USA

A Valentine’s Match (2020)

I’m not saying good music correlates to good movies, but it can’t hurt, and in the case of A Valentine’s Match, a couple great bops – It was Over Before It Even Began by Stephane Huguenin and We Belong by Pat Benatar – are just icing on the cake. Then again, I knew we were getting something solid with stars Bethany Joy Lenz and Luke Macfarlane, who don’t often lead us astray. The two come together as ex-lovers meeting again after years apart. Natalie, recently fired from her TV hosting gig, returns to her Portland-area hometown to figure out her next few steps. She can’t make it past the first day though without running into her former fiancé, Zach, and the news that he now owns a hardware store surprises her. It was his decision to go to Europe to become an artist that led to their breakup in the first place.

Lenz and Macfarlane carry off their parts effortlessly. I have yet to be disappointed by their individual performances even if some of their movies turn out to be less than stellar. Both have an expressiveness that is put to good use here. They give their bickering characters plenty of quirks that convince me that Natalie and Zach, who love and know each other so well, nevertheless are due for a serious talk. They have a decade of unresolved issues to work through in addition to their current professional crises. Lenz and Macfarlane certainly don’t need a silly plot device like a Valentine’s Day Festival to bring their characters together; I could just as well watch them trade barbs over drain snakes or reminisce about old times in barn, which they also do.

But what’s a Hallmark movie without some dopey festival, and Natalie and Zack find themselves heading up the fair’s fundraising auction, thanks to their conspiring mothers (Mary-Margaret Humes and Karen Kruper). That means they spend a lot of time together brainstorming at the diner and gathering quilts and such. It’s fine because not only does all their work culminate with a puppy kissing booth (live puppies included), it’s also a chance to see the many ways in which they continue to challenge each other. The frustration on both their faces when Natalie suggests hot yoga or truffle hunting as prizes is simply delightful, as is the playfulness they share while combing through a trove of donated antiques. Their relationship feels grounded in a way that isn’t often the case in these films. Credit again to Lenz and Macfarlane for capturing emotions big and small, but the supporting cast also gets a nod. Besides Humes and Kruper, Caitlin Stryker and Devon Alexander add dimension to the story as Natalie and Zach’s best friends.

“It Was Over Before It Even Began” by Stephane Huguenin:

“We Belong” by Pat Benatar:

Released: 2020
Dir: Christie Will Wolf
Writer: Cara J. Russell
Cast: Bethany Joy Lenz, Luke Macfarlane, Mary-Margaret Humes, Caitlin Stryker, Devon Alexander, Karen Kruper, Marco Grazzini
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2020

Hearts of Winter (2020)

While the prize for the best Winterfest movie of 2020 easily goes to Winter in Vail, it’s a race to the bottom for dullest film, with Love in Winterland and this movie vying for last place. I’m inclined to put Love in Winterland on top, if only because I’m partial to anything featuring Jack Turner. Still, Hearts of Winter may have some appeal if you’re a Jill Wagner or Victor Webster fan, and since I’m neither, it took me three nights to trudge through this tired movie about a decorator and the widowed father she inspires.

Both actors play to their usual types, with Wagner as another snappy professional and Webster as her sleepy love interest. Interior designer Bethany hopes to boost her profile by sponsoring a home redo contest, one that catches the attention of teenager Zoe (Lauren McNamara). Her father, Grant, is still grieving the death of her mother, and she reasons that fresh décor will help Dad come out of the cloud he’s been under.

Never mind that they live in pretty posh digs already and need quality father-daughter time more than they need new throw pillows. Clear thinking isn’t the aim, neither for the set decorators nor for Bethany, who barges into Grant’s home uninvited. He’s not thrilled about the intrusion since he’s already occupied with work at a winter lodge and objects to strangers replacing and rearranging his stuff, which is totally reasonable if we’re being honest.

I can see how some may like Wagner’s eagerness. Bethany wants to please Grant and Zoe, not just for her own sake but so that the family can really find happiness in their home again. She also bonds with Zoe, who is in need of a mother figure. For me though, the movie lacks a beating heart. There’s not one character or relationship that draws me into the story and makes me feel the jumble of emotions that come with the best or even the really good Hallmark films. I felt a pang of sadness when Grant becomes protective of his late wife’s mixing bowl, but otherwise, everyone is too formal in their approach. The actors and the script all hit their marks, but the end product still falls short.

The movie’s failings are exemplified by Brendon Zub’s presence in the movie. An actor who deserves all the lead parts, or at least more than the handful he’s gotten, Zub fades into the background as Bethany’s sensible younger brother. He could have easily been a compelling supporting character or some needed comic relief, but like almost everything else in this movie, the encouragement he gives to his sister sounds meaningless and empty.

