Emma Fielding Mysteries: More Bitter Than Death (2019)

Third time’s a charm for Hallmark Movies and Mysteries. After one lackluster series premiere and a second slightly better debut, the channel delivers the goods with the third Emma Fielding mystery. Not only is it an absorbing case from start to finish, it’s also funny, and we all better enjoy cheeky Hallmark while we can. The film works because it walks a fine line of absurdity, integrating secret society nonsense and prima donna professors into a mystery about a murdered archaeology dean.

Dr. Emma Fielding (Courtney Thorne-Smith) is back at her home base of Kenzer College, where a major archaeology conference that she’s organized is about to begin. She barely gets past her opening speech when the association’s president and her friend, Dr. Althea Harrison, drops dead. Lest you think the academic set wouldn’t dirty their hands with murder, Dr. Fielding and her crime fighting partner, FBI agent Jim Conner (James Tupper), zero in on a trio of archeology professors sitting a table away. Redhead Paula Winter, bowtie guy Carl Biberman, and um, skinny nerd Scott Turner all are vying to succeed Dr. Harrison as head of their professional society. They make no effort to hide the fact that they want the job and feel that they are the most qualified, but does their scheming and posturing to get to the top include murder?

After some past tension, Dr. Fielding and Jim are now quite happy working together. They’re great at picking up on clues that lead them closer to the killer but not so much on those that show romantic interest. Enter Duncan (Mark Valley), Emma’s ex-fiancé, archaeologist, braggart, meathead, and quasi-British John Cena. His presence makes it an awkward trio, and while Jim would like nothing more than for him to shove off, Duncan proves to be an asset as they dig deeper into the case.

The two are my favorite couple in this movie, and though Dr. Fielding and Jim are practically finishing each other’s sentences, Duncan and Jim are simply magic. Both are more than a little insecure about where they stand with Emma, leading to some masterful exchanges that are as catty as they are witty. Tupper and Valley know exactly how to dial into that injured machismo, and they play it all with a twinkle in the eye.

The professor trifecta likewise inject some sass into their parts. My favorite is Paula, who thinks she’s way slicker than she is, but I was also surprised when guarded bow-tie guy breaks out his parkour skills. It’s a wild bunch, and that includes two of Emma’s students. Instead of a circle of fawning undergrads, this movie zeroes in on Carey (Tess Atkins) and Joe (Adam DiMarco), who becomes important to the case when an initiation ceremony into the secretive Order of Bacchus goes awry. Carrie and Joe’s “just friends” relationship mirrors that of Dr. Fielding and Jim, except that the former put their own snarky millennial spin on things.

Perhaps this show is a reminder that good things take time. I’ve much preferred the series that average a couple episodes per year, like Darrow and Darrow and Flower Shop Mysteries, than the ones that churn out movies like we’re in Lucy’s chocolate factory (yes, Garage Sale Mysteries and Aurora Teagarden). The writing in this film pulls all the elements together, from the case to the characters’ personal dramas, and everyone’s on the same page in regards to the movie’s tone. If we get an episode four and if it’s anything like this one, then I can’t wait.

Highlight for spoilers: The killer is always the person you least suspect, the one who seemingly has no connection to the case, and in this movie that’s Bob the security guard. To find out why he murdered Dr. Harrison, you have to go back a few decades to when he was at university with the dean, who at the time was president of the Order of Bacchus. It was his idea to have Bob’s brother climb the clock tower, leading to his death. Bob blames the dean and the school for his brother’s death and the loss of his own promising future. After having to scrape by in security for many years, he took a job at the university, pretty much to bring it down and to recoup his losses. He blackmails the dean and gets members of the Order of Bacchus steal artifacts from the museum. When Dr. Harrison discovers that some of the inventory is missing, he knows she’s got to go. He steals the poison from Biberman’s house. Also, Duncan is the new president.

Released: 2019
Dir: Kevin Fair
Writer: Phoef Suttton
Cast: Courtney Thorne-Smith, James Tupper, Mark Valley, Adam DiMarco, Tess Atkins
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2019


A Holiday to Remember (1995)

A Holiday to Remember is not to be confused with A Christmas to Remember, though either film is acceptable if romance and Christmas feels are what you want. Randy Travis and Connie Sellecca fans of course should stick with the former. First broadcast on CBS in 1995, it has all the trappings of a Hallmark movie today, a positive or negative depending on how you look at it. Two ex-partners reunite in their small town and rediscover their love and their Christmas spirit, though the B plot involving a young runaway tilts it towards more general family fare.

