Western TV reviews

Love, Once and Always (2018)

First impressions can be misleading, and the opening shot of Love, Once and Always had me hoping for a London romance. Alas, this Hallmark love story takes place in Rhode Island, a decidedly non-British locale. It has a few things going for it, however, like a Victorian estate that is at the center of the movie and a pair of handsome stars to match.

Amanda Schull and Peter Porte lead the film as two former lovers who discover they’ve inherited an equal share of the Wycliffe House in historic Newton. Lucy Windsor (Schull) flies home upon hearing the news, hoping to settle affairs before returning to London, where she is about to secure her dream job as a museum director. She’s surprised to see Duncan (Porte), now a Boston-based architect, in her home and even more shocked when he declares that she’s trespassing on his property, which he and his family have been caring for for years.

Putting their past aside proves difficult, in part because of nosy townspeople, and they continue to clash over the fate of the late 19th century mansion. Lucy dreams of turning her great-aunt’s home into a historic site with educational resources and space for local artisans. Duncan, ever the forward thinker, has the opposite idea and wants to remake the property into a golf course. He already has a pitch for a developer (Hiro Kanagawa) and can’t be bothered with Lucy’s restoration talk, especially when the place is a crumbling money pit.

We’ve seen this story before, and the couple predictably bicker about everything before they realize that working together may be in both their interests. In this case, their compromise leads to a fancy Gilded Age ball to show off the house. What makes this exercise a little more enjoyable though is the fresh pairing between Schull and Porte. The two balance their characters’ fiery sides with a healthy dose of humility, and the give and take between Lucy and Duncan makes you want to root for both. I get the revulsion of turning the solarium into a pro shop, but I see why consigning Wycliffe House to the past makes sense too.

Still, if we’re choosing sides, I’d probably sympathize with Duncan just because he’s consistent and sensible. Lucy’s passion comes across as naïve, and I find it hard to believe someone who works in the history business doesn’t grasp the challenge of historical preservation. Also her penchant of speaking in metaphors is silly. We get it; you majored in history, but not everything is the Great Fire of London or the Battle of Waterloo.

Released: 2018
Dir: Allan Harmon
Writer: Susan Batten, Gregg Rossen, Brian Sawyer, Sydney Sidner
Cast: Amanda Schull, Peter Porte, Anna Van Hooft, Brittney Wilson, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Dolores Drake, Hiro Kanagawa
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2020

Autumn Stables (2018)

I’m not one to pass up a Kevin McGarry movie, but Autumn Stables feels more like homework than my pick of the night. The movie, about a widow who bonds with the new owner of her ranch, tells a familiar romance but is too limited in scope to ever be effective or engaging. The truest fans of McGarry and his costar, Cindy Busby, as well as horse lovers may enjoy it, but then again Heartland exists.

One of the main problems is that the movie literally doesn’t go anywhere. Most of the action takes place on the ranch, making things visually kind of dull. I love green grass and trees as much as the next person, but the landscape is not that remarkable. The scene is as breathtaking as a drive through mid-Missouri, though a different vista may have swayed me. Also, the set tends to pen in the story. At times, it’s as if the cast and crew have been quarantined here and, absent anything else to do, decided to make a movie. Everyone seems stuck in place, and as a result, the story never quite opens up as it should.

McGarry and Busby nevertheless make do with what they have. Busby has more to work with as Autumn, a former racehorse trainer who’s trying to get back on her feet two years after her husband’s death. The actor turns in an appropriately angsty performance, hemming and hawing as Autumn ponders the sale of the house she and her husband remodeled. When she finally decides to move on, the reality of starting a new chapter hits and she’s not sure she’s ready for all that entails. I appreciate the way the story explores her grief, not just through her relationship with the ranch but also in her relationship with her in-laws. It gets a bit sappy, and her father-in-law (Dan Karpenchuk) is always ready with a speech about making one’s heart whole again and such. However, Autumn’s arc captures the enormity of her emotions and, for her at least, the devastating finality of leaving her home.

