Month: February 2019

Last Chance for Christmas (2015)

There’s a lot to like about Last Chance for Christmas, but you also have to factor in an ethically challenged Mrs. Claus. She’s not the worst person in this film, but her predilections change the tenor of things. Instead of the generous, warm-spirited grandma we’re used to seeing, this Mrs. St. Nick (Jayne Eastwood) is a cranky utilitarian, totally comfortable with outright theft and the destruction of a family’s livelihood if that means keeping Christmas on schedule. When stablehand John (Gabriel Hogan) discovers a fracture in Prancer’s hoof, she orders him to find another reindeer straight away. Never mind the Clauses’ mismanagement has left them without a backup plan. With only four days until Christmas, John flies down to Buckley Falls, Alaska to secure a reindeer from the Miller ranch.

He’s surprised to find Annie Miller (Hilarie Burton) instead of her father and, as he’s a man who spends most of his time with animals and not people, ends up coming off as a bit of a loose screw. Annie thinks he’s someone from the bank, which is foreclosing on her reindeer farm, or a hack from Reginald Buckley’s (Tim Matheson) company, which hopes to incorporate her land into a winter activity park. Neither tries to clarify their misunderstandings, but when has that stopped anyone from falling in love?

I haven’t seen that much of Hogan and Burton, but I like both of them enough to immediately warm to their characters. John is wonderfully awkward, except around Frankie, the reindeer he wants to borrow, and Annie’s daughter, Madison (Lola Flanery). He wins the shy girl over by being his bumbling self. She sees through Buckley’s sugarcoated promises to protect their reindeer and knows that John’s the real deal, a true reindeer whisperer. Meanwhile, Annie is naturally guarded, suspicious about this guy from head to toe and with good reason. She’s days away from getting kicked out of her home, her father’s life’s work destroyed. Who wouldn’t be exhausted and cranky?

There’s a slight traffic jam as the story pushes through the second act, though not anything that slows things too much. John, Annie, and Madison have to figure out a way to save the farm and Christmas all while figuring out how they like coming together as a family. In addition, John struggles with an ethical dilemma, whether he should steal a reindeer and possibly ruin the Millers or not steal the reindeer and ruin Christmas for everyone in the world. It’s a problem above his pay grade, but John is a principled guy and just what we need to counter flinty Mrs. Claus.

Released: 2015
Dir: Gary Yates
Writer: Mike Bell, Gary Yates
Cast: Hilarie Burton, Gabriel Hogan, Tim Matheson, Lola Flanery, Jayne Eastwood, Derek McGrath
Time: 87 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Lifetime
Reviewed: 2019

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Mistletoe Over Manhattan (2011)

Hallmark Christmas movies don’t tend to be memorable because they’re good. If they are memorable at all, it’s because of something along the lines of “I remember this movie because Mira Sorvino had creepy old age makeup and played Mrs. Claus, who took a trip to Vegas and then ran into cutie bartender Andrew Walker.” See, very memorable, which is more than I can say about Mistletoe Over Manhattan, a film that’s also about a dippy Mrs. Claus who finds herself saving Christmas and having to go to America to do so. This one doesn’t have as wacky a premise and therefore will be wiped from my brain the second I finish writing this review, but that’s not to say it’s horrible movie. In fact, it’s perfectly enjoyable Hallmark fare; you just don’t need to go out of your way to find it.

In this iteration of the Mrs. Claus chronicles, partner Nick (Mairtin O’Carrigan) has lost a step or two. Unable to keep up with 21st century demands, he’s not in a great position to bring Christmas joy to children around the world. The ever attentive Becca Claus (Tedde Moore) fears that Christmas could be cancelled this year, and since the elves aren’t helping much, she intervenes. Her idea is to go back to New York City, where she and her husband once shared a romantic holiday together, and find something that will remind him of the spirit of the season.

I don’t know why the Clauses are always coming to America to solve their Christmas woes. I’d opt for Finland or Canada if I had the choice, but I don’t because this is fake and so America it is. Becca finds that the New York she remembers has changed though. She barely has money to cover a hotel and meals and the department store doormen are rude. She meets a friendly police officer just in time, thereby preventing this movie from becoming a different one entirely.

