Alison Sweeney

Murder, She Baked: Just Desserts (2017)

Hallmark’s Murder She Baked series about Hannah Swensen (Alison Sweeney), baker-sleuth, is starting to show signs of wear and tear. After a lackluster fourth movie, this fifth installment improves on the romance but falls short on the murder and the baking. The case centers on Eden Lake’s high school basketball coach, who is found dead on school grounds. There is no shortage of suspects, from his unhappy wife to members of the team, since the victim seems to have amassed quite an enemies list. Complicating matters is a televised baking contest hosted by Hannah. When mysterious accidents start happening to her and other members of the judging panel, of which the deceased was a part, she wonders if the bake-off is the real target.

Viewers might be thinking the same thing since all those sweetened treats are nowhere to be found. While I’m not expecting Great British Bake Off levels of cakes and cookies, they did make the show appealing and different from others. What we have here though is a whodunit about a baker hosting a baking program in which no one seems to bake. Even the goodies that Hannah is so fond of delivering around town remain boxed up. The only indication that this is part of the Murder She Baked series are some KitchenAid mixers and talk of spilled flour.

Just Desserts might as well be any other murder mystery. Technically, the case is well mapped out, but it’s also sterile and uninteresting. I had a hard time distinguishing the characters. There’s the record-breaking star player and the second string lookalike, several women who could substitute as mothers or wives, and some shifty white dudes just hanging around. None were compelling enough to earn my sympathy and make me wish for their arrest or vindication. Also without the sugar high of a delicately whipped crème pie or pastel mound of macarons, there was little to brighten up the story. Despite its late March premiere, this is a movie better suited for a dark winter night.

The one area where it does redeem itself is the unresolved romance between Hannah and her two suitors, police detective Mike (Cameron Mathison) and dentist Norman (Gabriel Hogan). After much teasing and indecision, she finally chooses a partner, though not before both get one more turn at proving himself to be the more attentive and valiant man. In particular, Mike, a widower, wrestles with some emotions that give his interactions with Hannah some punch. Also, he’s finally stopped treating her like a misguided adventure-seeker and instead is starting to recognize the skills she does bring to each case. They share a tentative relationship I would like to see explored going forward, but the story inexplicably pushes the romance up the timeline. That could end up working in the series’ favor though because future films will have a very new dynamic to work with.

Released: 2017
Dir: Kristoffer Tabori
Writer: Melissa Salmons
Cast: Alison Sweeney, Cameron Mathison, Lisa Durupt, Barbara Niven, Gabriel Hogan, Toby Levins
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

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Murder, She Baked: A Deadly Recipe

murder she baked deadly recipe

Hallmark’s Murder She Baked series has its deadly recipe down all right. Local cakes and cookies maven, Hannah Swensen (Alison Sweeney), solves another murder on the mean streets of Eden Lake, partnering with Mike Kingston (Cameron Mathison), police detective and love interest. She doesn’t end up on the suspect list this time like she did in A Peach Cobbler Mystery, but her brother-in-law, Bill (Toby Levins), does when his opponent in the upcoming sheriff’s election is bludgeoned to death.

He’s not the only one who has it out for the sheriff (Ty Olsson), who didn’t exactly win friends and influence people with his hostile personality. The investigation uncovers a few others who might have clubbed the man as he stood in the street eating cupcakes, including another officer (Jesse Moss) and his wife (Hannah Pederson) and his not quite grieving widow (Venus Terzo). Additionally, a shady car theft ring has citizens rattled, and there are indications it all may be connected since this was the last case the sheriff worked on.

A Deadly Recipe is low-key as far as these things go. Despite a high profile murder and Bill’s potential involvement, the movie isn’t all that gripping compared to the previous episodes. Blame it on the lack of baked good in the title or the easily solvable crime – anyone who watches enough murder mysteries can guess the real culprit. Hannah’s hemming and hawing over two potential suitors is also getting tiresome. Besides Mike, dashing dentist Norman (Gabriel Hogan) vies for her attention as well. We’ve already had three movies to mull over which guy would be the better match, and it’s time that girlfriend just got on with it. At least the storyline line would have move in an exciting new direction.

Lisa Durupt continues to be a bright spot though. As Hannah’s pregnant sister, Andrea, Durupt brings an Ellie Kemper-like quality to her character. A bit chirpy, she endears every time she appears onscreen. Sweeney, however, is more muted this go around, probably because she’s not given much new material. She does get a chance to save the day even when Mike handles her with kid gloves, all for the sake of safety of course. It’s nice to see homegirl finally own her crime fighting detective skills, potential overbearing boyfriend be damned.

