Month: November 2015

Help for the Holidays

help for the holidays

Help for the Holidays has many of the ingredients for a TV Christmas movie – mugs of hot chocolate brimming with marshmallows, strands of garland twinkling with lights, and a family that seriously needs to get its Christmas mojo back. It’s all set to give you the holiday feels, except it wasn’t always the holiday I expected.

Christine Prancer is an elf “from up north” who longs to see the wider world. She gets her wish when she is sent by Santa (Steve Larkin) to help a family rediscover the joy of Christmas. The problem is, she doesn’t really understand Muggles and, having lived a sheltered life in the North Pole, she finds herself somewhat out of her element in Southern California. Summer Glau, who plays Christine, has her character’s look of bewilderment down but may have over-perfected it. The naïve elf’s perplexedness could just as easily be mistaken for the robotic stare of a life-sized horror doll ready to murder your whole family. Perky elves, I’ve decided, are kind of creepy, unless they come from Rivendell.

Besides, I’ve seen enough Christmas movies to start doubting any new acquaintances I might make during the holidays, especially the romantic kind (this, however, has ever been a problem). It seems now is a time ripe for running into angels and elves and other other-worldly creatures. Christine disguises herself as a babysitter to the Van Camps two young children while the parents busy themselves with increasing their profits at their Christmas-themed store. She doesn’t see much of them, nor do their kids, but Christine does end up spending more and more time with mom (Eve La Rue) Sara’s brother, David (John Brotherton).

Christine doesn’t know what to do about her feelings for David though, or anyone for that matter. She must abide by Santa’s rules about not becoming emotionally entangled with humans lest she be sent back home. It seems a bit harsh, but this is coming from a guy who puts lumps of coal in kids’ stockings. Christine also develops a soft spot for the kids, who are eager to celebrate the holidays properly – with a real Christmas tree, homemade cookies, and popcorn garland. Instead, Mom and Dad wait until after the store closes on Christmas Eve and use unsold decorations to brighten the house, only to cart them back on Boxing Day for post-Christmas sales.

That’s a cynical move even for the steeliest Grinch, but I almost didn’t mind. It reminded me of a dusty children’s story, a favorite from my middle school library, about a mom who refuses to celebrate Christmas “like every Tom, Dick, and Harry.” Granted, The Coat Hanger Christmas Tree by Eleanor Estes is about non-conformity and decidedly against milking the holidays for every dollar. That’s a far more appealing and original story than Help for the Holidays ever tries to be, but let’s not leave it to Hallmark to push the boundaries. This movie’s cranky parents and their moody kids was a good change and the delirious teenager love between Christine and David gave me a fizzy feeling, but in the end, Help plays it safe. It rescues its characters from their Christmas doldrums and satisfies those who still believe, or want to believe, in Santa Claus.

Released: 2012
Prod: Lincoln Lageson
Dir: Bradford May
Writer: Abbey Cleland, Bob Saenz
Cast: Summer Glau, Eve La Rue, John Brotherton, Dan Gauthier, Izabela Vidovic, Mason Cook, Steve Larkin
Time: 87 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark
Reviewed: 2015

Christmas Magic

christmas magic

Icy roads are no joke. That’s the prevailing lesson in Christmas Magic, where hazardous driving conditions claim not one but two lives. Cell phones are also a major contributing factor and the reason why Carrie Bishop (Lindy Booth) gets catapulted into the afterlife just weeks before Christmas. There, she gets her figurative wings and an assignment from her angel guide (Derek McGrath) to help hunky widower and father Scott Walker (Paul McGillion) – not the hunky politician – through some tough times.

Scott’s on the verge of losing his restaurant, a local establishment with a dwindling clientele, though it shouldn’t come as a surprise since he hasn’t changed the menu in years. It’s a gesture to the regulars who want the same old same old, but it also means that everything really does taste like chicken. Carrie, a top event planner, sweeps in with a few ideas and helps Scott find the right connections to revitalize the business. In no time at all, he’s laughing and singing and generally having a good time. It’s quite a transformation since he hasn’t been in a festive mood since losing his wife in a car accident some years before.

The movie says all the right things about loving life, preferably when you’re alive. Carrie wasn’t a nasty person, but she was ambitious and regrets not carpe-ing more diems (pardon the Latin). She also has unresolved dad issues and wishes she had made more meaningful relationships with people than with her car. She makes the most of her second chance though, and you can’t really dislike her, or Booth. The actress is too sweet a presence to dismiss, and her performance sets the tone for the whole movie, bringing things back to equilibrium when the story gets too saccharine or glum.

