Western TV reviews

I’ll Be Home for Christmas (2016)

Sometimes you come across Christmas TV movie that looks – for a few precious moments – like it could be tolerable, a treat even. The opening scene is picturesque, the music gets you in the mood, and the lead actor rumbles onto the screen with little apology. I’m describing the first minutes of I’ll Be Home for Christmas, where James Brolin meanders through the countryside in a rusty RV while his wife, the divine Ms. Barbra Streisand, sings the title song. It’s certainly a step up from your usual TV fare, and you’ll be forgiven for wanting a little more from Hallmark.

As it turns out, a compelling script would have been enough. Granted, you’re not watching this or any other Hallmark offering for its original screenplay, but a fresh idea would be wonderful and, please, dialogue that wasn’t lifted from a 8th grader’s journal. But, no, this movie is a depository of clichés with two big screen actors standing around to make the whole thing look respectable.

The movie starts with an argument between Jackie Foster (Mena Suvari), assistant DA, single mom, and estranged daughter of Jack (Brolin), and Mike Kelly, police detective, single hot guy, and loyal protégé of Jack. They fight over a parking space, not knowing that this is only their first of three run-ins that day. The Pride and Prejudice rule applies here. Jackie and Mike can’t stand each other, and besides, she’s in a Very Serious Relationship with rich guy Rand (Jacob Blair). That can only mean one thing; Jackie and Mike are bound to be together. (By the way, if movies are anything to go by, single ladies, go out and get yourself into a feisty tête-a-tête right now.)

While they’re busy doing their thing, Jackie must also figure out what to do with Father, as she calls him. This one’s harder to decipher. The status of their relationship is never that clear. Jackie has far more animosity towards him than he does towards her. She resents all the time he spent away from the family, especially during the holidays, while he was working as a police officer and is also upset that he upped and left after her mom died three years ago. I can’t tell when Jackie’s hating on her dad though and when she’s stressed out and exhausted by her slavish need to follow a schedule. For his part, Jack seems conciliatory, awkwardly trying to make amends with his precocious granddaughter (Giselle Eisenberg) and forever delaying a planned fishing trip in Mexico. Brolin doesn’t seem to know what his character is up to, which is strange since he directed the damn movie.

Mostly, I’ll Be Home for Christmas is frustrating for its dullness. The predictable plot doesn’t bother me so much as the lack of imagination when it comes to characters. Jackie, Jack, and Mike are entirely forgettable without a spark of wit. Pretentious Rand stands out a little thanks to his villainy. I mean, the guy scoffs at the mere suggestion of volunteering at a homeless shelter. Various subplots and secondary characters also get thrown in – a destructive police dog, a theft at the local tree lot, the closing of said shelter, but none of this makes the movie more engaging. If, like me, you get to the thirty minute mark thinking you’ve reached the third act, then give in to your urge to change the channel.

Released: 2016
Dir: James Brolin
Writer: Robert Bernheim
Cast: James Brolin, Mena Suvari, Giselle Eisenberg, John Reardon, Jacob Blair, Angela Asher, Laura Miyata
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

Rodeo and Juliet (2015)

First things first, Rodeo is actually a horse, so I’m not sure this metaphor works. Secondly, two young lovers who hide their romance from bickering parents does not a Shakespearean adaptation make. Thirdly, no one dies. Where is the happy dagger? Where is the grave man?

Now, I know I should have known better – I always should know better, but the earnest Shakespearean scholar in me thought I might give this a chance for the sake of research. So putting my ninety minutes to use, this yawning horse show is getting filed under “adaptations that allude to Bill S. but in fact are completely unrelated.”

Besides the curious title, which seems to endorse bestiality, the movie tries to capitalize on the timeless tale of forbidden young love with one of its own. City girl Juliet (Nadine Crocker) gets hauled to the countryside following the death of her grandfather, and her new environs do not agree with her – because hello, no cell coverage and what is that fresh air smell? But lucky for her, there’s a barn dance the very next night, and who does she meet but her gentle Romeo Monty (Zeb Halsell). Hands touch, eyes meet, sudden silence, sudden heat – wait, wrong fantasy. But hearts do leap in a giddy whirl, one that’s immediately quashed by Juliet’s mom, Karen (Krista Allen)

This Lady Capulet will not stand by as the nephew of her avowed enemy woos her daughter with his cool country ways. And Lord Montague (Tim Abell), well he’s not just the cowboy who supervised Karen’s dad’s ranch all these years while she was off writing saucy romance novels. Hugh wants a share of the property and, more importantly, a second chance with his old girlfriend.

