Hallmark Channel

The Last Cowboy (2003)

The Last Cowboy ranks in the top half of Hallmark movies, not because of its pedestrian story about an estranged father and daughter in cowboy country but because of the actors who play them. Lance Henriksen and Jennie Garth slip into their roles without fuss, avoiding histrionic confrontations in a script that could easily descend into that.

Garth is Jake Cooper, a Texas girl turned California hotshot who left home eight years earlier and hasn’t looked back. She crashes back into her family’s life after her grandfather passes away, barreling into the funeral at the last minute dressed like she’s ready for a Hollywood costume party. It’s a misleading entrance though because Jake turns out to be nothing like the diva that we expect her to be. Instead, she’s a no-nonsense horse trainer with a gentle side, one that she doesn’t show to her father whom she blames for her mother’s death.

John Cooper, meanwhile, is an old school cowboy, a guy who probably talks more to animals than to people. He’s been running the family ranch, Dry Creek, for years, but with his father’s death, the vultures are circling and he must fend off buyers interested only in carving up the land for profit. John is too emotionally stunted to try to reconcile with Jake, but he warms up to his grandson, and the kid creates an opening for father and daughter to work things out.

The movie slows once everyone tries to figure out how to save Dry Creek and doesn’t really pick up until the very end. There’s a lot of talking and negotiating that gets repetitive. Garth and Henriksen are appealing as stubborn opposites who turn out to have more in common than they let themselves believe. They’re also sympathetic and show off the tender side of their characters that they don’t show each other.

Whenever the plot starts to drag, John’s friend and ranch hand, Amos (M. C. Gainey) steps in. A chatty Texan who mentions cow patties on multiple occasions and regularly throws up the word “ornery,” he’s blessed comic relief. Brad Cooper also makes an appearance and is admittedly why I watched this movie. He plays Jake’s business partner and fellow horse trainer. Fans don’t have too much to look forward to though. Cooper has a few token scenes as Jake’s main cheerleader, supporting her proposal to turn Dry Creek into a training stable and horse rehabilitation center. He also wants to support her romantically, but she first has to work out her relationship with her father.

The movie’s setting offers some nice shots of Texas, or whatever substituted as the filming location. There are plenty of fields for horses to gallop through and we get herds of cattle stirring up dust clouds as the sun blazes down. I always wish for bigger budgets and imaginations when it comes to anything that takes place in open land though. The movie gets boxed in, visually and narratively, but I suppose that’s why it’s on television.

Released: 2017
Dir: Joyce Chopra
Writer: J.P. Martin
Cast: Jennie Garth, Lance Henriksen, Bradley Cooper, M.C. Gainey, Dylan Wagner, John Vargas
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark
Reviewed: 2017

Site Unseen: An Emma Fielding Mystery (2017)

My entertainment life these days seems to be a lot of Hallmark Movies and Mysteries. After a wild Fixer Upper Mysteries and Aurora Teagarden bender, I went straight for a shot of Hallmark’s latest, and lived to tell about it. Emma Fielding is like every other series on offer in that the title character (Courtney Thorne-Smith) is a determined career woman with a knack for getting mixed up in a man’s world. In this case, the woman is an archeologist leading a team of students on a dig. Her old fashioned techniques, that is actual digging, earn her the condescension of a male upstart, who would prefer to survey a site with his drone.

They’re spending a few weeks in Emma’s stepmother’s backyard in Maine, hoping to find proof of a settlement that predates Jamestown. It’s the continuation of her father’s research, which never progressed beyond conjecture. When their dig site yields an old spoon, everyone is giddy, until fresh bodies start popping up and suddenly it’s a different and unwelcome adventure. It’s hard to imagine anyone in this picturesque fishing town would want to screw with some university kids sifting through dirt, but this is a murder mystery and sleepy towns are full of killers.

Some locals are convinced there’s buried treasure waiting to be unearthed and will do anything to get their hands on it. Hottie Will (Benjamin Ayres) even ran salvage operations some years ago, so up he goes on the suspect list. Others are just shady, like grumpy Tichnor. His house is one of those where you half expect the police to pull a body or two out of the basement freezer. There’s also petty barmaid Nikki, who harbors an unhealthy resentment towards Emma for not remembering the fact that they used to hang out during the summer. I have to say the identity of the murderer is clear to anyone who makes a habit out of watching these things. That said, the movie still commits to misdirection and each suspect seems like a plausible culprit.

At the center of all this is Emma, cool-headed and not too foolhardy. She’s a university professor after all and knows how to prudently navigate her way around condescending men in power. FBI agent Jim Connor (James Tupper) would be a good romantic match if he didn’t also mock her crime solving skills, dismissing her deductions for rising only to the standard of peer review and not a court of law. When her department head (Martin Cummins) strides in and tries to stop the excavation for fear of safety, she must also reason her way around his objections.