Joe (Greg Bryk) is going through a divorce from Lucy (Tricia Helfer), and life is miserable for everyone. The former couple are sharing custody of their two kids, dream child Travis (Peter Ducunha) and sullen teen Bailey (Olivia Scriven), but Joe occasionally ducks out on his commitment in order to cover extra shifts for his friends. Meanwhile Lucy has moved on with her boss, Parker (Damon Runyan). The relationship can’t be that great since he wants to move down to Florida and ship the kids off to boarding school, but she doesn’t know this.

Enter Becca, whom Joe quickly hires as their new nanny. If this were a Lifetime movie, she would turn out to be serial killer granny, and indeed, she suggests he exercise a little more caution when hiring the help. This is Hallmark though, so Becca is wonderful, working her magic on the family by showing them the love and stability they’ve been missing. About her only fault is her blind dislike for tofu, which would get her nixed from my home.

The film complements a snowy afternoon in December. It’s calming and low pressure and sometimes funny. Dedicated elf Sparky (Ken Hall) generates a lot of the humor along with a bumbling Santa. I also like the coupling of Bryk and Helfer, relatively new faces amongst the usual stock players. Bryk is a different kind of lead than we’re used to. He’s quieter, not as likely to chuck Christmas trees here and there. Guess that’s what you get when you set stories in the city instead of on someone’s farm.

Released: 2011
Dir: John Bradshaw
Writer: Hilary Hinkle, Linda Engelsiepen, Rickie Castaneda
Cast: Tricia Helfer, Greg Bryk, Tedde Moore, Ken Hall, Mairtin O’Carrigan, Olivia Scriven, Peter Dacunha, Damon Runyan
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2019

Yours, Mine & Ours (2005)

Yours, Mine, and Ours is not great. In fact, after watching a handful of clips from the original 1968 film starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda, it’s clear that that movie is superior to this slapdash effort featuring Rene Russo and Randy Quaid. The story is about a blended family with a boatload of kids as well as a few dogs and cats and a pig. No one gets along, and someone is always screaming or throwing something or generally making a mess. Still, I chose to keep watching while eating Saturday leftovers when given the chance to change the channel, so I guess this means I liked it?

If there’s one thing that kept me watching, it was Russo and Quaid. They lack chemistry surprisingly but make an attractive double act nonetheless. Both are magnetic and can turn me on with a smile, which is helpful since the script doesn’t leave much in the way of character development or romance. Helen North (Russo) is the kind of hippie mom who encourages creativity and group hugs amongst her ten children, some of whom are adopted. Her new husband and high school boyfriend, Frank Beardsley (Quaid), is the opposite, a pre-Maria Captain Von Trapp if you will. The Coast Guard admiral orders his eight kids to stand at attention and draws up bathroom charts for orderly use of the facilities.

Despite being the actual adults in the room, they have little control over their kids and are mere observers to the chaos their bickering offspring create. They occasionally yell for the madness to stop, but the movie depends on anarchy. Without extended sequences of sibling sabotage and that scene where they turn their gorgeous lighthouse home with the 200-year-old banister into a Jackson Pollack work, the movie has little to go on.

The novelty of an eighteen-child household gets old after awhile, and the writers don’t have a plan for what to do when things slow down. Helen has an interesting job as a designer, but that barely comes into play. We catch just one small glimpse of how it affects her relationship with Frank before it’s tucked away. Frank gets the better end of the deal, and his reluctance to take on a promotion with the Coast Guard makes a bigger impact. It’s done in such a hurried way though that it feels like they’ve only skimmed the surface.

The momentum in this narrative lies with the kids, whether they’re fighting each other or, after changing tactics, they decide to fight together. Determined to break up the family one way or another, they agree that their quickest route is through divorce. By joining forces though, they’re guaranteed to form a real alliance, and the promise of a happy ending is another reason why I enjoyed this movie. Look, I like it when kids who don’t like each other end up liking each other. It’s predictable but it makes me smile, and dammit, that’s what I want in my lazy weekend entertainment.

