Debbie Macomber’s Dashing Through the Snow (2015)

Dashing Through the Snow has the makings of a middling feature film starring Jennifer Aniston or Katherine Heigl and probably costarring Gerard Butler. Ashley Harrison (Meghan Ory) is a crafty woman – that is a woman who does crafts and not a duplicitous person – who’s racing home to Seattle so she can be with her recently widowed mother for a Christmas lighting ceremony. However, her flight gets cancelled and the car rental agencies run out of vehicles, so she has no choice but to hitch a ride with Dash Sutherland (Andrew Walker), a smug loner who’s bribed his way into renting the last car on the lot. The two snake their way up the coast and get to know each other in between unnecessary pit stops, an overnight stay at a motel, and endless references to It Happened One Night, except they don’t really get to know each other because Dash is hiding the fact that he’s a federal agent assigned to tail Ashley. The FBI thinks she’s a Very Dangerous Criminal engaged in some sort of trafficking, and it doesn’t help when she sneaks around to visit her immigrant “friends” or speaks in a foreign language.

There’s a lot of potential for wacky physical comedy as well as a battle of wills and wits. There’s also much to say about the types, or stereotypes, of people involved in terrorism but that’s not for today. The movie reminds me of the road trip gone awry in The Bounty Hunter as well as the fiery opposites attract dynamic in The Ugly Truth, but like most Hallmark productions, the narrative rarely expands beyond what’s in front of you, which is a straightforward romance about two attractive people who bond because what else are you going to do when you’re trapped in a car with a stranger?

Okay, there’s a lot you could do, but the closest the movie comes to emotional depth or existential angst is Dash’s conflicted character. I keep waiting for Walker to break out of Hallmark prison and take on some meatier roles because, as he shows here, he can drive a story, literally in this case. Ory is sweet and smiley and keeps the film bouncing along, but Dash is the one I really want to get to know. A war vet who’s trying to overcome the trauma of a failed mission, he should be the focus instead of perky if sometimes sad Ashley, who we know is going to be alright whether or not she gets to Seattle on time.

To distract from its lazy storytelling, the movie occasionally jumps to a subplot involving two teens who resort to law-breaking in order to fund a ski trip. Their misadventure is underdeveloped, uninteresting, and way too unrelated to anything else to merit the screen time it gets. The FBI agents who are after Ashley add some much needed humor, but it’s only funny if you can overcome how incompetent they are. It’s a pretty big ask to imagine an entire team devoting the resources they do in pursuit of someone whose deadliest weapons are knitting needles and crafting shears. Then again, this movie isn’t about believability but quick Christmasy sentiment.

Released: 2015
Dir: K.T. Donaldson
Writer: Maria Nation
Cast: Meghan Ory, Andrew Walker, Aaron Craven, Rukiya Bernard, Amitai Marmorstein, Aleks Paunovic
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

Advertisements

Moonlight & Mistletoe (2008)

Ah, there’s nothing like vintage Hallmark Channel and Candace Cameron Bure to get you into the Christmas mood. Don’t expect the old to be new though; 2008 CCB is pretty much the same as 2018 CCB, just with bangs. It seems she’s always had that homeroom mom kind of vibe, the one who knows exactly how to run a bake sale and doesn’t need your advice, thank you very much. Except she’s not a mom here, just a harried daughter who’s had it up to here with Christmas.

Holly, as you can guess by her name, has been around Christmas all her life. Ever since she can remember, she’s been working at Santaville, her father’s year-round Christmas themed attraction. We don’t see much of it, but we get a glimpse of the shop and village front and there’s an explosion of snow and festive red everywhere. Naturally, Holly got herself out of there and into a fancy pants college graduate job in the city as soon as she could. When her dad, Nick (Tom Arnold), gets into a sleigh accident, however, she has to return home to help him out.

It’s not just his leg that’s out of sorts though; Nick’s life’s work is in danger of going under too. It turns out that Santaville doesn’t hold the appeal it used to, what with electronic games and all. (Wait until they see the state of malls ten years later.) Nick has a matter of weeks to get his finances in order or else his winter wonderland will be shuttered for good.

Arnold is an interesting choice for the role. He’s no better or worse than others who could have filled the part, but he has about the nuance of a guy on a beer commercial. I’ll generously chalk that up to character since Nick is someone who never reveals his pain, and he’s hiding a lot of it. Besides putting on a brave, and some might say naïve, face about the impending loss of Santaville, he’s also trying to protect himself from the grief he still feels over his wife’s death. It’s a touchy subject for both father and daughter, and Nick, at least, would rather not deal with it or anything he doesn’t feel he can handle.

