Month: May 2019

Choosing Signs (2013)

There’s leaving things to fate and then there’s Jennifer (Jessica Lancaster), a woman who’s so wary about her own decision-making that she lets fate decide almost everything in life. Whether it’s moving from her home in New York to live with her boyfriend in Ireland or which direction she’s headed off to in the morning, Jennifer always needs a little assist. Sometimes that’s flipping a coin and other times it’s slinging a rubber band across the room, whatever’s handy.

It’s extreme, but Choosing Signs is not Serendipity, which is to say it’s not an infuriating case of a woman who fails to seize the moment and then makes a big ado about resetting the chain of events she’s set in motion. This is a quiet film more along the lines of Once and resting somewhere in a space that is romance, comedy, and drama without embracing any one of those.

The story is set in Cork, where Jennifer lives with Marc (Stephen Wyley), a guy with big ideas about how to best exploit the immigrant housing market, and their pregnant Ukrainian housekeeper Svletlana, (Betsy Douds). Her brother, Matty (Jeremiah Ocanas), has mental health issues and stays at a nearby nursing facility, which is how she meets Eamon (Owen Dara), one of his caregivers. Eamon is immediately attracted to Jennifer and wastes no time setting up a date. She’s nice, doesn’t know anyone, and happens to have dinged a bell on her wall when he called, so she agrees to meet up.

A friendship develops by steps, but that doesn’t necessarily bring more stability into her life. If anything, her feelings for Eamon complicates things, adding more variables to her relationship with Matty and Marc. As she juggles her obligations to her brother, she also wrestles with a growing unease over her boyfriend’s plans to subdivide flats into oblivion. Leaving things to fate, it seems, is as much of a gamble as just making a decision and hoping for the best.

The film is far from the silly, magical romp I thought it would be. Lancaster is splendid in this role, emphasizing all her character’s vulnerabilities without making her into an oddball. I’d call Jennifer’s penchant for tossing stones and scarves more of a quirk than anything; it’s enough for others to comment on but not so much of a distraction from the rest of her personality. Writer-director Dara also turns in a charming, low-key performance. Eamon is inviting and of course eager, but he strays from the stereotype of a love-struck loner when necessary. Of the supporting cast, Douds is the strongest, not least because she has the most interesting character in the film. Svletlana knows much more than she lets on, often safeguarding her wisdom and observations behind her flinty stare.

Released: 2013
Dir: Owen Dara
Writer: Owen Dara
Cast: Jessica Lancaster, Owen Dara, Betsy Douds, Jeremiah Ocanas, Stephen Wyley
Time: 87 min
Lang: English
Country: Ireland
Reviewed: 2019

Marley’s Ghosts S02 (2016)

Be careful what you wish for, which in this case is a six-episode order for round two of Marley’s Ghosts. Strictly speaking, I didn’t wish for this, but after an affecting third and final episode of the first series, I wondered if an extended season might improve its storytelling. No, seems to be the answer. While the characters attempt some soul searching, in a literal sense on occasion, they return as vapid as ever, joined by even more exasperating personalities.

Magistrate Marley (Sarah Alexander) has moved on since the deaths of her husband, lover, and vicar, by which I mean she’s moved into a new house in a new neighborhood. Adam (John Hannah), Michael (Nicholas Burns), and Vicar (Jo Joyner) meanwhile remain her constant companions and, by the looks of it, her only friends. She’s developed a begrudging tolerance for her supernatural housemates, in part because they won’t leave her alone and in part because she seems to have gotten used to the idea of sleeping with three ghosts. But now Marley wants to see what exciting things await her as a single woman.

She doesn’t have grand ambitions for widowed life, but she does want to get in good with the neighborhood association and perhaps join a women’s running group. Her actions don’t endear her to anyone though. Guess running through the streets in your underwear and yelling at imaginary friends aren’t ways to win over strangers. Besides, Marley isn’t all that likable. She can be selfish and unfeeling, and her lack of empathy is a point of contention in the series. After laughing off the misfortunes of a blind man (David Brain) and an elderly woman on a mobility scooter, she realizes maybe she does have some emotional hang-ups.