Released: 2005
Prod: Robert Simonds, Michael G. Nathanson
Dir: Raja Gosnell
Writer: Bob Hilgenberg, Rob Muir, Ron Burch, David Kidd
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Rene Russo, Sean Faris, Rip Torn, Linda Hunt, Danielle Panabaker, Drake Bell, Lil’ JJ, Miranda Cosgrove, Katija Pevec
Time: 88 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Chronicle Mysteries: Recovered (2019)

One piece of good news in this long, trying month is that Alison Sweeney is back on Hallmark, solving murders and whatnot instead of stirring up trouble on Days of Our Lives. I’d missed her baking and sleuthing, but that series had reached its natural end. This one takes advantage of the moment and, unlike Hallmark’s most recent offerings, doesn’t default to your typical detective-y professions. Nope, Sweeney’s new character isn’t a reporter or a professor but a humble podcaster.

With popular true crime podcasts like Serial and Criminal as its template, Recovered has its intrepid investigator tackle a cold case in the hopes that renewed publicity will yield some clues about a woman’s disappearance twenty years ago. Alex McPherson (Sweeney) is back in her hometown of Barrington to dig into the file of Gina DeSavio (Lisa Durupt), a childhood friend whose body was never found after she crashed her car near a ravine. Something happened at work that night in 1988 while she was waitressing a party, Wilson Phillips in the background, that caused her to take off in a panic.

Alex’s first task is to see what old reports she can find at the Barrington Chronicle, and that’s where she runs into Drew Godfrey (Benjamin Ayres), the paper’s prickly editor. He’s not thrilled about some rando digging through the archives, but Miles Lewiston (Michael Kopsa), the publisher, thinks Alex could bring publicity and subscriptions to the Chronicle. Soon, she’s getting help from others on the paper, including a gossip columnist and an eager beaver press manager, Chuck (Dave Collette).

A major clue in untangling the mystery seems to lie with Gina’s friend and coworker, Courtney (Emily Holmes), who was also present that fateful night. Courtney’s left that life way behind and now has a posh gig preparing taxes for everyone in town. However, a brief conversation with Alex triggers a memory that takes the case in an unexpected direction. “What if,” someone suggests, “opening up a cold case leads to a new crime?”

It’s an intriguing prospect and one reason I’m hooked on this new series. Actually the case gets a little convoluted and spends more time going in circles than moving forward. There are so many bits of information that don’t necessarily lead to the conclusion but that are still worth hanging on to as you sort through everything. The whole idea of the show feels fresh though, even if it’s just tweaking the formula here and there. Trying to connect the dots between crimes committed decades apart adds to the mystery and expands the number of suspects and motives.

I also like the possibilities that the podcasting element can bring to this series. Podcasting involves telling stories in a certain way and done well, it can add to how the case is presented and solved. This movie doesn’t quite have a handle on that yet, and for the time being, Alex’s podcasting script just serves as narration here and there. Hallmark’s premiering a few more Chronicle Mysteries in the coming weeks, so I hope those films will be more purposeful about how they use this tool.

Most of all, I’m excited to see Sweeney back. She’s one of my favorite Hallmark actors, and her characters always have a healthy mix of earnestness and skepticism. Alex is not unlike Hannah Swensen, who is always serious about solving a mystery but more laid back when it comes to her personal life and interactions. She has an easy-going relationship with divorced dad Drew, and we’ll see if they build up enough romantic tension to start dating or if they’ll just remain very compatible crime solving partners. I’m guessing the former.

Highlight for spoilers: So…Gina’s alive. Also Bradley Williford is a stone cold killer and Detective Patterson is his goon. On the night she disappeared, Gina saw Bradley drug his father because he wouldn’t give up control of the amusement park company. Patterson threatened her, and she figured she should just disappear for the safety of her family. She’s been bouncing around the country ever since, until Alex finds her at a stable somewhere. As for Courtney, she is killed after her talk with Alex triggers her memory of the night and she tries to blackmail Bradley.

