Author: limmer13

Hailey Dean Mystery: Murder, with Love (2016)

Hallmark’s murder mysteries aren’t exactly edge of the seat affairs, but they can yield surprises, especially when you’re drugged up on allergy medicine and half watching alone in your dark studio flat at two in the morning. If I had been paying more attention, I wouldn’t have been as scared by the reveal, which I’m embarrassed to say was enough to rouse me from my drug induced stupor. To be sure, Murder with Love is not an intense whodunit. It even drags a bit since there are only two suspects to question, neither of whom seem like strong candidates for murderer. But this new series, based on books by TV personality Nancy Grace, has more emotional depth than I expected, and I finished the first movie with high hopes for the next few entries.

Kellie Martin stars as an assistant DA turned therapist, Hailey Dean, though in my 1994 mind, she is still Appalachian schoolteacher Christy Huddleston. Speaking of, a reboot would be right up Hallmark’s alley. Anyway, Martin plays another strong minded woman, this time in modern dress. Though Hailey’s abandoned law, she’s found a calling in couples therapy, something she’s damn good at because she keeps telling people this. Her reasons for a career change are varied, but she still has a mind for criminal law. When her friend’s mother drowns after overdosing, she uses her experience and connections to help solve the case.

Things get real bad real quick for Amanda Stone (Cindy Busby) and her brother, Aaron (Jesse Moss). Just days after their mother dies, their father, a trucking magnate, is found vaporized in his car having taken a fiery, suicidal dive off a bridge. Suddenly the grieving siblings look more like greedy killers, except Hailey is pretty sure her friends aren’t murderers. Well, if that’s the case, why did Amanda use her mother’s hospital ID to order drugs? What happened to the $8 million missing from their father’s trucking business?

These inconsistencies are dealt with pretty quickly, and with no other suspects, the investigation stalls. That’s when Hailey’s personal life comes to the fore. Of Hallmark’s many sleuths, she is one of the more interesting ones. Thanks to her job as a therapist, she gets to talk about her own troubles and encourages others to reveal more than dull pleasantries. We find out that her fiancé was murdered during a mugging. That tragedy connects her to hot new coroner, Jonas (Matthew MacCaull), who is recovering from his wife’s death from breast cancer. It also helps a witness open up not just about what she saw but also about her own experience with a violent and random death in her family. I was unexpectedly moved by this scene, which wasn’t in service of anything except life and the emotions that come with it. It’s a missing ingredient in many Hallmark movies, so I hope they remember to add it to the next Hailey Dean mysteries.

Highlight for spoilers: Daaaaaamn, it was the dad!!! He wasn’t vaporized after all. Turns out Dad was using his truck business to ferry drugs between the U.S. and Mexico. His wife overhears and has to start taking sleeping pills to deal with her criminal husband. Knowing that the DEA is closing in on him, Dad decides to just kill his wife and make off to Brazil, but not before framing an employee by trading identities and killing him in the burning car.

Released: 2016
Dir: Terry Ingram
Writer: Jonathan Greene
Cast: Kellie Martin, Giacomo Baessato, Cindy Busby, Viv Leacock, Jesse Moss, Lucia Walters, Michael Kopsa, Matthew MacCaull, Peter Bryant, Hiro Kanagawa
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018

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The Disaster Artist (2017)

They say Hollywood loves movies about movies, so I guess that’s why we the people have been gifted with The Disaster Artist, another entry in the genre of self-validating cinema. Unlike award-winning but limited appeal fare like Birdman and The Artist, The Disaster Artist benefits from its mainstream stars and the growing profile of cult hit The Room to tell the story about the worst movie ever made. It’s done with obvious affection by director James Franco and his usual suspects, brother Dave, Seth Rogen, and stars like Zac Efron, Danny McBride, and Judd Apatow, who stand in for cameos.

