Timmy Time: Timmy’s Christmas Surprise (2011)

In the classic movie A Christmas Story, nine year old Ralphie wants nothing more than a Red Ryder BB gun under the tree on Christmas Day. The kid must have this, er, toy, and his quest to secure his beloved BB gun leads to a memorable, questionably kid-friendly holiday journey. Timmy’s Christmas Surprise is different in that regard and is exceedingly kid-friendly but still tells the tale of a young child who has his mind fixed on that special Christmas gift.

In this case, the child is adorable lamb Timmy of Shaun the Sheep fame, also of his own television show, Timmy Time, and the gift in question is a brilliant red tricycle. He wakes up on Christmas Eve and gets ready for school, because animals don’t take a break even for religious holidays. He and his classmates and teachers proceed to have a grand old time, and why not? They’re in preschool. All they do is paint, build snowmen, and make crafts out of tin cans and cotton balls.

But it’s a wintery English Christmas, and the school gets snowed under. This doesn’t seem to be the first time since the teachers immediately bust out stuffed burlap bags for the kiddos to curl up on. Pretty soon, everyone’s snoozing away, everyone except Timmy, who is worried that Santa won’t be able to find his way to the school and deliver his red trike.

I have to say I’m both way past the target age for this stuff and decidedly not a parent to a tiny human who is the target age, but good entertainment is good entertainment. Also I love Aardman productions, which has given us gems like Wallace & Gromit and Arthur Christmas. I never tire of their lovingly detailed stop-motion animation and chunky, squeezable characters.

Timmy Time, from which this Christmas special is taken (series 3, episode 27-28), is a much stripped down version of these more famous titles. The show lacks the detailed set decoration that makes you want to pause each frame for a few minutes just to appreciate the art. That’s not to say there isn’t much to savor. The nursery is a delight, a cozy little cabin that is full of homey touches. There’s a bright blue stove to warm up the room and lots of sparkling garland and lights to give it a festive feel. Also tiny mince pies!

Kids will enjoy the bright colors and simplicity of design and story. They’ll understand every word of it too, or at least the bleating and vague animal-like noises that Timmy and his friends and teachers communicate with. By the time the kids strap themselves in the school bus and begin loudly honking “Jingle Bells,” you’ll be smiling. Because what’s not to love about a bunch of happy baby animals on their way home for Christmas Day?

Released: 2011
Cast: Timmy, Harriet, Osbourne, Yabba, Paxton, Mittens, Ruffy, Apricot, Stripey, Kid, Otus, Finlay, Bumpy, Timmy’s Mom
Time: 22 min
Lang: Animal
Country: United Kingdom
Network: BBC
Reviewed: 2016

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The Mistletoe Inn (2017)

Finally, something I can relate to – a movie about writers and writing, except I’m not a writer and my writing is mostly brain dribble. Also I avoid popular romance, unless it’s in televised form. Never mind though because The Mistletoe Inn is a fine piece of Christmas fluff. Stars Alicia Witt and David Alpay are especially winning combination. Their fiery relationship fuels this story about a disheartened romance novelist who seeks inspiration and confidence at a writers’ retreat in Vermont.

The two actors end up carrying most of the weight because there’s not much action to untangle. Writers at work does not make for thrilling entertainment. There’s only so many times you can show someone punching away at her keyboard or furrowing his brow during a workshop. So instead, there’s a lot of batting insults and wit and sometimes compliments back and forth – in the hallways, at parties, during dinner, under the falling snow.

Kim (Witt) and Zeke (Alpay) meet at a writing conference at the Mistletoe Inn and are paired together, much to her chagrin since his clacking typewriter drowns out her ambient whale noises, which he can’t stand. Nevertheless, they still try to support each other in small ways. After years with her condescending ex-boyfriend, who is in the same business, Kim is reluctant to show her work or even to commit her ideas to paper. Zeke, on the other hand, comes from the world of finance and sounds like someone who needs to find himself.