Released: 2019
Dir: Jason Bourque
Writer: Melissa Salmons
Cast: Alison Sweeney, Benjamin Ayres, Dave Collette, Olivia Steele Falconer, Rebecca Staab, Michael Kopsa, Chris William Martin, Jim Thorburn, Lisa Durupt, Toby Levins, Karen Holness, Emily Holmes, Matt Bellefleur, Christopher Rosamond
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2019

Nine Lives (2016)

Nine Lives could be a great children’s movie. A selfish workaholic reflects on and atones for his behavior after a freak accident puts him in a coma but traps his consciousness in a cat. Though snarly in his new feline form, he comes to understand the hurt he has caused his family and learns that he may be condemned to eating fish paste and peeing in litter boxes for the rest of his life. Whether you like talking animals or a redemption story or Norwegian forest cats, there’s something for everyone in the family.

But it’s hard to enjoy this movie because of, yes, star Kevin Spacey. His presence is enough to put off many viewers, and they’re not wrong for it. Watching his character, Tom Brand, manipulate those around him and then try to win their forgiveness is sickening, and I found it impossible to separate Tom’s misdeeds from the actor’s own criminal behavior.

It’s especially painful to see his family try to win his love again and again. Tom’s daughter, Rebecca (Malina Weissman), is about to turn eleven, that perfect age before puberty when a girl still adores her parents. Never mind that her father practically lives at work and is more concerned with building North America’s tallest skyscraper than he is with celebrating her birthday and getting her the cat she really wants. When fate intervenes and lands him at the doorstep of Purrkins Pet Shop run by the eccentric Felix Perkins (Christopher Walken), he reluctantly gives in and splurges on one Mr. Fuzzypants, who’s already used up seven of his nine lives.

Instead of heading home for Rebecca’s party though, Tom goes back to work and checks in with Ian (Mark Consuelos), a manager at his company who informs him that his building will not in fact be the tallest one in North America, or America for that matter. They fight on the rooftop during a storm, and really, everyone deserves what they get. When Tom comes to, he finds he’s now Mr. Fuzzypants and that Mr. Perkins can communicate with cat-kind. He also learns that he has just one week to set things right with his family if he does not want to spend the rest of his life on all fours.

Too bad he’s been a jerk to everyone. His wife, Lara (Jennifer Garner), and his son, David (Robbie Amell), from his first marriage somehow see past Tom’s sins. This is an abusive relationship, full stop. He neglects Lara and belittles David, and yet they constantly feel the need to earn his love. David, who also works for his dad, gets it worse; it’s as if Tom delights in humiliating his son, using his behavior as an excuse to boost his fragile ego.

The film would still need tweaking even if we’re working on the assumption that we’d recast Spacey’s role. The only reason that Nine Lives is watchable now is its robust cast, sans its lead. Garner and Cheryl Hines, who plays Tom’s first wife, complement each other, playing supportive friends rather than two women bickering over a bad man. I also enjoyed Weissman’s warm and honest performance. Jessica loves with such conviction that I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt no matter how wrongheaded I think she is. Then there’s Amell, who comes at you with a look of utter dejection and some Chris Pine blue eyes. As hard as the actors try, however, they are limited by their narrow roles. There’s nothing redeeming about Tom, and it’s hard to see why anyone ever like him. I wouldn’t mind a more sympathetic though still flawed lead.

The effects could also use some work. Mr. Fuzzypants, or the cats who portrayed him, are fluffy and adorable, and the special effects used to nail down certain sequences will make younger kids squeal. Tom’s office space and his new skyscraper are pitiful though, an embarrassment of green screen. It looks like the budget went into cats and Lara’s gorgeous flat and nothing else. I imagine Mr. Perkins, for example, has a delightfully weird shop, one which we get just a few glimpses of. A little more money in that direction could only add to this familiar but imaginative tale.

Released: 2016
Prod: Lisa Ellzey
Dir: Barry Sonnenfeld
Writer: Gwyn Lurie, Matt Allen, Caleb Wilson, Dan Antoniazzi, Ben Shiffrin
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Garner, Robbie Amell, Cheryl Hines, Mark Consuelos, Malina Weissman, Christopher Walken, Talitha Bateman, Teddy Sears
Time: 87 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019