I can accept this twist on warring houses and in fact think it makes the classic love story more compelling, but this isn’t exactly challenging TV. Karen and Hugh are a world apart from Juliet and Monty; they’re living in a Lifetime movie while the young’uns inhabit a poorly scripted CW spinoff. We’re only reminded that one story has bearing on the other when Karen checks in to make sure her daughter’s having quality alone time with her horse Rodeo and not her man Romeo. Those wanting a countrified Shakespeare will find only a scant two acts from the bard’s play, and those wanting an engaging romance shouldn’t be watching bad TV in the first place.

But if you want some rural landscapes, say because you grew up next to a soybean field and now live in a 250’ flat in Hong Kong, then by all means pop this on while you’re doing the ironing. There were plenty of open fields and tree-lined ranches to sate my country soul. I also gave the movie a single point for including a black character, a wide-eyed rodeo girl who takes on a Nurse/Friar Laurence role. Otherwise, seek out quality Romeo and Juliet adaptions. Even the one about garden gnomes is better than this.

Released: 2015
Dir: Thadd Turner
Writer: Stephen Beck, Harry Cason
Cast: Tim Abell, Krista Allen, Nadine Crocker, Zeb Halsell, Ariel Lucas
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Up TV
Reviewed: 2017

Garage Sale Mystery: The Art of Murder (2016)

If you can get over a bunch of sorority girls asking their moms to help organize a charity garage sale, then go ahead and enjoy this movie. But it takes a generous suspension of belief and perhaps even more withholding of judgment before one can move on to the actual mystery, which is a fine once you get there. Still, I’m throwing serious side eye at Hannah (Eva Bourne), daughter of garage sale expert Jennifer (Lori Loughlin), for volunteering her mom to do a job she, as an adult woman, should handle herself. This, in case you don’t know, is what privilege looks like – white sorority sisters who can’t be bothered to plan their own event but who will take credit for doing the grunt work of collecting cash, and their mothers, ladies who lunch and apparently don’t have nine to five jobs.

Well as the saying goes, it’s all fun and games until someone finds a dead body, and that someone is Jennifer. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think she was either a walking bad luck charm or a serial killer. The police really need to isolate her before she can do more damage, not that that’s going to help Sydney (Ona Grauer), the deceased and stepmother of Hannah’s friend. Jennifer finds Sydney sprawled across her mother’s attic, killed from a fall and a hard knock to the head.

Except Jennifer suspects once again that this was no accident. Nor does it turn out to be much of a mystery. This series is hit or miss when it comes to tense whodunits; sometimes it keeps you guessing but more often than not, it’s just about filling in details. It looks pretty certain that Sydney’s friend Tina (Keegan Connor Tracy) has something to do with the death, but does she really have it in her to kill? Perhaps Tina’s artist boyfriend (Martin Cummins) is the more likely culprit. He tries to gain fame, and cash, as the next Jackson Pollack but is in danger of losing his studio in the meantime. If that happens, it’s back to painting houses. The answer lies with a valuable painting that Sydney showed Tina just before she died, a painting that is now missing.

It’s not a taxing case but it does end in a frenzy, and the excitement is welcome. This series could use some flash. I breezed through seven episodes in a weekend, which in hindsight was not the best idea, and by the time I got to The Art of Murder, my brain was so numb I wasn’t sure if the subplot involving vibrational cooking (no, it’s not what you think) was supposed to be ironically funny or just a sign that they had run out of ideas.

Released: 2016
Dir: Peter DeLuise
Writer: Walter Klenhard
Cast: Lori Loughlin, Sarah Strange, Steve Bacic, Eva Bourne, Connor Stanhope, Kevin O’Grady, Keegan Connor Tracy, Martin Cummins, Susan Hogan, Ona Grauer, Sam Brisco
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

Garage Sale Mystery: The Novel Murders (2016)

Perhaps a weekend bender on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries’ Garage Sale Mystery wasn’t a great idea. Maybe it was the ambitious three murder episode, maybe it was a character’s unlikely visit to a psychic, or maybe it was the guilt of having watched so many of these movies. Whatever the reason, by the time I made it to mystery #6, the thought of cleaning all my dishes and laundry suddenly seemed the better option.