Like actress Jewel in the Fixer Upper mystery series, Thorne-Smith tends for a low-key approach to her character. It doesn’t feel like she’s trying to put on a show, which is the feeling I get whenever Candace Cameron Bure appears on my screen. There’s very little melodrama, all things considered, which puts more focus on the mystery. That also makes it a sleepier choice, but you could do a lot worse.

Released: 2017
Dir: Douglas Barr
Writer: Suzette Couture
Cast: Courtney Thorne-Smith, James Tupper, Martin Cummins, Adam DiMarco, Tess Atkins, Benjamin Ayres, P. Lynn Johnson, Andrew Kavadas, Jessica Heafey
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

Real Murders: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2015)

The first installment of this series got off to a middling start with more emphasis on Aurora Teagarden than on the mystery. This second movie makes up for that though; starring Candace Cameron Bure as the title character, it delivers a high stakes whodunit in which the victims and suspects are all part of the Real Murders Club. The group is not, as it would seem, one where real murders occur but where an eclectic circle of friends come to discuss true crime stories old and new. On this occasion, however, a real murder is committed just before their meeting. A woman is killed in the same manner as the crime to be discussed, leading Aurora to believe that there is a murderer in their midst.

Ro, a librarian by day, dives into the case despite being warned off by her ex and his wife (Miranda Frigon), both police detectives, and her worried mother (Marilu Henner). She ignores their advice and promptly partners with a fellow club member, John (Bruce Dawson), and her journalist best friend, Sally (Lexa Doig). Joining them is newcomer Robin Daniels (Robin Dunne), mystery writer and hottie, but his sudden appearance and intimate knowledge of crime also puts him on the suspect list.

When Ro is nearly poisoned, her investigation intensifies, and she wonders if someone is instead committing copycat murders while trying to knock off the members one by one. She connects whoever she can to past crimes the club has studied, searching for clues as to who the next victim might be. No one is safe from either list though, and some of her top suspects include a butcher who was absent from the meting the night of the murders and a guy with previous run-ins with the police. Rather than relish the chance to be a part of the action for once, however, the group begins to eye each other with skepticism. No one wants to be questioned by the police or a nosy Ro, and the situation is made worse when Sally writes an article that sources private conversations between the members. They start to wonder if the Real Murders Club is more trouble than it’s worth.

This movie does a better job of balancing character and mystery. Now that we know what kind of person Ro and the other characters are, the narrative just needs to highlight certain aspects of their personalities, like Ro’s habit of rejecting guys that her mom pushes her way. Granted, I would move cautiously if my mother suggested I feign interest to get a second date, but did they need to drop hot vicar without warning? Is this going to be a habit because I kind of want Robin to stay on. He and Ro are compatible and make a good sleuthing team. The dynamic between Ro and Lynn, the detective wife of her ex, is also taking shape. Instead of two catty women baring their claws over a guy, they have something of a symbiotic relationship that also shows off their strengths. You’d think they be a little friendlier after Ro delivered Lynn’s baby on a kitchen, but a détente will do for now.

One thing I’m not a particular fan of but will have to put up with because I’ve committed myself to this series is Cameron Bure’s Hallmark style of acting. These are the kinds of roles she eats up, and girl overacts the shit out of this. It’s not that she comes off as fake but that she’s overdramatic, the friend who tears up because your great-aunt died and wants to know if you need her to catsit while you attend the funeral. No, and stop crying.

Released: 2015
Dir: Martin Wood
Writer: Teena Booth
Cast: Candace Cameron Bure, Marilu Henner, Lexa Doig, Robin Dunne, Miranda Frigon, Bruce Dawson, Peter Benson, Seann Gallagher, Anna Van Hooft, Julian Christopher
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2015)

When I started A Bone to Pick, the first movie in the Aurora Teagarden series, I was as excited as one can be to dive into a Hallmark mystery. The title character is a diminutive, single librarian with a penchant for solving murders, which is far closer to me than a bakery owner or a remodeling expert. But the air quickly goes out of this one despite a few moments of levity, especially a late scene involving a very pregnant police captain. Aurora (Candace Cameron Bure), or Ro as she’s known to her family and friends, is a perky character who’s easy to like, but her chipper personality isn’t enough to sustain a full mystery.

The idea of a Real Murders Club is grim but enticing, and Ro and her friends gather regularly to discuss and try to solve real murders, obviously. I’m too squeamish to join one myself, assuming these things exist and I’m sure they do, but the popularity of true crime podcasts like Serial and shows like Making a Murderer suggests that these guys are on to something. When one of the members dies – from old age and not from foul play, Ro gets pulled into a real murder mystery of her own.

The woman leaves her whole estate to the young librarian, an estate that happens to include a skull tucked inside the window seat of her very handsome house. Ro’s crime solving mind clicks into gear, and rather than alerting the police, she immediately sets off to gather clues. There are a few leads for her to follow, all of which bring her back to her new neighbors whom she suspects of murdering one of their own. Under the pretense of exploring the block, she takes the opportunity to question everyone and eventually fingers a mysterious dress shop owner with a runaway husband, a woman who looks like an extra from an 80s TV movie, her bland husband, and a grumpy newspaper editor who happens to be the boss of Ro’s best friend. Her accusations do nothing to endear her to her neighbors, who are already miffed that she and not they inherited their neighbor’s property and wealth.

