Christmas movies

Angel in the Family (2004)

Hallmark didn’t come to play with this movie. It was an unexpected tearjerker, for me at least, and I’ve never related more to something so dripping with sentimentality. My Dish info described this as “a mildly saccharine, high-concept Yuletide drama,” and it is right on all accounts. A story about a long-dead mother who comes back as an angel to help patch up her family during Christmas, it’s both mawkish and moving. I could feel myself being manipulated by the minute and yet also powerless to resist the narrative machinations. It might make a difference that this is my first Christmas at home in years and that my family’s been separated by oceans for over a decade and that every Christmas decoration reminds me of some warm childhood memory and that I would also like to see my long-dead dad. But then again, it might just be a satisfying movie.

The film relies on some tried and true characters and plotlines. A fractured family threatens to disintegrate completely when father Buddy (Ronny Cox) suffers a stroke. He’s been living with his eldest daughter, Sarah (Tracey Needham), an artist going nowhere fast, and it’s not clear that a major health crisis is going to bring them closer. Buddy’s younger daughter, Beth (Natasha Gregson Wagner), isn’t eager to travel halfway across the country either when her life is going swimmingly. A trip home would disrupt her work and mean a visit with the sister she’s never liked anyway.

These broken relationships form the basis of many holiday stories, some of which also get a supernatural assist. Matriarch Lorraine (Meredith Baxter) sees her family in disarray and gets permission from whoever’s in charge of these things to return in human form, but only until Christmas Day. She hopes that her reappearance will help them to overcome years of hurt and misunderstandings and recover the love they once felt for each other.

You can see how things could get schmaltzy in a hurry. Buddy insists on returning to the family home, which happens to be a gorgeous lakefront property surrounded by mountains, and memories both happy and painful come flooding back. Lorraine’s Christmas surprise only heightens these emotions. The movie balances things out though with some unexpected humor. Besides Sarah’s hysteric, and totally reasonable, reaction to seeing her mother again, Lorraine is sometimes nonchalant about the whole ordeal. She goes on baking pies for the family and decorating for the holidays and even gets a little petty about an old meatloaf recipe.

Baxter navigates the funny and the serious with ease, bringing a light touch to her character and the film. Lorraine is like many mothers; her love is gentle and generous, but it’s also sometimes misused or misplaced. I guess being an angel will force you to confront your failings, and her honesty gives the rest of the family permission to voice the pain and regret that they had kept bottled up all these years. A lot of us can tap into those feelings and to the characters’ imperfection. Needham and Gregson Wagner also give relatable performances. One is the sister for whom nothing seems to work out while the other coasts through life without a worry. Both, however, are selfish in her own way and also share a deep loneliness.

The movie allows all these complicated emotions to come to the fore without being overshadowed by a silly plot device. It’s honest about grief, which doesn’t necessarily fade or get easier with time and which can swallow us whole. Instead, the story acknowledges that losing the people we love hurts, even if those people hurt us, but there’s also a way to move forward.

Released: 2004
Dir: Georg Stanford Brown
Writer: Duane Poole
Cast: Meredith Baxter, Ronny Cox, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Tracey Needham, John Pyper-Ferguson, Tess Harper
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018

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Time for Me to Come Home for Christmas (2018)

Hallmark movies come from many different sources. Some are inspired by books or real life, some come out of the Hallmark writers’ room, and some, I imagine, are drawn from a hat at a drunken office party. This one comes by way of singer Blake Shelton and his mother, whose similarly titled song led to a novel about some of their memories and forms the basis for the story.

Time for Me to Come Home for Christmas is not about the country artist, but it is about a country artist. Heath Sawyer (Josh Henderson), sometimes called Lee, is a big deal, so much so that he tours in Shanghai, and I’ve never seen any country star touring in China. Unfortunately, he hasn’t released new material in awhile and generally feels like he’s hit a wall in life. A lot of that has to do with his father’s recent death, which makes going home for the holidays difficult. A phone call from his mom and sister, however, convinces him to brave a blizzard and fly back to Oklahoma from New York.

Cara Hill (Megan Park) also happens to be heading in the same direction. Having failed to secure a loan for her family’s natural preserves business, at least one that doesn’t require her to lay off half her employees, she’s wary of spoiling the holidays by returning with bad news. In addition, it’s the first Christmas since her mother’s death, and that means she and her father will be alone, albeit in a huge, elegant house.

The blizzard puts a crimp into both Heath and Cara’s plans, and their flight gets cancelled and rerouted until they have no choice but to find their own way back to Tulsa. If this movie was anything close to real life, there would be a lot of screaming, cursing, and crying, but Hallmark delivers fantasy, and the two instead find friendship and possibly love. They get many chances to admire each others’ personality and talents through conversation and a few eventful pit stops. Cara, who doesn’t recognize the musician at first, finds a down-to-earth singer in Heath, and he sees in her a willful and creative head of a company.

