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

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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

The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

Many a film, television show, and book has been deemed “great,” and some have even earned that qualifier. My greatest of the greats would include Great Expectations, The Great Train Robbery (2013), Great Performances, The Great British Bake-Off, of course. The Great Muppet Caper? Not so great. Plain old Muppet Caper would have sufficed because while this is a pleasant film, it’s never as zany or clever or joyful as my favorite Muppet adventure, The Muppets. No qualifier needed.

Instead, the movie is like a TV special for kids who just want a silly heist or those who still get the nearly forty-year-old pop culture references. It’s a fun romp and keeps your attention with plenty of songs and scene changes, but the story moves almost too quickly. In making sure the caper ticks along, the writers seem to have forgotten the heart of the Muppet franchise – its characters.

When twins Kermit and Fozzie and their friend Gonzo, all journalists at The Daily Chronicle, fail to report on a major jewel theft, they try to save their jobs by going directly to London to investigate. However, Kermit mistakes receptionist Miss Piggy for the victim, designer Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg), and doesn’t realize what he’s done until after they’ve gone on a date and she is framed for a second theft. The reporters, along with their new Muppet friends at the Happiness Hotel, must thwart a third heist of the Fabulous Baseball Diamond at Mallory Gallery in order to save Miss Piggy from prison.

The city adds some visual flair, and Kermit and the gang take a memorable bike ride through Battersea Park. I would have liked to have seen more of London, a complement to the otherwise boxed-in set pieces. The movie features a few jazzier numbers that harken back to studio classics, several of which include Miss Piggy. Besides starring in her own Esther Williams water fantasia, she gets to sing and dance her little piggy heart out with a chorus line of men in tails and top hats. The songs, however, are not particularly memorable.

It’s easier to forgive bland songwriting than it is scriptwriting, and the Muppets are in need of personality. Sure, they are cute and clever and take every opportunity to break the fourth wall, but I felt like most of the Muppets could have been easily swapped out with any similarly furry, kid-friendly franchise, The Great Paw Patrol Caper, perhaps. Okay, maybe not, but among the non-humans, only Kermit and Miss Piggy really come into their own. Kermit’s eagerness to do good and Miss Piggy’s vanity and insecurity make it easier than ever to identify with a frog and an oinker, but the others seem to be there to serve up jokes and plot points. Having seen just two Muppet movies, and thereby forfeiting my 80s-kid card, I thought Caper hewed closer to the lackluster Muppets Most Wanted, a tightly plotted film but one that sprints by on cameos.

“Hey a Movie!” by Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo:

“Happiness Hotel” by the Muppets:

“Steppin’ Out with a Star” by Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo:

“Night Life” by Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem:

“The First Time It Happens” by Kermit and Miss Piggy:

“Couldn’t We Ride” by the Muppets:

“Piggy’s Fantasy”:

“Finale: Hey a Movie!” by the Muppets:

Released: 1981
Prod: David Lazer, Frank Oz
Dir: Jim Henson
Writer: Jerry Juhl, Tom Pachett, Jack Rose, Jay Tarses
Cast: Diana Rigg, Charles Grodin, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire
Time: 97 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015

Holiday Wishes (2006)

When it comes to body switch movies, there are far better choices than Holiday Wishes, an overplotted story about two teens who swap places and the random adult who somehow gets involved. A few emotional moments and fair performances from the young actors save it from being totally forgotten though. The key is figuring out how Danni (Amber Benson) fits into the picture. I couldn’t initially because real life comes before Lifetime and was punished by having to watch it a second time.

Danni, it turns out, is a party planner and not one of the teens. In my defense, Benson looks like teenage Michelle Trachtenberg, and I didn’t know if Trachtenberg was actually in the film and I was seeing double. (She is not; I was not.) She’s also an orphan and has spent the better part of her adult life and savings searching for her younger sister. Now that the private investigator she’s hired is following up on leads, she’s more confident than ever that she’ll be reunited with her only family member this Christmas.

But there’s still a party to plan, and Danni’s getting ready for an important holiday gathering at the King home. Kelly King (Gwynyth Walsh) hopes to land a major account for a young girls’ clothing line, and a successful party featuring a speech by her daughter could clinch the deal. Teenager Britney (Britt McKillip) is not going to parrot some platitudes about perfect family relationships without getting something in return though, like her parents’ credit cards. That’s because she’s spoiled and selfish but also because she doesn’t have a great relationship with her absent parents. She compensates with shopping sprees and by acting queen bee at school.

It’s at the school’s winter dance that Britney bumps into Rachel (Katie Keating), but not before humiliating her. Rachel, a foster kid whose latest guardians are the Bradleys, is less than thrilled with her situation, and who can blame her because social worker Claudia (Donna Yamamoto) totally dropped the ball and placed her in a home where she’s abused by her foster siblings. This is unacceptable and why she wishes for some real damn parents, ones who will give her the love she needs.

Rachel gets that chance when she and Britney cross paths, wish upon a metal star, and wake up in each other’s bodies. After a brief freak-out, they try to switch back but without luck. Britney is stuck in Walmart clothes, by her account, and Rachel gets a designer wardrobe along with the parents she’s always wanted. Danni, meanwhile, finds herself drawn into this mess because she was chaperoning Britney at the dance and because she overhears the girls’ frantic conversation. Since none of the other adults seem to have a handle on parenting, she offers to help.

You could excise Danni from the story and still have a serviceable Christmas body switch film. I like the triangle of support that the three young women give each other though. Britney and Rachel start off as stereotypes, but there’s an effort to dig into their characters. Both find themselves having to stand up for who they are even though they kind of are not. In doing so, they gain confidence and learn to rely on each other while Danni shepherds them through their conflict.

If this was all the movie was about, that would be enough. There are too many pieces to this story though. Danni’s subplot about her sister is moving and helps her connect with Rachel, but it forces its way into the narrative. It’s too weighty to be brushed aside as often as it is. Danni’s ex-boyfriend, Jeremiah (Tygh Runyan), likewise intrudes unexpectedly. He’s a calm counterweight to everything else that’s going on, but he deserves a fuller presence. Often there’s a disconnect between the characters, as if each is appearing in a scene just to serve a function before retreating back into his or her own little world.

Released: 2006
Dir: David Weaver
Writer: Peter Mohan
Cast: Amber Benson, Tygh Runyan, Britt McKillip, Katie Keating, Gwynyth Walsh, Barclay Hope, Patricia Drake, Michael Rogers, Donna Yamamoto, Sam Bradley, Magda Apanowicz
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Lifetime
Reviewed: 2018