USA

A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2015)

When I started A Bone to Pick, the first movie in the Aurora Teagarden series, I was as excited as one can be to dive into a Hallmark mystery. The title character is a diminutive, single librarian with a penchant for solving murders, which is far closer to me than a bakery owner or a remodeling expert. But the air quickly goes out of this one despite a few moments of levity, especially a late scene involving a very pregnant police captain. Aurora (Candace Cameron Bure), or Ro as she’s known to her family and friends, is a perky character who’s easy to like, but her chipper personality isn’t enough to sustain a full mystery.

The idea of a Real Murders Club is grim but enticing, and Ro and her friends gather regularly to discuss and try to solve real murders, obviously. I’m too squeamish to join one myself, assuming these things exist and I’m sure they do, but the popularity of true crime podcasts like Serial and shows like Making a Murderer suggests that these guys are on to something. When one of the members dies – from old age and not from foul play, Ro gets pulled into a real murder mystery of her own.

The woman leaves her whole estate to the young librarian, an estate that happens to include a skull tucked inside the window seat of her very handsome house. Ro’s crime solving mind clicks into gear, and rather than alerting the police, she immediately sets off to gather clues. There are a few leads for her to follow, all of which bring her back to her new neighbors whom she suspects of murdering one of their own. Under the pretense of exploring the block, she takes the opportunity to question everyone and eventually fingers a mysterious dress shop owner with a runaway husband, a woman who looks like an extra from an 80s TV movie, her bland husband, and a grumpy newspaper editor who happens to be the boss of Ro’s best friend. Her accusations do nothing to endear her to her neighbors, who are already miffed that she and not they inherited their neighbor’s property and wealth.

I can’t be sure that these are all the suspects though. The movie spends so much time trying to establish Ro’s character that there’s hardly any thought given to the others. In the end, I managed to sort everyone out, but that still left an unsatisfying reveal. Nevertheless, Ro is a force, and this first movie in a series does its best to get you hooked on the character; the sleuthing is secondary. It’s not how good storytelling works but it’s the trade-off the writers decide to go for.

And that’s fine if you’re not into the whole murder mystery thing, though this is the channel’s raison d’etre. There are plenty of characters to liven up the story, like Marilu Henner as Ro’s mom, Aida. A high class real estate agent, Aida is some strange incarnation of a helicopter parent. She pays her daughter’s rent and then criticizes her lack of fashion sense, and common sense, come to think of it since she disapproves of Ro’s morbid interests. A hot vicar strolls onto the scene as Ro’s love interest. Of course this one is not to be confused with The Hot Vicar, Sidney Chambers, but that’s for another day, ladies. Ro’s ex is also a police detective married to another police detective. I don’t care to see catty exchanges between women at odds over a dude, but that’s where this rivalry is now. And let’s not forget dowdy librarian, who is exactly the stereotype you are picturing. Finally, we have our one non-white character with a substantial speaking part. Lexa Doig, a part-Filipina actor, plays Ro’s best friend, Sally, and yes, her job is to be as supportive and non-offensive as possible.

Released: 2015
Dir: Martin Wood
Writer: Teena Booth
Cast: Candace Cameron Bure, Marilu Henner, Lexa Doig, Bruce Dawson, Peter Benson, Sonya Salomaa, Dan Payne, Miranda Frigon, Stephen Huszar, David Ingram, Fiona Vroom
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

Concrete Evidence: A Fixer Upper Mystery (2017)

For what it’s worth, which is almost nothing, this is my favorite Hallmark mystery. Lead actress Jewel once again makes this series stand out, effortlessly adding sparkle to her sleuthing everywoman character. She does what many of the Hallmark leads try to do, which is give spunk to a stereotype. Let’s be honest; things are a bit vanilla when it comes to this and similar channels. These are all strong white women of a certain mold, women who are good at their day jobs, often as a small business owner, can rely on a supportive network of family and friends, and are financially stable enough to balance a career and a full-time hobby.

In comes Jewel as Shannon Hughes, who is all these things but who also lacks any pretense. The actress doesn’t force a personality onto the screen but lets it slip out as the story allows. Shannon still gets to be a hero but doesn’t go out of her way to be one, unlike other accidental detectives (I’m looking at you, Hannah Swensen). She tries to avoid deadly confrontation like a normal person and uses her good sense to dial emergency services, because sometimes it’s okay to leave things to the professionals. In doing so, we are spared seeing her lectured to by a protective male detective (it’s always a guy, and yes, I’m looking at you, Detective Mike) who gets to have it both ways and chastise and admire a woman at the same time. But when she does try to thwart a suspect’s escape, she uses her handywoman skills because girl is a quick thinker.