Franco cares deeply for his characters and admires them not in spite of their wackiness but because of it. The lead oddball is Tommy Wiseau, played by Franco himself. The mysterious auteur behind The Room is someone who could easily be played for laughs. An aspiring actor of unknown age or origin, Wiseau attacks his art with abandon, always with embarrassing and unsatisfactory results. Whether he is growling his way through the Stella scene in A Streetcar Named Desire or mounting a sprawling production of his poorly written and poorly conceived movie, he is singularly focused on extracting the purest, rawest emotion out of every performance.

I have to wonder if Franco sees something of himself in Wiseau, a fellow truth-seeker willing not just to push the boundaries of convention but to crash through them. The actor has made his own mark with his unconventional behavior and try anything attitude. His off-screen pursuits include university lecturer, multimedia artist, short story writer, and painter of nudes. Adopting Wiseau’s stilted mannerisms and speech patterns and donning a stringy wig and facial prosthetics seem par for course. This may be why, for all its chances to do so, the movie never descends into mockery. Quite the opposite, a joy and earnest humor shine through in the filmmaking.

And yet, that underdog spirit keeps The Disaster Artist from ever maturing as a film. In the end, it doesn’t rise above its characters’ eccentricities. Wiseau remains a mystery, as impenetrable as ever. That might be excusable if Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), his friend and acting partner, were more than a fawning, angsty fanboy. His character is disappointing, not because of Franco the Younger doesn’t deliver; he’s rather charming as a timid actor who gets swept up in Wiseau’s delusions. It’s because the film doesn’t address in a satisfying way why Greg is so enamored with his mentor. You sympathize with his mom (Megan Mullally), and really most of the other characters – the script supervisor cum director (Rogen), Greg’s girlfriend (Alison Brie), the costume assistant (Charlyne Yi), all of whom question Greg’s association, and their own, with Wiseau.

Perhaps I just don’t have the passion for creating art. I certainly don’t presume to understand actors’ motivations for doing what they do. Maybe that’s why I need Greg’s infatuation with acting laid out more plainly. When Wiseau goads a wide-eyed Greg into performing a monologue from their coffee shop booth, I’m inclined to sympathize with the patrons rather than with the artists disturbing the peace. I wish the movie had strained less for authenticity and more for depth of character. It’s an uncritical love letter, which doesn’t make it a bad film but not a great one.

Released: 2017
Prod: James Franco, Vince Jolivette, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver
Dir: James Franco
Writer: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Cast: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Jacki Weaver, Josh Hutcherson, Megan Mullally, lots of cameos
Time: 103 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Darrow & Darrow (2017)

If you’ve come to the law firm of Darrow and Darrow looking for a mystery, go elsewhere. You will not find one here. There is nothing to see. Unless you’re a fan of Wendie Malick who stars as one of the titular Darrows; Kimberly Williams-Paisley isn’t bad as the other Darrow, and, while we’re at it, Tom Cavanaugh is looking pretty distinguished as well. But if you’re expecting an actual case to solve, try any one of Hallmark’s other offerings. This movie’s main conflict is reserved for Claire (Williams-Paisley) and her estranged mother, Joanna (Malick), who makes a sudden and not all too welcome appearance back home.

A smash and grab at a jewelry store gets things started, and one of Claire’s friends is implicated. She offers to help fancy donut vendor and parolee, Dave (Kirby Morrow), beat the charge since she’s pretty sure he didn’t do it. Trying to figure out who did is not her top priority though because oh, the family drama. After getting scapegoated for losing a big case, and loads of money, Joanna has to crawl back to her daughter’s humble practice to ask for a job and shelter. The problem is, Claire is in no mood to offer a helping hand. She blames her mom for abandoning her and her dad’s firm after he died, packing up for city life, fame, and corporate clients instead of staying behind to fight for the little guy.

Claire’s not going to let her mom go homeless though and invites her in, but she comes to regret her largesse when Joanna begins asserting herself. Joanna tries to buy her way into a partnership by representing well-heeled clients, bringing her in direct opposition to Darrow & Darrow’s social justice-minded mission. (I see you, racially diverse law office.) Then she wins over her granddaughter, Louise (Lilah Fitzgerald), by helping her adjust to her new school.

