Month: November 2018

Hope at Christmas (2018)

I’m calling bullshit on Hope at Christmas, not because it’s another soppy, manufactured love story or because it idealizes small town America but because there’s never been a fourth grade teacher as hot as Ryan Paevey, and this is a fact. The man is distractingly beautiful, so much so that we’ve lost the plot on this one in my household; it’s now just the “hot fourth grade teacher” movie, which is a better and more accurate title by the way, Hallmark.

If I remember the story though, it goes something like this. Single mom Sydney (Scottie Thompson) and her daughter, Rayanne (Erica Tremblay), return to Hopewell for the holidays. Sydney, who spent part of her childhood there, has inherited her grandmother’s house and wants to get in order before she puts it on the market. Her friendship with Bea (Colleen Winton), the owner of a local bookshop, also leads to several run-ins with Mac (Paevey), said fourth grade teacher and occasional handyman, novelist, and village Santa. Over the next few weeks, Sydney and Mac grow closer, with the prodding of Bea and Rayanne, and Sydney starts to reconsider her decisions to sell the house and start a new job in New York.

There are a few plot strands going on, and all of them feed handily into one another. In addition to the romance and Sydney’s reassessment of her priorities, Bea also finds herself thinking about her future and that of her store while Rayanne juggles whether she’d rather be with her dad in Hawaii or with her mom and new friends in Hopewell. I’m not going to pretend that my enjoyment of this film isn’t related to Paevey though. The guy plays a quiet, capable, and single and emotionally available, man, and what is Hallmark if not some form of wish fulfillment? The movie makes no effort to spoil Mac’s image, with Paevey’s smoldering restraint adding to his character’s allure. Mac’s only fault seems to be his bargain bin romance style of writing, which I will take because no one is perfect. When he finds out that Rayanne’s biggest Christmas wish is for her mom to be happy again, he’s determined to make it come true and sets out with a plan that involves a fresh tree and a French restaurant.

Thompson is a good match for her costar; she too is mum and comfortable with others doing the talking, but she lights up when she’s got a firm grip on an idea or conviction. Sydney excitedly broaches the idea of a book club for kids at Bea’s shop and chastises Mac when she initially suspects him of stealing. Things might be on the drab side though if it weren’t for Tremblay bouncing around – and yes, little Erica is Jacob’s sister, which you probably guessed because the two look and act exactly the same. Those who like a precocious kid will find the pint-sized Tremblay adorable, but if you don’t want your child actors so studied, she might be too much.

There haven’t been many standouts so far this Hallmark holiday season, and the station’s been getting some stiff competition over at Lifetime and Netflix. Hope at Christmas is Hallmark’s first solid film so far, however, ticking most of the right boxes. It’s a little somber and reflective but also chirpy and goofy. Did I mention the cast looks fab too?

Released: 2018
Writer: Robert Tate Miller
Cast: Scottie Thompson, Ryan Paevey, Erica Tremblay, Colleen Winton, Peter Graham-Gaudreau, Nelson Wong
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018

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Christmas in the City (2013)

Having spent many a Christmas in the city, I can say with certainty that none of them turned out as well as it does for Wendy Carroll (Ashley Williams), a single mother who takes a job in the city in order to earn enough money to save her father’s candy store. Apart from an early run-in with a homeless Santa, things are golden the minute she arrives at her friend Angie’s (Shanola Hampton) flat. While waiting for Angie to clock in at the department store, Wendy is offered a job with a fat bonus, catches the eye of the handsome boss, and gets free daycare. Where do I sign up, Lifetime?

Wolman’s, the department store, is still run by the Wolman family, including Uncle Harry and young Tom (Jon Prescott). They are a generous bunch and aim to create a supportive working environment for their employees and a pleasurable shopping experience for their customers. Unfortunately something about what they’re doing has put them in the red, and the board installs Teanna (Ashanti) to turn things around. The forward thinking manager changes the traditional look of the store. It’s out with the candy canes and in with the half-nude models in Santa hats, a trick that probably works better at Abercrombie and not the toy section of a department store. Nevertheless, the script dictates that something about what she’s doing starts to put Wolman’s back in the black.

The story is partly a tug-of-war between Teanna’s reforms and the whole Wolman’s gang. Tom, Wendy, and Angie worry that the changes will destroy the store’s character even if they are good for business. Ashanti isn’t the first person I’d pick to play Teanna, though early 2000s me thinks it’s a smart move. Credit to the singer-actress anyway because her character definitely walks around like she doesn’t give AF about what you think about her firing Santa and if you say another damn word she’ll fire you too. Her job is to be the Cruella de Vil, and she is, sans fur, supremely single-minded and cold-blooded.