Released: 2016
Dir: Kristoffer Tabori
Writer: Teena Booth, Kraig Wenman
Cast: Alison Sweeney, Cameron Mathison, Lisa Durupt, Barbara Niven, Gabriel Hogan, Toby Levins, Nick Marinos, Venus Terzo, Jesse Moss, Hannah Pederson, Aaron Pearl, Kirsten Robek
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2016

Murder, She Baked: A Peach Cobbler Mystery

murder she baked peach cobbler mystery

Watching the Murder, She Baked series as akin to indulging in a warm chocolate chip cookie…and then a plum pudding and then a peach cobbler. I should be snacking on a fruit cup, but my impulses lead elsewhere. These movies, adapted from books by Joanne Fluke, hit my light entertainment sweet spot. They’ve got me hooked in just enough that I willingly come back for more.

We last left off at Christmastime, when our heroine baker, Hannah Swensen (Alison Sweeney) was sitting down for a cozy holiday dinner with her family and both love interests, having solved yet another murder. This movie picks up a few months later, during which time a new bakery has opened shop across the street.

Out-of-towner Melanie (Michelle Harrison) is the owner of Magnolia Bakery and is using her signature peach cobbler to draw customers, including police inspector Mike (Cameron Mathison), away from Hannah’s Cookie Jar. When Hannah stumbles upon her rival’s dead body, however, she suddenly finds herself on the wrong side of a police inquiry. With Mike keeping his distance due to the investigation, she turns to her other potential suitor, Norman (Gabriel Hogan), to help her solve the crime.

The movie tries to spice up the murder mystery recipe a bit by making Hannah the suspect, but it doesn’t taste all that different. The general trajectory of the story remains the same, and her heightened role in the case merely serves as another obstacle rather than a fundamental shift in perspective or proceedings. As with the previous film, the case does more to facilitate the romance than to really pique one’s interest in crime solving and psychology.

And that’s okay with me because what I really want to know is who Hannah’s going to end up with. I’m pulling for nice Norman, who gets to be more than the genial dentist here. In a scene that unabashedly conforms to stereotype, he uses his manly charm and dashing good looks to compel a weak-willed woman to divulge classified information about another suspect, someone who may be connected to the victim’s sister. Mike doesn’t exactly take the back seat in all of this, but he does end up on shakier ground with Norman stepping it up and after some of his own past is revealed.

I’ll admit that I’m looking forward to the next Lake Eden murder, which is shaping up to be a damn dangerous town. (So much for Minnesota nice.) And despite the fact that Hannah cannot get a grip on how to handle armed suspects, the town is small enough and filled with enough people who care about her – her chirpy younger sister, her dramatic mother, her practical-minded brother-in-law – that you know she’ll be alright in the end.

Released: 2016
Dir: Kristoffer Tabori
Writer: Teena Booth
Cast: Alison Sweeney, Cameron Mathison, Lisa Durupt, Barbara Niven, Gabriel Hogan, Michelle Harrison, Anna Marie DeLuise, Roark Critchlow, Juliana Wimbles, Toby Levins
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2016

Murder, She Baked: A Plum Pudding Mystery

murder she baked plum pudding mystery

Hannah Swensen (Alison Sweeney) is back for round two of To Catch a Murderer, Christmas at Lake Eden edition. Just as the holiday preparations are going into overdrive, the baker-cum-detective stumbles onto yet another dead body. Larry Jaeger, the owner of the local tree lot, is found shot in his office, and there is no shortage of suspects. Fingers quickly point to his fiancée, who got engaged a mere six weeks after settling her deceased husband’s estate. But Larry’s ex-wife, a radio DJ who goes by the moniker Dr. Love, also has reasons to see him dead. The news of his shady financial dealings only adds to the suspense.

Okay, it doesn’t actually. If the first two movies are anything to go by, the Murder, She Baked series will not have anyone on the edge of their seats, at least not for reasons of crime. The real mystery is in the romance, which is probably right in line with the filmmakers’ priorities. In A Chocolate Chip Cookie Mystery, Hannah was introduced to two potential suitors. Her mother, Delores (Barbara Niven earning her paycheck), is eager to match her older daughter with dentist Norman (Gabriel Hogan), who by Hannah’s own admission is incredibly kind and stable but also predictable. Mike (Cameron Mathison), an out-of-town detective brought in to solve the cookie case, offers a little more excitement but she also worries about the dangers of his job.

I don’t see why this would be a particular concern for her since she is always diving head first into murder investigations. A few dumb moves on her part leaves her vulnerable and in need of saving again, which Mike happily does. You have to admire him for swallowing his substantial ego this time. While he still asserts his authority when Hannah starts poking about, it’s more out of his concern for her safety than out of professional chauvinism. But Norman is no slouch, and finding a predictable man is not a bad thing when you’re in your mid-thirties. I should know. So what really needs to be solved here is whether audiences come down on the side of Team Mike or Team Norman.