Sellecca plays Carolyn, a newly divorced psychologist from L.A. who’s had it with the city. She drags her teenage daughter, Jordy (Asia Vieira), across the country and back to her hometown of Mayville, South Carolina just in time for Christmas. Their fixer upper is HGTV worthy; water’s dripping everywhere and the front porch is nearly rotted through, but Carolyn thinks it gives the home a cozier feel. Anyway, she’s busy reconnecting with her neighbor, Miz Leona (Rue McClanahan), also the aunt of her ex-fiancé, Clay (Travis).

It’s a bit uncomfortable when he strides in, ornery as ever. You can’t blame him for glaring at her though. After all, it was Carolyn left him at the altar and then skipped town without a word. My sympathy for Clay stops when he starts railing about Carolyn’s fancy book learning, however. I have no energy for that nonsense, and to Carolyn’s point, he agreed to leave Mayville so that they could both explore life outside their small town. I’ll let him knock her for not knowing how to chop wood but not for earning a Ph.D.

Despite their differences, the former couple can’t help but rekindle their romance. There’s not much else to do in any case, which is why I’m grateful for an interesting subplot. Carolyn discovers a boy hiding out in her basement, and instead of turning him over to the police, who happens to be Clay, she goes into mother-psychologist mode and takes him in. Clay and his social worker girlfriend are law-abiding folks and want William (Kyle Fairlie) put into care while arrangements can be made with a foster family. Carolyn scoffs at the plan, arguing that the paperwork alone would mean no real Christmas for the poor kid, also the emotional distress.

I appreciate that the story allows for stronger character arcs than I’m used to in these movies. While Carolyn and Clay debate the ethics of filing a case with child services, William wrestles with his place amongst his new caretakers and the town. Thanks to good acting from Farlie, the character comes off as a spunky kid who blends his rascally nature with his need for love and stability. I even managed to find a soft spot for Jordy, a bratty only child but one with no filter. She has a habit of creating chaos just by talking, and I imagined she might grow into a Miz Leona someday. As for Rue McClanahan, well, she’s a damn treasure. It’s a shame she didn’t have a bigger part, but she’s salty enough to give the whole film a little something extra.

Released: 1995
Dir: Jud Taylor
Writer: Darrah Cloud
Cast: Connie Sellecca, Randy Travis, Rue McClanahan, Asia Vieira, Kyle Fairlie, Brenda Bazinet
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: CBS
Reviewed: 2019

High School Musical (2006)

There are a few cultural milestones that I missed out on by half a generation. Harry Potter is one, another is High School Musical, and while I caught up with the former ten years ago, it wasn’t until today, now, that I finally saw the movie that kicked off Zac Efron’s career. To paraphrase Gabrielle Union in 10 Things I Hate About You – that is, my generation – I’m underwhelmed.

But I’m also not a tween in 2006, and this film is fine for the youths then and now. The movie has a great message about doing what you love and not being defined by others’ expectations. If you’re a basketball player who loves to bake or a skater dude who plays the cello, then own it. Also if you’re into early 2000s fashion or you sport that shaggy haircut that Efron and co popularized, do that too. I’m not even being sarcastic about it and am in earnest when I say that kids should pursue whatever makes them unique and that the adults in the room should encourage them. If that message comes through best in the form of a cheesy Disney Channel musical, then fantastic.

The movie isn’t even a bad one; it’s just not my taste and doesn’t expand its appeal beyond the tween crowd and those who would watch it for nostalgic reasons. Hairspray, for example, also centers the teen experience and features Zac Efron but is as rousing and as knotty for adults as it is for younger audiences. HSM sticks to a clean plot and prefers characters drawn in broad strokes, a fun romp about good kids trying to behave better. There’s an upbeat soundtrack to move to, with a mix of flashy numbers and romantic ballads. Plus there’s basketball and school cafeteria choreography, which I generally approve of because life is short.

With a Grease-adjacent vibe, the film tells a story about Troy Bolton (Efron) and Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens), who meet in the teen lounge at a ski resort over winter break only to discover they are classmates once school starts again. Troy is the star of the basketball team and a living god at East High in Albuquerque. The school depends on his basketball prowess to function, which is why things get thrown out of whack when he decides to audition for the spring musi-cal. His winter crush, Gabriella, has just transferred and they can both sing, so why not?

