Western TV reviews

The Julius House: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2016)

The latest Aurora Teagarden mystery begins on a lonely dirt road in the countryside. A distraught old woman is standing outside a large house and has just informed the police of her family’s disappearance. It’s an ominous beginning and while not one of those Victorian mysteries that will keep you awake at night, there is a creepy doll sitting on a shelf of a hidden closet.

The Julius House is the best of the Aurora Teagarden series so far; make of that what you will. It’s mildly spooky, which gives it more kick than your average Hallmark mystery. The missing family turns out to be the Juliuses, and four years later, their house belongs to Ro (Candace Cameron Bure). Ro, full-time librarian and part-time detective, vaguely recalls the case of the missing family of three when she purchases her new abode, but she’s so taken with the extra wall space that she doesn’t consider the consequences of living at a possible murder scene or that closets may not be the only thing the house is hiding.

When she begins to dig deeper into the family’s disappearance, with the help of her journalist friend, Sally (Lexa Doig), her boyfriend, Martin (Yannick Bisson), and her mother’s boyfriend, John (Bruce Dawson), she only finds more questions. Why, for instance, was the teenage daughter afraid of her father? Why did her boyfriend leave town so soon after her disappearance? How long did the mother, who was dying from cancer, have to live? The only thing Ro is sure of is that the police’s conclusion is wrong and that the Julius family did not drive into a ravine by accident.

Meanwhile, things are percolating in Ro and Aida (Marilu Henner), her mother’s, personal lives. It turns out Martin from the last episode wasn’t the murderer (spoiler alert) and that he is dreamy good guy that Ro’s mother hoped he’d be. The two need to get on with it though because the running narrative here is that they aren’t officially a couple until they’ve had twenty-five dates, per Aida’s rules. Y’all are adults though, so why is this a thing? Aida doesn’t have too much time to meddle though because she is working out some kinks in her relationship with John, Ro’s friend from their Real Murders Club. John’s ready to propose but Aida’s being Aida and won’t say “yes” so easily.

I like John’s reappearance after getting sidelined in the previous movie. He’s levelheaded and calm, which is useful since people in this small town are getting killed left and right. Ro’s rival and wife of her ex-boyfriend, police detective Lynn (Miranda Frigon), is not as antagonistic, though I don’t mind when she is. I also liked Token Black Guy, concrete layer Parnell (Viv Leacock), who has a small but important role. Basically, any time secondary characters crowd out an overly chirpy Ro is fine with me.

Released: 2016
Dir: Terry Ingram
Writer: Teena Booth
Cast: Candace Cameron Bure,Yannick Bisson, Marilu Henner, Lexa Doig, Miranda Frigon, Bruce Dawson, Peter Benson, Scott Lyster, Gabrielle Rose
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

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Three Bedrooms, One Corpse: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2016)

After a solid second installment of the Aurora Teagarden mysteries, Three Bedrooms, One Corpse takes one step back. A routine whodunit that sputters by on Candance Cameron Bure’s overacting, the movie dips into the world of real estate and art theft. Librarian/crime solver Ro (Cameron Bure) has quite a day when she stumbles upon her mother’s handsome client and then immediately onto her mother’s strangled coworker at a house viewing. Never one to leave murder to the actual detectives, Ro tries to find the killer herself lest her mother, Aida (Marilu Henner), become the next victim.

It’s not a terribly exciting ensemble of suspects. Clues point to various agents, from Aida’s cagey coworkers, to those at a competing agency. Aida resents Ro’s suspicions, but the case takes an early and mysterious turn when it’s discovered that someone driving the deceased’s car returned the house keys to the office the night she died. It doesn’t help that her husband is lashing out and making public threats. Then Ro discovers that a valuable painting was taken from the house and that other agencies and companies have also had art stolen from their properties. When another body turns up, evidence suggests an unlikely suspect – Ro’s latest blind date.

Martin Bartell, aka Yannick Bisson, aka Detective William Murdoch of Murdoch Mysteries, seems like the perfect guy, at least Aida thinks so, but he might be hiding something. Ro’s other romantic prospects have not lasted more than one episode, so the odds aren’t great for suave Martin. A more dependable relationship is the one between Ro and her ex (Peter Benson) and his wife, Lynn (Miranda Frigon). I like the latter’s frostiness and constant need to maintain the upper hand. Frigon is more fun to watch than Cameron Bure, who is always trying to figure out how to cram all the requisite emotions onto her face. There’s an arched eyebrow here, a dilated pupil here, and a contorted lip just in case. One of my favorite characters recedes into the background though. John (Bruce Dawson), one of Ro’s amateur detectives in arms and Aida’s sometimes boyfriend, is reduced to random elderly man. His treatment is symbolic of the whole movie. Even if your brain hasn’t been numbed by a Hallmark marathon, this one is easy to forget.

