Month: December 2014

The Christmas Parade

the christmas parade

I’ve fallen about as low as Hallmark will take me in terms of my television choices. Thankfully, the Christmas season is drawing to a close, and I know this because the network has already started flogging its Valentine’s Day marathon. But for those who want to stretch the holidays to their natural conclusion, fluff like The Christmas Parade will do nicely.

With its Build-a-Bear-like assembly line of holiday movies, Hallmark manages to churn out the same cuddly product by the dozens, each dressed up to make it look one-of-a-kind. It all starts with a single woman who has some emotional detachment. In this case, it’s Hailee Anderson (AnnaLynne McCord), a New York City entertainment reporter who doesn’t like Christmas because of bad childhood experiences. To add to her seasonal distress, she finds out on air that her fiancé is shagging a reality star.

That’s when you throw in the handsome, well adjusted, if somewhat ordinary single guy – not the stud you’re never going to get but the attainable everyday bloke. He’s the one who will rescue her from her holiday doldrums and help everyone realize that Christmas is really about friends, family, and love, but mostly love. Beck (Jefferson Brown) gets that distinction, and he’s the ideal low-key beau. Not only is he a painter who’s lost his muse, he also works at a children’s arts center in a tiny Connecticut town.

This is especially important because no Christmas television movie is complete without some wacky plot device that will bring the two lovers together. And in this case, it’s – surprise! – the Christmas parade. With the arts center in danger of being bought out, the kids are banking on a $15,000 first place prize for best float, giving them just enough money to stave off property developers. Beck and the kids can’t build Carver Bend’s most amazing parade piece on their own though. So when city girl Hailee literally crashes into town, he asks her to spend her community service hours helping out their righteous cause.

If you like Hallmark’s other offerings, you can happily add this to your list. Brown makes a fine guy next door and McCord is eerily accurate at imitating an infotainment reporter. Still, I thought there was too much pontificating, even for a Christmas television movie. The characters shoot out their ideas in wordy bullet points, which detracts from an already cliched story. The one character that did spice up the formula was Beck’s mother (Chappelle Jaffe), who appears as a writer for the local paper. It’s a role one imagines Betty White would master, if she didn’t have actual movies to make.

Released: 2014
Prod: Robert Vaughn
Dir: Jonathan Wright
Writer: Carley Smale, Robert Vaughn
Cast: AnnaLynne McCord, Jefferson Brown, Jennifer Gibson, Drew Scott
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark
Reviewed: 2014

A Diva’s Christmas Carol

divas christmas carol

Vanessa Williams had a successful run as bitch du jour in TV’s Ugly Betty and earned a few Emmy nods in the process, but she doesn’t quite convince as the eponymous diva in this average Christmas classic remake from VH1. When it comes to the real prima donnas of pop and R&B that her character Ebony Scrooge is trying to lambaste, Williams is too, well, nice.

Still, the movie gets some mileage by finding its niche in the expansive Christmas Carol market. Dickens’s yuletide grinch is transformed into a member of an 80s R&B trio, Desire, but after Ebony goes Beyoncé on her groupmates, she grows increasingly isolated even as her popularity rockets. She mistreats all the people who contribute to her success, including her millions of fans. Also while she’s living it up at the Ritz, her band and backup singers are holed up at a Motel 6 and calling in pizza. Her manager and former boyfriend Bob (Brian McNamara) takes the most abuse, however, and his marriage feels the strain of his puzzling loyalty to Ebony.

A Diva’s Christmas Carol mostly sticks to its source and takes advantage of a few industry cameos. Rozonda Thomas, aka Chilli of TLC, makes a somewhat stiff appearance as Marli, another member of Desire whose death drives the remaining members of Desire further apart. Meanwhile, the Ghost of Christmas Present is a loungy John Taylor of Duran Duran fame. The most interesting cameo, and I hesitate to say also the most effective, however, is VHI’s ubiquitous Behind the Music program. The special stands in as the Ghost of Christmas Future, and it’s this pathetic retrospective that really shocks Ebony into changing her ways. After all, who wants that sort of requiem?

Williams is best when she’s not in beast mode. The movie depends too much on the humor of her acting like a diva – batting away the sunlight, demanding French toast during a video shoot in France – that when she steps away from the cartoonish caricature, Ebony gets a chance to become a person with a chance at redemption. Williams gives her character some nuance and has a few touching scenes with McNamara and Amanda Brugel, who plays her neglected niece. Besides her singing (she offers two new songs), which I will always take, those are the highlights of this adaptation.