Released: 2020
Dir: Allan Harmon
Cast: Jill Wagner, Victor Webster, Lauren McNamara, Rukiya Bernard, Brendon Zub
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2020

Witness to Murder: A Darrow Mystery (2019)

Hallmark Movies and Mysteries went to town in 2019, introducing a slate of new shows, many of which failed to impress. Thankfully the channel also gave us a new episode of Darrow and Darrow, and the movie makes the most of it’s rare appearance in the schedule. Only the fourth film of the series, Witness to Murder shows that things have come a long way from the lackluster first film. It’s now my favorite series to watch on Hallmark, a must-see even if it does come up just once or twice a year.

One reason is the cast, led by a strong triple act in Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Tom Cavanaugh, and Wendie Malick. Each brings his or her own strengths and carves out a memorable character. The relationship between lawyer Claire Darrow (Williams-Paisley) and her mother, Joanna (Malick), also a lawyer, is exciting and fresh, one that doesn’t model the usual dynamic of an anxious mom always nudging her kid towards the safe and sensible. Instead, Claire and Joanna fight it out, both unafraid to take risks whether at home or in the courtroom. Their trust in and respect for one another has led to a thaw in their relationship even if they still have their disagreements. Now they are learning to embrace other aspects of their personalities and to support each other in the process. Joanna tries to soften her edges by playing up her maternal instincts, building birdhouses and making pancakes as a way to bond with her family. Claire, for her part, still holds fast to her moral code, but her mother’s cutthroat tactics seem to have sharpened her lawyering skills in the process.

The two make an especially strong team when they come up against Joanna’s former employer. Cassie (Elysia Rotaru), an old colleague, appeals to the Darrows for help with an insider trading charge that could cost her custody of her daughter. Joanna hesitates to intervene since Cassie’s betrayal and false accusations led to her firing, but she relents when she comes face-to-face with her former boss, Harriman (Martin Cummins), and finds him to be as abusive and manipulative as ever. The stakes in this otherwise straightforward case rise dramatically though when Harriman is shot and his paralegal, Jason (Adam Beauchesne), killed right in front of Claire and Joanna.

Cassie’s 1970 gray Chevelle is seen speeding away from the scene of the crime, shell casings littered throughout the car. Just like that, she finds herself battling an additional murder charge. Despite the evidence, however, neither Darrow believes Cassie guilty, and they find other suspects who had it in for Harriman, if he was indeed the intended victim. His long enemies list includes people close to him, like his assistant, Tammy, and ex, Ms. Reed, as well as professional contacts, like Hugh, who was counting on Harriman to sort out a family inheritance matter.

For Claire, the case is complicated by her burgeoning relationship with prosecuting attorney Miles (Cavanagh). She’s taking things slow, too slow for her mother’s liking, seeing no reason to rush headlong into a romance when she knows Miles will still be waiting at the end of the day. When his ex, one Lt. Lang (Michelle Harrison), comes onto the scene, however, she reevaluates this strategy, and things get delightfully awkward between the two. As usual, the writers handle Claire and Miles’s storyline with plenty of wit and candor.

What I appreciate more so, however, is that their relationship is not the dominant one. In fact, the story gives equal weight to all the characters, including Claire’s daughter, Lou, who is caught up in her own student president race at school. Her presence isn’t just filler, a throwaway part used to help the movie’s pacing. Instead, she serves as a moderating force between her mother and grandmother and, in surprisingly poignant scene, shares a moment with Claire that touches on gun violence. Not to take away from the case at hand, which still proves to be a tidy mystery, but the sum of these characters makes this movie more compelling than an ordinary whodunit.

Highlight for spoilers: Harriman set up the shooting in order to kill Jason, who was using his position as trusted paralegal to dig up dirt on his boss. Harriman’s dealings caused Jason’s parents and others to lose money, and Jason was armed with the goods to bring Harriman down. Harriman hired Tammy and her brother to get a replica car, which they switched with Cassie’s actual car. The night before the shooting, they fired off eight rounds from Cassie’s Chevelle before returning it. That way, the shells would be in her car when she was driving around the next day. On the romance front, Lang is not in fact trying to reignite a relationship with Miles but offer a full apology so that she can move on.

Release: 2019
Dir: Michael Robison
Writer: Phoef Sutton
Cast: Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Wendie Malick, Tom Cavanaugh, Lilah Fitzgerald, Elysia Rotaru, Michelle Harrison, Barclay Hope, Martin Cummins, Antonio Cayonne, Gelsea Mae, Christie Burke, Adam Beauchesne, Claude Knowlton
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2020