The movie is titled Darrow & Darrow because I suspect while Williams-Paisley gets top billing, Malick is really the star. Her formidable character balances great regret and ambition and is far more relatable than her self-righteous daughter. Williams-Paisley is grounded enough to ensure that Claire is not totally insufferable, and she’s also helped by her chemistry with Cavanaugh, who plays a competing attorney and brewing love interest. But it’s hard to forgive Claire’s stubbornness, especially when she insists that Louise embrace her role as a social outcast just because she enjoyed being a friendless teen.

Louise’s high school troubles, by the way, must have been written by someone who doesn’t know any kids. I love that she’s a science nerd and builds robots in the shed, but her difficulties fitting in are a hodgepodge of teen problems that don’t connect in any coherent way. Then again, the mystery also gets casually shoved into the plot whenever there’s a lull in the domestic drama. Poor Dave does get his date in court, but I doubt anyone cares.

Highlight for spoilers: Oh, there’s a case to solve, and of course it wasn’t Donut Dave. Rather, it was the owner of the jewelry store, Mr. Drescher (Jan Bos), who was up to his eyeballs in gambling debts and thought he could pull off a little insurance fraud to make his problem go away. Drescher frames Dave, whom he knows is on parole and would be an easy target, by planting a watch in his bag and stealing his van to commit the robbery. The motorcycle that some of the characters report seeing and hearing belongs to a Russian mobster sending not-so-subtle warnings to Drescher to repay his debts.

Released: 2017
Dir: Peter DeLuise
Writer: Phoef Sutton
Cast: Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Wendie Malick, Tom Cavanaugh, Lilah Fitzgerald, Barclay Hope, Kirby Morrow, Jan Bos
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

I acknowledge there are serious gaps in my movie education, and it’s taken me a quarter century to finally watch The Nightmare Before Christmas. I also acknowledge that Tim Burton’s world is not one I regularly inhabit. As a dippy preteen in 1993 when this movie was released, I opted, and still do, for the babes in bonnets of Austenland. But like Jack Skellington discovering Christmas for the first time, I was overcome with a childish awe by the creativity of the story and animation, both of which hold up after twenty-five years. The movie enchants in a way few holiday films do – The Polar Express is one similar exception. Nightmare approaches Christmas with an absolute childlike wonder that has you seeing the holidays anew.

The magic of Christmas comes via Halloween and trees that act as portals to various holiday realms. Jack (Chris Sarandon), having spooked his way through yet another Halloween, laments his humdrum existence as scarer-in-chief. Life has become too predictable, and in a fit of melancholy, he takes a long walk through the woods to find himself. In doing so, he also finds the tree portals, which allow him to slip into Christmas Town.

It’s a whole new world, and Jack is overcome by the brightness of it all. With a spring in his step, he marvels that the “children [are] throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads,” that kids are sleeping snug as a bug with nothing lurking under their beds. And when he’s not referencing his own experiences, he just takes in the simple stuff – chestnuts roasting on an open fire, kissing underneath the mistletoe. His enthusiasm and sheer wonderment is contagious, and it’s hard not to get swept up in his excitement, even for the commonplace and cliché.

The movie leverages its high concept for real emotion, and it’s easy to see why it has become required viewing, except for me apparently. It has a grand time deconstructing holiday traditions and includes delightful scenes of deadpan levity, all to a soundtrack that mixes strains of menace with a touch of Broadway pizzazz. When Jack returns to Halloween Town bringing great tidings of this mysterious Christmas celebration, he hopes that the residents, which include vampires, werewolves, and various ghouls, will help him stage a well-intentioned takeover come late December. Jack diligently studies up, going so far as to distill the meaning of Christmas on a chemical level. He doesn’t quite get it, nor do his fellow residents. His explanation about stockings prompts a devilish trick-or-treater to wonder if there’s a foot still inside, and they seem most confused by the lobster king, Sandy Claws. Nevertheless, Jack is determined to shake the town and himself out of this ennui.