Marley’s not the only one with issues though. Far from enjoying a carefree afterlife, the ghosts are experiencing their own crises. Michael is distraught to learn that his ex-wife doesn’t and maybe never did care for him, Adam finds fulfillment with another (ghost) woman (Sarah Hadland) and wonders if she could possibly be his soulmate, and ever-loopy Vicar is momentarily introspective enough to question her relationship with God.

The characters’ acceptance of their own failings comes slowly and arguably too late, but at least there’s growth. The second series needed something to go on besides the novelty of human-ghost cohabitation, and Marley and friends show themselves to be relatable by exposing their less desirable traits. I admit they grew on me after awhile, but I might be confusing this feeling with merely tolerating their presence. Still, there’s strange beauty in this group of misfits; they turn out to be a supportive if unconventional family unit when it really matters, like in the final episode when Marley receives some surprising news.

The series only has a few standout moments, however, making it an easy one to forget. Marley’s relationship with her rebellious niece, Mia (Ella-Rae Smith), is as touching as it is messy. On several occasions, Marley takes charge of Mia. She tries to restrain the latter’s adolescent impulses while also giving her room to learn from her mistakes. Alexander is most effective in these tight spots, when there’s something on the line besides her own insecurities.

My biggest problem with the series was Vicar, who’s written without a clear direction in mind. Joyner inhabits the role brilliantly, swinging from dim to thoughtful in a beat, but the character is a lazy sketch. While she has her moments of clarity, her main purpose seems to be offsetting Adam and Michael’s sizable male egos and allowing jabs about shoddy faith formation. Unlike the other characters though, there isn’t a specific experience or memory that shapes her or the audience’s understanding of her. You can always count on Vicar to reference Job when she’s confident or make up a story from Matthew when she’s not, but that’s about all there is to her. I’m not going to suggest another season to see if her character or the story could be fleshed out, and two series seems to be all we’re getting, which is fine and fitting.

Released: 2016
Dir: Jonathan Gershfield
Writer: Daniel Peacock
Cast: Sarah Alexander, John Hannah, Jo Joyner, Nicholas Burns, Elizabeth Berrington, Ella-Rae Smith, Juliet Cowan, David Brain, Sarah Hadland, Jim Howick
Time: 26 min x 6
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: Gold
Reviewed: 2019

Royally Ever After (2018)

If people knew how to Google, we wouldn’t have movies like Royally Ever After, which can be good or bad depending. I’m not going to object to something filmed in Ireland, but really, wholesome Hallmark white girls, at least use Bing if you’re seeing some European who’s being a bit evasive about his background. Here we have another case of girl-who-doesn’t-realize-she’s-dating-a-prince, and as always, things sour when she finds out.

Sara (Fiona Gubelmann) is just your average grade school teacher living that New Jersey life when her boyfriend of one year, Danny (Torrance Coombs), pops the question via cupcake. He chooses this moment to reveal his royal status and tells her that, surprise, it’s totally cool if she wants some time to take it all in but, hey, he’s flying home tomorrow so he kind of needs an answer right now cause the royal jet’s waiting.

Danny, rather Daniel Seamus Horatio Hughes of St. Ives, makes it hard for me to get behind him. Besides neglecting to share this little piece of information with the woman he wants to marry, he makes no effort to support her when she does accept his proposal and finds her plebeian ass in his royal digs. On the way to meeting the king and queen (Barry McGovern Carmen Du Sautoy) and mindful of her new environment, Sara specifically asks him to clarify protocol so she’ll avoid any missteps. He brushes off her nerves, telling her that everything’s going to be just fine.