I was looking forward to The Novel Murders, with its pulpy premise and nod to classic mysteries. When antiques dealer Jennifer (Lori Loughlin) notices that the death of an elderly man in his own flat resembles a murder – by nicotine! – from an Agatha Christie novel, she thinks there might be a serial killer on the loose. But her amateur sleuthing has got everyone put off, including her friend and detective Frank (Kevin O’Grady), who figures an old, lonely guy isn’t worth the trouble of a full investigation. Also, why can’t this woman stop solving murders that the police mistake for natural deaths and accidents and just stick to selling old bird statues? Jennifer’s tenacity uncovers enough clues to convince Frank to dig deeper though, and it couldn’t come at a better time because two more deaths follow, also patterned off classic murder mysteries.

If there’s a theme to this movie, it’s shady people and their shady lies. No one is particularly trustworthy, not even Jennifer’s husband and son, who aren’t honest about a camping trip they take to prove they can rough it. Meanwhile Jennifer engages in some undercover work and sets out to learn more about a life coach, itself a suspicious profession, and his connection to the first victim. A tweedy, egg-like British academic specializing in Sherlock Holmes and an affable mystery writer with an encyclopedic knowledge of detective fiction may also be too smart for their own good.

These are at least your typical cast of characters. In a story that is supposed to hide secrets and keep you guessing, they play their part, which makes the appearance of a psychic frustrating. Jennifer’s business partner, Danielle (Sarah Strange) has taken on the role of perpetually single thus sort of unhappy and unfulfilled best friend and is someone who would put down a few extra bucks to get her fortune read, but she’s not dumb and gullible. She works in a consignment shop and regularly checks out garage sales; the woman knows how to sniff out cheats. That she puts increasing trust in a bird-like psychic who is clearly a fraud and out to manipulate other women is perhaps the bigger mystery. This movie already packs in quite a bit and doesn’t have room for this sloppy subplot.

Released: 2016
Dir: Peter DeLuise
Writer: Walter Klenhard
Cast: Lori Loughlin, Sarah Strange, Steve Bacic, Eva Bourne, Connor Stanhope, Kevin O’Grady, Ken Tremblett, Gerard Plunkett, Fiona Vroom, Barbara Wallace
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

Garage Sale Mystery: Guilty Until Proven Innocent (2016)

“You’re a murder magnet,” someone says to amateur sleuth Jennifer Shannon (Lori Loughlin). After besting the police department and solving four murders that had been written off as accidents, the consignment shop owner and garage sale enthusiast finds another case to occupy her free time, though if we’re being honest, she should really be trying to figure out how to keep her failing business afloat. She thinks she has the solution when a former high school friend, Sandra (Kirsten Robek) contacts her wanting to sell the inventory of her own antiques store. That effort gives way to a more pressing matter when Sandra’s fiancé, believed to have left her two years ago for another woman, appears in her cellar, dead. Everyone, by which I mostly mean the police, assumes she’s the killer because hell hath no fury like an antiques dealer from the sticks, but Jennifer is convinced that her frenemy wouldn’t just leave her fiancé’s body to chill out in a hole in the ground all this time.

Meanwhile, back at their store, co-owner, Danielle (Sarah Strange), is offered her dream job of managing an art gallery by a posh older lady. The woman, looking like someone who would tell you to your face that you really should wax that moustache, thinks she knows how to poach her potential employee. Not only does she try to coax Danielle out of her humble little corner shop with promises of a fatter paycheck, classier clientele, and trips to Paris, she dangles the prospect of rich, art loving men in front of perpetually single Dani’s face.

It’s nice to see Danielle emerge from the shadows. She’s been the quirky sidekick long enough, and this show needs someone who will take consequential stands every now and then. The same goes for Jennifer’s son, Logan (Connor Stanhope), who wrestles with the choice of helping his friends hack into the school’s grading system or reporting them. I was more invested in their decisions than in anything Jennifer’s done because despite Loughlin’s calming presence, or one consequence of it, is that her cases or more interesting than her character.

Part of the problem is that like the other leading ladies in Hallmark’s mysteries, she’s constantly being undercut by a man. Her other half is more insistent than ever that she stop fooling around with this investigating nonsense, despite her obvious talent for it. These husbands and lovers admire their clever partners but always feel the need to step in so as to keep their womenfolk safe. The message that they’re really sending is that sleuthing should be left to the (male) professionals and would you please get back to your inoffensive day job.

Released: 2016
Dir: Peter DeLuise
Writer: Walter Klenhard
Cast: Lori Loughlin, Sarah Strange, Steve Bacic, Eva Bourne, Connor Stanhope, Kevin O’Grady, Kirsten Robek, Aliyah O’Brien, Valerie McNicol
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017