Month: December 2018

The Christmas Note (2015)

Not every Hallmark movie needs to end in a holiday romance, and in fact, the absence of one allows stories about other kinds of relationships to be told, like that between two strangers in The Christmas Note. Neighbors Gretchen (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and Melissa (Leah Gibson) are the type of people who will exchange polite “hellos” in the driveway and leave it at that, careful not to intrude on each other’s personal life, until some unexpected news brings them closer together.

Gretchen and her son, Ethan (Dylan Kingwell), move back to her hometown after her husband is injured during a second tour of duty. Ethan wastes no time exploring the neighborhood and practically invites himself over to Melissa’s house despite her desire to keep a distance. She doesn’t get a chance to tell the kid to back off though because she soon gets news of her mother’s death. Alone and without any friends or family, she turns to Gretchen. They discover a note from her mother and learn that Melissa has an older sibling who was given up for adoption.

Melissa’s efforts to reconnect with her lone family member and to find out more about her estranged mom lead down a compelling path, but problems in this movie have a way of sorting themselves out too cleanly. Little Wilsonville has all the connections, and if an old roommate or coworker can’t help Melissa, they know just the person who can, and he or she happens to live up the road. The movie also assumes a cloying optimism that doesn’t quite line up with a story so filled with pain and regret. I’d expect someone in Melissa’s position to push back a little, but every time she finds out something new about her mother or is disappointed in her search, she quickly picks herself up and moves on. I thought surely she’d fire back at Gretchen or Gretchen’s mother (Lynda Boyd) for spreading her business all about town. At the very least, I figured she’d have a word with Ethan about boundaries, whether or not he barged in with a plate of cookies.

Yet for all its overripe cheer, I appreciated the performances and a story that wasn’t centered around romantic love. The movie still rests on finding love in a small town, but that idea is manifested in different ways and expands Hallmark’s usual notions of loss and loneliness. Rather than recycling the same narrative about someone who’s recovering from a break-up or who’s at a juncture in her career, or who’s just inherited another bloody inn, The Christmas Note is more flexible in its concept of family. Melissa discovers she is not alone and finds mothers and sisters in her new friends.

The movie also shows sensitivity in dealing with grief and loss. One of the best moments in the film is when Gretchen delicately breaks the bad news to Melissa. Sigler allows us to empathize with Melissa through her own character, and Gretchen demonstrates compassion for a woman she has no connection to but whom she knows is in need of a friend. She and her son give Melissa space to grieve but also make sure they provide concrete support. I liked how Gibson moves through her character’s grief as well. Melissa has cut herself off emotionally for so long that seeing her rediscovering joy gives me the same feeling too.

Released: 2015
Dir: Terry Ingram
Writer: Wesley Bishop, Jessica Scott, Erik Patterson
Cast: Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Leah Gibson, Lynda Boyd, Dylan Kingwell, Barclay Hope, Nicola Cavendish, Lochlyn Munro, Zachary Gulka
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018

The Christmas Star (1986)

The Christmas Star is a pleasant alternative if you’ve exhausted the usual holiday hits and don’t feel like one of Hallmark or Lifetime’s repetitive offerings. It’s a story that’s been told before in one form or another but that benefits from affecting performances by Ed Asner as a conman Santa and the child actors who play the gullible kids. Asner is a perfect fit for Horace, the grumpy, bearded prisoner who escapes prison during a Christmas party. Decked out in his stolen Santa suit, he makes his way into the city and hides in the apartment basement of the Jameson family. Siblings Billy (Nicholas Van Burek) and Trudy (Vicki Wauchope) think he’s the real Santa, and word soon gets round to all the neighborhood kids that Mr. Claus has come to town.

Horace is eager to recover the loot from the crime that got him sent to prison. He knows it’s hidden among the Christmas decorations used by a large department store, but there are a lot of decorations. Also, he can’t go popping off reindeer heads in plain view of the public and police officers, though he tries. Being the resourceful criminal he is, he manipulates Billy, Trudy, and some of their friends into helping him find his money. At least this is his plan.

There’s some Christmas magic in watching the cynical, selfish loner transform into a repentant do-gooder. Horace doesn’t lose his rough edges, but he surprises himself by empathizing with the Jamesons when Mr. Sumner (Rene Auberjonois), their severe landlord, threatens to turn out the family. Sumner’s cruelty extends to his own son, John (Zachary Ansley), whom he bullies relentlessly, and Horace makes a quick calculation, deciding that he must intervene even if it means surfacing from his hiding place. For the first time in a long while, he finds himself in a position to do something positive and meaningful that isn’t also self-serving.

