Christmas movies

Christmas Inheritance (2017)

Last year, Netflix tried to claim the crappy Christmas movie crown from Hallmark and inexplicably seized the moment with A Christmas Prince, a movie that is identical to Crown for Christmas, A Princess for Christmas, and A Royal Christmas. Despite an utter lack of originality, it somehow won the season. In doing so, however, it pushed another Netflix Christmas movie to the back of the queue. Now that it’s summer break and a steamy 35 degrees, I thought I’d turn the holiday spirit on blast and watch Christmas Inheritance.

Well, I can see why Buzzfeed made much ado over an effervescent royal fantasy and not this drab holiday flick that uses all the clichés in the most forgettable way. The fidelity with which it follows the Hallmark formula is admirable, but like many a Hallmark movie, this one is a nicely wrapped gift with nothing of value inside. The movie will fill up your Bingo card in a flash – big city girl, small town guy, secret identity, mismatched couple, cozy but short-staffed inn, silent charity auction, mystery Santa – but that’s about all it does.

Lead Eliza Taylor is charming, sympathetic, blonde. She plays Ellen Langford, the partying heiress of a gift company. I like her from the moment she tumbles onto the screen, not giving a single damn about flashing her red panties while cartwheeling across a ballroom. Her dad gives lots of damns though, and before he hands the company over to her, he wants to make sure she really understands the spirit of the business, one he started with his best friend, Zeke, in their tiny hometown of Snow Falls. That business is Home and Hearth Gifts, a multimillion dollar company that I assume sells useless trinkets though we never find out.

It’s this lack of attention to details that keeps this movie from standing out. The generic plot is simply not enough to merit an hour and a half date with my couch, a fuzzy blanket, and a mug of hot tea, or in my case, jugs and jugs of icy sweet lemon tea. Heiress Ellen zips off to Snow Falls days before Christmas under the guise of Ellie London, baker. She has to hand deliver a box of Christmas letters to Uncle Zeke because it’s a tradition and the two families haven’t figured out how to use the postal service. Zeke has conveniently disappeared, so her one day stay stretches out into two or three. This gives her time to get to know Jake (Jake Lacy), the hunky single guy who loves his small town and doesn’t like big city girls. Jake’s aunt Debbie (Andie MacDowell), well, it doesn’t matter what she does because I just love watching Andie MacDowell.

In no time at all, Ellen and Jake are getting handsy next to some ice sculptures. But wait a hot minute because Ellen’s engaged, albeit to a demanding businessman who wears ugly ties and says things like, “Tradition? What is this? Fiddler on the Roof?” He’s played by black actor Michael Xavier, and though he may not be right for Ellen, I’m giving Netflix extra points for at least surveying the cultural moment and trying to do something about it. It would have been nice if they had also done something about that boring love triangle. There is zero romantic tension, and as lovely as Taylor is, I don’t find myself caring all that much about her Snow Falls sojourn.

Released: 2017
Dir: Ernie Barbarash
Writer: Dinah Eng
Cast: Eliza Taylor, Jake Lacy, Andie MacDowell, Michael Xavier, Neil Crone
Time: 104 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

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The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

I acknowledge there are serious gaps in my movie education, and it’s taken me a quarter century to finally watch The Nightmare Before Christmas. I also acknowledge that Tim Burton’s world is not one I regularly inhabit. As a dippy preteen in 1993 when this movie was released, I opted, and still do, for the babes in bonnets of Austenland. But like Jack Skellington discovering Christmas for the first time, I was overcome with a childish awe by the creativity of the story and animation, both of which hold up after twenty-five years. The movie enchants in a way few holiday films do – The Polar Express is one similar exception. Nightmare approaches Christmas with an absolute childlike wonder that has you seeing the holidays anew.

The magic of Christmas comes via Halloween and trees that act as portals to various holiday realms. Jack (Chris Sarandon), having spooked his way through yet another Halloween, laments his humdrum existence as scarer-in-chief. Life has become too predictable, and in a fit of melancholy, he takes a long walk through the woods to find himself. In doing so, he also finds the tree portals, which allow him to slip into Christmas Town.

