Month: February 2020

Matching Hearts (2020)

Matching Hearts isn’t a total wash. I love me some Donna Benedicto, who proves once again why she should be a Hallmark lead instead of sidekick. She brightens every scene she’s in and sweeps in with a fresh, fun feel that not even the movie’s beautiful stars can muster. Likewise, Antonio Cayonne and Latonya Williams lift the film by being their cool, casual selves. Osric Chau is apparently doing Hallmark movies now too, which is not a complaint. He even gets what we’re calling a breakthrough gay storyline, though it’s really just a weak half-second glance with another dude. That’s not to say I’m giving Hallmark credit because shit’s still white and straight as hell, but I guess they’re catching up with the late 90s.

Performative diversity, if we consider that a positive, is about the only thing this movie has going for it though. Well, that and puppies. The story’s a mess, and stars Ryan Paevey and Taylor Cole show that perfect bone structure does not correlate with acting ability and charisma. Paevey in particular can’t seem to find his natural rhythm in front of the camera. I love, love looking at the man, even if he seems to have gone through an aging app, but acting is perhaps not his greatest strength. He nevertheless comes across as a kind and decent guy, so that works in his favor. Cole fares better in terms of her acting; at least she isn’t working out the mechanics of it in real time. Her character lacks personality though, a fault of the writing to be sure but also a quality common to so many blandly pleasant Hallmark actors.

Still, this couple might have pulled it off with a better story. Matching Hearts can barely keep things together as it is, and the lack of more forceful personalities reveals the story’s many deficiencies. The central idea of a human-run matchmaking service, as opposed to an internet one, just never comes together. It’s hard to imagine a whole ass business doing the work of your meddling grandma and neighbor or even a cold algorithm. That’s because you have to pay Julia (Cole) and all her matchmaking colleagues to shepherd you through a process that includes multiple on-site interviews, date observations, and evaluations. It’s no wonder Daniel (Paevey) scoffs at the idea when he’s gifted an initial consultation by his friend and one of Julia’s satisfied customers.

Then again, Daniel, a semi-retired businessperson who now owns a dog adoption center and gives out startup advice, isn’t into the whole dating thing. To be fair, he’s not into much of anything besides dogs, which is another reason this movie never gets off the ground. The character is so vaguely defined that his personality can be whatever you want it to be. Paevey, for his part, struggles to add more than his smoldering good looks to the equation.

Cole has better luck with Julia, a bland character but at least a multidimensional one. She has clear professional motivations and wants to take over the company in the long term. For now though, she’s happy to shake up her boss’s (Lossen Chambers) fusty ways. She gets the chance when she’s left in charge of an annual Valentine’s Day party but also ends up pushing her luck in ways that would probably get most of us fired. Meanwhile, her efforts to match Daniel have her rethinking that company policy on dating clients.

In the end, the movie can’t overcome its static plot and characters. Hallmark seems to think that pretty people, chocolate tastings, and dogs are all the ingredients necessary for a romantic romp, but this film proves otherwise. You can’t generate those loved up feelings when all you have is a plot divorced from reality and characters who don’t stand out.

Released: 2020
Dir: Siobhan Devine
Writer: Zac Hug, Sarah Wise, Laurence Walsh-Hodso
Cast: Taylor Cole, Ryan Paevey, Donna Benedicto, Osric Chau, Lossen Chambers, Debs Howard, Latonya Williams, Antonio Cayonne, Jessica Steen, Milo Shandel, Lara Gilchrist, Chris Shields, Derek Kwan
Time: 84 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2020

From Friend to Fiancé (2019)

I’m going to channel some parent energy here and say that I’m not mad; I’m just disappointed. I wasn’t expecting much from this movie about a young woman who plans the wedding of her best friend to the high school mean girl, but I also didn’t think the characters would act like teens still trading gossip by the hall lockers. From Friend to Fiancé wastes a great chance to upend a tired story, opting for a cliché-filled plot over a more meaningful one about redemption and forgiveness. It finishes with a genuinely surprising turn that is both heartfelt and full of empathy, but this dramatic high note is also what makes the rest of the film so frustrating.

It’s a good ending unearned and made irrelevant by what’s come before. The script tries to have it several ways – part misguided love triangle, part revenge fantasy. It’s also loathe to make any of the three main characters look too bad, though in doing so it ensures that they come off naïve at best and spiteful at worst. Jessica (Jocelyn Hudon) is probably the most coherent character, a teenage wallflower who’s moved on from her hellish school days. I wouldn’t say she’s gone on to bigger and better things, but she’s relatively content. Even when her boyfriend dumps her, she at least can turn to the old folks at the retirement home where she works or to her loyal and super hot BFF, Ted (Ryan Paevey). All that goes to the shits when Ted springs on her some news that he should have hinted at much earlier, giddily announcing his upcoming marriage to their chief high school tormentor, Kimberly Kentwood (Kelly Kruger). This forces her to reckon with her own romantic feelings for him.