Released: 2016
Dir: Lynne Stopkewich
Writer: Teena Booth
Cast: Candace Cameron Bure, Marilu Henner, Lexa Doig, Miranda Frigon, Bruce Dawson, Peter Benson, Yannick Bisson, Nicole Oliver, Giles Panton, Scott Lyster
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

The Last Cowboy (2003)

The Last Cowboy ranks in the top half of Hallmark movies, not because of its pedestrian story about an estranged father and daughter in cowboy country but because of the actors who play them. Lance Henriksen and Jennie Garth slip into their roles without fuss, avoiding histrionic confrontations in a script that could easily descend into that.

Garth is Jake Cooper, a Texas girl turned California hotshot who left home eight years earlier and hasn’t looked back. She crashes back into her family’s life after her grandfather passes away, barreling into the funeral at the last minute dressed like she’s ready for a Hollywood costume party. It’s a misleading entrance though because Jake turns out to be nothing like the diva that we expect her to be. Instead, she’s a no-nonsense horse trainer with a gentle side, one that she doesn’t show to her father whom she blames for her mother’s death.

John Cooper, meanwhile, is an old school cowboy, a guy who probably talks more to animals than to people. He’s been running the family ranch, Dry Creek, for years, but with his father’s death, the vultures are circling and he must fend off buyers interested only in carving up the land for profit. John is too emotionally stunted to try to reconcile with Jake, but he warms up to his grandson, and the kid creates an opening for father and daughter to work things out.

The movie slows once everyone tries to figure out how to save Dry Creek and doesn’t really pick up until the very end. There’s a lot of talking and negotiating that gets repetitive. Garth and Henriksen are appealing as stubborn opposites who turn out to have more in common than they let themselves believe. They’re also sympathetic and show off the tender side of their characters that they don’t show each other.

Whenever the plot starts to drag, John’s friend and ranch hand, Amos (M. C. Gainey) steps in. A chatty Texan who mentions cow patties on multiple occasions and regularly throws up the word “ornery,” he’s blessed comic relief. Brad Cooper also makes an appearance and is admittedly why I watched this movie. He plays Jake’s business partner and fellow horse trainer. Fans don’t have too much to look forward to though. Cooper has a few token scenes as Jake’s main cheerleader, supporting her proposal to turn Dry Creek into a training stable and horse rehabilitation center. He also wants to support her romantically, but she first has to work out her relationship with her father.

The movie’s setting offers some nice shots of Texas, or whatever substituted as the filming location. There are plenty of fields for horses to gallop through and we get herds of cattle stirring up dust clouds as the sun blazes down. I always wish for bigger budgets and imaginations when it comes to anything that takes place in open land though. The movie gets boxed in, visually and narratively, but I suppose that’s why it’s on television.

Released: 2017
Dir: Joyce Chopra
Writer: J.P. Martin
Cast: Jennie Garth, Lance Henriksen, Bradley Cooper, M.C. Gainey, Dylan Wagner, John Vargas
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark
Reviewed: 2017

Site Unseen: An Emma Fielding Mystery (2017)

My entertainment life these days seems to be a lot of Hallmark Movies and Mysteries. After a wild Fixer Upper Mysteries and Aurora Teagarden bender, I went straight for a shot of Hallmark’s latest, and lived to tell about it. Emma Fielding is like every other series on offer in that the title character (Courtney Thorne-Smith) is a determined career woman with a knack for getting mixed up in a man’s world. In this case, the woman is an archeologist leading a team of students on a dig. Her old fashioned techniques, that is actual digging, earn her the condescension of a male upstart, who would prefer to survey a site with his drone.

They’re spending a few weeks in Emma’s stepmother’s backyard in Maine, hoping to find proof of a settlement that predates Jamestown. It’s the continuation of her father’s research, which never progressed beyond conjecture. When their dig site yields an old spoon, everyone is giddy, until fresh bodies start popping up and suddenly it’s a different and unwelcome adventure. It’s hard to imagine anyone in this picturesque fishing town would want to screw with some university kids sifting through dirt, but this is a murder mystery and sleepy towns are full of killers.

