Month: November 2017

Switched for Christmas (2017)

Y’all, Hallmark is making our Christmas dreams come true! We’ve got double the Candace Cameron Bure in Switched for Christmas and I am here for it….er, maybe not, because this twin swap movie is kind of boring, in spite or because of the double Cameron Bure. Take your pick.

I’m kind of bummed because I was honestly looking forward to this, strictly in a “lemme kill an hour and a half while I do my laundry” kind of way. I love me a good Parent Trap story, and Hallmark hasn’t tried it before, at least not with the one hundred Christmas movies they put out in the past year. You’d think that this would represent a new and exciting bag of tricks for them. You know, infinite soap opera possibilities. As they always do, however, the writers default to the banal. These folks are not risk takers, and that is kind of the point. Switched is safe and safely void of creativity. Once the novelty of double CCB wears off, there’s not a lot to keep you watching.

The highlight is seeing the actress tackle two roles, Kate and Chris. The writers do their best to distinguish the twin sisters. Kate is the cosmopolitan, a real estate developer who works all the time, lives alone in her posh, polished condo, and wears dresses from the Ivanka Trump collection. Her sister couldn’t be more different. Chris is a single mother of two teens and a harried teacher. Also, her lipstick isn’t bright red and she loves a cozy sweater.

The two are night and day and as such, don’t really get on with one another. Over forced bonding time, they conceive a plan to swap places. It’s not because they want to experience the thrill of leading a double life but because both are stubborn and think the other has it easy. Each is out to prove that her life is harder, a designation that conveys moral superiority I guess? Ugh, sisters.

Their initial attempts to ape the other are predictable but could pass for funny. Kate is horrified at the prospect of wearing comfortable clothes and adopting bad posture. She also has to survive a day playing mom to Chris’s kids (one of whom is CCB’s actual kid) before they go visit their dad. Chris has a little more fun glamming it up, but what the hell is going on with the sleek minimalism, she wonders? The disdain she has for these soulless, status-searing automatons, a sentiment I support as a fellow teacher.

If Cameron Bure had greater range, well, she probably wouldn’t be making Hallmark movies, but she might also give her characters more of a spark. I get the idea is that Kate and Chris grow closer and in some ways more similar to one another; Kate loosens up while Chris finds some professional fulfillment. But Cameron Bure is always playing some variation of the same person, and you might as well throw Aurora Teagarden into the mix and make this a feuding trio (not a serious suggestion, Hallmark). The physicality and general temperament of her characters never changes even if the background does.

I’m going to go ahead and not recommend this movie, but Hallmark superfans may add it to the queue anyway. I say make like Kate’s office manager and ditch this party to write a book called either Dogsleds to Dallas or Dog Sleds to Dallas.

Released: 2017
Dir: Lee Friedlander
Writer: Tracy Andreen, Lee Friedlander
Cast: Candace Cameron Bure, Elon Bailey, Mark Deklin, Adam Sinclair, Angella Joy, Natasha Bure
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2017

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The Perfect Christmas Present (2017)

You wouldn’t guess it based on the drab title, but The Perfect Christmas Present ain’t so bad. The premise is dopey – they always are, but the actors are steaming and turn an ordinary script into something kind of magical. The movie is also a love letter to Chicago, and I’m always here for some Midwest affection. I’m going to go ahead and say this looks to be one of the better entries this Hallmark season.

First, you do have to make it through a tedious introduction to Mr. Christmas, aka Tom (Sam Page), a gift giver of sorts. Basically, clueless people pay him to buy/create/recommend the perfect gift for their special someone whatever the occasion. He’s done birthdays, anniversaries, probably bar mitzvahs, but his talent really comes through during the Christmas season, and this year he has a special commission. His old frat buddy, Paul (Sam Guinan-Nyhart), asks Tom to rescue his faltering relationship with his girlfriend, Jenny (Tara Holt). He needs whatever Tom can dream up that will win her back, never guessing of course that Tom himself might be a pretty good present.

