Hallmark Channel

Aurora Teagarden Mysteries: Heist and Seek (2020)

When it comes to whodunnits, I’m always going to recommend something along the lines of Foyle’s War or Grantchester or even Monk if we’re sticking to light American entertainment, but I can’t deny that Aurora Teagarden hits that murder mystery sweet spot. It’s the equivalent of a satisfying beach read, and I knew Heist and Seek was going to deliver when one of the characters popped out of a dumpster in full Elizabethan courtier garb.

The movie has all the right elements for a night of crime solving fun, from stolen artifacts to catty divas to dorky Brendon Zub. The intrigue begins at a library fundraiser of all places. To raise money for their literacy program, librarians Ro (Candace Cameron Bure) and Lillian (Ellie Harvie) secure a traveling Renaissance exhibit from the Seattle History Museum. During the opening gala, however, a prized pearl headpiece, known as Leicester’s Gift and supposedly worn by Queen Elizabeth I, is stolen despite numerous security measures. Suspicion first turns to guard Talbot (Sean Depner), but one guest, Miya (Elfina Luk), also raises eyebrows when she loudly objects to a police search. Ro and her mother, Aida (Marilu Henner), think their friend Howard (Chris Gauthier) might be guilty when his past comes to light, but details of the case also suggest the crime could be an inside job. That puts the museum’s assistant director, Kelly (Michelle Harrison), and board member James (Oliver Rice) under the spotlight, and both take the opportunity to further their grievances by lobbing accusations of irresponsibility and professional jealousy at one another. Things take a turn though when one of the suspects ends up dead.

Cue the Real Murders Club, Ro’s little side project and probably the town of Lawrenceton’s best crime solving unit. Ro and her army of amateur sleuths, including her best friend, Sally (Lexa Doig), and her cousin, Philip (Dylan Sloane), immediately get to work trying to figure out who would want a hundreds year old headpiece and kill for it. They don’t seem to going to their actual jobs, so I guess good on them. I’m a fan of their teamwork, and the series is stronger when it leans on all the characters’ varying personalities instead of solely on Aurora. The group’s dynamic could use some further tweaking though. The diversity of experience that someone like Terry (Catherine Lough Haggquist), the former mayor, or John, Aida’s erstwhile partner, brings is what the series needs to push forward. I’m not yet convinced that Davis (Cole Vigue), a more recent addition, has that sort of presence.

The introduction of Niall Matter as Nick, Ro’s love interest, however, turns out to have been a great choice. As much as I liked former CIA operative Martin (Yannick Bisson), the genial college professor is a better match for Ro and the show. Matter keeps things on the lighter side and is content to let his girl take the lead, except when it comes to proposing marriage. Poor Nick is ready to pop the question, but murder keeps getting in the way. Another barrier might be Ro’s suspicion of Nick’s friend, Eric (Zub), a fellow professor who ends up on her suspect list after he’s less than forthcoming about his interest in the exhibit. Zub is my favorite part of the movie, not just because I love him generally and think should be cast as a romantic lead on the regular but because he is an A-1 dork here and clearly not a “Western Civ” scholar. The guy prints out color articles in 16 point font and got into his field after watching Shakespeare in Love and wondering “whether Elizabeth really did see Shakespeare’s plays.” Cute, but not so cute to escape Ro’s watchful eye. Anyway, if the culprit is Eric, it wouldn’t be the first time one of her boyfriend’s acquaintances was found guilty of murder.

While the case itself is not too thrilling and even ends on an anticlimactic note, the movie still packs a good punch. Peter Benson, who also plays detective Arthur Smith in the series, directs. He has a strong sense of pacing, and the push and pull between the story’s intensity and humor keeps it going. The developments have me looking forward to the next Aurora Teagarden mystery, which is something I don’t usually say.

Highlight for spoilers: It’s the overly charming Brit, James, who staged the theft and then killed the two security guards who knew about it. His wife was divorcing him and in order to prove his love and win her back, he figured an audacious crime would do the trick. Sure, dude. Assistant director Kelly really was just miffed about the whole traveling exhibit idea, but things worked out in the end and she was appointed museum director. Her brother, however, had independently come up with the same plan to nick the headpiece and sort of conspired with his associate Miya, who probably smuggles jewelry on the side, but they never acted on it. Meanwhile, shady Howard only wanted to see David, the first murdered security guard, whom he had befriended during his time in prison, and Eric, well, he’s just an awkward dork. As for Nick, he finally proposed, falling to one knee in the most romantic place possible – the local library stacks.

Released: 2020
Dir: Peter Benson
Writer: Teena Booth
Cast: Candace Cameron Bure, Niall Matter, Marilu Henner, Peter Benson, Lexa Doig, Miranda Frigon, Dylan Sloane, Ellie Harvie, Brendon Zub, Sean Depner, Lisa Marie DiGiacinto, Chris Gauthier, Michelle Harrison, Jay Hindle, Catherine Lough Haggquist, Elfina Luk, Byron Mayberry, Oliver Rice, Cole Vigue
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2020

Love in the Sun (2019)

I’m not usually short on opinions when it comes to Hallmark movies, but Love in the Sun is one of those that I have no feelings on whatsoever. I’m indifferent to the plot and the characters and don’t care one way or the other about this whole thing. That makes this either the worst kind of movie or merely a mediocre one. I’ve enjoyed similar stories in the past, but this takes a cookie cutter plot and then does very little with it.