For her, trying out for the musical is not really an existential crisis. Gabriella is super brainy and though she’s a match for the the scholastic decathlon team, she wouldn’t mind stretching her talents if she could just get over her fear of performing, to which I say good for her. Gabriella is someone I would have identified with as a kid. I admire the fact that she has fears about fitting in and trying new things but is still fearless when it comes to pushing herself.

Troy, on the other hand, is boxed in and feels like he has to choose basketball or music. And it’s no wonder because America is obsessed with school sports. Having been abroad for many years, I’d forgotten how much American schools shape their identity around sports and athletes, and it is weird. Troy feels pressured by his selfish teammates, especially best friend Chad (Corbin Bleu), who will not stop hyping The Big Game. Even worse is his meathead coach and dad, Jack Bolton. (Bart Johnson). He will make sure his team wins but only if they think about nothing but basketball.

The adults really are not to be commended here, and I’m not keen on Ms. Darbus (Alyson Reed), East High’s drama teacher, either. She earns some good will for declaring that the “most heinous example of cell phone abuse is ringing in the theatre,” which, next to texting while driving, is true. She also knocks the society’s sports fixation and won’t budge in her defense for arts education. But a bad teacher is a bad teacher, and she only cares about students who already like theater, like the insufferable twins Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) and Ryan (Lucas Grabeel). I actually like those characters and think they’re just the drama queens this movie needs. They’re insufferable and arrogant, they bully the sweet student composer, Kelsi (Olesya Rulin), and they try to sabotage Troy and Gabriella’s audition, but their over-the-top sass keeps the film from drowning in sap.

*The fans will remind everyone that Drew Seeley does the singing for Troy Bolton on most tracks. Zac Efron sings in the other films.

“Start of Something New” by Drew Seeley and Vanessa Hudgens:

“Get’cha Head in the Game” by Drew Seeley:

“What I’ve Been Looking For” by Lucas Grabeel and Ashley Tisdale:

“What I’ve Been Looking For (Reprise)” by Drew Seeley and Vanessa Hudgens:

“Stick to the Status Quo” by Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Chris Warren Jr., Kaycee Stroh, and Dutch Whitlock:

“When There was Me and You” by Vanessa Hudgens:

“Bop to the Top” by Ashley Tisdale and Lucas Grabeel:

“Breaking Free” by Zac Efron, Drew Seeley, and Vanessa Hudgens:

“We’re All in This Together” by Zac Efron, Drew Seeley, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu, and Monique Coleman:

“I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Zac Efron, Drew Seeley, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, and Lucas Grabeel:

Released: 2006
Dir: Kenny Ortega
Writer: Peter Barsocchini
Cast: Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Lucas Grabeel, Ashley Tisdale, Corbin Bleu, Monique Coleman, Joey Miyashima, Bart Johnson, Oleysa Rulin, Alyson Reed, Chris Warren Jr.
Time: 98 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Disney Channel
Reviewed: 2019

One Magic Christmas (1985)

There are plenty of movies to choose from if you want to watch one about a down-on-their-luck family that gets a little holiday help during Christmas. One of my favorite films that kind of falls into this subgenre is Where God Left His Shoes. The 2007 drama stars John Leguizamo as a father who tries to get his family out of a shelter and into their own home before Christmas. It treats homelessness with the seriousness it deserves and leaves you feeling both uplifted and uneasy. I also recently caught up The Christmas Star, an older movie that fits snugly into this category. Not as powerful as Leguizamo’s film, it nevertheless has touching moments that make it worthwhile.

So it was with some expectation that I thought One Magic Christmas would deliver. Unfortunately, it buries you in so much sorrow that its feel-good ending comes as a relief rather than as any celebration. Mary Steenburgen is masterful as overworked mom and wife Ginny Grainger, wearing her exhaustion like it’s the only thing she’s got. With an unemployed husband and bills coming due, she has to take a job at the grocery store. You can see her soul creeping away as she stands at the till, leaving her hollowed out by shift’s end. Then things go from bad to worse. It’s not just about finding a way to pay for gifts or arguing about whether Ginny’s husband, Jack (Basaraba), should start his own bike shop. A chain of events leads to a devastating Christmas, a place where all hope has been abandoned.

The thinking behind this movie seems to be that the more sadness and misery these characters experience, the more joyful and redemptive their Christmas will be. A somewhat forgotten angel, Gideon (Harry Dean Stanton), is witness to what transpires and has been sent by God, or the talking moon – it’s not clear which, to help Ginny. But help comes via the most circuitous, painful route imaginable, and I’m sure the movie would be just as moving had Ginny not felt like she’d entered the gates of Hell.