“Heart of Christmas” and “Sleigh Ride”by Vanessa Williams:

“Heartquake” by Vanessa Williams featuring Chilli

Released: 2000
Prod: Claudio Castravelli
Dir: Richard Schenkman
Writer: Richard Schenkman
Cast: Vanessa Williams, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, Brian McNamara, Kathy Griffin, John Taylor, Stephanie Biddle, Amanda Brugel, Richard Jutras, Linda Goodwin, Michelle Lipper, Amy Sloan, Christian Paul
Time: 88 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: VH1
Reviewed: 2014

Christmas Cupid

2490F4_ABC_XmasCupid_keyart_People.indd

There are some pretty pointless Christmas Carol adaptations, but Christmas Cupid just about wins it. Set in the pop culture milieu of preening starlets and their equally self-conscious publicity agents, this movie is as vapid as the characters that populate it. The story, which has the substance of a box of a cream puffs, lacks the foreboding of Dickens’s novella and instead relies on the audiences’ familiarity with the original to patch up the gaps in writing.

Sloane (Christina Milian), the Scrooge of the piece, is given little urgency to amend her ways. An exacting and ambitious publicity agent, she throws her around “bitchitude” like no other, but nearly everyone else is just as heartless. She essentially sleeps her way to the top with her unfaithful boyfriend (Burgess Jenkins), which means abandoning a lot of friends and her college sweetheart, Patrick (Chad Michael Murray), along the way. When her top client, a superficial young actress named Caitlin (Ashley Benson), chokes to death on a martini olive, she gets a chance to reset her professional and love lives.

Marley has an expanded role in the form of Caitlin, but in this reimagining, death seems like a tolerable gig. Caitlin isn’t weighed down by the chains of her wrongdoings, though she is marked by the same vacuity that characterized her earthly life. That, friends, is the real drag. Caitlin sticks around for awhile and tries to help her publicist see the light, but mostly she’s there to check out the memorial bash the agency is planning for her.

Christmas Cupid is already a lost cause by the time the ghosts belatedly drift into the picture. The characters, and Sloane in particular, have the same artificiality of the publicity machine that squeezes out Caitlins in order to milk the lowest common denominator. When she’s visited by apparitions of her exes (because the ghosts of Ex-Mas is clever), her conversion rolls merrily along without any real gravity. It’s a meaningless redemption with only one satisfying moment, unearned of course, that Sloane shares with Patrick. I give this movie a big “Bah-humbug” and a kick in the shin.

Released: 2010
Prod: Jody Brockway, Craig McNeil
Dir: Gil Junger
Writer: Aury Wallington
Cast: Christina Milian, Chad Michael Murray, Ashley Benson, Burgess Jenkins, Jackée Harry, Ashley Johnson, Ryan Sypek, Justin Smith
Time: 85 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: ABC Family
Reviewed: 2014

A Princess for Christmas

princess for christmas

At first, I wondered if kids would soon be wanting a princess for Christmas. Imagine the chaos as parents scrambled the aisles to find some lady in a sparkling dress and tiara to gift wrap for their children. Thankfully, this movie is not about bringing someone or something home for Christmas, unlike say A Puppy for Christmas or A Christmas Tree for Christmas (I call that title, Hallmark) might be. Instead, it’s about a young woman who takes her niece and nephew abroad to visit their estranged grandfather, a duke who shunned his son when he married a commoner. It’s pure Anglophile bait and, as it happens, not very satisfying.

Despite some resplendent winter scenery, the movie can’t save itself from its lifeless characters, and they end up making the hackneyed plot even duller than it already is. Jules (Katie McGrath), the eponymous princess – and I’m sorry if I just ruined the ending, is an antiques dealer from New York who’s been taking care of her niece and nephew since their parents died last Christmas. The poor woman misses her sister and is frustrated by her inability to substitute as a parent, but the character doesn’t elicit much empathy, especially with McGrath’s soap opera-y tendency to squeeze scenes for tears getting in the way of real emotion.

That might make Sam Heughan who plays Ashton, Prince of Castlebury and uncle to the two children her perfect match. He and McGrath share a few laughs and smiles, but there’s not much sizzle between the two. The actor looks like he’s just stepped out of a Daks ad, but unfortunately his acting is two-dimensional as well. I actually put more blame on the bland script, which does little to develop his character. The most revealing scenes end up being the ones where Ashton tries to bond with Milo (Travis Turner), his troubled teenage nephew, and those bring a little warmth to the picture.