It’s too bad that the friendly mood gets interrupted by a lazy climax. Cara’s proposal to boost the company’s profits with a new line of signature candy bars causes a minor chain of overreactions. There seem to be a lot of these one-minute climax/denouement scenarios lately, though it might just be my lowered tolerance for bad storytelling. The ending is somewhat salvaged by Henderson’s performance of the title song, and the movie would not hurt from more singing overall.

That would certainly distinguish the movie from similar ones, but at least this has Parks. She’s becoming one of my favorite actresses on Hallmark, and I will trade five Candace Cameron Bures for one Park, if that’s how things work. Her characters tend to be soft-spoken but steely, and she doesn’t give off a sense of overperforming. Likewise, Henderson has an Oklahoma kid look about him, showing off his character’s small town sensibility more than his music star aura. Park, however, always draws the attention back to her, which is just enough for me to appreciate this movie.

Released: 2018
Dir: David Winning
Writer: Shem Bitterman, Marcy Holland
Cast: Megan Park, Josh Henderson, Paul McGillion, Susan Hogan, Eric Keenleyside, Enid-Raye Adams, Bernadette Beck, Ellen Kennedy, Tom McBeath
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018

Christmas in Angel Falls (2017)

I deleted Christmas in Angel Falls once from my DVR without watching it because the recorder was at 100% and sacrifices had to be made. But then I recorded it a second time because I got greedy and had a bad case of Hallmark FOMO. My punishment was to watch the dull movie all the way to its conclusion. Now if only Christmas in Angel Falls could disappear from my memory like its main character is supposed to do after she completes each mission.

The people that guardian angel Gabby Messenger (Rachel Boston) helps would probably want to remember her though. She floats into people’s lives during rough patches and gets involved, often too involved. By heavenly protocol, angels are there to guide, not to interfere, but Gabby can’t help her holy self and wreaks havoc on people’s free will. After her latest infraction, her supervisor, Michael (Beau Bridges), sends her to Angel Falls, thinking that she’ll have less chance to screw things up if she’s charged with helping a whole town rather than just one person. She takes on the guise of a volunteer coordinator and tries to bring the Christmas spirit back to a place that’s been devastated by the loss of a local paper mill.

The story of an angel to the rescue is a cute, Christmasy idea, one that’s very on theme. There are plenty of heavenly nods and overtures to peace and good will. A good chunk of the movie takes place in and around the church, which is, or was, a place of community. Gabby’s attempts to bring people together in love and support also yields dividends, even if it takes awhile. The people in Angel Falls soon find themselves rediscovering old friendships and memories and realize that none of them need to struggle alone.

The film pushes its audience in the right direction towards a big bucket of holiday feels, but it’s not successful in keeping them on that path. There are many characters, each representing some common predicament or feeling – the young girl who wants to enjoy Christmas but whose parents are too busy to celebrate, the teen who tries to celebrate her father’s memory while also grieving him, the woman who doesn’t want to be separated from her son on Christmas Day. Each one tells a moving story, but once they’re off-screen, it’s easy to forget about them. I never found myself invested enough in Angel Falls as a whole to cheer them on to success.

Even main mortal, Jack (Paul Greene), gets stiffed on character development. The town’s literal Jack-of-all-trades, he serves as the volunteer fire chief, the owner of the hardware store, and all-around good guy. He’s Gabby’s first friend in Angel Falls and acts as her guide, but it’s not until the second half of the movie that we start to see him as something more than the super nice, handsome single dude.

Gabby doesn’t come into her own until much later either. She spends a long period on autopilot, cheerily convincing people to volunteer but with little luck. Boston is relentlessly optimistic, as I suppose angels are, so on the one hand, she seems very much in character. At the same time, Gabby is not picking up on everyone else’s lack of Christmas spirit and her constant prodding comes off as pushy. The character gets an emotional last-minute scene that changed my feelings about her, but it also had me wishing she faced some more existential conflict throughout her stay in Angel Falls.

Released: 2017
Dir: Bradley Walsh
Writer: David Golden
Cast: Rachel Boston, Paul Greene, Beau Bridges, Allison Hossack, Bill Lake, Ehren Kassam, Andrew Moodie, Jill Frappier, Lisa Repo-Martell, Jeff Geddis, Natalie Lisinka, Hattie Kragten
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018

Mrs. Miracle (2009)

Mrs. Miracle is going to have to work some more magic before I can give this movie a favorable review. It’s the second Debbie Macomber story I’ve seen this week and the second one that bored me into doing household chores. Though the movie has a promising start, it lacks a spark to keep things going, and a lot of that is down to star James Van Der Beek, who doesn’t really inhabit his character. The actor may have a boatload of kids now, but he isn’t very convincing as a father on this occasion. The dad of rowdy twin boys, Judd and Jason, architect Seth seems more like the sad, distracted uncle who’s just over at the house a lot. I don’t want to say Van Der Beek looks like he’s going to break out into the Dawson crying meme, but at times, he looks like he’s going to break out into the Dawson crying meme.