Teanna’s targeting of Wendy, however, seems a little too petty, even for her. When she finds out that Wolman’s latest hire is going on skating dates with the heir presumptive, she sets Wendy up for a big fall. That’s normally a move for romantic rivals, but in this story, it’s just a way of complicating the fast-moving romance between Wendy and perfect, gorgeous Tom, who sings and plays piano, by the way.

Williams and Prescott are a pleasant, lovely duo, but the actor who really steals the show is Josh Crotty. He has a small part as Teanna’s mistreated lap dog, Bruno, but makes the most of his dumb character’s screen time. Whether he’s playing around with a life-size nutcracker or looking sad and confused about his lunch, I wanted to see more of him. I also wanted more of Angie, the black best friend who also has an interesting subplot about struggling to make it on Broadway. I’d rather watch her movie since I’ve had my fill of the save-the-family-business-during-Christmas movie, but at least she gets a significant part.

“It’s Christmas” by Ashanti:

“Christmas is the Time” by Ashanti:

“Christmas Love” by Ashanti:

“Santa’s Got Something for You” by Todd Herfindal:

Released: 2013
Dir: Marita Grabiak
Writer: Barbara Kymlicka
Cast: Ashley Williams, Ashanti, Jon Prescott, Shanola Hampton, Kylie Noelle Price, David Ralphe, Beverly Leech, Josh Crotty, Michael Durrell
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Lifetime
Reviewed: 2018

Crazy for Christmas (2005)

Crazy for Christmas should be retitled Creepy for Christmas because while it finally gets to its homey, feel-good destination, it takes a long, meandering route that detours into harassment and abuse of privilege. It’s not your usual holiday movie plot and that may be enough to keep some folks interested, but the fact that you can’t see where you’re going also puts you in the position of the lead character, Shannon (Andrea Roth), and it’s not a comfortable ride.

The single mom is trying hard to keep things together for her and her young son, Trevor (Jason Spevack). Shannon, a chauffeur, agrees to take a Christmas Eve shift so the family can have some extra money and maybe not have to depend on their annoying neighbor, Mrs. Granger (Joyce Gordon). She finds that her client is a wealthy retiree who’s in a very generous mood, and as she drives this mysterious Fred (Howard Hesseman) around the city, he takes every chance he can to hand out money to strangers, eventually attracting the attention of a news crew.

That sounds harmless enough, a tale of an eccentric St. Nick and the woman who finds herself transformed somehow by this experience. Except it’s all a string of creepy misbehavior, or what can certainly be misconstrued as such. In the opening scene, an unseen man, who we later realize is Fred, combs through the chauffeur agency’s driver list, passing over row after row of men before settling on the one female driver. “This one,” he says, pointing at Shannon’s picture. There’s jaunty music in the background and it is a Christmas movie so we can assume there’s nothing menacing going on, but to a woman, it also looks like the start to an entirely different kind of Lifetime movie.

Things just go downhill from there. Fred constantly comments on Shannon’s looks, telling her that she’s even prettier in person and that her nostrils have a way of flaring out when she’s angry. He tries to set her up with his lawyer despite her not signing up for this matchmaking service. The most disturbing thing about Fred is that he knows something about Shannon’s personal life and is not being forthright about it. By keeping the truth from her, he figures he can just buy her happiness and discard the messy bits that come with what he knows. Shannon, who’s a pro at this service thing, keeps her cool in ways I would not, but the anger is there and rightly so.

The companion part if you will to Fred’s harassment is the way he parades his generosity. The movie wants you to congratulate this crazy old man for his largesse. He likes making it rain $100 bills, and he has a lot of $100 bills. However, I see no dignity in throwing out money to the masses so that they’ll grab for and claw at it like animals. It’s Dickensian, and if I wanted that, well I wouldn’t turn to Lifetime.

These troubling aspects of the script kept me from enjoying any of the lighter parts of the story. Fred’s connection to Shannon does have a touching postscript, if you’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. A young Yannick Bisson also appears as an ambitious reporter who gets the scoop and the girl – but in a way that makes him see his own shortcomings. None of that is what I’ll remember about Crazy for Christmas though, if I remember this movie at all.

Released: 2005
Dir:  Eleanore Lindo
Writer: Michael A. Simpson, Rick Bitzelberger
Cast: Andrea Roth, Howard Hesseman, Jason Spevack, Yannick Bisson, Daniel Fathers, Joyce Garden
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Lifetime
Reviewed: 2018

Rocky Mountain Christmas (2017)

Hallmark movies are a constant reminder that I don’t have a rural retreat and I can’t afford to take more than a week of vacation. Also there are zero eligible bachelors within a fifty mile radius of me. But this is not a problem for Hallmark women, especially not Sarah (Lindy Booth), an interior designer for a ritzy hotel chain. After a public breakup with a tech mogul, she escapes to her uncle’s ranch, where she has all the time and space in the world to recover from the relationship, evade the paparazzi, reconsider her career choices, ride some horseys, and meet a hot movie star. Not a bad deal.

