Christmas movies

Trolls Holiday (2017)

I’m not embarrassed by my sixth grade Trolls collection, but I also wasn’t nostalgic for the fad’s return in movie form a couple years ago. So it caught me off guard when those ugly, naked, neon-haired dolls sang and danced their way into my heart. Now they’re back for a bite-size holiday special, though holiday is a loose term.

Basically the trolls will celebrate anything – socks, party foam, getting slapped in the face – and they want to spread the holiday cheer. Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick) is especially eager to show her neighbors in Bergen Town how to live it up. You see, ever since the Bergens gave up Trollstice, their troll-eating festival, they haven’t had much to look forward to. Sure, they’re no longer blood thirsty murderers, but what’s to fill that void?

In parachutes Poppy and her gang with some ideas. No one is near as excited as she is about, well, anything in life, but the Trolls are a happy species (?) and they agree that they could teach the Bergens a thing or two about joy and sparkle, lots of sparkle. They mount a literal in-your-face song and dance for now Queen Bridget (Zooey Deschanel) and King Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), hoping the royal couple will adopt one of the Trolls’ many holidays as their own.

It turns out that the Bergens aren’t really into all that though. Mosh-a-shan-a, in which everyone jumps around, is not their thing. Neither is Tickle Day, a chance to get tickle-attacked by furry green spiders. Balloon Squeal Day gets a definite thumbs down. There’s a lot more there, about a kajillion by Poppy’s count, and kids and adults with a kid’s enthusiasm will appreciate the bonkers creativity on display. It gets to be a bit of an overwhelming pile-on though, which is exactly the point.

It becomes too much for Bridget and she kicks out her best friend, but in the nicest way possible because she’s super sweet. Poppy, smarting from the rejection and not quite seeing why her good intentions aren’t universally loved and accepted, goes into another funk. Once again, it’s up to her perceptive pal, Branch (Justin Timberlake), to sing her back to her good senses, and when he does, oh, the celebration!

There is so much fun and heart in this tiny special, and I love every second of it. I mean, a caterpillar bus driven by a cloud man that spits out rainbow exhaust? Yes. A neon paneled outdoor skating rink? Check. Glitter everywhere? Definitely. (Though maybe the environmentally friendly kind.) Sure, it helps that the Trolls world also matches my color aesthetic, but you have to have a cold Trollstice-era Bergen heart if you don’t want to jump up and sing and dance with these guys. Kendrick and Timberlake lead the way again, and the pair are perfectly zany; she’s hyperactive and he’s still a little neurotic, because Branch is getting used to this happiness thing and hasn’t mastered the smile. Deschanel is also the dearest, purest ex-scullery maid ever.

My only issue is abbreviated song list. There are three main numbers that will get you moving, the finale “Holiday” in particular, but I’m greedy and I want more. Timberlake launches into an appealing friend-themed medley that could have lasted for a few more hours if I had my way. Even without a full soundtrack though, since this is only a twenty-odd minute special, the holiday feelings are all there. You wouldn’t even classify this as a Christmas movie; aside from a snowy Bergen Town and some ugly Christmas sweaters, you can play this any time of the year and still get the fuzzies. Ultimately, it’s about friendship, about listening to one another and loving the love we share, and this should be celebrated all the damn time.

Soundtrack sampler platter:

“Love Train” by all the Trolls:

Songs about friends by Justin Timberlake, sadly not my friend:

“Holiday” by Trolls and Bergens:

Released: 2017
Dir: Joel Crawford
Writer: Josh Bycel, Jonathan Fener
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Zooey Deschanel, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, James Corden, Ron Funches, Kunal Nayyar, Icona Pop, Walt Dohrn, Kevin Michael Richardson
Time: 25 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: NBC
Reviewed: 2017

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Christmas in Evergreen (2017)

Really, Hallmark? Magical snow globes? Is that where we’re at? Cause if it is…I love it! Maybe it’s something to do with my soy duck dinner, which I’m digging right now, but Christmas in Evergreen has just what I want in a Hallmark movie – likeable people and a not-so-ridiculous plot. Okay, so the magical snow globe is ridiculous, but it’s not an essential part of the plot even if it is used as a cheap device to hurry things along.