Of course it’s not, and she goes on to make a series of slight but still embarrassing blunders. Her actions, which includes kissing the prince at a function and stealing away with him for an ice cream date, open up the couple and the royal family to press scrutiny. More importantly, they convince the skeptical king and queen that this commoner is not a suitable match for their son. Danny’s sister (Rebekah Wainwright), however, sees an opportunity to move up the line of succession. She encourages the relationship and is the one who finally instructs Sara on royal etiquette but for her own ends. Basically what I’m getting at is that Prince Harry would never leave Meghan hanging like this.

As far as Hallmark movies about Americans marrying English-accented princes, Royally Ever After falls somewhere in the middle. The script needs a fair bit of tightening still. Besides my issues with Danny, I don’t understand what anyone is thinking at the final ball. Their decisions are needlessly obstinate and not in keeping their character. The acting is fine though; Gubelmann is all smiles and Coombs cleans up nicely. The location adds a touch of grandeur as well. However, if you’re going to shoot in Ireland, actually shoot in Ireland. Aside from a brief but scenic limo ride and some fancy castle scenes, the movie might as well have been filmed in the empty field behind me.

Released: 2018
Dir: Lee Friedlander
Writer: Duane Poole, Gary Goldstein, Aury Wallington
Cast: Fiona Gubelmann, Torrance Coombs, Barry McGovern, Carmen Du Sautoy, Fiona Bell, John Guerrasio, Rebekah Wainwright
Time: 86 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2019

Golden Years (2016)

Golden Years doesn’t map out the ideal retirement plan, but you could keep it on the backburner. Or don’t since this slight comedy of errors about pensioners with a vengeance doesn’t quite live up to expectations. The heist film offers a daffy plot and a veteran cast to match, but it also suffers long pauses slowing the overall momentum. Those inclined to rage against the system may find in this movie some poetic justice, but it’s not as satisfying as say levying a seventy percent marginal tax rate on millionaires.

Arthur (Bernard Hill), a generally content retiree, has his life turned upside down when his pension is wiped out. Besides the utter indifference of financial services representatives, he faces the more pressing concern of paying for his wife’s medication. Martha (Virginia McKenna) is kept in the dark while Arthur tries to figure out how they’ll make it through the next few months, never mind the next few years. He comes upon an age-old plan, the one everyone gets when they’re really hard up for cash, and decides to rob a bank. He doesn’t scheme so much as fall into the idea, and his first robbery of £75,000 is finely choreographed if chaotic and unexpected bit of handiwork.

The story hits national news and attracts the attention of two police detectives, Sid (Alun Armstrong) and Stringer (Brad Moore). Stringer, a hard-charging officer who imagines himself the hero of every scenario, is convinced that the series of robberies is being carried out by highly trained young men with a meticulous attack plan. Sid is more circumspect, his years of experience telling him that something doesn’t add up but he’s not sure what.

Heist films operate on the premise that one’s luck is always about to run out, and there are some humorous if predictable close calls here, one of which involves eating the evidence. There’s not enough of these moments though, and Golden Years doesn’t follow through on the formula. Instead of each side ratcheting things up, the tension subsides the more Arthur and Martha get away with it. They become so comfortable in their new line of work that they even enlist a few friends (Phil Davis, Una Stubbs, Ellen Thomas) to keep up with their ambitions. The expected showdown between them and the law fizzles, however, and instead turns into a counseling session for Sid and his unhappy wife (Sue Johnston).

The film could have made bigger impression if it had padded the story with more humor and less of a feel good attitude. It tries to have it all ways, taking the real hardships and the indignities suffered by the elderly and pairing it with goofiness of a heist plot. That dichotomy can work, but this film takes the easy way out with every resolution instead of confronting its somber feelings. When the only consequence seems to be a good one, it blunts the emotional impact, and the story goes from looking at real injustice to a game some old folks play because it’s a step up from bingo night.