And it does swing both ways, though more towards the former. Subtlety is not a part of the Hallmark writers’ toolbox, and the plot and emotions aren’t exactly done with a light touch. Carrie is spoken of in celestial terms so often that you might think you’re being smothered in a crate of angel feathers. The movie also doesn’t do much to add to the overused Christmas magic motif, nor does it improve on lackluster titles. It’s a dash of Christmas Carol, a few shakes of It’s a Wonderful Life, and mounds of assumptions about heavenly master plans. Sometimes there’s no why; things just are the way they are, and we must love the good and the bad. Always a fitting thought when watching Hallmark Christmas movies.

Released: 2011
Prod: Marek Posival
Dir: John Bradshaw
Writer: Joany Kane, Ricky Castaneda, Kevin Commins
Cast: Lindy Booth, Paul McGillion, Derek McGrath
Time: 87 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark
Reviewed: 2015

Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger

nativity 2 danger in the manger

The adorable children of St Bernadette’s in Coventry return for a second installment of Nativity, this time without the exclamation point. That’s because things don’t work quite as well the second time around, especially with insufferable teacher’s assistant Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton) still hanging about. This movie lacks a natural chemistry that guided the original story and sentiment and instead jerks forward like a hastily assembled Christmas play. The first film won me over because, despite its imperfections, it prioritised harried primary school teacher Mr Maddens (Martin Freeman), who struggled to instill some real values in his students while nursing a broken heart. It was unglamorous and a bit of a slow burn, but the process also yielded some touching classroom moments.

This Danger in the Manger edition, however, is more concerned with creating frenzy and pathos, a result of putting batty Mr Poppy at the centre. Although new teacher Donald Peterson (David Tennant) fills the responsible adult void, the character has few meaningful exchanges with anyone, at least none that don’t feel obligatory. The film throws up a few weak obstacles for him to sort through; his father (Ian McNeice) frowns on his unambitious career choice while Donald’s overachieving twin, Roderick (Tennant’s hipster twin), just can’t be bothered. Happily, he and his wife (Joanna Page) are expecting their first child, but his home life holds little weight, either with the audience or with the other characters, since everyone is gripped by Song for Christmas fever.

The students, egged on by Mr Poppy, are desperate to join the televised singing contest to be held in Wales. The prize pot and the chance for national fame attracts St Bernadette’s old nemesis, Mr Shakespeare (Jason Watkins) and his scarily talented show kids, who have prepared a Les Misérables-inspired Dickens medley. Roderick, a renowned director, also wants the spotlight on his intense boy band of choristers.

Eventually, this is a movie about the underdog; it’s Christmas after all. But it’s unevenly focused on the chase, on the physical journey to get over hills and dales to a castle in Wales. It leaves few moments of peace for any character to shine through with emotional clarity. Tennant is a non-factor, though Watkins, with a lesser part, really milks it. My ire is mostly directed at Mr Poppy and his enabler, actor Marc Wootton, who don’t so much hog the screen as they do jump, tumble, and splatter themselves all over it. While there is a positive energy buried beneath the unkempt mess, the responsible teacher in me can’t square with the onslaught of puerile antics, which include attacking teachers, kidnapping babies, and hopping abandoned rafts. It’s a relentless sideshow, and the most maddening thing is that Mr Poppy ends up being framed as the hero. His sage guidance not only helps the students but also Mr Peterson.

As with the first film though, the music proved to be a salve. Because the numbers are one-off performances by each of the contestants, there isn’t the consistency or cohesion of the pageant numbers that I adore for the original. Still, there is cheeky humor (‘All I want for Christmas is Christmas stuff’) and a rousing, kid-friendly campaign Christmas tune (‘Yes We Can’). They save the best for last though, and ‘Hawaii in My Heart’ deserves a spot on your holiday playlist.

‘Counting Down to Christmas’ by Shane and the Calendar Girls:

‘Snow Angel’ by Lloyd and the Snowballs:

‘Peace and Joy’ by St Cuthbert’s Choir:

‘Yes We Can’ by St Bernadette’s:

‘Born in the Hay’ by St Bernadette’s:

‘Hawaii in My Heart’ by St Bernadette’s:

Released: 2012
Prod: Nick Jones
Dir: Debbie Isitt
Writer: Debbie Isitt
Cast: David Tennant, Marc Wootton, Jason Watkins, Jessica Hynes, Pam Ferris, Ian McNeice, Joanna Page
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2015

Christmas Under Wraps

christmas under wraps

For a touch of holiday magic, check out Christmas Under Wraps starring Candace Cameron Bure as a big city doctor who ends up in tiny Garland, Alaska. It’s your typical fish out of water story, one that filmmakers have livened up with tinsel and twinkling stars. I’d put this one in the top half of Hallmark’s relentless 2014 Christmas movie campaign though that doesn’t exactly count as a hearty recommendation. But the movie’s pleasant, even if it’s not a stunner, and everyone’s likable making for stress-free viewing.

