Western TV reviews

Amazing Winter Romance (2020)

I was too busy complaining about Amazing Winter Romance, a decidedly un-amazing film about a snow maze and winter romance, to notice the pun. Here I was thinking Hallmark was just being lazy with their titles again (e.g. Best Christmas Party Ever, The Perfect Christmas Present), but no, they were really trying to be clever. Too bad they didn’t put more work into the actual movie, an underwhelming excuse to film at the world’s best, most perfect snow maze ever.

The actual tourist attraction in St. Adolphe, Manitoba doubles as little backyard project for Nate (Marshall Williams), who doesn’t seem to have much of a day job. He helps out with the town’s snow removal crew as needed and that gives him a mountain of white stuff with which to create a sprawling, larger-than-life maze. It’s impressive work, and he’s gone so far as to integrate an ice cream bar and a mini bonfire into his masterpiece. Nate doesn’t have an agenda with this thing though; he’s mostly built it as a fun diversion for bored townsfolk and a go-to spot for school field trips.

It’s the kind of oddity that makes for an interesting magazine article, and writer Julia (Jessy Schram), goes back to her hometown to see what kind of story she can spin out of this. Her boss, seeing that she’s a bit fried as well, hopes she’ll also find some inspiration and assigns her a piece on what makes small towns so special. The answer, going by my experience, is not much, but a job’s a job, and Julia has to figure out what makes people want to visit and maybe even stay in Podunkville.

The banality of small town life happens to be the best thing about this movie. Julia mucks about doing ordinary stuff, like goofing around on the school swing set and plunging down a mound of snow with friend Nate. I saw my own bored but happy childhood reflected in such scenes, and those with a similar experience may appreciate the film’s quotidian nature. The actors downplay their parts, opting for a casual vibe. Schram and Marshall, reminding me of a very young, very blond Mark Ruffalo, have an easy chemistry, helped by the fact that their characters don’t have to deal with the messiness of a past relationship.

Julia and Nate’s solid friendship – they come off as really good friends more than would-be lovers – points to a different issue with the movie though. Just as there isn’t enough fire between the pair, there also isn’t much to keep the story aglow. It’s not a stretch to say that nothing happens; the story lacks a pressing conflict, and even when Julia encounters minor problems, like losing a dog in the maze, the consequences are brushed aside. An attempt at a love triangle also turns out to be as awkward as the interloper, a perky city girl named Skye (Melissa Marie Elias). She’s as enamored with small town life as she is with Nate, but sometimes giant paper mâché croissants just aren’t enough to win people over.

Released: 2020
Dir: Jason Bourque
Writer: Barbara Kymlicka
Cast: Jessy Schram, Marshall Williams, Zoe Fish, Melissa Marie Elias, Paul Magel, Nancy Sorel, Kate Yacula, Daina Leitold, Stephanie Sy
Time: 84 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2020

Strawberry Summer (2012)

This movie doesn’t have much, but it does have Trevor Donovan singing so that counts as a minor win. At the same time, it’s also a generic, lackluster story about a small town girl with big dreams so I’ll be watching it again never. Donovan plays Jason Keith, a country star who’s risen to fame with his song Easy Heart. His reputation has taken a hit after a string of festival no-shows, however. That doesn’t deter music teacher Beth (Julie Mond) from choosing him to be grand marshal of this year’s Strawberry Festival, which her mother (Shelley Long) is organizing. The town isn’t hot on the idea and neither is Jason, but his manager agrees to the gig, seeing it as a pretty foolproof way to win back fans.

Heading up this fruity event is trying though, and I get why Jason wants to stay holed up in his hotel room with his guitar. Frankly I’d rather do that than subject myself to endless pie tosses and baking competitions. When the Strawberry King bails, Strawberry Queen Beth shames Jason into filling in, and he has to live with the indignity of wearing strawberry regalia. At least he matches his queen, who has her very own themed get-up that resembles a doll’s dress.