The wish granting orb brings Allie, Ryan, and Zoe to Evergreen, Vermont, a cozy little town that loves Christmas. Somehow these places exist all over America, my dimple of a town excepting. It’s a perfect village, the kind that’s covered in snow and hosts a Christmas extravaganza every year. They’ve even named their café after Kris Kringle, and it houses the snow glob that grants people’s wishes.

Allie (Ashley Williams) loves her hometown. She has her own veterinary practice and helps run the festival, but she’s decided to move to D.C. to be with her boyfriend, Spencer (Marcus Rosner). After carrying on their long-distance relationship for two years, they want to settle in one place. There’s just one problem – Spencer is totally not the right guy for her. That much is obvious the second we see him rocking a power suit in his corner office overlooking the Mall. When he tries to entice her with helicopter rides and swank parties at the Hamptons, it’s clear he doesn’t stand a chance. Look, if your girlfriend drives her grandfather’s vintage pick up truck, she’s not interested in your damn helicopter ride.

Along comes Ryan (Teddy Sears), a big city guy with a small town sensibility, and a cute daughter. He and Zoe (Jaeda Lily Miller) are on their way to Florida for a tropical Christmas cruise. Despite his attempts to hard sell warm beaches, palm trees, and all you can eat buffets to his skeptical daughter, his real intentions are clear. Ryan books the cruise to escape from memories of his wife, who died last year and who loved the holidays. He thinks being around traditional Christmas festivities will only make Zoe sad, but snow and trees and gingerbread houses are exactly what she wants. She gets her wish when a snow storm cancels all flights. The two of them head back to Evergreen with Allie, who is also stranded.

It’s pretty easy to guess where things go from there. A few more wishes on the snow globe lead to a rock slide, ensuring that no one can go in or out of town. That of course means Allie and Ryan have no choice but to spend the holidays together. The people of Evergreen must also rally around each other if their annual festival is going to happen. Credit to the two black women, Michelle (Holly Robinson Peete) and Hannah (Rukiya Bernard), who first of all live in Vermont and secondly take charge in a big way. Hallmark’s learning. Maybe next year they’ll feature a Latina BFF in a movie about a sledding competition in Maine.

So besides a lot of decorating and driving around, not much actually goes on in Evergreen. But dammit, I love that everyone is super nice and amenable. Allie and Ryan are people you’d invite to your Christmas party, and they’d even be game for your ugly Christmas sweater theme. Williams should appear in more Hallmark movies. Give her a whole series. She’s warm, lively, and comforting, which is, against our better judgment, why we tune in.

 

Released: 2017
Dir: Alex Zamm
Writer: Rick Garman
Cast: Ashley Williams, Teddy Sears, Holly Robinson Peete, Jaeda Lily Miller, Marcus Rosner, Barbara Niven, Malcolm Stewart, Lynda Boyd, Chris Cope, Rukiya Bernard
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2017

Enchanted Christmas (2017)

Well, they’ve finally done it. Hallmark’s finally pulled off the impossible, at least for them. Someone must have spiked their eggnog because They Hired People Of Color For Starring Roles In A Christmas Movie. And I’m not talking about the white couple’s BFFs who are granted above average number of speaking lines. I’m talking about the two people wearing coordinating Christmas outfits, the guy and the girl who get together after an hour and a half of bickering, the lovers who finally give each other a big ass smooch at the end. From what I can tell, and my research includes many hours in front of the boob tube, this has not happened before, and I am ready for this Christmas joy! So here is me recommending Enchanted Christmas to ev-er-y-one. It may not be the best ever, or even this year, but it’s a hell of a lot better than movies about Santa hats and Christmas parades.

Leading the revolution are Alexa and Carlos Penavega, beautiful married people who also dance. (See Dancing with the Stars, which I’ve not.) They are uncoupled at the beginning of the movie, childhood sweethearts and dance partners who have long parted ways. Laura (Alexa) is now a project manager for a hotel group. She hopes to settle in Los Angeles with her young daughter, Nikki (Jaynee-Lynn Kinchen), so that she can move on from her past and from memories of her deceased husband. The plan hits a snag when her boss assigns her to job in her hometown in Utah.

