The Sound of Music Live (2015)

I didn’t think anyone who saw the 2013 American production of The Sound of Music Live thought, what I really need is another TV version of this classic musical. As exciting as it was to watch Broadway standouts Audra McDonald, Laura Benanti, and Christian Borle sing together, leads Carrie Underwood and Stephen Moyer underwhelmed and sounded distinctly out of place alongside their accomplished costars. Never discount the brains at ITV though, who thought this would be a better Christmas gift than say an updated version of Carousel. (Someone get on that.)

But as it happens, The Sound of Music Live 2015 edition offers some pleasant surprises. Whereas criticism was directed at country star Underwood for her folksy, overeager Maria, lead Kara Tointon breathes new life into a role long dominated by Julie Andrews. At the same time, she also grabs the spotlight from stage stars Julian Ovenden and Maria Friedman. It’s impossible to erase Andrews from any performance of this musical, but Tointon does her best to escape her predecessor’s long shadow and make the part uniquely her own.

It’s easy to fall in love with her Maria and to see why the other characters gravitate towards her. Tointon’s character doesn’t have the plucky self-righteousness of Andrews’s interpretation; she wouldn’t smirk in the Captain’s face after he chastises her for parading his children around Salzburg in drapes, but she does radiate a warmth and gentleness that touches others in the way they need most. To the children, she’s the compassionate mother figure, and eventual mother, they’ve longed for. At the abbey where she is a distracted postulant, she lends an air of youth and earthiness. Then to Captain Von Trapp, she is the tender, forgiving partner he needs to help navigate his grief – over the loss of his wife, his reluctance to bond with his children, and the political peril he faces.

Tointon’s costar leans in the other direction though and makes you long for Christopher Plummer’s enigmatic portrayal of the Captain. Ovenden appears in my favorite television show of all time, Foyle’s War, and his voice can trigger heart palpitations (again, updated Carousel), but in this production, he comes off distant, mopey, and if we’re honest, a little emo. It’s hard to imagine this Captain taking charge of his household much less an entire ship. Though his passivity is a much better complement for Tointon’s Maria than a more headstrong one, and their “Something Good” duet made me melt a little, I wish Ovenden would have been more bullish.

Less bewildered are the supporting players. They may not have the force of their American counterparts, but Friedman, Alexander Armstrong, Katherine Kelly, and Mel Giedroyc ably carry out their roles. As with the previous remake, this adaptation is of the stage musical rather than the movie, so don’t be surprised when Max (Armstrong) and the Baroness (Kelly) break into song and bang on about capitulating to Nazis.

If there’s anything significantly inferior to its overseas cousin, it’s the boxy set that pens in the action and emotions. The camera is fairly static because there’s nowhere for it to go, and because the visual movement is so restricted, we get the odd experience of watching a stage musical play out on a medium meant to open up the scenery. You might as well watch this on an actual stage where the story at least has some room to breathe – but then you wouldn’t get Kara Tointon.

Andrew Foyle, aka Captain Von Trapp, aka Julian Ovenden, never stops fighting Nazis:

“Something Good” by Kara Tointon and Julian Ovenden – because somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good to deserve this:

“Edelweiss” by Julian Ovenden:

Released: 2015
Dir: Coky Giedroyc, Richard Valentine
Writer: Russel Crouse (book), Howard Lindsay (book)
Cast: Kara Tointon, Julian Ovenden, Alexander Armstrong, Maria Friedman, Katherine Kelly, Mel Giedroyc, Paul Copley, Evelyn Hoskins, Jon Tarcy
Time: 119 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: ITV
Reviewed: 2017


Time Crashers S01 (2015)

I’m averse to reality shows and unswayed by the presence of celebrities, A-list, B-list and otherwise, in them. Blame it on the constant manipulation and the way it brings out our worst instincts. I always feel like I’m watching some carnival sideshow, a spectacle that delights in exploiting people’s emotions and weaknesses. Of course, you could say the same is true for scripted television, a medium crafted by writers and actors and one that often speaks to our baser qualities. But these shows distort by their nature, and at least there isn’t a pretension of reality.