Creeping in the shadows is Sally (Catherine O’Hara), the monster in a Frankenstein-inspired subplot. She is the creature and captive of Dr. Finklestein (William Hickey) and has an eye for Jack. It’s disturbing to watch her character in the #MeToo era, though I imagine the sexism and abuse were always disturbing. Sally tries repeatedly to poison Dr. Finklestein, who wastes no opportunity to exert his power over her and to remind her that she literally owes her life to him. While Jack is trying to break free of his tedious existence, Sally is just trying to break free.

“This is Halloween”:

“Jack’s Lament”:

Jack discovers Christmas in “What’s This”:

“Kidnap Sandy Claws”:

“Making Christmas”:

“Oogie Boogie’s Song”:

“Sally’s Song”:

“Finale/Reprise”:

Released: 1993
Prod: Tim Burton, Denise Di Novi
Dir: Henry Selick
Writer: Caroline Thompson
Cast: Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Glen Shadix
Time: 76 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Flower Shop Mystery: Snipped in the Bud (2016)

Ah, now this was the kind of murder mystery I was expecting. After a confusing first entry in the series, Hallmark rebounds with a predictable, low intensity story that anyone half-focused can follow. And lest you think that’s a criticism, predictable and low intensity is the network’s calling card.

Snipped in the Bud is a clean and classic whodunit. We get to the murder right away when main character Abby (Brooke Shields) delivers a dozen black roses from an anonymous sender to law professor Bruce Barnes (Daniel Kash). He’s an HR case waiting to happen, someone who thinks intimidating others counts as a personality quirk. Minutes later, she finds another law professor, Carson Howell, stabbed to death with a pencil at Barnes’s chair. Since she was the last person in the office and since she had a professional relationship with him, she quickly becomes the lead suspect.

Abby puts her lawyering skills to work in order to clear her name, with the help of her new friend and ex-private detective, Marco (Brennan Elliott). I was sad to see that she’d jettisoned the cute attorney from the previous episode, but he was the assistant DA and this case doesn’t take place in town. Instead, she’s at her daughter’s university, poking around into her private and academic life. Normally that’s weird and unwelcome, but in Hallmark’s hands, it’s a handy plot device. With Sydney’s (Celeste Desjardins) insight, Abby picks up on clues about other potential suspects. They include Barnes, whom everyone seems to hate, Barnes’s wife, the assistant, and Sydney’s TA.

I appreciate the effort here to clarify the relationship each character and suspect had to the deceased. Cork board with note cards is a definite plus. Not having to play Guess Who? every time someone appeared also meant more focus on Abby’s non-crime solving pursuits. This movie does a good job of portraying her as a still grieving widow and mother. Desjardins and Beau Bridges, as Abby’s dad, have larger roles, and Bridges especially brings a seasoned balance to the proceedings. Shields and Elliott also share an easy-going chemistry that keeps the mood light. By not forcing the two together, we get to see a more natural relationship develop, one that brings out their complementary sleuthing talents.

Highlight for spoilers: Sydney’s cute TA did it! Sneaky, murderous little Kenny Lipinski. Abby thought his white lies about not knowing contacts from a major law firm were fishy. In fact, he’d been working for this firm (I forgot the name) for some time, under the supervision of dead Professor Carson. But that selfish playboy of a professor took all the credit for Kenny’s work AND denied Kenny an internship to another prestigious firm, or some lawyerly place. You see, Kenny’s overbearing dad wanted to keep him around so that he could join the family firm. Kenny wanted out and saw the internship as his ticket. But greedy Carson took a payoff from Kenny’s dad and gave the internship to someone else. Abby finds out after visiting the secretary and then gets trapped in the office with the murderer. Sydney waltzes in and then Kenny takes her hostage. It is not going to end well for that boy.

Released: 2016
Dir: Bradley Walsh
Writer: Gary Goldstein
Cast: Brooke Shields, Brennan Elliott, Beau Bridges, Rachel Crawford, Celeste Desjardins, Kate Drummond, Ricardo Hoyos, Daniel Kash
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018