It’s a whole new world, and Jack is overcome by the brightness of it all. With a spring in his step, he marvels that the “children [are] throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads,” that kids are sleeping snug as a bug with nothing lurking under their beds. And when he’s not referencing his own experiences, he just takes in the simple stuff – chestnuts roasting on an open fire, kissing underneath the mistletoe. His enthusiasm and sheer wonderment is contagious, and it’s hard not to get swept up in his excitement, even for the commonplace and cliché.

The movie leverages its high concept for real emotion, and it’s easy to see why it has become required viewing, except for me apparently. It has a grand time deconstructing holiday traditions and includes delightful scenes of deadpan levity, all to a soundtrack that mixes strains of menace with a touch of Broadway pizzazz. When Jack returns to Halloween Town bringing great tidings of this mysterious Christmas celebration, he hopes that the residents, which include vampires, werewolves, and various ghouls, will help him stage a well-intentioned takeover come late December. Jack diligently studies up, going so far as to distill the meaning of Christmas on a chemical level. He doesn’t quite get it, nor do his fellow residents. His explanation about stockings prompts a devilish trick-or-treater to wonder if there’s a foot still inside, and they seem most confused by the lobster king, Sandy Claws. Nevertheless, Jack is determined to shake the town and himself out of this ennui.

Creeping in the shadows is Sally (Catherine O’Hara), the monster in a Frankenstein-inspired subplot. She is the creature and captive of Dr. Finklestein (William Hickey) and has an eye for Jack. It’s disturbing to watch her character in the #MeToo era, though I imagine the sexism and abuse were always disturbing. Sally tries repeatedly to poison Dr. Finklestein, who wastes no opportunity to exert his power over her and to remind her that she literally owes her life to him. While Jack is trying to break free of his tedious existence, Sally is just trying to break free.

“This is Halloween”:

“Jack’s Lament”:

Jack discovers Christmas in “What’s This”:

“Kidnap Sandy Claws”:

“Making Christmas”:

“Oogie Boogie’s Song”:

“Sally’s Song”:

“Finale/Reprise”:

Released: 1993
Prod: Tim Burton, Denise Di Novi
Dir: Henry Selick
Writer: Caroline Thompson
Cast: Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Glen Shadix
Time: 76 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Miss Christmas (2017)

A couple weeks ago, I would have thought a movie like Miss Christmas the stuff of pure Hallmark imagination. A city fixated on finding the perfect tree? A damaged tree right before Christmas? A sudden search for a second tree? An effort so desperate the coordinator will be fired if she doesn’t find another? Turns out this isn’t just a Hallmark plot by mad libs. While the sad tale of Rome’s mangy, toilet brush tree isn’t an exact retelling, one can see the importance of getting the whole tree thing right.

So with that in mind, I gave Miss Christmas a little more credit than it deserves. In an unexpected way, this story is one of the more plausible ones this season, just as likely to happen as romancing a movie star or getting stuck in a cabin with a handsome bachelor. Congrats on that, Hallmark. The good will didn’t last though, and the movie proved far less entertaining than say seeing pictures of toilet brush tree.

Miss Christmas just doesn’t go anywhere. The initial burst of activity is tolerable though in no way captivating. We meet Holly (Brooke D’Orsay), aka Miss Christmas, so named because she’s the face of the Radcliff Center tree lighting ceremony in Chicago. It’s an event so momentous it’s televised far and wide, catching the attention of the McNary family. Little Joey McNary (Luke Roessler) offers to donate his family’s tree, and when the original turns out to be a dud, Holly must take him up on the offer.

Something – someone – gets in the way, and it’s Joey’s dad, Sam (Marc Blucas). The tree, and it’s a magnificent one, has sentimental value, planted by his parents decades ago as a symbol of their love. After his mom died earlier this year, there’s no way Sam’s going to let anyone take this memory away, least of all a city girl with no appreciation for small town life.

