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