Christmas movies

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

12 Dates of Christmas (2011)

12-dates-of-christmas

I wouldn’t be so hard on TV Christmas movies if they were more like 12 Dates of Christmas. Though it uses a familiar time loop gimmick, the film effortlessly pulls off a warm and festive story that will get you in the mood for the holidays. Amy Smart capably leads and brightens up the screen at every turn, reminding me a little bit of Anna Faris sans some of Faris’s manic energy. Despite her character having to experience the same day over and over, Smart brings something new to each retelling that keeps the movie from feeling like the same old same old.

I was wary when it started the way that so many of these holiday romances do. Kate Stanton, played by Smart, hopes Christmas Eve will be the night to reconnect with her ex-boyfriend. She’s a little too eager though and ends up blowing off her handsome blind date, Miles (Mark-Paul Gosselaar). But karma’s a bitch, and so maybe is the perfume fairy who spritzes her at the mall earlier in the day because for the next twelve days, Kate finds herself reliving Christmas Eve from that point forward.

There’s always a lesson to be had, usually along the lines of not being a jerk, when characters find themselves in these situations, and Kate is no different. After trying to rationalize her way through the experience, she finally decides to embrace it, discovering along the way that happiness isn’t always found in the arms of a partner. It’s hard to own up to one’s role in a breakup and then to move on, but she tries to figure out how to do that in an honest way. Kate’s preoccupation with being in a relationship does comes off as desperate, but that feeling is gradually offset as she allows other people in her life – her retired neighbor who bakes a lot, a couple she spies stringing Christmas lights, even another guy at the bar who awaits his blind date.

Smart holds her own throughout. Kate’s not always likable but her hang-ups are relatable and forgivable. Besides not being able to let go of her ex, she also needs to work on her relationship with her stepmother. Kate’s game for trying anything that will help her to better deal with her unenviable situation though and that keeps the story on its toes. The actress doesn’t need a strong romantic partner to balance things out but she gets one in Gosselaar. He does exactly what he’s expected to in this role, which is to be the Perfect Guy. Miles is one of those men who don’t exist in my reality but who seem to be all over romantic comedy reality. He’s smart, considerate, witty, good looking, and he volunteers at a youth hockey club for boys in the foster system. His idea of a romantic first date also involves ice skating outdoors. Sure, it checks off a whole sheet of clichés, but when the movie’s fun and the actors are likable, who’s keeping track?

Released: 2011
Dir: James Hayman
Writer: Aaron Mendelsohn, Janet Brownell
Cast: Amy Smart, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Peter MacNeill, Richard Fitzpatrick, Benjamin Ayres, Laura Miyata, Joe MacLeod
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: ABC
Reviewed: 2016

Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

how-the-grinch-stole-christmas

“I’m all toasty inside,” says the Grinch when he discovers that Christmas isn’t about presents and toys – but about something else that fills us with joy. That seems to be the aim at least behind this live action retelling of Dr. Seuss’s classic children’s book. The movie, sweet but not cloyingly so, is a fine addition to the Christmas canon, and you may find yourself, like the Grinch, getting leaky and reaching for the tissues by the time the credits roll.

Under the direction of Ron Howard, The Grinch lovingly recreates the world of Whoville, where Christmas reigns eternal. The town is a living mall display, a place of fun house proportions that is perpetually festooned in bright holiday colors. It also buzzes with the frantic energy of Black Friday. The residents of Whoville are serious about their celebrations, and it’s a constant race to buy gifts, decorate the house, and ready themselves for the great Whobilation, a town-wide festival that culminates in the crowning of the year’s Holiday Cheermeister.

It’s all a little too much for six year old Cindy Lou (Taylor Momson). She wonders to her postman dad (Bill Irwin) if the preparations aren’t a tad superfluous (because Dr. Seuss is all about rhymes and SAT vocabulary) and if maybe everyone should slow the heck down. When the Grinch (Jim Carrey) leaves his home in Mt. Crumpit and makes an unexpected appearance in town, she decides to spread some Christmas cheer and invite him as her honored guest at the Whobilation, much to the dismay of Mayor May Who (a perfectly priggish Jeffrey Tambor), who wants to be the center of attention yet again. The Grinch isn’t altogether pleased either. Not only will he have to tear himself away from his miserable hobbies, which include eating glass and yelling into the void, he’ll also have to subject himself to an avalanche of holiday cheer.

Naturally, it would fall into the hands of a child to help the big people rediscover the true Christmas spirit. Momsen is delightful to watch and wonderfully captures Cindy Lou’s wide eyed innocence, a quality that allows her to see past both the superficiality of Whoville’s holiday hustle and bustle and the Grinch’s grumpy attitude. Truths somehow ring truer when delivered by a cherubic child, and the filmmakers exploit this at every turn. I was too busy gobbling up the message of anti-materialism and love and good will to care about the opportunism though.