The child actors bring a lot of wonder to this film and keep the story honest. I loved the innocence of wide-eyed Wauchope while Van Burek also gives his character a sensitivity that is very endearing. The camera catches some candid moments that add personality to the city block and the people living there, like one shot of the girls playing with dolls and a crate on their porch step. The simplicity of a scene where Horace gives in and plays Santa to a group of children huddled in the basement was moving as well. There aren’t many Christmas movies that show the beauty and hope of poor kids, all of them whispering their most secret wishes to a person they believe can truly bring them happiness on Christmas Day.

Everyone in this film is searching for something to believe in, and they find it for the most part, which is why the ending is a bit out of sync. It channels some ghosts of Christmas past in order to help Horace tie up some of his criminal loose ends. There’s no need to rely on the supernatural though when the rest of the movie generates enough magic on its own.

Released: 1986
Dir: Alan Shapiro
Writer: Alan Shapiro
Cast: Edward Asner, Rene Auberjonois, Jim Metzler, Susan Tyrrell, Karen Landry, Alan North, Phillip Bruns, Nicholas Van Burek, Vicki Wauchope, Zachary Ansley
Time: 94 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Disney Channel
Reviewed: 2018

A Cinderella Christmas (2016)

There’s no reason to watch this movie when Ever After exists and is rerun throughout the Christmas season. It’s a matter of respect really, and like most of Ion’s offerings, it adds little to the world or to the Cinderella story. That’s not to say this marginal retelling of the fairy tale isn’t watchable. It is, and star Emma Rigby is a satisfactory if forgettable Cinderella. You’ll be left wondering, however, why you spent an hour and a half on this muted film when even Hilary Duff’s dippy adaptation generates some drama and emotion.

The writing is a good chunk of the problem. It took me awhile to figure out that the plot and characters needed fixing and not my wonky DVR that sometimes skips scenes. In particular, the relationship between Angie (Rigby), the Cinderella of the story, and Nikolaus Karmichael (Peter Porte), her prince, fluctuates depending on what the narrative needs at the moment. They go from a stubborn faceoff to a weak-kneed profession of love in the span of a commercial break, and it’ll give you whiplash if you’re paying too much attention.

The basic premise is fine for a TV romance though. Angie, orphaned at a young age and cared for by her uncle, is now running his event planning business with much success. Her hopes of taking over are thwarted by her lazy cousin, Candace (Sarah Stouffer), who convinces her dad to give ownership to the both of them. The only way Angie can buy out her cousin’s share is by working as her PA – until Candace gets married. It’s a left field solution to the problem, but it’s also the reason Candace gets in a spray tanning accident and can’t attend Nikolaus’s party. Angie, who’s catering the affair, sneaks in instead.

The Christ-Masquerade Ball (yes, I know) is the season’s hottest ticket, and Nikolaus hopes he’ll meet his true love there. So far, none of his gold-digging girlfriends has managed to win the approval of his mother (Lesley-Anne Down), but a masked mystery woman with a pure heart and no desire for his sizable inheritance may be the one. When she bails before the partygoers reveal their identities, however, he goes public with his search and marriage proposal.

All this may sound sweet in an irrational fairy tale kind of way, but Angie allows the film its one moment of clarity. Just as she is about to reveal that she is the masked mystery woman, she hesitates and ends up condemning Nikolaus’s dumb video release, arguing that the woman might not want to marry him, especially under the prying eyes of the paparazzi. For a few minutes, Angie is confident that she doesn’t need him, in much the same way that the story doesn’t need him. The real Cinderella tale is the one where she finds what she’s been looking for all this time – her independence and ownership of her own business. The romance, which moves in fits and starts and involves lying third wheel Candace, distracts from the more interesting drama. Nikolaus is a beautiful wood plank, but why would you long for that?

Released: 2016
Dir: Tosca Musk
Writer: Kelly Goodner
Cast: Emma Rigby, Peter Porte, Sarah Stouffer, Leland B. Martin, Lesley-Anne Down, Michael Dempsey, Mindy Cohn
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Ion
Reviewed: 2018