The reason is Seth’s wife’s death several years ago. Since then, he’s clammed up, never once allowing himself space to grieve. As a result, he pushes his children away without knowing it, which causes them to constantly misbehave. The family have fun together, but he’s erected so many walls to keep his sadness at bay that Judd and Jason don’t even remember their mother. Seth even keeps his distance from their Christmas musical performance since he swore off music, a little Captain von Trapp-like, after his wife died.

As the Christmas movie gods would have it, there are two things that could improve the widower’s life in a snap, and those are a nanny and a girlfriend, not better cooking and parenting skills or grief counseling for some reason. In any case, Seth, the lucky guy, gets both. The first comes in the form of Mrs. Merkle (Doris Roberts), whom the kids dub Mrs. Miracle because she has the magical touch, and the magic, to bring some calm and love into the household. She not only gets Judd and Jason to stop raising hell all over the damn place, she also gets Seth the second thing he apparently needs, a Reba (Erin Karpluk).

Reba has her own wild story since sad-faced Seth isn’t commanding enough attention. There is some grade A drama going on in her life, and I’d rather watch a movie that focuses more on her than on him. Reba’s locked in a years-long feud with her sister, who stole her fiancé right before their wedding and then eloped with him. I don’t blame her for giving her sister the silent treatment, but the movie is trying to tell us that emotional walls are not worth it, whether you’re dealing with a dead family member or with one you wish was dead.

Of the three leads, Karpluk is the most at ease with her role. Reba isn’t just about petty grudges; she is also assisting with Judd and Jason’s performance, and the actor has an energetic spirit about her. Roberts is also a little mischievous and her sharpness comes through her grandma character sometimes. With a better male lead, Mrs. Miracle might have been a more bewitching film, but since it’s not, so take a pass.

Released: 2009
Dir: Michael Scott
Writer: David Golden
Cast: James Van Der Beek, Erin Karpluk, Doris Roberts, Michael Strusievici, Valin Shinyei, Chelah Horsdal, Johannah Newmarch, Wanda Cannon
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018

A Godwink Christmas (2018)

A Godwink Christmas starts off above average in my book for two reasons. The first is that it sort of takes place in my hometown of St. Louis – and it’s about damn time, Hallmark. The second is that Kimberley Sustad, my favorite Hallmark supporting actor, has finally been upgraded to the lead role, and I am stoked. Both reasons earn this film more goodwill than it might otherwise get because take those away and it’s an average Christmas movie. That it’s based on a true story adds a little charm, but only during the end credits when we get to see the real Mr. and Mrs. Godwink.

That’s not the name of the couple, of course. “Godwink” refers to “an event or personal experience often identified as coincidence, so astonishing that it is seen as a sign of divine intervention, especially when perceived as the answer to a prayer.” I just call it a coincidence or an answer to my prayer. Others call it dumb luck, but then again, A Dumb Luck Christmas doesn’t have the same ring. In any case, Paula (Sustad) and Gery (Paul Campbell) have a hell of a Godwink when she flies off to Nantucket to visit her Aunt Jane (Kathie Lee Gifford). She goes on another last-minute trip, alone, to Nantucket, where a busted taxi, a cancelled flight, and a Currier and Ives print are enough to bring her and Gery together.

Paula initially visits Aunt Jane to get some clarity about her boyfriend, Daniel’s, recent proposal. She’s not looking for a replacement, but the trip opens her heart to Gery and the type of life she wants for herself, and it’s not in St. Louis with a controlling lawyer. Since she works at an auction house and he owns a storied inn, she sees in Gery someone who shares her appreciation for history and for places and things that tell a story about the past.

The story could stand on its own without injecting holiday sentimentality. I don’t know whether the real Paula and Gery met during Christmas and whether they decorated ornaments together and attended the town’s Cherub Festival. They very well might have, but in emphasizing certain elements of their story and leaving out others, Hallmark strips it of its uniqueness. Paula and Gery don’t seem like real people rooted in a certain time and place. Instead, they’re reduced to generic characters in a generic romance of the kind that gets played on repeat this time of year.

Now I happen to like those characters and don’t mind the story, but that’s largely because Sustad makes Paula shine a little more brightly. Even in supporting roles, which she’s played far too often, I’ve always been drawn to her characters. She has a commanding presence, almost a seriousness, that demands attention. It’s not a seriousness that spoils the mood but the kind that makes you feel she’s not revealing everything, that she’s holding back because some things just don’t need to be or cannot be told. Paula has this magnetism and mysteriousness, but what she should also have is more control of her own story.

Released: 2018
Writer: David Golden, John Tinker
Cast: Kimberley Sustad, Paul Campbell, Kathie Lee Gifford, Jag Bal, Giles Panton, Natalie Sharp, Ryan Alexander McDonald
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018