Besides a watchable lead though, Concrete Evidence also presents an enticing if not extraordinary mystery. It’s tightly plotted, a whodunit where all the players have a complex history with the victim and the other suspects. The story stretches back to Shannon’s high school days when Lily, the girlfriend of her former classmate, disappears. Lily isn’t seen or heard from again, until her skeleton is found inside a dumbwaiter in the house Shannon is restoring. It’s the same house purchased by Mac Sullivan (Colin Ferguson), star crime reporter, novelist, and Shannon’s potential love interest.

Immediately, suspicion falls on Cliff, the boyfriend and last person to see Lily alive. Besides his reputation as an arrogant jock back in the day, he now owns a competing restoration business and Shannon knows firsthand how far he’ll go to get his way. When she revisits their school for more clues, however, old friends reveal old grievances that might point to other killers. Lily’s best friend, Denise, who now teaches at the school, her husband, and even Lily’s brother, a foreman on Shannon’s crew, may not be as forthcoming as they first appear.

One thing I liked is that everyone gets a fair shot at being the prime suspect. I thought I had the case figured out early on but found myself shifting allegiances with new revelations. Meanwhile, the investigators are coming into their own. Shannon’s friend from the first movie gets more screentime as her sidekick, and another former classmate, the faithful Officer Tommy, realizes it’s more productive to trust Shannon’s instincts than to ignore them. Shannon’s relationship with Mac is also handled with care. These two aren’t in a rush to get together, so when they do begin to show signs of attraction, it feels natural and all the more welcome.

Released: 2017
Dir: Mark Jean
Writer: Teena Booth
Cast: Jewel, Colin Ferguson, Erin Karpluk, Ron Lea, Jason Cermak, Colin Lawrence, Sean Rogerson, Wiliam MacDonald, Michael Karl Richards, Jenn MacLean-Angus, Ben Cotton
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

Framed for Murder: A Fixer Upper Mystery (2017)

My mother is the reason I fell down the Hallmark Channel rabbit hole, since she’s not partial to the slow burn dramas I favor and I don’t watch the cooking shows or singing contests she likes. We’ve managed to compromise on white bread TV romances and murder mysteries, however, and she recommended the Fixer-Upper series after I burned through the Garage Sale Mysteries – not a good way to spend an extended holiday, by the way. “It’s the one with Jewel,” she said. “You know, the singer Jewel. She remodels old houses. I mean the character, not the singer.” With such an enthusiastic recommendation, I just had give it a try.

It turns out that Jewel does add something special to your run-of-the-mill murder mystery. She has the quiet confidence of an actor who doesn’t need to dominate every scene she’s in, and that allows her sincerity to shine through. And while I like or at least don’t mind most of the other actresses that parade through Hallmark’s TV movie factory, they often seem to try extra hard to be strong Lifetime women when they could try to just be women. Jewel’s strength and that of her character naturally comes through in her honest and understated performance.

She plays fixer upper Shannon Hughes, who owns her own restoration business and is the first person folks in Lighthouse Cove call when they need some work done on their turn of the century property. Shannon meets Mac Sullivan (Colin Ferguson), a newly famous crime novelist and investigative reporter who wants to enlist her services but who is also quick to voice his sexist assumptions about her line of work. They quickly make amends, and she even offers to let him stay in her renovated backyard shack while she’s doing up his new house.

The partnership is immediately put to important use when Shannon’s friend and neighbor, Jesse, is found dead in his own house, presumably from a nasty fall. She thinks there’s something more sinister, however, and carries on her own investigation when the police downplay her suspicions. (Point for black police chief played by Colin Lawrence, who has multiple lines and appears in multiple scenes.) Mac is all too eager to lend a hand, and the two start poking around only to realize that their own friends might be involved. Shannon’s other neighbors, a gruff guy who’s always peeking out his window like the guilty bastard he is – or maybe isn’t – and his hot son later revealed to have financial problems, top the suspect list, but they aren’t the only ones with secrets. Even Jesse, a deep sea treasure hunter, neglects to tell his friends and family about a valuable necklace that once belonged to a Portuguese princess.

The mystery itself isn’t that compelling and takes a few detours outside of Lighthouse Cove. I often feel when these small town detective stories stray too far outside city limits, they start to lose focus. The sense of familiarity between characters and place binds these worlds together, and since this is the first installment, it would be nice to get to know the quaint town a little better. Jewel and Ferguson share some good chemistry though, and it’s a bonus that they can develop a relationship without rushing headfirst into romance.

Released: 2017
Dir: Mark Jean
Writer: Peter Hume, Teena Booth
Cast: Jewel, Colin Ferguson, Erin Karpluk, Ron Lea, Colin Lawrence, Laura Soltis, Marcus Rosner, Ken Tremblett, Bill Dow, Jason Cermak
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

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 with the first hot dude you see.)

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 and without one 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