Nikki is pretty stoked because snow, but Laura dreads going back. We never really know why except for vague disagreements with her father (Rene Rivera). Her breakup with Ricardo (Carlos), however, left a definite bad impression. Now she’s irked that the hotel she’s charged with remodeling, Enchanted Lodge, also serves as his temporary studio. In fact, he’s teaching a group of munchkins a dance for the grand opening gala, and her daughter is one of them. The only way she’ll make it out of this holiday season is by packing her bags or by falling in love. Of course.

Plotwise, there’s not much that stands out, maybe because stories featuring POC are just like those starring white folks. Both Laura and Ricardo have partners that were never a good match, leaving the two of them with a lot more face time. While they have issues to resolve, they also have the good sense not to relitigate old fights. That means less bickering and more reevaluating their relationship as adults. I can get behind that. As for the dancing, I had hoped for something along the lines of A Nutcracker Christmas, my vote for Hallmark’s 2016 Christmas movie of the year and a movie filled with balletic highlights. Enchanted Christmas offers a lot less; there’s a snazzy number with the stars but nothing truly inspired.

Still, there’s something special about this movie and it has everything to do with casting. The Penavegas bring a different and refreshing vibe to an admittedly generic story. Though Alexa fits the Hallmark mold quite well, it matters that Laura’s got a dad who speaks with a hint of an accent and who cooks up tamales for the holidays. It also matters that she loves Ricardo, who is the same sweet, sensitive stock character that populates half these movies but who looks a hell of a lot closer to the guys in my life than say Luke Macfarlane. I get that Hallmark trades in comfort and that its audience doesn’t mind watching the same damn thing over and over, but the definition of comfort needs to be revisited because it’s 20-bloody-17. I’m going to believe this year.

Look, the Penavegas brought some good music with them too. These two songs feature in the movie.

“I’ll Be Home” by Meghan Trainor:

“Feels Like Christmas” by Us the Duo:

Released: 2017
Dir: Terry Cunningham
Writer: Rick Garman
Cast: Alexa Penavega, Carlos Penavega, Rene Rivera, Jaynee-Lynn Kinchen, Chelsie Hightower, Melanie Nelson
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2017

A Gift to Remember (2017)

Sweet and gentle and capped off with early 1990s Amy Grant – this is my kind of sappy Christmas movie. It got bumped up the queue on my mom’s recommendation; she said I’d like it because it was different from the usual Hallmark movies about parades and getting lost in small towns, and she was right. Instead, it tells the very romantic story of a woman who crashes her bike into a guy, giving him a case of amnesia right before Christmas. Amazingly, he bears no ill will towards her, and together they try to figure out who the hell he is.

The movie does a good job of hiding the man’s (Peter Porte) identity. Well, we figure out his name is Aiden because we can’t just go around calling him The Man. Otherwise, clues about his former life are parceled out carefully. Darcy (Ali Liebert), the woman who runs into him, sneaks into his house and nicks a few things to bring to the hospital, hoping something will jog Aiden’s memory. He eventually recalls owning the diamond ring Darcy shows him but can’t recall who he’s meant to give it to. The photos in his house don’t help either.

The story unfolds at a leisurely pace, and we get some long walks and reflective conversations during which Darcy and Aiden try to coax out some memories, anything that will help him get back to his rightful owners. But as the days drag on and no one even bothers filing a missing persons report, you’ve got to wonder what’s this guy’s deal. Judging by his palatial house and minimalist taste in interior design, he may be kind of a jerk. He doesn’t even have any Christmas decorations up. That’s at odds with Aiden’s post-crash personality though. He has a talent in art and is especially kind to the children at the hospital. Plus he has a cute dog named Bailey.

Whoever he was, Darcy’s starting to fall for the guy he is. I mean, he doesn’t even yell at her for putting him in the hospital and possibly ruining his life. Instead, he just admires her tenacity and the concern she shows him. That’s just the kind of self-esteem boost she needs now because even though she isn’t anywhere near falling apart in her personal or professional life, she has stalled. The longtime owner of Chaucer’s Bookstore where she works is retiring and hopes that one of his employees will take over management. Everyone thinks Darcy’s perfect for the position, except for Darcy herself. The prospect of losing business to their larger, more unimaginative competitor Books, Books, Books is also distressing.