So I was surprised when I found myself lapping up Time Crashers, a one season series by the Channel 4 in which ten famous-ish people are chucked into various periods in Britain’s past. All are assigned decidedly unglamorous positions in society and tasked with labor intensive jobs that test their emotional and physical strength. But rather than descending into a free-for-all where the wiliest competitor ends up with the biggest turkey leg, it’s in everyone’s interest to complete their duties and to do them well.

The show isn’t a competition but an educational experience of sorts, one that will also appeal to those who aren’t partial to history documentaries or fancy period dramas but who are interested in the past. The participants, including actors Keith Allen and Kirstie Alley, Olympic athletes Greg Rutherford and Zoe Smith, and presenter Fern Britton, first find themselves at an Elizabethan manor house before zipping through time to a medieval jousting match and then a Victorian fishing market. They go as far back as 54 A.D., where they must prepare a Celtic feast. That is to say, they hack some dead animal under the open air in some very unsanitary conditions and try to start a roaring fire with just a few pieces of flint.

And that’s not the only time a grand meal is involved. In fact, much of their work revolves around feasting and fanfare, very little of which they can partake in. Instead, the time crashers spend most of their days turning spits, stuffing boars heads, and watching other people eat. When they’re not around food, they’re busy with some other thankless task, like washing clothes in urine. At the end of a long day, those who are lucky enough to have a bed can collapse on that while some poor soul inevitably gets shunted off to some dark corner with only a few blankets.

This tourist’s view of history turns out to be both highly entertaining and informative. Host Sir Tony Robinson watches from the sidelines as a historian supplements with commentary. Their hushed voices lend an air of nature documentary to the experiment, as if we were watching plucky birds try to make sense of their altered surroundings. The participants are guided, and sometimes ordered, by re-enactors who instruct them on the finer points of their roles – the precise angle at which to bow before the lord and lady, the most expedient way to sew up a carcass. When they finally steal away for a meal or turn in for the night, the group lament their difficulties, acknowledging in the process their own privilege as people of status and modernity.

The camaraderie is one of the most striking things about this program. Occasionally the celebrities are pitted against one another. During the jousting tournament in which they serve as squires, the winning side gets to celebrate with their knight while the losing side is stuck polishing armor. But the competition is never spiteful, and more often than not, this mishmash of personalities shows off the very best in people. Who would have thought that Meg Mathews, whose celebrity credential seems to be her former marriage to Noel Gallagher and who proudly boasted that she didn’t even have to walk her own dog, would end up being voted group leader because of her willingness to get dirty? On more than one occasion, mother hen Fern Britton is there to offer a hug or an encouraging word, and then there is Keith Allen, who stirs up trouble with his mischievous streak but who also uses that to steal fruit for his tired, starving friends. If reality shows were more like this, I’d be binging those alongside my Wolf Halls and Downtons.

Released: 2015
Cast: Tony Robinson, Cassie Newland, Keith Allen, Kirstie Alley, Fern Britton, Charlie Condou, Meg Mathews, Jermaine Jenas, Louise Minchin, Chris Ramsey, Greg Rutherford, Zoe Smith
Time: 47 min x 6
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: Channel 4
Reviewed: 2017

Love Always, Santa (2016)

Even the better Hallmark movies are rip-offs of movies you’ve already seen, because this is just the world we live in. Borrowing elements from The Shop Around the Corner and its derivatives, Love Always, Santa gets a gold star for Marguerite Moreau’s lived-in performance, a definite cut above your standard Lacey Chabert or Candace Cameron Bure outing, but it fails to make something more out of a story about pen pals who unexpectedly meet.