There’s a little bit of a prima donna in Bure’s character, Lauren, at first, if only to justify the transformative experience she has away from the city lights. She reluctantly leaves San Francisco for a position as Garland’s town doctor while still keeping an eye on a prestigious fellowship in Boston. You know she’s going to have a rough time adjusting because she can’t get her soy latte with nonfat milk and organic sweetener at the local cafe. She also refuses to wear flannel.

But she adjusts, rather accepts, her situation. Part of the reason is because she sees her immediate impact on the residents, who have gone without a doctor for a year. For that, she’s welcomed like the town rock star. The other reason is Andy (David O’Donnell), the cute handyman. He’s the son of Frank Holliday (Brian Doyle-Murray), owner of Holliday shipping and Santa Claus doppelganger.

Even if Lauren is warming up to the people and the town, and Andy, she doesn’t imagine herself staying any longer than necessary. But she soon gets drawn into a mystery that everyone’s trying to keep secret from her. Actually, that makes the story sound more tantalizing than it is. Instead, I should say that there’s something unique about Garland that anyone can guess after five minutes, or by reading Hallmark’s description. This gets played well though with a few cheeky winks that never overtake the story.

Nor does the romance between Lauren and Andy get too much emphasis. In fact, it’s quite restrained for this type of movie both in the telling and the acting, and that ends up making it all the more bearable. There are a few platitudes about following your heart; the couple have minor arguments with their parents about what direction to go in life, but that’s not really the takeaway. What you really need to know is that it’s a bit of fun, there’s a touch of romance, and it goes down well with a plate of cookies and a warm mug of hot chocolate.

Released: 2014
Prod: Barry Barnholtz, Candace Cameron Bure
Dir: Peter Sullivan
Writer: Jennifer Notas
Cast: Candace Cameron Bure, David O’Donnell, Robert Pine, Kendra Mylnechuk, Brian Doyle-Murray, Joyce Cohen, James Gaisford, Page Petrucka, Anita Rice
Time: 84 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark
Reviewed: 2015

Hats Off to Christmas!

hats off to christmas

Hats Off to Christmas! plays up the holiday tropes in order to force warm feelings into a neatly packaged gift box. Some of it works but the overall effect is clunky storytelling with characters to match. The movie’s title comes from the name of a year-round Christmas store specializing in holiday hats. They’ve got a topper for every size and style, and apparently it’s good business. But not so good that the family-owned company doesn’t need restructuring. The owner’s reluctance to expand and modernize means they’re increasingly in the red.

That prompts him to bring in Nick (Antonio Cupo), his Yale and Columbia educated son, so that he can put his MBA to good use. Meanwhile, longtime employee Mia (Haylie Duff) thinks she’s in for a promotion but instead finds herself babysitting Nick as he learns the ins and outs of the family business. The two butt heads at once. He’s an arrogant prick who feels he’s too good for the store and the close knit hometown he fled years ago, and she’s a widowed mother with a paralyzed son (able-bodied actor Sean Michael Kyer) desperate for a father figure. It’s easy to see where this relationship is headed.

However, the road to love is paved with pride, misplaced accusations, and lots of side-eye. And a seductive mini-skirted banker named Valerie (Kendra Anderson). She’s in town to reassess the store’s loan but shares Nick’s distaste for small town life, lobbing pot shots at everyone and everything she can. Nick, her old classmate and lover, sympathizes but also begins to thaw to his new coworkers. It’s no wonder given their sob stories, which include death, illness, and financial difficulties.

Cupo is more convincing of the pair as he transitions from jocky GQ model (per Mia) to perfect man and father figure. However, Duff’s performance suffers with the script, which has her character growing hot and cold in the relationship. Mia’s varied acceptance and rejection of Nick are no more than giant signposts signalling the next act in the story, one you can happily drive past if there’s something better to watch.

Released: 2013
Prod: Dan Paulson, Shawn Williamson
Dir: Terry Ingram
Writer: Deanna Talcott, Deborah Majinska, Jennifer Notas
Cast: Haylie Duff, Antonio Cupo, Jay Brazeau, Sean Michael Kyer, Melanie Papalia, Kendra Anderson, Lori Triolo, Michael Adamthwaite
Time: 84 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark
Reviewed: 2015