Both hope that by the end of the conference, they can submit a winning body of work that will be read by legendary and mysterious romance author H.T. Cowell. It’s a swank prize since the man rarely appears in public and, if we’re going by Kim’s account, his endorsement would mean a ready seal of approval for publishers and readers. According to her, this Cowell guy is “the only author I’ve ever read who can fully capture how a woman feels.” Alright, this is fiction.

Besides appealing to the wannabe writer in me though, I most like Witt and Alpay’s chemistry. Kim and Zeke aren’t always antagonistic, but they have their scuffles, they say something supportive, and then they go back to battle. (My favorite is when she tells him to return his bike to the swap meet. That hurts.) Both are a little hyper and awkward, not unlike…me, and other people. I’m glad that in this year of women getting shit on and then turning the narrative around and standing up for themselves, Kim knows her worth. It may take her awhile to get there, but in the end, homegirl knows she’s better than a guy who dumps her via scrap paper and accuses her of not being girlfriend material because she doesn’t take her work seriously.

I can’t get over Alpay though, my love for whom I’ve chronicled here and here. I love that he is a little sly and sassy and the way he dishly looks at Kim out of the corner of his eye. He’s not a jerk but he’s not exactly a charmer, until he lets his guard down a bit and then reveals that he is. In spite of Zeke’s sarcasm, he has a sincerity that anyone would want in a writing partner. Where can I order one of these for Christmas?

Released: 2017
Dir: Alex Wright
Writer: Richard Paul Evans (book)
Cast: Alicia Witt, David Alpay, Lucie Guest, Linden Banks, Tiffani Timms, Benita Ha,
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2017

Ice Sculpture Christmas (2015)

Let me first say that I am okay with David Alpay starring in every Hallmark Christmas movie. He’s got a wiry nerd cool that other nerds might find attractive, say other nerds who sit at home and watch TV all weekend (okay, me). I’m working backwards from 2017, so this is the third jingle bell I’ve seen him in, the others being The Mistletoe Inn and Sleigh Bells Ring. He’s charmed me every time even when the movie hasn’t. The man always talks and acts two steps ahead. Normally, I’d characterize that as being a jittery chipmunk, but he betrays an intelligence and earnestness that is alluring. Plus he’s closer in type to the guys who talk to me, so there’s that.

But back to ice sculptures and Christmas. Is there a profession or hobby Hallmark won’t touch? No. Whether it’s the lucrative holiday hat trade or the tastier cookie business, they’ve got you covered. And if you’re waiting for the spotlight to shine on the underappreciated poinsettia market, just hold tight. There’s bound to be a Poinsettia Christmas one of these days. As far as this niche pastime is concerned though, it offers some nice ice art to admire if you aren’t into the story.

Thankfully, the story is enough to sustain its one and a half hour run time, and it gets a boost from a nice ensemble cast. Teamwork is key here. Ice Sculpture Christmas delves into the inner workings of a fancy hotel. There’s the ownership and management, which includes David (Alpay), his stern father, and his ambitious friend (Aliyah O’Brien), and then the downstairs crew, consisting of Callie (Rachel Boston) and her father (Paul McGillion), who is the house manager, and the kitchen staff. As the holidays near, they all must come together to pull off a festive Christmas.

One of the highlights of the celebrations is the ice sculpting contest. Recent culinary school grad Callie has entered the hotel ranks as a dishwasher, but she also has her heart set on the contest, something she’s longed to be a part of since she was a kid. However, she’d be going up against her new boss, chef Gloria (Brenda Strong), and, worried about a matchup, she backs out – until she realizes there’s a $10,000 prize and she can pay off her student loans, at which point we realize this is FICTION. Who has only ten grand in student loans? But since we are going along with this conceit, Callie enlists the help of her childhood crush, conquering giant blocks of ice and each other’s hearts, obviously.