The most misused actor, however, is Roger Moore, who appears just enough to earn a paycheck and third billing. He’s a fine grump but doesn’t do much to distinguish his Edward, Duke of Castlebury from all the other Scrooges that populate holiday films. His substantial regret at the way he treated both sons and his grandchildren and then his attempt to rediscover Christmas joy feel too casual. Edward doesn’t lend the picture much emotional force and easily disappears into the background.

If I’m choosing a star of this film then, I’d pick Castlebury Hall, which beats the hell out of a ranch in Buffalo. The place looks like a castle from a 1000 piece puzzle set, and the snowy Romanian setting does the best job of evoking a fairytale Christmas.

(Update, April 16, 2016: So Outlander. My newfound love for James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, aka Sam Heughan, prompted me to revisit this movie, and no, it’s still not very good. But I did discover that our favorite Highlander fakes the violin, wears some truly tight white trousers, and commits himself to dance moves most often associated with drunk white dudes at a college house party. So while this isn’t Mr. Heughan’s best work, it’s a role Jamie Fraser fangirls can appreciate. Go on – imagine him holding your little paw and whispering, “You absconded with my heart.”)

Alt Title: A Christmas Princess
Released: 2011
Prod: Brad Krevoy
Dir: Michael Damian
Writer: Janeen Damian, Michael Damian
Cast: Katie McGrath, Roger Moore, Sam Heughan, Travis Turner, Leilah de Meza, Miles Richardson, Charlotte Salt, Oxana Moravec, Alin Alteanu, Madalina Anea
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark
Reviewed: 2014

Christmas Mail

christmas mail

My mum is loathe to delete things from her DVR queue, so when she recorded and then promptly dumped Christmas Mail, my interest was piqued. It turns out this movie is just as good, and bad, as nearly every other made-for-TV Christmas movie out there. It has a few merits but not enough to warrant a conscious viewing. If you catch it by accident, presumably whilst baking cookies or adding tinsel to your fragrant evergreen, fear not.

It at least exploits a setting that usually gets the short shrift, not just during the holidays but in all seasons. The United States Postal Service finds itself in the spotlight during its busiest time of the year, and as you might expect, there’s not a lot of Christmas cheer to go around. Matt (A.J. Buckley) is a postman who isn’t thrilled about juggling dozens of oversized and oddly shaped boxes. He also has to deal with his boss, Mr. Fuller (Lochlyn Munro), who was that asshole jock in high school and is an even bigger douche now. His biggest delight is turning the post office into a vacuum of Christmas joy.

The arrival of a new employee shakes everyone from their foul mood. Kristi North (Ashley Scott) helps Santa lighten his mailbag by writing handwritten notes to children. She is all bubbles and glitter; the woman loves Christmas. The surfeit of holiday merriment makes Mr. Fuller suspect that head office has spent a spy. He coerces Matt into getting the dirt on her so that he can prime himself for a promotion.

I actually like Kristi’s irrepressible joy, though I can see how it can annoy anyone who isn’t in a persistent holiday mood. It makes you wonder if it’s just an act though. She’s not altogether forthcoming about her past. I mean, how many foreigners work in Hong Kong for a couple months and end up conversational in Cantonese? Still, there’s a bit of old Christmas magic that flickers against the cynicism.

The remaining cast of characters are similarly love ‘em or leave ‘em types. Buckley is sweet but dull as the romantic lead. He was a rock musician who gave it all up to take care of his niece Emily (Piper Harris) when her parents died, but he seems more at home in the sorting room than at some dingy cellar show. Emily doesn’t light up the screen either and Harris is too studied to be adorable.

Halfway through, I decided I liked Munroe. I couldn’t tell if he was channeling Jim Carrey or if, knowing how broadly drawn the role was, he was being devilishly over-the-top; I went with the latter. I had similar feelings about Rolanda Watts, who plays Sally, the sassy black friend/coworker/confidant/righter-of-wrongs. She says things like, “Hey, listen. I found the perfect girl for you, and let me tell you something. She is cuuute, she is single, aaand she is loaded.” Girlfriend, you are more than a stereotype, but apparently not on Ion Television. At least Watts tries to show that where she can, and her enthusiasm is well used.

Released: 2010
Prod: Tom Shell, John Murlowski
Dir: John Murlowski
Writer: Lorene Lacey, Steven Palmer Peterson
Cast: Ashley Scott, A.J. Buckley, Lochlyn Munro, Rolanda Watts, Vanessa Evigan, Piper Harris
Time: 89 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Ion
Reviewed: 2014