Ted does seem like the sweet dude everyone insists he is and I know I’d be calling him over to open pickle jars all the damn time, BUT is there a guy more clueless than Teddy bear? He makes an insensitive, bordering on cruel, request for Jessica to plan his wedding to their nemesis, which she really has no choice but to accept. And, as someone later points out, it’s never clear what he and Kimberly have in common. Ted seems stupidly in awe of her, as if he’s still the ugly chub who somehow ended up with the prom queen. As a plot point, that’s fine; people change, and I’ll buy the illusion that a guy who looks like Paevey pulled a Neville Longbottom. He doesn’t have much of a personality though, unless you call owning a gym a personality. Ted’s characterization isn’t helped by Paevey’s wooden acting. Perhaps the aim is to make him a loveable doofus, but Ted just comes off as slow.

The film might have succeeded if the writers had a better handle on Kimberly. You think you know what you’re getting with her, and yet she defies expectations, which makes her the most intriguing character in all this. Like Jessica, we’re trying to figure out if Kimberly has changed her ways or if she’s the same catty, backstabbing B. She also keeps taking calls from her ex, arousing suspicions about her real feelings towards Ted. It’s hard to figure out what to make of Kimberly though when the movie can’t figure out what kind of antagonist she should be. She’s reformed and apologetic when it suits the story but is also in league with her villainous friends (Holly DeJoseph and Melissa Strong) when necessary. This uneven development confuses the ending and keeps it and the rest of the movie from being as sincere as it might have been.

Released: 2019
Dir: Andrew Cymek
Writer: Patrick McBrearty
Cast: Jocelyn Hudon, Ryan Paevey, Kelly Kruger, Derek McGrath, Valerie Boyle, Krista Jang, Jennifer Vallance, Holly DeJoseph, Melissa Strong
Time: 77 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2020

A Valentine’s Match (2020)

I’m not saying good music correlates to good movies, but it can’t hurt, and in the case of A Valentine’s Match, a couple great bops – It was Over Before It Even Began by Stephane Huguenin and We Belong by Pat Benatar – are just icing on the cake. Then again, I knew we were getting something solid with stars Bethany Joy Lenz and Luke Macfarlane, who don’t often lead us astray. The two come together as ex-lovers meeting again after years apart. Natalie, recently fired from her TV hosting gig, returns to her Portland-area hometown to figure out her next few steps. She can’t make it past the first day though without running into her former fiancé, Zach, and the news that he now owns a hardware store surprises her. It was his decision to go to Europe to become an artist that led to their breakup in the first place.

Lenz and Macfarlane carry off their parts effortlessly. I have yet to be disappointed by their individual performances even if some of their movies turn out to be less than stellar. Both have an expressiveness that is put to good use here. They give their bickering characters plenty of quirks that convince me that Natalie and Zach, who love and know each other so well, nevertheless are due for a serious talk. They have a decade of unresolved issues to work through in addition to their current professional crises. Lenz and Macfarlane certainly don’t need a silly plot device like a Valentine’s Day Festival to bring their characters together; I could just as well watch them trade barbs over drain snakes or reminisce about old times in barn, which they also do.

But what’s a Hallmark movie without some dopey festival, and Natalie and Zack find themselves heading up the fair’s fundraising auction, thanks to their conspiring mothers (Mary-Margaret Humes and Karen Kruper). That means they spend a lot of time together brainstorming at the diner and gathering quilts and such. It’s fine because not only does all their work culminate with a puppy kissing booth (live puppies included), it’s also a chance to see the many ways in which they continue to challenge each other. The frustration on both their faces when Natalie suggests hot yoga or truffle hunting as prizes is simply delightful, as is the playfulness they share while combing through a trove of donated antiques. Their relationship feels grounded in a way that isn’t often the case in these films. Credit again to Lenz and Macfarlane for capturing emotions big and small, but the supporting cast also gets a nod. Besides Humes and Kruper, Caitlin Stryker and Devon Alexander add dimension to the story as Natalie and Zach’s best friends.

“It Was Over Before It Even Began” by Stephane Huguenin:

“We Belong” by Pat Benatar:

Released: 2020
Dir: Christie Will Wolf
Writer: Cara J. Russell
Cast: Bethany Joy Lenz, Luke Macfarlane, Mary-Margaret Humes, Caitlin Stryker, Devon Alexander, Karen Kruper, Marco Grazzini
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2020