As a general rule, I will always cheer for characters whose guiding principle is humility, and both Callie and David never stray. Neither think themselves above their station or education. Callie enthusiastically accepts her job as a dishwasher, determined to be the best damn one that she can while learning the inner workings of a hotel kitchen. This attitude earns her the respect of Gloria and her coworkers, save a conniving sous chef wannabe on villain duty. Boston is supremely likable in her role, positive and friendly without a hint of arrogance. Likewise, Alpay gives David some welcome vulnerability. Though the character is sometimes blind to his privilege, he has no qualms about serving as the apprentice to the apprentice. In fact, he’s questioning his place in his father’s sterile business world and wonders if he can’t better use his resources outside of it.

I only wish we could get a better peek into the intense world of ice sculpting. The movie gives its audience enough to skate by, highlighting a few artfully carved sculptures. But there’s no reason why Hallmark couldn’t invest more money and creativity into showcasing exquisite designs. I want lens flares and close ups; I want dazzling documentary quality footage. And what I want will never be found on Hallmark, so I guess I will take what I can get.

Released: 2015
Dir: David Mackay
Writer: Tracy Andreen
Cast: Rachel Boston, David Alpay, Brenda Strong, Paul McGillion, Aliyah O’Brien, Mark Brandon, Leanne Lapp, Sachin Sahel
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2017

Love You Like Christmas (2016)

This movie is either the best kind of Hallmark Christmas movie or the worst, depending on how you feel about these things. It’s basically a repository of clichés, and if you were making a drinking game out of it, you’d better be wishing for a new liver this Christmas. This movie has everything – overworked businesswoman who doesn’t like Christmas, big city girl who gets stranded in a small town, big city girl who finds love in a small town, single father who works the land, cute kid in need of a mother, multiple deceased parents, Christmas-themed town, cozy lodge/boarding house, family-owned tree farm, family-owned tree farm in danger of going under, Christmas caroling at night, crippling snow storm, small town musician hoping to make it big and who also works at a gas station, magical/supernatural happenings, local diner where everyone goes to shoot the breeze, afternoon of tree decorating, stray dog, and a reindeer. Also a vintage Mustang.

Given all that, you could probably piece together the story on your own – and you’d be right. Love You Like Christmas is about successful businesswoman Maddie (Bonnie Somerville), named after Madison Avenue, who loves helping her clients make loads of money but who doesn’t love Christmas because it reminds her of her dead mother. She doesn’t love flying either, which means she has to drive from New York to Denver to attend a client’s wedding. Luckily she inherits her aunt’s wine red Mustang a literal second after receiving the invitation, and off she goes!

But wait – what is this Christmas tree pile-up doing on the interstate? Oh, just a way for Maddie to meet her future partner, Kevin (Brennan Elliott), before they meet again when she gets stranded in his hometown of Christmas Valley, Ohio. Her car malfunctions, and she has no choice but to pass the time in this aptly named place. Actually, she does have a choice; she could take a flight or a bus or a train, but she gives zero consideration to these options because that would make sense, and the sensible solution is never the right one in a Hallmark movie.

Over the course of a few days and with the help of kind strangers whose life purpose is to dispense advice, she comes to fall in love with this little town and the people in it. Their analog way of life, their preference for people over profits, it all begins to warm her cold New York, marketing heart. And she starts to like Christmas again because holidays are fun when you can do Christmas-y things with a cute kid who adores you and her hot, super nice dad.

Speaking of dad, he’s the tree farmer. This is supposed to turn you on, so turn on, folks. The fact that he’s in danger of losing his family farm makes him even more swoon worthy, though it must be said that his lack of business acumen should in no way count against him. What then will happen to this totally non-descript guy though whose best quality is that he models a puffer vest quite well? I will let you figure that out.