It’s about a woman who returns home and though newly engaged, reconnects with her high school boyfriend. Emeraude Toubia plays Alana, Chicago-based developer of a dating app that matches people based on compatibility and proximity. Having been burned by a long distance relationship in the past, she prioritizes physical closeness and considers it major factor in successful relationships. When she gets good news about her company and a proposal from her “banking golfer” boyfriend, Evan (John William Wright), she decides to head back to her hometown of St. Petersburg after a long absence.

The first person she sees besides the roadside juice man is her ex, Kai (Tom Maden). He’s living out his dream of staying in Florida forever and doesn’t get why Alana’s subjecting herself to Chicago winters when she could be out on the beach every day. She has a nicer reunion with her friends, who are hosting an orchid festival, and her widower dad, Micah (Shawn Christian), who has some updates to share himself. He surprises Alana with the news that he’s shuttered the family inn, putting a crinkle in her plans to get married there.

You could mine a lot of drama out of this story and a different cast might, but the lack of chemistry between the actors prevents anything from getting off the ground. They all seem to be stuck in the acquaintance stage of a relationship, aside from Micah and his friend Leigha (Betsy Graver). Those two are laughing it up and sharing amorous looks as if they’d rather brunch on the beach and forget about these kids. Alana has nothing like that with either Kai or Evan. Maden’s surfer dude monotone doesn’t exactly signal passion and Wright fails to give his character the personality to match his sincerity. Also, as much as I love seeing an actor like Toubia, who is of Mexican and Lebanese descent, take a leading role on Hallmark, I’m not persuaded by her acting. She injects a lot of enthusiasm into Alana but her character’s longing for Kai and her hometown seem pretty incidental. Though she and Maden go through the all the right motions, their relationship still feels hollow.

The performances underline the weaknesses of the plot. There are plenty of problems to attend to, such as Micah’s financial worries and a last minute obstacle regarding the orchid festival, but these take a backseat to nothing in particular. Without strong characters to push the action along, the story doesn’t build up to any climax, at least not a meaningful one. The story has all the momentum of a lazy day at the beach, which is how I’d rather spend my time.

Released: 2019
Dir: R.C. Newey
Writer: Joie Botkin
Cast: Emeraude Toubia, Tom Maden, Shawn Christian, Betsy Graver, John William Wright, Ashley Jones, Diana Garle, Frank Oakley III
Time: 82 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2020

Matchmaker Mysteries: A Fatal Romance (2020)

It’s happened. Matchmaker Mysteries and I got together for a second date. I swore it off after a miserable first outing, but this is me, a glutton for Hallmark punishment. Things went better this time around and I was entertained over the course of our dinner, but I don’t see love in our future. This will have to be one of those relationships where we meet once or twice a year for drinks and nothing more.

Seriously though, I’m surprised the series was revived at all after a such weak debut last year. I can’t imagine anyone was clamoring for more Angie Dove (Danica McKellar), TV matchmaker and now crime fighter extraordinaire. Nevertheless, we’re back at it after a well known romance writer, Beatrice Penn (Anne Marie DeLuise), dies at a conference. Angie, who was moderating a panel when the author fell ill, puts on her detective hat and tries to solve the murder, in part to clear her ex-boyfriend and Beatrice’s publisher, Ethan (Dan Payne).

He’s far from the only suspect though, and everyone who has cause to hurt Beatrice seems eager to point the finger at someone else. Ethan is wary of angry fan Caroline (Brenna O’Brien) and Beatrice’s sister thinks her soon-to-be-ex-brother-in-law, Ted (Ben Wilkinson), may be guilty. Neil (Stephen Lobo), a writer who was curiously absent from the conference that day, happily shares news about the rift between Beatrice another romance novelist, Helen (Heather-Claire Nortey). All, it turns out, have secrets they’re loathe to reveal.

The snappy case works to the movie’s benefit. The crime, the suspects, and the motives roll out in a clean manner, and the writers don’t try anything fancy. That’s fine for a series that has yet to settle into a comfortable rhythm. It ensures that the case isn’t a distraction while Angie and police detective Kyle Cooper (Victor Webster) try to work out their chemistry. McKellar and Webster have a better sense of their roles this time, but they still don’t have the give and take that makes you want to invest in them as a couple. She’s always too enthused, overcompensating it seems for his ennui. The ending gives me some hope, however, that Angie and Kyle will at least find themselves channeling the same crime-fighting wavelength.

Highlight for spoilers: Well this did not go as expected. I thought the killer would be Margaret since it’s usually the one you least suspect, but in fact it’s Neil, the author with the supposed car troubles. He poisoned a glass of water in Beatrice’s hotel room in order to keep her quiet about their affair. Angie realizes when he gives her an advanced copy of his mystery novel and she sees that he also writes under pseudonym Eli Price, which explains the ‘EP’ cufflink found at the scene of the crime. Also, Margaret looks guilty as hell because she feels guilty as hell. She blames herself for causing her sister’s injury, and though she harbors her own literary ambitions, she’s content to stay in the shadows and let Beatrice have the spotlight. She’s been ghostwriting her sister’s books and delivers the final one to superfan Caroline, who was just upset that her dying grandmother’s favorite author didn’t seem to care about her fans.

Released: 2020
Dir: Terry Ingram
Writer: Marcy Holland
Cast: Danica McKellar, Victor Webster, Bruce Boxleitner, Cory Lee, Dan Payne, Andrew Dunbar, Jase Anthony Griffith, Lara Gilchrist, Stephen Lobo, Ben Wilkinson, Anne Marie DeLuise, Iris Quinn, Heather-Claire Nortey, Brenna O’Brien, Parveen Dosanjh, Garrett Black
Time: 84 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2020