Put aside for a moment that this guy doesn’t have a real job; Tom is the type of man that gives women unrealistic expectations. Sure, he’s no Gilbert Blythe, but he’s budget unattainable fictional guy. The qualities that make him great at choosing the perfect gift for total strangers are the same ones that make him a great boyfriend – attentive, respectful, kind. You know he’ll be creative when it comes to dates and, ahem, the proposal. Plus he’s cute.

Interestingly, the movie is told from his perspective. I know we don’t need another well-off white guy take on love and heartbreak (oh, did I just ruin something?), but it’s a departure for this channel and I’m conditioned to lean towards non-conformity, however slight. In a way, it emphasizes Tara Holt’s performance, which is so pure and radiant that I want to date her. Jenny abounds with joy and enthusiasm even while nursing some personal pain from her past. There’s something revelatory about her honesty that makes you want to just watch and smile, in a not creepy predatory kind of way. God, she also loves dogs and works at a non-profit that aids needy families (and she has a black BFF, which stop doing that, Hallmark, and give a black woman the lead role); if Tom is the perfect(ish) guy, then she is a grade above that.

I think the two are so appealing, individually and as a couple, because they see the best in each other. Also because Page and Holt inhabit their characters so fully and specifically. I can’t take cynical television anymore, at least not for the remainder of this year. I want nice people who are good to one another and good to the world. Most of the time, that’s what you get, but every now and then, the movie falls back into familiar territory. There are speedbumps in the relationship that may not be necessary but are leveraged and played up – for example, Paul’s cluelessness about really any aspect of Jenny’s life that they don’t share or the way she mistakes Tom for an event planner and ropes him into helping her organize a benefit. One can see the fallout from a mile away, and for characters who are so lived-in, these narrative choices are kind of a cop out.

I also oppose the copious voiceover Tom delivers at the beginning of the movie. Who thought this was a good idea? I don’t need him to wax lyrical on the magic of gift giving and, I don’t know, life. Please make your hot toddy while he’s opining on how “sometimes the simplest questions lead to the most profound answers” and his feeling that “if you really want to get to know someone, you should read their favorite book”? Is this guy fishing for a second career in self-help publishing? Sigh…this peters out though, so all is forgiven. In the end, The Perfect Christmas Gift doesn’t offer exactly what it says it will, but comes pretty close, so I will take it.

Released: 2017
Dir: Blair Hayes
Writer: Blaine Chiappetta
Cast: Tara Holt, Sam Page, Sam Guinan-Nyhart, Emily Peterson, Ta’Rhonda Jones
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries Channel
Reviewed: 2017

Christmas in the Air (2017)

You probably have some cleaning up to do, maybe tidying up the laundry room or rearranging your spice rack. Whatever it is, now is the time to get on that because whatever organizing you end up doing will be far more productive than watching this drab Hallmark movie about a professional organizer and a single father. Anyway, as a disciple, albeit a bad one, of Marie Kondo, I’m not partial to the idea of paying someone to tidy up your shit. The houses may look clean, but there’s no way all that stuff sparks joy.

That, it turns out, is the problem with Christmas in the Air; it doesn’t spark joy or any other positive feeling – unless you think sleep is positive, in which case this is a great movie. There’s nothing in here though that gives this the lift it needs to stay afloat. It has one of the most sluggish scripts in the Hallmark library, and I’ve suffered through quite a few, the story is bland, and the leads are just dull.

One of the main characters, Robert (Eric Close), is a toy inventor, so you’d think that his rad creations would be pulled into focus or at least we’d get to peek into his workshop. With the exception of a few brief scenes, the shots are more domestic in nature. Not much goes on there that we haven’t already seen before. I mean, cluttered house and holiday chaos? This is my normal day.