It’s a lot to take on, and I would have preferred to see more of this relationship, which is messy, fraught, and full of issues that the two need to work out. Holly and Nick often get pushed aside for her relationships with two other men though, neither of whom challenge of her all that much. Ben (Matt Walton) wins her over with his good looks and his proposal to save Santaville while Peter (Christopher Wiehl) is either cute or creepy as the guy who dedicates his life to making nutcrackers after Holly tells him about the ballet. Only one can win her heart and help her return Santaville to its former glory.

Released: 2008
Dir: Karen Arthur
Writer: Joany Kane, Dwayne Poole
Cast: Tom Arnold, Candace Cameron Bure, Barbara Niven, Matt Walton, Christopher Wiehl
Time: 87 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark
Reviewed: 2018

Our First Christmas (2008)

If I’m going to compare Our First Christmas to a holiday dish, it would be my mom’s turkey. Both are things I want to enjoy but can’t because they’re very much on the dry side. This movie is filled with lovely sentiment and is a sincere story about a blended family trying to juggle their first Christmas together. It’s also different from the usual holiday romances that flood cable TV this time of year and focuses on the children and grandparents’ perspectives as well. However, it needs several boosts of energy to make it a truly uplifting story instead of the pleasant but forgettable one that it is now.

It’s not an altogether bad movie though, and if you’re tired of predictable love stories, then you might like one that’s already reached the marriage stage. Cindy (Julie Warner), a PE teacher, and Tom (Steven Eckholdt), a guidance counselor, work at the same high school and start a new family when they decide to be more than just colleagues. Their first Christmas together proves to be a challenge when their three children refuse to give up old traditions. Cindy’s daughter, Tory (Cassi Thomson), is adamant that she stay with her grandmother, Evie (Dixie Carter), on Christmas Day while Tom’s slightly younger daughter and son, Lily (Grace Fulton) and Jacob (Maxim Knight), insist on appearing in the Christmas pageant with their grandfather, Joe (John Ratzenberger), a retired minister.

You’d think that the script would resort to the usual scenes of bickering step-siblings and warring in-laws, but this movie is the opposite of that. Kids don’t always take the long view, and these kids think that sticking to tradition is the only way they can honor their deceased parent. Tory doesn’t want to give up the holidays in the cabin that her dad loved and Lily wants to show off the musical talents that her mother encouraged by performing in the yearly pageant. Rather than yelling about how much they hate everyone and slamming doors in each others’ faces, the new siblings instead come together and make a pact. They decide to pretend they are at odds so that their parents will have no choice but to separate and give in to their Christmas demands. The plan works a little too well, causing Tory, Lily, and Jacob to rethink their ideas about family and tradition.

What I like about this movie is something that I don’t see a lot of in Hallmark movies these days, and that is the depiction of relationships that don’t swing to one side or the other of the emotional spectrum. There’s a lot of discomfort, especially on the part of the kids as they try to adjust to new parents and siblings. Evie also finds herself in an awkward position since she is Tory’s paternal grandmother but wants to reach out to Lily and Jacob. Yet the film gives its characters ample room to grow into these new relationships in a way that is natural and endearing. I was touched by Tory and Lily’s friendship in particular and felt like I wouldn’t mind gaining a supportive new sister too.

The movie’s heartwarming moments can’t overcome the dry narrative though. It’s a bit of a slog and misses many opportunities for humor. I kept waiting for things to pick up with a burst of excitement here and there, but those never come. If you don’t mind a movie that’s a little slow, then this won’t bother you, but since I’ve been watching unhealthy amounts of Hallmark, Lifetime, and UPTV these last few weeks, I was hoping for something livelier to jolt me out of my stupor.

Released: 2008
Dir: Armand Mastroianni
Writer: Edithe Swensen
Cast: Dixie Carter, Julie Warner, John Ratzenberger, Steven Eckholdt, Grace Fulton, Cassi Thomson, Maxim Knight, Kat Graham
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018

Marrying Father Christmas (2018)

The last few years have been good to Father Christmas. He was found, engaged, and now he’s about to be married. What great things await him next Christmas? Surely it’s too early for Retiring Father Christmas, though I wouldn’t object if the fourth installment is anything like this movie. Out of all the Hallmark offerings this holiday season, this was the one I was looking forward to the most; I’ll watch anything with Wendie Malick and stars Erin Krakow and Niall Matter proved to be a solid team in their previous outings. However, Marrying Father Christmas was a bore, a listless romance content with recycling old storylines. If there are any more stories to tell about this couple or about Miranda Chester’s parents, I’m not sure they’re worth hearing.