Besides Momsen, a few actors also put in strong performances. Christine Baranski has a small role as Martha May Whovier, the love interest of both the Mayor and the Grinch, and while she doesn’t have much to say, she has a surprising repertoire of suppressed sighs and sidelong glances. Narrator Anthony Hopkins, on the other hand, does get quite a few words in even if he doesn’t appear onscreen. If ever you need to be lulled to sleep by a warm Welsh voice, his is the one. Dr. Seuss has never sounded so melodic and his rhymes so whimsical.

Of course this is really Jim Carrey’s show, and your feelings about the movie may be affected by your tolerance for the actor. Mine is generally low, but perhaps swayed by the film’s message of generosity, I thought he was well suited for the role. Carrey gets away with much of his histrionics because the Grinch makes sense as a snarky meanie who is secretly nursing a traumatic childhood wound. But his hysterical asides can be overbearing and not everyone has the patience for his manic showcase. He really redeems himself and the whole movie with the Grinch’s epiphany, however. It ranks up there as one of my favorite Christmas moments on film, a simple, mostly subdued moment of clarity that immediately fills the heart, both the Grinch’s and your own.

Released: 2000
Alt Title: The Grinch
Prod: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard
Dir: Ron Howard
Writer: Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman
Cast: Jim Carrey, Taylor Momsen, Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Baranski, Bill Irwin, Molly Shannon, Clint Howard
Time: 104 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

A Nutcracker Christmas (2016)

nutcracker christmas

We can go ahead and call time on Hallmark’s 2016 Christmas blitz because A Nutcracker Christmas just wiped the competition. Who knew that the channel best known for schmaltzy cookie cutter romances could dip into the arts to make something with touches of beauty and inspiration? In stepping outside its very cramped comfort zone, they finally found a story with real passion instead of just the pretense of it. Granted it’s all relative; the movie avoids some of Hallmark’s conventions but willingly embraces those of other genres. It most notably follows in the steps of dance movies like Center Stage, in which Sascha Radetsky also features, but that proves to be a good thing because while romance is a motivating factor, it isn’t the only one.

Main character Lilly’s (Amy Acker) first love is ballet, and all she’s ever wanted was to dance with an elite company. Her road to becoming a professional is a rough one though and starts in her hometown in Georgia. When she finally makes it into the renowned New York City Ballet, she gets a chance to dance her dream role, the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. But tragedy strikes, as it does, causing her step away from ballet forever. Or at least until her teenage niece, Sadie (Sophia Lucia), wins the role of Clara in the Philadelphia Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker eight years later. She accompanies Sadie to the city, but it’s an uncomfortable re-entry into the life she left behind, made more so when she discovers that her ex-boyfriend and former dance partner, Mark (Radetsky), is directing the show.

Some subplots are thrown in to make things difficult for the three, including control freak dance moms and diva ballerinas, but Lilly’s real battle is with herself. As in many a Hallmark movie, she must confront her past if she wants to stop being an unhappy and unfulfilled person. But unlike many Hallmark movies, romance is not the endgame. Nor does inspiration come from homemade cookies or Santa hats or Christmas displays. What Lilly really needs to find is the best version of herself, which is not the one where she’s a yoga teacher in Georgia. In rediscovering the thing that makes her feel most alive, she changes and so do the people around her. Now that’s a way to deliver a heartwarming Christmas message.

It also helps to add dancing, and after so many Hallmark offerings that are visually, and often emotionally, static, we deserve something with artistic flair. There’s a much greater sense of space here, unlike the usual bland and penned in sets that just show cozy homes and snow-trimmed tree lots. Even if the shots aren’t cinematic in scope, they extend the boundaries of your TV screen. There is, dare I say, an elegance to the dance sequences, both in the way they are filmed and the way they quietly let us inside the characters.

One of my favorite scenes is when Lilly peeks into a rehearsal room and spies two dancers absorbed in each other and oblivious to their audience, and she momentarily imagines the life she might have led. Professional dancer Radetsky’s appearance in this movie is a treat too, and there’s another great moment when Mark is dancing by himself. It’s not polished or overly choreographed, and it’s not all that relevant to the narrative. But these are the scenes that give the movie character and allow the story to breathe. By the time we ease into the finale, which features exquisite performances from all three leads and some beautiful production design, it all feels effortless and meant to be. It makes you wonder why Hallmark doesn’t invest more resources into a few marquee pieces each year instead of churning out a dozen subpar holiday movies. I mean, do that many Canadian actors need jobs?

Released: 2016
Dir: Nicole Avril
Writer: Helen Frost, David MacLeod
Cast: Amy Acker, Sascha Radetsky, Sophia Lucia, Kenneth Walsh, Katherine Barrell, Shauna MacDonald, Tina Pereira
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark
Reviewed: 2016