At least Robert has an excuse. He and his brother own a toy company, and they hope to woo the owner of a national chain so that he’ll stock their products the following year. The guy decides to come months earlier and to enjoy a home-cooked Christmas dinner, which means Robert’s got to clean and cook. But he’s also got two young children who have extra-curriculars and has no wife to help with dad duties.

Professional organizer Lydia (Catherine Bell) can take care of the housekeeping part. She instills in him her 3-C mantra: contain, concentrate, control. (Oh, Marie Kondo, save us!) Her uber-calm manner is what the harried widower needs, and the kids don’t mind having her around. But underneath that demeanor lie some issues she needs to work out. Having been burnt once before by a partner who was more devoted to his job than her, she is especially demanding on Robert. They start to get close, but he still is under pressure and she straight chastises him for not maintaining a good work-life balance. I get it. I live in Hong Kong; play time is important. But the guy does kind of need to seal this deal and, I don’t know, support his kids.

Their sometimes clashing priorities typifies this whole movie. It’s a lot of two ships passing in the night, and Bell and Close never really connect even when they do. Since we can’t rely on the chemistry, one might be inclined to concentrate on the story. That offers zero surprises though and you would do just as well asking a random kid to tell her own stories for an hour and a half.

Released: 2017
Dir: Martin Wood
Writer: Janna King
Cast: Catherine Bell, Eric Close, Ken Tremblatt, Malcolm Stewart, Trinity Rose Likins, Jesse Filkow
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries Channel
Reviewed: 2017

The Christmas Train (2017)

Okay, so points for the cast, which include a certain grade of actor. Points also for a story for straying from the usual Hallmark script. And definitely points for the attempt to make train travel look appealing. Every year, there’s one prestige project that gets the bigger budget and rises, or at least hopes to rise, above the rest. Last year it was A Nutcracker Christmas (still a personal favorite), and this year it seems to be The Christmas Train. Despite some big names and an unconventional story, however, the movie never seems to know where it’s heading or how it wants to get there. It makes its mark by being different, but that turns out to be not so great or memorable.

With four film ac-teurs headlining, the acting is a cut above. They turn in subdued performances, which is a good thing when you’re talking about the spiritual home of Candace Cameron Bure. There’s rawhide Dermot Mulroney, who is not the typical slick haired hottie of the month – well, not anymore, but who still has a great voice and now some weathered charm. His lady is Kimberly Williams-Paisley, a mature alternative to the shiny young things who usually run the show. Joan Cusack is, well, Joan Cusack. More on her later. And then there’s Danny Glover, a low, rumbling presence. He proves that the only way Hallmark will feature a major black character is if he or she is played by a movie star, but even then the character will probably facilitate the romance and not actually partake in it.

Let’s fume about the movie though because, you know, focus. The problem with The Christmas Train is that while the actual train travels on a set track with known destinations, the story of said train doesn’t follow suit. Generally, the plot stretches from the East to the West Coast and is about a band of passengers, each with their own little heartwarmer of a story. An elderly man is trying to move on after the death of his wife. A young couple from different sides of the track want to elope. A lonely chess player proves that he has no friends, and never had or will have any. Joan Cusack plays a quirky character who’s just always…there.

The main romance though belongs to Tom (Mulroney) and Eleanor (Williams-Paisley), ex-colleagues, ex-war correspondents, and ex-lovers. Now, I know what you must be thinking: are we going to hear the story of Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway? Okay, so that’s what I was thinking. What we get is nowhere near as fiery. Instead, they’re two people who have taken things down a notch, in every aspect of their lives. Tom writes fluff pieces for a magazine and in fact is on assignment trying to write something about train travel. Eleanor has become a Hollywood script doctor and is accompanying a director (Glover) back to LA. Neither are in any meaningful relationship, and now they’ve got four days to try to make up for the past, if that’s what they want.