Things finally, finally look like they’re heading in the right direction for Miranda (Krakow), who’s felt unmoored for most of her life. The only daughter of a stage actress, she’s been on her own since her mother’s death and just recently reconnected with her father’s other family, which includes her stepmother, Margaret (Malick), and half-brother, Peter (Jim Thorburn). She’s also found a partner in Ian (Matter), and they’ve planned a Christmas wedding. So what could derail the holidays and ruin her marriage before it even begins? A secret from the past of course.

Specifically, a secret person from her mother’s past. When a man shows up in her Boston office and then in the tiny town Carlton Heath, Vermont, we know he’s going to be trouble, and so does Miranda. But when she confronts him, he claims to be her uncle Charles (Bill Dow). Miranda isn’t sure about that since her mom never said anything about a brother, and even if he is who he says he is, she can’t be certain that he comes with good intentions. With Ian’s encouragement, however, she decides that connecting with Charles might help her feel closer to her mother.

I’m beginning to question Mom’s decision to keep everything a secret. Perhaps the next movie will reveal Miranda’s long-lost sister since it’s not like this script tries anything new. Marrying Father Christmas makes little effort to freshen up this third story. Miranda is still paralyzed by insecurities about family and belonging, problems mostly caused by the previous generation. If it’s not her mother, it’s Margaret, who initially wanted to keep news of her husband’s affair under wraps but now fully embraces her stepdaughter. It’s that familiar tale of Miranda being haunted by her past though, and this is a movie weighed down by its brand, unable to imagine mystery that doesn’t involve family legacy.

The main event, Miranda and Ian’s wedding, also feels tired. I like both characters but there’s nothing in this story that elicits strong emotions one way or the other. Their non-Uncle Charles affairs are inconsequential. You can’t make a movie, at least not a good one, out of last-minute wedding problems, like whether you’ve invited too many people or whether the groom has finished writing his vows. Margaret has a bit of a romance with an old friend, and that eats up some of the narrative, but her potential partner is a non-entity, a bland figure who fades into the background next to Malick’s character.

Released: 2018
Dir: David Winning
Writer: David Golden
Cast: Erin Krakow, Niall Matter, Wendie Malick, Michael Kopsa, P. Lynn Johnson, Jim Thorburn, Julie Benson, Bill Dow, Alvin Sanders
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

A Christmas Switch (2018)

A Christmas Switch isn’t a great movie, but it does have me thinking about the merits of switching places with someone who could help straighten out my life. Of course if I wanted someone to point out my flaws and tell me how to prioritize things, I could just see a therapist, but it wouldn’t be as fun and it’s way too simple of a fix. No, a body swap is the right solution, as this movie demonstrates.

Like all the other films that feature this plot device, two very different women come to appreciate what and who they have in their lives after mysteriously switching places. Each one also uses her skills to help improve the other, again, making me wish this was an actual thing sometimes. Audrey (Jackie Seiden) is your typical overworked mom. When she’s not taking extra waitressing shifts at the diner, she’s taking on extra housework and school mom duties. Julia (Ashley Wood), meanwhile, is your typical overworked executive. As president of a record company, she has no time for her family and doesn’t like it when she doesn’t get what she wants, whether that’s a deal with the hottest artist or immediate custom service at the store. After Audrey and Julia bump into each other at a Christmas market whilst grabbing an iridescent candy cane ornament and wishing their lives were different, they find themselves trapped in the other’s body.

I was surprised by how much I liked this movie considering I almost deleted it after the first thirty minutes. The initial scenes following the swap replicate every other body switch movie that’s ever been made. The women wake up in shock and confusion, they’re angry at each other and a bit taken aback by their actual looks, and they make a few unsuccessful attempts to switch back before realizing they’ll just need to live with the change for awhile. But then a strange thing starts to happen, and Audrey and Julia begin lifting one another up. I shouldn’t be surprised by female friendships in movies, but I am because it’s always easier to default to a girl fight.

The women support each other in predictable ways, but that doesn’t lessen sentimental impact. Julia, ever the practical thinker, uses her type A skills to bring some order into Audrey’s life. She quickly sees that Audrey is overcommitted and doing things she feels she has to instead of spending more time on the things she wants to, such as a singing career. Audrey, for her part, shows Julia that her work can’t just be about herself or her clients and, critically, that sushi night is no good if you’re not enjoying it together with your family. My favorite moment is when Audrey leads a contract negotiation with her compassion rather than trying to fake a Julia and drive a hard bargain. Each one instinctively knows how to help the other, and everyone, including their husbands and daughters and coworkers, are better off because of it. Couldn’t we all do with more friendships like this one, especially at Christmastime?

Released: 2018
Dir: Brian Herzlinger
Writer: Paula Rahn
Cast: Jackie Seiden, Ashley Wood, Houston Rhines, John Patrick Jordan, Oana Gregory, Cleary Herzlinger, Annie Abbott
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: UPTV
Reviewed: 2018