That’s not to say you should skip this movie entirely. Maybe you don’t want to watch Shop or its descendants, In the Good Old Summer Time and You’ve Got Mail, because the Hallmark Channel makes better white noise than Turner Classic Movies. Then Love will suffice. Moreau, who will always be Mighty Duck Connie to me, certainly makes it worthwhile. She delivers an earthy performance as young widow Celia, who owns a Hemingway themed bakery, The Bun Also Rises – and yes, there are some choice food puns. (Somebody get me a mug that says “The Old Man and the Tea”.) Celia’s precocious daughter, Lilly (Isadora Swann), observes that her mom’s been out of it lately, you know, since her husband’s died. Not even the charms of Thanksgiving and Christmas are enough to spark joy in Celia, so Lilly writes a letter to Santa and asks him to bring back some cheer in her mother’s life.

The letter winds up in the hands of children’s author Jake (Mike Faiola), who has taken up a $12 an hour job as pen pal Santa while he tries to overcome writer’s block and a recent divorce. His thoughtful reply to Lilly’s prompts a similar thank you from Celia, and a relationship via post develops. Between responding to numbing requests for the hottest toy and the nagging of two well-meaning old ladies, Jake finds an intellectual and emotional outlet in this new correspondence.

And what poetic missives they pen to one another. My mind has been so dulled by the pedestrian dialogue of Hallmark movies that the merest hints of more textured language are enough to seduce me. It’s not Jane Austen poetry or romance, but it’s also not your common Christmas Cookies exchange either.

The epistolary romance is the only storyline though, and tedium sets in after awhile. Jake meets Lilly at a reading and then her mother but keeps his identity secret from both of them. This crinkle is complicated by Celia’s sometime date and potato gun enthusiast, Randy (Brady Smith). Her sister has convinced Celia that reality is not a bad place to inhabit, and that neither a fictional man of letters nor a roving children’s author live there. What the movie needs is a secondary plot, say trying to save a failing business, to liven things up though. As much as I liked watching Celia and Jake, they also kind of conform to a stereotype, that nerdy wordsmiths are dull.

Released: 2016
Dir: Brian Herzlinger
Writer: Jay Black, Brian Herzlinger
Cast: Marguerite Moreau, Mika Faiola, Isadora Swann, Brady Smith, Jay Black, Sara Marsh
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2017

Love at the Thanksgiving Day Parade (2012)

In the Venn diagram of crappy Reese Witherspoon-esque romantic comedies and I-might-have-enjoyed-that-a-little Hallmark holiday movies, Love at the Thanksgiving Day Parade falls somewhere in the middle. Given a makeover – a snappier script, grander production values, actual Reese Witherspoon – this might have made it to the big screen. But it set its sights lower, and the result is a breezy, inoffensive Thanksgiving movie.

That’s high praise indeed for a something purportedly about a Thanksgiving Day parade but then goes on to ignore said holiday and parade. Instead, love is what it’s all about. Autumn Reeser plays Emily, a Chicago events manager in charge of the annual affair. You’ve never seen anyone more excited about parades in your life, but I guess hers is the kind of energy necessary for these sort of things. In comes handsome Henry (Antonio Capuo) to put a damper on it all. The city wants him to cut costs, and Emily’s beloved parade is one of the first casualties. Then it’s her heart. (Ba-da-bum.)

They manage to keep their professional lives out of the way as their romance develops. Never mind the spectacle that’s just around the corner. Emily’s most pressing concern is finding the perfect Santa, and Henry kills time by playing chess against himself. When the two are together, the conversation turns toward life, generally. They are on an endless first date with no concerns about commitment. Ever eager to play the missus, Emily is awaiting a proposal from her loopy marine biologist boyfriend, a guy so clearly wrong for her and who has spent the better part of their relationship under water. Henry is also in no danger of settling down. A rootless suit with a five date rule, he is too busy destroying dreams and redeveloping community landmarks.

But oh, don’t these two know they’re fated to be together? It’s a Hallmark movie. Of course she will belatedly recognize his decency and he will be charmed by her feistiness and cat lady tendencies. She’ll finally find a guy who appreciates her “vintage Barbie doll” look and episodes of drunken karaoke.