The story is a pile-up of tragedy, which doesn’t just make things sad, it also makes them slow. Steenburgen has a scene early in the film where she’s singing to the Supremes in the shower, and it’s a rare fun and carefree moment. The movie doesn’t allow enough of these though. Sarah Polley plays the sweet neighbor girl, and Ginny’s own kids add charm. Her daughter (Elisabeth Harnois) wants to send a letter to Santa, hoping that he can change things for the better. I even liked sad, hangdog Gideon who does bring perspective and a sense of calm despite talking like he’s the angel that all the other angels don’t invite to their parties. All I need from this supposedly family-friendly movie is a little more optimism.

Released: 1985
Prod: Peter O’Brian
Dir: Phillip Borsos
Writer: Phillip Borsos, Barry Healey, Thomas Meehan
Cast: Mary Steenburgen, Gary Basaraba, Harry Dean Stanton, Arthur Hill, Robbie Magwood, Elisabeth Harnois, Wayne Robson, Sarah Polley
Time: 89 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Morning Show Mysteries: Murder on the Menu (2018)

Murder doesn’t appeal to me, whether it’s on the menu or off, but I like star Holly Robinson Peete and her character, Billie Blessings, so murder it is. This is the second installment of Hallmark’s only series featuring a black lead, and this time, the cookbook author/TV host finds herself entangled in a case that implicates celebrity chef Primo Maxx (Chad Willett). When the body of a young woman is found in his trunk, Billie uses every investigative, journalistic, and culinary instinct she has to figure out what’s going on.

The case is full of sudden left turns from the start. Primo maintains his innocence, claiming that he didn’t even know Jessica, the deceased, but then an L.A. police officer shows up with information about a cold case that involves the death of Primo’s fiancée, Rose. Detective Pete Bower (Daryl Shuttleworth) wants all of Seattle to know that their favorite chef is a killer. He doesn’t help his cause with his behavior though, and soon his motives are questioned too. Meanwhile, Billie is targeted and comes home to a ransacked house, but it’s anyone’s guess as to how she is connected to Primo, the death of two women, a shady cop, and possible mismanagement of Primo’s restaurants.

It’s one thing to throw up a bunch of red herrings and keep the audience guessing, but sometimes a mystery can get carried away with misdirection. This story is bogged down by obfuscation, and it’s not until you nearly reach the end that you get some clarity about what’s happened. In the meantime, there’s just a lot of back and forth between Primo and Bower, each trying to one up the other with fresh allegations. I would have liked to have seen clues that push you in one direction instead of several of them. That might have tightened the story and kept it moving forward.

So while the case didn’t hold my interest, Billie’s on-off relationship with detective Ian (Rick Fox) certainly did. Theirs develops in a way I don’t think we see as often with Hallmark’s other detectives. If they’re not already happily married, then they slip into a new relationship that is either smooth sailing or antagonistic but that later turns into romance. I like that Billie and Ian’s relationship is less defined, thus a lot more relatable. She’s confused by his mixed signals and doesn’t know why he hasn’t called her, but that’s not going to stop her from bringing around a pan of lasagna to check things out anyway. Meanwhile, he likes her but struggles to figure out how to show affection while still giving himself space to work through his divorce. Both navigate their feelings with respect and honesty, and even if it’s sometimes messy, it makes me want to see them together. Whatever their status though, I hope that Ian does a better job of dressing down his partner (David Paetkau) for his patronizing attitude towards Billie. The kid reeks of privilege, and Billie did not solve two murders to be condescended to in this manner.

Highlight for spoilers: Victor, Primo’s partner in the wheelchair, and possibly his nurse killed Jessica. Back when the two were starting their business, Primo ended up taking most of the profits because he was the talent. Eventually, Victor felt he should compensated and started skimming money from their company. Rose found out, so he killed her, and Victor, knowing that Primo didn’t have an alibi, agreed to give him one. That made Primo beholden to Victor all these years. When Jessica found Rose’s documents, she likewise had to be killed.

Released: 2018
Dir: Kevin Fair
Writer: Shelley Evans
Cast: Holly Robinson Peete, Rick Fox, Karen Robinson, Anna Van Hooft, Jesse Moss, David Lewis, Kirsten Robek, Greg Rogers, Tom Butler, David Paetkau, Chad Willett, Claire Smithies, Adam Beauchesne, Daryl Shuttleworth, Dee Jay Jackson, Cameron Bancroft, Milah Thompson
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018