As for the festive atmosphere – this is in Hallmark’s holiday line-up, there’s a lot of window dressing. (I realized today that Hallmark and Hallmark Movies and Mysteries are two different channels. Could’ve – did fool me.) Trees, lights, and helper elves are everywhere, but the movie doesn’t push too hard on celebrating the spirit. Even the plum pudding is relegated to a cameo. That’s fine since there are a hundred more TV shows and films that do just that. There are a few bubbly attempts at the feels in the closing scene, which proved just enough for me.

Released: 2015
Prod: Harvey Kahn
Dir: K.T. Donaldson
Writer: Nancey Silvers
Cast: Alison Sweeney, Cameron Mathison, Lisa Durupt, Barbara Niven, Gabriel Hogan, Juliana Wimbles, Johanna Newmarch, Ona Gauer, Kirby Morrow, Farah Fath, Toby Levins, Colleen Winton, Richard Keats, Kazumi Evans, Kyla Wise
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2015

Murder, She Baked: A Chocolate Chip Cookie Mystery

murder she baked chocolate chip cookie mystery

Hallmark romance movies are something I watch so I can amuse my mom with light chatter; Hallmark murder mysteries are something I watch to recover, because while there is still love to be had, at the end of day, there’s also a whodunit to solve. Murder, She Baked looks to be a successful franchise for the network, which wants to expand into your kitchen. Based on a book in a series by Joanne Fluke, the first movie, A Chocolate Chip Cookie Mystery, sounds like a really good ploy to get viewers to cozy up with a fuzzy blanket and a cup of hot cocoa.

It introduces us to Hannah Swensen (Alison Sweeney), the owner of a popular bakery in tiny Lake Eden, Minnesota. Her sister, Andrea (Lisa Durupt), is a fashionable interior designer and her mother, Delores (Barbara Niven), is a meddler. While Andrea is unwittingly drawn into her sister’s crime solving adventures, Hannah is unwittingly drawn into her mother’s matchmaking schemes. Our heroine is more than content, however, to tromp around in her hiking boots and play mommy to her pet cat.

Several things converge when she gets set up with the hot dentist (Gabriel Hogan). Her childhood friend, Ron, is killed outside her shop and a hot homicide detective (Cameron Mathison) from the city comes to investigate. Upset over Ron’s senseless death, Hannah does what any good friend would do: she tries to solve the murder. She’s already something of an amateur sleuth, helping the local police crack a few petty crimes, and she uses her budding relationships with both dentist Norman and officer Mike to search for more clues.

It’s the usual suspects as far as murder mysteries go, which is good or bad depending on what you want from these things. Could Ron’s death have something to do with an illicit romance or some other shady behavior? What about the cantankerous owner of the local dairy for whom he worked? As Hannah gets closer to the killer, could her life be in danger too?

A Chocolate Chip Cookie Mystery hardly has the gravity of the more highbrow stuff over at Masterpiece Mystery! You won’t ponder great moral questions like you might while watching Foyle’s War (my favorite show ever, by the way), but it does a fair job doing what it wants to do: bring out a sense of small town intrigue. Again, there are shows that do that better – Marple comes to mind – but none that impart kitchen-inspired life lessons. “Baking can be like art….or an adventure.” “The person doesn’t choose the cookie; the cookie chooses the person.”

Actually, I’m not sure what that’s about, but Sweeney delivers these nuggets of wisdom with confidence and calmness, and I’ve totally bought into her portrayal of Hannah. Unlike the devious, duplicitous Sami Brady, who she played for years on Days of Our Lives, Hannah has Minnesota nice all over. Sweeney makes her character easily identifiable; she’s warm, smart, independent, and she never runs out of cookies or cake. Hannah’s feisty exchanges with Mike also have some fire, but considering how grossly condescending he is to her when they first meet (“That’s why you’re a baker and I’m a homicide detective.”), I was hoping for a more forceful dressing down and some sustained tension. Instead, Mike begins to see the baker as a useful partner, and future installments promise more cooperation. I suppose it’s all for the better though; no one wants to see Hannah upbraided by a crime-fighting jerk.

Released: 2015
Prod: Harvey Kahn
Dir: Mark Jean
Writer: Donald Martin
Cast: Alison Sweeney, Cameron Mathison, Lisa Durupt, Barbara Niven, Gabriel Hogan, Susan Hogan, Linda Darlow, Meredith McGeachie, Douglas Chapman, Jason Cermak
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark
Reviewed: 2015