings after he is wrongly accused and imprisoned for seducing his master’s wife (Joan Collins), washes down like a dream.

It’s probably the most conventional Broadway number, highly singable and earwormy. The others are not as catchy, but they each have a unique flare and accompanying set piece. If you don’t like the pastiche of musical and visual style, then the experiment can be distracting. I think the artistic shifts tend toward the schizophrenic and make it harder to remain focused on Joseph. The religion teacher in me was agog at the bedazzled nipples in the Art Deco-inspired Potiphar number, the one in which Joan Collins undresses and seduces dear Donny. Just a couple scenes later, we have Bye, Bye, Birdie Pharaoh (Robert Torti), a hip-swiveling rock n’ roll king who summons Joseph to help him untangle some disturbing dreams. I’m guessing kids won’t care too much about these clashing styles, and the constant changeover may even keep their attention. They’ll work out the themes to this story, ones that include trusting in God and not coveting your brother’s awesome multicolored parachute cloak.

Selected songs below. You can find all clips and songs here.

“Any Dream Will Do”:

“Jacob and Sons”:

“Joseph’s Coat”:

“One More Angel in Heaven”:

“Potiphar”:

“Close Every Door”:

“Go, Go, Go Joseph”:

“Song of the King”:

“Those Canaan Days”:

“Benjamin Calypso”:

“Any Dream Will Do (Reprise)”:

Released: 1999
Prod: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Andy Picheta, Nigel Wright, Austin Shaw
Dir: David Mallet
Writer: Tim Rice, Michael Walsh,
Cast: Donny Osmond, Maria Friedman, Richard Attenborough, Robert Torti, Ian McNeice, Joan Collins, Christopher Biggins, Alex Jennings
Time: 76 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2017