At one point, and you will know exactly when it is, you just kind of throw your hands up in the air and either keep trudging on, content to enjoy this, or give up and never watch another Hallmark movie again. Determined not to be a grinch, I chose the former. It comes down to the little things, the glorious use of green screen, for instance. Productions like to mask their cheap effects with night shots or just by minimizing their usage, but not this one. This movie owns its crappy green screen scenes, realism be damned. Then there is the part when Maddie and Kevin’s daughter are making their own wreaths. It plays out like a city slicker’s idea of a Midwestern Christmas. Let’s put them in a spacious cabin, or fancy garage – lots of wood paneling, an open view of a snow covered yard, a ginormous American flag. And the title. What is going on with the title? Christmas is inanimate and cannot love. Grammar be damned. So enjoy it or not; the choice is yours. But if you don’t and want a parting gift for your troubles, look up Graham Scott Fleming, the mechanic/gas station attendant who sings the outro and moonlights as a Broadway singer.

Released: 2016
Dir: Graeme Campbell
Writer: Karen Berger
Cast: Bonnie Somerville, Brennan Elliott, Madison Brydges, Precious Chong, Richard Waugh, Graham Scott Fleming
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2017

Christmas in Homestead (2016)

If you want to give Christmas in Homestead its due, put it near the beginning of your Hallmark holiday marathon. The movie isn’t bad, which counts for something, but it’s not the most thrilling thing on the calendar either. Mostly it allows its two appealing leads to languish while waiting for something interesting to happen. But then, this is what happens when you waste all your resources producing cookie cutter stories instead of pooling talent together in order to rise above mediocrity.

The story is about movie star Jessica McEllis (Taylor Cole) who finds herself in a tiny town. For once, she’s not there accidentally or to escape the wasps’ nest of fame. She’s there to work and is shooting her latest movie with her ex-boyfriend, meathead Vince (low-key Ray Liotta lookalike Jeff Branson). It’s all wrong though. Vince thinks he’s still got a chance, the director is demanding, and all she wants to do is to escape to Fiji with her best friend. But first she has to survive a few days in snowy Homestead, Iowa.

Well, lucky for Jessica because as the Hallmark gods would have it, the mayor of Homestead and owner of the lodge where she staying at is also a bit of a grump. Matt Larson (low-key Lin-Manuel Miranda lookalike Michael Rady) is not usually this way, but his is a town that takes its Christmas seriously. There’s something going on every night; if it’s not the tree lighting ceremony, it’s the snowman building competition, and Matt wants to make sure the holidays proceed without a hitch. So a big film production invading his town in the middle of the high season is not the kind of the orchestrated merriment he has in mind. Poor Matt is out of luck though, and pretty ineffectual at his job. The town is constantly voting down his efforts to curtail the production, which he thinks will interfere with the spirit of the holidays. In fact, his daughter (Brooklyn Rae Silzer) is often the one leading the revolt. It seems that while everyone loves Christmas, they love movie stars more.

The relationships are key in this movie, and they unfold with varying degrees of success. Cole, Rady, and Branson have an interesting sort-of love triangle that moves in a sort-of surprising direction. After their initial meeting, the two leads don’t have much to do. Jessica and Matt have some mandatory obstacles to overcome, the chief one being her fame and his desire for anonymity. The actors have a certain unflappability though that makes their problem-solving somewhat perfunctory.

The more intriguing pairing is between Matt’s sister, Zoe (Katrina Norman), and paparazzi photographer Ian (Michael Nardelli). The stakes are higher between these two. She catches him wanting to sell a photo of Jessica kissing Matt, and he has to make a choice while juggling ethics, his livelihood, and the feelings of the girl he likes. This relationship is far more unpredictable and better entertainment because of it. At the very least, this subplot will give those who insist on watching something juicier to chew on.

Released: 2016
Dir: Steven R. Munroe
Writer: Rick Garman
Cast: Taylor Cole, Michael Rady, Brooklyn Rae Silzer, Jeff Branson, Brandyhyze Stanley, Katrina Norman, Michael Nardelli, Aaron Quick Nelson
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2017