If you were playing a Hallmark drinking game, this is the point where you’d start to worry. It only takes a few minutes for the movie to tick off all the clichés – cute kid, dead relative, hot girl from the big city who meets hot guy in a small town. Plus local Christmas festival, Christmas themed names – Holly and Klaus, the name of the town, reference to growing up on a tree farm, and single dad who hates the holidays. I mean, slow down. You’d think Hallmark was in a rush to tell a story or something, which it clearly isn’t.

The rest of the movie is a seventy minute slog. Holly tries to convince Sam that cutting the tree down would actually honor his mother. He thinks that’s a load of baloney and doesn’t like that the rest of his family, including his father and sister, want to go along with the idea. Who’s going to protect Mom?! Blucas, to his credit, puts in more effort than the part merits. Sam is legitimately agitated and then surprises himself by falling in love with Holly. The two actors have some chemistry but nothing that stands out. In her search for the perfect tree, Holly remarks that it must have that X factor, some unquantifiable star quality. If Hallmark is hoping to hold our attention through twenty-one movies, it too has got to give us something more.

Released: 2017
Dir: Mike Rohl
Writer: Joie Botkin
Cast: Brooke D’Orsay, Marc Blucas, Luke Roessler, Fiona Vroom, Greg Rogers, Erin Boyes
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2017

Marry Me at Christmas (2017)

So here’s a revelation. Hallmark movies are far more watchable when one of the lead actors looks like Chris Pine. Turns out the plot matters little when I’m imagining actual Chris Pine in cheesy romances. As far as Marry Me at Christmas goes, the story couldn’t be further from reality. A hot LA actor and a small town wedding boutique owner dive into a serious relationship over the course of two short weeks? Totally fake. But again, who cares because… (lookalike) Chris Pine.

Trevor Donovan has the good fortune (I think we can call it that) of resembling one of my favorite leading men and also happens to be a decent actor. He doesn’t have too much to work with but he makes the most of what he does have. I imagine the basic direction here is to look good in a shawl collar sweater and to act like a nice dude; he does. His character, Johnny Blake, isn’t a pretentious Hollywood type, despite helming some blockbuster franchise. But he could use a break and just live like a normal person for a bit. He gets the chance when his sister, Ginger (Emily Tennant), decides to have a Christmas wedding in the tiny northern California town of Fool’s Gold.

Ginger, who designed the town’s website, enlists the help of Maddie (Rachel Skarsten) to plan the wedding. Maddie and her friend, Isabel (Crystal Lowe), own a bridal store, but it’s fallen on rough times and they’ll have to reassess things after the holidays. This new commission could be what they need to bring in extra money and some publicity. Wary of violating Johnny’s trust though, Maddie refuses to use the actor to boost her business and does her best to keep her association with him, and their growing friendship, under wraps.

This is a case of a mediocre story being elevated by two very likable leads. Besides Donavan, Skarsten is a pleasure to watch. When it comes to cookie cutter Hallmark flicks, I have a thing for humble, down-to-earth types and she makes Maddie very accessible. She’s a bit excited about Christmas, but otherwise, she is just low-key ordinary. She also isn’t prone to rash, senseless decisions and approaches her relationship with Big Movie Star in a reasonable manner. In fact they both do, trying to rationalize their way out of a romance, which only guarantees that they are meant for each other.

Having two characters you want to spend an hour an a half with is important because there’s not much going on here otherwise. Few conflicts are alluded to but none explored with any seriousness. There’s a brief flare-up between Maddie and Isabel over exploiting Johnny’s fame, Johnny casually but innocently throws around his money and privilege, Maddie is emerging from the pain of a failed engagement, and Johnny and Ginger miss their dead parents. Also, Johnny really doesn’t want to film something called Fire’s Edge 3. None of that really mattered though. I ended the movie smiling, and that’s all that counts.