Reeser gives the movie well-timed shots of adrenaline, and she is what pushes Love just above average. She’s fun to watch and carries most of the weight. Her costar, Capuo, does an admirable job of filling in as hot boyfriend material, and I suppose he succeeds by not totally fading into the background. I wish Hallmark would invest in some of its better projects though, knowing we are working on a relative scale here. Rather than a dozen dull, interchangeable storylines, maybe a few movies of a higher quality. Besides almost no focus on the parade, I was disappointed that the Chicago setting was barely utilized. I know they film these things in Montreal or somewhere north of the border, but that’s no excuse not to work in some local color.

Released: 2012
Dir: Ron Oliver
Writer: Nancey Silvers
Cast: Autumn Reeser, Antonio Cupuo, April Telek, Ben Cotton, Ali Liebert
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2017

Garage Sale Mystery: A Case of Murder (2017)

Hallmark saved it’s biggest surprise for the latest installment of Garage Sale Mystery, and that is that the mystery series will be ending. I was caught off guard by this shocking conclusion, the biggest twist the series has delivered yet. It’s the right thing to do though because as I’ve noted throughout, the mysteries were hardly compelling and garage sale sleuth Jennifer (Lori Loughlin) was a less than remarkable lead.

A Case of Murder is no different in this regard. There’s a bit more of a chase and a voice from the dead adds to the air of suspense, but while it may rank above some of the lesser efforts – and there have been 11 of them – this movie is easily forgotten. Blame it in part on the title, which could substitute for any mystery on this channel. It just so happens that this time there is a literal case. Jennifer buys a reel-to-reel tape recorder, in titular case, and when she plays it back, she hears the voice of a man who sounds like he’s about to be killed. Rather than an unsolved mystery from decades back, however, it appears to be a fresh crime.

She finds out that the man is Dr. Vedders (Malcolm Stewart), a therapist at a community center who’s just announced his retirement. That leaves some of his patients a little unmoored, but enough to kill the man who helped them? As Jennifer begins to connect the dots, tensions between the therapy group begin to surface. One gruff patient envies the doctor’s affection for other members, particularly an anxious woman who seems to be having an affair with Vedders. You can never discount the wife though, and she is certainly eager to get rid of her husband’s belongings.

If there’s one thing that added some spark to this mystery, it was seeing my favorite Hallmark Mysteries supporting player, Lisa Durupt, guest star as one of the patients. She isn’t the perky sister from Murder, She Baked but she plays some variation of that while still keeping true to her character in this movie. Otherwise, the big draw is watching all the loose ends being tied up with the main characters from this series.

The Shannon family, which includes Jennifer’s contractor husband and dutiful college student daughter and teenage son, are hard at work building a mancave/womancave/home theater. The whole cave idea seems passé and an odd choice for a celebratory hurrah, but fine, we’re not aiming for cutting edge here. So fans of the series, or at least loyal viewers, can instead enjoy Dani’s storyline. I’ve always thought that Jennifer’s friend and business partner, Dani (Sarah Strange), is one of the better sidekicks on Hallmark. She’s certainly the most exciting personality in this group, but the woman gets saddled with kooky single woman baggage every damn time. Well no more. I’m happy to report that her new agey, crafty vision board fate nonsense pays off dividends, and girlfriend gets the happiness she deserves. As for me, it’s Christmastime and that means I’se got a month of movies about unhappy career woman turning shit around thanks to some jingle bells and a hot dude.

Released: 2017
Dir: Neill Fearnley
Writer: Kraig Wenman
Cast: Lori Loughlin, Sarah Strange, Steve Bacic, Eva Bourne, Connor Stanhope, Kevin O’Grady, Jay Brazeau, Malcolm Stewart, Sarah-Jane Redmond, Preston Vanderslice, Lisa Durupt, Derek Hamilton, Paloma Kwiatkowski
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017