Hallmark Channel

Winter Love Story (2019)

I’m not trying to be funny when I say that Kevin McGarry’s eyes are the stars of this movie, but they are. In fact, they might be actual stars because the pull they have is…strong. I never noticed them before, and apologies to McGarry and his beautiful eyes, but there must be something about movies in which nothing happens that helps you focus on the important things.

Things do happen in Winter Love Story, but the action is largely confined to two people gabbing about the writing life. Cassie Winslett (Jen Lilley) and Elliot Somersby (McGarry) are authors thrown together on a mini book tour to promote their latest work, and as you can imagine, it’s not a thrilling adventure ride. They drive around the Northeast giving interviews and signing books and, since there’s not much else to do, falling in love.

Cassie isn’t sure about this Elliot character at first though. A new writer who’s just penned a breakup memoir called My Heartbreak Year, she doesn’t see herself as the intended audience for his popular dragon tale, The Dread Monarch Saga. She also doesn’t swoon when he puts on his glasses, so girl might want to rethink things. Terrified at the thought of public readings and not wanting to ride on the success of her award-winning author mother (Mary-Margaret Humes), however, she soon finds that having an understanding partner might not be so bad. For his part, Elliot is a smooth operator, effortlessly charming and chatty with fans and interviewers alike, until he’s pressed about the next book in his trilogy, which he of course hasn’t started yet. One can only obfuscate so much though, and he likewise appreciates the counsel and encouragement of his book tour buddy.

Lilley and McGarry take this film about as far as it can go. Neither Cassie nor Elliot are that compelling, but the two actors give the story a little more mileage than it otherwise would have. They allow their characters to be vulnerable in a way that feels honest, even if nothing about the movie is that striking or memorable. Besides an infuriating climax in which one person’s stupid assumption throws the relationship off balance, I can’t think of a scene that sticks out, which kind of makes this the perfect movie to pass a snowy winter weekend.

Released: 2019
Dir: T.W. Peacocke
Writer: MacKenzie Austin, Carrie Freedle
Cast: Jen Lilley, Kevin McGarry, Mary-Margaret Humes, Laura Miyata, Joanna Douglas, Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll
Time: 84 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2020

The Convenient Groom (2016)

I wasn’t expecting much from The Convenient Groom, but sometimes fortuitous casting makes all the difference. The movie turns to the old fake fiancé trope and sees a popular relationship vlogger partnering with a childhood friend when her real fiancé dumps her. While there are not many surprises in the way of story, I found myself growing attached to the phony couple because of the unexpected chemistry between stars Vanessa Marcil and David Sutcliffe. I wouldn’t have thought to pair Marcil, whom I still remember from her General Hospital days, with Sutcliffe, who really slips into his carpenter-next-door role, yet the casting works in everyone’s favor, eliciting some surprising emotions from characters and viewers alike.

As Dr. Kate Lawrence, the woman behind the Just…No relationship advice site, Marcil nails the vlogger sound and look, including some distinctive Ali Wong eyewear. Watched by thousands who are trying to figure out whether their partner is The One, Kate thinks she’s found her answer in fiancé Bryan (Aaron Craven). She wants to share the happy news via livestreamed engagement party, turning the gathering into a media event that could generate loads of advertising money and lead to a plum book deal, but Bryan is not hot on the idea. Ignoring her own advice about red flags and egged on by an insistent publicist, Kate goes ahead with the plan anyway, and it ends in disaster when Bryan dumps her just before she reveals his identity.

In steps Lucas (Sutcliffe), Kate’s high school crush until he spoiled their first date by inviting a bunch of his friends and breaking a precious gift from her late mother. Though they’re on friendlier terms now, all is not forgiven and the last thing she wants is for him to make amends by pretending to be her fiancé. That, however, is exactly what he does, inserting himself into her livestream and announcing to her viewers that he is the soon-to-be Mr. Lawrence. Too stunned to set things straight at first and then later really desperate for that book deal, Kate decides to roll with it. That means following through on some actual wedding planning and documenting the progress online.

As much as I love Sutcliffe, aka grown-up Steve Lund, I have to say that it’s a jerk move on Lucas’s part to try to save Kate. She never asked him to intervene, yet his action puts her in an untenable situation and leaves her to bear the brunt of the fallout. Sure, his carpentry business might get dinged, but it’ll be nothing compared to the troll attack she’s in for. Lucas redeems himself over the course of the movie though with small gestures and some much needed honesty, showing that he’s not there to pity Kate but that he really cares for her.

Likewise, Kate isn’t initially all that sympathetic. For someone who makes a living off of telling others what they should and shouldn’t do in a relationship, she’s pretty blind to her own failings. I don’t blame Bryan for bailing since she completely disregards his desire for a more private engagement. Marcil puts in the hard work to win us over to her character though. At her core, Kate is a kind and generous partner, her defensiveness and drive for perfection scars from her parents’ divorce. That she and Lucas butt heads and argue over things both frivolous and serious forces them to grow together.