As tempted as I am to knock the Strawberry Festival, I can’t totally dismiss the idea; my high school years were spent marching in town parades celebrating various food stuffs and wild animals. Even so, the cheese factor is a bit much, and I’m embarrassed for everyone when the glee club breaks out with their local twist on When the Saints Go Marching In. If you want to get to the film’s better parts, however, you’re going to have to accept things like that and Jason’s atrocious cowboy attire. I’m sorry, but California boy Donovan looks like he’s cosplaying a country star. Wardrobe could have given him a faded flannel and a pair of cowboy boots, and I would have believed it just fine.

In a way, that gets to the heart of the story. Behind his arrogance and bad attitude, Jason is weighed down by superstardom. His healing comes in the form of Beth, whose desire to achieve her own unfulfilled dreams should take precedence but whose struggle seems one-note. Mond, as a result, doesn’t have much to play with. Her character is generically sympathetic but lacking in dimension. Donovan, however, actually seems more comfortable in this role than in recent ones, perhaps because there’s some real depth to this character. He taps into Jason’s insecurities and brings complexity to the otherwise obnoxious singer. He’s too passive an actor though to make this performance stand out.

“Easy Heart” by Trevor Donovan:

“Taming the Horse” by Trevor Donovan:

Alt Title: Easy Heart
Released: 2012
Dir: Kevin Connor
Writer: Gary Goldstein, Jim Head
Cast: Julie Mond, Trevor Donovan, Shelley Long, Cindy Williams, Dagney Kerr, Meagen Fay, Jilon VanOver
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movie Channel
Reviewed: 2020

Sister of the Bride (2019)

Hallmark movies don’t usually inspire extreme emotions in me, but on occasion I find myself yelling at a bird-brained character or ugly crying my way through a box of tissues. In the case of Sister of the Bride, it’s the former because while I like the movie overall, one character spoils the mood at every turn. Robert (Michael Gross), father of the bride and her sister, needs to be booted back to the past, where his arcane views on marriage and a woman’s agency belong. Also, he’s rude.

Contrast him with Stephanie (Becca Tobin) and Ben (Ryan Rottman), neither the bride nor the groom in this story but the couple at the center things. I’m indifferent to both actors, but they are so adorably loved up here that I have no choice but to stan. They play college professors who are a perfect match when it comes to their respect and willingness to sacrifice for one another. Stephanie, a woman who locks onto a goal and doesn’t let go, has the same approach when it comes to her personal life. She knows her partner is the one after six months of dating and doesn’t have to think twice when he stages a public proposal with cello accompaniment. Ben, clearly not fooling around, loves her for everything that makes her strong and successful.

So they think they’re inoculated against naysayers like her father, who feels they’re rushing things. Robert wastes no time showing his disappointment when they arrive at his Palm Springs vacation home and announce their engagement. He doesn’t understand why they don’t just date for ten years like Stephanie’s sister, Tracy (Chelsea Gilson), and her boyfriend, Preston (Brad Benedict), who also come bearing engagement news. Robert goes out of his way to belittle Ben, chastising him for not first asking permission to marry his daughter and then balking when the couple want to pay for their own nuptials instead of letting him foot the bill as tradition dictates. Stephanie and Ben don’t give two fucks though because they’re marrying each other and not her father. Each has a different approach to Robert’s condescension, but Stephanie’s hard line is particularly satisfying. Gently but firmly, she schools her father, telling him that she can make her own decisions, thank you very much, and that his meddling isn’t going to change her love for Ben, so maybe GTF over it.

That’s not to say the couple don’t have things to work through. They quickly find they do need to reassess their future when Tracy and Preston decide to get married over the July 4th weekend, one month away. Mom (Beth Broderick) and Pops are selling their massive vacation home so they can travel more, though if your second home is a mansion in Palm Springs, I doubt you’re hard up for cash. Rich people problems are not at issue, however, and hasty wedding planning is, with Stephanie and Ben doing most of the work. In between choosing invitations and menu options, they realize that they differ not just on favorite colors but on family size and career plans. Luckily I’m not the one who has to figure this stuff out, so I get to enjoy the fact that Ben is as adamant about Stephanie not giving up her tenure track position as she is about him accepting a dream job at Oxford.

Released: 2019
Dir: Sam Irvin
Writer: Anna White
Cast: Becca Tobin, Ryan Rottman, Michael Gross, Beth Broderick, Chelsea Gilson, Brad Benedict, Tilky Jones, Claude Knowlton
Time: 84 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2020