There are points when the movie drags. Towards the end of the second act, we get more stories from Aiden’s past but we’re not getting any closer to figuring out his identity. These parts could have used more drama, perhaps some bookshop wars a la You’ve Got Mail or a romantic subplot involving Darcy’s landlady Mrs. Henley (Tina Lifford), a mature substitute for black best friend, and neighborhood chef Luigi (Aurelio DiNunzio), an Italian stereotype in 3D. The payoff in the end is enough for one to overlook the movie’s faults though. Even if this is not the case in real life, at least you can pretend that humility and kindness are totally worth it and are especially meaningful during the holidays.

“Grown-Up Christmas List” by Amy Grant:

Released: 2017
Dir: Kevin Fair
Writer: David Orion, Topher Payne
Cast: Ali Liebert, Peter Porte, Tina Lifford, Kristin York, Ricky He, Brandi Alexander, Aurelio DiNunzio, David Franco
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2017

Finding Santa (2017)

We’re a couple weeks into Hallmark’s Christmas blitz, and I’ve had the chance to catch some good movies, quite a few boring ones, and some just so-so ones. But Finding Santa is the first hilariously bad one, and I kind of love it. I mean, it’s a terrible movie. Mawkish and sloppy, it plays right into stereotypes about schmaltzy Hallmark fare. I also know I’ve just wasted an hour and a half of my life that I’ll have to answer for when I die. But the deed is done, and there’s nothing to do but to admit that there are some satisfying and squeamish chuckles, and to discourage anyone from ever watching this again.

Let’s start with the story, which isn’t great but dumb plots have never stopped Hallmark before. It’s the week before Christmas, and the tiny town of Green River, Connecticut, prepares its 50th annual Christmas parade. The tradition is a major cultural and financial draw and is Grace’s (Jodie Sweetin) pet project. As owner of her family Christmas themed store and the grandchild of the parade’s founders, she is eager to make this a memorable and festive event, something that is sure to happen after a major network decides to broadcast it nationwide. Perfect.

Except their beloved Santa takes a massive slow-mo spill, and suddenly, the parade becomes Grace’s biggest headache. You cannot find a Santa on such short notice! Tom (Jay Brazeau), the decommissioned St. Nick, runs his own Santa school, but all his acolytes are booked. Grace decide to recruit Tom’s son, Ben (Eric Winters), figuring he should know a thing or two about being jolly. But when she meets him, all he has to say is, “I’m not a Santa; I’m a writer.” No, you’re not if the book you’re writing is The Outsiders meets zombies.

In truth, Grace and Tom have issues to work out. Both feel the pressure of carrying on family legacies and struggle to reconcile duty with their own passions. Fine, that is all good and noble, but does the story need to be powered by cheese? Every time Ben tries to resist or run away, something or someone magically nudges him back towards the Santa suit. Maybe it’s an ugly Christmas sweater or a crying kid, but beautiful Eric Winter, I mean Ben White, cannot remain closed off to the spirit of the season. Grace has the opposite problem. The more she is surrounded by jingle bells and twinkling lights, the emptier she feels. Girl just wants to grab a brush and some paint and not dismiss her artwork as a hobby.

Self-discovery only works when it’s expressed organically though. In this movie, it’s all over the map, as in the two literally make a random stop at someone’s house when they are stranded in a snow storm. It’s during this time that Ben thinks maybe he should take up the role of Santa, before waffling and backing out again, and then hinting at maybe doing it. His decision-making follows no clear line, and I can’t tell if he’s just can’t bad at it or if the part is just poorly written.

Winter must not care though because pretty boy pours his heart into this. He shares an emotional scene with Santa dad, which would have much more effective if their conflict hadn’t been so vaguely defined until that point. For forced emotion though, look no further than the leading couple. Sweetin and Winter have absolutely no chemistry. Zero. Ze-ro. She seems to be channeling Stephanie Tanner from Full House, which might not be fair except the actress’s limited range is on full display and all I can see is Stephanie Tanner. That doesn’t make for a romantic pairing or even a believable friendship, though it does make for some awkward comedy. The two barely connect, and simply saying the right words or untangling your Christmas sweaters does not count. Early in the movie, Ben rebuffs Grace’s plea to step in as Santa, saying they weren’t even friends in high school. He was a senior and she was a freshman, and that’s pretty much the dynamic that you get onscreen.

Released: 2017
Dir: David Winning
Writer: Julie Sherman Wolfe
Cast: Jodie Sweetin, Eric Winter, Laura Mitchell, Jay Brazeau, Karen Holness
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2017