Released: 2016
Dir: David Winning
Writer: Julie Sherman Wolfe
Cast: Vanessa Marcil, David Sutcliffe, Karen Holness, Aaron Craven, Larissa Dias, Karen Kruper, Austin Anozie
Time: 84 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2020

Roux the Day: A Gourmet Detective Mystery (2020)

It took three years for Hallmark to bring back the Gourmet Detective Mysteries, and folks, it was worth the wait. The series has always been a cut above, featuring sharp writing and a quick-witted cast. Each of the previous four movies offered something new without rehashing the same dynamic between its two leads, and this fifth pairing of Brooke Burns and Dylan Neal as a police detective and her sometimes chef boyfriend/crime-solving partner continues to bring a fresh perspective to the series. Roux the Day, again co-written by Neal, trusts its audience’s intelligence and features a layered mystery that’s more than just a crime and a list of suspects. It will have you working twice as hard to connect the dots on your mental pinboard, and even then, you might have trouble piecing together everything before the final reveal.

The case doesn’t start out as a particularly complex one though. Maggie (Burns) and Henry (Neal) come across a dead body while searching an antiques shop for a prized chef’s book, a restaurant’s bible containing all its secret recipes. This particular book holds the key to the success of Belvedere’s, a shuttered but once beloved San Francisco institution. Thought to be long lost, it suddenly comes up for auction and attracts the interest of a number of people who can’t wait to get their hands on it, either to borrow some recipes or just to set eyes on this important piece of culinary history. Before it even hits the auction block, however, the book is sold and then goes missing under mysterious circumstances, which includes the murder of the person who last handled it.

Maggie and Henry zero in on a few suspects right away. He has it out for Elsa (Jennifer Copping), a food critic with a poisonous pen and someone who was pretty upset about the cancelled auction. Maggie, meanwhile, senses something squishy about Leah (Myrasol Martinez), the owner of a relatively new Creole restaurant in town that could use a secret recipe or two to boost its sagging business. The pair also pay a visit to Nicholas Belvedere (Lane Edwards), heir to the family fortune and someone with no interest in the restaurant business, if you believe what he says. The deeper Maggie and Henry get into this case though, the more suspicious characters come out of the woodwork with everyone seeming to have a hand in this one way or other.

Unlike most other whodunnits in Hallmark’s lineup, this mystery will really stretch your coach potato sleuthing skills. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, some new clue worms its way into picture, prompting a reframe of the whole theory. The best thing about this movie though isn’t the case but the relationship between Maggie and Henry. I’ve become invested in the pair, who are different from most other crime solving couples. For once, Maggie takes the lead as the sharp-nosed detective while Henry plays her hapless sidekick, a role reversal done with some humor and humility. More importantly, neither feels the need to prove anything. They’ve reached a point in their relationship where both value the skills the other brings to the team, and though Henry can be sarcastic, his personality never feels overbearing like it did in the early going. Their respect and love for one another guide everything, leading to some unexpectedly touching moments in the middle of a murder investigation.

Highlight for spoilers: While he didn’t pull the trigger, Nicholas Belvedere is the top villain in all this. Nicholas had long known that the restaurant’s popularity was due to a secret ingredient – absinthe – which his family continued to use long after it was banned in food and drink. Josie, the woman in charge of the auction, got ahold of the chef’s book from Milo, the book binder, and decided to sell it, not knowing Belvedere’s dark past. When Nicholas found out, he needed to keep the book out of public view, lest people discover the truth and sue him out of his inheritance. He was in fact the one who anonymously hired Henry to bid on the book. BUT Josie found out about the whole absinthe business, and since Nicholas’s grandfather was her first love, she didn’t want anything to happen to Nicholas and so removed the book from auction. She also asked Milo to make a quick replica without the references to absinthe. MEANWHILE, Nicholas hired Daniel, the guy in the park, to steal the book from Richie, the guy killed in the opening scene. Daniel wanted to sell the book to pay off his gambling debts though, so Nicholas got Dominic to kill Daniel. HOWEVER, the book that these guys were chasing was the forged copy with the original still in Josie’s possession. ALSO and possibly the main reason Nicholas was so desperate to keep the book away from the public was because he was running his own shady operation on the side and didn’t want to invite further scrutiny. He and Dominic were childhood friends, and the latter set up a distillery with the backing of the former. Dominic was flogging this new Emerald Dream drink all around town and it was quickly becoming a hit because he was illegally spiking it with thujone, a derivative of absinthe and a byproduct of wormwood, which Nicholas supplied from his greenhouses.

Released: 2020
Dir: Mark Jean
Writer: Becky Southwell, Dylan Neal
Cast: Dylan Neal, Brooke Burns, Bruce Boxleitner, Ali Skovbye, Samantha Ferris, Lane Edwards, Jennifer Copping, Myrasol Martinez,Noel Johansen, Alex Barima
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2019