It doesn’t start off so well though because the first thing she discovers is that Christmas is effectively cancelled this year. The recent death of her aunt has left not only a hole in her family but in the community, and it seems no one can muster up the Christmas spirit without her. That means no annual parade or tree lighting ceremony unless Sarah can be convinced to put her design skills to use while she’s on holiday.

It’s a good thing she can and that she can depend on the movie star who’s just driven into town. Graham (Kristoffer Polaha) is preparing for an upcoming role as a rancher and happens upon Uncle Roy’s (Treat Williams) place. The family decides it’ll be a good idea to take in a stranger and put him to work. For a more authentic experience, Sarah forces him to bunk in the barn and then has a bit of fun assigning him double duty as ranch hand and her holiday planner PA.

Booth is the one holding this movie together, and she effortlessly transitions from cosmopolitan designer to country queen. She touches on Sarah’s varied personality; she’s playful and sly when she’s ordering Graham around but she’s also a dutiful niece. When Uncle Roy decides to sell the ranch, she worries that it will mean losing their home and their memories. Of all the men in this movie, Williams has the most chemistry with Booth. He also looks the part of a gravelly rancher, unlike Chris McNally, who plays Sarah’s brother, Cody. The kid looks like he’s playing cowboy dress up. Polaha seems comfortable with country living, but I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup if I tried. He and Booth are compatible, but their romance does’t bring an extra spark to the movie.

What Rocky Mountain Christmas needs is more Rocky Mountain. There are a few scenes of ranch life and the outdoors, but this film suffers the same fate as all Hallmark productions. There’s a lack of vision and scope. Rather than taking advantage of the setting, the camera zooms in on what it’s used to – decked out storefronts, old boxes of memories, piles of wood. There’s potential for something special, but then again, there’s always potential.

Released: 2017
Dir: Tibor Takács
Writer: Gregg Rossen, Brian Sawyer, Elena Zaretsky
Cast: Lindy Booth, Kristoffer Polaha, Treat Williams, Chris McNally, Paige McCulloch, Jason Schombing
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

A Very Merry Toy Store (2017)

What to say about A Very Merry Toy Store that hasn’t already been said about every other Christmas movie? My mom saw this last year and recommended I delete it from the DVR, and she was right because of course. The only thing the movie has to offer is the 90s dream team of Melissa Joan Hart and Mario Lopez, but seeing as I lived in a hole during my teenage years and never cared for Sabrina or Slater, the duo left me unimpressed.

Hart and Lopez play competing toy shop owners whose rivalry dates back a generation to when her father and his uncle fell out over their business partnership. Connie and Will are happy to continue the family feud, that is until Roy’s Toys, a big box store, muscles in right before the holidays. It’s a farfetched plot from a city planning perspective. There’s no way the two didn’t know Roy’s was coming in and try to push back before ol’ Roy (Billy Gardell) got approval. But then we would be without a movie because Connie and Will spend the rest of the time joining forces to save both their stores from going under. Besides whipping out arcane zoning laws to stall Roy’s move, they also try luring customers with pancake breakfasts. Their new rival, however, is a small business black hole, threatening to suck the two out of existence.

All this plotting is bound to make Connie and Will sentimental. Exhausted and out of ideas, they let their guard down and start to fall for one another. It helps that Will is great with her young son, TJ (Cameron Mann), and lends a hand to build the kid’s bobsled. The race, by the way, takes place on a giant mountain and is a lawsuit waiting to happen, but abiding by safety regulations would just take the fun out of everything.

Fun is what this movie could use a lot more of, however. Despite an abundance of toys, we only get to see Connie poking around with a drone and customers going on about the latest princess doll. There’s no visual excitement, not the feast of old fashioned games or whistling train sets or transforming robots that you’d expect from a movie that takes place in a toy store at Christmas. At the very least, they could have given us a huge floor mat keyboard. The one person who livened up proceedings was Connie’s lovable, dim brother, Randy (Dan Amboyer), and only then because he reminded me of Matthew, another lovable dim brother on the TV show, Champions.

Released: 2017
Dir: Paula Hart
Writer: David Breckman
Cast: Melissa Joan Hart, Mario Lopez, Dan Amboyer, Cameron Mann, Beth Broderick, Billy Gardell, Brian Dennehy
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Lifetime
Reviewed: 2018