I can’t be sure that these are all the suspects though. The movie spends so much time trying to establish Ro’s character that there’s hardly any thought given to the others. In the end, I managed to sort everyone out, but that still left an unsatisfying reveal. Nevertheless, Ro is a force, and this first movie in a series does its best to get you hooked on the character; the sleuthing is secondary. It’s not how good storytelling works but it’s the trade-off the writers decide to go for.

And that’s fine if you’re not into the whole murder mystery thing, though this is the channel’s raison d’etre. There are plenty of characters to liven up the story, like Marilu Henner as Ro’s mom, Aida. A high class real estate agent, Aida is some strange incarnation of a helicopter parent. She pays her daughter’s rent and then criticizes her lack of fashion sense, and common sense, come to think of it since she disapproves of Ro’s morbid interests. A hot vicar strolls onto the scene as Ro’s love interest. Of course this one is not to be confused with The Hot Vicar, Sidney Chambers, but that’s for another day, ladies. Ro’s ex is also a police detective married to another police detective. I don’t care to see catty exchanges between women at odds over a dude, but that’s where this rivalry is now. And let’s not forget dowdy librarian, who is exactly the stereotype you are picturing. Finally, we have our one non-white character with a substantial speaking part. Lexa Doig, a part-Filipina actor, plays Ro’s best friend, Sally, and yes, her job is to be as supportive and non-offensive as possible.

Released: 2015
Dir: Martin Wood
Writer: Teena Booth
Cast: Candace Cameron Bure, Marilu Henner, Lexa Doig, Bruce Dawson, Peter Benson, Sonya Salomaa, Dan Payne, Miranda Frigon, Stephen Huszar, David Ingram, Fiona Vroom
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

Concrete Evidence: A Fixer Upper Mystery (2017)

For what it’s worth, which is almost nothing, this is my favorite Hallmark mystery. Lead actress Jewel once again makes this series stand out, effortlessly adding sparkle to her sleuthing everywoman character. She does what many of the Hallmark leads try to do, which is give spunk to a stereotype. Let’s be honest; things are a bit vanilla when it comes to this and similar channels. These are all strong white women of a certain mold, women who are good at their day jobs, often as a small business owner, can rely on a supportive network of family and friends, and are financially stable enough to balance a career and a full-time hobby.

In comes Jewel as Shannon Hughes, who is all these things but who also lacks any pretense. The actress doesn’t force a personality onto the screen but lets it slip out as the story allows. Shannon still gets to be a hero but doesn’t go out of her way to be one, unlike other accidental detectives (I’m looking at you, Hannah Swensen). She tries to avoid deadly confrontation like a normal person and uses her good sense to dial emergency services, because sometimes it’s okay to leave things to the professionals. In doing so, we are spared seeing her lectured to by a protective male detective (it’s always a guy, and yes, I’m looking at you, Detective Mike) who gets to have it both ways and chastise and admire a woman at the same time. But when she does try to thwart a suspect’s escape, she uses her handywoman skills because girl is a quick thinker.

Besides a watchable lead though, Concrete Evidence also presents an enticing if not extraordinary mystery. It’s tightly plotted, a whodunit where all the players have a complex history with the victim and the other suspects. The story stretches back to Shannon’s high school days when Lily, the girlfriend of her former classmate, disappears. Lily isn’t seen or heard from again, until her skeleton is found inside a dumbwaiter in the house Shannon is restoring. It’s the same house purchased by Mac Sullivan (Colin Ferguson), star crime reporter, novelist, and Shannon’s potential love interest.

Immediately, suspicion falls on Cliff, the boyfriend and last person to see Lily alive. Besides his reputation as an arrogant jock back in the day, he now owns a competing restoration business and Shannon knows firsthand how far he’ll go to get his way. When she revisits their school for more clues, however, old friends reveal old grievances that might point to other killers. Lily’s best friend, Denise, who now teaches at the school, her husband, and even Lily’s brother, a foreman on Shannon’s crew, may not be as forthcoming as they first appear.

One thing I liked is that everyone gets a fair shot at being the prime suspect. I thought I had the case figured out early on but found myself shifting allegiances with new revelations. Meanwhile, the investigators are coming into their own. Shannon’s friend from the first movie gets more screentime as her sidekick, and another former classmate, the faithful Officer Tommy, realizes it’s more productive to trust Shannon’s instincts than to ignore them. Shannon’s relationship with Mac is also handled with care. These two aren’t in a rush to get together, so when they do begin to show signs of attraction, it feels natural and all the more welcome.

Released: 2017
Dir: Mark Jean
Writer: Teena Booth
Cast: Jewel, Colin Ferguson, Erin Karpluk, Ron Lea, Jason Cermak, Colin Lawrence, Sean Rogerson, Wiliam MacDonald, Michael Karl Richards, Jenn MacLean-Angus, Ben Cotton
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017