Released: 2017
Dir: Terry Ingram
Writer: Julie Sherman Wolfe
Cast: Rachel Skarsten, Trevor Donovan, Emily Tennant, Crystal Lowe, Blair Penner, Keith MacKechnie, Michele Scarabelli
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2017

Christmas Getaway (2017)

One of my favorite books growing up was The Coat Hanger Christmas Tree by Eleanor Estes. It’s about a girl who wants to have a “normal” Christmas like everyone else but never gets the chance thanks to her bohemian mom. The latter flaunts convention and opts for a tree made out of coat hangers instead of say, actual branches and pine needles. It made my fifth grade mind consider how holiday traditions dictate who does and doesn’t belong. I did the calculus, hoping my immigrant family made the cut. We did, because while we didn’t have a real tree, we at least had a big fake one from K-Mart that we loaded with lights and baubles.

Well, Christmas Getaway has me thinking about the idea of tradition again, and yes, I’m way overanalyzing a Hallmark movie. But since this movie is all about the trappings of “an old fashioned Christmas,” I have to at least ask, WTF is an old fashioned Christmas? According to this movie, it’s all about chopping one’s own tree, retreating to a snowy cabin in the mountains, building snowmen, baking cookies, and making gingerbread houses, which only half describes the Christmases my friends and family had. But Hallmark, guardian of Christmas mythology and faux Americana, is here to remind you that you may be doing Christmas, real Christmas, all wrong.

Travel writer Emory’s (Bridget Regan) latest assignment for Journeying magazine is to catalog and reflect on this old fashioned experience. She’s given the job because while she may look like Hallmark’s all-American girl (i.e. pretty and white), she’s never really spent the holidays in the States owing to her father’s business travel. With her family away in Hong Kong (and two minutes away from me), her boss takes advantage of Emory’s alone time and puts her up in the rustic Pine Grove resort town.

She’s all set for old fashioned Christmas when someone else pops into her cabin, beardy hipster lawyer dad, Scott (Travis Van Winkle), and his daughter, Katy (Raven Stewart), and mother (Teryl Rothery). They are here because Katy’s classmate kept going on about awesome Pine Grove Christmas, which made her think that maybe her family tradition of hotel brunch buffet wasn’t all that. Add some memories of dead mom, and here we are. Also add a double room booking and a nasty snow storm, and these four are stuck with one another and all the old fashioned Christmas they can handle.

Really, there’s nothing wrong with the way you spend Christmas, if you celebrate it at all. You can have a satisfying Christmas whether or not you chop down your own damn tree or make smores around a bonfire or ice skate with the guy you’re crushing on. Emory, Scott, and Katy get to tick things off their list and remind us about Tradition. Fine, I’ll buy the romance. I like that Van Winkle is not your typical lead (it’s the beard), and the third wheel school mom adds some tension, but I’m not buying this other stuff.

I’m also not here for Emory’s humble brags. Give the writers a raise already. Clearly someone wanted to show off their research skills because Emory will not shut up about where in the world she’s been. She is that person, that upper middle class white American who lived a year here and spent a summer there and suddenly is the expert on every other country’s culture. Lord, have mercy. If she’s not talking about Sweden’s almond in porridge tradition, she’s talking about the German Christmas pickle. She casually mentions holidays in Italy, Brazil, and Tibet and then claims ignorance when it comes to snowmen and Santa. Woman, someone is impressed that you motorcycled through the Andes. Someone cares that you slept on a catamaran and saw Orion coming over the horizon. That someone is not me.

And while I’m on a roll here, I’m calling out Hallmark for pretending to diversify with important but secondary black characters. You don’t keep getting points for the black bosses and managers and best friends. Give me a black or Latina or Asian or anything else lead, and then we’ll talk. But, hey, watch the movie!

Released: 2017
Dir: Mel Damski
Writer: Tracy Andreen, Marlene McPherson, Elizabeth Synder
Cast: Bridget Regan, Travis Van Winkle, Raven Stewart, Teryl Rothery, Sarah Smyth, Alvin Sanders, Krystle Dos Santos
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2017