Released: 2016
Prod: Mark Foligno
Dir: John Miller
Writer: John Miller, Nick Knowles, Jeremy Sheldon
Cast: Bernard Hill, Virginia McKenna, Sue Johnston, Phil Davis, Brad Moore, Mark Williams, Una Stubbs, Ellen Thomas, Simon Callow, Alun Armstrong, Richard Cambridge
Time: 96 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019

Hailey Dean Mysteries: Killer Sentence (2019)

Hailey Dean Month” has come to an end at Hallmark, and the series has my vote for the most solid show on Hallmark. I may not be in love with any of the characters, except perhaps Fincher (Viv Leacock) with his food truck obsession, but the series is consistently good, delivering interesting cases solved by a competent all-around team. Aside from that ever-present pointless Nancy Grace cameo (Grace created the book series), there are few lows, and the two multi-episode arcs have really fed the characters and pushed the story forward.

The latest three films all deal with the impending release of convicted murderer Clayton Morrel (Bradley Stryker). Ten years ago, Hailey (Kellie Martin) worked on the case with lead chair Paulina (Lauren Holly), and both continue to be haunted by the decision not to use a key witness in the trial. The move ensured a conviction but also reduced Clayton’s sentence. Now that he’s out of prison and has a book deal, a lot of familiar faces are making their anger known.

Needless to say, it catches everyone by surprise when Clayton is found dead in his own home, murdered by a stab wound to the heart. Well, not everyone because the killer likely knew the victim and saw a chance to avenge the original victim, Clayton’s wife. His former sister-in-law, Amelia (Vanessa Walsh), is high on the list of suspects. Not only did she have motive, she also had access to the house. Clayton’s second wife, Naomi (Barbara Patrick), is not that forthcoming when interrogated by the police either. Some less obvious suspects include Clayton’s lawyer, Derek, and his friend, Frank (Matty Finochio), both of whom were at odds with Clayton but perhaps didn’t have reason enough to kill him.

So again, it surprises all those involved when Paulina, currently the district attorney, is publicly accused of the murder, having been seen with the victim and at the crime scene on multiple occasions. Hailey is convinced of her friend and former colleague’s innocence, but that’s not enough to save Paulina from a few nights in jail. She and her friend, Fincher, a detective in the DA’s office, do their own investigating while her boyfriend, Jonas (Matthew MacCaull), the coroner, tries to help with forensic evidence.

This case doesn’t compete at all with the one involving Hailey’s fiancé, Will. I still get chills from the build-up and reveal and was not nearly as emotionally invested in the life and death of Clayton Morrel. Still, Killer Sentence is a captivating mystery and had me guessing to the end. There are quite a few characters to keep track of and some intricate side stories that complicate matters and. The matter with Alex (Aaron Craven) from the DA’s office adds to the intrigue but also sows more confusion. The one ray of light in this rather dark episode is Hailey and Jonas’s anniversary dinner. They can’t seem to agree on their special night, but it all ends in a way that leaves you hoping for more to come.

Highlight for spoilers: Frank, Clayton’s ghostwriter and friend to Clayton and his first wife, Tamara, is the killer. Though he stood by Clayton in public, he knew or at least suspected that Clayton had committed the original murder. Hailey suspected Frank after seeing the “Gone Fishing” sign at the bookstore, the same one that neighbor Walter had from his surprise free fishing vacation, paid for by Frank who wanted all witnesses out of the way. She also guessed his affections for Tamara based on passages about her in Clayton’s book. Frank targeted Paulina specifically because he felt her actions at the trial were the reason Clayton was released early instead of serving life in prison. After kidnapping her, he planned on staging her suicide, but Hailey and Paulina come in with some last minute heroics and save their own damn asses. Also, Jonas proposes to Hailey. She says…yes.

Released: 2019
Dir: Michael Robinson
Writer: Michelle Ricci
Cast: Kellie Martin, Viv Leacock, Matthew MacCaull, Lucia Walters, Lauren Holly, Bradley Stryker, Barbara Patrick, Vanessa Walsh, Matty Finochio
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2019