All is not lost, and in comes Jake (McGarry) to save the day and make this a smooth transition. At least this is what Autumn thinks when she agrees to sell the ranch to a roving construction worker who promises to keep the place largely in tact. Jake proves to be less than forthcoming with his plans though, and when he starts inviting himself over to fiddle with things, Autumn comes to regret her decision. It’s easy to understand her dislike for this guy; I would hate the character if I wasn’t so charmed by McGarry. Jake has no sense of boundaries and intrudes on everything from the family’s Sunday brunch to Autumn’s private riding lessons. The guy doesn’t even have the courtesy to call before showing up with a toolbox and his contractor. He does, however, have a megawatt smile and a self-deprecating sarcastic streak.

Insomuch as the movie succeeds, it does so on the appeal of its two stars, and their chemistry makes it easier to forgive the script’s patchier moments. The writing is padded with pointless character quirks, like Jake’s penchant for to-go coffee cups, and a seemingly profound conversation about making one’s mark through change that just tapers off. Ultimately, the story’s too thin and doesn’t seem worth the effort, unless you’re here to tick it off your Busby/McGarry checklist.

Released: 2018
Dir: Andrew Cymek
Writer: Daisygreen Stenhouse
Cast: Cindy Busby, Kevin McGarry, Alys Crocker, Dan Karpenchuk, Kiran Friesen, Sadie Munroe, Jeannette Roxborough
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies Now
Reviewed: 2020

The Valley of Light (2007)

The Valley of Light feels like a trip down the TV movie memory hole even though it’s not that old. The folksy story, filled with both hope and melancholy, reminds me of something I would have watched on a bored Saturday afternoon in the nineties, which is the general vibe of any Hallmark Hall of Fame production. That’s not to say it’s bad; rather, I found it a welcome change of pace considering I’ve been binging Hallmark Channel romances for the better part of a year.

The movie tells the story of a World War II veteran who winds up in rural North Carolina. Noah (Chris Klein) comes home to find his parents dead, his brother imprisoned, and his family home repossessed. Feeling adrift and as if the world has moved on in his absence, he wanders through the countryside using the creeks and rivers as his guide. One day, he happens upon a man (Robert Prosky) who directs him to a nearby town where he might find some people who can help him.

Noah sees that the residents are indeed welcoming, especially when they learn that he has a talent for fishing. He quickly takes to Matthew (Zach Mills), a mute boy who lives with his grandparents (Jay O. Sanders and Betty Moyer). The two are just the companion that the other needs. Noah finds in Matthew someone he can nurture and care for while readjusting to life in society. Matthew, meanwhile, thrives alongside his new best friend, who lets the boy learn and grow at his own pace. Their bond strengthens as they accompany one another on odd jobs and fishing trips, and this relationship starts to ease both their feelings of loneliness.

Eleanor (Gretchen Mol), a widow who invites Noah to stay at her deceased husband’s fishing hut, also gives the drifter a sense of belonging. Though well-liked by others, she feels a similar weariness and lack of purpose, the emotional burden of her husband’s suicide deepened by the pressures of caring for her farm and an elderly relative (Angela Paton). Mol is a fantastic, underrated actor and the true star of the movie. Klein captures his character’s reserved nature but never quite settles into the accent nor brings great depth to Noah’s inner life. Despite being the main character, Noah is easy to overlook whereas Eleanor, even in her plain-spoken, unassuming way, stands out. She is someone marked by tragedy but not totally given into it.

I appreciated the movie’s approach to the story, which may be too much of a slow burn for some. It doesn’t push Noah and Eleanor into a romance, for example, and instead allows the characters to open up in time. The result is a richer emotional tableau where feelings like grief and joy exist side-by-side rather than in conflict with one another. The movie’s visuals and themes also evoke A Walk in the Clouds and A River Runs Through It. The Valley of Light never equals those films, but its message about salvation and community, especially when one feels most powerless, still resonates.

Released: 2007
Dir: Brent Shields
Writer: Camille Thomasson
Cast: Chris Klein, Gretchen Mol, Zach Mills, Jay O. Sanders, Jeff Perry, Geoff Pierson, Stephen Tobolowsky, Robert Prosky, Angela Paton, Betty Moyer
Time: 97 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: CBS
Reviewed: 2020