Some locals are convinced there’s buried treasure waiting to be unearthed and will do anything to get their hands on it. Hottie Will (Benjamin Ayres) even ran salvage operations some years ago, so up he goes on the suspect list. Others are just shady, like grumpy Tichnor. His house is one of those where you half expect the police to pull a body or two out of the basement freezer. There’s also petty barmaid Nikki, who harbors an unhealthy resentment towards Emma for not remembering the fact that they used to hang out during the summer. I have to say the identity of the murderer is clear to anyone who makes a habit out of watching these things. That said, the movie still commits to misdirection and each suspect seems like a plausible culprit.

At the center of all this is Emma, cool-headed and not too foolhardy. She’s a university professor after all and knows how to prudently navigate her way around condescending men in power. FBI agent Jim Connor (James Tupper) would be a good romantic match if he didn’t also mock her crime solving skills, dismissing her deductions for rising only to the standard of peer review and not a court of law. When her department head (Martin Cummins) strides in and tries to stop the excavation for fear of safety, she must also reason her way around his objections.

Like actress Jewel in the Fixer Upper mystery series, Thorne-Smith tends for a low-key approach to her character. It doesn’t feel like she’s trying to put on a show, which is the feeling I get whenever Candace Cameron Bure appears on my screen. There’s very little melodrama, all things considered, which puts more focus on the mystery. That also makes it a sleepier choice, but you could do a lot worse.

Released: 2017
Dir: Douglas Barr
Writer: Suzette Couture
Cast: Courtney Thorne-Smith, James Tupper, Martin Cummins, Adam DiMarco, Tess Atkins, Benjamin Ayres, P. Lynn Johnson, Andrew Kavadas, Jessica Heafey
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

Real Murders: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2015)

The first installment of this series got off to a middling start with more emphasis on Aurora Teagarden than on the mystery. This second movie makes up for that though; starring Candace Cameron Bure as the title character, it delivers a high stakes whodunit in which the victims and suspects are all part of the Real Murders Club. The group is not, as it would seem, one where real murders occur but where an eclectic circle of friends come to discuss true crime stories old and new. On this occasion, however, a real murder is committed just before their meeting. A woman is killed in the same manner as the crime to be discussed, leading Aurora to believe that there is a murderer in their midst.

Ro, a librarian by day, dives into the case despite being warned off by her ex and his wife (Miranda Frigon), both police detectives, and her worried mother (Marilu Henner). She ignores their advice and promptly partners with a fellow club member, John (Bruce Dawson), and her journalist best friend, Sally (Lexa Doig). Joining them is newcomer Robin Daniels (Robin Dunne), mystery writer and hottie, but his sudden appearance and intimate knowledge of crime also puts him on the suspect list.

When Ro is nearly poisoned, her investigation intensifies, and she wonders if someone is instead committing copycat murders while trying to knock off the members one by one. She connects whoever she can to past crimes the club has studied, searching for clues as to who the next victim might be. No one is safe from either list though, and some of her top suspects include a butcher who was absent from the meting the night of the murders and a guy with previous run-ins with the police. Rather than relish the chance to be a part of the action for once, however, the group begins to eye each other with skepticism. No one wants to be questioned by the police or a nosy Ro, and the situation is made worse when Sally writes an article that sources private conversations between the members. They start to wonder if the Real Murders Club is more trouble than it’s worth.

This movie does a better job of balancing character and mystery. Now that we know what kind of person Ro and the other characters are, the narrative just needs to highlight certain aspects of their personalities, like Ro’s habit of rejecting guys that her mom pushes her way. Granted, I would move cautiously if my mother suggested I feign interest to get a second date, but did they need to drop hot vicar without warning? Is this going to be a habit because I kind of want Robin to stay on. He and Ro are compatible and make a good sleuthing team. The dynamic between Ro and Lynn, the detective wife of her ex, is also taking shape. Instead of two catty women baring their claws over a guy, they have something of a symbiotic relationship that also shows off their strengths. You’d think they be a little friendlier after Ro delivered Lynn’s baby on a kitchen, but a détente will do for now.

One thing I’m not a particular fan of but will have to put up with because I’ve committed myself to this series is Cameron Bure’s Hallmark style of acting. These are the kinds of roles she eats up, and girl overacts the shit out of this. It’s not that she comes off as fake but that she’s overdramatic, the friend who tears up because your great-aunt died and wants to know if you need her to catsit while you attend the funeral. No, and stop crying.

Released: 2015
Dir: Martin Wood
Writer: Teena Booth
Cast: Candace Cameron Bure, Marilu Henner, Lexa Doig, Robin Dunne, Miranda Frigon, Bruce Dawson, Peter Benson, Seann Gallagher, Anna Van Hooft, Julian Christopher
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017