Who knows though? They are hot and cold with one another, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes indifferent, sometimes actually in love. Hmm, is that how real relationships work? No matter. The movie meanders too much around these and really all its other characters. If it gets bored with one, it checks in with another, just constantly going in circles. When the script decides things are too dull, it throws a few snowballs, one about a snowstorm, another about a thief (don’t expect Murder on the Orient Express levels intrigue). I wouldn’t mind so much if it sexed things up with an occasional view of the American landscape; I’ll trade story for beauty. But I suppose like a train ride, this one’s slow going. An actual train ride, however, offers a far more rewarding experience.

Released: 2017
Dir: Ron Oliver
Writer: Neal H. Dobrofsky, Tippi Dobrofsky
Cast: Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Dermot Mulroney, Danny Glover, Joan Cusack, Holly Elissa, Kirsten Prout, Anthony Konechny, Jill Teed, Karen Holness, Terence Kelly
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2017

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

It’s been awhile since I revisited this tiny Christmas gem. The moment the first note of Vince Guaraldi’s classic score sounds, I’m transported back to my childhood. It’s a frosty weekend in St. Louis, the holidays have started, and I’m sitting by the fireplace with my brother. We’re watching Christmas cartoons and TV movies while my mom prepares dinner and my dad reads a chemistry book. (That’s right.)

Over a quarter century later, I’m sitting in a tiny Hong Kong flat, alone. It’s recently turned cold, enough that I need to bring out the extra duvet but not so much that I need to crank up the space heater. I’ve just made lunch by throwing together whatever is leftover in the fridge – a head of broccoli, a half-finished bag of Mexican cheese mix, some mini sausages. The one constant is that I’m still watching Christmas cartoons and TV movies.

The DVD starts, and it occurs to me that this 25 minute special is not just for kids and families. It also reflects the experience of a depressed thirtysomething American in Hong Kong. (Is that, um, oddly specific?) I’d remembered Charlie Brown’s sensitivity, his insistence on choosing the most pitiful tree and then getting yelled at because it’s not made of pink aluminum, but the tremendous melancholy he carries around with him everywhere was unexpected. In my youth, Peanuts was a comic strip about some kids and a beagle. Sure, Charlie Brown was always hard on himself, but you know, standards.

I see now that creator Charles Schulz was speaking to a greater ennui and that perhaps this is what captured the imagination of his readers. We still struggle to talk about depression and sadness, and I wouldn’t have guessed that I’d be projecting onto the perpetually down and out Charlie. He says with stinging clarity what so many of us think. In the opening scene, he laments to his friend Linus that there must be something wrong with him because it’s Christmas and he’s “not feeling the way [he’s] supposed to feel.” Charlie, buddy, don’t be down. You’re not wrong.

This is why I love his character and this classic. The day brings nothing but disappointment and failure. No one has sent him a card and his dog ignores him. He’s exasperated by the commercialization of the holiday, especially by the way it sweeps up Snoopy and his sister, Sally. Lucy and her ego do not help the situation, but do they ever? She manages to give Charlie a single piece of good advice, suggesting that he might find some Christmas joy if he directs the school play, but in the end, this only emphasizes what a non-entity he is. No one wants to listen to him when Schroeder’s banging away at the piano and the rest of the kids break out into those sweet, sweet dance moves.

Enter Linus, a true friend and, despite not having outgrown his security blanket, the most level-headed member of the gang. The older I get, the more I appreciate this precious kid. Bless this boy for accompanying his beleaguered pal and for his beautiful, understated recital of the Christmas story. When even Charlie Brown abandons the tree, Linus wraps it up with his blanket, prompting the other kids to finish decorating. This final scene warms my heart. For a moment, the kids show that imperfection and disappointment can be met with a measure of joy and compassion.

Charlie Brown is sad:

Linus explains the true meaning of Christmas:

The best Christmas tree:

Released: 1965
Dir: Bill Melendez
Writer: Charles M. Schulz
Cast: Peter Robbins, Chris Shea, Tracy Stratford, Kathy Steinberg
Time: 25 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: CBS
Reviewed: 2017